Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Cowboy Writer Manifesto

Sunday night, I returned home from three days in Big Sur, feeling strange.

I drove up there Thursday in a 1983 VW Westfalia van with five friends and a dog. We arrived to a campsite edging up to midnight with friends already there. Over the next day or two, friends poured in. Saturday night, we had about 30 of us goofing off.

After spending the summer in an office building, I went to the annual surfer gathering to relax and, sometimes on the beach and sometimes in the campsite, I had nothing on the brain. There was no frequency but laughter. I was at total ease. Days felt like memories and nights felt like dreams. It was unreal, everything from Frisbee William Tell to listening to an acoustic guitar as I fell asleep on a board bag staring up at the stars through the bony limbs of trees.

But between the many cigarettes, beers and sips of whiskey, I also felt a gathering storm inside me. I observed the interactions of the people around me, as I always make a point of doing, and did some serious thinking without really making the effort. I couldn't quite point out what it was, but there were a few moments of something resembling pensive worry mixed in with the instances of invincibility. I enjoyed the hell out of the weekend, but was ready to leave when we were supposed to on Sunday morning.

And then came the feeling I couldn't shake again on the way back to Southern California, heavier and stronger. As we swerved along the beautiful California coast, I grew anxious to get home, though I had nothing I desperately missed there. Family, friends, women and work would all be there, but there was nothing time-sensitive, but I still felt like I had a schedule to keep. The last hours of the drive pulled on me. My head was sleep-deprived and my stomach and lungs were full of vices. I had a hard time being quiet until we edged towards Los Angeles. Then I felt the weight of anxiousness. By then, I was fidgety and annoyed that I wasn't yet home to deal with this nonsense bullshit. I didn't even quite know what it was, but I felt that I could sort it out once I was in my bedroom with the many tools and prizes of this radical adventure that I might as well just call existence.

Finally, I arrived home, dumped my stuff in a pile by the door and sat down at the dining room table. Within minutes, my sister and mother were telling me what was on the television. I realized how little I cared and so, without words, I stood up and left for the the bathroom where I shaved off my facial hair before buzzing my head (on its longest setting, as change isn't always big).

I took a long shower and thought about things, realizing that I needed a new course of action. I returned to my bedroom, telling my family that I was going to bed. Instead, I sat down and wrote something called The Cowboy Writer Manifesto. It's ten rules that I printed out and stuffed in my wallet. It's a mix between promises to myself I plan to keep and a new code of living to go by. It's like new year's resolutions for machines, as that's how I've felt since returning home. It's like The Cowboy Spirit meets Ayn Rand's objectivism (or how it's been explained to me, as I am still only 50 fucking pages into The Fountainhead). I just know that I used to cultivate who I was as a teenager (as teenagers do when they aren't lying about everything and getting awkward/sexy). I've long believed that a person can be the person they should be, but it requires time, energy and effort. Everything of social interaction to creativity can be worked upon like existential maintenance. If you don't focus on yourself some nights, you're just a lonely train sounding in the night with nobody on board. Especially in the transition into adulthood, this is the year I figure I'm supposed to really get it all down to the bare wires and string them up like Christmas lights.

So, once I had my manifesto, I changed my sheets and cleaned up my room in silence before sitting down and writing fiction until I was falling asleep at my laptop. This was a good start (no joke).

As I have gone through a chaotic variety of elaborate plans, stages, alter-egos and even a fake death hoax, I have already admitted to myself that this could all very well be nothing but a passing phase. However, this seems stronger than other promises I've made on whims. This doesn't feel forced. it doesn't feel like I'm making an attempt at building anything. It just feels like I'm doing it whether I like it or not. Maybe this is the quarter-life crisis everyone's been foretelling like psychics. Maybe this is the very exciting beginning to a thrilling nervous breakdown. Maybe I just felt like crap from putting so much alcohol and smoke into my body that I'm now mistaking a good cleanse for productivity and an exhilarating life change.

Whatever it is, I noticed a change on Monday. I tried to live according to The Cowboy Writer Manifesto. Instead of hitting the snooze button almost a dozen times, I got up immediately and was fully dressed before I was sure of what day it was.

