Rubatosis

I have always enjoyed visiting new places and, more or less, living life by the seat of my pants, but I’m happy to to stop, breathe and take in the sights… for once.

I drove through Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California last month, enroute to Washington after three years in Baton Rouge.

Sometimes when I’m driving, I can feel my heartbeat coming through my t shirt. It is soft and rhythmic. The feeling is unsettling. My own mortality is gently beating under a thin piece of cloth, wrapped in a couple layers of flesh, cruising across state lines at 80 mph as semi trucks and other death mobiles weave in and out of traffic for 3,000 miles.

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Patriarchs and equestrians

IMG_2334This summer I had the opportunity to follow a trail ride in Louisiana. Being a native-born Washingtonian who’s only lived in the South for a little more than a year, the experience was one of the most uniquely Southern things I’ve ever done.

I pitched this story to the editor of Country Roads Magazine earlier this fall and had my piece published, alongside the images of a local photographer who has also been documenting the trail riders, Jeremiah Ariaz. 

There is so much to say about the trail riders, especially from my own personal perspective, but alas, there is only so much room to write in a magazine. My piece details the history and culture of the trail ride, how it has modernized over time, and how it is, at its core, a family tradition.

Traveling in the dead of July in South Louisiana (easily 110 fahrenheit or higher), I rode in between convoy of horses, golf carts and pickups, taking photos and chatting up some of the riders. The thing that got me about the event was how paternal the tradition was. As I saw fathers, young and old, riding alongside their sons, I was reminded me of going to “fish camp” with my dad back in Washington state.

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So this is what the crossroads looks like

The blues and writing about the genre; filling the hole in my life; my early musical ambitions; revelations in Louisiana; acceptance and understanding

A personal break through for me as a journalist (I think) came after recently speaking with blues musician Chris Thomas King, the Louisiana native and so-called King of New Orleans Blues.

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Chris Thomas King

I’ve known of King since he starred in “O Brother Where Art Thou” as Tommy Johnson, an early blues musician from the Mississippi Delta. His eerie and reflective rendition of “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” always intrigued me as a kid. When I was learning how to play the guitar, and when I was acquainting myself with the blues, I often did my best to imitate King’s sound. I never thought that one day I’d speak to the man.
Then again, I never thought I’d live in Louisiana, the heartland of the blues.

My interview with King comes at an interesting point in my life: I am 26; trying to establish myself as a writer; managing a newspaper in West Baton Rouge, Louisiana; displaced from my home state (Washington); in a committed relationship with someone for the first time; and yet I am still somehow lacking in some aspect. What it is, I can’t say.

I have a good life, but the things I once found fulfilling – even just a few years ago – seem forgotten to me. My “lust for life” seems like a forlorn quest, or just another unremarkable path to self-acceptance. Perhaps that’s not such a terrible ending, but I have a hard time imaging how I will ever reach that ending happily and at peace.

As a kid, the answer to happiness – or at least self-respect – was an easy one: music.

Since taking up the guitar at 12, I took the phrase “play till your fingers bleed” to heart. Although I never actually cut my fingers on the strings I damn sure tried. I loved my guitar. It was actually my dad’s guitar that he owned since he was about 19; an ember-colored Applause, similar in design to the Ovation guitars. I wasn’t very sentimental at the time, but I enjoyed the fact that my father was passing down the skill to his son with the very guitar that he learned on.

The guitar was huge for my size, but it was a point of pride for me. My friends’ parents bought them nylon-stringed guitars and cheap-o electric ones, but not me. I was determined to learn the hard way. As my friends quit after just a few months of playing, I stuck with it and I got better.

Music, and certainly the blues, taught me so many things about myself when I was growing up. My guitar was my therapist, my friend, and – as corny as it sounds – my first love. I could consult it when I was angry, lonely, happy, etc. I was constantly pushing myself to experiment with it.

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Getting comfortable

Photo Jun 01, 3 59 46 PM
A fried fish po’ boy from Couyons in Port Allen, Louisiana. Can you say “heart failure?”

