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Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Morning I Handed Arnold Schwarzenegger a Napkin

It's one of those surreal experiences.

Yountville, CA, a little town just off of Highway 29, between Napa and St. Helena. A main strip lined by numerous high end boutiques and high end restaurants. It's a stopover town with a village feel, where wine enthusiasts pause for lunch or dinner before returning to their winery tours.

It can be snobbish. People can, if they want, ignore you, pretend you're not really real.

The town lies about eight miles from my house in Napa.

Sometimes, usually mornings, I'll go there, sit in my Jeep in the parking lot at the end of __ St., overlooking the kiddie's park. I'll usually read a book, or write in my journal, while behind me stretches the Yountville Graveyard.

Yesterday morning, I drove to Bouchon Bakery. Thomas Keller owns it. He owns Bouchon Restaurant, Ad Hoc, and also the most famous restaurant in America: The French Laundry. He's a nice guy. Tall. Jessette and I met him once after dinner at Ad Hoc last year. We didn't tell him the meal left much to be desired, as did his menu. I might have scolded him for missing his book-signing appointment at Copperfield's Books a couple months back. He signed a magazine for Jessette. That was nice of him.

Yesterday--a gray sky. Not too cold for mid-february: About 56F. I parked at Hurley's, walked over to the bakery, entered to a bliss forbidden to diabetics.  Like me.

It's a small space, just an L-shaped glass case full of freshly baked sweets, and a small counter for the register. The coffee menu is located to the left of the register, high up on the wall. The menu is in chalk. It always smells nice inside, sweet. all the things behind the case, macaroons, muffins, chocolate eclairs, all the things in the cubbies behind the register, french or sourdough or ciabbatta, are temptations I cannot yield to. My blood sugar that morning was 126. My endocrinologist, Dr. Lee, wants it below a hundred. If it gets above 200, consistently, she'll put me on insulin shots.

I haven't eaten breakfast. I'm here for a machiatto.

A double costs $3.00.

I am annoyed. An older couple cannot decide what they want.

I wait.

They lean into the glass case, their excitement leaking from them in little "oohs" and "aahs." Two girls enter behind me. One's a pasty faced bleached blonde, wearing a white tank top and pajama bottoms. Her friend, an asian girl is shorter than her, appropriately dressed in jeans and a jacket. She's not as pretty.

The older couple finalize their selection.

I wait.

The door opens. A voice says, "Are you in line?"

It's a voice instantly recognizable. I've heard it say other things, like "I'll be back," or "It's not a tumor."

That voice can't be here. Not here in Yountville of all places. I turn around and to my utter shock, "The ex-Governator."

It's one of those surreal moments in your life. Your mind doesn't believe what your eyes see. You take a double take. Here's Conan, the Kindergarten Cop, the Terminator, Dr. Freeze. Here's the same guy, standing inches away from you who you've watched run through a desert, half naked in a loin cloth. You've watched him give speeches at the State of the State address. You've watched his rise and fall and rise again. He's, if anything, tenacious. A bit wrinkled now, smaller than you imagined. And here he is. Also not as tall as you thought.

Arnold looks at you and gives you one of his trademark half-smiles, like just before he's about to deliver a witty line, "Get to the choppa!" or "Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women!" He knows that you know who he is. You can see it in his squint. He turns to the display cases and starts ogling the desserts. It seems like one of the stars has fallen out of the sky and crashed into Bouchon. It must be incredible to know one's presence has the power to alter one's speech, shift attitudes. His presence changes the quality of the air. Celebrity has the power to do that: alter the light, suck air from a room, enliven even the dullest experience, like getting a cup of coffee. 

I wait. 

"This is surreal," I say to the man beside him. He's an older guy, mid fifties, early sixties, dressed like a yuppie in blue khakis and a baby blue Brooks Brothers sweater. The man smiles and nods but says nothing. I say, "Try the eclairs, they're delicious." Maybe he'll get one, or a dozen? 

I turn back to Arnold and I stick out my hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you." He says nothing. His hands feel smaller than I imagined them. Soft. "You're a living legend," I say. He squints at me. He says nothing. I wait for wit. I smile and move away. 

I wait. 

