Category Archives: Writing

The Heart: Writer Megan Feldman Bettencourt

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I first learned of Megan Feldman Bettencourt and her book, Triumph of the Heart: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World, on The One You Feed (an excellent podcast). Shortly after, we connected on Twitter, I read Megan’s book, and then we “met” on Skype for an interview.

I love all of my podcast episodes equally, however I will say that I think my talk with Megan might be of the greatest general interest to creatives and aspiring creatives — as a sort of all-encompassing group — than any I have released so far.

The reason for this is because this episode is about Megan’s experience, research, and reporting on not only forgiveness but personal and professional redemption. My own journey in these terms over the past few years, which has been well-documented on this site, has not only led me to a productive place, but also a happier and more fulfilled place. This pattern itself has engendered better, more connected work.

Just some of what we covered:

  • Megan Feldman cr MaryLynn Gillaspie Photography (1)How an early childhood experience in writing about trauma led Megan to the realization that she could connect with and help other people through writing
  • How Megan’s early work reporting on things like war, poverty, addiction and other issues laid the groundwork for Triumph of the Heart
  • How the story of Azim Khamisa, who had forgiven the murderer of his only son, inspired Megan to both write her book and embark on her own journeys in forgiveness
  • Approaching forgiveness from a place disassociated from religious dogma or contemporary judgements about weakness
  • The commonalities between forgiveness and mindfulness (simple but not easy)
  • How listening to others share about the impact that our actions have had on them can allow us to stop causing pain for others due to our own personal issues

I’d love for you to listen, and please feel free to let Megan and/or me know what you think about the talk. You can find Megan’s book here. As I say more than once in the episode, I highly recommend you check it out.

As reminders, you can also subscribe to Coffee with Creatives on iTunes and/or support the podcast on Patreon.

 

Now Streaming: The Confession

confI am thrilled to announce that The Confession is now available for your viewing pleasure.

Many thanks to Director/Producer Jaclyn Gramigna for overseeing the production of the film, and to the rest of our team for their great work. Above all, we’re grateful to our supporters on Seed&Spark, who helped make this 95% crowdfunded film a reality.

(The other 5% was paid for by yours truly, to cover a few overages. If you enjoy The Confession, feel free to send over a few dollars to help offset that added cost).

Please also feel free to share a link, as soon as you’re done watching, on Twitter or Facebook. Happy viewing!

Summary: Jacob and Ellen wander through Brooklyn, the morning after spending the night together for the first time. Jacob’s acting strange. Ellen wonders why. A confession is coming. And it’s not what you expect.

Did you enjoy The Confession? If so, follow us on Twitter!

Writer/Executive Producer
Michael DiBiasio

Director/Producer
Jaclyn Gramigna

Executive Producer/Lead Actress
Rebecca De Ornelas

Lead Actor
Jeremy Plyburn 

Check out the remaining credits for the film on IMDb!

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No Waiting: Filmmaker Christina Raia

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After a bit of a break, Coffee with Creatives is back and ready to inspire you in 2016. The first episode of the new year is with Filmmaker Christina Raia, who I first met on Twitter and then in person when Multiverse screened at Indieworks in NYC.

Christina is a prolific filmmaker with an intense work ethic. In addition to discussing the path that led to her first feature film Summit, we also discuss:

  • The many ways in which an artist can be boxed-in, in career terms, and how to help make sure that doesn’t happen
  • How we as artists change during, after, and across projects
  • Why she doesn’t like waiting before moving on to a new film or series
  • The experience of wondering if her $20,000 feature (Summit) would collapse entirely, during every day of its two-week production period
  • Learning to be vulnerable, and how that can help you (and any team members working with you) to, for instance, stick things out in sub-zero temperatures
  • In regards to her web series, Kelsey, how to achieve distribution success by reaching out to your base, or core audience

Great talk, hard-working, generous filmmaker. Summit is available now. You can find out more about Christina and her work on her site. Happy Creating! More great guests coming soon! If you enjoy our talk, please share it on Twitter or on Facebook.

As reminders, you can also subscribe to Coffee with Creatives on iTunes and support the podcast on Patreon.

 

The Arc of 2015: In Good Time

The following was written a few weeks ago, while I was away for some R&R in the woods. That was the only way this year’s update was going to happen.

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Winter 2015: Just add snow. Also, I’m destined to become a mountain man.

The Setting: New England Winter

I’m sitting, propped up by pillows and legs outstretched, on an old firm couch in a guest house above a garage on a farm in rural Connecticut.

The temperature outside is at freezing point, but it’s warm inside. I woke up just in time to watch the sun finish rising out the three large windows that face the forest that surrounds the properties.

New England winters mean something to me. I grew up with them. Despite the bitter cold and the ice and the snow typical of the season in the region — I usually enjoyed them. Especially  I enjoyed them when sleeping somewhere surrounded by forest.

I’m here with my wife, who’s out running right now. I already made myself breakfast and ate it. I’m on my second cup of tea. This weekend is a necessary time-out, and not the only one I have taken this year.

