Someone told someone else I was an artist. This person did this right in front of me. It was a matter-of-fact declaration. It was an introduction: my introduction to another person was a statement of my name, and the plain-spoken fact that I am an artist.
“This is Tim. He is an artist.”
I don’t want to sound like I’m boasting, so I won’t tell you who the person is, and who the person was telling that I was an artist. I will say that the recipient of the information did not ask me, “What kind of art do you make?” The recipient merely looked at me with respect: this is the sort of person who conveyed the information. The person saying I was an artist is a person I have known for many years. The plainness of the conversation humbled me.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it for a while. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t flatter me. It flattered me that someone I knew was an artist told another person I knew was an artist that I was an artist. What did not flatter me was the surprise: I did not like how it had surprised me. The conventional idea is that artists find popularity after they die; here I had learned that someone had considered me an artist for a decade without my awareness of that impression. If I wrote down examples explaining my behavior and attitude for the ten years I knew this person who would call me an artist, you’d only need elementary arithmetic to prove I had simply been “horrible”. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure; one person’s horrible is another person’s artist.
Today, while eating Sunday breakfast with three friends at my favorite little restaurant (Pepples Donut Farm in Oakland, California), I remembered that this someone told someone else six months ago that I was an artist. At the same time as I remembered this, I remembered the following other stories. I’m going to write these stories as separate pieces. Let’s see if they make art.
My recent hobby is self-interrogation.
I’ve been “interviewing” my ancient self. I choose a day; I ask myself, “What happened that day?” I try to write what happened that day. I try to write these sentences as the truth. Ernest Hemingway was correct when he described the challenge of writing a “true sentence”. He lusted after single true sentences. That’s why his sentences are so short. I’m sure the habit ruined his psychology. True sentences, unfortunately, do not beget true paragraphs. If I step outside on a summer day, many things occur to me at once:
The sun is hot. The sky is blue. The sun is yellow.
The sun is yellow. The sky is blue. The sun is hot.
You can’t write at the speed of feeling. What you’re doing, when writing The Truth, is making lists. You then need to employ subjectivity to determine which sentence comes first. This needn’t be Your Problem. It is, however, Hemingway’s Problem, and it is (lately) My Problem.
Part of my life ended four years ago. A new part of my life began three years ago. I’ve touched upon the lost year in numerous conversations over the past three years. Each conversation is a drop in a bucket. Late last year, in Naperville, Illinois, the bucket was full. I learned that the story I’d lived in the summer of 2010 in Hawaii was important enough to me to be important to other people, if I told it in True Sentences. I learned that if I wrote this story as a cascade of True Sentences, I’d achieve an essential knowledge of myself. Writing it will answer and simultaneously mathematically prove the answers to all my scariest questions. I knew I wanted the answers to these questions. So I began to interview my memories. I realized that my brain was mostly memories. I realized I’m “getting old”. I’ll be thirty-five in a month.
I write on Sundays. I wake up at six in the morning. I put on clothes. I type. I type until ten-thirty. At ten-thirty, I put on my socks and jacket. I get in my car. I drive to the Pepples Donut Farm in Oakland, California. I meet my friends. We eat breakfast. During these breakfasts, I remember nothing of the writing. I’ve been doing this every Sunday since the beginning of January. I’ve written 25,000 words so far. I suppose I am half finished. A text analysis tells me that the book is on a fourth-grade reading level. I’m impressed that I’ve been able to write that many words of short sentences. The writing is painful. It’s slow. Every sentence connects directly to a minute sensory memory. If on accident I scroll upward to read earlier words, I see that the dull, boring activity of plugging words into this thing has, to my surprise, yielded delicious, interesting, darkly humorous writing. So there it is: if I distill my life to words and I filter those words through math, my life’s genre is “dark comedy”. I suppose I am not alone.
The book’s current title is “a conspiracy of miracles”. It’s about Hawaii. Specifically, it’s about three people I met in Hawaii. Mostly, it’s about one of those three people.
