catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 20 :: 2007.11.02 — 2007.11.16


A decameron of sneaky honesties

Convictions are tricky: on the one hand, you can view your life through the convictions you have made in the past in order to hopefully define your future, but on the other hand, they come and go like brief moments, coming to fruition in a transplant of emotion, and dying just as soon as you decide to break them.  Perhaps the best way to understand your convictions is to analyze your life in long-term; where you are at, in the present moment.  The world that surrounds you, the people that converse with you, and the person you are: that is most often what defines you.  Those subtle and invisible objects that sing quietly in the background, totally apparent to others, but silent to us, yet it is those things which not only define us externally, but internally, and speak truthfully to those convictions which we hold dear.

1997: What Benjamin Franklin Said

In the middle of high school, not only must you battle with the ever-changing emotions and social strata that makes up that ever-so-confusing part of one's life, but if you were like me, you also dealt with the compulsion to artfully sculpt every part of your life so that you felt older.  The world is different today: kids with high-tech cell phones that not only are a one-button click to your mom or dad, give you driving directions from a space satellite, and keep a detailed calender at the sound of your voice, but when I was a child (not so long ago) all that was at my disposal was a piece of paper and a pen.  I went frenetic with Franklin planners, those intrepid and inventive devices which required you insert every part of your day into the delegated slot, and as a daily ritual, study and question your every goal in order that you may be more and more perfect.  Benjamin Franklin suggested the introductions of planners (in an official capacity) in his autobiography, and ever since high school and my prologue to the modern American culture of business (and my reading of his book), I have been obsessed with goal-setting and task lists and the design and function of small, pocked-sized calendars, and over the years, have switched time and time again, as if these little devices were magical elixirs that if swallowed correctly, contained the peach of immortality and the holy liquid of Christ's grail.

1998: A Grandfather's Legacy

My grandfather died before I was born.  I never knew him, though he always remained a phantom in my eye.  I searched desperately for him in my father, trying to discern smiles or frowns, the size of fingers and toes, and even in the random things he would say, I would imagine my own grandfather speaking, wondering if he existed somehow visibly through my own father.  One day when my family was cleaning out my grandfather's house to prepare it for sale, I wandered into his old office in the basement of the house.  The basement was a dusty, vintage place, with a record player, a browning and cracked desk full of frumpy handkerchiefs and erasers, and a coat rack in the corner of the room, shadowed by a heavy cabinet and a ripped couch.  There was a leather jacket still hanging on the coat rack, and as I took it into my hands, I felt for the first time, something of my grandfather.  Who knows it if truly was his: maybe it was a renter's, or maybe it belonged to my father or a friend of the family.  But nevertheless, at that moment, even touching that jacket gave me a sense of who he was: a quiet salesman who came home every night to a dusty vintage room filled with financial forms splayed across his glass-tabled desk, and removing his jacket onto the coat rack, would begin the night's work under a flickering bulb.  Romantic, but it worked for me.

2000: If Books are the Food of Love, Read on…

One summer on break from college, I discovered the beauty of used bookstores.  Or more importantly, a step beyond: the Friends of the Library book store, with columns of moldy cardboard boxes filled with cracked 25-cent books and the pungent aroma of tired old tomes and an inspiring fantasy of wizened gnomes (in this case an old lady) sitting behind a shelf, picking apart the words of some famous scholar with the teeth of her two humongous lens-widened eyes.  I spent hours browsing through the shelves, categorizing books by price, length, and the complexity of authorial intent (a geek I am, I know).  Then one day, I received in the mail a free book bag from the Book of the Month club: a rectangular green bag, with the elusive letters "BMC" on the front cover (which was way cool then, because being elusive was hip), and perfect (of course) for toting books around.  By the end of two months, I had hardened the soft color of my room and shortened wall space with hundreds and hundreds of dying books, as well as added an ancient smell to my house.  Books were stacked like pillars up the walls, garage sale bookshelves stacked against once open windows, and the flakes of book turning lay smothered on the carpeting, like fall leaves spread across a forest floor.

