Monday, May 31, 2004

The Ninth Greatest Song of All Time

So there I was late in the week standing in the middle of the street, rain appropriately pouring down from up above more drenching than cleansing, thinking to myself that demons can come in all shapes and sizes but the worst one I continue to know stands about five foot five and weighs approximately 140 pounds.

The next day, the one with a crooked pelvis who once upon a time promised me she'd help me fight this demon, told me she was tired of dealing with the aftermath, the moody shell that exists after the struggle. "You have so much to offer," she put forth in familiar frustration.

"But it was spent and used up a long time ago," I wanted to respond but lacked the energy to do so. She said that my body language and facial expressions turn people off. In a flash I found myself paralyzed again. It felt like gravity was cheating, pushing down just a little harder on me than anyone else. How could I explain sometimes it takes all the energy I can muster just to sit still in one place, afraid to move, afraid of that demon that simply has never lost its power in 18 years? But I offered no excuse, no hiding behind anything. When you live in this world you have to play by its social rules. The one with a comforting limp who used to make me smile so long ago freaked out the day she saw me just able to sway on a swing, thinking that by making that small movement the paralysis wasn't going to win this time.

I think I wrote my novel all those years ago so I wouldn't have to explain any of this in person. By oh so conveniently having it all down in writing I could never again be accused of being inscrutable, of having someone misread my look because if they wanted to take the time to know my story I could simply hand them a copy of my book.

Thankfully over time I've learned there are those out there that understand that feeling. Lucinda Williams is one, and her song "Am I Too Blue?" proves that hook, line, and sinker.

The 1988 song is so unadorned in both its melody and lyric that it is a great example of Williams' tremendous writing ability. She can be as complex and impenetrable and she can be simple and vulnerable- whatever it takes to express herself she is brave enough to do.

"Am I too blue for you?/Am I too blue?/When I cry like the sky/Like the sky sometimes/Am I too blue?"

The song is directed at someone who is apparently now missing from the singer's life. The sadness in the singer's voice explains that absence even at the same time as her words question it. It isn't easy being around someone who is depressed. Treat them as if they are the same as they once were and you risk offending them for not seeing the difference. Treat them differently and you risk making things worse because all they may want is for you to see them as they once were.

"Is the night too black?/Is the wind too rough?/Is it at your back?/Have you had enough?"

I think I've learned that being depressed doesn't always just mean being and "acting" sullen. It can be about being haunted by the unexplainable at the same time as being teased and tormented by the all too explainable.

What makes "Am I Too Blue" such a great song is it uniquely and with aching simplicity perceptively understands this paradox. The singer is at an inescapable place where someone else's absence is as depressing as their lingering presence remains. Who wants to be around someone who gets as sad at your being around as they are when you are gone? Imagine walking on those eggshells and you can begin to apprehend the perverse predicament in a being in a doomed friendship and how that association can keep one up at night and make things so hard especially in the driving rain.

"The sun beats down/It burns your skin/When you run into/My arms again"

I could listen to the song a hundred times and still feel a shiver run up and down my back. As the song suggests just being around to feel something next may make the ensuing day both an adventure and something worthwhile. And though it may seem hard to hear it may surely be worth being accessible to whatever is to follow- demons be damned.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Go Tigers!/War Eagle

I've done a fair amount of traveling in my day. I've been to both coasts and all around the world to Japan. Still there is so much of this place that I still hope to see someday. I think China has to be a must see. The Middle East intrigues me almost as much as Australia/New Zealand (the place that exists in a faraway fantasy). And the book I'm currently reading, Theresia Lewis and Louis Bittrich's Betrayal in Mexico has certainly opened up my heart to that sunny dreamscape.

Yet in this mindset of wanting to be someplace else I have to admit I never thought I'd find myself in the American Deep South. Further I must also admit that I am a less than wide eyed bigot because just about all my thoughts about that region of our country have been influenced by Gomer Pyle, Green Acres, Jeff Foxworthy, and the Dukes of Hazzard. Thus when my boss and employer paid for and sent me to a class at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama my nagging (and growing) bout of agoraphobia hit me stronger than ever before.

Part of my anxiety was due in part to having to fly into Atlanta alone and rent a car to drive two hours to Alabama. It was the most economical route to take. My first big break came in arriving at the Atlanta airport (billed as the busiest airport in the world) and asking the gal at Thrifty Rent a Car if they had anything with a CD player. (I needed to blast Ike Reilly as some kind of northern-rooted statement). All they had was some type of SUV and a Sebring convertible. I chose the latter though I'm not the type anyone will ever miss going topless.

