The rain in Spain

So much beauty, only two eyeballs.

image: author’s personal archive

The French have this word: flanerie. (Pretend there’s a little carat over the a.) It means something along the lines of “wandering the streets in search of something new.”

I spent the first ten days of May doing things that, for me, only used to exist in movies and dreams. I visited Europe for the first time in my life.

Embracing my inner cheeseball, I tried to do it all, albeit as unobtrusively as possible. I walked across Abbey Road, marveled up at the Eiffel Tower, took high tea at Kensington Palace (well, in its yard, anyway), got lost in Le Marais, ate dinner in a crypt, stood face to face with the Rosetta Stone, climbed down the towers of Gaudi’s most famed cathedral, ate half my weight in tapas, drank twice my weight in wine, and wandered around Rodin’s backyard, rubbing my right eye like a madwoman.*

In short: with boyfriend, camera and insatiable sense of wanderlust in tow, I tried desperately to pack the highlights of London, Paris and Barcelona into a ten-day trip and pull it off like a traveler instead of a tourist. Strictly speaking, I think that’s probably impossible to do. By definition, if you go to a city that’s foreign to you and make a point of seeing, say, at least five of the ten things on any given “top ten things to do” list, you’re a goddamn tourist whether you like it or not. It doesn’t matter if you left your bright white sneakers, dark socks and flip-up sunglasses at home; it doesn’t matter if you try to be discreet with your map and speak the language as best you can while apologizing for your lack of eloquence; it doesn’t matter if you try to take up as little space on the metro as possible and not stop like a jerk in the middle of the sidewalk every time you see something interesting, causing a logjam behind you full of locals just trying to get home from their jobs.  If you think it matters that you make a point of going off the beaten path and experiencing the local culture as best you can, just listening and observing and absorbing like a sponge instead of hopping on a tour bus and snap, snap, snapping away, you’re wrong.  Well, strike that – you’re right, and all that stuff matters a lot.  Regardless, you’re probably a tourist. Still, I tried like hell not to be one while I flanerie‘d my butt off.

It helped a lot, I admit, that B speaks a little French and I speak a bit of Spanish. Neither of us speaks Catalan, though, so visiting Barcelona was a lot like touring another planet. A picturesque, internally energized planet full of the most brilliant food ever concocted, that is.  Nonetheless, despite the facts that our spines and legs were burning at the end of each day, that every city threw us some sort of “you stupid American”-style setback we had to smack ourselves for and gingerly step around with a nod and a terse-lipped “duly noted for next time,” and (*)that a godforsaken sty (a STY!!!) blurred my vision from the moment we set foot in Rodin’s garden until we woke up on a sleeper train in Spain the next morning, I’ll never remember this trip as anything less than magical.  Something about the push and pull of a new experience — especially one as overstimulating as this — is a lot like getting a new eyeglasses prescription; you thought you were seeing things pretty clearly before, but actually you were way more myopic than you knew, and now everything’s in much sharper focus.

Every time I see a person without a home begging for money or just looking defeated on the side of the road, whether it’s in Austin or anywhere else, my heart breaks for them in probably much the same way a five-year-old’s does. Particularly in Paris, we encountered a lot of them, and every time we did, I felt even more sheepish about the stupid things I’d gotten irritated over earlier in the day (damn this stupid lens cap, why the hell is it raining, OMG the Louvre is closed today) and guilty for being so ungrateful for all the luxuries I enjoy.

I think that guilt informs a lot of what I write.  I think the fact that I grew up in a family that didn’t really travel makes me feel compelled to go as many places as I can, but it also makes me emphatically aware that not everybody gets to just hop on a plane when they want to.  I’ll admit I’ve got a few things going for me: a) the fact that I have no kids, b) the fact that I don’t own a home and kind of don’t care about signing a mortgage on anything, ever, and c) the fact that my first long, lean year of freelancing seems to be turning into something self-sustaining and not so scary after all.  To say I’m thankful for all these things would be an understatement.  To say I’m both inspired and a little paralyzed by this trip would be another.

On Tuesday, we spent some time wandering around the Musee Rodin — easily the coolest museum I’ve ever seen, mainly because it’s set in the man’s old house, with an amazing array of sculptures arranged carefully throughout a labyrinth of gardens in what was once essentially his backyard.  I don’t know a lot about Rodin, but from what I could gather from the afternoon, he was quite the egomaniac, and a total , *total* player. But aside from all of that, he was also ridiculously talented.  So were the folks who designed the Eiffel Tower, even though lots of their contemporaries thought it was the ugliest piece of crap they’d ever seen.  So was Jim Morrison, whose grave we didn’t get a chance to visit but who rests in Paris all the same… and Picasso, and the Beatles, and Proust, and on and on.  The same can be said for every artist, musician and writer, both noted and unsung, who ever called those places home: they were all ridiculously talented, and they all contributed something interesting — even transformative — to the world.  Smacked in the face with all of their accomplishments, one after another after another in the span of just over a week, my thoughts started interrupting one another like crossed telephone lines. As badly as I wanted to just stop in the middle of the Rue du Saint-Germain and start creating something, too, in the back of my mind I kept thinking, “But what in the world am I supposed to be saying? What kind of a mark could I ever leave with my life?”  Because those of us who write don’t always know what the hell we’re writing, or even really why; sometimes we just sit down behind the wheel and the car ends up driving itself.  We write because we have to.  The words are a little like sweat, cooling us off from whatever’s generating all that heat inside.