It was about 2 p.m. last Monday and I hadn’t eaten much. I went to Couyons, just down the road from our office in Port Allen, Louisiana. It’s a Southern-style eatery. Nothing fancy, but damn good food.

I bought a $12 fried seafood po’ boy with a side of mac and cheese. I wolfed it all down in about seven minutes and was so stuffed that I barely made it to work.

I got back in the car (somehow), drove back to work, pulled into our lot, parked, left the engine running, cranked the A/C, leaned the seat back and fell asleep for about 45 minutes.

I’ve lived in the Deep South for almost a year, and I’ll tell you, it is not easy. But I’m catching on.

On moving down South

Louisiana wasn’t my first choice for moving. Sometimes I think I could have moved to Ohio, or New Mexico for that matter. But it’s not true.

Louisiana has a peculiar type of charm. People travel from across the world to visit and to see a truly distinct piece of the American pie. I’m really no different.

“The city is magic,” a friend of mine once said about New Orleans.

I believed them then and I still do. You don’t need to visit New Orleans to know that. A deep swampy force attracts a certain brand of people with just the right amount of curiosity and sucks them in.

But  for all its charm, it is still a new country to me. Everything is different. Living on the West Coast I could drive 1,000 miles south on I-5 and recognize almost all of the town names. I have no such familiarity down South. I’m lost in a tangle of state borders, “parishes,” highways and interstates, all weaving in and out of each other (but the roads – and the drivers – here are another story completely).

When I look out my window at night I can see the fluorescent lighting of Walmart contoured by three enormous white crosses in the background. Churches are everywhere. Some are falling apart. But then again, so are a lot of things, especially in the countryside. Forgotten buildings start to slip back into nature. Their roofs cave in, vines creep along their exterior and they slowly fade to an earthen brown.

It’s all part of the allure, every sensation, whether it’s the god awful smell on Bourbon Street or the weight of the air at a Highway 61 gas station. I came here because I wanted to learn what the mysterious South, which so many Northerners have vilified, was actually like. What better place to do it than in Louisiana?

***

I live in Baton Rouge.

It’s not my first time living outside of Washington, but it’s my first time really on my own and with nothing to cling on to. I’m like a crab without a rock, scuttling along, looking for something to claim.

There’s no college classes to attach to. No family or job to rely on. This is what people warn you about. It’s what some would call “the real world.”

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Horror vacui

Many artists throughout time have feared open spaces. The distance between the clouds and the horizon was simply too much for them to fathom. It made them uncomfortable when they painted it, the same way certain subjects leave a writer with a knot in their gut.
*
My girlfriend tells me this as we make our way south on Highway 101, fresh out of the Redwoods in Northern California, in her dirty red Mini-Cooper. She’s reminded of this phobia as she can’t bring herself to look out the passenger window at the all-consuming black mass of the Pacific Ocean, just a stones throw from the highway.
I can’t say I blame her. I glance out the window and it’s like looking into space. Silent. Black. And huge. I love Humboldt County and the whole Pacific Coast, but it’s not a place I can quite call home. As a Puget Sound local, I’m not used to the unobstructed view. I need some peninsulas, islands an rocky beaches.
We’re on our way to Disney Land. It’s only for a few days, but the four days of driving is supposed to be “half the fun” as they say.
I realize how different a thousand miles makes. For one, Lorde’s “Royal” isn’t every other song that’s on the radio (the others being Macklemore). But the freeway code is different. More anarchistic. Common law as a whole is different. Discussing pot in public is a taboo. Littering is a more serious offense.
I’m getting older now. The once-silly notion of “life decisions” is a very real and serious matter. Do I stay in the Pacific Northwest? Do I travel with my girlfriend to Arkansas?
*
The ocean only seems to get bigger when you drive down the coast. You drive faster, not knowing what else to do, but eventually find yourself in Southern California. The air quality sucks. The people don’t know how to drive. Looking out the passenger window at a horrible black mass seems like a century ago.

A late ‘Thank You’

This the second time I’ve been down south this year. This time I’m with my parents though. A couple months ago I was sucked into a family vacation with them. I say “sucked” because my mom guilt-tripped me into vacationing with them for about two months prior to buying my plane ticket. 

