Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Happy Birthday, John Steinbeck

I love celebrating birthdays—celebrating my own and those of others. So my favorite writer’s birthday is no exception. But I never know how to celebrate. How did John Steinbeck celebrate his birthday? No idea. I imagine it was no different than how most of us do it: with friends and family, presents, and maybe some cake. I threw a Steinbeck birthday party one year and plenty of my friends joined me, but I suspect it was because it was something to do and there was cake. Which is totally fine, I don’t expect most people to hold Steinbeck and birthdays in the same regard that I do (even if I wish they did).

He's got a sea captain vibe happening here. Which is awesome.
Image from here

Maybe this year the best way to celebrate is to share some of my favorite passages from the man himself. Here they are:

To his son Thom in a letter (1958):

There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you—of kindness and consideration and respect—not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

On friendship from Sweet Thursday (1954):

If you love him you must do anything to help him—anything. Even kill him to save him incurable pain. This is the highest and most terrible duty of friendship. I gather what you must do is violent. You must first make sure it can be successful, and you must, second, make sure within yourself that you know you will be punished. It is quite possible that even if you are successful your friend will never speak to you again. That takes a lot of love—maybe the greatest love. Make sure you love him that much.

I don’t know where this one came from originally, but it appeared in a short TIME feature titled “People: Dec. 20, 1963.” It’s one of my favorites:

One of the laws of paleontology is that an animal which must protect itself with thick armor is degenerate. It is usually a sign that the species is on the road to extinction.

From “About Ed Ricketts,” a tribute to Steinbeck’s best friend found at the end of The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951). This can be a hard thing to acquire:

It requires a self-esteem to receive—not self-love but just a pleasant acquaintance and liking for oneself.

And finally, from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech (1962), a bold declaration as many of Steinbeck’s contemporaries seemed to believe otherwise (read the entire speech, it’s incredible):

I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man, has no dedication nor any membership in literature.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Alice and the Clown

About a year and a half ago I decided to explore the idea of getting a master's degree in French. Studying French on a higher level is something I've always wanted to do since learning French in Canada as a missionary. So I signed up for two classes at ASU: advanced French writing and 19th century French theater. While I loved both classes, my heart wasn't really in it so I decided not to pursue that degree.

In my writing class, one of our assignments was to write a short story using words from a word bank. I came up with a story called "Alice et le clown" and I posted it on my old blog about a year ago. Which was a bit useless because very few people who read my blog read French.

Earlier this week I thought I'd revisit that story and translate it into English. Here it is, "Alice and the Clown":

We arrived at the train station in Düsseldorf as the last train of the night pulled away. Alice let out an exasperated expletive. We met during my last year of university in London where I was studying European literature. The first time I saw her was at the library where she worked. It was in helping me locate a volume of short stories by Anton Chekhov when I fell in love with her.

But she didn’t reciprocate my feelings of love. Regardless, we he had become good friends and she accepted to grace me with her presence during a literary research trip for two weeks in Germany.

During our first afternoon in Berlin, on returning alone from a trip to a nearby cafe, Alice noticed something strange on the corner across the street from our hotel: an old man with bright lemon hair wearing a dilapidated pink clown suit from a time long passed.

Two days later, Alice saw him enter a store in Hamburg. Curious, she insisted that we follow him but in the store we didn’t find any clown. When she saw him the next day in Hanover she started to believe she was crazy. Finally, in Düsseldorf, after seeing him exit a cafe where we were ending the evening, she asked in tears that we leave immediately for Paris where her parents live.

Now here we are alone on the platform. Tears appear in the corners of her eyes and roll down her cheeks every time she blinks. She shivers from the cold. I know she’s not crazy but I don’t see what she sees. I approach her and hold her in my arms.

I've tried to write (lengthy) short stories in the past but with no success. I guess I just don't enjoy writing fiction enough (and I'm absolutely terrible at writing dialog) to tackle any sort of fiction over 1,000 words (this story weighs in at a light 283 words). So maybe really short fiction, or flash fiction, is my calling. Or at least a good place to start.

So here's where I need your help. I want to establish a word bank -- words I have to use in a future short short story -- to help inspire me. So please post a few words in the comments. Any type of word will do (except adverbs, I'm trying to steer clear of adverbs). I'll do my best to use them in a (very) short story.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

a savory cephalopod

Last summer I came across a recipe for grilled baby octopus. I've been wanting to try this recipe ever since so last Saturday I went to Mekong Plaza, a local Asian market, with my brother Matt and picked up a pound of baby octopus.

The octopus needed to marinate for a few hours before grilling, so during my lunch break today I came home to defrost and prepare the octopus. It was a really weird experience. Whenever I cook any kind of animal -- like beef or chicken (I don't cook much fish or seafood) -- it's usually just a portion of the animal and that doesn't really give me much of an idea of what the animal may have looked like. On the other hand, with these little guys (each octopus was about six to eight inches long), here I was handling the animal in its entirety (minus most of the guts which had been removed from the head). I gained a new-found respect: respect for the butchers and chefs who prepare most of the meat that I eat; but mostly respect for this small, delicate, so interesting sea creature, whose life had been taken so I could eat it.

