Author, Journalist, Photog, Poet Living in Los Angeles

Forget Paradise: Traveling in Miami, Los Angeles, San Diego

Posted on September 15, 2014

Design by Joseph Lapin

Design by Joseph Lapin

I grew up in Clinton, Massachusetts — a small town in Worcester County. We were once the crowning achievement of the Industrial Revolution, and the factories from the Bigelow Carpet Factory are still on Main Street, serving as a reminder of a former life. I love Clinton. I still have family there, and I have incredible friends there. That town has helped me become the man I am today, but I couldn’t wait to leave when I was a kid. It’s not that I disliked the people or thought it wasn’t a great town; it’s that I hated the snow; I hated the cold; I hated the small-town nature of my childhood existence. It just wasn’t where I wanted to live long term. I needed to find my home, and there were two places I knew where I wanted to live: Florida and California.

I started to develop this fascination with the idea of paradise. I started to think about the ocean, the sun, and the weather. I thought about Florida and California, and I built these ideas of these states as the key to happiness and success. That once I moved beyond the cold winters my life would be easier, more peaceful, and free.

Design by Joseph Lapin

Design by Joseph Lapin

So I went to college in Florida, and I lived there for four years, and I studied creative writing in Miami for three. Now I live in California — the place where I thought would be the most free state in the country — and I’m about to move to San Diego. What I’m trying to say is that I understand what it’s like to live in a place that most people consider paradise. I know what it’s like to live in a city where tourists line up, year after year, with their cameras to take photographs. I know what it’s like to take advantage of the beauty that surrounds me and become to accustomed to beautiful weather that you almost feel oblivious to the flowers blooming almost all year round or standing on the beach only to turn around and see snow on the mountaintops. What I’m trying to say is that I’ve spent the last ten years of my life chasing paradise, and I’m no longer looking for it. I’ve found it, and I can’t imagine ever leaving it. It’s obviously a state of mind. It’s a place that I can find in my writing. It’s my family. It’s music. Even though it’s so obvious, it’s important to remind myself that paradise is not a place. That’s what on my this week.

Here are some quotes from writers on paradise:

“It is better to have your head in the clouds, and know where you are … than to breathe the clearer atmosphere below them, and think that you are in paradise.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” — Jorge Luis Borges.

“Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring–it was peace.” — Milan Kundera.

 

My Response to OkCupid’s Defense of Social Experimentation

Posted on September 7, 2014

Design by Joseph Lapin

Design by Joseph Lapin

In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal “Review” section, Christian Rudder, president and one of the founders of OkCupid, wrote an article titled “When Websites Spy on Private Lives,” where the Harvard math grad discusses the experiments he runs on the data generated from OkCupid. It’s an incredibly engaging read that does two things: 1. Creates a bunch of buzz about his new book “Dataclysm” and 2. complicates how data mining and collecting private information from the traces we leave on the Internet should be perceived. His article was in response to the backlash he received when he published a post on OkCupid’s company blog outlining some of the experiments his site has been conducting. The title of the blog post: “We Experiment on Human Beings!

Basically, in the article, Rudder is trying to, clearly, defend his actions, promote his book, and cause trouble, but he’s also posing a question that is absolutely fundamental to our contemporary lives: Is mining the data of our personal information a benefit to society?

Screen shot taken from OkCupid blog.

Screen shot taken from OkCupid blog.

To sum it up, Rudder is arguing that his company is not just benefiting from the mining of consumer data; the world is too. “Websites are amassing information that holds enormous social potential,” Rudder writes. “The data our users generate helps companies improve their sites and make money; that’s a story that most people know. But that same data could also unlock new ways of understanding society and new kinds of science.”

It’s hard to argue with Rudder that mining data can help people understand society, but it’s also hard to take that argument in concert with how that data benefits his company financially. As Rudder illustrates in the experiments on the people who are searching companionship and love on his site, the data is able to help him better understand what his users are looking for in relationships. He can improve his business. But strangely, the experiments helped point out that users are more likely to connect with other users if the site tells them they are compatible even if they’re not. In a sense, his experiment showed that users on OkCupid wanted to be told who is a companion, and their algorithm was not nearly as important as persuasion.

Rudder’s tone comes across like a mad-scientist entrepreneur who thinks he’s figured out how to crack social problems by mining data, and while he seems a little gruff and inappropriate, he does illustrate how OkCupid’s experiments can lead to interesting social behavior, because he can examine  behavior from users when these users think no one is watching, even though Rudder clearly is. For example, in the blog post on experiments, he learns that there is some racism happening in the online dating world. The New York Times pulled this from Rudder’s new book:

“As a group, for instance, Latino men rated Latinas as 13 percent more attractive than the average for the site, while they rated African-American women 25 percent less attractive. In fact, Mr. Rudder reports, black women on the site receive about 25 percent fewer first messages than other women do. For Mr. Rudder, these numbers unequivocally tell a story of racism.”

Okay, so you learned that we’re racist from our data. No shit.