I wrote for four hours before today’s breakfast. At shortly before ten-thirty, I checked my phone to see if my friends might be having last-second scheduling difficulties. It turned out everyone was running on-time. I noticed I had an Instagram notification. One Hour Ago, someone had liked a photo of mine. I opened the photo, to see which one it is. (This is a normal human reaction, and this is why social networks work: “Someone liked something I did; let’s see what it is I did, so that I can do more things like it.”)
It was a photo of my face. Thursday, I’d taken two photos of myself: one immediately after running three miles, and another immediately after showering and shaving. In one photo, my hair is dripping with sweat and my face is dirty with stubble. In the next photo, my hair is clean and I look ten years younger.
The like had been of the “after” photo. The liker (“liker” is Instagram’s word, by the way, and it’s an amazing word) had been The Girl I’d Just Spent Four Hours Writing About.
Five or ten years ago, this feeling would have not existed. A hundred years ago, we’d have had no context for explaining this feeling. Hemingway didn’t have to deal with this. I’m sure Hemingway would have been a worse writer if he’d had to deal with this.
Pepples Donut Farm was playing surf rock music that day. A song came on which reminded me of Hawaii.
“You want to know what is a weird feeling to have?” I asked my friends. It was a selfish phrasing. They couldn’t possibly say “No”. One of them said something like “yes”. I told them what I just told you.
Someone shot someone else on the street in front of my house on a weekday night. The shooting had occurred at the intersection of Linden and 43rd. That’s less than a hundred feet from my home / office’s front door. I heard six gunshots. I stood up. I latched the door.
“Those were gunshots,” I told Action Button Entertainment programmer Michael Kerwin.
He didn’t ask me if I was sure.
“Sometimes you hear someone drop a heavy piece of wood, and it sounds like a gunshot. That was not a heavy piece of wood. That was six gunshots.”
Two minutes passed. A police vehicle arrived. Many more police vehicles arrived. They filled up the street. They blocked 43rd Street at Adeline to the west and Market to the east. We peeked out the curtains every few minutes. Every police vehicle had its red lights spinning.
A police officer knocked on my door. I answered. I know smart people don’t talk to the police most of the time. I don’t know why I answered the door. It was a lady police officer. She asked if I heard anything. I said I heard six gunshots. She asked, “Six?” and I replied, “Yeah, I have good rhythm.” I don’t think she noticed it was a joke. I felt bad for making a joke.
Two days later, I heard a car parking outside. I was expecting someone. I had already opened the door. It turned out to be a police car.
“Hey, I didn’t even have to knock,” he said. The shooting had happened two days ago; the mood for jokes had returned.
“I thought you were Fed Ex,” I said.
“One of our officers talked to you the other night. Would you mind telling me what you told the officer?”
“I said there were six shots,” I said. “One shot, and then a burst of five. It sounded like the same gun. So — six shots. Am I right? Was it six shots?”
The police officer smiled. “It was one shot and then a burst, yes.”
“So,” I said, getting a little bit serious, “just, you know, out of curiosity, seeing as I go outside after dark from time to time — what, uh, are you able to tell me about what happened?”
“There was a shooting.” He showed me his palms — a pen folded between his right thumb and forefinger — “Don’t worry. The victims survived.”
“Yeah — yes, it is. We just thought we’d come back around and ask if anyone heard or saw anything. The victims were being uncooperative.”
The police officer’s voice descended into perfect friendliness. “Well, they were like, ‘I just heard some gunshots and I looked down and was like, whoa, I’ve been shot.'” The police officer shook his head once to the left and once to the right. “That’s just not how people get shot.”
I instantly liked that phrase. It stuck into my brain.
“‘That’s just not how people get shot.'”
Days of recollection would allow me to interpret a silent “these” before “people”. I hypothesize this violence possesses relation to a gang.
“Anyway, I just thought I’d leave a phone number, in case anything comes up. In case something else happens near here and you happen to see anything. I’m part of the investigation of this, so — so this here is my number. And here’s this.”