After work, I kept it going.

1. I wrote fiction. I'm done with this whole bullshit of not writing every day. Enough of this fucking around shit. Right? Well, actually, I take that back. I'm going to find other ways to fuck around. Maybe they'll involve balloons. Maybe confetti. I don't know. I haven't really thought it through yet. Also, I read rejection letters from three respected publications and saved them like the rest. It feels good to send stuff out again and I continue to enjoy the shit out of rejection letters.

2. I bought new clothes. And I bought them because I thought I should have them. It had nothing to do with an specific event or a gift card. Also, I'm pretty sure the two female employees at Macy's could tell that I hadn't shopped in a long time. As I just made it before they closed, they watched me like an harmless animal who just wandered around smelling stuff. I felt like they were asking each other (in Spanish), "Should we get it out or will it find its way out eventually?" Well, guess what, bitches? I did. And I did it with two new shirts.

3. I went for a run with my dog. I collapsed in the backyard, shirtless and sticky. I sat in the surfboard chair and sounded like somebody had stabbed me in the chest, wheezing like I was trying to give famous last words. Once I stood up and made it back into the warm house, I felt like the Human Torch if he ever got all sweaty from the flames.

4. I cleaned my room. As I was nearing the end, the lights went out. My entire house went black. I checked the fuse box, but nothing I did work. So I went into the streets and watched the whole world be dark. The block's fuse had done something screwy. I stood there on my front lawn and noticed that the only light in my neighborhood was from the stars and moon above. Then I took one last sprawling look at the houses around and all the lights came on at once. It was magical realism cinema. Maybe that's what those plastic townsfolk feel like when someone finally turns on the train set.

5. I went to bed at a reasonable hour. I fell asleep with all the windows open and the ceiling fan churning, and I woke up refreshed this morning.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

My New Desk & Its Seattle Calendar

I got a new desk today.

Well, not like "hey, I went to Ikea and bought a sick, awesome desk that holds things and stuff," but more of a "hey, I moved to a different desk at work."

And, for whatever reason, it struck me funny and made me think about things. It made me think of my last job (and only other real job) at Entrepreneur Magazine when things were very, very different and so was I.

The window at my new desk reminds me of how I use to keep a running tally of planes and helicopters I saw from my giant window cubicle at Entrepreneur. My desk looked like Mardi Gras back then. It was practically a colorful fort. I had everything from papers for my fake sexual harassment lawsuit to games, threats and wanted posters. I even printed out a picture of a co-worker's head and turned it into a piggy bank. It looked like one of those desks they show employees at gaming companies or animation studios having in documentaries or magazines.

But, today, I packed up my desk and realized that the only personal item I had was a small Seattle calendar. And, this morning, I sat down at my new desk and pinned up my dinky calendar that means too much to me to actually mark up and stared at it until I spaced out, looking out the window at a sky that looked like the world's ceiling. Then, I thought of what it was like when I was laid off in March of last year and how it took me two or three boxes just to carry my personal items to the parking lot. I remember my girlfriend, who helped carry my stuff, asking me if all of it was "really necessary" and I didn't know how to answer her.

Months later, when summer of last year rolled around, I disappeared into the tame wilderness and wild commerce of Seattle with my buddy Chris (who was also an unemployed writer then). By the time autumn came, I had moved back to Southern California and was still jobless. But I was a remarkably different person. Last summer changed me in a bunch of crazy ways and it's hard to argue that it wasn't for the better across the board. I do think of myself as less exciting now though.

Just before I left Seattle, Chris and I finally went to the Space Needle and I bought the dinky Seattle calendar. Chris asked where I was going to put it up a calendar so small and I told him that I would probably hang it up in my cubicle at whatever job I ended up getting and sighing out loud every time I looked at it. We laughed a small laugh there in the gift shop, but it's pretty stunning how accurate that sentence has become.

