Yesterday’s Animals

This is a post-script to my post from two days ago about the animals I see on my long runs. Right now is an especially active time in the hills behind my apartment — late spring, as the summer heat is really beginning to come in (albeit inconsistently), in a year that saw extraordinary amounts of rain. This winter’s rains, of course, came after several years of historic drought, so many plants that went dormant to survive the drought are coming back with a vengeance. This means, of course, more food for the little animals, meaning more little animals, meaning more food for the big animals.

On yesterday’s run, an 8-mile run in which I climbed almost exactly 1,300 feet — over 100 feet per mile is a lot of uphill — I didn’t see any mammals except for squirrels. But the birds — oh, the birds! At the end of my third mile, I hobbled to some shade atop a ridge looking north out towards the Carquinez Strait. The wind was whipping up through the valley and birds were singing and it was peaceful. I stood long enough and quietly enough that the birds began zooming back and forth. They were gorgeous red-winged blackbirds.

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The Animals I See

Running is my favorite thing, rivaled only by writing. Running is when I feel sane, healthy, whole. It’s what lifts me when I feel down. It’s how I punish myself for my sins, real or perceived. It’s also my gift to myself; the endorphin glow is my reward for intense, personal labor. Like writing, running is a labor that I undertake with serious deliberation, doing it only (or primarily) for myself.

Running is how I commune with nature. Now that the rains are over, I can go back through the narrow path about half a mile from my apartment, the one that leads to the Shell Ridge Open Space. If my run is taking me far enough, I can follow the open space’s trails up and over the ridge, to the base of Mt. Diablo. I haven’t run that far in a long time.

Even if I stay on this side of the ridge, I can run high along the western side of the hill or low in the valley created by Indian Creek. Staying high along the ridge means I’m going to get blasted by the sun and have to put in greater effort over the big climbs. Flying low in the valley, I stay in the shade of the laurels and cottonwoods and buckeyes that grow along the creek bed, feeling like Daniel Day-Lewis in Last of the Mohicans. For a brief time this spring, there was water in the creek, but most of the time it’s dry.

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On Writing and Being a Cliche

Most cliches are cliches for a reason: Carrying the germ of truth, they allow a person who is creeping into cliche to assess the originality and motivations behind whatever they’re doing. We all think we are unique and individual, but as we creep into cliche we can ask, “Is this what people like me do? If so, why?” Or if you’re writing a character and they say or do something utterly trite, identifying this allows the creator to reassess that character and her emotions. How do we make this more original?

All of that, of course, requires a certain amount of critical introspection. Still, finding yourself slipping into cliche allows you to place your individual decisions into a broader social framework.

I have this on the mind because I am — like everyone is, in one way or another — a massive cliche. As a 30 year old white guy, of course I’ve written a screenplay. I don’t expect to ever be a professional screenwriter. In fact, that seems like a pretty disappointing job, hustling to get hired to do a rewrite on Iron Man 8 or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Now With Even More Turtle Power. Yet I do it, writing almost every day.

Why, though? If I’m just doing the same thing that so many people exactly like me do, why keep going? Why not find something that makes me unique?

The short answer is that it makes me happy. That’s why I maintain this blog, even though I only have time to post a couple times a month — and nobody reads anyway.  In my late teens and early twenties, I thought I was going to write the Great American Novel and wrote constantly. (That’s another cliche, of course, though the difference for me is that I actually dropped out of college to pursue it.) Sometimes I still fantasize about one of my screenplays getting optioned and turned into a Major Motion Picture and earning me an Oscar. Even if that never happens — and it won’t — I will continue to write.

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What Not to Do When Cooking for a Date

Earlier this week, my old Eater colleague and friend-of-the-blog, Paula Forbes, wrote an article for GQ.com called “Six Tips for Cooking Your Date a Better Dinner.” My first reaction to this was: GQ! Paula is among the best writers I’ve worked with, and it’s cool seeing Eater alumni with stuff in places like GQ. After that vicarious pride, though, it got me thinking about times I cooked for a date, and all of the different ways it went wrong. I could have used her advice seven or eight years ago.

The worst experience I had cooking for a date was when I lived in New Orleans. At some point or another, I bragged to a girl about my pizza. I make good pizza, and at 23 that was a rare thing. She was impressed. She wanted to experience this pizza. I imagine I said something like, “Totally! Let’s make pizza.” Though this was before Jason Segal introduced “totally” into my everyday speech.

The problem with making pizza on a date is that pizza dough takes forever, and it’s mostly passive. Not having Paula’s post to guide me, I was neither smart about the menu, nor did I prep like a fiend. I walked over to her apartment on St. Charles Avenue with flour, yeast, cheese, tomato sauce, and an endless supply of nerves.

