Why Bother?

I had always wanted an adventurous life….It took a long time to realize that I was the only one who was going to make an adventurous life happen to me. So I did the things I wanted to do, and wrote about them, books and magazine stories.

Richard Bach

I’m going to write something that will entertain other cooks, maybe I’ll get a hundred bucks, and my fry cook will find this funny.

Anthony Bourdain

‘Better living through chemistry’ means frequent and intense immersions in chlorinated water, and frequent ingestions of alcohol, and I was in need of a swim. But that was not to be the case today, at least the chlorine part: there was a guard standing by the front door of the indoor Olympic pool at the Antigone complex, downtown Montpellier, not far from our apartment. I didn’t think much of it: security guards at the entrances of large public buildings and shopping centers, like the armed patrols throughout town, are a part of daily life in France.

Once inside I understood the reason for the guard: there was an competition; that weekend the pool was taken over for the French national swimming championships level 2, the next level down from the elite, Olympic level swimmers.

I stayed to watch the swim meet. I’ve watched plenty of swimming on television, but the only time I ever watched any competition live was long ago, in high school, when my girlfriend, captain of the swim team at the local public high school, was competing. I had a lot of interest in her, but not much interest in swimming.

The natatorium was full of swimmers and coaches, and maybe a hundred spectators. I recognized a few regular lap swimmers who, like me, expected to get in their regular workout, and had also not known about the scheduled competition. Some of them stayed, concluding that watching was the next best thing to actually swimming.

As I sat down, a heat for the men’s 400 meter individual medley was underway, and after that heat finished, there were two more heats of the same. In the stands there was plenty of talking, but only a little cheering for, or even watching of, the swimmers. Before an event someone might yell a greeting to a swimmer warming up, who waved in reply.

Next came the women’s 1500 meter freestyle, which many used as an opportunity to go get a coffee or use the bathroom or otherwise step out, and since it’s France, probably to smoke. In that first heat there were only three swimmers, all next to each other in the middle lanes. The young women got up on the blocks, set, then at the sound of the electronic starter, dove into the water. For the first few hundred meters they were close together, but soon they began to spread out. Five, ten, then fifteen minutes passed. All three swimmers were proficient at breathing on both sides, breathing left then right every three strokes. During the swim, over the pool’s sound system, played a techno-funk music, but with a bell-cloche sound to it, not unlike one of the better known Art of Noise songs.

The first swimmer finished in just under twenty minutes, then the next two finished up about a minute later. The next heat, a faster one than the previous heat, had a full complement of swimmers: all the lanes were full. This swim was a bit louder, because there were more swimmers splashing through the water, and all appeared to maintain a six count kick.

In all the heats the winner finished well ahead of her of the other swimmers, and she had a few moments to herself, before her competitors touched the wall. It seemed a little sad. No one cheered, there was no celebration, just the heat winner alone on the wall. What was she thinking? Was she pleased with her time? Was it enjoyable? Was she looking forward to doing it again?

~

In the train stations around France and recently here in Chur, there are pianos put out for anyone to play. We travel on the trains quite a bit, and almost always there is someone playing: competent, confident, maybe even very good. You usually hear classical music, although here in Chur someone was recently playing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Where do all these good piano players come from?

I’ve been an eternal piano beginner. Lessons quite young, a few piano recitals, then quitting after three years. Lessons again at the university from a pretty music major who became mildly famous. Then I stopped. On again, off again. Along the way I also took violin and classical guitar lessons.

~

Probably 1994, while working at Frame Technology, I took an evening, semester long wood working class with two co-workers, software developers. The class was in the well equipped wood shop at Palo Alto High School: band saws, table saws, spindle and disc sanders, drill presses, along with many hand tools—everything you needed. The project was to make two redwood Adirondack chairs. There was an instructor to help with any special problems, show you how to use an unfamiliar tool, and keep you from cutting off any fingers; I needed all the help I could get, since I’d never taken any shop classes before.

The class was for three hours, sometimes longer if you were having problems with something. Every Wednesday night, Chip, Chris, and I would leave work and have to drive through the horror of Bay Area rush hour traffic, from San Jose up to Palo Alto. But once there, everything was great. During the day, sitting at your desk in front of a computer for hours and days is toxic to the soul, but the shop class, using tools to shape the wood, the smells of sawdust and machine oil, were the antidote.

One aspect of the construction I found particularly enjoyable. Each chair had about thirty seat slats, which I had already cut to size. However, the edges needed to be chamfered, otherwise they would be too sharp on the butt and legs of someone sitting on them. The instructor advised, that the best method was to use a router to form the edges properly. However, routing by hand would be hard, so he showed me how to set up a jig where the router was mounted upside down (in the same way a table saw is an inverted, fixed circular saw), bit up, in a frame that allowed me to start the router, then pass each edge of each slat. It took a while to set up the rig, test it on some scrap wood, adjust it, then run all the edges of each slat: 4 edges each slat, 30 slats per chair, 2 chairs. The seat slats came out perfect.