My very bare desk today is a sharp contrast to the messy chaos of my previous job's desk, the desk at my first "big boy job" at Entrepreneur Magazine. Back then, I was generally unprofessional, but they still had me write this oddball business blog for whatever crazy reason. And it all made me very happy. I realized it spoiled me, that job. I was relentlessly content then, but I was too obnoxious and inexperienced to appreciate it.

The entire thing now seems like a dream that I have a hard time remembering in full. I never dreaded a day of work or even minded it. I probably would've worked there for free. It was like a playground inside of a classroom. There were pranks, debates, projects, adventures and a laundry list of distasteful inside jokes and day-long e-mail threads that became bigger than they really were. Days were everything from sitting in an office arguing The Clash's London Calling song by song to making a face puppets so we could do impressions of each other. We ate lunch together, went to happy hours after work and then parties on the weekend. It was such goddamn delirious nonsense. I mean, we worked and put out a magazine, sure, but...I don't know, it was like working on yearbook or the newspaper in high school.

And now I wonder, as I move to my sixth desk at my current job, if it would be possible now. Not even considering the others, I mean that I wonder if I would be the same. I wonder if I would tolerate such insanity in my job performance. I wonder if I would share as much personal information as I did then. I wonder if I would be as much of a force to be reckoned with instead of...whatever I am now.

Let's say I came into that editorial assistant/blogger job next month (as a calm and collected 25-year-old) instead of June 2007, back when I was loud and vulgar 22-year-old with little regard for professionalism and career talk. Let's say I took that magazine job as whoever I am this year instead of the young guy who wore ripped jeans to work and drove a messy Delta 88 Oldsmobile that looked like it housed a homeless person inside. Let's say I was hired now as a reasonable man instead of the hungover fully-bearded boy who ate Del Taco and microwaveable pizzas and never exercised. Could it really all be the same if I wasn't the smug and mouthy asshole who had an entire drawer full of candy bars?

Really, I consider myself now and notice how I think of a career and compare it to when I didn't consider showering or brushing my teeth a priorities and lived in a house that my friends and I were destroying with our bare hands. Christ Almighty, The Madison is another story (or book) altogether.

I wanted to fight yuppiedom in such a manic fury that I somewhat devolved in a mutant-like hurry. I liked the idea of getting paid salary while looking like I didn't care. I wanted people to look at me and think, "That guy doesn't care about or value anything." For whatever insanity that floated through my brain as truth, I thought that it was charming to be totally careless and I saw it as my lone wolf way of fighting maturity. I didn't want to be a 9-to-5 adult yet and I fought it with every ounce of craziness I had in me. It was like a movie where I was being dragged into a chamber kicking and screaming, so I then started shouting wild promises that didn't make sense and I couldn't keep anyway.

And, altogether, it was pretty goddamn stupid.

So, instead of wishing I could go back to all that, I admit that it wouldn't be the same. And I say that now considering where everyone is these days, from San Francisco to New York City, from grad school to real high-end career paths. And I'm happy at the job I have now as a copywriter with a sparse work area.

I look back fondly on my time of what seemed perfect and realize that it wouldn't be the same if it came about now. Even if everyone else was still as awesome as they were then, I just don't see me playing the same character I did then. I liked what I contributed then (I like to think of it as "furious immaturity with moments of charming sincerity and absolute clarity"), but I wouldn't like it now. I don't have the energy in me to be that reckless and I don't have the ego to be that offensive. I care what the higher-ups think of me and I've lost any sight of fighting any "good fight." I want to work and I want to show up for work ready to work. I try my best to understand what is expected of me at work and anticipate what is coming at me.

The strange thing is that I never saw this coming. I always hoped I would evolve into an adult, but I just didn't see it happening without a lobotomy. I just never saw myself being quiet or keeping to myself in any form. Old Jake has shown some light over the months, in very fleeting or mildly off-putting moments, but I still don't have the drive to really decorate my cubicle or say much in meetings. I don't try to organize anything social and I'm fine with everything just...going.

But, here and there, I look at my dinky Seattle calendar to think of last summer (easily the best summer since I was 15, when nobody had to be anywhere) and think of the transformation from Old Jake to New Jake and I sigh a little bit.

