Monday, July 27, 2015

Tidal Wave City

A crashing wave, packing unusual force and energy. The water hits the beach and runs. Walls breached. Houses swamped and washed away. A senseless loss. Built too close to the sea. But it's expected. Tidal Wave City has run its course.

This is a beach game. An extravagant sand castle built just below the high-tide mark. Moats, roadways, out-buildings, walls. Walls, decorated with sea shells. Hours to complete the city. Until it gets washed away.

This game has been going on for centuries. Probably millenia. When prehistoric tribes came to the beach to fish, to collect salt. And played with the name Tidal Wave City? For at least for forty-five years. My brother Dana and I might have made up the name. Or possibly we got it from some older kids or even my father. Regardless, now I play it with my kids. And they will probably play it with their kids. At least if parent/child interactions don't change too much.

My father didn't play with me on the beach. Sometimes we would fish together, but we wouldn't play. I don't remember any other dads playing with their kids either on beach vacations. People have changed. Parents playing with their kids is no longer unusual. Especially digging in the sand. Either the adults are less mature or less inhibited. I'm guessing the latter. We are saddled with a much smaller sense of propriety today than our parents and grandparents were. Personally, I like digging in the sand, building Tidal Wave City. It's more fun than fishing, especially since there are no fish left in the ocean.

I'm at North Carolina's Outer Banks right now, Nags Head Beach. We are as far south as possible before it is no longer considered Nags Head. It's pretty quite here. This is where development turns into national seashore. Pennsylvania schools let out exceptionally early, the season hasn't even started yet. The shops are still hiring and many of the rentals are empty. We pretty much have the beach to ourselves.

The last time I visited was twenty-five years ago. Approaching this vacation, I was told time and again that I wouldn't recognize the Outer Banks, things have changed so much. This is true, I don't recognize anything. But the last time I was here it was truly a beach vacation. And a drinking vacation. Up at ten a..m., volleyball on the beach until three or four, beers until bedtime. We didn't get out much to explore the town.

I'm sure we went to some restaurants, but I don't remember which ones. I don't remember how the town looked. But at the time I was in marathon training. I needed to log a shortish “long-run.” Something less than ten miles. I don't remember having any trouble finding a quite place to run. My recollection of that outing is a sleepy beach-town. Half built neighborhoods and a wide sandy shoulder. It isn't like that now. Every inch is of these islands is developed, right down to the park. A bike path adjoining the road is pretty much the only running option now. This vacation, all of my runs have been on the quiet, almost empty beach.

One of the constants in Tidal Wave City is that a portion of the population pushes closer to the sea. They are the 'smart' ones. The outliers. The ones with the prime real estate. The best view. All human building is temporary, but some is more temporary than the rest. Although Tidal Wave City is a child's game of destruction – a game with a certain and inevitable outcome – it is also allegorical for humanity. It is human nature to want a home in the most beautiful spot. Or the most useful spot. But it is foolish to think that our ever evolving planet is not going to change. It is the responsibility of humanity to hedge its decisions with knowledge. Those outliers are always the first to go.

When I look at a map of the Outer Banks, I see a real-life Tidal Wave City. It's a thin strip of land, and it hasn't always been here. And undoubtedly, it will be gone again. The other day I was watching a documentary about the changing nature of the Currituck Sound – the body of water that lies between the northern Outer Banks and the North Carolina mainland. In this documentary, they showed how inlets opened and closed over time in the peninsula. They showed where the last inlet closed up “for good.” This change was so recent, it is remembered. “For good” implies forever, and this is simply wishful thinking.

The next time an inlet opens on the Outer Banks, billions of dollars in property and infrastructure will wash away. It will be national news. People will blame the government for not taking the proper precautions. The Governor will appeal for disaster relief. And the insurance companies will get a financial bail-out. This will be an unforeseen act of God. Except we already know it's coming.

Tidal Wave City happens again and again. The rebuilding New Orleans; the houses littering the slopes of Mount St. Helens since it's last eruption; San Francisco; New York City. It is all temporary. These are places where nature will ultimately win. It may be next month or it may be next century, but calamity is as certain as the next high tide.

Humans are destined to repeat this mistake. We posses an innate ability for optimism, especially to get something we really want. Maybe we just secretly enjoy the destruction that comes at regular intervals from the choices we make. I know I enjoy watching the waves inch closer and closer to Tidal Wave City. And when that exceptional wave breaks and runs, I always feign disbelief. My kids and I shout out “Ugh!” As if we are all bummed out that our hard work has washed away. But really, this is the point of the game.

Friday, July 3, 2015


"The address is underCRUST... no, it's a "dot" not an "at"... UNDERcrust, it's a play on words..."

I should have a card.

I rarely give out my blog address verbally – thank God. My blog isn't intended for local consumption. It's not something that I talk about around town. I'm opinionated, counter-culture, irreverent, pissed-off, outspokenly not-Christian. I have a checkered-past – mental illness and substance abuse; It's all there in my writing. Easier to keep private than to explain. My town is small, judgmental, very Christian. Like a small town from a sixties-TV show. Only it's bigger. But everyone still knows each other. Or knows of each other. And the latter makes things far worse from a gossip perspective.

I've been blogging for eighteen months. Writing consistently for a bit longer. And I've improved. A lot. Writing better, cleaner, clearer. Taking esoteric topics and poking at them until they tell a story. In that story, I include reflections about culture, about life. But mostly, reflections on myself. It's intensely personal and often revealing. Best offered to an anonymous crowd. On-line people I'll never meet.

