#TheCrawl

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I moved to San Diego in 2012 under duress. I didn’t want to move to San Diego, I wanted to stay in the Bay Area, but I had taken a career risk in the Bay Area and it didn’t pan out and I ran out of money. My brother and sister-in-law lived north of San Diego and I moved in with them. I’m always and forever grateful that they took me in, but I resented San Diego.

“But why hate San Diego?” I got if I even hinted that I didn’t care for it. “The weather here is wonderful!” And that’s where they usually stopped, which annoyed me beyond everything else. “Look! Endless sun! Why leave?” Every night on the news the anchors would make it worse by exclaiming that sun thing without any provocation whatsoever. San Diego: AIN’T WE GOT SUN.

I resented San Diego for reasons both valid and irrational. I hated that relentless sun. I hated the fact that there was so little shade, or even places to walk (our first apartment was stuck at the end of a road where the sidewalk came and went, and the closest business was nearly a mile away). I resented the lack of mass transit and resented the traffic and resented the heat (even though “gee, but it’s a DRY heat!” except in May and June when it wasn’t dry but this clammy form of dry), I resented the Santa Ana winds, I resented the massive amount of breweries, I resented the lack of bookstores, I resented the lack of cafes…

Seven years later I’ve found ways to make that lack a definition of luxury. I still hate the sun, but now I can use that as a reason to avoid melanoma and write in a coffee shop, which San Diego has a lot more of now. I have found places to have craft cocktails instead of IPA ALL DAY. And I have found my bookstores.

For the last three years, every year on Independent Bookstore Day (the last Saturday in April), San Diego bookstores have done a literary “crawl,” like you would find as a pub crawl in a neighborhood in other big cities. The first year there were three bookstores; the last two years there have been nine bookstores all over San Diego. I see it as San Diego as a booming book town…in hiding. I don’t meet many readers, particularly in bars. I wish I did. I wish I could grab a beer and a bite and read a book, instead of having to watch whatever sport is on the fifty televisions on the walls. Even San Diego’s coffee shops get a little nervous if you read at a table for longer than your coffee is warm. But I’m grateful for these book shops and their book clubs and their events; I’m less lonely and less resentful and more grateful for a few minutes.

The Crawl, this year, included the following bookstores:

  • Mysterious Galaxy – This bookstore is built into a strip mall in the Clairemont Mesa in the middle of San Diego. From my apartment it takes a train and a bus to get there (unless I feel like spending a fortune and getting a rideshare), so I only visit it for the crawl. I do follow them on social media, and they have author events and book clubs all of the time, as well as releases of new books every Tuesday with the rest of their new books. They also have lots of other items that aren’t books: pins, bags, t-shirts, etc. This year I picked up an enamel pin with a worker motif that says “Fight Evil, Read Books” around the circumference of the pin.
  • UCSD Bookstore – I miss university bookstores since graduating from college in 2000. While I’m not drawn to the Triton material, I love the stacks and stacks and stacks of books, and the possibility that students are reading these books for class credit. This year The Crawl had an Illustrator Ambassador, Susie Ghahremani, and she was working on her next book, painting in person, at the UCSD Bookstore when I was there. I picked up another one of her buttons (I have quite a collection of her enamel pins, all of them animals, some of the animals holding books or art tools or musical instruments) and a book wrapped in brown paper with a description of the book on the outside, the experience of a “blind date with a book,” which I love.
  • Warwick’s – Warwick’s is the oldest independent bookstore on the west coast. When you think about the implications of that, the store takes on more weight, even though half of the retail space there is not books or book items at all, but random gift items. I picked up the latest novel by Jess Kidd in paperback (Mr. Flood’s Last Resort). The ride from UCSD Bookstore to Warwick’s is the most beautiful bus ride on The Crawl; it’s a cliff-side view of La Jolla.
  • Run For Cover Bookstore – This bookstore is the newest store in the collection, opening in the fall of 2018. The store is a cozy little space in the Ocean Beach area, and they had old-time jazz and blues with live musicians out on the sidewalk when I stopped by. I picked up a book that was pure silliness there, The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America by Matt Kracht, a goofy version of bird guides.
  • La Playa Books – This bookstore was the quietest and calmest of the group. It wasn’t that they were empty, but the neighborhood in Point Loma was lazy and calm, and that seemed to play out in the cozy bookstore as well. There I picked up a copy of Francisco Cantu’s memoir of working for the Border Patrol, The Line Becomes a River.
  • The Library Shop – I probably go to this store the most of the group outside of the crawl because it is the closest shop to my apartment. The Library Shop probably has the lowest count of books in ratio to gift items, but I understand: they are next door to thousands of free books on loan. I met up with Susie again there, and she was signing her book that will come out in October, Little Muir’s Song. She signed my copy and we got to chat again about what her enamel pins have meant in my life.
  • The Book Catapult – This little shop in South Park is my second-most go-to bookstore since they have a book club that I could easily attend while I was still working. (They also have a lovely Indian fusion restaurant across the street from them, so book club is more and more of an event for me.) I picked up a copy of Bookshops: A Reader’s History by Jorge Carrion and a sticker of the bookstore’s logo to put on my laptop.
  • Verbatim Books – Verbatim is a used bookstore with a wonderful sense of funkiness, located in North Park. They have books, zines, stickers, toys, buttons; I picked up a used copy of Barry Lopez’s Crossing Open Ground and a pack of funky stickers for my daybook.
  • Bluestocking Books – This is the bookstore that I have been visiting the longest in my tenure in San Diego County, a bookstore of used books, vinyl, bookmarks, magazines, etc in the Hillcrest neighborhood. For my last stop I picked up a copy of Amor Towles’s novel A Gentleman in Moscow in paperback, as well as a couple of stickers for my journal.

