Personal Pieces postsThursday October 13, 2011
Dreams: Don't Present at the Academy Awards with your Shirt Untucked
A dream last night. Freudians, start your engines.
I was in a conclave of tables off to the side at an awards ceremony—backstage yet onstage—and was about to announce one of the awards. Was Ben Stiller there somewhere? I wasn't thinking anything of the task, figured it would be a breeze, but when I stood up I had problems with the flap of my fly—it was turning out, exposing the metal teeth—and trying to fix it I wound up pulling out my tucked-in shirt, even as I was being pulled toward the stage. Introductory music was playing and I was walking with Patricia and my name was announced in grand fashion. It was the Academy Awards and I was walking onstage with my white dress shirt untucked and slightly wrinkled. Would that look cool? Wouldn't that look...disrespectful? Worse, I couldn't remember what award I was presenting. What was it again? And where were my glasses? I couldn't read the cue cards! I whispered all this to Patricia in a panic and she calmed me and said we would get through it, but the walk to the lectern seemed to take so long that by the time we arrived we felt we were behind. The music stopped and everyone waited and I glanced hurriedly over the lectern, which was electronic, flashing different kinds of data, including something in the upper right corner about ... was that the award?
“And now, the award for ... ” I stumbled. “...sexiest...”
“... new male lead,” Patricia finished.
There was silence. It seemed wrong, what I'd said, but I clutched onto the hope that it was right. Then a film clip started, an older woman being interviewed about a tragic event, possibly the Holocaust, and it was over and we were backstage and I'd been wrong, and I was trying to both justify myself and sort through the enormity of just how wrong I'd been.
The Steve Jobs Speech; the Kurt Vonnegut Lesson
Steve Jobs' 2005 commencement address at Stanford University spread pretty fast around the Internet yesterday—the day after his death. My friend Jim posted it to Facebook in the morning, I put it on this blog shortly thereafter, beating Andrew Sullivan to the punch by a few hours. Wil Wheaton blogged about the same portion of the speech I did. Other friends on Facebook posted their favorite moments. Good for them. It's a worthy speech.
Jobs talks about dropping out of college and following his dream. Among the things he says is this:
Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it.
He also says this:
When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
Words of wisdom. At the same time, I felt slightly guilty hearing them. I certainly like doing what I'm doing—writing and editing what I write and edit—but it's not necessarily what I'd be doing if it were the last day of my life. So, listening to Jobs' speech yesterday morning, some part of me thought, “I wish I hadn't settled. I wish I'd been like Steve Jobs and followed my dream so that I could love what I did.”
It took a few hours before the other shoe dropped: “Wait a minute. I did follow my dream. I just failed at it.”
I wanted to be a writer of fiction. In the early 1990s I quit grad school and got a job at a Seattle bookstore, first as a cashier then in its warehouse, and did this for several years to support myself, while, with what free time I had, I wrote short stories, novellas, attempts at novels. None of it ever panned out. I could line the walls of my office with the rejection notices I received. Most were form rejections, but every once in a while I'd get an encouraging, personal rejection notice—once even from The New Yorker—saying that while the story I'd sent was good, it didn't fit in with their current plans, etc., etc., but please send something else. But the subsequent stories were never good enough, either. For a time, I even considered writing a story called “Something Else.” You wanted something else? Here it is.
So I failed. I think I failed for several reasons. One, my goals were high. Two, my talent was limited. And three, I was attempting to prosper in a dying industry.
By the early 1990s, few general interest magazines published short stories. There were certainly literary quarterlies everywhere, associated with universities, but the stuff I wrote was a bit too general, or silly, or straightfoward for this crowd. I wasn't doing anything new with language or form. I was just telling my stories with my minimal talent.
In 1999, several years after I stopped writing fiction (without really realizing it), I head the pleasure of interviewing Kurt Vonnegut for The Seattle Times. Vonnegut had just released “Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction,” his short stories from the late 1940s and '50s, and we talked about his early literary career. In a foreword to “Bagombo,” he writes about TV killing the short story culture that allowed him to flourish and become the novelist he became, and I asked whether he had foreseen this. This was his answer:
You saw TV coming in almost like a stormfront. Suddenly everyone was buying TVs, and the entertainment was on quite a high level, too. TV was a much better buy for advertisers than the magazines. The magazines had been very rich at one time, because they were the way to get ads inside a person's front door.
[But] what TV does, which we ink-and-paper people could never do, is give people artificial friends and relatives. Right inside the house. ... Peter Jennings really is a relative, and a charming one. Please come into my home any time, Peter.
The culture I needed to flourish, in other words, died before I was even born.
I mention all of this in case anyone else felt guilty listening to Steve Jobs' 2005 commencement address. Steve Jobs didn't settle. He did what he loved. Every morning in the mirror he asked himself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And he usually answered “Yes.”
Steve Jobs was talented, and tough, and he took the road less traveled. But he was also very, very lucky. The thing he loved to do was just beginning.
My Weekend in iPhone Photos
September 11th: Ten Years with Erik Lundegaard
All this month, the New Yorker has been asking the following 9/11-related questions of its writers and editors. I thought I'd give it a go.
Notes on Washington and the world
9/11: TEN YEARS
For the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, we asked New Yorker contributors to look back on how their work, and their lives, were changed. Here are Erik Lundegaard’s answers.
1. What were you thinking about, or working on, the day the attacks occurred?
I was visiting my sister in Detroit, thinking about the Tigers game we were going to that evening and my upcoming planetrip home to Seattle the next day, while reading Mitch Albom in The Detroit Free-Press in the breakfast nook of my sister's house. Then my brother-in-law, Eric, who had just left for work, stuck his head back in the door. “You might want to turn on CNN,” he said. “A plane just flew into the World Trade Center.”