Undercrust isn't for everyone. My posts are long, sometimes deep, or raw, or sad. They are crafted to inspire thought, evoke emotion. The social-media population prefers short and easy. Pictures, sound-bites, video-loops. Reading my blog takes time and introspection. There is an investment. And a possibility of wasted time. I believe that reading Undercrust is worth the effort, but of course, since it's my blog, it's natural for me to think this.

I joined a writers' group. It's a loose group with dozens of members, and a core of eight or ten who show up on a somewhat regular basis. We have a standing Wednesday night meeting in a bar. But only one person drinks alcohol. Everyone else has water. I'm not sure why we don't meet at the library. I suppose I'm part of the core, even though I attend less than half the meetings. The members enjoy my writing, and seem to respect my commentary. This is important to me. I see these people as real writers. Writers of achievement. Writers who have completed novels, have worked in the industry. They actually earn money by writing. Professional writers. My twelve-year-old daughter has won prize money in three contests. She's made $125 dollars with her writing. That's $125 more than me.

"So, it's What's that mean?" It's a valid question.

When I first built my blog, I was mostly writing commentary. I envisioned parlaying my blog-posts into a weekly syndicated column called Curmudgeon. I would be that old guy with bushy eye-brows in the Sunday paper who complains about everything. I'm not that old, but my eyebrows, if left unchecked, will bush with the best of them. Fortunately for me, every URL playing off the word "curmudgeon" was taken. I was forced to do some actual creative reflection. To come up with something unique.

Who am I? Or really, who am I not? Not the upper-crust. The wealthy people with a sense of propriety and decorum. A group that gains status from hanging with a uniformly affluent crowd. This isn't me. I'm polite, but I'm disdainful of protocol. Rules should be questioned before followed. Status from wealth is snobbery. I'm the opposite of the upper-crust. But "lower-crust" isn't right. It is too obvious. It implies low class. Not the image I wanted to convey.

Undercrust: It suggests something hidden. Inaccessible. Protected behind a shell. The flavorful part of a baked good. The part that isn't on display to the public, but is anticipated all the same. Something to be excavated, to be mined. Plus, the word is barely in use. It is word that I made up, that I own. Less thought went into the name than all this. It just felt right. But it is the perfect name for what my writing has become. Which is not as much societal commentary as I expected. For the most part, I'm engaged in self-analysis. Also, I keep my eyebrows trimmed.

Over eighteen months, I've generated a boat-load of content. Probably 200,000 words. Enough for two full books. Each essay stands alone, so there is no need to read my entire blog to enjoy a post, to get the point. I haven't spent any effort on web-metric tracking, so I don't really know who reads my blog. I've had thousands of page hits, but I don't know if these people actually read anything. Or how many ever come back. Based on comments and discussions, I'd estimate my readership at somewhere between four and seven consistent followers. This includes my wife. Pretty lame. Not much pay-back for a thousand hours of work.

At my writers' group the other night we talked about blogging. I'm the resident blogger, so I made sure I was there. Actually most of the more experienced writers have blogs, but as far as I know, I'm the only one who writes exclusively to blog. And even this isn't true. Principally, I write to understand myself. And I write to try to create something beautiful, or worthwhile, or interesting, or even funny. But with the exception of a few pieces winding up on the Op Ed page of my local paper, the only place my writing is ever published is on my poorly followed blog.

I'm frustrated with my writing career. Like Ray Kinsella in Shoeless Joe (aka Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams) I overly subscribe to the "they will come" mindset. The only requirement is to provide a quality product, everything else is handled by the universe. Faith, hard work and skill are rewarded. Of course, this is bullshit. There are a bazillion talented musicians, writers, dancers and artists who never make a ripple in the pond of society's collective awareness, while Ann Rice – of vampire fame – becomes a household name.

Exposure includes an aspect of luck, but it is mostly due to marketing. At my writers' group session on blogging, one of the real writers suggested that my lack of marketing is holding me back. She says I need to be on Facebook and Twitter at a minimum. Google as a social media platform is limited. This is all probably true, but I lack the energy, the interest and the understanding to do anything about it. I can't even figure out how to link my blog to a Facebook page. It isn't how I want to spend my time. I'd rather write. Or hike with my family. Or go running. Or read. Maybe I'm too lazy to "make it" as a writer.

I'm not supposed to care about followers. When I started blogging, I wrote for myself. Creating something I was proud of, creating art. My writing was inspired. My web page was beautiful. Clean and sparse, just like the essays I published on it. This was enough for me. But somewhere along the way, I started looking for props, for praise. Really I should say craving it. Page hits and followers are an obsession. I don't use this word lightly. I suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I know obsessed. A lingering buzz in the back of my brain. Distracting me from being fully present in the rest of my life.

A couple of weeks ago, heading out on a beach vacation, I changed my Google and Facebook passwords. I created a random string of characters and posted them on my desktop. They cannot be memorized, at least not by me. I spent my beach week without social media. And since I've returned, I haven't touched my passwords. The only computer I can use to access my Google and Facebook accounts is at home. At home where I have my wife and kids to distract and occupy me. Where my hobbies – writing and running – keep me balanced. Where I have chores and responsibilities and limited time at a computer. My social media presence is collapsing.

I still don't understand how social media is supposed to launch me as a writer. I don't really expect to be discovered on Facebook, to be offered a book deal. But at the same time, everything I read tells me that this is a crucial step. There must be other formulas for success. Preferably one that involves simply living my life, and then writing about it. Not obsessively posting it and reviewing it on internet platforms. So far, this formula is elusive to me. I suspect that building a writing career includes networking and submitting manuscripts – just like the old days. With my new-found space, the time recouped from breaking social media's grip, I intend to revisit these options, again and again. I'll find the method that works for me. Works in a way that – like my blog name, Undercrust – just feels right to me.