This took me a minute. But! This time the pics tell you who the performers are. Small victories.
I have had some shit the last couple weeks. Literally and figuratively. My dad died two days ago. And a couple weeks back I was cleaning up a poop disaster and regretting that I encouraged the pooper to eat fiber the day prior. My dad was not the pooper. So, for now I have some pretty pictures from Garden of the Gods. The words aren’t here yet.
As a massive Kerouac fan, I was excited to visit Big Sur, the setting of Kerouac’s book of the same title. Kerouac’s epic descriptions of crossing Bixby Bridge had me captivated. And even though Kerouac was in the last stages of his surrender to alcohol when he wrote his last book, his appreciation for the natural landscape shined through all his episodes with DTs.
I thought I would make the trip to Big Sur during my time in Seattle. But my months there filled too quickly with hiking day trips, and work and personal trips out of town. As a birthday treat, Jeannine booked us a cabin there and some flights. Although I assumed this would be a trip I would take on my own, it’s clear I thought no one would have interest in joining me rather than a wish for solitude. The number of other Kerouac fans that I’ve known can be counted on one hand. And the intersection between close friends and Kerouac fans yields exactly one.
We flew into San Francisco for a couple of days. Since we have both been there often enough to have exhausted all the typical tourist destinations, we took leisurely strolls across the city looking for some delicious food and enjoyable parks. Food find of note: Tartine is not to be missed.
We declined the entrance fee to the San Francisco Mission, but the outside of the old church was anachronistic in The Mission and worth a look. We were lured away by the people walking by with free Noosa yogurt. Our desire to seek this out was admittedly silly. Unless eaten immediately the yogurt would have gone to waste in our bags without refrigeration for the duration of the afternoon. This low-key vacation was made for following random impulses though, so the Noosa distraction led to a street fair.
The only mildly tourist activities we engaged in were visits to The Beat Museum and Visuvios. The Beat Museum was, well, beat. It was rundown and lacking in much paraphernalia apart from a number of Allen Ginsberg’s photographs that I have seen reproduced numerous times. Yet I was surrounded by a period and culture that has fascinated me for much of my adult life, so I was pleased none the less. With Visuvios just kitty corner to the museum , it felt wrong not to stop in.
The AirBNB place that we stayed in was super. Matt and Jeff were lovely hosts. Give them a look if you are ever travelling there.
We stayed at a wonderful cabin south of Carmel. It’s a little ramshackle place tucked into the side of a hill, filled with color furniture and fixtures that captivated the child in me. After we hiked up the hill, we were treated to a couple of days in this.
What can I say about Big Sur that the pictures don’t? Nothing except it was everything and nothing that I thought it would be. It was just as intoxicating and raw as Kerouac described it. Like Kerouac I expected this pilgrimage to be a reaffirmation of the ways in which I am alien in this world. What a wonderful surprise that I found this place full of awe and gratitude and shared it profoundly with Jeannine, as though it was always to be so.
Since this song… Since Big Sur
I booked a photography workshop in Cuba nearly a year ago. I was fresh off my break-up and was in the process of dissolving what had been our home for five of the seven years we had been together. On a whim, I booked this trip, because once the house has burnt down the risk of drinking red wine on the white sofa takes on a new perspective. On a different whim, I moved to Seattle, so contextually speaking committing to this trip to Cuba wasn’t the worst display of my impulsiveness.
In the wake of the trip, I am at once annoyed and thankful for my impulse. It’s easy to focus on the negatives at the moment because I am right in the middle of a double ear infection and a sinus infection that’s been brewing for more than a week. I am on antibiotic number two, hoping this one will do the trick. I no sooner recovered from the intestinal distress that often results from an American gut abroad, when my slight cough and congestion morphed into the current three headed hydra of cranial discomfort.
