New piece at the L.A. Weekly — an interview with L.A. author Amelia Gray

Ever since I started working at my new job in public relations, I haven’t published anything new in the LA Weekly or the OC Weekly. In fact, I haven’t published any form of journalism since I was married. Honestly, starting a new job, planning a ceremony, writing a blog and a memoir have all sort of over taken over my life. Though I have been working on a larger piece for the LA Weekly book section, my interview with Amelia Gray was the first piece I had published in a bit.

And it felt great, because I was able to speak to an amazing writer and discuss with someone who is infinitely more successful than me. That’s always inspiring, because it reminds me that they were once where I am. And it’s a struggle; it’s a fight; it’s a ton of hard work to go to a place where Amelia Gray is currently standing: a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist. Wow, could you even imagine that? Well, check out the interview to see what it must feel like.

Wedding Blog Continued — How social media expands the mental frame

Last week I posted “The Marriage Blog: I put a ring on it,” and to date it’s my most successful blog post. I credit my beautiful wife for being such a great model. And today, I was going to write a post on my first trip to Las Vegas — which I’m still planning on for later this week — but my friend, fellow writer, and former colleague, Tania Cepero Lopez, helped me realize that I wasn’t finished with “The Marriage Blog.” I still had ideas I was leaving on the table, so I decided to push myself further.

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Tania is a professor at Florida International University, and she teaches writing. If I dare, then I might also call her a rhetorician — a scholar. She is interested in the way we communicate, and she was particularly drawn to my post because of my questions posed on the way social media will help us remember. Check out her piece here: The Rhetorical Writer. In her post, Tania writes:

[Joe] identifies a problem: the way we remember is changing because our memory artifacts are changing. He’s concerned by this change and feels like it needs further attention, further exploration. Whether this change is good or bad is another story, a question he has not explored yet.

In a sense, Tania did me a huge favor; she analyzed my thoughts, broke down my writing, and, in a very admirable way, showed me where I stopped, where I could keep going, where my mind was wandering. If it wasn’t for her post, then I would have just moved on.

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Yeah!!!

Oh yeah!!!

So now I must confront the question: Are these new ways of recording our lives — Facebook, Twitter, Vine, Google+, etc — good or bad? How are these social platforms changing the way we remember, and is it changing the way we, then, perceive our world? Woah, I just got wicked nerdy…lol.

Let me put it this way: On my wedding day, I knew I was going to have a gigantic challenge — staying in the moment. One of the hardest aspects of my life is staying in the present, not future tripping. On that day I knew I had to be aware of my world, be aware of the first time I kissed Heron as my wife, be able to smell the flowers as my cousin tossed them onto the floor, be able to feel how cold Heron’s skin was as we stood outside taking pictures in the freezing cold, be able to hear the guitar player strumming the melody of “Here Comes the Sun” as I walk back down the aisle. And I tried my hardest to capture those small details, those incredible small features of our world, and ingrain them into my memory so deeply that my vision of the past would be fuller.

That’s what I really want, and maybe what most of us want, is a full vision of who we were, once were, where we once were, in order to understand who we are now and in the future.

Now back to the original question: Are these social-media platforms good or bad? Well, the answer is obvious; it’s good. Tania points out that a result of being so connected is a faster exchange of ideas — in turn a growth in innovation. That’s an awesome point. Our blog posts are a microcosm of that effect.

So now I’m going to branch off from her idea a bit. All these social-media platforms are incredible for, yes, the freaking human being, because it expands our vision of the world; it expands the angles from which we can remember; it grows the perspective from which we can see.

Let me explain, dear reader. (Have I told you how much I love that you’re reading my blog?) Take a look at some of the pictures below. When I was dancing with Heron during our first dance, I was telling her, “Don’t look at anyone else. Look at me. No one else is here. This is our moment. Let’s be in the moment together.” Unfortunately, what I told Heron was a lie; we couldn’t be fully in the moment. No matter how hard we tried.

