Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Thing About Fences....

A fence cleaves a forest, reminiscent of Robert Frost's Mending Wall
Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” is an oft-misconstrued exhortation against the notion that an ideal neighbor is one kept behind the safe partition of a wall or fence. The poem’s most famous line, “Good fences make good neighbors,” has been regularly employed quite conversely to Frost’s intent, making "Mending Wall" one of the great examples in literature of the potential danger of a quote ripped from its context. 

One high profile example occurred in 2010 when, while addressing her next-door neighbor (and a vocal critic of her newly released book), former Vice President nominee Sarah Palin used that very line from Frost’s poem to imply that they could remain cordial as neighbors as long as they built a "tall fence."

The true meaning of Frost’s poem, however, is evident with a more scrupulous examination of the lines that surround this famous excerpt. For example, Frost's narrator describes the differences of his yard with his neighbor’s but with clear criticism of the idea that one's proximity to the other would lead to mutual detriment: “He is all pine and I am apple orchard. / My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines.” This observation lays bare how innocuous and superficial the dissimilarities are, rendering the necessity for a divisive fence absurd. 

The poem’s thesis, of un-partitioned, harmonious difference, seems of deeper poignancy and relevancy than ever here in the United States of the 21st century. The bitter election of 2016 left our country hotly divided, and the fences we've constructed between our neighbors, both literal and metaphorical, are taller, stronger and more opaque than ever.

The use of fences in Alaska, Sarah Palin's misuse of Mending Wall and more
So to arrive at last at the original inspiration for this blog post, let me bring you to Alaska, my new home state. There is no question to anyone who has lived or even visited here that a different sort of person is drawn to the unique features of this rugged place. It is a state defined by utilitarianism and community reliance. In their intense isolation, Alaskans have long been forced into dependence on the resources present and each other to survive the long winters and vast separation from the rest of society. 

Coming from the lower 48 (more specifically Colorado where land is grotesquely expensive and people often define themselves by the size and scope of what they own) the notion of carefully separating and even guarding what is yours has been etched into my conscious as merely a fact of life. Therefore, upon moving here it was a great surprise to find that in Alaska fences are decidedly rare. 

The reasons for this lack of artificially constructed borders are likely multifold. For one, resources are scarce and expensive this far removed from the mainland. The simple cost of building a fence is prohibitive enough discouragement. Secondly, city planning and such things as building codes are rather haphazard, and the people are much more inclined to a “just do it how you want” philosophy. While I am sure that buried in some office in the city building downtown there are detailed maps of property lines and legalese definitions, on the ground such guidelines seem exceedingly indistinct and subject to interpretation. 

However, in my opinion the most important reason why people shy away from fences in this state seems to be a pervasive insistence on community. Even in a town with a split personality, where last year’s election was virtually a 50/50 split and where intellectuals and blue-collar workers exist in nearly equal dimensions, there is a much more ingrained sense of “we are all in this together” than anywhere else I've ever lived. In many places in the United States so much venom is directed towards neighbors over their political convictions or lifestyle choices, virtually no dialogue exists over the “fences” we have surrounded ourselves with. Here, much of that is put aside for the notion that, living in the same place and time, we truly are neighbors.

I have come to admire greatly this Alaskan community ideal and wish a little more of it would spill into the world at large. There is a great movement to return to nationalism. The United States wants to build a wall between it and Mexico. Some members of the European Union want to revert back to the days when each country remained in unblemished and distinctly separate sovereignty from the others. While I can appreciate the sense of pride people feel in their culture and in the place they live, I can’t help but wonder if the age of intense nationalist sentiment was the distinct cause of both of the 20th century’s world wars, and that a return to such a state is to flirt with the possibility of another, even more devastating conflict.

Let me end with this diatribe with one last admonition: your yard might be full of pine trees and mine with an apple orchard. You need not worry, however, your pine trees are quite safe from my apples.

