California Dreamin’

I have two (almost complete) sets of California friends. They come with a mismatched collection of knick-knack memories, some I keep on the bookshelf by my desk and some I keep tucked away in plastic bins in climate-controlled storage space.

My own experiences while living in California were fraught with disaster, personal and impersonal, natural and man-made. At our law school graduation, the student speaker gave a shout out to riots, earthquakes, and fires. Oh, my!

I left California in a hurry, vapor trail style. I moved so quickly, I left a lot behind, and I’m not talking about all of my stuff that was looted (is that really a verb?) from my fractured apartment in the Valley. Maybe it was CHiPs, and Simon and Simon, and Hardcastle & McCormick, and Van Halen but I had wanted to live in California for as long as I could remember. From 3,000 miles away life looked more special there. The interstates were freeways. The cars were convertibles. There were surfers—surfers!—bobbing in the waves with the dolphins all along the Pacific Coast Highway.

My reality didn’t match my childhood imagination, but, even after everything, I did fall for California. Dysfunctional, co-dependent, and anxiety enabling at times, but still…

When I fell, I fell hard. Few days pass where I don’t tell someone a story from those days. Even fewer days pass when I don’t remember how those friends helped me through some of the most challenging times of my life. We were silly and ridiculous and serious and committed. We shared $44 hotel rooms in Vegas and survived a hippie cleansing ceremony huddled in tents at Buttermilk Boulders. We briefed hundreds of cases and survived a lot of Socratic questioning. The star filled nights in Joshua Tree made us question our own relevance in the big, bad universe and also question our decision not to stop in Twentynine Palms for pizza before setting up camp. These moments, and, more importantly, the people populating them, are the existential building blocks of my career, my law practice, and my adult life.

A couple of years ago, I went all LL Cool J and went back to California. Not full-time. No more condos in Thousand Oaks or rented rooms in Malibu for me. This time, I was closer to Joshua Tree, baking in the desert in the Coachella Valley. I spent days workshopping stories and more nights staring at the stars. I ate what my friend calls “the best chili in the world” at Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown, a movie-set ghost town in the high desert and, chili aside, one of my favorite places on the entire planet.

I made new friends, writers, who share my passion for words and stories in a not-altogether-different way than my lawyer friends. The ability to craft a narrative, string together facts into a cohesive and meaningful story, is something all of my friends share. We believe in the power of shared experience, empathy, and the humor of humanity.

This week, as I drove through the giant flakes of a snow shower here in New York, I listened to Diana Krall’s haunted version of California Dreamin’. I was overwhelmed by how much I missed my friends in California (and the ones I made there who now live all over, many in places as snowy as here.) All of them. Both sets. The ones I see and talk to and the ones who are packed away in the time capsules of my life there. It is not about the weather—even though I wouldn’t mind a walk in the sunshine of Palm Springs or the misty coastal layer of Malibu today. It is about who could take that walk with me. The people who knew me, and stayed with me, and stay will me still, at my worst, most vulnerable, most creative, most fragile times.

Collectibles lose their value when you take them out of the package. Unwrapping those friendships and those memories, like that John Spartan from Demolition Man action figure, threatens to decreases their value as sure as driving a new car off the lot. But the chips and the breaks, the yellowed crack of glue where something has been put back together, are the scars of a life lived. Lived, if not well, completely. And with a reckless disregard for resale value.

Listening to Silent Bob

The things that made me want to write and made me believe I had stories to tell are not things that get a lot of respect in the literary world or make me cool.

Here, in no particular order, are some of those things:

I'm not even supposed to be here today.

I’m not even supposed to be here today.

  • Kevin Smith’s movies Clerks and Mallrats.
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and all related texts by Douglas Adams.
  • Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding.
  • Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman.
  • The television shows Burn Notice and Arrested Development.

 

Several years ago, my friends and I got tickets to a Q&A with Kevin Smith at the Merriam Theater. There were expletive-soaked stories and lurid and graphic tales of sexual proclivities. Anyone who knows who Kevin Smith is would expect nothing less. What I didn’t expect was that some random dude would ask a question that would literally alter the course of my entire life.

Random dude: I want to be a writer, but I don’t know how to get started.

Smith: If you write, you’re a writer.