Today, I thought of my job at Entrepreneur and missed what I had, but I appreciated it for the epic party it was and what insight it provided me with. But then I quietly went back to work.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Matchmaker: An Accidental Vaudeville Act

When it comes to women with several of my high school friends, I often find myself in a conversation that resembles an old vaudeville act. They want to play the matchmaker/middle man and it's a mixture of mischief and good intentions (as if they're doing an "I gotcha, bro" boon...a "broon," if you will). It's partially to help out a friend, partially to get credit for the relationship/booty and partially to be responsible for something that could go so goddamn spectacularly crazy terrible.

It's very much like a sincere hug between two male friends that ends in a ball-tap for immature hilarity. And it's also like putting a penny on a train track, something so innocent and meaningless that could have magnificently awful results.

My high school friends believe that people ask without asking and that they're reading between the lines of male friendship and communication. I only put in good words if I'm asked enough times, as I don't like getting involved in anyone's affairs. My high school friends feel differently. And I've had the conversation enough time to sense the coming dread of insanity.

It goes something like (but obviously not exactly like) this:

FRIEND: "So you're interested in her?"

JAKE: "Interested in who?"

F: "You know who."

J: "I do?"

F: "Don't worry. I'll put in a good word for you."

J: "Goddamnit, no. Not this again. No. No good words."

F: "What do you mean? You're not into her?"

J: "I don't think so."

F: "Really?"

J: "Dude, I don't know."

F: "I totally thought you were."

J: "Why?"

F: "I don't know. It just seemed like you were."

J: "When was this? Was I drunk? Did it seem like I wanted to date or hook up?"

F: "I don't know."

J: "Then what the hell are you going off of?"

F: "I don't know, but I'll just tell her you're kind of interested."

J: "No. Don't tell anybody I'm interested in them. Even if I were, everything gets all complicated and chaotic when somebody else gets involved."

F: "Come on, you two would look good together. And then we can double date! Just let me tell her that you at least mentioned her."

J: "No. Don't mention me mentioning anyone to anybody."

F: "I'm gonna do it anyway."

J: "Why? Why would you do that?"

F: "Trust me. You'll thank me later."

J: "No. I won't thank you later. I'm telling you right now. Don't do it."

F: "I'm still going to."

J: "Are you serious?"

F: "Well, then do something about it, you pussy!"

J: "Dude, you're making my mind explode right now. How are you not getting any of this?"

F: "Ok, now I'm going to tell her that just the mention of her makes your mind explode."

J: "I really don't understand what you're not getting here."

F: "I'm just going to tell her that you noticed her and then you can do whatever from there."

J: "Goddamnit, I said no. Seriously, I'm thinking about slashing your tries."

F: "I'm still going to do tell her."

J: "This is unreal. No, don't do it."

F: "Too late. It's out of my hands."

J: "How the hell is it our of your hands?"

F: "It just is. Sorry. But, look at it this way, now you've got something going."

J: "I don't want something going."

F: "Really? I thought you did. She's cute, man. You sure you don't want to see if something happens?"

J: "Well...probably not...I think."

F: "See, there you go! You're already changing your mind!"

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Cowboy Spirit (Part I)

Part One: How The Cowboy Spirit Came To Be
Part Two: What The Cowboy Spirit Means

Grant met me for lunch on Thursday and so began a weekend of outrageous fun and collective transformation.

There was a lot of good conversation during the meal and, at some point, we started musing on how, these days, we overthink conversations, regret evenings of drinking and have a general anxiety about the present and future, all of which we never used to have. But then it took a turn to how we used to be so goddamn restless and senseless when it came to women and how everything seemed so cause-and-effect now instead of just being causes without regard for effects.

"We used to do whatever we wanted and never worry about the outcome. There were always consequences, but neither of us ever gave a shit, right?" I said paraphrasedly. "I mean, we used to be careless, we used to be stupid, we used to be..."

"Cowboys," Grant said calmly. "We used to be cowboys."