Yes, clearly we can learn a lot about social behavior from the traces we leave behind on the Internet, from our clicks, from the content of our messages (even though you don’t need to mine the content of website to find racism still exists), but I’m not sure that I gave anyone permission to use me in a social experiment. In fact, I don’t think Rudder has the right to conduct social experiments. Sure, I understand what he’s trying to accomplish. He’s trying to argue that the collection of the content of messages, our clicks, our responses to other personalities online, when collected and analyzed will inform the world on human behavior; but it will also fuel his company. It also still feels like a major injustice to privacy. I just imagine Rudder sitting on the hill in his evil mansion, trying to find the thread that runs through all of humanity to figure us out. This is a strange, social engineering conceit that makes me uncomfortable.

I see the benefits of using my data, but what I think is the problem is that many people don’t really understand the lengths our information is used for social experimentation, targeted marketing, etc. Sure, the data is said to be collected anonymously and swirled around in some metaphorical vat of binary code or whatever bullshit they’re selling, but that data is me in there. I might only be a small portion of that data, but it’s me. And I believe my identity isn’t something you should just be able to trade and sell like a commodity.

Design by Joseph Lapin

Design by Joseph Lapin

But here is where things get complicated for me. I do see the benefit of collection of data from smart phones for smart cities. For example, if there was a city-run system where data could be collected and communicated with other parts of the city and DOT, then traffic could be handled differently. The collection of data from our homes could inform better environmental practices. There are benefits to collecting data and analyzing from a health perspective, too. Think about how Big Data could help the Ebola crisis? And perhaps I would be comfortable with this type of data collection if it was anonymous.

(What does anonymous collection of data actually mean? Who is out there ensuring that it is anonymous?)

The truth is that now we know how much our browsing history, our clicks, our time spent on a page can inform others about our behavior, well, I think it’s just time that we start seeing our computers, our smart phones, as an extension of our mind. We have the conscious mind and the subconscious mind. For example, our conscious mind is our browsing behavior, but the information mined from our data can provide insight into our subconscious mind. I don’t want marketing companies knowing more about my identity than a psychologist. I don’t want the Christian Rudders of the world sifting through the collected mind of America to try and better understand who we are. I don’t want him to rationalize data collection and privacy invasion by hiding behind social experimentation. I don’t want dating services, Google, Facebook, etc, to rationalize their creepy experiments without our consent by hiding behind the phrase: “We’re gaining a deeper understanding of humanity.”  I want transparency.

If making society a better place through understanding is a company’s goal, then they should say it up front. Don’t hide behind  terms and agreements. Be up front with people. Make that a part of your business. Be transparent.

In reality, I do think we can learn a lot about humanity through Big Data, but that power in the wrong hands scares me. The power to manipulate countless people through a change to a website is just a bit bizarre — almost Dr. Moreau-like. I don’t have an answer to the privacy debate. In fact, I feel that we’re already down a huge rabbit hole, and I have very little control over the outcome of how privacy will be defined in the 21st century, but I just wanted to stand up and say, slow down. My mind is not for you to experiment with. And neither is my browsing history.

 

 

Key West is Driving 100 M.P.H. Over the Seven Mile Bridge

Posted on September 1, 2014

Key West Final

Today is Labor Day, and I have the day off. I went hiking at Griffith Park, and I’m working on some stories and other miscellaneous writing, but I’ve also been reading. What I found is that everyone and their mother, right now, is writing about two things: Labor Day and the leak of nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton. There has been such incredible writing on this subject (See this essay by Roxane Gay at The Guardian and another by Anne Helen Petersen at BuzzFeed), but I’m not going to write about these events. I was thinking about writing about privacy; I was thinking about writing about work; but I want to write about something completely off the radar: Key West.

I’m working on my application for the Key West Literary Seminar Young Emerging Writer Award. I’ve applied to enough writing programs to know not to get my hopes up, but I would love to have the opportunity to surround myself with writers in one of my favorite places in the country for a week or so. That’s when I started to think about writing about the Florida Keys.

I received my MFA from Florida International University in Miami, Florida, and I would often head down to the Keys on the weekends. One time my buddies and I camped down at Long Key, and I brought my snorkeling equipment. The tides were strange, so you could walk out into the ocean for almost 100 yards without the water rising over your waist. I wandered around in the water, trying to explore the ocean and the exotic fish that live in the Keys as the sun went down. When I emerged from the water and walked back to the beach, my buddies were laughing. It turned out that there was a warning in the bathroom that it was Man-of-War season, and I was lucky that I hadn’t been stung by those giant floating brains.

Photo Credit: Joseph Lapin

Photo Credit: Joseph Lapin

But when I think about Key West, I really think about one memory that has stayed with me for many years.

