Dispatch from Nebraska: May 19, 2014
I remember one of my childhood friends like this: We were 14. I had a school permit and a white convertible. We were always trying to get away from our farmer fathers to drive through town shooting paintballs or meeting girls. One afternoon after school we were at his house and his dad wouldn’t let him leave. He hadn’t done his chores, refused to do them, and he wanted to go see a girl he liked. So I hid him on the floorboards behind the front seats of my car and we drove into town.
That same friend died in a car accident during my first year in Korea. I never really heard what happened. Something about a rollover late at night on a dirt road in eastern Wyoming. And now that I’m back home he’s one of the people my friends and I occasionally bring up when we’re together. Everyone remembers him fondly. Well, at least the people I’m around. At these parties we stand in kitchens drinking Coors Light from bottles talking about how he was wild, happy, fun — the kind of person who never sold out or gave up or got burned out. And it’s a nice way to remember someone. It’s Memento Mori talk. The kind that makes it hard to put on a tie and go to work in the morning. It leads to plenty of idealistic thinking.
My mind vacillates and imagines a thousand possible lives I could be living. I have found something wrong with every place I’ve ever lived. I’ve romanticized every past life. Curse the creative mind. I know enough about alcoholics to know the geographical cure won’t save you. I tend to view my life in dualities. The lonely, time-forgotten Great Plains has been culturally depleted and fractured away from modern, urban America in such a way that to live here feels like putting yourself at a disadvantage from knowing the news of the rest of America. The tea leaves say: Stay here long enough and the cities will pull even farther away and leave you behind. Even the most urban of us in this town of 25,000 can’t escape our isolation. The outer peace, the slowness of this place, has been unnerving to me since I left Seoul, and the other cities I lived in before that. I’m still not comfortable with the quiet. I didn’t realize how lonely it would be coming back here. I’ve never needed help being introspective, likely due in large part to growing up this stark environment, and the city was distracting enough to keep me from diving too deep into my own head. All this silence and boredom breeds endless thinking.
That’s the tails side of the coin. The space, the low cost of living, the safety, the proximity to family — they all create a different peace of mind. I’m married now. Own a home. So the focus is more on building things then giving in to my impulse for adventure and living. On “This American Life” last week Ira Glass was hanging out with David Sedaris in Paris and Sedaris offhandedly threw out the comment that “being a foreigner is the lowest lifeform.” And even after years ago reading Bill’s short speech to Jake in “The Sun Also Rises” about how expatriates never wrote anything good after they left America, I still had to find out for myself what Sedaris also learned. And he’s right. It’s easy to idealize living in another country, until you try to stay for a few years. Then the truth and weight of never fitting into the culture becomes the reality you’re constantly reminded of. That’s a different kind of extreme loneliness. I’d rather live in a place that our culture doesn’t consider relevant than live in a country where I’m considered a second-class citizen.
Conor Oberst opens his new record with “Polished my shoes, I bought a brand new hat, moved to a town that time forgot / where I don’t have to shave or be approachable / No, I can do just what I want.” Half of that parallels my life. I write a column for the daily newspaper. My family has lived in this town for four generations. People know who I am. I can’t just do what I want without hearing about it.
Much has been written lately about the value of the novelist who lives in the Midwest. Even if technically I live a little west of the Midwest, I agree with a lot of it. That in order for America to have a rich literary culture it needs voices scattered across the country. But most of us would rather call ourselves writers and party with other writers who don’t write in Brooklyn than live on what Poe Ballantine calls the Howling Plains of Nowhere and do the real work. It would be so much easier to pretend to struggle to write working as a waiter in Williamsburg than to have a job in western Nebraska and fight as much as I can to carve out writing time on the side. But what would my material be then? Writing about these people and this place, then sending these stories to New York, is to be a foreign correspondent within the United States. And we need those a lot more than we need more tapeworms.
Though I haven’t been writing here much, my output’s been about the same as always. Moving countries and changing jobs, as tempting as it is, destroys your routine and then it has to be rebuilt. This takes months. But I’ve basically got everything in place, including a full office for the first time, and I’m getting work done. I recently rediscovered the joy of writing about a place after you’ve left it, so, in time, expect a novel set in Asia. (I know I’ve said this before. This is a different project.) I’m also working on essays, short stories and poems when an idea comes to me and won’t be ignored. Those you’ll see if I publish them in a journal or magazine or as a complete collection. And the submissions are going out.
This is storm season in Nebraska. Last night we had a tornado touch down 15 miles from my house. A dark, skinny viper. It struck once then went back into the sky.
Come visit me sometime. We’ll stand on my porch with strong drinks and look out over the big farm fields to the east and howl at the clouds.