I’m outside of Orlando today. Yesterday I was in Freeport, Commonwealth of the Bahamas. We took a 48-hour cruise from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to the Bahama Islands for the Thanksgiving weekend.

I know I’m supposed to be Thankful for these sorts of things. I’m supposed to be Thankful that I’m an American, loaded with money, and that I have the ability to go on cruises on giant boats and eat and drink like royalty. But I’m not. Frankly, the whole experience is a little disgusting. At each meal you’re expected to stuff your face with buffet-style food. The majority of the people around you are drunk, upper class, smug white men. At every corner there is a another sale waiting to happen. Someone is trying to sell you a Bahamanian T-Shirt, a trip back to the islands next year or a condo in Del Rey. The music is loud and crappy. The drinks are weak. The people are trying too hard to have fun.

I miss Bellingham. I want to spend the long Thanksgiving weekend with a 16 oz London Fog and a list of books to read. If I need to travel I can take the bus. I miss the rain and the cold and the way people still smile at you when you hurry past on the wet sidewalk.

I don’t mean to get on the anti-capitalism soap box, but this Thanksgiving has turned into this same thing as Christmas: an excessive waste of money in exchange for a vain attempt at happiness.

This year I find myself Thankful for the things that I am without (and what a better way to express that feeling than through a blog?). I am thankful for the comforts in my life that I don’t express enough gratitude toward: my girlfriend, my 20-inch TV, the good cooks in my family, my parents’ loving personalities, their home, their dog, the city of Bellingham, Western Washington University (my school), the predictability of Washington weather and all the good people I have met this past year.

Thank you.

Memoir – “Paper Airplanes”

Hey there,

So this is a non-fiction piece I wrote for an English assignment during college in the spring. I would love some feedback from anyone. It’s titled Paper Airplanes.

 

“I go my ways
And when I find a mountain-nil
I set it in a blaze.
So either way
I’ll get into the garden,
and I don’t care what happens”

 by Linda Goodman

*

                How many times have you been here before? The same brick buildings, the same muggy spring air, the same unfamiliar road signs, “North Wall Avenue” and “Lone Elm Road.” Your feet are raw like sandpaper, your tongue dry like smoke; eyes swollen, head throbbing, stomach empty.

                 It’s midnight and you don’t recognize this town. But you’ve been here before. The orange lamp-lights are the same anywhere. So is the haunting suspicion that you aren’t alone. That you are a foreigner in this paved wilderness.

                You’ve learned to pack light. You make friends with the benches and cobwebs at bus stations. An old t-shirt lies wadded up and tossed amongst the cigarette butts on the oil-stained ground. The memory of another person lying in ruin.

*
                Everywhere was a snapshot of territorial expansion history, but fake, with a Walmart in the background. I couldn’t believe I ended up in Kansas.

                I left the barracks for Kansas City at 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning. The party from Friday was just dying down when I called a cab. Drunk soldiers stumbled down the halls into their bunks. Others tried to keep the liveliness going. One look at a McDonalds cup filled to the brim with cigarette butts, Grizzly chewing tobacco and alcohol told me I had to get out of there. At least for one night. I was frustrated that my life had suddenly boiled down to a fast food receptacle full of an after party witches brew. But everything about Ft. Riley was frustrating. The weather, the people, the officers, the work, the rules, the so-called “night life.” Every step I took got me nowhere; got me nothing. If could just get out of here. Of all the Army bases in the world, it was Kansas for me.

                The cab’s headlights shone in the early morning darkness. I got to Kansas City at about 6 a.m with a copy of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” under my arm and checked into a Motel 8. Legally, I wasn’t old enough to register a room to my name, but the beautiful dark skinned woman behind the glass screen fudged my age for me. (How was I supposed to know the age requirement for check-ins?) I opened the door to a dark empty bedroom.

                Most people are paranoid about the cleanliness of lodge bedding. Not me. I collapsed face down on the sheets, suddenly realizing how exhausted I was, and didn’t wake up until the sun was high.