When I was in my second year of graduate school, I was driving home from class to meet my fiance and her friend for dinner. I was stopped at a red light, waiting to merge onto the I-95 ramp — the most dangerous highway in the country — and I was thinking about a story I was writing called “A Crash in Boston.” The light turned green, and I hit the gas in my 2002 Buick LeSabre. There were about two cars ahead of me, and when it was my turn to drive through the light I saw the car approaching from the opposite direction. I knew instantly that the car was not stopping, and I prepared myself for the crash. The driver, an old man who was lost and searching for the highway, had blown the red light. He slammed into me at about 30 or 40 m.p.h.

I wasn’t hurt, but my car was pretty banged up. They towed my car, which my grandparents bequeathed to me when they passed away, and the insurance company had said it was totaled. That was a bunch of bullshit. The axle was just bent and the body needed some work. Whenever you have a car that the insurance company tries to total, and you know that you can get more mileage out of that car, don’t take their shit. Demand that they fix the car. That’s, in fact, what you pay them for.

So I pitched a fit, and they eventually agreed to fix my car. In fact, I was so angry that they offered to pay for my rental in the meantime.

Key West Car

Enter the Dodge Challenger. At the Enterprise in Coconut Grove, the guy at the desk put me in a brand new Dodge Challenger. The car just basically debuted on the road, and this specific ride had only 300 miles. Now I was never a big fan of muscle cars — or even really cared about cars — but when I was put behind that Dodge Challenger after driving around in my Buick LeSabre, I couldn’t help but feel like a bad ass. I decided, right then, that I was taking this bad body down to Key West, and I was bringing my fiance and my dog, Hendrix.

You might not know this unless you’ve driven to the Keys, but driving from Miami to Key West is one of the most beautiful road trips in the country. Perhaps the drive down the Pacific Coast Highway from around San Francisco to L.A. rivals this drive (I actually wrote about this voyage at the LA Weekly), but there isn’t anything quite like driving over the countless keys and seeing the strangest sites like giant metal lobsters on store fronts or the stunning views of the oh-so blue ocean that suddenly engulfs you and provides the illusion that you’re passing through some large and cosmic painting. I couldn’t wait to hit the open road with the Dodge Challenger, and I couldn’t wait to take that car over the seven mile bridge.

Photo Credit: Tinsley Advertising

Photo Credit: Tinsley Advertising

The seven mile bridge is the king of the causeway, the grand daddy of all ponts, because you’re literally driving on a bridge for seven miles over the bluest ocean you’ll find in the United States.

So my wife, Hendrix, and I are in the Dodge Challenger, and we’ve got the windows down, and Led Zeppelin’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” blaring through the speakers. We hit the beginning of the seven mile bridge at 2:30 p.m. on a Friday. The road is empty. Not another car in sight. The bridge opens up into the water, and on all sides of us, we find the Atlantic Ocean. We’re in the middle of the sea, and I just push that peddle down to the ground, crossing over 100 m.p.h.

For me, this is Key West; this is the Florida Keys: taking a car that I can’t afford and probably shouldn’t be driving to the limits. We’re half way over the bridge when my fiance starts to tell me to slow down.

“Relax,” I say, “I want to see how fast this thing can go.”

She says something else, but I can’t hear her over the music and the open window.

“What?” I say. I watch her mouth move. “I can’t hear anything you’re saying.”

She powers off the radio and says: “Slow down.”

“Come on, Heron. How often to I get to drive a Dodge Challenger?”

It’s funny, now, thinking about how big of a deal I thought it was to drive a hunk of steel at high speeds. I remember pushing down harder on the pedal as if to spite her.

“Slow down,” she says again. “You’re going to get arrested.”

About 100 feet ahead of us, I can see a rise in the bridge. It’s the closest thing to mountains in Florida, and I feel myself giving in, secretly pissed that she is killing my time. I take my foot off the pedal as I’m approaching the rise in the bridge.

“Are you happy?” I ask.

Heron doesn’t say anything. She just looks out the window at the ocean. She’s pissed that I have to make her the responsible one, the rational one.

When we come down the other side of the hill, I see something I will never forget: two police cars hiding just beyond the tree line at the end of the bridge, waiting to write me a ticket. I didn’t even have to look over at Heron to know she was smiling. I had slowed down in time, and the cops didn’t follow me, but I’m sure they would have loved to pick up some young asshole in a brand new muscle car with a Massachusetts license. Even if she wasn’t actually smiling, I knew she wanted to, because she just saved me. She saved our trip. If the police had seen me driving over 100 m.p.h., then I would have surely been handcuffed and thrown into the back of the police car for reckless driving.

That trip to Key West taught me a lot about relationships, about marriage (Heron is now my wife), about trust. When you’re married, you have to know when to listen to your partner. This goes true for any relationship. You might think you’re in the fast lane, but your partner might actually see you’re heading for a speed trap, an accident, an arrest, a failure, and even when you think you’re right, even when you think you know everything, you should probably think twice and just listen to what the other person has to say and trust, because there might be two cops waiting with a radar gun. We ended up having a blast in Key West, and I’ll never forget that bridge, that car, that journey, those cops.

