MEDIUM - 29 DECEMBER 2014
It was a crazy year. We left Beirut. Before 2013 ended, I was teaching at Deep Springs College. Then we moved to Los Angeles and settled into a tiny cottage in Venice Beach. The first months of 2014, I was either hammering on things at the house or preparing for a tour to support my first book. As the pub date approached, I tried to sell excerpts. I did lots of interviews. Then I read from the book — some events well attended, others not—and suddenly it was summer. I got a job at UCLA, and I started writing up a course. I had no idea what I was doing. But I did my best. Now I’m on holiday in Central Illinois, where most of my family lives. I might have one more piece publish before the year is up and if I do, I’ll update this. Update: I wrote about buying a turntable for Pacific Standard. It’s been a huge honor, to write for big (The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s) and the less-so (Trop, American Circus). I love to write. And here are Update: seventeen things I did in 2014.
It was one of the first warm evenings of spring when my new neighbor Steve — leaning over his balcony and through the bougainvillea — suggested we should take the kids to Faraya, a ski town a few hours from what was starting to look like a war in Syria.
WE’LL ALL SOME DAY be crooked and shrunken, bent before the mercy of the medical system. Into a hospital, each of us will bring our own pains, weaknesses, history, and fate. The ER doesn’t care how we measure beauty. We get a chart. There are certain hours we can be visited, and certain things we can expect from the people who are supposed to care.
The sidewalk stretched out before us. We could hear the steady pulse of traffic on Lincoln and Venice Boulevards. The timing seemed perfect: just before dinner, no chill in the air — a moment to show Loretta how to enjoy her new life in America. Look, honey, you’re safe now!
IN AND AROUND the Japanese fishing village of Sakai, in Osaka prefecture, a community’s elderly citizens are disappearing without a trace. Years later, after the community has tried and jailed (and worse) a man who confessed to the apparent crimes, a journalist named Jesse Ball sets out to write a book about what actually happened.
Malaysian Airlines Flight 370: How can 239 people just disappear? I fantasize about the plane itself: What it looked like, the color of the seats, the food. Will I ever fly on Malaysian Airlines? Will anyone ever want to again?
I was having lunch at the swan near Hyde Park and some son of a bitch took my bag with all my documents, the email began. It was June of 2009 and I was sitting at a desk in Riyadh. Assuming this was spam, I was about to press delete, when something made me reconsider.
Outside, it was summer in Saudi Arabia, where temperatures could exceed one hundred and thirty degrees. My wife Kelly and I had lived in the country for nearly a year. We’d spent much of our lives in foreign countries or in strange corners of North America. We’d met in Cambodia, spent years in Southeast Asia, got to know Russia and the former Soviet Union, and I proposed to her on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska. This time, however, the Middle East in general seemed a little beyond my talent set. Maybe it was the heat making me feel weak? By this time of year everyone was spending entire days indoors, emerging only to drive air-conditioned cars, in which metal could be so hot it might burn your skin. Streets buckled, the wind howled in from the desert, and meanwhile booze was still illegal, women were forbidden from consorting with men they weren’t related to, and it was hard to imagine why anyone would ever choose to settle here. Considering all this, we — the swashbuckling couple who had never shied away from doing something insane — were about to bring a new baby into the world.
On our leafy terrace in Lebanon, beside the civil war in Syria, my wife Kelly and I were entertaining an old friend, the new Beirut bureau chief for a major news organization. This woman was moving to town to cover the battle and was scouting houses before she brought her husband and young children. I swirled a large glass of wine, a father myself, and recounted how just a few weeks earlier, a massive, seven-hour shootout had raged just below our balcony, shell-casings bouncing off the asphalt. How I had cowered in our bedroom, checking periodically to ensure our three-year-old daughter was still asleep, listening as thousands of additional rounds of machine gun fire bounced off the walls outside. How Lebanese soldiers arrived in camouflaged armored personnel carriers, and how seven or eight grenades exploded when the bad guys down the block determined that they would fight to the death. How, instead of cowering beside me, my wife Kelly had put down her wine glass, grabbed a notebook and a flak jacket, and walked off into the night.
It was a midsummer night a few weeks after I’d left the Middle East for the American Midwest. My wife, Kelly, and I had spent five years in some of the world’s toughest corners — Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon — as she covered the news, and now we were at last bringing our four-year-old daughter home. (Whatever that meant.)
