On Location

On Location with Josh Emmons

This installment of On Location comes from Ecotone contributor Josh Emmons, whose story, “Nu,” appears in issue 15, and was a special mention in The Puschart Prize XXXIX.

Hell-A Revisited

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Growing up in Northern California, I considered Los Angeles to be the worst city in America, synonymous with smog, sprawl and superficiality, Alvie Singer’s cultural wasteland and “the big parking lot where you buy a hamburger for the trip to San Francisco,” as John Lennon put it. My friends and I called it Hell-A and avoided it as much as possible, although, like the common cold, it sometimes struck: I’d visit relatives or go to Disneyland or pass through en route to friendlier, less toxic Mexico. After college at an anything-goes moment, I followed a girlfriend there and lived for six months in the Los Feliz neighborhood, where its sun and asphalt and artificiality so depressed me that Elliott Smith’s suicide in nearby Echo Park a few years later made sense.

Following two decades living in San Francisco and New Orleans and Philadelphia, I moved back to LA in 2014 for work, hoping I’d be better able to accept the city’s endless ugliness as a blunted forty-year-old than I had been as an idealistic twenty-something. What I found, however, is that it is no longer a vast, unrelenting space devoted to cars and bad movies, but has made great strides in public transportation, density, art, green space, tacos and sustainability: the whole New Urbanism fantasy. When people now say, apropos of what’s happening here versus the Bay Area tech takeover, that “San Francisco is a utopia gone wrong and LA is a dystopia gone right,” they aren’t wrong.

I don’t want to get too boosterish, because Los Angeles still has the worst air quality in the country and attracts a lot of demi-creative narcissists and is too hot, but I live in a stately Art Deco building downtown, a few blocks away from the excellent Last Bookstore and Broad Museum and historic theaters on Broadway. I walk everywhere and meet people uninvolved with Hollywood and find corners of the city where nature is reasserting itself. All this might sound like a low bar to cross, but I’m encouraged that a city of four million people, like so many other cities in America and abroad, is trading in a bankrupt dream of single-family homes and eight-lane freeways for an expanded train system and high-rise residential buildings and public art.

I’ll probably never stop fantasizing about living in a more instantly appealing place—a New York or New Orleans or Paris—but for now I’m happy to be in one that’s come so far in so short period of time.

On location with Callan Wink

This installment of On Location comes from Ecotone contributor Callan Wink, whose story, “Off the Track,” appears in issue 14, our Abnormal issue.

Guide’s Day Off (The Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley, Montana)

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For the past ten years I’ve spent my summers as a fly fishing guide on the Yellowstone River. Every season is a blur. Montana summers are short, a relatively small window in which a fishing guide needs to make as much money as possible. Long hours on the water, sometimes over thirty days in row without a break. Up early to prep for the day. Coffee and more coffee. Meeting your clients. Figuring out what section to float, i.e. “the plan”—an arcane mix of informed luck and gut instincts honed by countless days on the water. The Yellowstone is a huge river system, and we guide on over one hundred winding miles of it. A dynamic, ever-shifting waterway that seems to change wildly from season to season, day to day. You pick your stretch and you go and sometimes you catch them and sometimes you don’t. You have lunch and point out eagles and talk about the old Native American buffalo jump across the river over there, and eventually you’re pulling into the take-out spot. You drop your clients at their hotel and then you go to the Murray Bar where most of the other guides straggle in to drink and bullshit. Sometimes the fishing is good and everyone is in high spirits—easy money, large tips. Sometimes, in late August, the doldrums, the fishing is slow and the sun is hot and everyone is short tempered and burnt.

Sometimes your boat knocked them dead on a day when everyone else struggled—you feel like you have it all figured out and gloat quietly to yourself. You’re the fish whisperer. The next day your luck changes, you make the wrong call, your plan is flawed, your clients manage only a few anemic whitefish, one of them snags you in the cheek with his fly. But, as these things go, eventually the end of the day comes and you load your boat on the trailer and drop the clients at their hotel and you go to the Murray Bar. You’re out of the sun and the air conditioning is delicious and, without speaking, the bartender ignores a queue of thirsty tourists to present you with your customary summer drink: a fishbowl of ice-cold vodka with fresh squeezed lemon and lime. Soon enough the other guides are there and the bullshit commences. On and on. A summer’s worth of it. Fish and sun and cash and Texas oilmen and daily immersion in the most captivating river you’ve ever seen.