We’re crazy people just trying to breathe.

That’s what I’ve been doing lately… sweating my ass off and seeing where this car can go.  I haven’t written much here in the past few months, mainly because I’ve been transitioning my small writing projects into larger ones, taking on meatier work with clients, and diving back into the book I started almost four years ago — now, finally, with a plan to get it published.  Paying the rent as a writer is more than I ever could have imagined back in high school, college, or even (make that *especially*) in those drab, endless days when I was trying to fit myself into the box of a 9-to-6 life.  But now that I think I’ve found some footing, I’m taking more risks and living more life.  I think it’ll pay off in the end… because I’m starting to realize something. The contribution I want to make to the world through the things that I write is this: a message that anyone can do anything they set their mind to with a little patience, a smidgen of luck, a dedication to their craft and a hell of a lot of hard work.  I won’t have sculptures in a garden that people pay money to see, but I’ll leave behind words that, god willing, might help people believe in their voice.

My story’s not that sexy.  I’m not a rabble-rousing womanizer with a warehouse full of marble or a mop-topped songwriter from Liverpool, but I’ve still got something to tell you. It may take a little while before I can whisper it all in one go, but rest assured I’m making sure I  use all the right words when I do.

a.

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Choose your own adventure

Damn straight, Hells.

Image: Coco+Kelley

When I was a little kid, my parents and I would drive to St. Petersburg, Florida, a couple of times a year to see my grandpa, who lived in an apartment on the 11th floor of an independent living facility.  The six-hour drive from my hometown of Jacksonville was largely unbearable except for several elements: my Madonna-stocked Walkman, the grandeur of the neverending bridge we always crossed toward the end of our trip, whatever book I happened to be reading, and the immediate promise of its successor, which I knew I’d be bringing home from our trip to Haslam’s Book Store.

Haslam’s was (and hopefully still is) one of those magical old bookstores that just sort of wind and twist around themselves, with janky ramps between the rooms and tattered old books mingling on the shelves with their freshly-minted cousins.  I’m almost positive that old shop on Central Avenue was the spot where I discovered the Sweet Valley High series (it’s seriously no mistake that I now drive a Fiat, have a close friend named Elizabeth and distrust all orderlies named Carl — remember that crazy-ass pancake-making kidnapper?) and it was most definitely the place where I bought my first Anti-Coloring Book.  Now, let me explain the latter half of that sentence: I had nothing against coloring books by any means, and neither did my parents — in fact, the title’s completely misleading.  To this very day, you can hand me a simple sketch pad and Sharpie and I’m a very happy girl.  The thing about this series in particular, and the reason for its provocative name, is that it gave the most fantastic prompts and then just kind of let you fill in the rest using your totally insane and therefore absolutely wonderful 7-year-old imagination.  Aside from the fact that I got to stare out over the 11th floor balcony of my grandpa’s digs during each visit — and believe you me, the 11th floor of anything was a super big deal at the time* — the family tradition of letting me romp around this crunchy old bookshop every time we were in St. Pete was a highlight of my childhood.

So, about these beloved activity books: one page might have 20 or so circles of varying sizes strewn about it with the prompt, “How many different things can circles be?” spelled out underneath.  Another would feature a Jack Sparrow-eque character in the bottom left corner with a thought bubble taking up the rest of the page, prompted by the question, “What kind of adventures do you remember from your past life as a pirate?” Others delved into emotional topics — say, an angry-looking girl sitting at the bottom of the page alongside the question, “What is it that makes you angriest at your parents?”  And the list went on and on: “Make a wish on this wishing well.” “You’ve been hired to design a new subway token.” “Make up your own big lie.” “What does a skunk smell like?”

These books were safe spaces where you could create, create, create as far as your colored pencils could take you.  I was addicted.  So last week, when I found myself inside one of the coolest new/used bookstores in the nation — Powell’s Books, in Portland, Oregon — I was on a mission from the kindergarten gods.  Something had pushed these awesome creativity boosters to the top of my memory, and I wasn’t stopping until I found one this past Sunday.  Luckily, I did, and now it’s sitting here with me on the couch.  I’m almost afraid to touch it, it’s so freaking precious.  In part, these books made me who I am.  They cracked open the hinge in the center of my imagination and encouraged me to put dreams to paper — ideas into tangible forms.  They gave me an outlet with guidance that was way less strict than a typical coloring book but far less intimidating than a blank white page.  They made it okay to make something crazy.