That’s it. It’s just that simple.

IMG_1674

I took this picture!

I have written about this before. I have talked about how that one simple answer lodged in my brain like the ear worm from Star Trek II:The Wrath of Khan. It whispered to me in my waking hours and screamed at me in the middle of the night when I tossed and turned and fretted and worried that I had missed my opportunity to do the thing with my life that really meant something to me. Somewhere along the line I had gotten the idea that my ideas weren’t serious enough or the things that inspired me weren’t important enough.

But I could write. I could be someone who writes.

So, let’s just say, when Silent Bob speaks, it behooves me to listen.

Today, I saw Kevin Smith again. The idea was that he and Jason Mewes (aka Jay and Silent Bob) would talk about their new book Jay & Silent Bob’s Blueprints for Destroying Everything at The Reading Room in Bryant Park. But Mewes is sick and didn’t make the trip from California. So what happened was another Q&A with Smith. But instead of a crowded theater in Philadelphia, this one took place in a leafy corner of the park in the shadow of the New York Public Library building—the one that I can never look at without thinking about Ghostbusters.

For an hour and a half, Smith took questions about his show Comic Book Men on AMC, Clerks, Dogma, Batman, Ben Affleck, and Ben Affleck as Batman. As he had in Philadelphia, he talked a lot about creativity and self-expression. He is a strong proponent of the podcast as a medium and as a way to capture the stories and moments with the important people in your life. “Everyone has a story to tell,” he said. “Just because you’re some random dude in New Jersey doesn’t mean you don’t have something to say.”

Since I saw Kevin Smith the last time, I have gotten an MFA in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts. I have a couple of published credits to my name and I’m working on a couple more. None of that is easy. There are lots of roadblocks and lots of gatekeepers. Smith talked about that today, too. “Don’t wait for someone to tell you what success is,” he said. If you feel good about what you’re doing–“if your side of the street is clean”–then keep going. Try. Just give it a shot. “You don’t have to wait to be invited into something awesome.”

Sometimes, you are lucky enough to come across the thing you need right when you need it. For me, the inspirational lightning has struck twice in the form of a guy from Jersey with a foul mouth and jorts.

L-1096-2T

Thank you, Out of Print Clothing.

So, I write. I am a writer. And I’m going to keep on writing.

And I’ll wear this Hitchhiker’s Guide t-shirt while I’m doing it.

 

 

 

 

Adios, Burn Notice

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The last episode of Burn Notice airs tonight. After tonight there will be no new opportunities for Sam Axe to charm soulless psychopaths with his alter ego Chuck Finley. We will never again marvel anew at the ability of Fiona to blow up entire blocks of warehouses on the Miami River without anyone even batting an eye. Michael Westen, long-abandoned burned spy, won’t be there to save the little guy from the big bad wolf or break our hearts with his loneliness. He will exist only in reruns. There won’t be anything new under the clear, South Florida sun.

Miami was the one character on Burn Notice that I could always count on. Each episode was a glossy postcard from the city I call home, despite the fact that I haven’t lived there full-time for many years. Coconut Grove looked luxurious and exotic. The Keys held close to their wild mystery. The blue waters of Biscayne Bay rivaled those of any advertisement for a Caribbean getaway that might have played during a commercial break. The Marina at Dinner Key reminded me that the best boats are those owned by your friends who invite you to come along.

Where Miami Vice was dark and broody, Burn Notice, at its best, is bright and buoyant. Crockett and Tubbs lived in the shadows of after hours clubs and the glare of pink neon. Michael, Sam, Fiona, and Jesse operate in the crystal clear light of day. Burn Notice always felt like Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men. If, after robbing the rich to feed the poor, Robin Hood and the Merry Men had gone for tapas and mojitos.

Burn Notice wasn’t always perfect. The times when it lost its way were exactly those times when the mood got too dark, the setting too remote, the mosquitoes too nasty. Fortunately, they always found their way back to South Beach, Key Biscayne, and Coral Gables. Sam was there to mix a rum drink and Michael took the Charger out for a yogurt run. Through it all, Michael and the gang looked great, did good, and taught us all some useful tips on modern spy craft.