One chair came out pretty good, the second was ever so slightly off, not sitting quite flat on the ground. Since then I’ve always paid attention to chair details, and have respect for those amateurs making chairs that get all four legs level.

The chairs came to a sad end: one day after a meeting with the lawyers, ex-wife finally returned the chairs to me, dismembered. Although the chairs were intact when I moved out, they were now completely disassembled, and stuffed into two garbage bags, like a pair of whacked and chopped up wise guys; she dumped the bags on the ground in the parking lot of the lawyer’s office.

~

About six months before Catherine was born, with a view to reduced personal time, and maybe having skimmed one of those simplify your life books, I got rid of a bunch of sports shit: downhill skis, cross-country skis, roller blades, tennis racquets, squash rackets, a Fischer mountain bike (Hoo Koo E Koo), and an Everlast 80lbs punching bag. From then on I was going to focus: swimming, sailing, surfing, and once in a while, some golf. All of these can be done the year round…if you live in California.

~

I got my first camera, real camera, in 1983, when my sister bought me a Yashica Electro 35 range finder. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but every few hundred clicks, I took a passable picture. I used the Yashica over the years, until as recently as a few years ago, when it stopped working for good. For a while I also had a pretty good Pentax point and shoot, then around 2004, I got a Nikon digital SLR, a D-70.

To learn the science and art of photography I took a class, read some books, read Ansel Adams’s memoir, and took a lot of pictures; once in a while one was good. After a while the Nikon died, I got another one, but after a few years it stopped working. I didn’t replace it right away; I’d go hot and cold on photography, sometimes going months without taking a picture. Finally, about a month ago I bought another Nikon, their lowest end DSLR.

~

There have been other excursions and attempts. Gardening: among other projects, turning the side yard into my own version of the temple garden at Nara, a Japanese rock garden, at our home in Virginia; the Mugo pines and larger flag stones were okay, but the gravel I ordered was too white and too large to rake into any sort of pattern. Wine making: ten carboys of potential red wine turned to vinegar when I moved from a bungalow with a basement to a home with only a garage, in the summer. A wooden boat building class at the San Francisco Maritime Museum.

~

I’m casting a wide net.

If something resonates with me, I want to do it, create that thing: see Van Gogh’s Fritilliares at the Musée d’Orsay and I want to start painting; hear McCoy Tyner playing “Lonnie’s Lament”, I want to be at the piano; see Natalie Coughlin swimming the backstroke and it’s time to get in the pool. We need a way to fill up our days, and maybe something more. After the day’s hunting and gathering, commuting and cubicling and child raising, we need to do something with our life. What do you do with the leftover time after school and work, after meeting all the basic needs?

There are sports and hobbies—all good and necessary. Then there are more serious endeavours. Something more. One friend is building a train track around the perimeter of his twelve acre property; he looks quite normal from the outside. Another friend bought a vineyard; again, nothing in your first meeting of him would make you think he’s a little off. Both of these guys kept their days jobs, and managed to stay married. A friend in Berlin spends her days in the high tech industry, but she is also a classical pianist, and sometime drummer in a punk rock band. Another is yoga instructor and a bona fide successful painter, with her own shows, reviews, and exhibitions. Still another had a full time tech job at Adobe, husband, two children, played violin in a local classical symphony, and time permitting, rode horseback. There are other friends out there, working the jobs along with being an artist or a musician or studying for a new career, when a lot of people start thinking about buying a condo in Florida.

~

Reading always resonated with me, but I can’t remember when I got it in to my head to start writing. At one point during my works and days in Silicon Valley, I realized the arbitrary path of my career meandered across companies and industries, from desktop publishing to finance to auctions to advertising, and scientific measurement. That struck me as mildly interesting, and in the non-sequitur fashion of the mind, I thought it might be interesting to write about. And as someone who liked to read, like that problem I mentioned above about painting or the piano or the swimming, I also wanted to create what I had enjoyed. So every now and then I’d write some things down. In 1997, I even took a writing class at Stanford, although I am not sure how much I got out of it.

In September, 2008, Annie and I had the good luck of being laid off and getting decent severance packages. Within a couple of months, Annie had bought three sewing machines, turned our dining room in a little sweat shop, spun up a web site, and started Le Neko Noir, an online craft business. I took not to the sea, but to the keyboard. Although I had already started a smattering of writing projects, the first sort of formal project dated from April 4, 2008, about studying in Germany in 1983-1984, an experience often on my mind for many years.