This house is small but perfectly designed and artfully furnished. The couch I am on runs alongside a set of window perpendicular to those through which I watched the sun rise. Now the sun shines upon the large table where we ate dinner last night.

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I have to say, I aced the cook on this rib-eye.

A pair of blue jays have been fluttering around the giant, stately bushes outside. I can see the main house from here. It’s large and also stately but in an un-obsequious way. The owners seem kind. We’re here, probably, for a few more days.

A fly is buzzing around and I’m pretending not to care. That sort of thing is easier to do here.

I had planned, in view of this setting and circumstance, to continue with the new fiction piece I have been working on. It’s a story that I have been wanting to explore for a long time, but hadn’t up until recently been able to start. Now it’s started. Not only that, I am happy to be engaged with it. I can see, now, why I left it in its prior uninitiated state for years. The time wasn’t right.

No, that’s wrong. It would be more accurate to say that the time hadn’t arrived yet.

Musings on Time

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This book rattled my brain. I like it when that happens.

I have been thinking about time, recently. This is partially a result at having read Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, and also Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: Overture. Both books, in their ways, jab at popular notions of time.

I worry about time a lot. I used to worry about it a lot more. I would like to worry about it even less.

A good portion of the lessening can probably be attributed to aging. What “they” say, as far as it concerns me personally, at least, appears true. I worry less now than I did in my twenties.

I can see and feel my body aging, now. This has been both a new cause of a concern and, at the same time, an clear indication of my powerlessness against time.

Contrastingly, in career terms, I have lately begun to accept that, at thirty-one, I am mostly still considered young. There are still days when I feel like I should be “further along” by now, or that I “should have” accomplished “x” or “y” — but I try to respond to such ideas with self-compassion and a plea for personal patience.

When I still felt young, which was still going on as recently as three or four years ago, I was, as I have said, much more obsessed with time.

I never felt able to keep up. I never believed I was going to get to where I wanted — had –- to go.

That’s changed. It’s changed for a few reasons.

Withdrawing from Time’s Pull

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This journal has been a great “next best thing” sub-in for morning pages.

First, while it’s still a battle I lose for hours and days and sometimes weeks at a time, I committed some time ago to working towards presence.

Nearly every day, I write this sentence out as an affirmation in my Five Minute Journal:

I am present, mindful, grateful and kind.

Also every day, I second-guess myself, wondering whether it’s “right” to affirm both presence and mindfulness. It could be argued that they’re the same thing. But I still do it, every time. And, today, I think I know why.

My affirmation of presence is a reminder. That, whether I believe it or not, remember it or not –- I am here. This is a fact I have had difficulty believing and facing in the past, despite its more than obvious truth. We are all, always, here, until we’re not.

But do we always feel that way? Do we acknowledge it? I don’t, not always, or often enough.

Sometimes, honestly, it hurts to be here. My own mind, the internet, social media, TV or films or books — even my work — they offer a welcome reprieve from the difficulty of acknowledging the pain that sometimes seizes my heart when I consider the sheer power and responsibility of being here.

And I don’t mean to suggest there’s not joy in that knowledge, too. But, for some (me), the process of courageously pursuing that joy can become a loaded one with its own potential to overwhelm.

Still, presence is truth. As such, it’s impervious to regret. That makes it work fighting for, to me.

Mindfulness, on the other hand, is the path by which I seek and access truth. It’s how I come back to the present, and to myself, when I’m obsessing over the past or worrying about the future.

Worrying about the past and the future is a normal, natural thing. Arguably, these anxieties even hold some utility, when indulged in a balanced way. Even when I’ve found myself worrying too much (and thus slipping from mindfulness) — I try not to judge myself. It’s part of our nature to “leave the planet” in spots.

It’s the coming back that really counts.

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The wife and I went for a hike. Found this. Felt good.

That’s why, I think, I started this post the way that I did. I was settling into life, in the moment.

This can be a delicate process, when writing, or creating. Creators face a difficult balancing act during each engaged act of genesis.

Creativity, unsurprisingly, is much like sex in this way. It’s about both being fully in and outside the moment, extending outside the body through the body.

Acknowledging Time’s Power

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The view from the exact spot wherein this was written. Cozy, right?

Now, obviously, we cannot be creating constantly, just as we cannot be constantly having sex. Reprieve from the realities of friction and fluid depletion, social order and sustained healthy living — these necessities preclude such behavior.

While time conceptually may be much less harsh and villainous than we often consider it to be, in cosmic terms it’s still one of only a few primal ruling elements of our lives.

However, also in cosmic terms (we’re keeping topics small today), time can be viewed simply. It proceeds and we ride its current, unable to do more than pretend at stopping or going (in relative terms) at spots along the way.

This is why, when caught up by concerns of time — I turn to gratitude.

Gratitude as a Perspective on Time

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Cannot begin to express how grateful I am for this little hairy genius.

Gratitude is about perspective — about taking a particular view of one slice of time, at one such stopping point or another, and appreciating it.

I am fortunate to be in this house, at this time, writing this –- to you. I know this. I appreciate it as a captured, treasured moment of grace, an example of the exact relationship I seek in this world that speaks to my needs and wants as a person.