After ordering, exchanging looks of shock and surprise with the girl at the register, I park myself before the condiments table: sugar, lids, stirrers, napkins. A quick glance at Arnold. He's stuffing his face with something sweet, a muffin or a macaroon. He approaches me with sticky fingers. I am blocking the napkin tray. I reach behind me and hand him a napkin. He doesn't thank me. He turns and moves back to his group. 

I wait. 

My machiatto arrives and I hurry out. I have never been star struck. I don't chase down celebrities for their autographs, or ask for pictures. Somehow it feels undignified. They're human, not gods. But still, I felt lucky somehow. 

I called Jessette and told her what had just happened. She seemed surprised but unimpressed. God, I love her. 

A few people took pictures with him and he obliges them, but not with pleasure. You see it in his face. He's sour. Posing for pictures is part of the role he's playing: Celebrity. Because when he's not "acting" or ruining California, he's a celebrity. People hugged him as he made his way back from Bouchon's restroom and all I kept thinking was if the young man standing near him was his illegitimate son?

"Let's try that antique shop," Arnold said. 

Wow, I thought, the Terminator likes antiques. 

After Arnold returned to his black SUV with his group and drove away, South towards HWY 29, Yountville seemed altered. People flitted by on the pavement with their dogs on leashes, or in pairs, entered and exited Bouchon, ignorant that Arnold S. had been there moments ago buying pastries.  

I sat outside the bakery and read my book, "Reflections in a Golden Eye." I wondered about missed opportunities and luck. What other things in life do we miss? What other chances? We arrive five minutes too early or too late and we fail to meet the person of our dreams. We miss the lottery jackpot by a couple of numbers. Despite preparation our words and gestures at that job interview betray us.  

There was no preparation meets opportunity dictum at work here. Meeting Arnold in Yountville was pure chance, an event that won't be repeated. I wondered how we could transform each moment into a strange and surreal event, where the very light seems to change. 
















  


Sunday, February 2, 2014

Why Write When You Could Be_______?

Recently I was asked why I write when I could be making real money? That's a harder question to answer than "what," "when," or even "how" one writes. Every answer you furnish sounds trite, disingenuous, at least to you, most of all to them. Why does anyone do anything?

Maybe I write because it's more than a choice to add words to a page, it's a compulsion, not unlike checking and rechecking locked doors. You revisit the page you've written, making sure you've gotten the words right. You delete sentences, a word, a punctuation mark. Sometimes you cut whole paragraphs. You leave the page only to return and check the same things you'd checked before, because somehow, in the hour or day or week you'd been away, the page changed. So you add a word, delete a word, add or delete a punctuation mark, reorder a sentence, hoping this time the page is done, that the room is closed, finally locked.

I write because there's a lot more writing to be done. It's not true that "there's nothing new under the sun." Everything that's been said can be said better, explored further, more deeply. No one who ever creates art ever hits bedrock.

I write because sometimes when I'm cooking chicken curry for my wife, a sentence enters my head with such force I have to do something about it. The sentence is not my sentence, the voice is not my voice. The sentence is a gift, vivid, yet a perfect mystery whose depths I must plumb. I had forgotten what rain sounded like. Why? She sits in the snow, threading grapes with a needle. Why?

I write because I notice things others don't. For instance, the way water courses through brooks and streams, multiplying its force through channels. But not just its direction, it's the way sometimes single drops leap into the air like atoms and vanish; or that particular infusion of ripe and fermented scents rising from sun-baked hillsides or grape fields, or farms of kale--garlicky, yet sweet, those grand odors of the earth. I write because if I don't put them down on paper, these things might never have existed.

I write because a character enters my mind fully clothed, ready to tell me what he or she wants. And it is my job to unclothe him or her. He might say he's an honest man, or a prevaricator, and I have to explore his voice to see if what he's telling me is true. She might call herself an unrepentant whore, but something tells me she's not, and I have to find the words to discover what happened to her.

Sometimes the words lie. Sometimes their truth is so powerful I can't look at them without thinking they're lies. Sometimes the words are easy to understand and sometimes they're not.

Sometimes I spend all day making something difficult sound simple, or make something simple sound difficult, because life is not always simple, nor always difficult.