On my way down I shunned Ike and blasted Liz Phair instead. The drive through the mostly tree-lined landscape was pleasant although I noticed that there were more than the usual fellow travelers that didn't seem to grasp the concept, the importance, especially on a four lane interstate, of slower traffic staying to the right. Danger came once in awhile as a large barreling semi tried to weave through the unnecessary congestion caused by someone unwilling to get over to the right.

Auburn is a city that is certainly centered on its university (and its university centered on its football team). The university is right smack in the middle of town and all the shops and restaurants are in walking distance of the campus. I stayed at the Auburn Hotel/Conference Center that was located across the street from the college's library. I arrived late in the afternoon and walked into town to try and find a bite to eat. I found a Chinese restaurant that had a most excellent shrimp dish- a combination of two dinners, one spicy the other tastefully spiced and I brought it back to my air-conditioned room and watched an awfully English dubbed TNT presentation of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Still etched in my mind were the embedded stars in the sidewalks of town that honored Auburn alum. Far from Hollywood I was glad I came across stars for Charles Barkley, Frank Thomas, and Bo Jackson. If only I had a camera.

The class I was taking was about the history and philosophy of democracy and not only did I find it endlessly fascinating it also reinforced the importance of my day job as an election official. Still what played on my mind was a question. What is the deal with none of the local TV anchor people having southern accents? If I were from that region I'd be offended that the Northerners got the better jobs while my Southern kinfolk were mere reporters at best.

I did have one hidden agenda on my trip. I wanted to for the first time taste grits. TV's Flo used it as an expletive and now I can honestly say I understand why. I had a side order of the dish with my over easy egg breakfast and I must say I wasn't too impressed. My cheesy grits were like really gritty malt-o-meal only with less taste. Later on I had some Cajun flavored crawfish that more than made up for that other southern based food. I was equally impressed by the hotel staff that demonstrated where the term "southern hospitality" came from. The attractive young southern belle who was the hostess of the hotel's restaurant remembered my room number (that they used to charge my meal to) by the third day of my stay. Yeah perhaps it had to do with I was the only Asian face in sight but she sure was nice.

At the hotel was also a group of Russian speaking guests and I really wondered why they were there. I didn't wonder too hard as I breathed in the intoxicating perfume of a rather attractive Russian blonde with more than Bullwinkley drawn good looks who sat close next to me on the hotel lobby couch one evening. Trotsky has nothing on me.

On the last day of class I had to give a presentation of a chapter of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. Knowing nothing better I nervously stepped to the podium and made a lady from Louisiana nearly hack up a lung when I opened my presentation with, "Chapter five is a short chapter so I have a short summary to give and I'm a very short person."

The return trip home to Minnesota was marred by the folks at Northwest Airlines. I arrived back in Atlanta two hours before my flight home and waited in the airport watching the folks walk by. About forty minutes before takeoff there was an announcement that the flight had been canceled. The airline put me up in a room in the nearby Sheraton and gave me some vouchers for food. I was able to enjoy one more memorable meal- a seared tuna fixed to perfection. But my rescheduled flight was scheduled to takeoff at 6:40 a.m. Eastern time meaning I had to wake up around 3 a.m. Central time in order to get back to the airport and get through security temporarily shoeless to catch my flight.

Thankfully the waiter at the Sheraton restaurant sensed my state of mind and alleviated my agitation and tenseness. Being one of the few dining and with a slight delay in getting my food the waiter came over and told me the reason for my wait was that the tuna I was going to get was "this thick" (holding his forefinger and thumb more than an inch apart). Sure enough when my last meal for the trip arrived it was as advertised. "You were right it is thick," I said more out of trying to be socially polite than anything else. "Yup that's Charlie," he said making me chuckle in a rare moment of knowing in this life exactly what someone else meant.

Monday, May 17, 2004


This week we pose the simple question, "What is inspiration?" For some it might be feeling one's heart still beat harder after all these years just seeing the way the saunterer moves and her splendid scent. For others it might be marveling at how well a three-legged cat manages with so much energy to face life's challenges. For those sad and broken hearted life has been reduced to looking for inspiration in the inside of a fortune cookie.

Thus what is so inspiring about Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 2 isn't only the thought provoking theme of whether revenge can ultimately lead to a satisfying feeling of redemption but also Tarantino's obvious love of movies. The thrill of film making vibrates off the screen in Kill Bill Vol. 2 much as it did in Kill Bill Vol. 1.