And then there came the dawning realization that all we wanted to be was cowboys again. The problem wasn't that we were adults now. The problem was that we weren't cowboys anymore. It didn't have to do with age. It had to do with giving in. All of it had to do with something that was established over the weekend as "The Cowboy Spirit."

Now, it just so happened that the coming weekend included Rex's birthday and the Orange International Street Fair, which is one grand party for the city. And thus started the quest to be young and wild as we reclaimed "The Cowboy Spirit" as individuals and as a band of polite, well-mannered, law-abiding outlaws.

Thursday night, we went drinking in the Circle for Rex's birthday. I came home drunk around 2-something and stayed up eating a sandwich until 4 a.m. I got to work at 7 a.m. on Friday. The Cowboy Spirit kept me sharp for most of the day, but I lapsed into being a mumbling idiot towards the end. After filming a video project for work (which I made me feel 16 again, as video projects are simply the best), I could barely stay awake, but I reminded myself of the Cowboy Spirit promise.

So I went to a house party for Rex's birthday Friday evening. And I got quite messed up there, where I had our friend Nikki try her first bit of whiskey and I reminisced about the days of The Madison with Jay for nearly an hour). Dave drove me home laughing and blurry sometime around 3 and I again stayed up until 4 eating a sandwich.

Saturday, Rex and Grant dropped by in the evening as I was writing in my room with all three windows open for the lovely summer breeze. We went to buy slurpees so we could drink them while smoking cigarettes in my backyard. The plan was to head to a party later, but once we got the slurpees, we decided on a parking lot whim to just drive down to Grant's place in San Juan Capistrano to provide some company to Chase (who is currently laid up because of foot surgery after a super terrible injury while surfing in Mexico). The four of us got drunk and played video games. Grant went to bed while Chase, Rex and I slept in the guest bedroom giggling together on two floor mattresses.

"I hope we never get too old for this," Chase said.

"What?" Rex asked. "Sleepovers?"

"I don't know," Chase replied. "I guess just...any of this really."

It wasn't the last thing said, but it was the last thing I thought of before falling asleep.

We woke up Sunday morning and Grant drove Rex and I back to Orange around noon. I showered and Dennis picked me up to go to Street Fair around 1 p.m. We met up with a bunch of my high school friends that I sadly only see in terms of months (David, Lawrence, Louis, Duran, etc). All day, I ran into people I wanted to see and caught up with local friends over beer and international food and flare. The Street Fair closed at 10 p.m., so we went to a friend of a friend's house. When that died down, we went to Louis's girlfriend's apartment and hung out with her girlfriends.

At some point, one of the girls asked, "Why haven't we met you before?"

And I realized I didn't have any good reason why I wasn't more proactive with keeping in touch with my high school friends. Finally, Dennis took us home around 3 and I stayed up until 4 a.m. once again eating a sandwich. I was intoxicated from my arrival to Street Fair until I fell asleep watching Dances With Wolves.

Monday, with the day off, I sent out a short story to ten magazines and played basketball to get all the booze out of me.

Now, before this weekend, I couldn't tell you when the last time it was that I got all screwy two nights in a row. Also, it's hard to guess when the last time was that I didn't choose at least one night of the weekend to give into reclusedom. But, I have to tell you, this last weekend was one of the most goddamn fun weekends I can ever remember living through. Somehow, weekends like this, with its constant motion and agenda of going from fun thing to fun thing, came about way more often when we were all 19 and 20 and stupid as hell. We didn't have the appreciation then, because that's all there was. There was nothing to compare it to. None of us desk jobs and none of us had a serious bone in our putty bodies. I mean, how do you know how awesome butterflies are if you've live your entire life in a meadow? You tell me that, America.

Shit, I mean, everything came together so perfectly and I saw people I don't see often enough and met people I'm stoked on. And I know I laughed until my stomach hurt. I also ate a lot of really killer sandwiches.