I blame Cuba. That’s not entirely fair. I flew into Cuba after twelve months of very stressful things taking place in very quick succession. The break-up smacked into a personal melt down, smacked into moving to Seattle, smacked into discovering dislike for Seattle, smacked into my Dad having open heart surgery, smacked into a new role at work, smacked into moving back from Seattle. It’s a double-decker sandwich of stress. And to my body’s credit, it took it down like a champ. In spite of all the exhaustion and flights, I remained well through all of it. After my body did me a solid like that, I rewarded it with a trip to Cuba, a place where raw sewage runs through the streets and hand soap and toilet seats are only for the rich and famous. Ok, I still kind of blame Cuba.
If I had expectations they were that Cuba wouldn’t be that much different from Costa Rica. For both Spanish is the national language, and their standard of living is a bit lower than ours in terms of material goods. I am careful to stipulate that, because both countries have good healthcare for all, something we lack here. I expected that the embargo would leave Cuba at a slight disadvantage to the other Latin American countries I have visited.
This was not terribly far from reality. Buddhist thought suggests that the root of suffering is the difference between reality and expectations. This proverb adequately describes my trip. There were some unanticipated language issues, which really shouldn’t have been a problem, a point I will explore later. The lack of municipal water services was a surprise. But I was anticipating the need for bottled water, so that in itself wasn’t an issue. So far so good.
Our guide seemed competent enough in the emails. His fifteen years of experience instilled confidence. The trip was just under $4000. And for that amount of money, I had certain unexplored expectations about the quality of our accommodations.
Suffering enters stage right.The first thing that should have put me on notice was the hotel we all stayed at the night before the flight to Cuba. This was the place selected by our guide, and while he negotiated a reduced rate it was no better than the rate I booked on Kayak only a week later, the rooms weren’t included in our trip fee. It was a Ramada Inn. It was strategically right next door to a place called the Doll House, a neon pink bedazzled gentlemen’s club. It was clean and adequate, but I think its featured neighbor says it all.
Clean and adequate are excellent words to describe our accommodations for the rest of the trip. We all had roofs over our heads and bathrooms. Yes. All things beyond that were questionable.
In Havana some of our fellow travelers didn’t have running water for some time. We were staying in historic Havana, which was revealed on a unsupervised bus tour to also be the slums of Havana. Our travel mate had paid extra for a room to herself, only to find as many as four strangers in her apartment at any given time. I got a warm shower there … on the last day. At first, I was put off by the dribble of water coming out of the shower head. But after a couple cold showers, I started to appreciate that I had nearly the whole tub to lather up in, away from the dilapidated spigot shooting icicles in my direction. Since our fellow travelers were without a toilet seat I counted us lucky. I have long since cast off the burden of hovering and find it uncomfortable in my 40 year-old body. I haven’t the slightest idea how the retired folks managed it.
In fact in all of Cuba, finding a toilet anywhere that had the holy trinity of toilet paper, a toilet seat, and soap felt like hitting the lottery. Aside from the bathrooms in our rooms, we got shaken down for every bathroom use by wizened old women in front of bathrooms, and once their change bowl was satisfied they would respond by giving us three tiny rough sheets of toilet paper. This led to all of us squirreling away extra napkins and tissues in pockets and backpacks like refugees. After taking one look at the open sewers, and each of us getting doused with some unknown liquid coming from upper floors of the buildings lining the street (does no one look before dumping, *shudder* lets not consider what, off their balconies??!!), it became clear that we would all sorely need functioning bathrooms sooner rather than later.
Things improved when we left Havana. To be fair to our guide, he had booked hotels for us there but had them commandeered by the government for Obama’s crew. His visit also left us to plead our case to the Cuban police, when we were caught in a restricted area due to The President’s walkabout. After some very stressful moments trying to communicate we were escorted to our building.
In Trinidad, Kathleen and I shared a room that reeked of sewage, the only ventilation required that we open our door and the large window that lacked bars or a screen. It was the Sophie’s Choice of smelling all of Cuba’s shit or risk our camera gear stolen. We also traipsed through someone’s living room to get into the building behind that housed our room. But it was scenic and had hot water!
