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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Stalkable #1: The World's Greatest Person

I first saw Sherman Alexie in person when he spoke at my college graduation. I was aware of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, but didn't have any particular idea of the man until I saw him stand before thousands of fresh-faced grads (and our proud parents) and rip into the Catholic church for half an hour. I don't know what it had to do with the class of 1995, full of world-changing ideas and paralyzing fears (our official graduation motto was "Do you want fries with that?") but it made me laugh until I was crying.

Here was a man that showed us how to succeed: Have huge brass balls. Say what you feel. Be real. Be funny. Don't be afraid to try to make something beautiful. And don't be afraid to point out the relative nudity of your local emperor.

I fell in love.

Since I hate language and books and readin' and stuff... I never did consume much of his fiction. But I saw his two films: Smoke Signals and the (significantly better) follow up: The Business of Fancy-Dancing; and I read some of his poetry and short stories. I paid attention to his occasional column in The Stranger and his editorializing around the time when Clay Bennett and NBA commissioner David Stern dropped a colossal deuce on the city of Seattle.

Everything I read or see of the man impresses me, so the mancrush has been steadily nourished over the last 15 years. And he finally got a haircut which didn't hurt things one bit.

Sherman Alexie... then and now

A month ago Olaiya and I went down to the new Elliot Bay Book Store in Capitol Hill to see Sherman moderate a reading by two international writers. Ayn Rand wannabe Tommy Wieringa and slack-jawed soap operaist Christos Tsiolkas technically shared the stage with my man. But in a stunning move Sherman kicked off the event by reading one of his own poems. There wasn't a single word spoken by either writers that compared. Alexie, accidentally but incontrovertibly, pwned. Sadly, both writers trotted out their little novels and gamely answered questions about their process. But you could see it in their eyes... in everyone's eyes. It was as if Abraham Lincoln had come out to introduce a 2003 debate between George Bush and John Kerry. In a way, it was remarkable these two very small men were even able to carry out the charade. It would have been kinder had they elected to just quit and go home.

Olaiya could feel it too... Sherman's radiance. He's a blazing ball of fusion-luminescent gases in the otherwise inky void of writerliness.

The next day we saw him distorted through a glass window. A plastic cup of white wine (or maybe it was Martinelli's) in his hand, he was hosting a reception next door to Elliot Bay. We were walking down to purchase a copy of his latest book as a present for Olaiya's best friend in Wichita. The idea crossed my mind that we should purchase it, and then crash the reception, asking Mr. Alexie to autograph his novel to "Binky Bunkers in Witchita." Unfortunately, Elliot Bay was selling pre-autographed copies of the book... so my moment had to wait.

Two weeks later, I accepted an invitation to a party at my friend Erik's apartment. He lives in South Lake Union aka Allentown. His posh new building features a built-in basketball court, which strikes me as the second greatest luxury possible... coming in just behind living with a gourmet chef. Since Erik wanted to impress his guests, he took us on a tour of the building. We saw the rooftop deck, the TV room, the pool table, and finally the hoops court. As we were entering, a group of men (just having finished their game) were leaving. One of them held the door for us. I looked up to thank the guy and found myself face to face with Sherman Alexie.

A glow of fresh sweat. A broad smile. A gracious air.

I froze. I looked at him with a marked and comical double take. I cocked my head and smiled. He smiled back, as if saying, "Yeah, I look familiar but you can't quite place it... no worries buddy." But I did "place it". I knew exactly who he was but I just couldn't find the words to convey 15 years worth of admiration! I couldn't say the right thing, so my brain locked and I said nothing at all.

I was gliding. I drained 8/10 three pointers to win a friendly bet with Erik. I was telling everyone that would listen that Sherman freakin' Alexie just held the door for us. And then my brain started working overtime. Sweet sweet machinations.

Basketball is a rhythmic sport. It has a flow and an ebb. You have to respect the game. You can't force things. The best players (and I've heard that Sherman is an active and passionate baller) commit to the game. They play on a routine. For example, I try to play every Thursday night in Wallingford. If I miss a week, I'm off. My wrist doesn't snap right, my legs don't bounce right... I throw up bricks and telegraph my passes.