On the plane ride back home, I tucked my new/old Anti-Coloring Book into my bag and chose to hold my inner elementary school student at bay in favor of the book I’d taken on the trip with me to begin with: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer.  It’s about a guy who, sort of on a whim, decides to train for the USA Memory Championships — an event where people do things like memorize thousands of digits in a particular order and recite them back exactly, or memorize a 100-line poem in 15 minutes or less and transcribe it from memory with perfect precision, including punctuation.

The author really did this in real life; the book is straight nonfiction.  As a journalist researching an article he was planning to write about the annual event, he was intrigued by a comment one of the competitors made about the fact that anyone could become a memory champion with proper training — that it was mainly about using tricks, mnemonic devices and good old-fashioned discipline.  So, he decided to give it a go and see if these champions were, indeed, complete freaks of nature or just highly-practiced memorizers.  In doing so, he wound up diving into all sorts of questions about what paths we choose for our lives and why, as well as what our memories are really made of and how they work.  Questions like, are we really recording every little thing we experience and then just repressing the stuff that doesn’t seem useful?  Or are we constantly filtering and forgetting things that can’t ever be retrieved, even with cues and prompts that would pull them out of our subconscious if they were still truly filed away somewhere?

Foer met with researchers, scholars, cognitive disorder patients, and fellow memory champs-in-training while undergoing this process, and chronicled his own doubts and frustrations along the way.  At the book’s onset, he admits his distaste for soupy self-help types and voices his wonderment at so much of the irony that exists in the competitors’ lives; some of them have what we would consider to be photographic memories (a concept that’s largely discounted throughout the book, oddly enough) and yet can’t hold down jobs or meaningful relationships as a result of some of the obsessive — not to mention competitive — behaviors that creep into their lives.  You’d think a guy who never forgets a birthday, an anniversary or the way a girl takes her coffee could charm his way into any given skirt or corner office, but apparently that’s not the case.  So, the good news is, there’s hope for us Forgetful Joneses out here.  Crazy as it sounds, we might be better off in some manner of speaking than the Doogie Howsers and chess champions of the world.  It’s strangely comforting, in a way.

I do wish I could improve my memory, though.  So many things fly in one ear and out the other; others take up residence deep in my core for a while and then, oddly, fly away into space, never to return, even though they once seemed indelible and oh-so-important.  I’ve never been able to extract rhyme or reason from the way I remember some things and forget others — that’s what the author of this book is on a bit of a quest to figure out from the sum of his sources.  It’s also something my boyfriend’s sister is on a quest to figure out, from an entirely different angle, through her work each day in a proper science lab in Manhattan.  On some level, I think we’d all like to understand how we remember things so we can start remembering more (and, of course, forget the things we wish we could but can’t.)

I’ll never not be fascinated by these sorts of things.  One point that’s agreed upon by practically everyone Foer encounters is this: even though we forget a ridiculous amount of our life’s experiences, the more enriching moments we take part in — the more adventures we have, risks we take, places we go and thresholds we cross — the longer our lives seem to have been when we get to the end of them.  Days in a cubicle can blend into one another month after month, year after year, until they feel like one lifelong eight hour block, while one simple, lazy morning in a French bakery might make us smile for decades after.  That’s a perfect reason for us to wheel our chairs back from our desks every once in a while and get on a plane, play a little hooky, jump around in the ocean, and laugh until it hurts.  Setting expectations aside and letting our imaginations lead us to new places is, in my not-so-humble opinion (when it comes to this topic, anyway), one of the best forms of therapy in the world.

There’s already plenty of crap to cry about — plenty to bemuse us and punch us in the gut.  Those things, I think, are easier to forget… or at least set aside… when we balance them with the pursuit of extraordinary things.  Even if we barely remember any of it once we’re through, at least we did it anyway and loved the hell out of it while it was happening.  So it makes sense to me that the best way to live is to choose our own adventures and not worry so much about coloring inside the lines.  As far as we all know, we only get one shot at all of this.  I, for one, intend to make the most of it.  That’s a plan I hope I won’t ever forget.

a.

*and kind of still is

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Back in a flash… gotta laissez les bon temps rouler for a minute

Who Dat? (photo by Amy Lynch)Yes, I know, I suck. Yet another Friday with no blog post, even after all the flogging. But this time I have excuses! Good ones! Like selling old cars, buying new ones (well, one in each direction, anyway) and doubling down on work so I can take a romantical little road trip to New Orleans for a few days.

Yes, I’m aware that Mardi Gras is over. I’m actually cool with that. Once the (other) out-of-towners leave, you can feel the Crescent City breathe again… and let’s be real: there’s a much shorter line at Cafe du Monde. Don’t ever try to stand between a girl and her beignets.

I’m serious. Don’t.

Next week, I’ll bring it with all the writery goodness you can stand. All… four of you.

Meantime, laissez les bon temps rouler, y’all.  See you on the flip side.

a.

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