With the possibility of me moving to the Bay Area in a little while, there are other things I have grown to love here in San Diego: friends, food, The Old Globe, the public library. But The Crawl gave me the chance to see slices of this town as “literary” and artistic. I did the entire crawl in one day, on San Diego’s mass transit (which I don’t recommend, but maybe someday the weekend service will improve so that I can), and every time I got on a train or a bus I was brought suddenly back to the reality of San Diego, a car culture that held very little store in books out in the world, but maybe those stark, opposing views of the city set me up for San Diego’s possibilities as well. Maybe, I thought, I could think of the bookstores in San Diego as more of the little oases of salons of old, as speakeasies of words and stories.

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#StoryProblems #NeatTrick

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As previously stated in this blog, I belong to a book club with a local bookseller, held the second Thursday of every month. For the most part I find some kind of redeeming quality in the books that we read, even if the book isn’t a favorite; the individual sentences may be quality prose, or I enjoy a particular character, etc. The only thing that I struggle with is if the writer decides to write a work of fiction or poetry that is so experimental that it starts to lose the whole reason for fiction or poetry:  to be read. My mother pointed this out once when I first shared my poetry with her, poetry that was meant to academically show off: it must be good; I don’t get it. Even though I went to college to study literature in order to write better, that one concept has stuck with me as a writer more than any other that I placed myself in student debt to learn. When I start to grind my teeth at a book, more than likely my teeth are wearing down because the writer just decided to go whole hog academic and leave the reader behind.

I get it; after all, it’s Pulitzer season, and there are numerous other awards that are prestigious enough to try for. How to stand out and put oneself in the running for notoriety? Some of the attempts are:

  • Write a collection of short works that are thinly connected. This method worked for me with Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, but didn’t work so well for a recent work that I read by a former lover of Philip Roth’s. If the connecting thread is too thin, or if the book has to be explained by an afterword, or if I have to hunt down reviews for it online just to be “taught” what I couldn’t get from reading it, then I know I’m not the intended audience.
  • Halfway to three-quarters way through the book to possibly the end, the whole narrative shifts (same character, but different voice). Sometimes the story itself warrants this approach, but it reads more like a trick or a crutch to keep the author from having to write real-life plausibility. In the interest of not hauling an author over the coals I won’t mention the wide collection of books that try and fail at this approach, but Kate Atkinson seems to execute it well.
  • Writing highly repetitive but nearly incoherent prose as part of the protagonist’s “voice” for too long and dragging out ennui to prove a point in the story. It doesn’t take much to bore the reader; don’t abuse that good faith for a century of pages.
  • Break the fourth wall.

Ok, this one is tricky. Do I love the breaking of the fourth wall for some novels, short stories, and poems? Absolutely. There are stories I love because they break rules, because they take down a barrier and nose right up like a loyal dog. Reader, I married him. Yep, the first time I read that I didn’t see that coming, and I felt like the writer sat down next to me and allowed me to sit with something in empathy.