He handed me a goldenrod twice-folded piece of construction paper. It was a simple pamphlet. On its front was a monochrome graphic of a police badge and the words “If you SEE something, SAY something!”.
I remembered a joke my friend Hali had made months earlier.
“A man in an airport sees a sign. ‘If you see something say something’. The man looks around, he sees a suitcase. ‘Uhh’. He looks around, sees a baby, a bookstore, a sports bar: ‘Uhh’ ‘Uhhh’ ‘UHHHHH’.”
I kept the “If you SEE something, SAY something!” pamphlet on the table by my front door. It’s still there now.
“If you SEE something, SAY something!”
From the cover: “Sometimes it’s the small things that matter most. You can make a big difference in OUR community.”
Inside, it tells me about how I could join a neighborhood watch group if I want to help keep my neighborhood safe.
Here’s where I remember the useless Buddhist sentiment that if literally everyone prayed all day for peace, we would literally have no war. This is useless because it’s not a conceivable solution in a world of nature and disease. Some natural disaster or disease scares one person into scaring other people, et cetera, et cetera, and we’re all always seeing something and we’re all always saying something.
If we all said something whenever we saw something, the world’s noise would be white with the shrieking of a multi-billion-person fax machine sound. That’s a different kind of peace than I suppose any of us wants.
During breakfast on this Sunday, the song “Rumble” by Link Wray and his Ray Men came over the stereo. Pepples Donut Farm must have chosen a Spotify playlist or a Pandora Radio station or what-have-you which took something from the “Pulp Fiction” soundtrack for its seed. I’m not sure how these modern streaming radio services work. I’m not knocking them: I wish we’d had them when I was a teenager. I had to interact with Record Store People in order to find music I liked. Now we don’t have gatekeepers. Modern music-preference-builders have simple tools for self-discovery. It’s excellent. Technology is building smarter, cooler people. I, on the other hand, have spent half a life building up a large library of music I adore, so instead of using a Spotify playlist, I put my own music library on shuffle. Also, being a child of the 1980s, I have polished my ability to select an album and then listen it all the way from the first track to the last without skipping any tracks on the way.
So the song “Rumble” had come up. It’s not exactly a “surf” song. It’s an old song: Wikipedia will tell you that someone reputable declared that it “invented the power chord”. It has the sound-atmosphere later surf music would have. Someone (a guitar player) once told me that someone once said that surf rock sounds the way it does because the musicians wanted to make music that sounded wild and crazy, and no one was making any distortion pedals that sounded like metal yet, so the guitarists turned the reverb on their amplifiers all the way up to ten. I don’t know how true this is, or how true it has to be for the purposes of my thinking about it right here. All I know is that this is something someone told me, in the tradition of musicians telling music-curious listeners stories about music that might not be true, and that it might not even matter if these stories are true or not.
Here is what I think:
A spring reverb on a guitar amplifier can make a clean guitar sound something like the way the brain feels when looking at the ocean.
Herman Melville says, in the opening chapter of Moby-Dick, that all humans are drawn by their very brain chemicals to water — specifically, to the sea. Place any person in a port town and spin them around blindfolded, Melville postulates, and when you remove the blindfold, the person can walk directly and surely to the sea. I wonder now if smart phones and GPS have dulled this primordial ocean-finding extra sense. I hypothesize yes. Without making a political statement in either direction, I’d agree that technology affords us opportunities to neglect the development of our ancient and practical hidden senses.
So “Rumble” came over the stereo, and I listened for a moment, and not a moment into it I remembered once again that I was made of memories. I was remembering a memory in which I’d remembered another memory. I was seeding my own brain’s Spotify playlist. I remembered being on a surfboard. I was lying on my back on a surfboard in Hawaii. I’d been surfing all day. This was during The Most Important Month Of My Life. The sun was setting. My glasses were on my towel on the beach out in the distance. Whether Melville’s hypothesis holds up today or not, I feel safe guessing that all humans can find land from the ocean, if we have enough time to lie and float and drift. In the same way, it’s always easier to get home from an unfamiliar place than it is to get to an unfamiliar place from home.