Maybe Sherman plays here often. Maybe he's here every Saturday night. Let's see... it was about 9pm when we showed up... so he probably got here to play at 7:30. I wonder what would happen if Erik and I showed up at 7:30 and looked like we were hoping to shoot hoops. Might they invite us to join their game? Could it come to pass that I play in a basketball game with Sherman Alexie? And then, might we become friends that go out for a beer afterwards? And maybe he's looking for a Thursday night game too and I can invite him to join my Wallingford crew. Excluding the freaky cosmic accident wherein I get to play pick-up ball with Barack Obama, this might be the best thing I can imagine.

I haven't put Operation Sherman Stalking into action yet. I'm still debating it. On the one hand, I don't want to be a creepy jerk that follows people around and makes them uncomfortable. Nobody wants more Chuck and Buck in the world. On the other hand, I'd hate to remember the time when I met Sherman Alexie face-to-face and just smiled stupidly at him.


Monday, June 28, 2010

Thanks Jim

The last blogger standing has elected not to turn off the lights, but to shine a little instead.

Yojimbo, who writes Lets Not Talk About Movies, never flinched as the casual blogosphere meekly acquiesced to a nation drunk on Facebook. Defective Yeti hasn't posted in a month and missed all of April. Last Plane to Jakarta has downgraded from fever pitch to just tepid. And I've had to delete the links to all of my friends' dead blogs. But as so many of us gave up the rigors of weekly posts, sculpted essays and original thought, Jim continued to write at a faster pace than I can read. He has developed a loyal following and has even received sponsorship offers. LNTAM continues to blossom and I couldn't be happier for its meticulous curator.

So I was pleasantly surprised when he gifted me an ice cream sundae worth of praise. Thank you for honoring me as one of your "versatile blogger" award recipients Jim. I suppose I am the "very definition of versatile." It's a blessing and a curse. I often berate myself: "If only I could care more about a single topic, I could really get somewhere." Then I think on the long-standing success of Orangette, and the new-found success of LNTAM, and feel a welling of self-pity. These writers bring nuance to their observations that can only come when a person has dedicated a lifetime to their chosen topic. Woe to the ADD writers of the world! Woe to us that must hunt our topics the way pigs snuffle for truffles.

Perhaps Facebook will suffer a backlash. Perhaps I'll find inspiration to start writing in a new vein. Perhaps someone will leave the perfect comment that spurs me on. But more likely, I'll continue with Stave It Off at my own churlish pace, stubbornly insisting that I write for an audience of one: My own future self who will someday look back on these posts and smile.

PS Not sure why, but I hate being known as the guy that posts gnarly-looking sports injuries. It represents about 5% of my posts, and ought to only count as 5% of my blogger persona... but for most people it seems to be the most impactful thing on Stave It Off... which makes me sort of sad.


Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Unemployment Blues

Having wrestled, and having been overcome, by the unemployment benefits angels of the State of Washington, I have the following report of the battle:

I applied for benefits in the middle of April. I filled out the application and began making weekly claims at that time. Additionally I was required to fill out job logs detailing at least three employment contacts per week. Within three weeks I received a letter of denial, explaining that my reasons for quitting the position were not within the legal guidelines for being awarded benefits. According to the relevant RCW, quitting due to an inappropriate change in job description is not sufficient reason.

I appealed the denial, and today (almost two months since first applying) I had my telephone trial with an appeals judge in Olympia. After calling in at 8:50 AM, the trial began at 10:30 and lasted until 11:30. I based my appeal on two acceptable provisions within the RCW: That I left the position due to health consequences (depression and anxiety) that stemmed directly from changes in my job description; and that I was unable to perform my job within the ethical standards of the National Association of Social Workers due to the same changes.

Toward the end of the trial, the judge made it clear that the WACs that govern the RCWs demand that if you quit due to medical necessity, you must first provide written documentation of that disability to your employer so that they have an opportunity to accommodate your needs. This makes sense, and also completely scuttled the bulk of my appeal. The fact that I didn't quite understand the nature or extent of the psychological toll I was enduring at the time of my resignation did not matter.

By the time I attempted to address the ethical concerns I had about the changes in job description, the judge's language made it pretty clear that she thought this case was settled and was already writing her decision summary in her mind. And although she didn't explicitly state what her decision would be, everything she said implied that the decision would go against me.

So be it. I didn't count on getting any benefits when I quit. I quit to save my sanity and to pursue greater professional fulfillment. I quit because those who love me gave me strength by telling me that they believed in me and would support me. I quit in order to force a next chapter in my life to reveal itself. Maybe now that this unemployment benefit segue has resolved itself, that will come sooner rather than later.

And after listening to my former director's testimony during the phone trial... "I was quit when I walked in here. I'm twice as quit now."