2. Did 9/11 change your work plans?
At the time I worked at Microsoft, Xbox, “NFL Fever,” and 9/11 didn't change anything there. We were worried about sev 1 bugs not al Qaeda. But we did get security badges and parking passes. The folks at Microsoft were suddenly serious about security. For a few years anyway. Then not. You still see those parking passes on the rearview mirrors of cars all over Seattle: That person works at Microsoft, so does that one, so does that one ... They're like tags; there's nothing secure about them at all.
3. Are there places you’ve gone, or people you’ve met, that you wouldn’t have if not for 9/11? Are you different than you might have been?
I stayed in Detroit a few days longer than scheduled but otherwise “no” to the first question. “Of course” to the second question. I became disappointed in my country more than I would have otherwise. I've thought about issues of freedom vs. security more than I would have otherwise. A few years ago, I interviewed a San Francisco civil rights lawyer, Robert Rubin, and when I brought up the freedom vs. security issue he said the following, which has always stayed with me: “You see these studies saying people are ready to sacrifice personal liberties for security. It’s a false dichotomy. ‘Sure, I’ll trade your personal liberties for my security.’ No, are you willing to give up your rights? ‘His rights. I’ll give up his rights.’”
4. Is New York a different city for you now?
I have deeper feelings for it. Still hate the Yankees, though.
5. Is there one image or scene that evokes that day for you?
The plane striking the second tower. Over and over again.
6. What piece of work to emerge from 9/11 has stayed with you the most?
I recently read Lawrence Wright's “The Looming Tower,” which is deep and necessary history. I thought Paul Greengrass's “United 93” the best movie of 2006. But I'd have to go with “Man on Wire,” the 2008 documentary about Philippe Petit, the French funambule, and his high-wire act across the World Trade towers in 1974, which probably wouldn't have been made without 9/11. That's stayed with me. The doc and the image from the poster. The bravery and artistry in that act and that image. The celebration.
My Long and Winding Road to a Piece of “Twin Peaks” Cherry Pie
In 1990, I watched most of the first season of David Lynch's “Twin Peaks” at my father's house in Minneapolis, caught the second-to-last episode at my sister's place in Seattle, and saw the final episode of the first season about a month later, in Taipei, Taiwan, when my father (finally!) shipped it to me. You could say I was hooked.
Initially I assumed its locale was Michigan: all those Douglas firs and proximity to Canada, I suppose. Turned out it was Washington state, where I moved in 1991. For a time I worked at the University Book Store, where the diary for Laura Palmer had been bought by someone on Lynch's production team, and every so often I visited North Bend, the true locale for the show, for a hike up Mt. Si. But I never went into Twede's Cafe, formerly the Mar T Cafe, home of cherry pie and that damn fine cup of coffee. Hey, is that how the whole coffee thing began? Does Howard Schultz owe his fortune to David Lynch and Special Agent Dale Cooper?
Haven't really thought about the show much since, to be honest, but Sunday I drove out of Seattle early to hike up Bare Mountain, whose trailhead is approximately 24 miles north of North Bend, mostly on dirt roads. The hike turned out to be a bust. In the first hour I had to climb over five trees that had fallen on the trail, each one an omen; then the trail became so overrun with vegetation, six or seven feet high, that I practically needed a machete to keep going. I fought my way through one patch, then another, weeds scraping my shins and drawing blood; but when the third patch appeared, and I couldn't for the life of me see where the trail might finally rise above the tree line, I feared I was on the wrong path and backtracked, then wound up backtracking all the way to the trailhead. So instead of summiting on a sky-blue day, I had a two-hour walk in the woods and weeds. Not that there weren't rewards:
Driving back over the dirt road, I decided, in order to salvage some part of the day, to finally stop at the Mar T, now Twede's, to check it out.
It took a second for my eyes to adjust to the darkness of the restaurant. One o'clock on a Sunday but the place was bustling. A few booths were open but I opted for the counter, then opted for a burger and fries. So far that day I'd only had coffee and sweet things (trail mix, etc.), so coffee and cherry pie didn't appeal. As I was eating, I did something Dale Cooper couldn't do back in 1990: I checked my email on my smartphone and found a back-and-forth between Patricia and our neighbor Ward about an outdoor dinner party we were all attending that evening in downtown Seattle. Ward talked about picking up the ingredients for a peach pie; Patricia suggested she and I get bread or cheese on the way. To me, an alternative immediately suggested itself:
Two birds. We wouldn't arrive empty-handed and I could finally have my “Twin Peaks” cherry pie after all these years.
Patricia was initially against the idea. Ward was baking a pie, she said, so it seemed gauche, or at least territorial, to bring a pie of our own. Ward overruled her. “You can never have too much pie,” he wrote.
The dinner party overlooked Puget Sound. Drinks and food flowed. The sun set over the Sound.
But as the sun faded, so did Patricia. She'd just had arthroscopic surgery and was still in the recovery phase. In fact, the dinner party was her first night out. So we left. Before the pie. Which we left behind.
The next morning after the usual chores and ablutions—feeding Jellybean, showering, making coffee—Jellybean, now fed and sassy, was meowing by the door. We live in a condo but she still meows by the door to be let out into the hallway, which she thinks is hers. It's part of her morning ritual. And just try to stop a cat from her morning ritual.
When I opened the door, I noticed something on the floor: A white cardboard box. Jellybean began sniffing at it. I lifted it up and, yep, there it was, three-quarters of the Twede's Cafe cherry pie, which Ward, my hero, had brought back for us.
So after more than 20 years, I finally had my slice of damn fine cherry pie. And it was.
Now if I could only get me some of that grapefuit—freshly squeezed.