Life In America

Life In America

The land is so flat and open it seems like you’re looking clear across north America and that maybe the tips of Chicago’s skyscrapers will, on a clear day, be visible 1000 miles to the north.

At the furthest reaches of your vision, in a complete circle, level with that vision, where the skyline touches the white sky melted and blended back into sunlight, a picture forms, perfectly brazen and trembling with a drama intense in the ringing silence of your ears; like one who would have looked a mile across an open field, and seen the men at Gettysburg in the climactic heat of impact on a wall bulging with violence directed at their impossibly open, naked forms breaking on iron ball and shot; but you are far enough from the moving forms that the silence is all the more shocking.  Where it would have been unbelievable that so much drama could lose so much of its impact at so relatively short a distance.  The only explanation being that in this world, where all is living, there is that much drama per every square inch and where nothing else travels very far from its source; being beaten back by everything which is in its own place.

This same action was present in the man, alone under the August sky.  In the heat and the way things at a distance shimmered, he thought of that American battle story passed down by his own father.  Strangely, in the midst of this nothing, there was a country store at the nexus of two untraveled gravel roads which stood like Stonehenge, alone and unafraid, where wares, and stores, and hard candy could be bought with priceless cash.

The land is flat and empty of trees, hill, or markers of any kind, aside from the farmer in the field with the broad brimmed hat, standing against nature, both leaning into and consistently marking the other.

In the loneliness, which he had learned to love, he places his shovel down and all stops; and when he picks it up again it all starts.  Below his gaze, breaking the loud silence of the empty scene shattered in sunlight, crystal clear water bubbled pass the dark green shoots of crop that will one day turn greener still if a million things did not go impossibly wrong.

After him, his boy would break with a thousand-year lineage and move into the city.  For the boy to live the man would die, at the crease of two ages.  The conditions were there, and no one knew it, or maybe the man did.

Some have said it was the fumes of the engine exhaust from the old American tractor that did it. Fate had placed the man where no one came behind you to ensure you were all buttoned up.  That morning he’d felt unusual and was soon never so sure of anything and he’d always had to be sure of everything.

A tenant farmer is a short seller; the most frightening prospect in all of finance; and he does it twice in the same transaction.  To sell short is to borrow an asset and turn around and sell it at a relatively high price with the expectation of buying it back at a lower price, pocketing the difference, and then returning the asset and a portion of that difference to the owner as payment for the borrowing.

He borrows raw land from the owner and loan “proceeds” from the bank.  Now he is in possession of two things that every night he remembers are very much not his.  With the loan proceeds of the bank and the land of the owner he daily breakfasts on hope.

Through an alchemical process of land, and labor, bounty is squeezed from the inert substances on the flat spot empty of tree and hill.  Then the loan and some of the bounty is returned and paid to the bank and the land and some of the bounty is returned and paid to the land owner.  What was left was given to the boy and all of that was gone by the time he’d reach ten when he hoped he’d been given enough.

There was no heating the home that winter and the winters were wet and brutal but now it was summer in the field and the man had been in the open air with the black birds with red tails and white birds with long necks which sing and what you are sometimes hearing is the tuning fork of pain.

Hope is what separated him from the birds that visited him there and to whom he was God as they looked at him quizzingly, twisting and bending their heads like an owl.  But the loan we can never hope to repay in kind was coming due.  So, he descended the tractor for the last time.  It was only when he was scared and it’s ok to be scared.  It was not English he spoke to his wife when he met her in the little house they’d built on the prairie where she herself would have been afraid to see him back so early.

She knew he would never stop working unless he had to.  Because she knew that he knew that to stop meant the work would go undone until he did it; that it would sit in the field waiting for its man; as the labor of the homestead did for her.

They were 6th generation American.  But they still spoke that ancient language that was rudely visited upon England in 1066.  So, it was that he walked into his house, leaving behind the fields he would plow no more forever; where at that very moment a wet breeze mixed, with the lonesome sounds of the wandering birds under a graying sky looking for their man, who had gone home twice now.

As she greeted him tenderly she realized she’d long since, willingly or otherwise, become tied to him, and she knew, that his news was her news when in an hour he died and less than a year later she would follow but they weren’t either of them yet 45.

The boy standing at her side when she did was ten.  The number ten, where all is after and some little bit was before; the ingredients for the man were just standing there mute, like the child, for a moment in time.  He wanted her to stay.  Oh, how he wanted her to stay.  But she went.  And he cried and when he finished crying, with the energy and vitality of a child, with tears like a stream of lava from an open source, and like an exorcism, she was still gone and he was numb.

It was silent then, in the little house seated under the big sky, and the birds in the field so close could be heard through the porous walls calling him out to join the fray; to pitch into the battle like the men at the wall at Gettysburg.