Monday morning, I’m pulling a trailer containing a four-year-old girl, en route to preschool, both of us coming off a half-decade in the Middle East, and I’m feeling a little shaky about how things are going, wondering how it is I should think about our new life in Los Angeles. I’ve just turned down a tenure-track job offer, an essay collection (not mine) is taking the world by storm, and as ever it’s never particularly easy to find the time to write — nor is it clear why one should bother. There’s a house to work on and a kid who needs raising and a marriage to maintain and yet, that compulsion, every day: To sit down and type.
“WE SHOT DOGS,” writes Phil Klay in Redeployment, a collection of 12 stories about the war in Iraq. “Not by accident. We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby. I’m a dog person, so I thought about that a lot.”
That ball-busting first paragraph shows the author to be a man of great compassion and creativity, with an ear for the voices of hurt men. A former Marine, Klay is very much in the process of figuring out what coming home might really mean for the two and a half million American service men and women who have served since 9/11.
It’s rush hour on a Friday, and I’m driving through San Jose traffic during the Bay Area’s second big Web boom. I’m surrounded by Google buses, eBay shuttles, BMWs, Audis, and Teslas — the daily northerly conveyance of tens of thousands from Silicon Valley back to San Francisco, our new dork overlords on the move, inching up the fright-scape that is Highway 101. Though the story of tech and the Bay Area is more complicated than wealth and movement and also simpler and older than anything that requires tech at all.
I hadn’t. For the last half decade, I’d lived in the Middle East with my daughter and wife, Kelly, a foreign correspondent. No one during those years ever asked where I’d grown up. Because of wars and revolution and worse, everything always felt intense and exciting. There were more important things to tend to than asking questions about the origins of a stranger like me. Now, exhausted from all the bombs and barricades in Lebanon, we were back in the States.
The other night, I was going to the launch party for my new book, but the hosting bookstore happened to be on the other side of town, in Los Feliz, while I meanwhile was a new resident of Venice, an hour’s drive away — or more in mid-afternoon traffic — so I considered my options.
Deep Springs College has been around for almost a hundred years. In 1917, a crew of about a dozen students, mostly ruddy young things from back east, were brought to a remote desert basin halfway between Yosemite and Death Valley by an entrepreneur and educator named L. L. Nunn. His idea was to form “whole men” — and only men, it being Nunn’s contention that a single-sex institution was the ideal way to achieve his goals — who would be as comfortable at a desk as in the field. He offered the boys two free years of education in exchange for a pledge to devote their lives to serving humanity. The first group built the dormitory by hand.
I’ve never been particularly good a having a “traditional” job — a byproduct, perhaps, of a lenient upbringing, attendance at a magnet high school for the arts, my birth as an American, and then a variety of other luck and circumstance that has permitted me to be at times fickle, but more often or at least most simply stated: Unlikely to keep a job.
This is my first month as a real college professor. I walk around a campus in Los Angeles, where there is a significant stadium and various country-club level amenities, such as four different pools, immaculate lawns, various libraries. There is apparently so much money floating around for a population of mostly 18- to 22-year-olds that I find it staggering to calculate how this all works — what kind of jobs will they get? — and then I remember: This is a college, and the core point of attendance is for the young to learn, and I am among the adults charged with doing some of that teaching. I have learned some things. These are my experiences so far.
It was August; California was boiling with heat; and I’d mapped out a plan that would find me driving nearly 6,000 miles, mostly back and forth between grandparents in the Midwest. I was looking forward to doing so with my phone, which I could do without hesitation or equivocation, because my wife — who hates when I use electronic devices, especially near our daughter, and who in general prefers spontaneity and inefficiency — would be flying. I readied for the first leg of an epic summer: just me, a 5-year-old, and an open road to Missouri.
It’s Sunday and my neck is still sore. I don’t have meningitis and I wasn’t in a car wreck. What I did was buy a turntable, and on Friday night we played it loudly. Here’s why and what it might mean for you, especially if you are a dad:
A year ago, I was living in the Middle East. My wife was a foreign correspondent and for five years she and I quite happily turned over our cultural life, such as it was, to the digital realm. Doing so was convenient, fast, and avoided the strict censorship rules unique to various countries we called home (Saudi Arabia, Turkey) and also meant we could stream NPR and download Mad Men and follow friends and read the novelSwamplandiawhen we heard about how awesome it was. (It was phenomenal.)
This piece was published by Medium. Read the original here.