                In the daylight, I could see I wasn’t really in the city, but next to a cluster of restaurants and gas stations on a freeway exit. I called another cab to take me further. I don’t remember the street the driver dropped me off at, but it was not the Kansas City I envisioned. A man in faded clothing was walking my way with his head down and his hands in his pockets amid the frozen background.
                “Hey, could you tell me where I am?” I asked – half expecting to get mugged.
                Laughing, “Where do you think you are?”
                “Kansas City,” I said bluntly.
                “You got an extra smoke?” I gave him one. “Thanks,” he said, lighting the cigarette. “You’re about three blocks south of the Power and Lights District. If you wanna find something to do, your best bet is to go up that way. Where are you from?”
                “Geary County.”
                “Well, there’s a lot to do in K.C. but not now. It’s too cold. Everybody’s bundlin’ up, stayin’ home, stayin’ warm. I’m headin’ to the library myself. I gotta get out of this weather. An old man like myself will freeze down to the bone.”
                “It’s pretty cold,” I said, not knowing how to reply to his library situation.
                I said goodbye and heard his voice trail down the street, rambling on about the cold.
                When I got to the Power and Lights District I didn’t even realize it. There was nothing there but a few clubs and bars, barely open, and some bright green and orange signs just lighting up before the sun went down.
                It was the pulse of an animal in hibernation, beating just enough to cheat death. The spiders own this city.

*

                Not all fires are bright, and not all are red. Some fires burn hotter and some burn brighter. Some burn in blue flames and some burn green. But a bright red fire is one that must be watched with a narrow eye. A bright red fire can torch an entire garden.
                A bright red fire can stir the atoms of a human compass to the very edge of combustion. The dial becomes a propeller and the directions become incoherent (Neast, Sest, Wouth and Earth). What was once a destination becomes a conquest. What was logic and order becomes anarchy, turmoil and madness. Victory equals self-destruction, even depression; the coming undone of the entire engine. Belts snap, bolts rattle, gears grind, pumps struggle, until nothing is left but the single weight of a metal core. Sometimes.
                Rinse fingers in water and flick. Let the drops beat the flames back (repeat until tame). This method will never put the fire out, but will ensure a controlled burn. DO NOT turn away for long.
                An unruly bright red fire can behave like a black hole. It can annihilate all in its path. Vitruvian Man armed to the teeth. It is an addict, sucking in all things that are hot and loud and burning them. Run away.

                In extreme cases: summon a monsoon or prepare a funeral.

*
                It was the first time being away from my company since I got to Iraq. I was going home on two weeks of leave. There were hundreds of other soldiers like me with the same plan in mind. The base we were at was a relay point for travelling soldiers; only really meant for a one-night stay at the most. We were assigned to a transient barracks that consisted of two thirty-man tents with wooden doors. Inside they were absolutely filthy. They smelled like body odor and had bits of dirty laundry scattered around them.

                Some soldiers joked about the tent. Everyone was tired. I threw my bags down and sat on one of the cots. The sweat in my boots felt like it was overflowing.

                “My teeth have that shit sandwich feel,” someone said. I licked my two front teeth in mutual agreement.

                I was too dirty to get comfortable and the prospect of “R and R” made me too excited to sleep so I went outside to smoke with some of the others. They were mostly low-ranking. There was one sergeant, but he was one of the “cool” ones. They all knew each other and called the sergeant by name, not rank. I sat next to pull-up bar made out of truck parts and listened. Mostly, they swapped war stories and talked about different things they were going to buy in the states: expensive liquor, tattoos, muscle cars, etc. I talked to them only for a few minutes and learned that they were all military police who had been deployed in Iraq as a type Army SWAT. They drove around at night in “black-out,” raiding villages, kicking in doors and arresting “insurgent leaders.”
                It was probably close to 0230 by the time I went back inside the tent. The only sounds were snores and the tapping of laptop keys. A gentle brown-orange that shone through the tent flaps woke me up – along with the sounds of Black Hawks and C-130s. Some asshole blared a generic rap song through headphones that were too small for such volume.

