Coffee Log, Day 227

Coffee: Cafe Pajaro Extra Dark, Trader Joe’s Brand

I sat in a Chinese takeout joint and watched a young white guy wearing a bathrobe and bath slippers open and close the door to the drink cooler then run behind the counter at a breakneak, past the stoves, out the back of the store. For one quick second everyone was watching and then he was gone. An older guy followed him. The staff acted like it happened all the time.

Later, I led some friends in a Dungeons and Dragons game. Someone else wrote the world but I’d made changes and then my friends made changes and by the end of it we’d ended up somewhere other than I’d been expecting. It was fun. When I was fifteen I wanted to be in a band. I played cello and a friend played electric bass, another played electric guitar, we tried jamming but I was always in my head. I couldn’t do it. My cheeks were pink. I was embarrassed. I wanted things to sound a certain perfect way that I seldom heard on my own time, sure couldn’t find with other people playing.

Tonight, though, it stuck. We told the story together. I’d like to think that means I’m getting somewhere. It’s easy to slip into a manic auteurship as an author. You and the keyboard, pen-pals. But writing is telling stories and you can’t tell much of anything to an empty room. We’ll continue the D&D campaign next week. Can’t wait to see where the story goes.

Currently Reading: Autumn, Ali Smith; Cherry, Nico Walker

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“The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules.” – Gary Gygax

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Coffee Log, Day 224

Hi.

Coffee: Cafe Pajaro Extra Dark, Trader Joe’s Brand

I read a New York Times Magazine article about contemporary art. It started at a dinner table, two friends arguing about the show ‘Insecure.’ One friend liked it, the other didn’t. They both were black men.

The friend who liked it said there were no grounds to question ‘Insecure.’ It’s a TV series by and about black women in America – it’s too important as a social symbol to critique. They other guy – the author of the article – was wary. He described a world of bland dinner parties: no strife, no conflict, everyone agreeing to progressive standards, consuming media that was morally homogeneous. He said that wasn’t art.

But of course it’s complicated. Of course representation matters. There are studies coming out every day showing that kids who are given positive role models from their own race, culture, background, grow into healthier self-esteems. And there are still tremendous thumping gears churning night and day to keep the dark dream of white patriarchy vibrant, all the while actively draining color from whatever minority garden in which art or ideas might grow. Desperate times call for desperate measures. It is, in fact, ‘important’ that shows like ‘Insecure’ exist.

I met a guy in Japan who still lives there. He talked about America, about Wisconsin, about how everything was bleaker back home. He spoke fluent Japanese and knew how to party. He’d buy the seasonal chocolates at the corner store and ring the bell and clap three times at Buddhist shrines. He wasn’t Japanese but he wanted to be. I think something similar is going on with progressive art. You play an educated left-leaning American of whatever color one song by Kendrick Lamar, then one song by Young Dolph and nine times out of ten they’re picking Kendrick. Why? Because he’s able to sanitize a struggle so it’s palatable. Like Martin Luther King, Jr, he’s a great man with great words and zero blemishes, an idol, a god, in-human, unattainable, safe to aspire to because implicit in his image is the fact that you – 35, two jobs, disenfranchised by voter registration laws, behind on credit cards and paying half your income to rent, probably black but maybe even poor and white – will never get to life that life of freedom. Implicit in a blanket admiration for non-white art is the fact that these aren’t complicated, messy, people – these are fancy macaws and peacocks locked in carefully hidden cages, putting on a show for the upper class.

Currently Reading: Autumn, Ali Smith; Cherry, Nico Walker

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“This version of the culture wars casts Beyoncé as the goddess of empowerment who shan’t be blasphemed. She offers herself as both deity and politician, someone here to embody and correct.” – Wesley Morris, The Morality Wars, linked here

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Coffee Log, Day 218

Hi.

Coffee: French Roast, Trader Joe’s Brand

I woke up early to listen to ‘Tha Carter V,’ the five-year delayed album by Lil Wayne that finally released today. I was excited. I’ve been listening to Wayne for 7 years, he opened my mind to Hip-Hop, to racial and social inequities in America, to a lot of things. His work’s made me a better writer.

By track three something struck me: ‘Tha Carter V’ is an album about failed suicide attempts. That caught me off guard.

In June, Anthony Bourdain hung himself in a French hotel. A few decades ago, Kurt Cobain shot himself. Before that, Hemingway shot himself, Malcolm Lowry shot himself, Virginia Woolf drowned herself with pockets full of stones. Wayne’s a part of a long tradition of self-harming artists. On my worst days, I’m a part of that tradition, too.