NOTE: I am aware of the irony of saying "people should go fenceless like Alaskans", then using Sarah Palin (a citizen and former governor of Alaska) as a counterpoint. I suppose she just proves that there are exceptions to every rule. Also, other people, ones that have lived in Alaska much longer than me, have pointed out that recently the very community-first mindset of Alaska I have been praising seems to be changing in the current political climate. In fact, NPR just released a story discussing how politically charged fiercely divide the people are in Haines, Alaska, a town not terribly dissimilar from Seward. You may recall Haines as one our recent stops on my "18 Days Up the Coast" blog post a couple weeks ago. Despite this, I am sticking to my guns, here, and going simply on my own observations.

If you enjoyed this post, consider signing up for my mailing list. I blog about all sorts of crazy, educational, entertaining, and occasionally funny topics from what makes an effective first paragraph in a novel to giant redwoodsmedieval sailboats, the ancient Mayans and more. If you do sign up, you will get a once-a-week update on my posts and NOTHING ELSE! No spam, no selling your email to third parties. Okay, if I ever get around to publishing one of these works in progress that are constantly haunting me, I might send out an email letting you know. In the meantime thanks for reading.

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Failures of Social Media Marketing (or You Don't Have to Have a Twitter Presence to Be a Writer)

Big Brother is watching you. No, not Big Brother. Big business. Well, some might suggest Big Brother is too. Not to mention all your friends, family, Twitter pals, Facebook foes, potential employers, potential girlfriends, etc., etc., etc. The digital eye is lidless and can spread its focus with near-omniscient precision like Sauron leering down on his hapless minions from Barad-dûr.

This blog article is inspired to a greater and lesser extent by two of the most recent books I have read: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and The Circle by Dave Eggers. After a personal marathon of genre fiction—mostly fantasy and science fiction with the occasional thriller mixed in for good measure—I felt the call to return to my roots as a literature major and tackle some modern literary fiction from two of today’s most influential writers.

Here is a quick rundown of each:

All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr-2014)
Amazon scores: 26,621 reviews
5 stars= 72%
1 star= 2%
This incredible WWII novel is a modern literary powerhouse. Not only was it the victor for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize, it saw sweeping success in the mainstream, staying atop the bestseller list for 118 weeks. For months I could hardly go anywhere without seeing it on a bookshelf or hearing someone exhorting its merits. Books seem to call to me in this way, and I decided at last to succumb and discover for myself if the hype surrounding this instant-classic was deserved.

In short, it is.

All the Light takes on an ancient topic: war. Even more specifically it re-examines the exhausted setting of WWII which has played host to so many books and movies I was skeptical that a fresh take on this subject was still possible. Not only did All the Light prove my preconceptions wrong, this incredible novel made it clear that even while tackling the most overused settings it is still possible to create something beautiful, fresh, intriguing and successful.

All the Light is the story of a blind girl, Marie-Laure, in the midst of occupied France. Thrust into a rapidly crumbling world without the benefit of her sight, Marie-Laure struggles to cling to the anchors that have kept her dark existence grounded: her father, her books (in braille), and the familiar streets of her corner of Paris, a detailed model of which her father tediously constructed so she could learn the city layout with the touch of her fingers. As this carefully controlled world shatters around her, the reader simultaneously learns the story of Werner, a German orphan whose virtuoso understanding of radio technology shoves him unwillingly to the front lines of battle to perform a grim and haunting duty for the Nazi war effort.

As the war progresses the two characters’ stories spin in ever-tightening concentric circles until both plots whirl together into a frightening, surprising and dramatic crescendo at the book’s conclusion.

At this point you are probably wondering how a novel set in war-torn 1940’s Europe ties into my original thesis about the shortcomings of social media and the discomfort engendered by this hyper-information age.

Anthony Doerr, Boise native and now official writer-in-residence for the state of Idaho, was virtually unknown before the publication of this novel and found this incredible success with no Twitter presence. That’s right. Though he does have a website and a Facebook page (both of which, it appears, are a response to his success, not the cause of it) Doerr has no Twitter account, one of the classic pillars of any modern author's platform. Let me repeat: 

Anthony Doerr found major mainstream literary success without Twitter!