Seriously though, I felt like there was a glow to the weekend, as if I was jumping from picture to picture in a photo album. Sometimes, you live through a night you already feel will churn you up inside, as if looking back on your childhood or your most reverent teenage moments. You try so hard to find the Fountain of Youth, but you never let yourself believe it doesn't take a journey to far-off lands. Nobody wants to believe they've been so close to the source the entire time because it's so goddamn fucking embarrassing.

"It's never too late to have a happy childhood." - Tom Robbins

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Going The Distance Sucks

One night recently, I was trying to get my record player to work. Just in case everything went haywire, I wanted to use a record that wasn't of great value to me. Dragging my fingers along the many vinyl albums I inherited from my parents when they tossed their busted record player, I found my mom's Captain & Tennille album (which doesn't even make sense in her collection).

So I tried my best, hooking up the record player to my stereo and nothing played out of the speakers. But, instead, I heard the faint whispers of love and promises somewhere in my room. It was the insect chirp of a confident, if altogether delusional, woman reassuring her man. I laid on the floor and heard the faint sounds of "Love Will Keep Us Together" coming from the spinning record. Now, it should be noted that I hate that fucking song. And this was the first time I gave it my full attention without laughing and it was barely audible and I was laying on in an awkward position on the hardwood floor so I would crack the mixtape cases I had decorated as confused but eager teenager.

It made me think of all the previews I've been seeing for that new movie Going The Distance, which you probably already know is about a long-distance relationship.

And I'll tell you this: if that movie is honest, it's not gonna be funny.

That movie is gonna be two fucking hours of arguing. Trust me. I was in a long-distance relationship for almost a year. That movie is gonna be the guy thinking they talk on the phone often enough and the girl thinking it's not enough. Then they're gonna fight about it repeatedly because neither are willing to compromise how much fun they're having without the other person. She's gonna get mad and he's gonna get even and everything's gonna blow up all stupidly for stupid reasons over something stupid. The guy is gonna start drinking whiskey and eating microwave burritos as he's falling asleep in bed and then he's gonna have Pepto Bismol and some Tic-Tacs for breakfast. Instead of showering in the morning, he's just gonna make sure he's wearing a belt. If he can make it through the day without wanting to throw up or fall asleep in the bathroom, that's a win. If she doesn't get fed up with everything where she is, she wins for the day. Weeks will pass and she'll wonder what's happened to him as she's adventuring. She can't call, but she wants to know why he hasn't called. He'll think that's dumb. He'll tell her that. She'll spend part of her trip drunk at a bar complaining about the guy and then dancing until she's carried home. Without her, he's gonna start considering bike rides to weekend parties as formidable exercise and consider the act of drinking coffee is the most mature thing he could do instead of improving his long-distance trouble. She's gonna write diary entries complaining about the long-distance relationship and what it would take to fix it, but she's not going to tell the guy, who, in the meantime, hasn't seen the floor of his bedroom in some time. Meanwhile, she's going to bitch to her girl friends and flirt with other dudes all while the guy thinks everything is going fine, though if he were to organize his life enough to think things through, he'd realize how empty his own pats on the back are. Then, towards the end of the long-distance stint, silence works as a way of talking and the guy tries to get his life together by using less swear words instead of talking about his feelings more. Finally, she'll return home and everything will be perfect.

Is that really a movie you wanna see? Fucking...no. No way, right? My suggestion is to watch the first 15 minutes of the movie where they bone-down all crazy and laugh a lot (maybe somebody makes a European sex joke, I don't know), leave for a while to be entertained elsewhere (at the snack bar, the arcade or even another movie) and then comeback to see how it turns out, mostly out of idle curiosity. Go home and seriously evaluate the plausibility of that movie as you're doing something super awesome, like eating fruit snacks, and think about how lucky you are for not being in a long-distance relationship. Then call me and let me know if the funniest part of that movie is when they try to have phone sex and it goes all hilariously wrong.

Author's Note: I don't think this turned out as funny as it was in my head, but I was laughing as I was writing it. I look back on my long-distance relationship fondly and it made for some epic, beautiful, outrageously unreal stories. I certainly don't regret it, but a movie about long-distance relationship is like making a film about a couple in the middle of a divorce trying to stay together at the last second.