There was a Pep Rally sophomore year, High School. It was midday and mandatory. In between third and fourth periods they lined us up and shot us down the hall like pinballs. We took seats. I sat with friends. The Football team rushed out. The band played. The gym smelled like scented candles and puberty. I remember watching the crowd around me. When the quarterback talked, they jumped. When the cheerleaders flipped, they hollered. It was a hot day. Fall would hit us late that year. You could see steel streetlights through the windows. I stopped watching anything but the steel. I can’t explain the feeling – why it hit me, why it crawled up the streetpoles to perch like a vulture, why I noticed it at all – but as the band stumbled our fight song, and the teams flew their colors, and the girls twirled in a whirlwind of pom-poms, I knew – knew – I’d never find a way say the things I wanted. I’d never find words to match the horror of the steel streetpoles.

So I took out my house keys and dug one in my wrist.

All in all, it was a weak attempt. One thing I’m happy to call myself weak about. I didn’t bleed too much – got a little light-headed, felt a buzz in my left hand for a few weeks after – but it wasn’t lost on me that I’d tried. That afternoon comes back to me now and then, sometimes briefly, sometimes in the sixth glass of wine.

On the last track of Carter V, Wayne relates a time he took his mom’s gun from the closet and shot himself in the chest. He was 12. He survived. Later that year, he started rapping with Birdman.

Being strong is asking for help. Being strong is loving yourself anyway. Nothing’s more human than wanting to run away from yourself. Nothing human – nothing great – happens if you do.

Currently Reading: Autumn, Ali Smith; Cherry, Nico Walker

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“I shot it, and I woke up with blood all around me
It’s mine, I didn’t die, but as I was dying
God came to my side and we talked about it
He sold me another life and he made a profit/(prophet).” – Lil Wayne, Let it All Work Out

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Coffee Log, Day 181

Hi.

Coffee: Cafe Pajaro, Extra Dark Roast, Trader Joe’s Brand

2010 changed me. I spent my summer on Greek oceans, the autumn falling in love. I had my first flirtations with teaching when I worked with America Reads and Counts; I wrote two stories and dreamed up others I wouldn’t write for another eight years. Duke had been rocky the first two years, but by Junior I had hit my stride. December had me sharing beds with the first woman I really loved. I guess you could say I was living a rosy-colored campus life.

Tonight, I went to a showing of ‘The Night is Short, Walk on Girl.’ It’s a Masaaki Yuasa film, animated, vibrant, a spiritual follow up to a short anime series from 2010 called ‘The Tatami Galaxy.’ The characters keep their faces from eight years ago but their lives and personalities have changed. The male lead is brasher; the heroine steals the show. The movie – like much of Yuasa’s work – is like tripping down a flight of stairs with two tall drinks in your hand, only to have a revolving group of strangers lift you up. It was good, not great, but it burrowed into me. I’d fallen hard for – and seen echoes of myself in – ‘The Tatami Galaxy’ as it aired in 2010.

I get stuck some mornings noticing the way I shave my beard. It’s semi-precise, consistent, but nothing like the pictures I see from college. I don’t remember when I changed length and blades, don’t remember why. It can be hard to stick the continuity between then and now. A small change, but keep putting coins in the piggy bank and eventually you have to empty it to make room for something new.

My favorite scene in ‘The Night is Short, Walk on Girl’ has four men stuffing down super spicy ramen in a big red tent. They’re competing to win rare books. Some want money, some want love, one is an old author trying to reclaim his first manuscript. Just as the competition finishes, the God of Used Book Markets pulls a string and the tent comes undone, the red tarp vanishing, all the old books flapping away like squawking birds. “I forbid the hoarding of rare books!” says the God, paraphrasing. The four men chase after their dreams, going their separate ways after having stumbled together. A few find their books. Others don’t.

Currently Reading: LaRose, Louise Erdrich

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“My still-as-of-yet rose-colored self was cut to the quick by that which is called reality.” – The Tatami Galaxy

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Coffee Log, Day 158

Hi.

Coffee: India Extra Bold Roast, Cafe Crema

I went to see the Wirligigs in Wilson. For those that don’t know, Vollis Simpson – a Wilson County native – spent his retirement creating massive metal whippets and doodads, colorful, wind-catching, made to sparkle and spin. He was a farmer by birth, soldier by necessity, and mechanic by trade. Before his death, people were buying his whirligigs and sticking them in art museums.

The park was flat ground with an amphitheater, not all that big. The Whirligigs sat around like old dogs surviving summer. Though it was cloudy, there wasn’t much wind and not much was spinning. I walked one full circle of the park, passing three old couples and two women holding hands. It was ghost-quiet. Around us, old brick buildings squatted in differing states of disrepair.

