Words

I used to write letters to a woman I was dating.

No, let me go back further.

The first time I was in love, I wrote love letters almost daily to a girl and she wrote me back. I still have a box of her letters. A collection I compiled in two years of correspondence. In some of my darker moments, those letters have held me together. They brought back the moment that I went to the town post office and opened up the mailbox. The scent of paper and wood, brass keys, and vanillin, which the post office still smells of today. To read those letters takes me back to being 17, 18, and just past 19, almost like a negative space of a memory, since what I can read is usually in response to what I had said.

A moment when someone was giddy to see me. Someone who valued me as only young lovers do.

Among the things spoken of in those letters were typical teenaged worries. Getting into college. Trying out for the basketball team, pondering what the future held. Expressions of affection and brief flirtations with passionate moments between two kids on the verge of adulthood. In those times, phone calls were expensive and the distance we had to travel to see each other in person was prohibitive. You could send a ten page letter for $0.29 and keep that conversation forever. Well, half of the conversation anyway. A summer romance turned into a nearly four year relationship, which eventually ran its course. The letters stopped long before that, especially since we lived only about an hour apart for the last few years. Somehow that three week romance in person set the groundwork and we continued to grow together through our letters.

I never wrote my ex-wife letters. We met in college. We saw each other all the time. And as it goes with bad marriages, I don’t think we ever really communicated well. I can attest that we lacked the intimacy that those letters provided in my past. Maybe one of us had a set impression on who they wanted the other to be. We didn’t grow together. We could only grow apart. Funny how that happens between two people. Actually it isn’t funny at all. It’s tragic. Telling.

So, after my divorce, I dusted off that romantic part of my heart that had either been unappreciated or unused. It’s hard to tell which. I dated a woman for a few years. But she stopped reading my letters, saying they were “too personal” as though she were reading my diary or something. The idea of something so personal made her cringe. And when things fell apart, which they sometimes do between people, I saw that my letters were not the same as that first love. Oftentimes, they were discussions on what was going wrong, which were never answered.

As you continue to grow, people come and go from your life. You meet, sometimes fall in love, and sometimes realize that you weren’t as compatible as you thought. The next relationship was better than the one before it, but a red flag was that the few letters I wrote to her, she only finished reading one or two. Over the years my handwriting has gotten bad. Arthritis and took much typing have turned an already difficult work of penmanship into something arcane and almost illegible. In the end, she couldn’t be bothered to finish reading them. And not to be one to keep track of affection–which I dislike–but I never got one back either.

Talk about throwing your heart to the wind.

I like writing letters because the words come together as a permanent stain of ink on paper. There is no deleting what was said at the moment. A hard drive can’t be dumped. You can carry it around with you all the time until the paper loses its scent and every word is etched into your memory, or you can keep it in a box that never needs updating or a subscription to keep. You have those words forever. Maybe your children or grandchildren have those words. The double edged sword is that a letter you write when you are sad also stays on the page forever, unlike a text which will just scroll away into obscurity. On those pages are heartache and tear stains.

I’ve had those too.

I used to work with an old rancher who corresponded with the likes of JFK and Johnny Unitas and many others. He told me the key to writing a letter was to just put the words down like you were having a conversation with someone sitting across the table from you. He wrote a letter of recommendation for me when I got my Eagle Scout award. He held true to his word. It was like he was just saying what he thought. The meaning was clear and concise. Sparse and ommitting anything unnecessary to weigh it down. I lost that letter in my divorce, but I can still see the way his words had found themselves on the page in my memory. He had such hopes for seventeen year old me, just starting out in life.

I don’t read the old letters anymore, because I have outgrown them like an old favorite sweatshirt or pair of boots. I’m in my forties now and ready to make new memories and have new adventures. Reading those letters to my old self feels a little too much like intruding on someone else’s life. I wish him the best, since he eventually grows up to be me. I’ll give him his privacy now.

Maybe I just keep too much old junk around the house.

But unlike typing something out or thumbing it through as a text in messenger, when you take the time to find a pen and paper and put words down, trying to write them as carefully as you can so that the person receiving them can read what you said, and doing it in such a way that your thoughts have to be linear enough to convey meaning–because there’s no cut and paste function in a spiral notebook–that carries weight. It has meaning. It’s about as close to a magic spell as any of us will get.

Or maybe I’m just an anachronism. I’d rather begin my message to someone I care about with “Dear…” than “Hey, you up?” And just maybe you’ll find that out of all the methods of expression that have fallen out of favor over the years in preference to instant gratification, there are just a few romantic souls out there who cannot wait to rip open that envelope and see what is waiting for them inside. And sometimes the scariest thing about getting a letter back is the anticipation of what the other person will say. Good or bad. There’s powerful magic in that too.

Bona Fiscalia

The first time I heard this expression was when I saw Katee Sackhoff at a convention. She had just finished her role as Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica and people were asking her about her tattoos. One of them she described with a hitch in her voice which implied that it was extremely personal and telling. She told of the tattoo which said, “Bona Fiscalia.” Public Property.

In being in the public view, she said, she had a responsibility to being an example to others, good or bad, whether she wanted to be or not.

The reason I bring this up is because my writing here, as well as my travel site have the disadvantage of giving people an idea of who I am. By now, anybody should know that the art doesn’t necessarily embody the artist. But my words on my blogs are continually used to represent me, arm-chair psychoanalize, and are constantly being used out of context against me.