Occasionally you get a day off. You’re going to do laundry, pay your bills, fix the growing number of things on your truck and boat that have become broken through hard use. You’re going to sleep in.

Of course, that’s not what you do. You’re up early by habit. Coffee and more coffee. You get on the phone and rally everyone you can think of who might have the day off as well. You make a plan. It comes together slowly, people drop out, people join up, but eventually everyone converges on the river. There are boats and dogs and bikinis and radios and Frisbees and coolers of beer. Someone has a battery-powered blender and there are margaritas. There are no fishing rods, though. That’s the general rule. All gear and paraphernalia pertaining to the hooking of trout are left at home. Anyone uncouth enough to buck the trend and try to fish will get ridiculed, blasted with water cannons, harassed by stick-chasing dogs.

A fishing guide’s day off. Tomorrow you’ll be back out there, hustling for trout and tips. Today though, you’re swimming, you’ve got a margarita, if you’re lucky, your girlfriend is rowing your boat.

There’s an eagle and when it flies over everyone points. You’ve seen it a thousand times and it’s still goddamn majestic.

Callan Wink was born in Michigan in 1984 and now works as a fishing guide on the Yellowstone River in Montana. His work has been published in the New Yorker, Granta, and The Best American Short Stories. His first book, Dog Run Moon, was released yesterday.

On Location with Delaney Nolan

This installment of On Location comes from Ecotone contributor Delaney Nolan, whose story, “The Ugly,” appears in issue 17.

The Death Café

I go to the Death Café in April. It’s held in the Johnson County Senior Center, a brick building on Linn.

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We go around the room and introduce ourselves. It’s a funny cross-section of Iowa’s death-intrigued: one sprightly lady in a headband who volunteers at the Iowa Parrot Rescue; next to her, a historian who specializes in “grave-related paraphernalia.” An Indian man explains that he’s a Jainist and wants to share some of Jainism’s views; he inadvertently quotes Plath: “Dying is an art,” he says, “and I would like to share that art.” A large bearded man holds a book on meditation and cheerfully cites an interest in Zen death poems.

The purpose of the Death Café, as the name may suggest, is to talk plainly about death.

That day, we begin with the death of pets.

“I found that when I had an animal die, I was more upset about that than the people that died,” says a woman named Carol. The grave historian nods enthusiastically.

The lady with the parrots advocates writing your own obituary, but says she procrastinates, so she hasn’t done it yet. People laugh—there’s a surprising amount of laughter in the Death Café, parallel, I imagine, to the way people make jokes on the set of a scary movie.

Rahul, the Jainist, explains that in his faith, “starving to death” is sometimes recommended. Letting yourself die when you can no longer follow Jainist rituals will keep your karmic load from increasing. “Gradually, you stop taking solids. Then you stop taking liquids. And when one week or two weeks arrive, [you] just pass away and die.”

Somebody adds, “That’s kind of the point of the advanced directives too, to write out that you don’t want somebody putting tubes in you,” and at this there are little noises of agreement all around the room. There’s scorn for meddling doctors, ambulance medics who automatically give CPR, families who cling.

The idea of having control of your own death is a subject we return to again and again, and in a sense that’s the end game of the Death Café. Discussing a problem, like writing about a problem, is a method of control, and as we all talk about death—our own death, others’ deaths, obituaries, breathing tubes—it’s clear that we’re trying to air out cobwebs, let some light into an attic where we’re usually too scared to tread.

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On Location with Elliot Ackerman

This installment of On Location comes from Ecotone contributor Elliot Ackerman, whose story, “Charlie Balls,” appears in the Migration Issue.

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Where are you from?