When you're dealing with the entire animal, it's very hard to ignore that this was once a living, breathing organism. Nor should you ignore that, animals should be consumed -- if that's your thing -- with thanksgiving.

I posted a photo of one of the octopuses* on Instagram and I was sort of surprised by some of my friends' comments. Sure, I will readily acknowledge that purchasing, preparing, cooking, and eating fresh octopus is a bit gnarly. But I didn't expect very many of my friends to vocalize how gross they thought it was. Which is totally fine -- I get and respect that tastes differ from human to human. For example, I think bananas, a typically normal food by western standards, are gross. Perhaps I'm more open than most when it comes to seafood. I grew up in a family that ate seafood pretty regularly. And recently I've been accompanying my friends Jeremy and Buster on a quest to find the best sushi in Phoenix. So after sampling shrimp heads, fish eyes, monkfish liver, jellyfish, sea urchin, and more, fresh octopus doesn't seem so weird.

I'm only just realizing this, but I'm actually a pretty daring person when it comes to what I'm willing to eat. Which is awesome because daring isn't a word I would use to normally describe myself.

I'm not too interested in trying this recipe again. The payoff could have been greater: while the taste was decent, it was just too chewy (as octopus is known to be) and not terribly easy to eat. But it was a fun experience cooking and eating something new. Most of all, I'm grateful for the respect I gained for those who prepare my meat and for the animals whose lives are taken so I can eat them.

*Contrary to common parlance, the plural for octopus is not octopi. It's octopuses.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

of mustaches and transgender trench coats

The other day I posted this photo below on Instagram with the following caption: "If you want to start taking yourself less seriously, grow a mustache."

A few hours after posting I received a short text from my girlfriend that read: "so. mustache. tell me about that."

I responded: "Well, when I was at BYU--Idaho that was the only facial hair allowed. So of course I had to try it. So I would grow a mustache for the typical ironic reasons but also because no one else dared. [...] Anyway, there came a point where for me it crossed over from irony to 'I actually kind of like this.' I don't know... sometimes I feel more comfortable with myself with a mustache. It's kind of like, 'Yes, I have this awkward piece of facial hair and I don't care what anyone thinks about it.'"

== == == == ==

Do any of you watch New Girl? [If you do and you're not caught up, this post contains spoilers from the most recent episode.] If you haven't seen it, here's the premise: Jess (Zooey Deschanel) moves into an apartment with three guys -- Nick (Jake Johnson), Schmidt (Max Greenfield), and Winston (Lamorne Morris) -- after she discovers that her boyfriend has been cheating on her. Antics ensue. It's not always my favorite show but it usually manages a couple good laughs per episode. (That said, one of the best things I've seen on TV was when Schmidt pretended to be one of Mitt Romney's sons.)

Last week's episode opens on Nick modeling a new coat for Jess and Winston -- a women's coat that was delivered to their apartment by accident. Despite the gender mismatch, Nick sports the coat throughout the episode because he feels it gives him a new sense of confidence.

Since the debut of the show, it has been fairly obvious that Nick and Jess will end up together at some point. But until this episode there haven't been any concrete steps to making that happen. At the end of the episode, Nick is finally forced to give up his prized coat when its rightful owner, a female neighbor, knocks on their apartment door. Nick surrenders the coat and has a laugh with Jess about it outside their respective bedroom doors. Jess says goodnight. As she turns to retire to her bedroom, Nick grabs her by the arm, swings her around, and Nick kisses Jess with the passion of a season and a half's worth of sexual tension. Watch it here:

My friend Heidi compared it to Jim and Pam's kiss at the end of season two of The Office. Here, Jess and Nick put Jim and Pam to shame.

Since I watched that episode earlier this week, I've wondered at the writers' reasoning of including Nick's coat in this episode. The coat wasn't a necessary plot device, per se. Sure, Nick wearing a women's coat to gain confidence is funny and ironic but the story would still move on without it. But the episode wouldn't have been as meaningful without the coat. That coat was a bit like my mustache; it was Nick's way of saying, "Yes, I'm wearing this piece of women's clothing and I don't care what anyone thinks about it." That coat put him at ease and Nick stopped taking himself so seriously.

So then why did Nick's burst of confidence to finally kiss Jess come after he removed the coat? I don't know why or how but I feel like figuring out the answer to that question might be one of the keys to my own self-confidence. The coat was a crutch that would have hindered Nick from truly expressing how he felt for Jess. Yes, the kiss could have been just as passionate, but with that coat to lean on, it wouldn't have mean as much. It would have made the kiss, like the coat, seem like a joke.

Yes, I know, this all TV, and stuff like this doesn't happen in real life (does it?). But TV, movies, books -- stories, really -- matter. Stories matter because they give us a new way of looking at ourselves, a new way to relate to our world, a new way to identify and examine the crutches in our lives. And these crutches exist not only in love, but in all aspects in life.

So with that I ask: what is your mustache? What is your transgender coat?