2001: Apertures and the digitized world

I grew up in a family of videographers.  My father had been a videographer ever since I was a little child, having taken up the trade when I was about two years old, and never changing courses during my growing up years.  I could remember walking downstairs as a kid to something that I knew inside would never change—the sound of my father's studio: the heavy breathing of machines, the glow of monitors, and the swishing of tapes as images flew back and forth and film was cut and added.  Perhaps it is in my blood, but I have always had a touch of madness for photography, and since I was old enough to actually know what I was doing, I have taken pictures and tried to be artful about it.  When I was in college, I finally decided to take action with it, and started to publish my photos online using a digital camera. At first it was awkward, but soon the idea of being able to delete and choose on-the-spot came like a natural gift, and though I found myself deleting more than I kept (something which I am still sorry for), the idea of then being able to upload those pictures onto the teeming multiplex of the internet was too tempting not to try.

2002: Being a snob and proud of it

As a little child, I hated reading books.  I had in my head this idea that among other things (like shinguards, dolls, and the color pink) reading was for girls, and I wasn't going to do it.  Then in fifth grade I found The Boxcar Children, the story of a group of kids who have adventures around the country while riding orphan-like in a train car, and realized that books could be fun, though that would be the extent of my reading. In junior high I found the Dragonlance books, a series of novels about a group of heroes who have adventures around the country while battling evil monsters, and realized that other books could be fun.  Then, in high school I found the Wheel of Time books, an even longer and more detailed set of books about a group of teenagers who have adventures around the country while battling Satan, and realized that I was finally hooked on books; so I gave in.  In college, I changed my major from communications and political science to English as my schooling was drawing to a close, and as I had bought into the whole industry, I decided to go all out and adopt relatively obscure authors and typically untypical stories as my heroic ideals.  Though sometimes my eyes do hurt because of it, most of the time this discipline not only engages me, but thrills me, taking me beyond what I ever thought possible. 

2003: A Stranger in a Strange Land

After college, I found myself with two choices of what to do for a job.  1) Go to grad school, and go into even further debt.  Or 2), get an internship with some company and start up the ranks.  I opted for the second, taking my English and Biblical Studies majors to the printers, and interned for a daily newspaper.  Although researching and writing was fun enough (once a week, 35 bucks an article), soon the idea of living out another two years of my life without pay, while typing customer names into a database and on special days, getting to hand out free papers to random passers-by, I began hoping for an alternative.  One came soon enough, and two weeks later, I was on a plane to China, heading out into the indeterminable unknown to teach at a random kindergarten in a city I'd never heard of.  It was a hard year, full of strange discoveries and intense personal battles, but in the end, it bloomed into full color, and still today, remains one of the most beautiful moments of my life.

2004: Among those memory palaces

In the early Jesuit missions, a certain priest went abroad to China to spread the word of God.  He was an intense scholar, and after a few years of living in China, he became extremely well-respected due to his mastery of the language using a  special medieval technique of memorization: memory palaces.  Basically, the student constructs illusory palaces in his mind, and fills them with people, couches, lamps, paintings, and so on, in which each concept stands for another particular idea that might be hard to remember otherwise.  An extremely useful technique that in Matteo's day was criticized by Erasmus as being magical and therefore, contrary to the burgeoning concept of Reason.  Nevertheless, for as well as it worked for Matteo and his earning of respect, it did little for me, and when I returned from China and decided to learn the language that I had lived in for the past year, I found it complex and murderous on my seemingly limited brain.  The characters were complicated art forms entirely different from English characters—and there were 10,000 of them.  Add to that a killer grammar which had no basis in Germanic languages, a tonal system which I had only begun to understand, and a culture that was nearly inaccessible to the outsider.  I took a Chinese course at a local university, worked at two Chinese businesses, and even after all of that didn't work, I took a simplistic community center class taught by a published Chinese novelist.  Still though, the complexity was overwhelming.