If you have read a blog, you need to understand that this is not a diary. This is a narrative. This is storytelling. In much the same way that JRR Tolkien wrote about hobbits and dragons or Stephen King writes about murderers and the supernatural. I wonder if today, people who cannot distinguish a story from reality should really be allowed to walk the streets unsupervised.

Yet this keeps coming back to bite me in the ass. Writing is therapuedic–if anything just to make sense of the world–but in many of the things I write, I am also telling a story. A story, which I hope resonnates with someone else who has had similar experiences. Because one of the things about the human condition is that we are social animals. I know that when I have gone through some of my hardest times, it would have just been nice to have read someone else’s story and know that I wasn’t alone. That someone else had gone through hell too.

That, my dear readers, is how we got literature in the first place. It’s also what made freedom of speech the First Amendment of our constitution. Freedom of expression is crucial to liberty. Not only on the large scale with government, but also in our interpersonal relationships.

So for anyone to think that by cherry picking what I write here or anywhere else is some shortcut into my true thoughts and beliefs, they need to take a fucking literature class or something. I am becoming more and more aware that my life, everytime I write about it, or an analog of my experiences, or just flat out create content comes under scrutiny. Especially by those who are incapable of divorcing literal meaning from a story, or just accepting that I’m not always going to agree with them. What I write has no more reflection on my mental state than Stephen King’s or Jo Rowling’s does. If anyone thinks I have delusions of grandeur in comparing myself with these authors, let me state that I picked two examples I think just about everyone has heard of. Because those who lose the tone on these might not know what a book is if I got any more obscure in listing authors.

These are the same kinds of people who try to cash in expired coupons and demand to speak to the manager. These are the same kinds of people who text in theatres. Cut others off in traffic. Kick puppies when people aren’t looking. The same kind of people who only shop at Trader Joes and ask if the coffee beans at Starbucks were humanely sourced.

So I can either stop writing…which for a writer is actually awful for their mental health. Not to mention pretty much against my rights to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. Or I can ignore them and continue to write, even when someone squawks or completely misses the point of something that I have written. Both suck. Because for some reason people just can’t keep scrolling if they don’t like something I have said. Instead, they fixate on it and obsess over it. Honestly, I would block them from reading it if I could, because it doesn’t sound healthy.

Just a reminder. Katee Sackhoff isn’t really a spaceship pilot, there aren’t clowns in the sewers who turn into big spiders, nobody is going to send an owl to your kid to recruit him for wizard school, and even though I live in a small town in the mountains, I can assure you it is better than any city I have lived in, which have been choked with crime, where homeless people live in the parks, and you can check a website to see what sex offenders have been registered on your block.

For now, I guess I’m just public property.

Ego

With my travel writing lately, I have been experimenting with different types of voice. My blogger voice has been very…well, what you see here. At times funny, and usually just conversational in tone, like I’m just shooting the bull with friends. Recently I started reading the Years Best in Travel Writing anthology for 2018 just to see what kind of work is out there and what is being considered the best.

I can say this much. What is being considered noteworthy enough to get into anthologies isn’t the same kind of stuff you are seeing in blogs or in listicles on Buzzfeed about “Top Five Places to Get Drunk in Mexico”. These are well-crafted essays that often exceed the standard attention span of about 600 words that list type articles and how-to articles get in other places. Some of the stories I read were very literary, from a veteran returning to the streets where he and his buddies fought a firefight in Kabul nearly twenty years before to explorations of American iconography in the Midwest.

Lots of these stories explore race, cultural differences, and probe the depths of what is going on in the human experience, rather than ways to upgrade your room at an all-inclusive resort/spa at Turks and Caicos. So recently, I sold an article that was inspired by these more literary expositions. It was challenging to write this way, even though there were times I felt like I was back in college writing MFA quality essays.

The benefit of writing in this MFA style is that I can make the story more cinematic. It’s a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. Rather than just musing about how dirty a bathroom might have been at a National Park. However, those types of articles also have their place and purpose.

I think what struck me the most was how pretentious a lot of these travel essays sounded. Either the acrobatics of choppy sentences with evocative language or the smarmy condescension of the educated elite, looking down their noses at Americana. The fucking egos involved with a lot of these authors. One guy even insinuated that he met someone in a hotel elevator for a one night stand in a small hotel in South Dakota.

I wonder if that was a callout to everyone who teased him in high-school for not having a girlfriend. Nobody cares that you slept with some drunk woman you met in an elevator, and nobody cares if you think gas station burritos and refridgerator magnets are quaint.

There’s cutting to the core and there is self-agrandizing masturbatory writing. As any good dad will tell you, I’m not mad…just disappointed. About halfway through the book when it all read like a college composition class, I checked out. The thing about good writing is you need to check on your ego. It’s a lot like when you paint a room and about a week after you are done, the light might hit that floor just right and all you see are the dollops of paint that made it past your throw cloth.

I can see why people don’t read as much as they used to. What is considered “The BEST!” is usually pretentious or just sounds like it should be good. You can call it foie gras all day long, but at the end of the day, it’s just goose liver.

Today I am really tired. I guess I just don’t have a lot of patience for this kind of stuff.

It’s a fine line to walk.