First Dance

Waiting to Come Inside

Dance

First Dance 2

And anyway our moment, staring at each other, was only a small part of the larger one — our family, the music, the sun setting over the marsh in the background, the position of the DJ, the crowd watching from behind. Because all our friends were there with their phones, recording the whole event, Heron and I now have a much fuller vision of our day. I can almost pop into different perspectives to see how the world, our world, looked for someone else. Then I blend it all together.

But wait, then what the hell happens to my memory? Does it become a collection of all of our memories? A collective memory? Social media as a collective memory?

Well, that’s a nice thought, but even with social media, we can’t capture all the stories — though it’s nice to think we can try. And at the most fundamental level, social media is giving us a fuller vision of our lives, a more advanced engine to remember our loved ones in ways previous generations never thought possible.

The Marriage Blog: I put a ring on it

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La Bella Imagery: Megan LeeAnn Doyle

So I’m married…and I’m a writer. Some said it couldn’t be done. Others said it was a myth. But yes, I am a writer, slaving away at night and working a demanding job during the day…and I’m married.

When I was younger — let’s say around college — I wanted to transform my life into the image of what I imagined a writer to be. Think of Hemingway wandering through the streets of Paris, perusing the women like he later hunted Kudu in Kenya. Or Jack Kerouac, hopping on freight trains and shacking up with random women who lived in everything from adobe to train stations. A writer needed to know how to live. As for marriage, that wasn’t living.

Peto's Pic

Shortly after developing this idea of a writer, I remember I went through a huge philosophy phase; I read Nietzsche, Rousseau and Plato instead of going out and hanging with my friends. It was wonderful to open myself up to ideas, and I soaked up every line, branding their messages into my DNA…until one philosopher just rubbed me the wrong way.

His name was Schopenhauer. I wanted to read him, because Nietzsche kept alluding to him; so I figured, well, Nietzsche isn’t god, but he killed him: probably should listen. When I started to read, I was instantly turned off, because Schopenhauer kept telling me that if I wanted to find truth, understanding and knowledge, well, then I should just give up everything…especially love.

Love was a distraction. Love was evil. Love was an opium that deluded me from truth and understanding and life…really?

Sadly, for a time in my life, I believed that to be the case. That was before I understood what love actually was. That was before I understood that, for me, being a writer was forever attached to commitment and loyalty. That was before I saw my bride walk down the aisle for the first time — before I said my vows and made an eternal promise — before I walked away a changed man.

It’s funny how much I’ve changed on the idea of marriage, but it really comes down to finding the right person. I remember the day I realized I wanted to marry Heron. I was riding a bike with fellow FIU writer Nick Vagnoni, Pete B and David J. Gonzalez, the creator of Cabinet Beer Baseball Club, along the intercostal in North Miami Beach. Suddenly, it just hit me: I had found someone forever. Literally, I took my hands off the handler bar and screamed at the top of my lungs: “I’m going to marry her. I’m going to marry her.” Since that moment, I never looked back.

Planning the Wedding Isn’t Easy…But It’s Worth It

If you’re someone coming to my site, because you’re planning a wedding, then let me tell you this: the planning gets crazy a few weeks before the wedding. Maybe that seems obvious. But what’s really wild is the variable you can’t plan. For example, you might not have food like you planned; you might have under budgeted; you might not be able to find a band; you might find that your wedding venue has been overbooked. So just remember, in the end, it will all work out. It’s worth the effort.

But how will you capture the day of events? How will you remember them?

Of course, you’ll need a photographer for professional photos, but what I found to be one of the best experiences, so far, is that all of our friends and family started to share their personal photos on social media, especially Facebook. I loved seeing my friends’ shots, and it was instant access for me to relive the memories.

Social Media and the Wedding

At one point, I was looking at the photos that were posted on Facebook from our wedding, and I started to think about what was going to happen to all these photos. Should I save them or print them out and put them in a box somewhere forever? Should I save all the files in my iCloud? And how would these photos age? Could they be just like the portraits from my grandparents or would they stay on the internet always as timeless pendants of a long time ago? While digital photos won’t erode, they will still age, right?