I often feel like answering, “nowhere.” Because the “right” answer has always eluded me, and as an American living in Istanbul these past two years my answer has only become more muddled. That I am American is obvious to any inquiring Turk—the sharp ‘e’ in my pronunciation of merhaba (hello), that I often confuse günaydın (good morning) with iyi akşamlar (good evening), and that I never drink ayran, a tepid, salty yogurt drinkyet the asker always wants a specific answer, not just “America.” I usually respond “New York,” though I have never lived in New York, but the city is such a colossus, so vast and multicultural, that evoking its name usually kills the conversation because whoever has asked just nods, unable to produce a follow up question, as if I dropped a skyscraper of possibilities on their head. Sometimes I say Washington, D.C., which is a bit closer to the truth. I owned a house there for a few years before uprooting to my flat along the Bosphorus. However in the Muslim world calling the seat of the U.S. government your home can engender unwanted suspicions, so I lay off that answer. When I get bored of replying New York or Washington D.C., I often say Los Angeles. Which also is true. I was born there and left when I was nine years old. Los Angeles usually gets a predictable response. I am asked about movie stars, if I know any, if I’ve got some stories, which in fact I do having gone to a Montessori school that harvested an usually high number of famous and even infamous Hollywood figures. But the L.A. stories take a long time to rehash so I have to be in a certain mood to claim the Angel City. If I’m feeling provocative, I’ll say Texas. This is less true, but not without some grounding. My mother’s entire side of the family is from Dallas. I grew up spending holidays there. My grandfather, a former state senator and small business owner played an important role in turning Texas politics from majority-blue to majority-red after the Second World War, helping define the state brand of nouveau conservatism. (You’re welcome, America.) When he died I inherited his jewelry box: lone star cufflinks, tie clasps, some money clips, a formidable belt buckle with a stallion and colt on it that I wear with my jeans. So when I say “Texas” to an Istanbulite, lifting my shirt and jabbing my thumb at the belt buckle, I always get a sustained and respectful nod. I’ve found there’s a little Texan in most Turks. Or, more aptly, perhaps there’s a little Turk in most Texans.

When I was around seven years old I went to see Spaceballs, the Mel Brooks parody of Star Wars, at the iconic Egyptian Theater off Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. In the climactic faceoff between Dark Helmet (think a nebbish Darth Vader played by Rick Moranis costumed in a little black tie with enormous helmet and glasses) and Lone Starr (Han Solo meets Indiana Jones meets Luke Skywaker played by Bill Pullman), Dark Helmet reveals the secret of his past, the one that connects him to Lone Starr. This is the “Luke, I am your father” moment of Brook’s satire:

Dark Helmet: Before you die, there is something you should know about us.
Lone Starr:
What?
Dark Helmet: I am your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate.
Lone Starr:
What’s that make us?
Dark Helmet: Absolutely nothing. Which is what you are about to become. Prepare to die.

Star Wars is an origins story, so is Spaceballs. Here’s the chronology of my origins: I was born in Los Angeles and lived there until I was nine, then moved to London and lived there until I was fifteen, then went to Washington D.C., then to college in Boston, then into the Marines where I was based out of North Carolina for six years but deployed around the world, then back to D.C. for a few years, then to Istangreen-on-blue-9781476778556_hrbul. So what am I? A Californian? Londoner? Washingtonian? North Carolinian? Perhaps, like Dark Helmet says, I am absolutely nothing.

I think I like that best, to be from nowhere. It frees me to be wherever I am.

Elliot Ackerman is the author of the best-selling novel Green on Blue and the forthcoming Dark at the Crossing, a novel set along the Turkish-Syrian border. He lives in Istanbul.

On Location with Andrew Tonkovich

This installment of On Location comes from Ecotone contributor Andrew Tonkovich, whose story, “Falling,” appears in the Abnormal Issue and Astoria to Zion: Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone‘s First Decade. More recently, his story, “Reelection Day,” appears in the Migration Issue.

Self-Storage

I’m curator of a thousand pieces of decaying artwork, including a few still-brilliant canvases, intricate miniatures, hand-illustrated broadsides, an unpublished (typed) book or two, posters, journals, sketches, all produced by someone dear and, yes, still near, nearer than ever.

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I’d lived decades with a representative sampling of these tattered pen-and-ink drawings, oil and acrylic paintings, watercolors, and writings. Their titles: “The Discovery of California,” “You Don’t Have to Eat God,” and “In the Summer We Went to the Mountains.” All were made by the late Dr. Peter Carr of Laguna Beach, California. He was my Comp Lit professor, an activist, a larger-than-life fellow of small stature if terrific self-esteem who created in whatever medium he found handy. He scribbled, typed, drew, painted (even on cardboard and plywood), was perhaps a bit manic or only urgently, unceasingly productive. Just as well because he died, suddenly, in 1981 at age 56, no plan for any of it, not the life’s work, unpublished memoirs, anticipated triumphant gallery show, or incredible output. Thirty years later they came to me.

Here, the rest of it, in a storage unit a mile from my home, behind a roll-up corrugated door: flying-swimming humans and fishes, peace demonstrators, killer jets, Central American ghosts, talking bear, coyote, raven. Peter drew finely layered mountains, captured the transparent, glowing leaves of our Pacific kelp forest, organized the intricate botany of tide pools and assembled among these lonely, alienated humans he meant to save.

