Own Your Collection of Stories

Up in the top of my closet is a cardboard box full of VHS tapes and DVDs I've collected throughout my cinema-obsessed college years. I wasn't quite a Film major because there was no such thing at my college. I was just a Journalism major with a Cinema Studies minor. Which meant I sat in every film course I could, bleeding money and burning brain cells for my degree. 

And even though the cost was high, I can say I saw some amazing flicks, too many for me to even remember their obscure names or countries of origin. What I do know is they led me down holes, around corners, and deep into alleys. 

And with that came my own mini collection. Wherever I could find a store selling oddball cult movies, I snatched them up. I knew to keep my eye out for the Criterion Collection choices or blaxploitation classics like Blacula, or even the few releases on Tarantino's short-lived distribution company Rolling Thunder Pictures. Or Rolling Thunder itself would have been a treasure, a revenge epic about a returning Vietnam vet, Major Charles Rane, robbed by some greedy thugs and devastated when they destroy his hand and murder his wife and son. Fitted with a hook worthy of a military-trained pirate and a war buddy of equal intensity, Rane winds up taking no prisoners. 

That's the caliber of action I have stashed away in my closet, rotting on its own magnetic tape and seated, shiny discs. The cinema of Russ Meyer, a man who knew what he liked - big-breasted women in strong female roles. He kept the distribution rights for his films to himself, so now even though he has passed on, you can still only buy his movies from his estate. No Netflix or Amazon for him. 

Or Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane from the director of Smokin' Aces and The Grey, with a title so bad-ass I could not pass it up.

There is something of an achievement to collecting. Not only does it become a challenge of quantity, it is a testament to quality. It can be a practice in awareness, keeping your eyes open for the next big win, and meditating, realizing there is no true end, no closing the book. 

And even though my VHS tapes have no VCR to be played in and half of them might be full of static anyway, I can't release them back into the wild. Even though there are stacked back inside my closet, without play for years now, somehow I feel like they define me - my taste, my sense of humor, my quirkiness. 

The charm of our collections is much like the charm of our stories. We hang on to bits and pieces that mean something to us in our own weird way. We tell them to the people we trust or to show off at big, fancy parties. We share them when the time is right or sometimes too much. They showcase our flaws and obsessions. 

Radiolab has good stories. I've been blown away this past week, collecting, or should I say downloading, some of what they call Shorts. The Short that captured my attention the most of the bunch was Straight Outta Chevy Chase. Peter Rosenberg, DJ for Hot 97, the hip-hop radio station for the Greater New York area, was straight outta Chevy Chase, Massachusetts. He was a Jewish kid who grew up with a passion for hip-hop as it became more and more popular. He started with the Hot 97 crew in 2007. And in this Radiolab Short, he challenged the so-called rules of hip-hop when he dissed the current Queen of Hip-Hop Nicki Minaj when her songs leaned too far into the Pop realm. Without giving away the clash between the two, you can imagine the interesting discussion that can unfold when a genre of music surrounds itself with talk of race, class, and what it means to be real. 

Did Radiolab have a corner in the closet? When did they decide to build on Shorts? Hosts Jad and Robert often mention how they've been dying to tell this story or that, and obviously when they finally can, it's available for the world to download and enjoy. But how long are they sitting on the beginnings? When do they know it's "done"? I can only guess there is a secret vault of nuggets they both add to on the daily - gems of stories that aren't quite stories yet. Each of them just needs a little extra bit of something. 

When you pull back too, aren't they all bits? You could wake up and pivot into the unexpected. When everything is in flux, there are seeds of change floating everywhere. Take stock in what you have and what you don't, but never tell the story before you're sure you know how it goes.

A Million Dollars of Experience

It stuck me that I wouldn't even know what to do with the money. No, I didn't win the lottery or come across some magical dream job that pays me to read books and eat ice cream all day. It is the constant prepping and planning to make a million. Or more. A billion.

Of all the goal-oriented books and blogs I've read, it never occurred to me to step back and recognize my own perception of the dream - to be richer than I am. It was just the hope that I could make a little more to free myself from college debt, phone contracts, and a mediocre apartment. You know, the lifestyle of a twenty-something in New York?