2005: That's a Novel idea

What attracted me to writing wasn't as much the idea of being able to tell a story, but to create a story.  The idea that the words you put down on a page have the power to not only create worlds of their own, but also to illuminate the world within you – that was too good to be true, but with careful practice and a steady hand, could eventually be accomplished.  Over the many years of which I've attempted to write (which I still contend that I try), I've begun and stopped nearly seven novels, usually getting to page twenty or so and then losing interest.  Although one day during 2005, I came upon an idea: truthfully, a strange and esoteric idea, but it stuck with me.  It was a world that could constantly change, that I could fill with strange and unknowable characters who the reader through carefully wrought transformations, would eventually begin to know and perhaps love.  It allowed for an infinite amount of creation, while strongly attached to the real.  It was my first novel.  The ideas kept me up far after I should have been, and appealed to every part of my being.  It was true, whereas all those others seemed mere mockeries.  And after those first twenty pages were up, I kept writing.  I kept thinking.  The creation continued.

2006: Those bitter leaves

The city was loud with sound.  Rushing motorbikes and booming trucks flooded the streets.  Firecrackers snapped the air in two.  Waves crawled in on the edge of the mind, and flushed with the sharp scent of salt and the cry of the birds, along with the busy shoppers, taxi honks, chattering of restaurant goers and screeching brakes, the clattering of dishes and the putt-putt of an electric bike, the heavy sound drifted on and on… and yet everything was quiet, perhaps for that first time that week.  It had been an extremely tiring week. It was supposed to have been a retreat, but hardly seemed like it, with the rushing back and forth from room to room, ideas splayed across the ceiling like madly thrown paint, and breakfasts, lunches and dinners scrunched together like a picnic sandwich.  But here in the teahouse, with the sound subdued from outside, the swish of tea from the kettle to the cup, and the soft murmured sound of pages turning, relaxation found itself a home.  I had never drank tea like this, and for some reason, felt like I never would again, not with the sound of the waves of Hainan gently behind as a curtain, or the glow of the fat buddha teacup holders shining from the South China sun.  Of sitting there peacefully, letting your worries flow into the soft music, chattering into silence…

2007: And so, there was a doctor, a journalist, and a salesman…

Today, I write in a teahouse, savoring the bitter taste of the ancient drink, listening to the cars drive by outside, their sound subdued by the window panes and this relaxed atmosphere.  I am wearing a black leather jacket, snugly hugged inside it from the growing cold of Xi'an's coming winter, and writing down an outline of my novel in a small, black planner.  The three men chatter away in Chinese, and I catch parts of their speech.  I am slowly learning to understand random conversation, which is a victory for me.  I've finally realized that in order to really understand, one needs to have words recognized with other words of a similar part of speech, and then if you understand the words in-between, guessing the unknown words becomes a much easier task.  I think about this in relation to my classes, although I do wonder how much of this I will retain next year when I launch into teaching English full-time.  I've go Pyncheon's Gravity's Rainbow with me, and although I would love to take it out and drown myself in his thick style, I worry that opening up my book bag might in effect insult my hosts, and so I leave it propped up on the couch.  I wish I could understand them, though so far I can only catch a few phrases in their thick Xi'an accent and lightning fast speed, and wonder how long it is going to take.

Like I said, convictions are a funny thing.  I can choose to claim my convictions lie in the absolute philosophies that at this moment, choose to lay claim to my growth, or by taking a long look at the briefest of moments, can sometimes discern within the pattern a deeper meaning.  The images themselves are a map to the soul, beautiful exactings of philosophy and belief in-action, without any of the esoteric mumbo-jumbo that my brain plays out in pride when I attempt to tell others ‘what I believe.’  Perhaps the one conviction that I believe I can truly have is that the memory lane of my life is the biggest telling of all—that only through knowing ourselves, can we know what we truly believe.

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