Think Kenneth Patchen meets German Expressionist George Grosz. Caricature meets narrative in visionary doomed landscape reverie. Intersecting colors with enthusiastic, funny speech bubble dialog from creature-persons. Or narration by an all-knowing off-stage guide sounding like Peter.

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On Location with Ben Miller

Ben Miller’s memoir-in-essays, River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa was published by Lookout in 2013. He sent us this update about life after his Radcliffe Fellowship and a cross-country move for our regular department On Location, where writers share a picture of a meaningful place.

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After completing my fellowship year at the Radcliffe Institute in May, I made a spinning leap from Cambridge to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and landed on my feet in front of the celebratory mural in Meldrum Park created in 2013 by artist Dave Loewenstein and the children of the Whittier Neighborhood. Squeezed in my left hand is a manuscript containing the sixty-one new translations of William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” that I gathered over the last year from generous poets around the globe. It is my dream to hold a park reading at which this tiny poem of vast vision will be delivered in each of the 143 languages currently spoken in homes in Sioux Falls. Any translator interested in participating, please e-mail me at muralspeaks@gmail.com! I am in particular need of translations of the poem in African and Asian languages.

Ben Miller is the author of River Bend Chronicle: the Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa. His prose is forthcoming in the New England Review and the St. Petersburg Review. His awards include fellowships from the NEA and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. On October 17 in Hooksett, New Hampshire, he will be presenting shrub-based polyphony in front of the New England chapter of the International Lilac Society. Selected works from his ongoing collaboration with the painter Dale Williams can be seen very soon in Brooklyn.

On Location with Miha Mazzini

Miha Mazzini, whose story “That Winter“ originally appeared in Ecotone and is now featured in Astoria to Zion, sent us this fascinating brain comparison. Read on to find out why writing is so addictive.

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This is the place I usually live: (PICTURE A)

Sometimes, after a long procrastination, in quiet surroundings, when I’m alone, I start writing and the place changes: (PICTURE B)

I had a chance to scan my brain while doing research for my nonfiction book about writers and creativity, Born for Stories. The general rule for interpreting the scans: the brighter the color, the greater the flow of blood.

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On Location with Karen E. Bender

Karen E. Bender, whose story “Candidate” originally appeared in Volume 2, Issue 2 of Ecotone and is now featured in Astoria to Zion, sent us this fantastic photograph and accompanying description of the “ecotone” she and her family learned to navigate in the Tong Bie neighborhood of Taichung City.

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At first, we didn’t know where to walk. We stepped into the neighborhood of Tong Bie, just north of Tunghai University in Taichung City, Taiwan, and saw this: the scooters, their guttural growl vibrating in my throat, the scooter drivers moving, carving their paths down the road, wherever they wanted, really, a huge public bus occasionally swerving through the crowds. Where were we supposed to walk? We watched the pedestrians, calmly carrying a plastic cup of tea or sweet potato fries or an egg pancake, walking.

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On Location with Kevin Brockmeier

This week’s On Location comes from Ecotone contributor Kevin Brockmeier, whose story “The Year of Silence” appeared in Volume 3, Issue 1 back in 2007, and was reprinted in The Best American Short Stories 2008. Unfortunately, that issue was so popular it sold out, but you can find Brockmeier’s story and many more in the newly published Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon.

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Kevin Brockmeier writes:

Shorty Small’s, the restaurant pictured above, is located directly across from the elementary school in Little Rock where I was once enrolled, and has been for more than three decades. When we were kids, we thought of it as the most grown-up and dangerous of grown-up and dangerous places—“a wretched hive of scum and villainy,“ to borrow the words of Obi-Wan Kenobi. A shack! Where people drink beer! With a dilapidated truck marooned on a post out front! Whatever you do, we warned each other, if the soccer ball rolls across the street during recess, do not follow it there.

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On Location in the Cemetery of Pleasures with George Makana Clark

In this week’s On Location, George Makana Clark, whose epistolary story “The Wreckers” appears in Astoria to Zion, reveals the origin of a crypt he included in two stories.

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George Makana Clark writes:

I took this photo in the Cemetery of Pleasures in Lisbon. The metal sign wired to the wrought iron door reads Abandonado to denote that the crypt and those interned within have been forgotten by the living. This of course set me to wondering, and that wonder resulted in two stories set in the early nineteenth century. The crypt in the photo is mentioned briefly in “The Wreckers” and figures prominently in the companion piece titled “The Incomplete Priest,” also published in Ecotone.

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