There has always been something slightly uncomfortable for me about social media. I was a latecomer to Facebook (not joining until 2011, long after most of my friends) and was even more tardy to Twitter, which I did not start using until January of this year. Even now I harbor many misgivings about the effect such cybersocial vehicles have on our culture. While they have greatly enhanced the flow of global information and opened the possibility of success for independent authors and self-publishing models exponentially, they have also created the ultimate platform for hate and anonymous negativity to diffuse throughout the globe. Such vehement cruelty is the hilt of the wedge driven between opposing factions of our world, and (in my opinion) one of the most efficient weapons that has led to the erosion of civil discourse in modern society. Of course, it would be hypocritical for me not to acknowledge my own reliance on social media platforms to promote an article criticizing the very same platforms.

But I digress....

This idea, that there is something toxic undermining the benefits of social media, brings me to the second book I wish to discuss, The Circle by Dave Eggers.

The Circle (Dave Eggers- 2015)
Amazon scores: 3,151 reviews
5 star: 28%
1 star: 11%
Regular followers of my blog may recall that I have mentioned Dave Eggers several times in recent months. As I earlier attempted to elucidate, I'm filled with simultaneous frustration yet profound admiration for Eggers as a writer and a literary figure. I struggled with his 2000 memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The brilliance of this breakthrough book is without question but its convoluted style makes reading it a dizzying exercise in patience and focus. On the other hand, I admire Eggers deeply for his creation of 826 National, a rather brilliant non-profit whose primary function is to promote reading and writing skills among children (one of my primary goals also). In addition, I can’t help but feel a measure of hero worship for him for founding McSweeney’s, now largely regarded as one of the top literary journals in the world. Eggers' impact on modern literary writing goes without saying.

When I saw that Eggers' latest novel, The Circle, was being adapted into a movie starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson, I was intrigued and decided it was past time to give his work another chance.

First of all, let me say I was pleased to discover that The Circle had none of the over-written trappings of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Instead it is very accessible and readable novel. In fact, it feels more like garden-variety dystopian science fiction of the near-future variety than his usual hyper-intellectual literary fiction. The Circle takes the mores laid out by books like Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 and translates them into the modern vernacular.

In essence this novel is about the dangers of social media gone awry.

In the novel, a mega corporation called The Circle (basically an amalgamation of Google, Facebook, Youtube and Twitter) has come to be so powerful that it begins to infiltrate into every detail of people’s private lives. Politicians are pressured to become transparent (wearing high resolution cameras at all times so that constituents have 100% access to all meetings, dealings, votes, etc). There is a hyper-focus on social media participation, leading everyone to spend most of their time writing “zings” (essentially tweets) about nearly every mundane daily task. Eventually the company becomes so pervasive they begin promoting programs they claim could eliminate crime and vastly improve healthcare, like implanting tracking chips in children to make them traceable for life and thus eliminate kidnappings, or creating wearable bio-monitors that chart and give unlimited global access to everyone's person’s health 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

Eggers’ own discomfort with the inauthenticity of social media communication is clear both in the novel and in his own actions, but he offers no workable solution. Instead he seems to conclude this movement towards an entirely social-cyber existence is inevitable. Things have progressed so far, the novel suggests, that this dystopian society where nothing is private and every personal detail is completely available to everyone is the inevitable and inexorable conclusion of this digital age we have created.

As mentioned, Dave Eggers has a relatively minor presence on social media. Here is yet another wildly successful novelist who does not have a Twitter account. Of course, it should be acknowledged that having become rather famous before the advent of Twitter or Facebook, Eggers had a distinct head start from the rest of us still on our quests to promote our work. However, his lack of social media presence combined with his chilling and terribly realistic portrayal of the potential consequences of our information-dense cyber reality forms a clear thesis that our ushering-in of an age where information is increasingly syndicated in unprecedented ways comes at a terrible cost: the death of uniquely personal and authentic experience.