Not much came of that first attempt (not much equals 3,400 words—this essay will be about the same length), but it was a start. I started writing about different things, tried to pay more attention to authors I liked, and every once in a while read a book about writing, but like the Stanford writing course, I was suspect of the benefits. More helpful were thoughtful reviews of authors I liked, usually found in The New York Review of Books or The London Review of Books. Meantime Annie and I worked a couple more jobs, then left California (with aches in our hearts), slouched up and down the East Coast for a year, then landed in Marseille in October, 2011. According to my writing log, on June 1, 2012, I finished the first draft of a novel set in Silicon Valley, coming in at 147,520 words. I also got a web site, and joined the legions of bloggers: every month or three, I shared my ruminations with those who got lost on the internet, possibly looking for the Blake Elder who is a dance instructor in Texas. Writing about France and all related adventures was fine, but I was less sure about the ore when mining my past.

Still, writing was a way to think about things, create my own world, maybe get a few laughs from family or friends. Writing gave me a purpose beyond a job making money, something of my own. It gave, and gives, a dimension to my life. It seems pompous to call it art, but like Tolstoy and the truth, I care a great deal, and writing about it all is my expression of that.

In time I began to think about the p-word, publishing. Why not? Others had done it, why not me? I subscribed to a writing magazine, read several million articles about plot, character development, ending, word count, getting an agent (all looking for memorable characters, captivating voices, original plotting, and a page turning literary classic—check), getting an editor (copy editor, development editor, proof reader), the universe of self-publishing, submission guidelines, query letter format, marketing and social media (recommended are a minimum of 10,000 Twitter followers and a mailing list of 50,000), and genre: commercial fiction, literary fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, young adult, MA, gothic fiction, cyberpunk, bildungsroman.

With all that, what about time to write? I decided to skip the DIY part, and go old school: start looking for agent, but to date I’ve only made a few inquiries. During all this, I began wondering why I was doing this, what was I expecting? I thought about the swimmer at the wall: I had written these things, but who really noticed or cared? I wasn’t expecting to get an agent or publish any more than those wonderful French swimmers might have expected an endorsement contract from Speedo, although there’s nothing wrong with wanting that, and working towards it.

I’ve never asked the ones I know, but I assume other writers and painters and musicians like their own work. The artist is the first audience: the painter is the first person to see her painting, the guitar player is the first person to hear his notes, the writer is also the very first reader. The wine maker is the first taster, and the train engineer is not only a crash test dummy, but also a passenger. Often the creator is the only audience. Fortunately, I do like reading my writing. And what it comes down to is this: at some point all writers, all artists, must be prepared to face the possibility, probability, really, that there will never be an audience for their work. Of late the logistics of life and a consideration of my writing have forced me to the conclusion that my writing will not amount to much. I thought this revelation would bother me more, but so far it hasn’t. Again, to the swimmer who finished first in her heat, waiting on the wall by herself: no one on her team noticed she had finished; what did she think, what did she feel as she waited for the slower swimmers to finish? Did she enjoy the process of creation, the training, then the race itself, content to be perhaps her only spectator? I assumed she liked swimming, and maybe that was enough.

~

Sunday morning in the centre ville of Montpellier. The streets are hungover, dour, sullen and crapped upon, the consequences of the loud drunkenness just a few hours before, and early morning not-my-problem French dog walkers (my working title about our life in France is Dog Shit Nation). I needed to go to the food store on the Place Comedie, as that was the only one open Sunday morning, and only until noon. Miss that and you’re at the mercy of the small, usually Arab owned shops.

On the way back I run into Kurt, an American neighbor living in the next building. We get together now and then to drink beer and swap stories about being non-French speaking Americans in France. Out of the blue he mentions something he read on my website, something I’d written that he’d liked. I was a bit surprised; I always try to work in, just once, that I have this website blog sort of thing, but thereafter I try not to mention it. Surprised, but pleased: right on, brother. That’s all I need. It really doesn’t take much to keep going. Sometime later, reading about something Anthony Bourdain said about his first writing attempt1A very nice write up about Bourdain, ...continue, clarified my expectations. Bourdain wrote his first piece simply for other chefs in the trenches of New York City, and all he wanted to do was get published in a free, weekly newspaper. Of course, that’s not what happened.

I don’t have a free weekly newspaper, but I’ve got this website thingy. A funny story about France that another American might laugh at, or something about Silicon Valley that my fry cook coder friends might appreciate—that’s fine. A hundred bucks? Still waiting on that. Until then I’ll keep writing, and looking forward to a train ride with that one guy, maybe while drinking some of that other guy’s wine. And next time I see a swimmer finish her heat and is waiting on the wall, I’m going to make sure she knows someone saw her finish.

References   [ + ]

1. A very nice write up about Bourdain, and watch the video about how he gets his break: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-gastronomy/anthony-bourdain-and-the-power-of-telling-the-truth

Leave a reply