Desert Eskimo

Tourists can be a coffee stain on an otherwise flawless piece of art. We leave trash in beautiful places. We talk down to the locals. We buy a lot of plastic shit and cram it into our suitcases like nervous squirrels prepping for winter.

But also I appreciate tourists. A tourist has chosen to spend his/her money on an experience. They’ve put themselves at a little bit of a disadvantage (long flights, strange food, a pause on all the comforts of home). I appreciate the Japanese families and the Singaporeans and the Australians. They all just wanna see the sunset man.

After you know how vulnerable it feels to be a tourist, lost in a strange land, staring dumbly at your map, fumbling to open the door while a whole room of locals watches… real fast you gain empathy for people who are out of their element.

Tourists aren’t dumb even though they sure seem dumb. They’re just a cow in a tree, an eskimo in the desert, or a French King in a Mac store – taking pictures because they can’t believe the movie taking place in front of their eyes.

Kecak Fire Dance

Sometimes I witness something crazy and I think to myself, “that’s going in the novel for sure.”

This weekend I got to see the Kecak Fire Dance. The “Kecak” is a popular performance across Bali. “Kecak” is the sound that the men yell and chant with hip-hop enthusiasm.

While the men provide the A Cappella soundtrack, a costumed cast of heroes and villains re-enacts the basic storyline of the Ramayana, a sacred Hindu text.

It was a trip for me to watch this performance. Because I really did fall in love with the Ramayana when I read it back in college. When I signed up for the fire dance I just thought I’d see some guys tossing flaming sticks around. I didn’t know what I was getting into. Then as I watched the performance I started to recognize some of the scenes and characters: Prince Rama shooting the golden deer, the Princess Sita being lured out of safety by a demon disguised as an old beggar, and later placing a flower in the hair of the monkey god Hanuman.

I did more research as soon as I got home, and I learned that the performance itself was created by a German artist in the 30’s. Apparently Walter Spies traveled to Bali and he said, “Holy Scheiße”  this story’s got money-making potential. What he saw was the original Kecak trance ritual performed in the Hindu tradition by the local Balinese. He took the chant and the themes and adapted them into a dance performance.

Today the Kecak is performed all around bali. If you visit an old temple you can usually pay $5 or $10 for the one hour show. This is a fascinating example of what is referred to as the “modern art-culture system” – when Western Culture adopts non-western cultural elements and transforms them into art.

Also known as the “when white guys monetize non-western shit instead of inventing their own stories” system.

I went full Nerd on this performance because these days I’m in story writing mode. It was strange, mystical experience for me to watch a Hindu myth re-enacted in a language that I couldn’t understand, and realizing that I could still identify with the universal themes and tropes: the hero, the mentor, the princess that symbolizes innocence, the demon in disguise (wolf in sheep’s skin), the “all-is-lost” moment, the climactic battle, the “hero-at-the-mercy-of-the-villan moment.” Just to name a few. It’s time to re-read the Ramayana.

Writing a Novel

Working at Dojo Bali in Canggu

This picture won’t make any Top-Ten Instagram lists.

The lighting is bad. The subject is unclear. I’m drinking shitty insta-coffee (no designer mocha) and I haven’t stopped sweating in 72 hours.

There’s one main reason that I’m here in Bali: I’m here because I heard somebody say, “the best way to be a starving artist is to lower your monthly bills.”

My only goal for 2017 is to finish my novels. I’m currently writing a fantasy series that will consist of either 3 or 4 novels.

My story doesn’t have any Elves or Dwarves, but it does have strange cultures, magic, sorcery, sword-fighting, ships, hallucinogenic drugs, talking animals, murder, mystery, slavery, inns at the end of the world, heroes and villains and enigmatic mentors. My story has a cast of protagonists, like Harry Potter, and a world map for reference, like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones.

My plan is to self-publish my series on Amazon. The books will be available as print books, and mostly as ebooks that you can read on your phone. They’ll be affordable – maybe $1.99 a piece. Novel#1 should be finished in February; I’ll be sending the final draft off to the editor at the end of January. But I won’t release #1 until the whole series is finished. My goal is a summer release – June or July of 2017.

So here’s to the new year. 2017 you’re nothing special. You don’t have badass symmetry to your name like 2000 or 2020 or even 2012. But if you’re the year that I become an author – and I really think you are – then you’ll always be the year I love.

One Step Ahead

summer in january

It’s Friday man and I’m still half young. Two things worth celebrating in 2017.