 

 

 

The Next Chapter: Los Angeles to San Diego

Posted on August 24, 2014

LA to San Diego

It’s not often that I make life announcements on this blog that are difficult yet the absolute right decision. If you’ve been following my blog and my writing journey for the past couple years, then you know I’ve lived in Long Beach and quit my job to become a freelancer. I’ve written for some fantastic publications like the LA Times, Slate, Salon, LA Weekly, and more. But now, after a great couple years in Los Angeles County, I’ve been been required to make a decision on my professional career.

Over the last year, I’ve started working as the creative director of a digital marketing company called Circa Interactive. I was working a little bit more than part time with the company, directing our creative and communications strategies, and the work has been engaging, challenging, time consuming, and creative. I love the people I work with, and we have a fantastic team. While I was working at this company, I was also creating The Working Poet Radio Show at the Downtown Public Library, freelancing as a journalist and contributing to the LA Weekly, trying to create a blog/magazine called Rockwell’s Camera Phone, and attempting to write a draft of a novel as well as write short stories and poetry. But now that we have more and more business coming in with the digital marketing company, I had to make a choice: my professional career or the creative projects. I had to make a choice whether I would move to San Diego and work full time — or stay in LA and lose my role at the company.

Photo by Clayton Dean. http://claytonadean.tumblr.com/

Photo by Clayton Dean. http://claytonadean.tumblr.com/

I have made the tough but best decision for my family: We’re moving to San Diego, and I’m going to work full time as the creative director for Circa Interactive. So what does this mean? I can no longer put on the show at the library, and despite the tremendous amount of support from the library, I have to focus my energies. I want to be known for the stories, poems, profiles that I write and my work ethic professionally. I want to be known for the family that I’ve built and the lives that I change. So moving to San Diego is the best decision because I will have stability, routine, and a creative space to refocus my energy on my professional and creative career. I will also have family, brothers, and sisters, and as I grow older, I have to admit that living near my family really means a lot to me.

As for journalism, I’m still going to write pieces, and at my work, even though you might not actually see my byline, I’ll be creating stories and projects that will continue to build upon my skills and be published in major publications. It’s thrilling work. We work with professors at some of the best universities in the country, and we’re helping tell their stories. I was just too overcommitted, too spread out, too unfocused, and I was forced to make a decision. That’s the hardest part about growing up, I believe. You realize that you only have one life with only so many hours to work on all that you love and be with all of those whom you love. There just isn’t enough time in one life.

WPRS

As for The Working Poet Radio Show at the Los Angeles Public Library, I can not describe how wonderful of an experience this was. The Los Angeles Public Library’s sponsorship meant the world to us. Jim Sherman of the Los Angeles Public Library Literature and Fiction Department was the first person to contact us about putting on the show, and he provided us with an opportunity and gave us creative freedom to start something special. I can not find the right words to describe what his support meant to WPRS.

With the help of the fantastic Russell Pyle (check out his wife’s new book here about his struggle with cancer) who ran the cameras, edited the live show, mixed the audio, brought in second cameramen to film our show, and provide encouragement, we were able to take the show’s production to the next level. With the help of J. David Gonzalez, the producer of WPRS and my good friend, we put on three fantastic live shows at the library and recorded several great podcasts. We interviewed Roxane Gay, Jay Martel, Cosmo Scharf, Pamela Ribon, Tyson Cornell, Michelle Meyering, Chiwan Choi, Luis J. Rodriguez, Flula Borg, Daniel Halpern, Richard Blanco, Denise Duhamel, Mark Haskell Smith, Michael Semanchik, and more. We had some fantastic musicians, including John Rossiter, Das Tapes, and, my good friend, Jake Bluenote. We had Madeline Pena helping us on social media at the library. We had an unbelievable list of fantastic people who showed support. We had Oscar Gutierrez, a brilliant developer and general entrepreneur at Stauffer, and the guidance of Hilary Guy. The list goes on and on.

To all of these people, I would like to extend my sincerest appreciation and gratitude. Thanks so much for being a part of something short lived yet special. I’m still thinking about recording more podcasts or something else in San Diego, but whatever this project becomes, it will be at a much smaller scale.

Flula Borg, J. David Gonzalez, Pamela Ribon, Jay Martel, Joseph Lapin

Flula Borg, J. David Gonzalez, Pamela Ribon, Jay Martel, Joseph Lapin

Finally, I have to say thanks to J. David Gonzalez. Without him, this show would not have been possible. He’s a fantastic writer and a fixture at Skylight Books. Make sure you check out his story at Thuglit: Issue 11.

I’m not leaving LA until the end of October, and even though I’ll be in San Diego, I still plan on being involved with the literary community. I love the people here and all that’s being created. It’s just time to begin a new chapter. It’s time to focus my creative energies.