I was lying on this surfboard in the silence of a Hawaiian sunset. I was tired from a day of physical exertion. The events of the book I am writing every Sunday morning these days had ended a few days before this. I was tired in many ways. At the same time, I didn’t lose the luxury of willing myself to wish a moment could last forever. The weather was perfect and the breeze was cool. The ocean was blue. The ocean was turning purple. The sky was turning red. Breathing felt beautiful. The air was a luxurious fabric; my lungs were hungry fingertips.
I heard the song “Rumble” in my head. Every nuance of it came through. My ears did not feel it. It was a memory of that music’s molecules. I understand that memory is not enough. I floated in darkening silence, feeling that music until it was different, imaginary music. I was alone. My aloneness was no trophy.
I told my breakfast friends: “I was listening to this song in my head one day on a surfboard in Hawaii. It was sunset and I was lying on the surfboard on my back and I was hearing this song. It was great.”
Delicious McCune informed me, “This isn’t actually a surf song.”
“I know,” I said. Still: it sounds like an evening ocean after a month tasting human darkness.
It could be, I said, that Culture Had Got Me. Images of oceans and accompanying reverberating guitars in popular culture might have educated my subconscious to connect a specific piece of jangling electric guitar to a particular emotion and place. At the end of the road was a sign telling me to pair This Feeling with This Music.
Still: I refuse to deny the possibility that my brain was writing that song in that moment. It doesn’t matter that that song exists, and that someone wrote it, performed it, and recorded it in just such a way as my brain would re-write it sixty years later.
I refuse to deny that, in the possible presence of a magic button that would erase surf rock music from existence and memory, I would be able to recreate surf rock music down to its final atoms given equal opportunity to experience the sensations that led to its historical creation.
The truth here has two parts: that a reverberating guitar sounds like the color of the brain during the sensation of beholding the ocean, and that all humans are artists.
Depending on who you ask, it’s more the former than the latter or it’s more the latter than the former. Here is what I want to say I know: If people weren’t all artists, they wouldn’t ever disagree about this.
Later during our breakfast, the internet robot selected the song “Cities in Dust” by Siouxsie and the Banshees. This is a favorite song of mine for many years. I enjoy the synthesized bell tone. It is clear and pure; it touches my eardrum in a way I enjoy. I’ll admit: the first time I heard this song, that bell tone reminded me of the synthesizers of the videogame Sonic the Hedgehog.
I pointed to the ceiling — maybe my brain and finger expected speakers to be hanging up there — and I said, “You know what — I hate to mention this this way because it’s going to sound like I’m making this up, though that night I was lying on that surfboard thinking about the song ‘Rumble’ in my head, I later listened to this entire Siouxsie and the Banshees album while sitting on a towel on the beach.”
“Oh, right on,” Delicious McCune said.
That was the end of the conversation.
Now that I’ve typed all these words, I’ve appreciated the accidental relevance of this pair of songs as an inseparable art-couple. My brain had connected the songs in the way Spotify or Pandora’s engineers’ algorithm had connected them. Now in my mind they doubly belong together, the way so many of my memories belong with so many everyday occurrences. No mundane hygienic task fails to trigger a sharp memory from my deep past. Some memories are older than others. Sometimes a newer memory replaces an older one, and months or years will pass before I remember the previous presence the older memory once occupied.
Two weeks ago, I told Michael Kerwin and Hali a story that I connected to a particular mechanical everyday task. At the conclusion, Michael Kerwin laughed, and said, “That’s a weird story to have to remember every time you do that thing.” I’m sitting here, right now, made of memories as I am, and for whatever disappearing reason I can remember neither the task nor the memory the task never fails to exhume. Maybe this is why the memories come back.
Now I wonder — when will computers begin writing our music? When will I be able to press a button and experience a new piece of art, listenable to and experienceable only once, only by me, only right now? What philosophies will die when that happens? Intelligence can be artificial; art cannot be. For the meanwhile, I’m alive.