This is how I look after two hours of Muay Thai training. Now matter how whiny I wake up feeling, how stuck, how full of self-loathing… I’ll always be smiling and skipping by the end of a good workout.

There’s something about movement that directly combats the feeling of stagnation. Depression is a kind of stagnation (nothing is changing, nothing is getting better, nothing seems to help). Physical movement takes that snow globe world where nothing ever changes, flips it on it’s head and sends an army of serotonin snowflakes to sparkle your city towers.

We all experience depression, minor or major, daily or weekly. But I’ve never once felt depressed during a backpacking trip.

I don’t know what the doctors say and anyway, I don’t trust them as much as I trust myself. I can distinguish some very clear patterns if I look back on my life with an objective eye.

When I was trail-running in Alaska this past summer, I quickly learned that I had to stay in a constant state of motion, otherwise I’d get blanketed by bitch-crowd of mosquitos in no time.

Depression is a buzzing black cloud of mosquitos. No amount of sitting and swatting will make them fly away. The universe is yelling over the megaphone that I need to move. I need a change and I need it fast.

Patterns Within Patterns

bali rice fields

It takes a damn good Villain to sustain a lengthy series. Petty criminals can be tracked and detained within the space of an episode, but a Voldemort or a Darth Vader can push your hero to the brink.

Arguments about what people should or shouldn’t do only distract from the reality of what people are actually doing.

Life is what happens from 9 to 5. Evenings and weekends are just commercials that break up the regularly scheduled program.

You can fake love, wealth and happiness, but you can’t fake fitness.

All I have to do to become a poet is read every poem ever written, starting with Homer.

What people/characters want is usually very different from what they need.

Life imitates life. The start of a new year is like the first flowers after a bitter winter, which is like a fiery sunrise after a moonless night, which reminds us of birth, which is like waking up after a long nap, which feels like forgiveness, finite youth, and limitless possibility.

Giant Kangaroos

Did you know that 15,000 years ago the American West looked like the plains of Africa?! Lions and cheetahs chased herds of horse and elephant. Camels and giant ground sloths moped around the flat lands. Imagine the American West looking like the Serengeti.

Of course that all changed when Homo Erectus arrived on the scene. We have a pretty predictable habit of elbowing all the other mammals up into the mountains.

Right now I’m on the island of Bali in Indonesia, and around here there’s no room for large mammals like Buffalo or Elephants. However, they do have Komodo dragons, which I haven’t seen yet but plan to. I can’t miss out on my only chance to see real live dinosaurs.

And this part of the world has a remarkable history of exploration and colonization.

Long before humans made it into Alaska and down into North America (around 12,000 years ago), they had already island hopped their way from Asia to Australia (around 40,000 years ago).

THOSE guys were badass. They were some of the first to develop watercraft and explore the uncharted oceans. Essentially they island hopped – from West to East – all the way across to Australia. It was a golden age of successive human population explosions. And what’s crazy is that Australia would not have been visible from where the explorers set out, which means they were just going, casting off into the sea with no idea if they’d find another island, no idea if they’d row off the last cliff of the universe.

And when they reached Australia, they found giant kangaroos, giant pythons, land-dwelling crocodiles, 400 pound ostrich-like birds. Can you imagine? All of these creatures just walking around. And the craziest part is that the animals probably weren’t scared of humans, simply because they had never seen us before. We just showed up. How could they have known?

It’s easy to mourn the loss of a world we’ll never go back to (I’d be a fool to want to live back then). But I’m grateful that I have leaned against a 2,000 year old sequoia giant. I’m grateful that I have seen the bear and moose and mountain goats, the wild oceans and the Himalayas and man’s marvelous skylines from the vantage point of an airplane window.

The Vita-mix universe tosses the earth around on it’s geological spin cycle. I’m living in a polaroid snapshot of a curious events. I’ve got history books that help me see the past, Sci-Fi books written by insanely smart minds that help me see the future, and a 15 minute yoga practice that helps me slow down and discover where on earth I’m actually standing.

More Magic

 

Campuhan Ridge Walk in Ubud, Bali

7 million years ago, African Apes are branching into four different groups: Gorillas, Chimps, Bonobos and Humans.

4 million years ago humans are walking upright like a bunch of silly wankers.

1 or 2 million years ago Homo Erectus is found in SE Asia. The “Java Man” has literally walked out of Africa and into Europe and Asia. Holy shit! And I call myself an explorer when I fly to Paris, book a hotel, and ride the elevator up the Eiffel Tower.