 

 

Put Some Work into your Art…Literally

Posted on August 10, 2014

WORK PIECELast night at Traxx Bar in Union Station, J. David Gonzalez and I put on a reading for Writ Large Press’ 90 for 90 series, which is basically 90 events in 90 days. It’s an ambitious project that Writ Large Press seems to be handling seamlessly. We invited Hank Cherry, Shawnacy Kiker Perez, Yago S. Cura, and Joe Donnelly to read poems, essays, or stories about work — a subject that has always been on my mind.

For some of my favorite artists, work has been a central theme. Think about Van Gogh’s earlier work: the potato eaters, the men and women working the field like lost saints. Think about the work of Millet (the painting below) who influenced Van Gogh. Think about Philip Levine’s “What Work Is”: the understanding of why men drink gin or stand in line for work at an axle plant. Think about Denis Johnson’s famous story “Work”: two addicts stripping copper wire from abandoned homes. When you know how to work, it can inspire, it can become poetic, it can make words real. Work is such a part of our lives; therefore it naturally becomes a major part of art.

Millet 1

Honestly, the crowd was slim last night for the readings about work. It was mostly the readers and their significant others and the people who showed up to get shitfaced before a ride on the surfliner to San Diego. The late-night commuters shuffled in and some unsuspecting people sat down and ordered drinks and listened to us read. It was a great reading filled with writers I admire. But I wasn’t sure if the people at the bar, the strangers, would give a shit about us.

But what I found was that there were three people who stayed for all the readings. Their names were James, Paul, and Mark, and they would sometimes yell in the middle of a story, shouting a loud cry of appreciation over the recollection of a place they’ve been before, a certain phrase, a certain moment. At the end of the reading, I went and thanked the three men for listening. That’s when a young man named Paul grabbed my hand, and he said, “I never thought I would like this shit, but you guys are speaking truth. All those bangers out there, they’re always trying to be tough, but this is what they should be talking about.” He had tattoos on his arms and a bald head, and he was wearing a cut off and a pair of basketball shorts. There was a brown liquor in front of him, and he had that spaced off look that showed he had already polished off a couple of other drinks before. He was shaking my hand for a bit of an awkward beat too long.

Sometimes, the toughest guys in the world, at least in my experience, when no one else is looking and their defenses are down, will admit a soft spot for poetry, for the man in the bar speaking truth, for words, for culture, for music. But when you put a bunch of these tough guys together in a room, it’s as if they are all dogs in the dog park, and one glimpse of weakness will alert everyone else. In these situations, showing an interest in poetry or any form of emotional expression is a mistake. But there always surprises.

Billy's Pub Two

I’ll never forget one of these moments, when a tough guy admitted he liked poetry and reading and books. I used to play pool at bar in Miami called Billy’s Pub Two. The photo above is the pool tables where I used to play. One day, I was playing in a tournament, and I had to go against this pudgy bald guy who came in the door with about five other friends. He looked hard. He looked unapproachable. And he didn’t want to play me for his first round match up — whatever it was — and when I reached out my hand to introduce myself, he looked away and started racking the balls. He didn’t have any respect for me as a player, and he just kept trying to bank every shot — he was sinking some — and he never took the game seriously.

Finally, I called him out on it. To my surprise, he just really didn’t care about playing the game. We started talking, and he became fascinated with what I was doing in Miami. At the time, I was teaching composition at Florida International University while trying to learn how to write. So I told him. He was all of a sudden fascinated that I was a teacher, and then he pulled me so his friends couldn’t hear, and he asked me, “Will you teach me how to read?”

Design by Joseph Lapin

I was shocked. He was about 35-years old. I wasn’t necessarily shocked that a 35-year old wouldn’t know how to read, but I was shocked with how easily he shared this information that would have been used by others to ridicule him and point out his weakness. He told me that he tried “Hooked on Phonics,” but it just wasn’t working, and he really wanted me to teach him how to read. Honestly, I really didn’t want to teach him how to read.

That’s when his buddies started to yell at him for taking so long, and they called him over to the table. You could tell in the tone by how he responded that he didn’t want his buddies to think he was talking about reading or books or teaching. Then he surprised me again. He grabbed me by the shirt collar, and he pulled me in close and said: “Your job, your friends, your family, it’s a prison. I need to change, man, and I don’t know how.”

His friends called him again, and he quit the game. He didn’t even say goodbye.

 

 

Finding a Voice by Killing Your Darlings

Posted on August 3, 2014

Design: Joseph Lapin

Design: Joseph Lapin

As you may have read in last week’s Sunday blog post, I just returned from my honeymoon, and the trip helped reawaken the artistic spirit. Paris and Barcelona were an inspiration, but now that I have had this great revelation — or reawakening — what the hell does that mean? Yes, I have a new profound interest in photography, and I’m rededicated to writing stories, poetry, and other creative projects in the small amount of free time that I actually have, but what’s the goal? What’s the plan? How do I ensure that the revelations I had during my honeymoon don’t become a faded out dream like an old photo of a friend that I’ve stashed away in a box underneath my bed and pulled out years later only to say: “Oh yes, I remember him.” I’ll explain what I mean below while sharing some more photos from the honeymoon.