I write because I enjoy trafficking in the mundane. I have learned that I don't have to make a five-alarm fire, or burn down a hill, or set a city aflame to add heat to my writing. Sometimes the heat comes from a single match burning in a cold, deserted place.

I write because I am a realist. For me, reality is mysterious enough without me having to invent talking spiders, apocalyptic scenarios, vampire lovers, or witch covens, though I can enjoy those kinds of stories too. Maybe it stems from my love of realist photography, where you see the fleeting moment captured, held in place, and reflected upon. So when an impressionistic boy reveals his heart to his cold, hard-hearted father--a man who loves his child but is incapable of affection--I want to be standing there in the shadows of that room jotting down the details: how they stand, where, when, why, and what are they wearing, why, why not something else, and why are these words being spoken now, and how are they being spoken, etc. etc. Because it is the writer's responsibility to take what's said and unsaid in that room, and make it mean something for all of us, that is to say, to expose the human heart but NEVER to exploit it. It is the writer's responsibility to refrain from sentimentality, to give each character, even the "villains" their due. As an artist it is the writer's responsibility to hold those fleeting moments in place.

I write because if I don't write I feel dead inside.

I write because writing gets me closer to myself, closer to what I really think and feel, and what I think and feel has validity.

I write because writing makes me a better person, better able to adjust to the vicissitudes of life.

I write because my soon-to-be-son will someday want to know me better. At least that's the hope. I want to leave a record of what I thought and felt, just for him.

I write because somewhere there's a writer in a room writing what I wish I wrote. He or she's getting the words that maybe were meant for me. And I'll be damned if I'm going to let that happen! :)

I write because I want to break my readers' hearts with my writing.

I write because writing is the only profession where you're more valuable to the world the older you get.

I write because I'm in love with wisdom, but I'm not always wise.

I write because writing makes me BE.

Maybe I write because I am afraid of death.





(Please feel free to share your own reasons.)







Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Day the Book Found Me

Integrity means sticking to your principles. It means honoring what is right and true in your soul. I have long been a supporter of the independent book store, choosing City Lights Books in San Francisco, or Copperfields in Napa and Petaluma, Book Soup, or Reader's Books or any one of the hundreds of small book stores sprinkled throughout Northern California to Amazon books and Barnes and Noble, preferring actual print books to e-books and e-readers of the Kindle, Nook, Ipad variety; so to sign a publishing contract for my novella Ghost Notes, with a company that solely produces e-books, felt like I had compromised my principles.

I have nothing against e-books. Their speed is fantastic. My dislike is aesthetic. I don't like holding an electronic device to read a book. I don't like their perceived interactivity. I like holding a real book, curling up with a real book, writing notes in the margins with my pencil in a real book, dog-earing a real book. After I've finished with a real book, it should look like it's been through a war--its spine cracked, coffee or wine or cigarette stains decorating the pages. For me, and I suspect for millions of others, this is one of the sensual appeals of a book. I don't begrudge others who enjoy e-books. To each his own. 

One of the joys of buying a real book is the process of discovery. I enter a bookstore, sometimes without a clear mind as to what I want or need, and as I peruse the shelves, my eyes gliding over authors' names and titles, I select certain books with appealing jackets or author reputation of quality (prizes won), or return to those classics of literature I haven't yet read.

 I will roam the sections--Fiction might take me to Philosophy,  New Releases to Cooking, Gardening to Music, Art and Architecture to Poetry, and so on. I will peruse the tables of discounted books, skim the short synopses, open the flap of a hard cover and read author bios, look at credentials. enter a book at random and read a sentence or a paragraph. If the style seems compelling, the voice distinct, I might read a whole chapter. 

Some inner voice will tell me I need this book, or it will tell me to move on. Having discovered a few of my favorite authors this way--Paul Harding, for one, Ethan Canin another--this process of discovery restores to me the book buying magic. Sometimes, I'll admit, the book I buy might languish on my shelves for months, even years, before I pick it up again. When I do, it returns me to that day the book found me. 

What I always knew was one day was this: I would find my own work sitting on the shelves of my favorite independent booksellers for some young writer/reader to come along and discover me. It's impossible to replicate that feeling in the virtual e-book world. How do you do that? How do you recreate the magic of a book choosing you? 