There is a manic energy to both films that is utterly infectious. On the surface the plot of the series is extremely simple- Uma Thurman's character "The Bride" is left for dead by the father of her unborn baby. After years in a coma she is determined to eliminate all the members of the death squad that participated in her being shot in the head during her wedding rehearsal. After one by one eliminating the vicious killers of the death squad, "The Bride" must of course live up to the title of the films and kill her love Bill.

The two films are perhaps the most grisly and violent movies I've ever seen. It still amazes me that both were rated "R" rather than "NC-17." What's even more shocking is that during the Saturday night evening showing in Roseville that the Blue-Eyed Editor and I attended a couple actually brought in their young children. How those kids cannot be permanently scarred by the intensity (and violence) of Kill Bill Vol. 2 scared the two of us to no end.

Thurman is terrific in the lead role. She's sexy and tenaciously tough yet there is a sympathetic vulnerability in her performance that makes us root for her on some level even as she is poking out eyes and killing and maiming everyone that has ever done her wrong.

What is most inspiring about both Kill Bill movies however was Tarantino's peerless ability to write clever and witty dialogue. Yes the words his characters spout probably are way too cunning for anyone in real life to really say in our day to day existence but that can be forgiven because Tarantino's characters despite their flaws are written so smart, so deeply that it is pure joy just to listen to what they have to say.

So for me and maybe me alone to answer the question posed at the beginning of this column what is inspiring is the skillful use of words and to ooze every ounce of meaning from how limiting words are when conveying something far beyond.

Talk of inspiration and the connection with how related that concept is with all that is spiritual is sure to come up. Kill Bill Vol. 2 is a great example of how some of us can be inspired and that is enough while others feel inspiration and need to do something more. The feeling is so intense that one finds it one's duty to find a way to share the intensity of the feeling with others.

What makes Kill Bill Vol. 2 even better than it's better than most other movies predecessor is that this time Tarantino doesn't feel the need to get his point across by spurting blood at all times but rather by some quiet reflective moments where the characters acknowledge their own weaknesses while at the same time appreciating (while taking advantage of) the weaknesses of their nemesis. The most terrifying moment of the sequel is the sequence where Thurman/The Bride is left for dead, buried alive by Bill's son Budd. The Bride calls upon her killer training and the ability to put mind over matter and punch her way through a thick piece of wood and six feet of dirt. As Thurman claws her way out of the grave the metaphor of rising above one's dire circumstances is gruesomely played out. And the meaning of inspiration is truly accurately revealed and uncovered.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Confessions of -dMa-san

Now that I don't have Friends anymore I was thinking to myself that it is a good thing I'm a Survivor buff because it's going to take all I have left to face what's down the road here.

That's when my daughter Lil Lisa Lou asked me for a bedtime story. This was an unusual move since Lil Lisa Lou knows by heart the one story that I am capable of telling her. I rifled through the file drawer of my frontal lobes for something else but as always came up with not something soothing but something I was once sued over. It's just another hard luck story and I am reluctant to keep on telling her the story night after night because a) I don't need to expedite her transition from a skeptic to a cynic and b) the Missus thinks we should stick to the tried and true like tales about vegetables.

But Lil Lisa Lou was more persistent than usual so I relented, tucked her in, and began. "Once upon a long ago in a war torn land lived a slightly bulging mostly quietly reserved three-legged sycophant named Yakuza. Yakuza had alabaster skin and liked to call himself Nellie McKay. He spent much of his youth wandering his land looking for God. Unfortunately he allowed the light to blind him of the danger of blurring what words mean and what words we assign to different feelings as if it were that simple.

Deep down Yakuza realized at a prematurely young age that he wanted to leave his mark on this world and the only way he knew how to do this was to invent a new word to describe a feeling that had always been felt before but had never been shared with another and get it all down on paper for historical purposes. He had a deeper than most capacity for love of things great and small though he lacked others' ability to be socially graceful and forceful.

He made the mistake as an adolescent of mixing up love and inspiration. He wasn't sure if his perpetual falling in love inspired his desire to write or if it was the other way around- that he yearned to write so he looked for anyone or anything to inspire him and thus he fell in love more than his share."

Lil Lisa Lou tried her best to stifle a yawn.

"One day Yakuza had a slight mishap if being hit by a busload psychological baggage could be called slight in any way. But just as all was looking bleak, just as the sun was being blotted out in a permanent and personal eclipse, Yakuza stumbled upon a walker. And step upon step that followed the solemnity, the weight of it all lessened if only for a moment. But it was this lingering moment long since gone that Yakuza continued to live in far past its expiration date.