Kill Your Darlings 

The first step is the hardest: Kill your darlings. As I’ve mentioned, when I left graduate school and moved to California, I had a bunch of writing — a novel in stories and a collection of poetry — and I truly believed in these pieces. Some of them have been published but others have not. So after some difficult examination — and yes, a four-year opportunity to reflect — I’ve decided it’s time to move on. I went back into my collection of poetry and just started deleting poem after poem (keeping some), realizing that I must start over. My novel in stories: well, I’m not even going to look at that for a bit more but try to reimagine the themes and the stories new. For now, they’re in the trash.

Photo credit: Joseph Lapin: Another attempt at black and white photography

Photo credit: Joseph Lapin: Another attempt at black and white photography

This has been incredibly difficult, and it’s the artistic equivalent of having an identity crisis. Basically, I’m trying to define what I hope to look and feel and sound like through my writing, and I’m going trough the painful act of destroying the old parts that don’t seem to work anymore. As if I’m throwing the digital strips of my past into the furnace, I can hear a voice calling out to be saved. I want to reach into the digital fire and save them (it’s so easy to recover deleted documents in the Internet age), but I have to admit that my writing wasn’t working in the way I wanted it to…that’s not easy…though there is clearly much worse out there.

I’m thinking of something I heard about Franz Kafka right before he died. He was on his deathbed, and he asked his friends to burn all his manuscripts and his journals. Of course, his friend didn’t listen, and he went and published them anyway. I wonder if I would have the courage, if none of my work wasn’t actually backed up anywhere, to throw an entire manuscript in the fire, to watch it burn and become ash, to watch a part of myself disappear.

I’ve read stories about men and women who walked away from everything they know, from their families, from their states, from their homes, to pursue something different, perhaps important, and that type of permanence, that type of goodbye, is terrifying. I’m watching the Leftovers right now after reading Tom Perrotta’s book, and The Guilty Remnant amaze me as characters. Basically, after the rapture had taken away about a third of the population and people just disappeared, The Guilty Remnant are a group of people who left all their family members to join a new type of organization that believe the rules and social norms of the past were dead: family, friends, work, health. To say goodbye to something that was such an integral part of your life, to explaining your world, seems like one of the most difficult tasks, and it’s a decision, to say goodbye intentionally or unintentionally, that can happen in an instant.

Look at It From Another Angle

Photo Credit: Joseph Lapin

Photo Credit: Joseph Lapin

There is something else I learned about the act of changing a creative project, and the lesson has presented itself through photography and journalism. The photo above was taken on Bastille Day in front of the Eiffel Tower. It was the most amazing fireworks display I had ever seen. Sorry America. The fireworks were shooting straight out of the Eiffel Tower, and they were timed to accent the rhythms and the music being pumped into the air. Even the colors of the fireworks matched moods in the music. It was a true spectacular. I was having a very difficult time taking photos of the fireworks, however, because I didn’t have my tripod and couldn’t keep steady long enough to keep my shutter speed open and still capture crisp shots. So I pumped up the Iso. They came out decent but noisey, and they weren’t the quality I wanted. So I decided to just look at the photo differently, and I cropped it and suddenly the fireworks looked like pieces of wheat growing out of a steel Earth. That’s the photo above.

Photo Credit: Joseph Lapin. Paris, Bastille Day.

Photo Credit: Joseph Lapin. Paris, Bastille Day.

The same thought went into the photo above. I wasn’t quite getting the photo I wanted, so I just decided to find another angle. This is a skill I learned as a journalist: how to approach the story from different angles depending on the information you have at hand or the direction you want the story to go. Well, it’s something that I’m taking into my creative life. How can I look at the work I’m creating from the appropriate vantage point? Right now, I’m in an airplane flying above the middle of America on my way to a conference in Baltimore. A different angle can mean something so incredibly large — or it can mean just a slight variation. I have dozens of stories, dozens of journal entries, countless scenic sketches, hundreds of ideas — now it’s about finding the right angle to breathe life into the process. I’m thinking about an interview I conducted with a photographer named King Lawrence. He said, anyone can take a picture, but it’s the idea behind it that counts.

Finding a Voice

Photo Credit: Joseph Lapin

Photo Credit: Joseph Lapin

Finally, after all of this tearing up and destroying the old pieces of writing, I’m starting fresh and searching to finally define my voice. I’ve always felt I had a pretty strong sense of my identity as a writer, but I’ve realized that I don’t. I need to keep on finding my voice — basically the vehicle for the stories that I need to tell. I’ve been traveling a lot since I was 17. I’ve lived in Detroit, Bradenton, Miami, DeLand, Long Beach, Los Angeles, some time in Europe, and each place keeps on changing me drastically. But my hometown, Clinton, Mass, is where I was raised. In my work, I call it Kilroy, but I need to return to my roots a bit. I need to set some stories in the place where my voice was initially crafted. And I need to spend some time in one place artistically, finding a true sense, an authenticity, to speak again, to write, to create. That’s my plan of action. More next week and some announcements soon.