But the last book club selection we had, a book that I’ll throw under the bus called Same Same by Peter Mendelsund, rubbed me the wrong way with its fourth wall destruction. I know why it did; the protagonist/narrator seemed to be poking fun at what a novel is, poking fun at writers, poking fun at tenacious readers, from about two-thirds of the way through the novel to the end. I might have been fine with that, except…on the acknowledgements page the author, no longer behind the mask of the protagonist, did the same thing. It was funny that Mendelsund looped us in for 482 pages, the schmucks that we were to read this. Of course the book is based on Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, didn’t we see it? Oh, and any other references to any other works of literature? Even those directly quoted? Those are all on the reader. They may or may not have happened.

There were people who liked the book; I envied them. And to be honest, I was glad to have the opportunity to read so singular a book; I just didn’t like it. If the author would have cut the damn thing in half and made fun of me as reader, then I might have laughed along. But to have no empathy for his readers and to laugh at them in the bargain for sticking with it? Sure, it’s impressive, it’s probably great art, a neat trick…but I didn’t enjoy the ride.

*****

My day-job skill set (although I am currently between jobs at the moment) is workforce analytics:  the gentle art of forecasting business trend to determine staffing and scheduling needs. I started out with workforce analytics as part of my job as a manager in 2007, and then moved into the analyst role exclusively in 2013. The job requires a great deal of math, and lately, in interviews, I repeatedly get this question:

Why the literature degree?

Analytics, in my experience, has required two major components: why the math is calculated as it is to determine and execute the business need, and how to explain that reasoning to the rest of the team so that it makes sense and so there is buy-in. Analytics is the application of the math concepts, the story problem you had to solve when you were a kid. Analytics NEVER presents the formula to the analyst; analytics always gives the analyst the two trains leaving the station at midnight going in opposite directions. When I read that story in an email, or hear that story from a manager or recruiter, or see that story in the fabric of a seemingly unrelated report, then I have to understand reading/scenario comprehension enough to empathize with the problem for what is needed, solve it, and then explain it again as an easily navigational story problem, with a happy ending this time.

My communication/writing/speaking skills have to rock the world.

Has analytics made me a better mathematician? Absolutely. But mathematics has made me a better communicator. There’s no need to re-invent the story of the wheelhouse, and there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to explain it so that anyone can get it.

In a synonym, a good novelist is also a good analyst.

 

#NewNightstandAddress


Looks like a dorm room, doesn’t it? But instead it’s an artist’s studio, and it’s in a metro location, so I am no longer roaming the countryside like a nomad, my life in a knapsack heavy with pens, books, and blank paper.  April was just moving, so, yes, I have been conspicuously absent (or not…depends on your dependence, I suppose), but this is a three-day weekend and I have some time and I have missed spending whole days reading and writing, so the NightStand returns, in the form of two wicker baskets at the head of a futon.

San Diego proper is still as sprawly as all get-out, but in the event of a natural disaster or extreme illness I could make my life continue in the span of a city block.  It helps to live next to a grocery store.  It also helps to have my gym across the street from the grocery store, and about four cafes in the area, and two ATMs, and you get the picture.  For less needs and more wants I have to walk farther: library at 8 blocks, ballpark at 6 blocks, harbor lights at 6 blocks.

This is my first foray into living among skyscrapers; even in San Francisco I lived by the park and among buildings that topped out at 3 or 4 stories.  Here I wake up in the morning and there are more than six buildings out my window that exceed 20 stories.  Their placement is such that I feel I live in a city but they don’t block the sunset or the occasional fireworks from Sea World.  The tallest of them, a condo building, has an art installation at the top; think of a lighthouse where the light runs a cycle of the complete spectrum of ROYGBIV.  The colors fade into each other, and cycle and cycle until about 3:30 am.  I know this cut-off firsthand; someone pulled the fire alarm in the building in error at that ungodly hour a week or so ago, and I got to meet a lot of neighbors.  My neighbors are animal lovers and a lot of them have medical issues, so finding the silver lining in such a strange evacuation was a challenge that night, but still…community.  Writers need community.