In Santa Clara, we had to traipse through someone else’s living room and kitchen. I enjoyed walking to the bathroom in my night clothes with just some bat wing doors standing between me and the whole family. But our room had a balcony overlooking the city square!
And then there was our feckless leader. When I asked him the evening before departure what type of dialect the Cubans speak, he said nothing while one of my fellow travelers answered. He commanded the floor for almost all of dinner. And he seemed to be wandering around topics in no particular order. Red flags, those things.
Turned out he spoke not a word of Spanish. His ability to communicate important information in a succinct fashion was non-existent. This would lead to us thinking him through talking and engaging in side conversations only to be reprimanded to pay attention. He proved to be incompetent at managing logistics. In each city, he told us our places would be right next door to each other. The closest we were the whole trip was a block and a half, leaving me to think Google Translate has a problem with “next door” in English to Spanish and vice versa. This was my private joke, until one morning at breakfast he talked about the ways in which Google Translate has failed him in his bookings. Finally, while he was a knowledgeable photographer, I think he excelled more at telling stories about Ansel Adams than actual instruction.
Because he spoke not a word of Spanish, I was left as the most proficient Spanish speaker. I can understand quite a bit of what’s said if the speakers are not particularly fast. This gives me troubles with Puerto Ricans and Mexicans. They speak faster than what I can keep up with. Cubans are fast talkers. This is problematic in and of itself, but the Cubans also drop out whole sounds in words in addition to cramming them all together like one endless parade of characters. I understood almost nothing of what they said. When I spoke to them, they understood me perfectly, which is a mystery considering my meager skills as a speaker. I haven’t learned my verb tenses. This makes everything happen for me in Spanish now. There isn’t any future or past, just now. I was deeply amused at my quest for mindfulness over the past year. There was nothing metaphorical about my now in Spanish, it was literally all that was for me. The universe, ever the prankster. Congratulations! I gained a new unpaid position of translator!
I think his lack of competence was more galling when we did a calculation of what he must be pocketing off of each of us. This was only exacerbated when he suggested that we tip our driver and our Cuban tour guides what would be the equivalent of one month’s salary, making our tips collectively add up to six months pay. We quickly surmised that those “tips” were the only way those folks were getting paid.
Even with all these problems, I am glad that I went. I got some amazing shots of Cuba just before it changes, rapidly. The Cuba that exists now will soon be bulldozed over to put up a Hooter’s and a Holiday Inn. The gorgeous crumbling architecture will give way to shiny new things that will become new symbols of excess. Shiny new things that will look just as tired and dated as the hotels there that were once shiny and new in the 50’s. I can only hope that in this time the Cuban people see some benefits from the money that will start pouring into their country, rather than watch, alienated, as wealthy people use their country for their play ground. We all know how that story will end.
It’s taken a year to forge a shiny new me, trifecta of snotty ailments and all. I hope I age better than those casinos. Enjoy the pictures. **I came back with hundreds and skipped entire cities in this collection. That will need to be for another day.
Amy Poehler writes about writing in Yes Please:
Everyone lies about writing. They lie about how easy it is or how hard it was. They perpetuate a romantic idea that writing is some beautiful experience that takes place in an architectural room filled with leather novels and chai tea. They talk about their “morning ritual” and how they “dress for writing” and the cabin in Big Sur where they go to “be alone”— blah blah blah. No one tells the truth about writing a book. Authors pretend their stories were always shiny and perfect and just waiting to be written. The truth is, writing is this: hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not. Even I have lied about writing. I have told people that writing this book has been like brushing away dirt from a fossil. What a load of shit. It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver.
Good god damn. That is the truth. I participated in NaNoWriMo last month. This is what kept my blog posts and Facebook status updates lean. All of the energy I could muster for crafting words was poured into writing twenty-five hundred words five days a week for four weeks.
SIDE NOTE for nerdy nerd nerds: In that quote she references the cabin in Big Sur that Jack Kerouac worked in toward the end of his career. This is the place I am going on a pilgrimage to in the coming weeks. This was in the plan before I randomly picked up this book.