 

The Honeymoon in France and Spain: Reawakening the Artistic Spirit

Posted on July 27, 2014

Photo Credit: Joseph Lapin

Photo Credit: Joseph Lapin

My wife and I just returned from our honeymoon. Yes, it’s been a year and half since our wedding (aren’t more and more couples taking a later honeymoon?), but it couldn’t have been more perfect timing. As you might have read in my last post, I took a vacation from social media and blogging for the two weeks I was gone to rethink my writing priorities and goals, and I wanted to find a way to reawaken the artistic spirit, the sense than anything was possible with the written word.

When I left my MFA program at Florida International University, I had a novel in stories and a collection of poetry, and I thought that those two objects were the key to my future artistic endeavors. Many of those poems I have still not shared or tried to publish, but overall, I was not able to sell my novel in stories as a whole — just a few pieces. And since that time, I have focused more on journalism and radio shows and video production, and I have had some success, but before I left for the honeymoon, I could feel that my spirit for the written word, for creative projects, had been worn down by trying to take on too many things and achieve goals that were perhaps a distraction. I was working seven days a week and constantly looking at my phone for the next project, worrying about getting traffic, money, and more. But I found some places, some moments, during my honeymoon that helped remind me of the passion I have for creative projects, for the written word and for some new mediums, too.

The Architecture in Barcelona

Photo Credit: Joseph Lapin. Gaudi.

Photo Credit: Joseph Lapin. Gaudi.

My wife and I spent a few days in Barcelona, and I’ve heard so much about this city from friends and family that I already felt I had been to this city before. They all said I would love the place because of the art and the spirit of revolution (I’m the leftist in the family, I guess). It’s not often so many people talk with such gusto about a place. My wife, Heron, was particularly interested in the Guadi houses, so against every bone in my body that hates looking like a tourist, I reluctantly signed us up for a walking tour to see three Gaudi locations. I really didn’t know much about Gaudi at first, and honestly I didn’t really spend too much time thinking about architecture, but I found, like most people, Gaudi’s homes to be inspirations. I particularly liked the house above, which is called Casa Batlló. I love the colors and the sense of augmented reality, because that’s what I love about great art. I love writing and painting and music and design that moves the perspective of an object, an idea, a character, or a place flawlessly and seamlessly into the fantastic. I have plenty more photos I’ll be sharing on my Flickr page of Gaudi’s homes soon.

The Palau de la Música Catalana. Photo Credit: Joseph Lapin

The Palau de la Música Catalana. Photo Credit: Joseph Lapin

Of course, Barcelona isn’t all Gaudi architecture. Before I left for our trip, I was reading about Barcelona, and I came across the stained-glass ceiling above, and I couldn’t wait to photograph it. That’s my photo, and I’m proud of it, and I have many more shots of this ceiling. This stained-glass ceiling is in the Palau de la Música Catalana, which was designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner — a rival of Gaudi. It’s truly a spectacular building that I recommend you see when you head to Barcelona, but it is way more expensive than it should be for a tour. The stained-glass is meant to resemble the sun, and once again, it’s one of those dream-like images, one of those cosmic visions of the sun emanating energy out into the world, a transcription of light and all that we can not see.

Museums: Centre Pompidou and Picasso

Design by Joseph Lapin

Design by Joseph Lapin

Throughout my writing career, I have always looked to paintings for inspiration. I have often seen writing and painting and music as the same thing. Without the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, I’m not sure if I would be on the path I am today. In Paris, I’ve been to several of the art museums, including the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay, but I’ve never been to the Centre Pompidou, and it surely didn’t disappoint. I was able to see a bunch of paintings by Matisse and Kandinsky and many others, but I was fascinated by all the old magazine covers they had around the building. I’ve been experimenting with design, trying to get much better. I started to look at all the older magazine covers, and I realized that I could do that on Illustrator. So I took a bunch of photos of the magazines I wanted to steal from, but I lost my phone with all the pics. I think that’s the art Gods telling me to be original.

The Picasso Museum was another artistic experience that proved to be inspiring. We went to the one in Barcelona, and what I found incredible about Picasso was seeing his work from the early part of his life. He was truly a genius, and painting seemed to come natural to him, but what I most admire about him and his art was his work ethic. That man painted with a fury, and he must have sketched the same scene or object a million times until he found the right one. The hard work he put into his painting led to that explosion of creativity in his later life. It’s obvious  that hard work, even in moments of doubt, can lead an artist to a place that is unimaginable or unforeseen. It’s just about keeping the shoulder to the wheel; it’s about grinding; it’s about the journey.

Photography

Credit: Joseph Lapin

Credit: Joseph Lapin

Before I left for the honeymoon, I was contemplating whether or not I should bring my Nikon D7100, because I was a bit worried about it being stolen by the elusive pick pockets or burdened by having to lug it around. But I’m so glad that I brought it, because I’m learning that I love photography, and there were so many moments that I saw that I felt that I just needed to capture. In the past, this would have been moments of poetry, and I would have written them down. Maybe that’s taking me away from the writing a bit more, but I can’t help but think of photography as poetry, as story telling.