And God gives the toughest assignments to the people who can handle it because nature abhors a vacuum.  And if you’re given, or not given, something it’s because you are, or you are not, game.  But some people are born nearly ready and brimming with potential they did not ask for and are marked for pain because that is just nature’s answer to the question of growth.  So, the boy was ten when he was turned out of the little home where it was no longer she in her room and deposited upon the sands.

He would make his way into the city and work odd jobs that a child could get being careful not to take work from the men who had more to lose when their families were hungry in 1920; when you could see it in their eyes and wisely gave ground living to fight another day on more suitable terrain.

But the kid had the spark which people see, but that he had had to earn, when next to her he was only ten, with nothing, as she lay dying.  God knows what she told him in the ancient accent before she left him to fly with the black birds with the red tails and white ones with the long necks who would now share precious life with her boy and it had made her jealous of them for a second.

Now was the time for work.  Oh, how he worked, and he was kind and people liked him as he always managed a smile that started in his eyes and trickled down to his face and in that order.  He raised a young family and helped to assemble FDR’s dream.  He brought his family along, or they brought him, crisscrossing the fortress of a continent that feels like a world and where, with no one to fight, battle is done inwardly and upwardly.  He had a strong wife who packed lunch pails for him and had seen something in the orphan.

He’d later tell how he hammered rivets into place walking the beams above the flowering cities. Everyone he met he liked unless they didn’t want him to in which case he’d never caught that virus of wasted energy which gave him a quiet and relative speed.  But to nearly all you could tell he’d earned every morsel and carried something golden and it was what she had told him before she left.

Then work took him back to the city he’d rode to when all had seemed lost but was in fact very much right.  He was a family man now. One day he was working in a tree, perhaps hanging Christmas lights, and it was a Sunday in his yard.  Below him was a strong boy he remembered as his son and he was proud that the boy had just gotten back from the sandlot with his glove in America.

He fell out of the tree in his happiness.  He was a man who worked with his hands, but his back was broken now, and he would no longer smash rivets in the sky for freedom.  He lay in the hospital and thought of his dad climbing aboard the tractor on the day it all seemed to go wrong for him.  But as he lay there he was still unconvinced, as he’d always been, that anything had gone wrong at all.

Then his wife said “I’m a woman and you’re a man and it’s 1955.  You want everyone to love you and they do, but for myself I could care less.”  Instinct had told her they’d make a great team.  “So, you’ll start a realty company and I’ll help you run it.”  And they did, and it worked, and men still do not cry when touched by an angel if they can help it.

The people came because they saw that he was good and did what he said and said what he did because he knew what she had said and, somehow, he had known what it meant when she had.  In this way she had carried him along in the life she knew he shared with the birds that sang from fields now distant.

The language of the old world was still spoken in his office with people from those fields, themselves orphans in the new town to make a new way.  He began building federal housing developments on loans that moved in his blood and lessons which echoed in his ears with the gentle voice of his father.  He prospered because he had the philosophy she taught him in her suffering which only a child can learn if caught right, before anything else could catch him differently.

In a language no longer spoken she had said “It’s ok, be strong and I love you.  We’re both going home, my son.  But here the road forks, you see.  Your path goes that way and is marked by different forms all the same as mine.  But the roads, they’ll meet again.  And there, I’ll find you.”

On that path, and with that message, like a burning coal, he blazed a life in America.

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Stealing Fear

Stealing Fear

Your work needs a theme.  So find your fear.  This is hard.  Find out what you’re afraid of then dramatize that.  That is your theme. If you can’t think of one steal one until it’s yours now.

Fear is one thing.  Identifying that fear is another.  Clarify and solidify a few fears and then dramatize the fear into stories.  It will come through.  The truth always does.  We pay millions for this.  Hollywood sells dramatized fear.  Guy gets girl is dramatized guy maybe not getting girl until he does when the story ends and now we’re just crunching popcorn seeds to go home.

But true fear written about, or thought about, or workshopped into your business about, or done truly in any way about, always hits.  Because fear is what connects; not anxiety or anger; but fear; the sweet spot.  Honesty about fear is what connects us.  And leaders are the ones who can say it.  That’s all.

If it’s not your fear, or your idea, use it until it is.  Once you forget where you found it it’s yours.  One day the thing has your smell and it’s yours; like the crush you steal from the world until it’s no longer Alice or Bill but “him” or “her.”  We all viscerally feel our fears, but experts lay them out for us the way sugar, milk, and fire become crème de la crème.

Summer In The City

Sometimes failure is just failure.  There is no label on the back of the box to tell you what you’re eating. This is the main difference between youth and adulthood and it can come at any time.

But we survive those moments and sometimes you wake up feeling like a mountain.  It’s usually when you go to bed well which is more important than sleeping well.  You don’t bring your phone to bed and you don’t watch any TV.  Or maybe that’s just me.  I shot up like a bolt.  Then one second later my alarm went off.  The Stoics focus on good days and claim, thereby, to have good years.