There’s another reason Burn Notice means so much to me. When I was traveling (a lot) for work, I read (a lot) of books that were readily available at the airport. Lucky for me, that included the Burn Notice serials by Tod Goldberg. Little did I realize that a few years later, I would get a call from that very same Tod Goldberg telling me I had been accepted into the MFA program he runs at UCR-Palm Desert. Being a part of this program has changed my life in all of the best ways. Burn Notice doesn’t get the credit for that—I do—but I’ll never forget the breadcrumbs on the trail that led me to where I am today.

I’ll watch the final episode tonight. I’m sure I’ll cry, because I always do. But anytime it’s snowing and I’m feeling homesick, I know exactly where to turn.

Ft Lauderdale Beach

Is Crazy Contagious?

coffee cupsWhen you quit your full-time, benefits paying job and tell people that you want to be a writer they, understandably, look at you like you’re crazy. Which is okay, because you are crazy. All good logic dictates that this is would be classified as a bad idea. Or, at the very least, not very smart. Then when you decide to go to back to school and get a writing degree the men in white jackets really start to circle. In two easy steps you have gone from a person who receives money on a regular basis to a person who pays money on a regular basis. Again, on paper, not very smart.

But paper is exactly where the alchemy starts to happen. I started writing—on purpose, with a purpose—and reading, and talking about reading and writing critically with my professors and classmates. I was spinning my own intellectual gold. And no, I can’t write a check with that gold just yet, but I have a real shot of doing something that makes me profoundly happy.

That sounds incredibly hokey, even to me, and I’m a person who cries at TV commercials. But in addition to the work I am doing, I’ve met some truly amazing people, who, like me, are doing this crazy thing that makes no sense. One friend in particular had a story like mine. She was working at a good job making good money with a 401(k) plan and medical insurance. And she quit. Just like me.

“I just didn’t want to do it anymore,” she said when we first discovered our shared insanity.  “I needed to make a clean break from my old life to my new one.”

Exactly.

IMG_7681Recently, she and I visited Sunnyside, Washington Irving’s home in the Hudson Valley. Irving built his charming little cottage on the banks of the Hudson just north of New York City at a time when he was one of the most famous men in America. The tour guide, a historical interpreter in period dress, explained that strangers would walk the wooded path and knock on his door uninvited.

Sunnyside

“I guess they hoped some of the genius would rub off on them,” she said. She laughed. My friend and I joined in, but only as polite cover because we didn’t want to be found out.

“Our Washington Irving,” she said, always referring to him as ‘our’ Washington Irving, “…was the first American to earn his living solely from writing.” The guide explained that he had tried his hand first at the family business and then as a lawyer. But neither really stuck.

My friend and I exchanged glances again. Her eyes got wide and I caught a glimpse of a recognizable spark. I knew we were thinking the same thing. No, not that either of us would be the next Washington Irving, but that sometimes going all in does pay off. Even Irving had to be brave—or crazy—enough to try.

Inside Sunnyside, in the room with Irving’s desk and built-in napping spot, the guides tell the story of Washington Irving and a famous letter he sent to Edgar Allen Poe. Poe, as the fable goes, was struggling to find anyone to publish his stories. He sent them to the famous man of American letters for feedback. Irving replied with an encouraging letter urging Poe to not give up and to keep writing. And, as every 8th Grade English student knows, Poe did.

The postscript to the story is that later someone asked Irving about what he saw in Poe.  He replied something like this: “The stories were strange and I’m not sure I understood them, but I never want to discourage anyone from writing.”

I, like our friendly guide in her enormous hoop skirt, am paraphrasing, but the sentiment remains the same. Irving knew this writing thing is a crazy business. He also knew that sometimes all it takes to keep going is a kindred spirit to smile in your direction. In my case, I not only have some amazing new writer friends, I also have an incredibly supportive family and my old, dear friends who probably knew all along I would do something like this.

Sure, we’re crazy. Sure, it might blow up in our faces. But I don’t think so. One of my oldest friends, who was with us for the tour at Sunnyside, took our picture by Irving’s gazebo. “It’s the two writers!” she said when we looked back at the digital images from that day. When I look at the picture I do see writers, but I also see alchemists, mad scientists, and yes, strangers knocking on Irving’s door hoping some of the genius rubs off.