Credit: Joseph Lapin

Credit: Joseph Lapin

I’m loving shooting photos at night. Before I started reading about photography, I was always so blown away with long exposures — mostly because I had no idea how photographers achieved that effect. More than ever, I’m excited about light; I’m excited about the way it bounces off the water. I’m excited about capturing motion. I have so much to learn, but I’m exited to learn.

Petit Pont

Petit Pont Credit: Joseph Lapin

I’ve also started experimenting with black and white photography, and I still feel that I have so much to discover, but here are a couple of my attempts:

Credit: Joseph Lapin

Credit: Joseph Lapin

 

Credit: Joseph Lapin

Credit: Joseph Lapin

Credit: Joseph Lapin

Credit: Joseph Lapin

Yes, the picture of Heron above might be overexposed a bit, and I have a feeling the spot on the right of the frame is just too much, but I like the effect, even if it’s imperfect. Here is a color one  from the subway.

Credit: Joseph Lapin

Credit: Joseph Lapin

Montmartre

Credit: Joseph Lapin

Credit: Joseph Lapin

My family and I went on a walking tour in Montmartre, and it was great to learn more about a part of Paris that I had fallen in love with many years ago when I was wandering around by myself. Of course, I didn’t know anything about it at the time, but I just loved walking around the neighborhood. I loved the Sacre Coeur and the view of the city. The walking tour company was called Culture Fish, and the guide was incredible. He showed us all around the city and places where Van Gogh had painted. In fact, he even showed us a place where Van Gogh had once lived. Notice the sunflowers hanging out of the window below.

Credit: Joseph Lapin

Credit: Joseph Lapin

What I loved about Montmartre was that it still feels like a city for artists, for writers, for intellecturals. Perhaps this is a bit of the “Midnight in Paris” syndrome made famous by Woody Allen, but the time where artists lived in Montmartre and the Lapin Agile rocked with music and madness seems like a hell of a time. Imaging a city, a world, where men and women lived and valued art so intensely was inspiring to me: to live in a place like that seemed incredible. Unfortunately, as my wife pointed out, there might not ever be another Montmartre or Greenwich Village — at least like it used to be. That community might have become virtual now. Artists no longer need to live next to each other to communicate. However, they do need to work at their craft. The spirit of this city, of the past, rushed into my brain and words, and it refreshed my creative mind. The reminders of the creative process, the joie de vivre, was everywhere in Montmatre, even stuck in the walls.

Credit: Joseph Lapin

Credit: Joseph Lapin

And I mean literally stuck in the walls. Above you can see a sculpture of the main character in Marcel Aymé’s story, “The Man Who Walked Through Walls.” I had never read the story before, but the tour guide had given us a synopsis. Basically, it’s about a man who learns he can walk through walls until one day he gets stuck. It’s obviously a lot cooler of a story than I’m given credit for, but after seeing this sculpture, I’ve decided to devour Aymé’s work, because it seems to capture that sense of bendable reality that I’m trying to attain in my work while remaining literary and engaging.

I knew I truly loved Montmartre when I saw the scene happen below which is told through a slide show. Basically, I noticed this Elvis Costello-looking guitar player. He was trying to get the attention of people, and I went over and snapped a picture. He started singing this song about Montmartre, and then another guy came over and started singing with him. Then that other guy who came out of nowhere started conducting an audience of strangers, and they all started singing. What a place. Honestly, what a place.

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Here is one last photo I took while in Montmartre. I have many more you will be able to see on my Flickr.

Credit: Joseph Lapin

Credit: Joseph Lapin

The Seine and the Petit Pont

Credit: Joseph Lapin

Credit: Joseph Lapin

Finally, the most inspiring place for me on my honeymoon, besides anywhere I was with my wife (yes, that should score me some points, right?), was staring at the Seine on the steps near the Petit Pont. When I first went to Paris seven years ago with nothing but a backpack and my journal, all I wanted to do was be a writer, and I wrote in my journal everywhere I went, trying to capture what I saw, hopefully, the same way a painter captures a landscape. I sketched and I sketched, and because I didn’t really know anyone in Paris, I spent a lot of time alone, writing in my notebook. One of my favorite places to write was on the steps near the petite pont in front of the Notre Dame. One day, I was sitting there and writing in my journal, when a man came up to me and said, “If you keep a journal, a journal will keep you.” That’s always stayed with me…that moment.

So I returned to this spot on honeymoon on the last day we where in Europe, where this mysterious man said those words to me that have stuck with me for years, and it struck me how much time had passed. I was now with my wife. I was now older and more experienced. And yes, I am a writer in some way. I have published some great articles in cool places, but I still don’t have a book. And when I return to this place in the future, to this spot, perhaps with my children, I want to have a shelf filled with my writing. I found the inspiration again. I found the motivation. I am awake.

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