It goes back further, though. I remember dreaming up plans when I was in elementary school of what I would do if I somehow inherited a million dollars. Just like that. After a few minutes of frantically writing out all my childhood dreams - endless video game systems, piles of junk food, and my own secret hideout - I quickly realized that it's hard to spend that kind of money when you have no reason to have it in the first place. I don't think I even got past the $200,000 mark.

It's the same as the ridiculousness we've seen on MTV Cribs or Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. There is no aspiration outside the acquisition of wealth at that point. The art suffers because they (myself included) never took the time to ask:

What are you working for in the first place?

The dream is to work for the work. We kid ourselves thinking that all we want is to lay on a beach until we melt away. Or watch TV until we can't anymore. Or eat so much junk it morphs us into someone we don't recognize. And that's the biggest load of bullshit. What kind of person are you if you want to contribute nothing to this world except taking up space, spending money and forever relaxing?

There is always work to be done and no one is too good to do it.

Writing is no exception.

I was challenged by a friend to write a whole post without quoting anyone else. She said my thoughts were good enough on their own. And while I appreciated the compliment (more than she knows), my response surprisingly had me stumbling over my own impetus. I fill my writing with quotes because I don't imagine I'm the smartest person around and connecting with the minds of others is exactly how the universe has been molded up until this point. Idea sex over centuries of human existence, collisions of thoughts and theories, has brought us to this point. If anything, I'm just building off of my heroes and writing it all out to make myself and everyone daring to read it a bit better, whatever that means.

And, nevertheless, I figured I'd give it a try without any quotes. Why? Because this is all practice. Yes, it's easier for me to borrow from some great minds, but, in the end, this is me flexing my own thoughts, about thoughts. The truth comes from my own personal experience.

I've been wrestling with a premonition for some time and I think it is becoming more clear. The practice of writing here is just that, practice. And while it's always important to go through the hard work of delivering on that deadline, my intuition says it is time for something different, something more calculated. What am I contributing besides a look deeper into my own mind? Why not look outward and find what the world really needs besides my book reports? We're all trying to figure it out anyway, right? 

What we all want is some answers. And to do that we have to learn and experience life through one another. There is no other way. Daydreaming and deadlines can't be enough; we need action. And that's what I mean when I say I need something new. It's even funnier that I can't understand why it's so hard to put into words. I write because I wonder and I wonder because I read. What I want to do is build something of my life to be written about - to be a work of action, not just a reaction. And, yes, I notice the hypocrisy of writing that we all learn and experience life through one another and seemingly belittling my own contributions, I just know I want to offer more. 

Because in the end, all we're left with is how we spend the money, the work, and the day. 

How to Deal With Fucking Up

I started writing at just about the time I wanted to smash my keyboard. Inside my cubicle inside an office inside a warehouse, I had six hours a day to burn at a family-owned camera business. There was windows, no escape. No one could hear me scream. 

It wasn't that writing was keeping me sane, it was just that everything else was driving me nuts. I was so frustrated I daydreamed cursing out my best friends because they couldn't make simple dinner plans. Something was wrong.

Before that I was just devouring YouTube videos to no end. I found stand-up comedians and slam poets, psychedelic lectures and storytellers good enough to pass the hours before and after lunch. Every one of them had an amazing vision of the world.

And suddenly it made sense for me what I should write about - ideas.

Former Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins was a regular in the rotation. He has a poetic passion for pushing his limits. He enjoys books most people can't even lift and he performs with the fury of a dragon. And it all bled over into his bite-size YouTube stories. And most recently I found this quote to be most apt to where I am now: 

"Half of life is fucking up. The other half is dealing with it."

Although writing can be a meditation or practice, there is always room for growth. It took me a long time to get where I could publish regularly. It was way after I quit the job where I started putting my time into my words. 

And so looking back over a hundred weeks of blogging, I wanted to see how I've dealt with fucking up as I went along building an audience. What were people absorbing when they sat down to my blog?

Of all of them, the following are the Top 11 most viewed and commented on:

Walking Through Existence with Some Fly Kicks - #8
Beyond the Bored Zombies and Dreaming Too Little - #19
Collecting So Easy a Caveman Could Do It - #25
Connect the Dots, See the Picture - #27
We're Not Superheroes, We're Hitters Up to Bat - #28
How to Die Working - #78
Why Not Rethink Technology? - #84
Puzzles of Interest in Brooklyn - #90
How to Experience the Dreams of the Waking World - #92
Embracing Unpredictable Change - Explode #95
Moving On, Untitled - #97

Nothing really jumped out at me linking the titles, themes, or reasons for commenting on any of them, much less all of them. I was glad to see some of my favorites resounded with some readers, but when it got down to data, there wasn't much to go on. 