                When I got home I told mom and dad all about the transient barracks and how long it took for the plane to arrive. I hardly mentioned the war or the things we had to do. Sandstorms and IED blasts didn’t matter. My entire deployment was the sum of an uneventful one-nighter in an unfamiliar logistics base.

                “Mom, I’m telling you. It sucked,” I said as we left the SeaTac airport. “I will never complain about Delta or United again.”

*

                Maybe he walked down a scorched road in New Mexico. Maybe he was in Northern California on a wet forest highway at night, still feeling the effects of an acid trip from the night before. Or maybe he was in Colorado, going to the Red Rock Amphitheatre, with his right arm extended and his thumb out, walking backwards with the wind pushing his clumpy black hair westward.
                Maybe through all of this, he brought a guitar and carried it in his left hand – hoping that he’d get the chance to meet Jerry Garcia or Bob Weir and they could “puff one down and play some ol’ guitar”. He always hoped he could be a roadie for the Grateful Dead.

                Maybe he was really lonely, and the people he met simply came and went.

                The only thing that was a constant was the road ahead of him and the experience as it was right now. He was like the sea. He was placid and calm, deep and mysterious. (But he would later realize that he could be torrential, cold and wicked.) Certainly salty.
                In fifty years, he would lay in a hospital bed, literally bent out of shape, and remember his youth. “I was walking down the road with my thumb in the air,” he would say. He would remember when telephones only existed on wires and when people weren’t like characters from television shows. Before American consumerism was so obstinate. Before satellites littered the skies. When music could spark a real revolution, instead of selling a product.

                He read Kerouac’s “On the Road,” and there he was. Imbedded in time. With his back to us, and a future, brighter than his tie-dye shirt, ahead of him.

*

                Biology 105 was just starting, but it didn’t matter. All the cute girls and overly aggressive guys were miles away. We were cruising at the speed of light, stoned out of our minds, on our way to High Steel Bridge in Mason County, Washington. Teachers, parents, cops – authority itself didn’t seem to exist. It was freedom at its finest and it was in the backseat of a beat up red Saturn.

                The three of us didn’t talk much on that trip. We didn’t need to. Chuck’s hands were busy with the wheel and the stick, while I and Joe both stared out of the windows at the mountains and shirtless farmers. The towns were all small. Some were even eerie. Cemeteries, overgrown with weeds and faded by wind, were plotted along the highway. The folksy sounds of Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” played on the stereo and resonated through our heads the whole way there.

                We got to the bridge and parked. We stared down a 400 foot drop into a rocky creek, dropping paper airplanes and rocks until they disappeared in the white foamy water. Class was still in session at the high school.

                I wish I could tell you more about the trip. I wish I could remember the few words we said or what we did when we got back. But all I remember were those things we threw over the bridge and the whooshing sound the tall grass made on the highway.

*

                She is a horse whose hooves beat embers into the ground. Her breath is smoke that flows over the skin and caresses the shoulders.
                The amount of “I love you” and “I will kill you.” Just enough.
                She is sex and violence. She is a tornado in the sun.

*

                It’s 1 a.m. and the next bus won’t be here for at least five more hours. You lay down on the wooden bench and form a pillow with your arms. Your pockets are empty, your cell phone is dead, your cigarettes are gone. You are cut off. You stare up at the few visible stars in the December sky.
                You curse the night for doing this to you. You curse her for being so careless. You curse yourself for being so careful. You are a rock that has sunk into the deepest part of the ocean. The fish swim by with their eyes on the sides of their faces, not giving you a second or even a first thought.
                You make your way to the dock and stare out across the bay. How many times have you been here before? The same sand, the same freezing water, the same distant lights glimmering in the distance. Your feet feel like raw meat, your tongue is soaked in booze; eyes dry, head spinning and stomach caving. It’s 1 a.m. and you don’t recognize this town. But you’ve been here before.

This was essentially about certain points in my life from the age 16 – 21. When I was asked by my critique group what it was about I said it was about the strongest points of my life. Which makes sense… but at the same time the essay’s disjunctiveness makes it purposely confusing. It’s more of a collage of angsty memories.