On to a bigger point. I like owning things. I like collecting things. There is great value in seeing your trove of LP records (when there was such a thing), tiers of cassette tapes, VHS's, then CD's and DVD's. I like seeing the shelves of my library fill up with books, each with a history of how I discovered it and where, when. It speaks to who I was when I bought it, and who I am now. We are made and unmade by the things we own and display, for they represent our values. Nowadays, the modern digital world forces a choice upon us, security, convenience, expediency, immediate gratification to randomness, inconvenience, slowness, delayed gratification. Not much of a choice is it? Or is it. The latter set speaks to our wholeness, our humanity; the former to our sense of incompleteness. 

Even as I had signed my publication contract with an e-book company, I felt wrong about it, as if I had compromised my integrity as a writer and reader. So, last week I cancelled my publishing contract with so-called publishing company Haus of Millian. The company markets itself as an "independent publishing company, producing gorgeously stylized electronic books." The books, two to date, are both either penned by, or jointly penned by, its sole "indentured servant", a woman with more identities than a Batman villain. I knew something was amiss. I could go on about her incessant Twittering, Facebook updating, tailgate parties, trips to Las Vegas to roam the sushi bars, etc. when she should have been working on my book, but that would be to belabor the point. In retrospect, the constant stalling--no publication date, no book trailer (as promised), no consultation on book cover design, layout (as promised), etc. added up to a set of broken promises I could not deal with.

So I sacrificed my goal of being a published writer, delayed my immediate gratification of seeing my book in digital form, to the traditional publication route. The road is long and hard, but I believe in my strengths as a writer, believe in my voice, believe in my integrity and can honestly say Never again! 

Ideally the combination of traditional book publishing and e-book publishing seems the right mix, one which I will pursue for the future. My novella, Ghost Notes, has already been finalist for the SFWP 2013 Fiction Awards and semifinalist for the Faulkner Society's 2013 Fiction Awards, so there is hope that an agent and publisher will find my work compelling enough to turn it into a book for a reader to discover on the shelf of their local bookstore. 

Nothing would please me more than connecting with people on a visceral level. Nothing would please me more than having some reader dog ear my book, write in its margins, underline a sentence or a paragraph, use the book and abuse the book, interact with my work as I have done with so many others. This process personalizes the book: it makes my work also theirs.  








Monday, October 7, 2013

Update on my Novella, Ghost Notes


Dear Family, Friends, Future Friends, Future Readers,

My publisher Haus of Millian has an important update on the publication of my novella (short novel) Ghost Notes, due out soon. Please visit the link below and sign up to get your advance copy. Blurbs and reviews, though not necessary, are very very welcome!


If you have trouble viewing or submitting this form, you can fill it out online:
https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1tlG3r4XKlZu4v7UnC1kIbLG5DEnk3SglN3ThcnD6WpA/viewform

Reserve your pre-release copy of Ghost Notes

Thank you for your interest in a pre-release copy of Ghost Notes by SK Kalsi. This electronic book will be delivered directly to your kindle device from the publisher by your request and only with your permission via your kindle device(s) and amazon.com account.To receive your pre-release copy of Ghost Notes, complete the form below and approve the email address publisher@hausofmillian.com as an authorized sender to your kindle email address. We respect your privacy and will use your kindle address for the sole purpose of delivering Ghost Notes. Your information will not be shared with anyone for any reason. For quick and easy instructions on how to approve the delivery of your electronic book, check out the video below.
It is our hope that you'll enjoy reading Ghost Notes and that you'll tweet about it, talk about it and share your reviews on amazon.com, goodreads.com--and any other place you like to talk about books--reviews help other readers discover what may be their next favorite book.
Your reviews are GOLD!
Thank you for your time and attention. Enjoy your copy of Ghost Notes!
Best,
T. Maxximillian Dafoe
Publisher, Haus of Millian


Thank you all for your continued interest, support, faith and encouragement towards my writing.

Surya


Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Trip to Visit Dr. Lee, Endocrinologist


This isn't an exciting post. It offers no anecdotes, or pearls of wisdom. It offers no advice. It isn't very literary, but it is honest, so sometimes you have to trade style for honesty and hope people won't be bored by the truth. 