I showed her how to make pizza dough: We measured, we mixed, we kneaded. Then it was time to let it rise. What, oh Lord, do we do now?

Because I was nervous and pizza takes forever and also pizza is a terrible thing to make from scratch on a date, I rushed it, not letting the dough rise nearly long enough. I gave this dough like an hour to rise, when normally I give my pizza dough at least two hour-and-a-half rises.

(This is where I’m glad that I’m surrounded by fewer food snobs than I used to be, so I’m less likely to have know-it-alls tell me my regular pizza method is wrong. This is what I’ve developed after 10 years or so of cooking pizza at home, so shove it.)

The dough was impossible to work with and the pizzas were ugly as hell. When we ate them, the crust was chewy and awful and everything was the worst. This was a bad meal, and this woman really knew good food. It was one of many embarrassing things I did in front of her over the course of our dating.

Paula’s fifth suggestion for cooking for your date is, “Let them bring something.” This date was at her house, so I guess she brought the oven. But her real contribution was that if I was going to make my favorite food, we would watch her favorite movie. So earlier that day, I went to the Blockbuster in Uptown New Orleans (remember those?) and rented Life Is Beautiful.

Remember Life Is Beautiful? It’s the 1997 comedy-drama that takes place largely in a Naza concentration camp, directed by and starring the wonderful Roberto Benigni. Benigni won the Best Actor and Best Foreign Language Film Oscars for it. It’s a really good movie. But it’s a terrible date movie.

Here’s this date in a nutshell: I sat around with a girl I didn’t know that well waiting for pizza dough to rise. I rushed the dough and made the absolute worst pizza I’ve ever had. When it was time to watch the movie, I sat down on her couch. She came over to the living room and sat as far away from me as possible and crossed her arms. Then we watched a Holocaust movie.

It was a very, very bad date.

Five years later, though, she and I got married. We never talk about that date.

The Writing Process

The creative process is a funny thing. Everyone has their own. I’ve always loved hearing or reading about other people’s, so I want to take a moment to record mine for posterity.

I have three different writing routines, broadly speaking. Which one I choose depends on the day of the week, how much free time I have, and how intensely I want to work. The actual writing process — the way my brain works and the little things I have to do to get it to work in the right, creative way — remains the same across the three routines, though the particular routine determines most of the outward markers we would usually call “the process.”

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A Running Report

On December 3, 2013, I began running seriously. And ran, mostly seriously, through March 20, 2016. For nearly two and a half years, I ran more than half of my days. It was glorious.

I know the exact day I stopped running seriously, because that was the day of the Oakland Marathon. I shouldn’t have run that race at all, knowing I was overtraining and had a very high risk of injury. After spending most of the race on pace to come in the top 10 (it’s a small race), I walked much of the last 6 miles and came in 26th.

A doctor charged me (or charged my insurance company, who in turn charged me) too much for an X-ray I didn’t really need, to determine my ankle wasn’t broken. Instead, it was Achilles tendinitis and acute plantar fasciitis, the second injury I’ve had that can be blamed on tight calves and my repeated failure to stretch adequately.

I did physical therapy. I stopped running while spending the summer mountain biking in preparation for a bike/camping trip in the North Dakota badlands. I got a night brace that helps my Achilles stretch out overnight.

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Book Report: NOTES OF A NATIVE SON by James Baldwin

baldwinThe best writers, storytellers, artists, and thinkers are able to draw a connection between the specific and the general. An essay, a film, or a painting might deal with a specific thing on a surface level, but in the hands of the right person, that

That’s the power of the movie Moonlight, as Soraya Nadia MacDonald discussed recently in The Undefeated, to take the coming-of-age story of a gay black man in the Miami projects and make it feel beautifully, poetically universal.

James Baldwin’s collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son (c1955, Beacon Press, reprinted in 2012 with a new introduction), has that same power. The book is a collection of essays originally published between 1948 and 1955, broken into three parts. The first deals contains three pieces of explicit criticism, assessing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, and Carmen Jones, the 1954 all-black film adaptation of the opera Carmen. The second part is composed of three more autobiographical essays, including the titular Notes of a Native Son that discusses Baldwin’s rocky relationship with his father and growing up in pre-war Harlem. Part Three addresses Baldwin’s time in Europe, where he started living in 1948, at the age is 24.

The essays in all three parts perform at least two functions. The first is the surface-level one. The essays in Part One, for example, perform the essential role of criticism, providing insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the relevant works. The personal essays in Part Two discuss the black experience in New York and, briefly, New Jersey and Atlanta. And the essays in the final section discuss the American (and, specifically, black American) experience in post-war Europe.

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