Social media is a great tool, but as with any tool it can be misused. Many modern voices pressure today's aspiring writers to participate heavily in social media promotion: you must have a platform! Perhaps they're right. Perhaps the only way us not-yet-broadly-known writers can raise our voices above the ambient noise is to stand upon the digital platforms and project our voices into the cosmos. Or perhaps this is just a myth promoted by those in charge of constructing The Circle.

I am in-debted to my readers. Without people to endure the words on my pages, I will vanish like the dodo. If you liked this post, feel free to comment below. If you didn't like it, feel free to comment below. I'll be your friend forever if you consider signing up for my weekly newsletter. You'll get a once-a-week update on my posts and NOTHING ELSE! No spam, no selling your email to third parties. Okay, if I ever get around to publishing one of these numerous books I've been working on, I might send out an email letting you know about that, but that's it! In the meantime thanks for reading.

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All writing is the original work of Brian Wright and may not be copied, distributed, re-printed or used any form without express written consent of the author. Find out here how to CONTACT me with publishing and/or use questions

Monday, May 15, 2017

18 Days Up the West Coast

A three-week journey up the west coast of North America from Eureka, California to Seward, Alaska, the hamlet of 3,000 people we now call home. By boat and by car, my wife, my dog and myself spent eighteen days adventuring northward along the beautiful shore of the Pacific Ocean through the redwoods of Northern California, the rugged beaches of Oregon, the rain forest of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the braided islands of Canada’s British Columbia, and the dramatic escarpments of southern Alaska. By the end we’d spent eight nights in hotels, three in a tent, three on the deck of a 408-foot ferry boat, two at a friend’s house, and one in a dusty cabin. In total 2,367 miles passed underneath the wheels of our car and another 1,215 miles through the turbine of our ferry boat. We visited four American states, two Canadian territories and witnessed some of the most beautiful terrain western North America has to offer. 

What follows is a mostly visual account of that journey.

Days 1 & 2 Ashland, Oregon

We were ushered into Northern California by rain back in January so it was fitting that we’d be chased out by the same. The drum roll of raindrops followed us all the way to Ashland, Oregon, a city known for its politically liberal ideals and for its renowned Shakespeare Festival. For nine months of the year, Ashland is host to two plays a day (mostly but not all Shakespeare), five or six days a week. Intrigued we tried to get last minute tickets to the festival, but since there were so few seats left, the price of $87 a person was a little too steep to justify on our travel budget. Instead we enjoyed a soak in a local hot springs and did some hiking in the lush mountains.

Ashland home of the Shakespeare Festival
A great way to get to know a
place is through its microbreweries
and coffee shops
Day 3 The Highway of Waterfalls 

In order to get Ashland, we’d had to turn inland away from the coast, so to get back we took Highway 138, known colloquially as “the Highway of Waterfalls.” We stopped to frolic at the base of several thundering waterfalls before settling into a soggy campsite on the bank of the North Fork of the Umpqua River.
272-foot Watson Falls

Day 4 Oregon Coast (Episode 1)

A stunning stretch of Oregon coast including gorgeous oceanside towns of Florence and Newport. The day concluded at an excellent campsite near the elongated Beverly Beach with a beer in hand and a lurid sunset unfolding over the water.

Day 5 Oregon Coast (Episode 2)

The heart of the Oregon shores. We visited a slew of stunning attractions including Seal Rock, Depoe Bay, and Cannon Beach (made famous in the 1980’s cinema classic, The Goonies.) This truly is a special part of the country with its rugged sea stacks, miles-long beaches and lush verdant rain forests vibrant with color and life.

a journal of a road trip up the Oregon coast
Rugged coasts of Oregon
Day 6 Into the Evergreen State

The next morning we crossed the Columbia River at Astoria and entered Washington, known as the Evergreen State. Though the first part of the drive was through depressing, economically stressed towns such as Aberdeen (whose only claim to fame is being the birthplace of Kurt Cobain and being home to Billy Gohl, one of the most prolific serial killers in American history), the second part coursed through the magnificent and wild Olympic Peninsula whose rugged, gray coasts are possibly even more dramatic than those of Oregon.