The point of NaNoWriMo is to prevent the perfect from being the enemy of the good. At thirty-nine I am finally grasping the reality of this problem. I shall explain.
I made a sensible choice years ago to take a job in tech as opposed to design. After years of eating ramen to snag two degrees, I was in desperate need of creature comforts, comforts that are easily procured with money. With skills in both software development and design, I pursued software development to net a bigger paycheck and an assured brief job search. I could always go back to design after I avert the very real risk of scurvy.
Fast forward thirteen years, and I never went back to design. True story: eating ramen and sweating making rent sucks. I can’t say that I have regret. Yet, I have been yearning to stretch my creative muscles.
Two things mortified me when I started tentatively stretching those atrophied muscles in the last few years. First, I have grown afraid of failure, or perhaps more precisely, afraid of displaying my stunning lack of competence. The second compounds the first. I’ve spent fourteen years consuming excellent writing and music; I have a much keener sense of what good and, unfortunately, bad looks like.
I found these two gremlins in my photography, writing, and music. I spent years thinking I would find sunlight to melt them into oblivion. Instead years passed, and I created nothing.
Something caught my imagination a few years back when I read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. Bear with me as I will grossly truncate one of the key ideas he expresses in his book; 10,000 hours of practice is all that’s required to master a skill. What we often call talent, might better be understood as persistence and discipline in a given area of interest.
In the years since, I’ve come to see compelling arguments that some of his interpretations are questionable. I read the book just after it was published, so I didn’t have this information to discourage me. And for that, I am thankful.
I decided to blog. I decided to schedule photo shoots. I shared my photos on my blog. My discomfort with mastering my new camera body was on display. My utter failure as an editor is still there for all to see–just go to my archives here and select stuff from three years back or more. (I’ve probably let some typos through in this very post.) Since I committed to write about the BBC’s Big Read booklist, I had to write blog entries when the muse wasn’t there. I forced myself out of the apartment with my camera when I wasn’t inspired.
Something wonderful started to happen. I learned a habit that enables my inner editor–multiple passes of the same passages in different sittings. Sometimes in pass two or three I discovered that under my aimless, uninspired rambling was something worth saying. Sometimes the muse that left me adrift on the first draft found me on rewrite two or three. Shots that felt pointless in the moment only revealed their beauty once I sat at the computer editing.
And then there’s learning that can only take place in the context of experimentation. Over three years, I mastered my photo editing software. I started to know what could and couldn’t be altered later while at the shoot. My vocabulary has expanded, giving me more efficient ways to express myself. I know how to use a colon–sure I had to look that up about nine times. I got physically adept at manually focusing–and quickly–so as to not be victim to autofocus selecting the wrong focal point. My ear for good prose expanded. I’ve grown to have a sense of what lens I should use with just a rudimentary understanding of the environment.
At first, I couldn’t look at my work. I cringed at every sloppy mistake. But more than three years on, I see my mistakes less and my progress more. I see that the experiences of creating the work, writing or pictures was worth while in its own right.
And this brings me back to the perfect being the enemy of the good. The unholy mess of writing I did years ago, I can now see as the good. It wasn’t good writing. Yet the only way to to become a better writer is to write, and this is the good. The journey of learning to write well is the good.
I wrote a novel. It is not great. And that’s ok because multiple rewrites can solve for this. It’s good because I now know I am just awful at writing dialog. It’s good because the experience has made me a different reader. It’s good because I know something about writing now. I know that writing my way through a plot I know from word one feels dull even when the pacing might be appropriate for the reader. My mind moves faster than my fingers. My brain fumbles with thoughtful prose as I am eager to move the plot forward. I’ve learned that my inner artful muse really needs my inner planner to ensure all plot holes are sealed up. I’ve learned that I forget what the hell I wrote the day before.
And this was all better than good but less than perfect. It was great. Congratulations fellow NaNoWriMo winners. Congratulations me.