Try New Things

Getting up at 4:00 is harder than I thought.  It’s because it means I have to be tired at 8:00.  That’s what no one tells you–that to do the thing you want you have to be good at things no one can even think of which is why personal experiments are the only way to find anything ever.

Break Throughs

Breakthroughs happen all the time.  But I ignore them because I forget that my life is a movie.  I’m trying to get better at noticing this.  When a breakthrough happens, you have to remember you’re in a movie.  When someone says ‘this isn’t a game’ they forgot a person wrote every movie they’ve ever seen from life lived.  Even Alien is about someone’s own demon.  How do I know this? Because no one has ever seen an alien.

But you’re the hero in the movie and the camera is on you and you’re being filmed and its focusing on your face and it’s the turning point.  I need to remember that a writer wrote his movie to show how they got their movie made in Hollywood.  They are reverse engineering the film to show you how they got produced.  Its like shooting an arrow as far as you can then drawing a bullseye around it on the ground.  That’s your life.  If you aim, you’ll miss.

All movies and films and songs are about writers telling you, without telling you, how they got their movie made.  The truth is what you’re looking at right now.  It’s the same way you arrive—with a breakthrough that got seen.  By you.  Period.

The Rule

Study what interest you and have a damned good time doing it.  That was Ol’ Hem’s rule.  If you’re reading this, and I hope you are, you write, you take ideas and act on them; or see movies or tell stories or hear them told or watch characters in your own life and cinema because you know that’s everything.

The rule is important because the flat part comes after satisfaction.  The false belief that satisfaction is where we want to be is what most ails America and every other country that is living on the victories of its ancestors by yelling at other people.

My country is the arrow in the ground with the bulls-eye drawn around it.  I need to remember that.  It’s unsatisfied longing, desire, that gets me closer.  Not getting what I want.  Maybe I’ll stop aiming so much.

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“Make It Don’t Say It”

“Make It Don’t Say It”

The action creates the feeling.  You cannot tell someone how to feel by describing your own.  You can only show them.  The implicit demand behind “do you love me?” has worked zero times in the history of abstract thought.

“All you have to do is write one true sentence.  Write the truest sentence that you know.”  [It must be above all a] “true, simple, declarative sentence.” – E. Hemingway

Hemingway wrote fiction.  Hemingway had emotion he wanted to share.  He used action to do it.

The colors, the jobs, the cars, the sex, the men and women, the towns, the food, the bulls, the country, the wars, the guns, the ammo, the fish, and the boats were mere commodities; interchangeable.

Why?  Because facts do not equal truth.  Experience does.  And if you feel what’s written then it’s true; was your experience also—which is not to say either good or bad.  That is another thing altogether.

It’s the action plus the feeling that equals experience.  Has there been feeling in your life?  Those feelings are the truth of the physical world experienced. All humans have truth in them; have experience.  A story teller’s gift is to draw from our well of feeling with the instrument of her own truth shared.

People, and God in them, feel only by being shown truth in their lives.  Do with the facts as you will, but replay before their mind’s eye the same experiences they have already had, and they might even cry.

Shelby Foote said some writer’s keep remembrances of death on their desk.  Skulls.  Simple reminders.  Life and death are all around us.  A writer can take nothing for granted.  This is learned knowledge.  If it stays in your head the reader will not experience it and then will not feel it.  But it need not be said directly, which is the art of truth.

My ego makes me think death is far and that I can fend it off forever, with the freshly cut, green, bending little bent sticks of the world.

What is it about 35? I think of the ones who passed before me.  I think of the wisdom they’ve already found.  They are my heroes.  They walked the sandy road, grassy between their toes; came upon the big, slow, warm, silty river and swam across to that lonesome shore.

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Relentless Nature



Relentless Nature

Dan was the new kid at school.  In the car ride home his mom read between the lines of his silence.

She thought for a moment.  “Dan, sweetie, it’s the weirdos, the standouts, that get all the juice out of life.  It’s because of the snowball-effect.

“The snowball-effect is a variation of the greasy-wheel effect. When something stands out from the herd it gets that extra, usually unwanted, attention.  Usually the negative attention snowballs from there.  Mother Nature does this.

“But we’re all human, and sometimes we break the things we touch.  The thing just crumbles in our hands, melts like snow under the light of our gaze.  But every once in a while, something in the thing responds, is awoken, like a bud of green coaxed above a crust of sand.  One of these two things will happen, son.  Zero times is ‘normalcy’ (his mom used air quotes here) restored.

“Something new is always made.  The thing never stays the same.  It either rises past the challenge or melts like  an April frost. But the potential payout is so great it makes the risk of disaster all worth while. They are actually rooting for you, Dan.  They are your allies.  So be grateful to them, son.

“Dan, if you feel like you don’t fit in it’s because you’re right.

“Don’t be a commodity. Resist the urge to be an interchangeable cog.  No one is paying for that anyway.  You were made new, for this moment, to change the world.  That is what evolution does.  Embrace it.”

“Ok, ma.” Dan said, not fully convinced.



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