Out from the Sinews

In a book I read long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the Christopher Dewdney wrote in his book of poetry The Radiant Inventory about neurology, using the most brilliantly poetical and beautiful language. He wrote about all kinds of things, of course: books of poetry are like that.

radiantinventoryBut among the things he discussed in the book was the neurobiology of break-ups, and why they are so difficult. I can’t quote the book, or even paraphrase it in any way I’d regard as trustworthy–my copy is somewhere in that other galaxy where I read it, in a box, floating in the void probably–but my memory of it is basically that human identity works in a way that is unavoidably symbiotic because of our natural gregariousness: who we are is in part defined by our relationships, and thus losing someone significant to us (whether by death or by break-up) results in an experience of the fragmentation of the self around the hole in the self left behind by the loss. One is left with the question, Who am I without this other person?

Well, while things are fine between my wife and I, my suspicion is that this symbiosis of identity works not only through relationships we have with individuals, but also relationships we have with places. 

Who am I outside of Korea? is a question I’ve been wrestling, under the hood… that is, beneath the level of conscious consideration. I’m not sitting around asking myself this, so much as experiencing it as a sort of distress, an unease. It’s not an easy question to answer: I find myself walking around with some of those frustrations still bright and blooming, just beneath the surface, and the the slightest mention of the place gets me going.

Not that I miss Korea. Leaving has been, as Mrs. Jiwaku has pointed out, immensely positive for both of us. But even this far away, my various frustrations sorrows, worries, and angers haven’t evaporated away. I’m not there anymore, and it’s sort of unnecessary for me to carry them… yet they remain. But who am I here, wherever here is when it’s not-Korea?

I think it’d maybe be easier if I had a conventional day job, though part of the reason we came here was to have a break from the distractions and pressures of day jobs. Maybe it’s be easier, too, if I were finding Vietnam as miserable as I found my day-to-day experience of Korea. (I’d be able to just transfer my annoyances and frustration over without much work.) However, by comparison, things here in Ho Chi Minh City just seem so much healthier, so much more balanced and sane, even with the occasional insanities that are inevitable in any place.

Of course, I’ve been here two months now, my life is not woven together with the lives of any Vietnamese people, and I have dealt with some pretty frustrating things. But I don’t see a city shrouded in the constant gloom and misery it took my mother two minutes on the Seoul subway (Line 1, yes) to notice. I see kids playing outdoors in the park at night, and couples–adult couples with jobs and lives–taking dancing lessons in the same park. Ho Chi Minh City isn’t perfect, but what I see when I look around is a saner and generally a happier place than Seoul from what I can tell. People here actually smile at one another… and the fact that is some kind of shocking evidence for something tells you everything you need to know about what Seoul was like for me…

But the question of who I am in this place, and I suppose, the question of what happened to who I was in Korea, remains, and there’s a certain degree of doldrums inevitable in working through all that. So that’s one of the demons I’ve been wrestling more layers to this, at least as far as I can tell.

The second layer should serve as a warning to anyone who is picking up a musical instrument after a long time away from it… especially if they walked away from the instrument, or from music altogether, under difficult or painful circumstances.

I’ve heard of people talk about how, when they lose weight, all kinds of emotions flood them–as if the feelings of the past, or maybe the chemicals that bring about those emotions in the brain–were stored in the fat, like toxins, and that losing weight suddenly releases them back out into a person. I don’t know about that, though it sounds pretty suspect: I’d imagine losing weight is one cause for a flood of emotions in and of itself for a lot of the people who report such things.

Still, there’s something to this on some level, maybe. Musicians talk a lot about muscle memory, but memory is complex. I remember reading about some people in the ancient Near East someplace who used to wear a series of rings and use them as mnemonic tools, to memorize long texts or formulae. The brain is complex enough that we can crosswire memories with gestures, with postures or movements. And playing a musical instrument is very physical, very visceral: you’re blowing your own breath through it, pushing keys or swinging sticks with your hands, using the power of your body to make sounds. I wouldn’t be surprised if playing scales that you played decades before, and engaging in breathing routines you used to, and using that posture, and so on–things you did many times before, under far different circumstances–can bring about vivid recollections of an abstract, emotional nature. And sadly, both times I walked away from the sax, it was as much for reasons of personal relationships failing as it was overmusical frustration. The last time, especially, I walked away from a band bitter over personal issues that went very, very deep.