Day 7 Olympic National Park

A day in the incredible wilderness of Olympic National Park. This is one of the most vast and wild national parks in the Lower 48 and includes the Hoh Rainforest, which receives 127 inches of rain a year, making it one of the wettest places in North America. Afterward we decompressed in the Sol Duc Hot Springs as a chill misty rain leaked from the sky.

One of many waterfalls in Olympic National Park

Day 8 Fish Out of Water

A small-town boy all my life, the next phase of the journey was one of the most unsettling, and in some ways the most rewarding. We coursed around Puget Sound to the concrete jungle of Seattle, the keystone city of the Pacific Northwest. Frightened at first by the sheer volume of roaring buses, screeching taxis and shadowy vagabonds, I was quickly enamored by the city’s other side: the impressive array of young, intellectual people and its vast cultural diversity. In just a few block radius we encountered restaurants boasting authentic Middle Eastern, Brazilian, Mexican, Argentinian, French, Irish, Italian, Thai, Chinese, and Japanese cuisine. The multilayered assault of sumptuous aromas forced me into sensory overdrive. Best of all, Seattle matched and possibly exceeded its reputation as one of the great purveyors of perhaps my favorite commodity: coffee. 

Day 9 Museums, Markets, and Needles

No trip to Seattle could be considered complete without venturing to a few of its classic features: the downtown fish markets, the cultural museums, and the Space Needle. We dodged hurled fish at the Pike Place Market, craned our necks up at the 605-foot Space Needle, and spent four hours inside the MoPop pop culture museum, which included excellent extensive displays of two of my favorite topics: rock and roll guitars and fantasy movies/literature. 

The MoPop Museum and the Space Needle in the background

Day 10 Escaping the City

The city is great in small doses, but we were ready to make our escape back to the wild coast. We hit the pavement once again, blazing northward toward the town of Bellingham, Washington, our exit point from the contiguous United States. After a sweaty, steep hike through the rain forest, we met up with some friends in Bellingham who were gracious enough to host us for two nights as we prepared for the next phase of our long journey.

Day 11 The Sun!

The Pacific Northwest is famous for many things, not the least of which is the rain. So far on our trip we had not been disappointed. We’d yet to get through a full day without the benefit of at least a little rain. We were treated to a stunning blue-sky Bellingham day and took full advantage, going for a three-mile hike around Lake Padden and sun-bathing with the company of our books as temperatures spiked to almost 80 degrees, easily the warmest day we’d seen since the previous fall back in Idaho. Of course, no good thing can last forever and as evening fell the rain returned with a vengeance, hammering down with hail and even a few blinding arcs of lightning.

Rugged Olympic Peninsula coast in Washington
Day 12 All Aboard

This was it, the day that marked the end of the road trip and the beginning of the next folio. It was also the day we’d abandon the Lower 48 in favor of lonely expanse of Alaska. To get to the Final Frontier we had to drive aboard the M/S Malaspina, one of the original ferry boats in the fleet of the Alaska Maritime Highway. This was the least expensive, lowest-mileage means to transport our vehicle to Alaska.

The Malaspina, our home for four days
Day 13 Boat Life

A full day barging up the narrow sounds and inlets that circumnavigate Vancouver Island taught me several things: in medium seas I have a tendency to get seasick, and when you pack people into a relatively confined space there is a tendency for them to become friends. By the end of the day we had an international cast of fellow travelers bound by a common destination. It is an adventurous sort that takes an interest in a state as wild as Alaska. It draws the hermits, the misfits, the societal outcasts, the independents, the free-spirits, the thrill seekers. Everyone aboard the Malaspina had a story to tell and the telling/listening exchange, paired with the intense natural drama of the setting, forged a uniquely intriguing circumstance that somehow brought everyone together.