It’s weird to think about how my grandchildren will look at my wedding. It’s going to be completely different from my parents and especially my grandparents. Just think about the way social media is influencing our lives and changing the we way record it. How will my grandchildren interact with this vine taken by my good friend Clayton Dean?

Remember, Stay in the Moment…Though It’s Impossible

Yes, social media is changing the way we reflect upon our memories, but that shouldn’t give us an excuse to not live in the moment…to be tweeting about a wedding while it was happening. And being present while your family is pulling you seven which ways and talking to uncles — though awesome — makes it impossible to remember to be in the there, in the zone, with your loved one. It’s essential to take those opportunities and allow those moments to surprise you and just take in the event…it might even happen after the wedding. Look for the small details.

Let me tell you about one of those moments I will never forget. Heron and I were flying back to Los Angeles, and we stopped in the Atlanta airport to hop on our connection to LAX. Heron and I had a couple of drinks, and we were laughing and smiling and being generally in love as we moved throughout that monstrous airport in Georgia. Well, I had been carrying a picture of my grandparents in my jacket pocket, and when Heron wasn’t looking at me, I would sneak glances at the photo.

 

Everything I know about love — I’m talking about commitment and ideology here — comes from my grandparents, Eleanor and Raymond Cain. They went through so much together in their 55 years of marriage. And they loved each other until the day they died. They couldn’t be there at our wedding, but they were there with me in everything I said and thought.

They were on my mind when Heron stepped into a store, and I took out the photo and started staring at them on their wedding day. They looked so happy and young and alive. That’s when I heard a voice.

“What’s that you looking at?” a voice asked.

I turned around, and it was a janitor who was cleaning one of the bathrooms.

“It’s my grandparents,” I said. “I was just married.”

And in that moment, talking with a janitor outside of a bathroom in the Atlanta airport, the moment really hit me. It was true. It was real. It will be a moment I’m always trying to recapture.

How I’ve learned I will always be a teacher

Tomorrow morning, I will be talking to some students at my former graduate school, Florida International University, where I used to teach composition and received my MFA in creative writing (one of the best programs in the country!). The class is English Composition 1102, and it’s taught by one of my friends and former colleagues. She’s always looking for new ways to reach her students. She believes that writing and rhetoric can change a student’s future and provide them with the skills necessary for success — even if they’re not an English major.

Miami Horizon

So tomorrow, I’m going to Skype into their class from my new office and tell them about how the skills they’re learning in comp class transferred into my job, my life, and my personality. And I’ve got to say, the lessons I used to teach my students (plus the lessons I learned on how to teach from my professors) has played a gigantic role in my life, but it’s impossible to ever measure.

Journaling and freewriting 

If you’ve ever been in my class — or you ever really got to know me — then you probably know that I write in a journal all the time. I have countless journals with my thoughts, my dreams, my visions, my story ideas, and they’re probably the most prize possessions I own, because I can look back on those books and understand that it is the material of my mind.

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Maybe that sounds strange. But when I was in graduate school, I took this pedagogy class with Kimberly Harrison. We read a bunch of theory, and I enjoyed it, but what I took away from the class, which impacts me everyday, is freewriting. Writing without thinking; writing without censoring; writing without blocking…searching, groping, hoping for some understanding to pop out of the page like a message from a dream.

In the most basic sense, learning to write write without judging was an important hurdle I had to overcome before I could actually communicate with others or myself. How often do we judge our writing? How often do we judge what we say in class? And how often do we stop from saying what we actually want because of fear? Well, freewriting taught me to believe in my words, to write them, to say them, and never look back.

Of course, this has some drawbacks. If I’m just saying whatever the hell I want, well, I’m probably going to say something stupid and offensive. But here’s another way I use freewriting: When I know I’m going into a difficult situation, when I know I have to talk to my boss about a sensitive issue, even when I know I have to talk to a loved one about a pressing matter, I write about it. I see what’s on my mind. I learn about myself. I learn about my fears. I learn about my thoughts. I learn about my insecurities. And what I’m really doing is strategizing by voyaging into myself.