Years passed by and Yakuza never felt the same again. He just kept pressing on no matter what happened, no matter how much it felt like he had a leak inside and the numbing thing dripping slowly out was his spirit. Then beauty in its purest form appeared and made Yakuza stand up and pay attention. Eanad's life might have been ended before it began and more than once she was close to her last breath. But she persevered and it was that quality that alone could have made him fall deeper in love than anytime before but there was so much more.

Nothing could last forever and a friendship encased in eggshells was bound to crack now and again. Eanad made things hard for Yakuza. He wasn't even sure anymore where the professional ended and the personal began. And as an adult he had spent most of his energy trying not to be in love and thus he rarely felt inspired anymore. That alone drained him to dangerous levels and the emptiness only exacerbated the hole where his soul used to reside."

Lil Lisa Lou was drifting away. She knew the rest of the story. She knew how it always ended. I wasn't reading from a book so some of the details were bound to be different but the words were certainly not in random order and none of them were of the originality that I hoped them to be.

Monday, May 3, 2004

Remembering Eli

I don't know how many of you have ever tried to write a novel in your misspent youth but if you have, you'll have to agree with me that unless you possess the imagination of a frickin (and I do mean to use that word specifically) genius, your novel was most likely too highly biographical. Someone once told me that someone said that all first novels suffer from self-indulgence, and who am I to argue? After all, when I stayed up all day and night writing my pretentious little 265 page novel back in 1989 I really didn't start off thinking that was what I was doing.

For the first time ever I recently read a portion of my 15-year-old novel aloud to a group of people. The cause was the final installment of the creative non-fiction writing class I took this spring at the Loft. My voice wavered but my blue-eyed classmate later reassured me that my classmates' silence afterwards was probably based on all that I had read before wasn't quite so open, quite so heart-splittingly staight-forward.

The weird thing about all how everything put together sooner or later falls apart about this particular episode is that that same blue-eyed classmate was the one who went with me to the last movie I've gone to, The Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, and upon leaving the theater we discussed the previous Charlie Kaufman movie, Adaptation, which she hadn't seen yet, and I hadn't liked when I did see it.

Weeks later after she watched Adaptation she forwarded me an article interpreting that odd little movie and the article made me want to see it again. So I did. And this time I quite enjoyed it as I tried to remember what exactly made me not like it in the first place. I remember not liking the ending (the last third of the movie really) that seemed a little obvious in sledgehammering home the clever point of what it all was about: that the filmmakers didn't want to turn the story into something typically Hollywood but they didn't know what else they could ultimately do.

The second time around (which ironically was the name of my novel) I noticed that there were some uncomfortable similarities to my experience of writing a novel that might have made me not like Adaptation when I first saw it. The movie features a wonderful Nicholas Cage performance in the two lead roles, twin brother writers Charlie and Donald Kaufman. One brother (Charlie who is the real life screenwriter of the movie) is a neurotic, putzy guy who fears all there is to life. Donald is quite the opposite- seemingly a hack writer- he has the virtue of knowing that life isn't about who we fall in love with, it's about how we choose to fall in love with them.

The theatrical trailer to Adaptation describes the characters in the plot as such: Charlie writes the way he lives- with difficulty. Donald lives the way he writes- with foolish abandon. The movie is supposed to be an adaptation of the real life writer Susan Orlean's novel The Orchid Thief and Orlean is portrayed in the movie by Meryl Streep. The fictional(?) Orlean character is described in the trailer as being able to write about life but being unable to live it.

So there I was in 1989 not knowing quite what I was doing. In the middle of this mixed up confusion I realized I was fulfilling my life's dream of writing a novel. But then I really realized I didn't know what I was doing. So as I re-wrote the mess I put down on paper I decided to address the obvious weaknesses of the whole thing by incorporating them into the storyline. Thus I created a second lead character- another side of me trying to write a novel within a novel. Like the movie Mozart one character's each and every written word was a result of much sweat and toil while the other had everything come naturally to him to the point he didn't really care to notice it.

Fifteen years is a micro-second of time in the process of losing one's soul or at the very least one's ability to absorb the emotions from one's soul. The act of writing it all down or seeing it all appear later in a totally unrelated movie that gets inside and just won't let go, doesn't mean that anyone has figured the darn thing out. People think they know you when they really don't. People read you but what they see is the already existing meaning of a limited vocabulary. If your life's pursuit has always really been about finding a new word to describe an existing feeling, then something is terribly wrong.