200,000 years ago these Homo Erectus guys are starting to look like me. If one of those guys got a haircut and put a jacket on, they’d be able to watch Star Wars at the cinema today without causing too much trouble.

50,000 years ago, give or take, you have the sudden “Great Leap Forward.” People go from using crude stone tools to painting in caves and sewing with bird-bone needles. By 13,000 years ago we’ve populated all of the main continents except for Antarctica.

How weird that we were the ones to populate the world, and not the Apes or the Chimps or the Bonobos who all, at one time, crouched at the same exact starting line and waited for the same exact whistle to blow.

One of my favorite explanations for how humans covered the globe comes from E.O. Wilson’s book: Social Conquest of Earth. For the all the concepts that flew over my head, the one that stuck with me was “Eusociality.” It’s a biological term for a species that has an advanced social system. Ants are the poster boys for an Eusocial society. They divide labor, cooperate, store away food, look after the young. Like us, Ants have successfully spread to all the earth’s continents. (Except Anartica but who cares.)

At some point humans stopped being solo hunters and we started sitting around the fire. Some of us cooked while others hunted and others set up camp. Women were able to have more than one child, and children had more than two parents. The fire was synonymous with home; we’d leave for a time, but we’d always return to the fire. We laid awake looking at the stars. Nobody told us what was out there, what flew around up there in the cosmos, so we invented our own mythologies and passed them around the fire. The stars were brighter, the nights were longer, and there was a lot more magic back then.

Fear is the Mind-Killer

Dune by Frank Herbert

I found my “2017 New Year Credo” hiding in an old science fiction novel. It startled me last week like a stray cat on my doorstep, and now I’ve decided to take it in and make it mine.

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

-From the novel Dune by Frank Herbert

Every time I publish something into the universe, I score a victory in the creative arena. Fear is the six-armed ogre who obliterates me by freezing me into inaction.

If I say, “I’ll create tomorrow,” then I lose. If I say, “I’ll improve my skills before I publish,” then I lose. Choosing not to enter the contest is the most popular way to lose. But I know what I’m capable of. And I know that all of my scary excuses are really just white bedsheets with eye holes cut in ’em.

There’s only one way to win in the creative arena. It’s time-tested, it’s simple, and it’s solid as a cinder block: Call it good. Publish it. Move on to the next.

How to Make a Character

pengubengan road

The boxcar full of innocent people is hurtling toward the cliff. Superman wants to save them but WAIT! Lois Lane is on the cutting board, the laser inching closer and closer to her exposed neck. What’s it gonna be Superman – your love or your duty?

Everyone pretty much agrees about life’s core values. Is FAMILY important? Yes. Is GOOD WORK important? Of course. What about SOCIAL JUSTICE? What about PERSONAL HEALTH?

Yes yes yes. There’s not much room for debate here. We all nod, love and truth amen.

But a novelist tortures his characters by making them choose one value over the other. It starts to get interesting when you ask someone, “which value is more important – FAMILY TIME or PERSONAL HEALTH?”

Superman usually figures out how to succeed in both. But us regular people have to decide: should I take the money job that requires me to work 12 hour days? Should I skip the gym membership so I can spend evenings with my grandparents in the nursing home?

These decisions always hurt. They differentiate you from the people around you. These decisions are the structural support beams for the building that is your Character.

The Value of Advice

sparring session

Life Advice is not only cheap, it’s bad for the environment. Seagulls are always getting their innocent little necks tangled in the plastic trash of ill-given advice.

The highest form of advice is autobiography; one person shares what worked/didn’t work for them. But even if the advice giver is 100% honest (not likely), and the advice recipient is actually listening (not likely), the chances are still astronomically small that my advice sweater will fit perfectly over your shoulders. Nothing about success is “one size fits all.”

Investigating 100 paths yourself is far better than following someone else’s road.

I’m talking about going straight to the primary sources. None of that third party crap. I’m talking about academic research, the god blessed scientific method of experimentation.

If I stick exclusively to one sport, one city, one job, one restaurant… how many potentially richer futures am I missing out on?

Every day I murder a new version of myself. If I choose to turn left, then I’ll never know the future of the guy who turned right. Life is the first draft of a novel that you’ll never get to revise. Every decision deserves to be weighed carefully on the scale of justice.

Once recent example… I never would have thought to try martial arts because none of my friends and family were into it. But now I’m thankful that I did throw my effort into boxing/wrestling/grappling. The same principle holds true for other parts of my life, and it just makes me wonder what else is out there waiting around the corner.