My day job is a bit of an attention hog these days due to the fact that I am often forced into the practice of metaphorically paddling a battleship with a toothbrush, but I’m working on that, too, now that I have personal independence.  In terms of the arts and crafts, though, here are the latest indulgences:

  • What I have been reading lately:  on the Kindle I’m still trying (unsuccessfully) to get through The New Yorker as it comes in and reading a novel called Carrie Pilby.  From that now close library I’ve been on a Toni Morrison kick (Beloved, which I have never managed to read, and God Help the Child, which is getting richer but isn’t my favorite work of hers), and from my personal paper library Moonglow by Michael Chabon.  Chabon has flipped the “fake news” garbage on its head; he calls the novel a memoir that may or may not be reliably true, therefore removing all doubt by adding it. 
  • What I have been listening to lately:  I’m apparently on a James Bay kick this weekend, but I also have the latest from Sia (her theme from the movie Lion) and the music of Chopin bouncing around in the earbuds, too.
  • What I have been watching lately: continuing with baseball (my Giants suck, yes, I’ll say it), and West Wing (there are seven seasons, after all), as well as Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Real Time with Bill Maher.  In movies, I started The Secret Life of Pets, but that is going to be a long watch…not a great film.  I binged on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt last Sunday; Titus is still in fine form with his Lemonade tribute.  I haven’t seen many movies lately (it’s summer, not Oscar season, after all), but those that I have seen are a little French film on Netflix recommended by a friend called Blind Date (hence, my listening to Chopin) and I have the Oscar-nom film for Annette Benning on my iTunes rental.

For the time being, c’est moi.  More, hopefully, barring any drama, in June.  ✨

#TheyShouldHaveSentAPoet

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One of my favorite movies (and, knowing the latest trend of presenting decades-delayed critical reviews of movies, one that the intellectual community probably hates) is “Contact.”  When the protagonist of the movie, Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway, realizes her dream journey of traveling in space to “meet” another celestial civilization, she pauses at one point, staring out into a collection of celestial planets and satellites, and says, overwhelmed: “They should have sent a poet.”  Ellie readily admits, “No words, no words.”  

I’ve always chewed on that monologue with some flip-flopping of agreement and disagreement with Ellie.  You want to capture the whole experience, you send a poet.  You want the scientific data you’re looking for, you’re probably going to send Ellie.  The poet won’t know what to look for, thank God, and the scientist will miss a lot in watching what they’re looking for, thank God.  So there’s a gap to mind.  A BIG one.

On a recent interview on Fresh Air, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson (hell, let’s just stay with the space theme for a moment) is asked the question if his approach to science is to “dumb-it down” for the rest of us.  “The audience can tell if you’re dumbing something down,” he replies, and that helps bridge that gap between art and science in an intelligent, respectful way.  “Contact” did that for me; when you hear terms like “SETI” (whose founder, on a side note, just passed away this last week) and “Occam’s razor,” out in the world if you didn’t know them before that movie, you start to see the world in a different application.  The movie’s about science, it’s about rationality, it’s about spiritualism, and then it flips the whole world into that new application, and for the brief length of the film, you question something.  Maybe it’s the motive of the film you’re questioning, maybe the science of it, but you find opportunity in the poetry, you find opportunity in the science.

*****

I work in a call center as a workforce analyst, a position in any company that requires communication skills of the poet and the math skills of a scientist.  The poet often has to explain why a schedule looks the way it does, or why the metrics look the way they do, and the poet has to do this to a diverse audience of managers, executives, and the customer-facing call center agent.  This communication has to occur without a)insulting the intelligence of the other party, and b)talking over the understanding of the other party.  Often, I rely on analogies.  Imagine this scenario you might be familiar with, I say, and you’re close to what’s happened, or what will happen.  I have to know my audience a little…I have to know what is typically understood about the science…and then I have to take the person to the next level.  In “Contact,” the movie accomplishes this by presenting another striving character with a different celestial goal in Palmer Joss.  Both Ellie and Palmer are looking for the same things and insisting their own paths as best–there’s enough devotion to themselves and enough devotion to the discovery that they can meet each other and question each other.

What I often see on LinkedIn and other job boards is that the employer is looking for certain characteristics in an analyst.  Does any of it include poetry?  Any science?

A mathematician is a mathematician.

A poet is a poet.

If they meet in one celestial body…they are an analyst.

Mind the gap.