I left the park. I drove through the city, I wanted to see the place that inspired Simpson’s work. I saw a lot of dilapidated houses and chipped paint. There was a big bright BB&T building, but even it looked worn. A wooden train station was packed with people who didn’t have the time to think about appearances, slumped on old benches, struggling to find shade in the holey awning. Across the tracks, police courted a black neighborhood.

Wilson is the unspoken truth of America. She’s put the prom dress down, wiped the make-up away, closed the door on media suitors. She’s not the pastoral daisy of the Right or the verdant commune of the Left. She’s not a hard-working town, a bustling city, the techy suburbs. She’s a place that had it’s prime fifty years ago, one perfect dance under the starlight. Now it’s morning.

There was art everywhere in the City. Black murals on black churches; a series of photographs that caught glints of Civil Rights. According to the census, Wilson is an almost even split white and black. Driving around, all the white faces popped up around the suburbs, the city-center was all black. There were newer buildings in the suburbs, better roads, but it’s one claim to culture was the catch-all of a bloated Wal-Mart. In that way, Wilson is also America: white men and women cling to money whispering into it a faded, fifty-year dream; meanwhile, minorities wrestle with the deck stacked against them after all this time. We voted well in the 60’s, but no-one’s ever learned how to talk to each other. A fractured past, two trauma’s separated by train-tracks, forgotten in a world that sold it’s shipping overseas.

Simpson’s sculptures didn’t do much for me when I was standing under them, but they made more sense after my drive through the city. They were brilliant, vibrant, but sterile. Some moved limply, others simply wanted to move. As a young man, Simpson fought in WWII; he came home to watch the world change. In all substantial ways, America looks better – even in 2018 – than she had in the prime-time years of the 50’s. But the reckoning took a toll. Some of us – those lucky by birth, money, skin, whatever – live on the cutting edge future. The rest of America is Wilson – a beautiful post-depression, grappling with the grief of knowing what precious looks like but never knowing how to open her hands wide enough to hold it.

Tall wild metal, spinning and spinning.

Currently Reading: LaRose, Louise Erdrich

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“I guess it’ll just rust and fall down when I’m gone.” – Vollis Simpson, interview in the New York Times from 2010

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Coffee Log, Day 150

Hi.

Coffee: India Extra Bold Roast, Cafe Crema

A day in transit: I went to the NC Museum of Art then to Burlington for M’s birthday. The museum had a piece by Yayoi Kusama. It was a mirrored box with tiny portholes. Inside, lights flashed. I waited forty-five minutes to see it. They let in three of us at a time. We saw each other through the holes, cascaded in the strobes, the rest of the world carefully kept behind us. It was intimate, public, aloof.

Four years ago, I saw one of Kusama’s polka dotted pumpkins outside the Fukuoka art museum. My guide told me she didn’t know why it had so many dots. I didn’t either. I told her that in America, all the pumpkins are orange. She found that strangest of all.

We pray together at private phone cathedrals; waiting in line, mutually restless.

Currently Reading: LaRose, Louise Erdrich

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“Polka dots can’t stay alone. When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environments.” – Yayoi Kusama

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Coffee Log, Day 146

Hi.

Coffee: India Extra Bold Roast, Cafe Crema

My hands hurt. I’ve been typing too much. Every time my hands hurt, I remember a big part of my life that’s not so big anymore: from 4th to 12th grade I played cello.

Music was something I wished I was better at from the minute I picked it up. That’s not to say I was bad. I took private lessons. In High School, I placed in All-State Orchestra twice, was first chair once. But the things I was good at didn’t excite me. I was technically sound. I could play what you put in front of me. More than that, I had a decent ear so I found good ways of expressing the songs. But every time I tried to come up with something original, I fell apart.

It’s something stuck in history, I guess. My mother was a musician. She’d never admit it, but she was good. I saw my hands in her hands. I saw the good parts, the way they could bring out a song, but also the bad: tension, stress, the need to be perfect; no wonder I gave myself tendonitis. I feel a similar drive when I’m writing, but there’s no performance with words: you cut, cut, cut the diamond, set it, give it away; you don’t have to deal with the wide-eyes in the concert hall.

The happiest thing I got from almost a decade playing cello was the people it brought me to. I met friends in middle school that saved me; I had a good teacher who truly believed in me; I found my first love, one-sided as it was, in a black-haired violinist at All-State. Music takes so much of you that it’s impossible not to stumble into what other people are spilling out. That part of the art is different than writing; these days, my happiest moments are home alone with Jack and a word doc.

Currently Reading: LaRose, Louise Erdrich

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“May night continue to fall upon the orchestra.” – Andre Breton

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