You know, I could probably go on about all the things I’ve learned from teaching, but here’s something I’ve learned that seems important right now: Sometimes, you can plan an entire lesson down to the minute, but sometimes you just have to move on from that routine in order to find the point you wanted to make.

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I’m getting married next week. Actually Saturday. I proposed to my lady, Heron, while I was teaching at FIU. Teaching, strangely, had a big part of this decision. And what I learned while teaching is that you always have to know your audience; you always have to know your genre; you always have to know your purpose.

Well, those are basic lessons for writing a paper, but those are the basic lessons for living a successful life. We teach our students to wallow in complexity, to not take the easy way out, and to find the right answer to complicated questions. And when I was trying to figure out if I was going to propose, I asked the same very questions I use to brainstorm a research paper.

So I looked at my life, and I wondered, who was the audience? Who was I living for? Ultimately, it was me, but it was my future wife. It was my dog. It was my family. It was my students. It was the voice I hear inside my head that tells what I’m doing is right or wrong.

And then I thought about the genre. What kind of a life did I want to live? Because I want to be a writer, part of me thought that I had to live some tragically beautiful life and suffer. I could have lived my life like a tragedy. I could have chosen to be alone and a wandering Gypsy. But no, I wanted to make my life another genre. I didn’t want to live a tragedy. I wanted to be happy. And I know what made me happy. I mean, I knew who made me happy.

And finally, I started to think about my purpose: The ultimate question. With my students, I asked, “What is it that you’re trying to accomplish in your paper?” With myself, I asked the obvious: What did I want out of life? And yes, life is tragically short, but I often imagine that when I die, I could be forced to watch my life on repeat, and back in graduate school, I knew that I wanted Heron to be in those scenes. I knew my purpose: to have an incredible family and be one hell of a writer.

Some might even say that being a writer and having a family is a paradox. But I’m the one writing this story.

Purpose, audience, and genre…

Weeklong Poetry-Commute: An Experiment in Social Media

For the last week, I have been participating in what I have been calling a “Weeklong Poetry-Commute.” Basically, I’ve been trying to figure out new ways to “cloud seed” the creative process with my poetry, and I decided that every day on my way home from work, I would tweet one line of poetry, as I was leaving my office in Westwood. Some nights I biked home; other nights I drove home in my Buick Lesabre. At the end of the week, the plan was to put all the lines together in a poem.

westwood window

I don’t know if you are familiar with the area in Westwood, but the traffic is thick. I live about two miles away from Westwood Village and my work, but sometimes it takes me about 30 minutes to get home — that’s nothing for Los Angeles — and other times it takes about 15 minutes, which is about what it takes when I bike to work. Well, the area is so congested, because the commuters from Beverly Hills, Hollywood, and Westwood are trying to stampede towards the 405 on-ramp at the Wilshire exit. It doesn’t help with all the construction.

And as I was driving and noticing all the traffic, I couldn’t help but see the beauty in the wood beams on the blossoming highway overpass; I couldn’t help but see something strangely stunning in the faces of the veterans getting off the buses to head to the Veterans Hospital; I couldn’t help but be astonished by the way people behaved in traffic — the way we let our personalities shine through our cars. So I wanted to make this experience into poetry with a form that expressed this strange experience.

I’m always trying to figure out new poetic forms, and I think social media is providing artists with an entirely new outlet for creativity. The surrealists used to do a similar poetic experiment called Exquisite Corpse, except they used many different people. Also, Oulipo, the poetry movement started in France, has similar poetry games.  My former professor, Denise Duhamel, used to teach us about all these different variations of poetry, and she brought a new life to a lot of our stale poems. She’s an awesome poet, and she taught us that poetry doesn’t always have to be put together so neatly as if it was a perfectly structured — and boring — apartment complex approved by the zoning board. In poetry, the building can look like it’s about to fall apart and be wonderful for it.

I’m not sure if the poem will come together in the end as a whole, but this is just an experiment. Below the sound cloud file, you will find the tweets in their original. Love to hear your feedback or if you have new ideas for new poetry experiments with social media — or an idea for a collaborative project.

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