What it came down to was what the actual audience took from it. When I couldn't stare at the titles anymore, I turned and asked my friend Alejandro. He didn't miss a beat. He said something like I often wrote about a problem that initially frustrated me beyond words until I found myself relaxed enough to come to terms with it. It seemed to me like some kind of public therapy. Or cautionary tale. Or self-help book in the most actual sense.

And it's true. 

Walking Through Existence with Some Fly Kicks was about my frustration hauling junk when a customer questioned if I was strong enough to lift a metal desk. Writing it out gave me the ego check that it wasn't about my abilities, it was about putting myself in her shoes, understanding she was more worried about her home being damaged.

Collecting So Easy a Caveman Could Do It was a retrospective on the amount of crap I collected from my days junk-hauling and the realization I needed to make that I was hoarding too tightly things I didn't have any passion to fight to keep.

How to Experience the Dream of the Waking World was one of my best. I enjoyed writing it. It was about coming to terms with my emotions, whether I was feeling down or ecstatic, and understanding it was all ok in this dream of a life.

Writing is just as it is when I found Henry Rollins on YouTube. It is always a struggle, it is always a challenge. It is putting my world down into words. When it comes to content, though, I have to like what I do. I couldn't write it if I didn't. I would start smashing keyboards again. 

It couldn't have been good to just sit and devour clip after clip either. Experimenting with life and not just words has to inform my writing. It is the reason the posts where I observe and experience my cross-country roadtrip, coping with the deaths of loved ones, or moving to Brooklyn have been the most appetizing for me and my audience. It makes me more of a real person having something going on than to simply be a brain on a stick. Anyone with some patience to put words down can do that. It has to be a search for me.

In the words of Rollins, I'm only fucking up because I'm human. Writing helps me sort it out and move on. And in that way there is always material and always an audience.

Where Blogging Fails Us

I can remember it like yesterday. She sat there batting her eyelashes while I rambled on about jiu-jitsu and the adventures of my job hauling junk out of people's homes. It was the coolest introduction I had to my life story. I felt like the protagonist of The Great American Trash Novel. And my confidence about my situation got me there.

We dated for some time after that but just as our relationship faded, so did my blue-collar identity. Because, of course, it's a bit more complicated than that.

For a while it felt right even when it felt a bit wrong - when I was god-awful tired. Or I was working overtime. Or I couldn't afford to move out of my parent's house. Again.

And, sometimes, still I find myself wondering about that first date. It all felt so right and put together. Today I'm more surrounded by computers than torn-up couches and garbage bags. I can sit at my desk and help customers build websites for their creative ventures all day long. The benefits are great and the community is even better. I find myself staying at the office more than my apartment just to hang out. How could I have been so confident about the kind of lifestyle most people would scratch their heads over?

And I think I've fallen on the answer. Identity.

What I was doing became me. I had a clear sense of the things I wanted to fill my day with and it felt great to share that with someone who didn't already have a glimpse into my world. It was a proud sense of accomplishment, challenging myself with physically demanding tasks that most people don't dream of doing. It was easy to nail everything down with labels too. Fighter. Junk Hauler. Writer.   

Life informed writing and writing informed life.

It wasn't just reading things to regurgitate them on my own page, it was putting things into practice.  

And I see the difference now. Jiu-jitsu and hauling junk forced me to be part of communities with disciplined practice. I talked and wrestled with people all day long. I read books about human interaction, goal-setting, and the paralysis of choice. And I practiced it every day with my hobby, my job, and my love life. 

With my current job I find myself typing more than talking. I'm chatting with customers to build their sites. My teenage self couldn't have dreamed of a way to get paid to instant message people all day long.

And there is the challenge. Seth Godin (sort of) jokes that no one has talker's block. There is barely hesitation, we just do it. With writing, we get in our own heads about it.

I find myself doing the opposite - having the courage and discipline to write without the ability or opportunity to talk all that much. Don't get me wrong - I have friends, I hang out, and I don't have laryngitis. I just need to find a way to make my life more than writing and put more of my life into it.