Since my diagnosis, for the past week and a half, as I waited to see Dr. Lee, my endocrinologist, I have been testing my blood sugar up to six times a day, leaving my fingers sore. My stomach has become a pincushion for the insulin shots and hurts, because when insulin enters the system it burns. My eyes are perpetually blurry and my near vision has worsened, so much so that it is difficult to read anything. I have quit smoking, restricted my diet to greens, proteins (fish and chicken), gluten free carbs, and completely cut out sugar. I'll have a glass of red wine a night, my only indulgence. 

I have found I have more energy at night, which leave me awake till three or four in the morning. I'll listen to music, watch TV, write a little here and there. But as I grapple with this new situation, I feel depressed often, berate myself over the bad choices I've made. 

My parents came on Thursday to visit me and my wife and I updated them on my condition. A pall of sadness has descended on our family, and although I know my condition is not a death sentence if I don't want it to be, it is a wake up call to change my life. Yesterday we ate lunch at a Tapas place downtown Napa, then had a dinner of a mixed greens salad and grilled salmon. My wife has become an expert in making salads, but I can't see myself eating salads for dinner for the rest of my life. 

This disease is intrusive. It takes over your life. It stresses you out. You have to evaluate everything, manage your hunger levels, your carb and sugar intake. Food is my enemy, well, certain foods. It has made me aware of how much garbage is sold in restaurants, coffee shops, cafes that cater to the pleasure centers in the brain--sugary foods that release endorphins and provide false energy. 

Today I would visit Dr. Lee. She would tell me what kind of diabetes I have, create a new schedule of medicine and doses, and order more tests if she saw fit. I woke up today feeling  sore all over and lethargic, like the way you feel when you have the flu. After a light breakfast, egg whites omelette, a bowl of strawberries and blue berries, half a whole wheat toast with butter, I fell onto the couch exhausted and slept. I moved to my bedroom and slept. For a snack, I ate a few strawberries, a few crackers and cheddar cheese. I slapt. For lunch I ate a green salad with grilled chicken. I slept. 

At 2:45 we, my wife and mother and I, left to see Dr. Lee. She's not far, about three miles from the house and after a little trouble we found her office. I filled out the paperwork. We waited for about fifteen minutes before the nurse ushered us into the room. She checked my weight, height, blood pressure, which were all fine. 

Long story short: Dr. Lee, young, pretty, supremely confident and professional, checked my feet, my heart and lungs, and after answering our questions and asking me some of her own, gave us the verdict. I have type 2 diabetes, BUT, I would no longer have to take insulin shots. What a relief. She said that with the proper diet and exercise, I would be able to reverse my symptoms and be free of diabetes forever, BUT, only if I made the right choices. Her verdict sounded like a symphony.  

I have had the scare of a lifetime. I have been given a glimpse of my future as a diabetic and learned a hard lesson. My promise to myself and to my wife and to my future children is to manage my health, to abide by a fitness and nutrition regimen for the rest of my life. It's not so bad to be healthy, is it? One doesn't need to pursue a hard drinking and smoking, sugary and high cholesterol lifestyle to feel as if you're living a "romantic" life. I am done being overindulgent. I just want to live a quality life, free from vices, free from pain and sickness. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

A Word on Vices

I'd like to talk about the things that kill us: Vices. 

What a week. A diagnostic one. A trip to the doctor this past monday found me urinating in a cup for a quick analysis, then my blood drawn and sent to the lab for further tests. The doctor suspected something, but stayed uncommitted. She told me to go home and rest. I did. I spent the day on the couch, nursing a headache. Overcome by lethargy, blurry vision, and insatiable thirst, I watched TV, slept, ate and drank water. I thought I had cancer. 

Tuesday I stayed in bed most of the day. Slept. I slipped in and out of consciousness and refrained from eating sugar. Irritable, I fought with my wife for no reason; maudlin, I cried over nothing. 

Wednesday, I began feeling better. I even told a joke or two. Seeing my wife smile was a wonderful thing. I wrote. I waited for the blood reports to come in. Whatever news it would give me would be awful, I knew, but there was a slight hope, a chance that I might be spared the fate that killed my grandmother and my grandfather. 

Thursday, the doctor called me. Her suspicions were confirmed. She said I have type 2 diabetes, advanced stage. She says I must have had it for years. My heart sank. What else? She said my LDL cholesterol was at critical levels. She ordered me to see her diabetes specialist Dr. Hana the following day. I  made the appointment online. 