(Then, minutes after I finished this essay, my computer told me I only had eleven minutes of battery remaining. I searched for my power cable. I plugged it in. The computer battery began to charge. I looked at the battery icon in the corner. I remembered what I had told Kerwin a few days ago.
Every time I plug my computer in after a warning that its battery is running out, I remember a time near midnight on September 11th, 2001. I was in a hotel room in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was naked in a hotel room bed. I was alone in the dark. The television was on. I’d just watched the premiere of HBO’s “Band of Brothers”. Now I was watching NBC. The NBC News anchor explained that we were about to see some “graphic footage” captured by a civilian with a camera. Little did I know, this was the beginning of a new journalism. This was the genesis of YouTube.
A man was running around in the ashes. The camera jostled in a way that nauseated me. The anchor should have warned me about nausea. We viewers could hear shrieking metal. It looked like doomsday.
This man was running between large objects. He was running from overturned car to rubble pile to overturned truck. He found humans in the cloudy darkness. He was talking to the camera. He came upon a firefighter helping a victim. He came across another firefighter. He made a motion with his hands. He yelled over the shrieking cascade of rubble.
“Can I get a puff?”
The firefighter looked his way. Back on that near-midnight of Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, I was imagining what the firefighter saw: most likely it was a man in plain clothes, and definitely he was holding a camcorder.
“Can I get a puff?”
The firefighter didn’t respond. He was wearing a huge bulky hulk of gear. I couldn’t see his face.
“A puff? Can I . . . can I get a puff?”
This was a weird thing to be yelling.
I could see the man’s hand in the camera’s point of view. His hands were bare. He wasn’t wearing gloves. A civilian wouldn’t have packed gloves in his bag that morning. He made a motion with his hand.
“A puff? Can I get a puff?”
The firefighter leaned closer to the man. Maybe he was yelling something through the plastic of his mask.
The man reached out his fingers. He touched the mouth nozzle of the firefighter’s mask. The firefighter at once understood. He took the nozzle out of his mouth. He handed it to the camera. I could hear greedy shouting breaths. He handed the nozzle back. The bare hand thumbs-upped the firefighter.
“I appreciate it!”
Now the man ran away toward another more-lit part of that darkness brighter than life, toward another person to obstaculate, his camera shaking all the way.
So, every time my computer tells me its power is running out and I plug in its magnetic power adapter, I hear the words “A puff? Can I get a puff?” echo in my brain, and I remember this story, and I remember the girl I was waiting for (she’d arrive a week later), and I remember all the bad things I have ever seen, either on television or elsewhere, and then I repeat the words deep in my brain (“A puff? Can I get a puff?”) and bookend the experience, and so I get shut of it.
Every mundane action (of mine) has such a tapestry behind it.)
This is the concluding anecdote of this piece.
I took a creative writing class in college. That one class was enough to convince me that no one should tell anyone how to make art for art’s sake. The only educations I appreciate when it comes to writing are mechanical: if someone tells me a better way to hold a pencil, and they save me the months of non-frustration it’d take to gradually remove that microscopic obstacle myself, I consider that helpful. These days, they call those “life hacks”. Anything grander spoils a future wonderful self-discovery.
My teacher didn’t like me. He singled me out. We wrote short stories. He didn’t like my short stories. My short stories filled the student literary magazine that semester. Someone liked me. It wasn’t my teacher. I’m thinking about those stories now. They were not good fiction by any stretch. Student literary magazine editors sure loved them. It’s possible my teacher was jealous of my popularity with my own peers. Maybe he wanted me to do better. I looked him up on the internet one night a few years ago, out of curiosity for how his own dream had treated him. His only published work had been an instructional booklet on playing the tin whistle. The tin whistle was one of his favorite hobbies. He carried a tin whistle everywhere. He took it out of his pocket and played it sometimes when students had just finished speaking a sentence. He offered no mechanical tips about writing. He spoke only in koans and platitudes. He was not nice. He had the big floppy hair and black turtleneck of an out-of-work New York actor. He had a face like he’d been attractive in his twenties. I’m afraid of him even today. I see him. He’s the monster in the horror movie of my life. He is my Freddy Krueger. He is my Jason Voorhees. He is my Michael Myers. He wears a dark green corduroy jacket with brown patches on the elbows over his black turtleneck. His last name was McCullough. His first name and middle name were one letter each. He sounded and looked like a writer in a play about writers. He told us he was writing a novel about a man who gradually becomes a woman. It was a socio-political commentary about male privilege. This was in 1997. I don’t think it didn’t sound interesting. I was reading “Claudius the God” before class one day and he said, “Robert Graves, huh?” I said, “Yep,” and he rolled his eyes. There he is: rolling his eyes.