Up on that roof, playing through the scales, I think some of that sort of seeped out of my bones, my sinews, and the memories shaded my perceptions of the present in a way. And then there was the broiling heat of the roof terrace, and the struggle of rebuilding my saxophone playing from not quite nothing, but from a state of disrepair that is a bit disheartening. All together? Not fun.

And there’s that other side to it: I’m like a lot of musicians I know, very hard on myself about where I’m at musically–even more so since the time off is something I’m working off now, in what feels sometimes like a Purgatorial sense. I shouldn’t have left the sax sitting unplayed, but I did. Never mind that I was doing other things, like jumpstarting a writing career: that’s cool, but it doesn’t make me a better player up on that hot roof, working through lead sheets I once, long ago, used to have memorized.

And speaking of writing, that’s the other thing that’s been dogging me lately. It’s the terror of scaling Olympus.

Which is to say: I know the time has come for me to try to write a novel, and I want to do so, and career wise it’s a good idea, and anyway I have like a dozen good ideas for novels sitting waiting to get used up, I quit my job to come and live off savings (and occasional side gigs) so that I could give it a shot. And yet, I’m kind of paralyzed by fear. Novels are huge. They’re difficult, and challenging, and a different kind of writing than I’ve managed to do successfully so far. I have to learn how to do it, and that’s rightfully terrifying on some level. I know this from experience, as I’ve drafted three or four novels in the past, each of them to some degree a rather abject failure.

I know, I know, maybe I shouldn’t be terrified, or shouldn’t let the terror hold me back from doing it anyway, but that’s easier said than done. Maybe it’s my age: I’ll be forty in less than a year, and feel like I’ve achieved less than I expected of myself. (Coming to terms with why doesn’t seem to help, to the degree that I’ve started to do so. Lost time is still lost time, even when you didn’t have much say in it, or even when you were busy getting other things done.)

But the best we can do in life is to try, right? Maybe I’m not supposed to be writing novels, but maybe there is no “supposed to” and maybe it’s just a case of the writerly equivalent of learning some advanced music theory.

With the music, I realize now that I never really sat down and wrapped my head around what one of my first music teachers, Bill Richards, taught me–that tunes are built around series of tonal centers, and if you can learn those, memorizing and freely playing across chord changes becomes much easier. I’m planning on picking up a copy of John Elliot’s Insights in Jazz to help me negotiate all of that a lot better–he’s got an even more systematized way of looking at it than Bill described to me, based on the Lego-Brick theory of some British fellow named Coker.

And with the writing? Maybe I was just going about things in a too-haphazard way. Writing a synopsis for the feature-length film script I drafted for a friend not long ago was an eye-opening experience; so was the last writing exercise I tried with my housemates. Maybe I can be smart about this, and implement what I’ve learned in those contexts, and maybe that’ll make novel writing into something people–people like me–do, rather than something Other People Who Can Do It do. The etudes I’ve been doing with friends are helping, and I can feel myself ready to make a quantum leap up in my writing, just as I somehow, surprisingly, managed to do the other day in my sax playing.

We’ll see. For now, I’m focusing on getting a few more short things written while I figure out exactly what I want to do with the long project, and write myself a synopsis and think about about structure, approach, and so on. I’ll confess, I’m very taken with an idea for a novel that popped into my head suddenly when I was reading the jazz blog Do the Math (hosted by Ethan Iverson, who among other things is the pianist in The Bad Plus). This post specifically, and even more specifically the Robert McGinnis book cover image below taken from it, got my mind spinning in crazy directions towards places where jazz, noir, hard-boiled mystery, PKD-ish reality-slippage, Joanna Russ, meta-critique of the SF genre (and its unmistakeable graying), and more can intersect:


Is such a novel possible? Would it swallow itself like an ourobouros? I’m not sure, but the shape of it looks tantalizing, when I peer at it from a great distance.

But anyway: starting journeys is fraught with peril, not all of them external. That’s what I know now, and I guess I should have known it already. But life’s like that sometimes: reminders are sometimes the lesson, and you have to devise your own solution to the problem set.

Speaking of which, it’s time I got back to work… I have a fantastical story about alchemists, brewers, distillers, and betrayal, set during the height of the Gin Craze, that I want to finish drafting in the next day or two.

Wish me luck, I guess?

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