Friday, my wife and I drove to San Francisco to the medical clinic, met with Dr. Hana. After another urine analysis she suggested I check into a hospital. I refused. What was all this fuss? We settled on a different plan. I would drink a gallon of water, eat a light breakfast and see her in a couple of hours. 

While at breakfast Dr. Hana called. She said she spoke to her colleagues about my case and they ordered her to order me to the ER. Her voice sounded urgent. I told her I would drive back to Napa, where we live, and check into Queen of the Valley. 

I spent a night in the ER. The nurses set up a saline drip that pumped fluid into my veins. Every few hours a nurse or doctor would visit me and check my blood pressure, inject me with insulin, give me pill to swallow. I slipped in and out of consciousness. 

Through it all my wife's love and care and attention sustained me. She saved my life. Every few hours I was taught the facts of diabetes, how to manage it. The nurses instructed me on how to use the blood glucose monitor, how to inject myself with insulin. The nutritionist visited me to teach me how to read the food labels on packaging. I was handed packets to read, all while my head felt ready to burst. 

The reality: I am a diabetic. My relationship to food and drink has instantly changed. I am no longer free to eat and drink what I want, to abuse my body with alcohol, nicotine, sodas, coffee, cream, fatty bacon and red meat, et. al. I am forced by my failed pancreas to inject myself four times a day with insulin, consume pills to keep me alive. 

I know that by following a proper diet and getting plenty of exercise and rest, I can overcome my dependence on insulin and the drugs, but that reality seems far-fetched at this moment. Right now, I am, no pun intended, digesting this new situation. It is sobering to think that a man who has never been in the hospital (except for the day he was born), who has never broken a bone, or undergone surgery of any kind, now has to face this life-threatening disease. Will my toes be amputated? Will I go blind? Will I lose my hearing? Writers are trained to see the glass half empty. 

There is more to say and it is late and I am dizzy from the insulin shot that burns in my stomach and works its way through my system. There is more for me to say and I will say it. I will try. I only hope I have the words. At this moment, I don't have perspective. Not yet. This feeling in me is still raw. 







Monday, August 12, 2013

A Quick Note on Editing

A bit of honesty right here. I struggle with reading. I struggle with writing. Now that I am in the editing phase of my novella, I struggle with editing. What really upsets me is looking back on the self that wrote a sentence that later makes me cringe, or reading a paragraph I've written, thinking it good, only to be disappointed by the lack of depth contained therein. Luckily, though, I haven't found a "method"to cure me of bad writing, except that I have come to the understanding that disappointment, frustration, even that sick little feeling you get when something you've written goes out into the world you know isn't your finest, are all helpful reminders that writing, like life, are unfinished projects that continue to evolve, mature, grow.

If I were writing genre fiction, not that I'm knocking genre fiction, I would be less inclined to obsess over sentences, focusing on plot and character as it relates to theme, and using the sentence only to carry the weight of those ideas. But as a literary minded writer, a closet poet, a man in love with the artful phrase, I can only say that I am compelled to try and write musically. This comes at a cost. Alienation for some; disappointment for me.

I wish when I said, "It's done, or, done enough," I didn't have to read back what I had written in a month and decided that what I had thought "done" was simply another draft. It pains me to look over and edit a previous draft, then another, then another, and hone further, refine further, excise each page of everything that rings false. But that is the process of writing, a symptom of the writing life. You simply have to dive back in. It is imperative that before the next time you send something out into the world (even something as a Blog post), that it accurately reflects your thoughts at the time you thought them, and on a mechanical level it is vital you catch your basic mistakes in punctuation and grammar.

I am speaking to myself here. I am a notoriously bad typer and these modern keyboards don't instill confidence in me, especially when I have to fix a missed keystroke, or a wrong one. I have to stop, address the red line beneath a misspelled word on the page and it's them my thoughts go awry...sometimes. But let me make no excuses for myself. Let me press on and write and commit to my commitments to improve. Writing, after all, is a journey of self, of self-discovery, of self-mastery, and all that takes a bit of time.

(I know I'll read this later and find something in it I hate!)