He gave me an “incomplete” grade for the semester. I emailed him — this process involved a car battery, back then (that was a joke (that was the sort of joke I am refraining from in my current novel)) — to ask why my grade was incomplete. I’d turned in all my assignments. He had the nerve (this is another phrase the sort of which I’m refraining from in descriptive sentences in my current novel) to tell me that my second short story of the semester did not perfectly fit the theme he had assigned, and that it seemed to him that I had “dug something out of your trunk”. This felt worse than an accusation of plagiarism: he was accusing me of being unable to write dense conceptual dark naturalistic fantasy on a kitschy educationalisticish theme, on demand, with volume and quickness. I could then and can now do all of those things. It’s my favorite hobby. If Lovecraft saw my Google Docs library, he’d scream until he threw up (cosmic horror, etc).
I calmly told him that I had, in fact, written that story per his specifications and that no cheating or sloth of any kind had occurred. Furthermore, I informed him that I did not appreciate an accusation that I had a “trunk” full of such bad writing. This was me deprecating myself.
His next email came three hours later. I was back in my parents’ house in Indianapolis, Indiana when I read it. (The internet there actually did require a car battery (yes, this is a joke again (I promise I am not making any jokes like this in my current fiction)).)
His email was long and sharp. He wrote it in a rich Irish accent. I’ll spare you any approximation of his use of jargon and accent and reference. His story was about a dull-witted fiddler who scraped his instrument for hours a day, unaware of the hideous nature of the antimusical noise he was exhibiting, yet frustrated that he could not play the sort of music he wanted to hear. One day this dull-witted fiddler happened upon a leprechaun. The leprechaun was napping. The man awoke the leprechaun. The man said he wanted a wish, for catching a leprechaun. The leprechaun argued that he had been napping, and therefore technically he hadn’t been “caught”. He could not grant the fiddler a wish. The fiddler complained that this was a stupid technicality and that the leprechaun was a bamboozler. The leprechaun sighed away the accusation and agreed to, after a long back-and-forth dialogue of jokey Irishisms, grant the fiddler — who I should mention had a Hilarious Irish Name — one of two wishes. The catch was that the leprechaun would determine the two wishes from which the fiddler would choose. The leprechaun asked the fiddler if he wanted to hear the wishes. The fiddler asked to hear the wishes. The leprechaun told the fiddler that the two wishes were this: he could instantly obtain the power to play the most beautiful music in the world, which would entertain millions and make him rich beyond his wildest dreams, at the cost of him being unable to hear even a note of his own music, or he could obtain the power to play the most beautiful music in the world, which would please his own ears endlessly, yet would sound like horrible scrapings to any other member of the human race. The fiddler thought over the choice for a long time. The leprechaun urged him to select quickly, because he had a leprechaun-like appointment to be getting to. The fiddler thought in silence for another hour. The leprechaun told the fiddler he absolutely had to decide before sundown. The fiddler ended up thinking until sundown. The leprechaun asked the fiddler what his final verdict was. The fiddler kicked the leprechaun in the balls, broke his fiddle over his knee, threw the fiddle into the pond at the end of the rainbow, and walked away, whistling.
I’ve changed the story of the fiddler and the leprechaun to protect my own essay. I’ve changed only one molecular element of it. I’ve changed it less than I presume the teacher had changed it before sending it to me.