Sunset aboard the Malaspina
Day 14 Alaska

Finally steering back into U.S. waters we docked at a series of Alaskan ports on our way north. After 36 hours on board we could finally escape the steel confines of the Malaspina in favor of some fresh, northern air. That night, as the sun fell over the jagged coastal mountains of Southeast Alaska, a newly forged friendship between myself and a long-haired pianist named Tommy devolved into a two-hour guitar/piano jam session.

Somewhere along the Canadian coast aboard the ferry
Day 15 Port

Though our time on the ocean had been quite fun, we were eager for the boat ride to be over. Under cobalt skies the Malaspina was tied up to the final port in the strikingly dramatic town of Haines, Alaska. We parted cordially with our new friends. Haines was a stark juxtaposition to the busy streets and leaping skyscrapers of Seattle. Here the roads were mostly dirt, occasionally there was a lonely car, and the cloud-cleaving heaps of concrete and steel were replaced by much more massive hunks of granite and ice.

back on land in Haines, AK
Day 16 The Al-Can (Episode 1)

We had made it to Alaska but still had over 800 miles of driving to go (yes, at over 663,000 square miles Alaska is bigger than Germany, France, and all portions of the United Kingdom combined). This final stage of our journey, however, was along a portion of the Alaska-Canadian Highway bisecting the Yukon Territory of Canada and skirting the immense Kluane National Park. Hidden inside this gargantuan wilderness are Canada’s two highest mountains: Mt. Logan (19,551 feet/ 5,959 meters) and Mt. St. Elias (18,008 feet/ 5,489 meters).

My wife, Ella, soaking in the vast Yukon

Day 17 The Al-Can (Part 2)

With the end drawing rapidly near, I was too anxious to appreciate the stunning vistas unfolding all around us. It was raining again and my spirits were dampened. We had driven almost 2,000 miles by this point. Even though it was still some of the wildest and most beautiful terrain I have ever seen, I was anxious to be done with the car and settle down in a more permanent arrangement. After an eight-hour day we arrived in Anchorage, Alaska, the first time since day one that we were seeing sights we had seen before.

My dog, Otis, happy to be done with the car
Day 18 Arrival

From Anchorage it was a short 2.5-hr drive south to the seaside berg of Seward, the town of 3,000 that would serve as our post for the foreseeable future. By the time we descended to final hill and the town opened before us, we were more than ready to unpack the car and stretch our legs for good. We checked in to our temporary housing (a rather rustic one-bedroom cabin) and were greeted downtown by a massive gray whale humping along the bay not thirty feet off the shore. Seward is one of the most beautiful towns I have ever seen. Though the road adventure was over, the true adventure—forging a life in this wild, rugged place—was only just beginning.

Resurrection Bay in Seward, AK, our final destination


Unfortunately our rather rustic cabin lacks certain amenities. Internet for one. Thus my internet “brownout” persists. The only time I can connect to the web is via short bursts at coffee shops or the library. Until we find a permanent solution to our housing, the slow atrophy of my social media presence will endure. I haven’t forgotten about any of you! And I pray that you won’t forget about me. In the meantime, I am continuing to work hard on my latest work-in-progress and read as many books as I can. But the end is near and soon I will return as a full-service blogger, reader, contributor to social media platforms across the web. Until then…

If you enjoyed this post, consider signing up for my mailing list. I blog about all sorts of crazy, slightly educational, somewhat entertaining, and occasionally funny topics from what makes an effective first paragraph in a novel to giant redwoodsmedieval sailboats, the ancient Mayans and more. If you do sign up, you will get a once-a-week update on my posts and NOTHING ELSE! No spam, no selling your email to third parties. Okay, if I ever get around to publishing one of these works in progress that are constantly haunting me, I might send out an email letting you know. In the meantime thanks for reading.

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All writing is the original work of Brian Wright and may not be copied, distributed, re-printed or used any form without express written consent of the author. Find out here how to CONTACT me with publishing and/or use questions