Often, though, in the busyness of trying to do and be more, all the time and in the midst of so many others doing and being their own things…I forget it all. I forget the moments of grace, I forget what I know to be true about time and life and the importance of remaining in the moment with my feet on the ground. I forget it all.

Being an artist, for many of us, is not a choice. Finding an audience, however, is a privilege. One that needs to be cultivated, earned, and sustained.

So, as 2015 gives way to 2016 — I say it again. I am not only grateful for the life I have been given and have built, but also for you. I am grateful for your time, support, and for the occasional commiserating moments we have shared and which I hope we’ll continue to share in the future.

Kindness as The Ultimate Expression of Time Best-Used

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We were able to shoot The Confession due to the kindness of our audience.

Kindness, to wrap up, represents the ideal state I wish to arrive in, on those rare, joyful occasions whereupon I am able to remove myself from time.

It’s the core appreciation of life, and of living, that feeds my beliefs. Probably, it fuels all the work that I do, that I have always viewed not as my own, but as something rooted in more primal, fundamental life-stuff than can be claimed as having originated in a single, struggling human.

Struggle As The Space Between Accomplishments

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I found a kitten this year. Here he is struggling to get away from Rebecca.

Struggle is the final key word, here.

Prior to writing this, I had been struggling to determine the appropriate lens through which to review the prior year.

Two years ago, on the first anniversary of this site, I remarked upon an arc of what I viewed as progress — observable inroads made against the injustices of the day. Last year, on its second anniversary, I celebrated a productive year of movement. Those posts have as much to do with my own natural evolutions through time, and through self-discovery, as they do with the conditions, histories, and developments of which my experiences are but a part.

Now, it’s three years later. The Videoblogs will be coming out (relatively) soon. It’s possible I’ll be compiling my first book of fiction as that happens. The podcast continues to grow. Time moves on and I try to ride its currents and appreciate its mystery, rather than pretend there’s a damn thing I can do to control where it takes me, when or how.

If you had said to me, three or four years ago, that this is where I would be, in this exact place in the woods, settled firmly in this moment, taking some time off with the woman I love in the midst of a years-long pattern of being in constant touch with all of you, who have supported my endeavors for years (via both your attention and your direct patronage), perhaps I would have been pleasantly surprised — but I also would have believed it.

This is because, as I am learning, time is much less measurable than it seems, or than at least I had thought.

It helps to set goals and mark progress, but change more often occurs, I am finding, via a day to day commitment to more courageously pursue those truths which compel us. The pursuit is the important thing. Everything else is at best a nice detour or a short break, but more often an unnecessary distraction.

Time is not containable. That is its beauty and our privilege.

Thank you for your continued readership, listenership and support. You are loved and appreciated. I wish you the best for each of the days that make up the new year.

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Space Cops: Comics Creator/Writer David Gallaher

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Comics Creator and Writer David Gallaher got his first job in the industry by faxing a six-panel comics version of his resume to Marvel.

That happened at the beginning of a career that would continue to leverage technology, inventiveness, and hard work towards the co-creation (with Steve Ellis) of comics like Only Living Boy, High Moon, Box 13 and others. In 2015, Gallaher and Ellis also worked for DC Comics on Green Lantern Corps: Convergence.

David and I had a great conversation on this latest episode of Coffee with Creatives — which represents yet another instance wherein a connection began online (Twitter) before graduating to an IRL meet-up.

Among many other topics, here’s what we covered:

  • Participating in the early days of web comics
  • How a background in theatre helped David’s comics writing
  • The benefits of prioritizing productivity over perfectionism
  • How he ended up writing Green Lantern Corps for DC
  • Engineering “holy sh*t” moments
  • Why David wakes up at 4AM
  • The importance of working at your own pace
  • Why it’s crucial to replenish the well

If you like what David has to say, check out his work. And let him know on Twitter!

As reminders, you can also subscribe to Coffee with Creatives on iTunes and support the podcast on Patreon. Both actions help the show (and me) out a bunch. A. Bunch.

 

Through The Fear: Novelist Amy Koppelman

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Amy Koppelman started writing before she had any idea that she would one day become a novelist. Three books and one film adaptation later, she now has plenty to share with Coffee with Creatives listeners, especially about:

  • The cathartic, early-stage creative exploits that often later lead to our larger creative pursuits
  • Waiting for the tools needed to authentically address what we’re compelled to address
  • Learning to parse comments and criticism
  • The importance of learning — and then breaking — the rules
  • The difficulty of letting go after a thing is done
  • How and why darkness doesn’t necessarily suggest hopelessness
  • Humanizing mental illness
  • The importance of perseverance

AMyKoppelman[1]It was great to meet Amy, and to talk shop about fiction and the challenges of being a novelist. Her unflinching portrayals of characters struggling with depression, trauma, and other tough subjects — they can serve as a good reminder of how hard things can get for people who we might know and love but not always fully understand. Her discussion of the hopefulness that can often come out of that process, as well, is particularly moving.

Hesitation Wounds comes out in hardcover on November 3rd. For more information on her other books, and/or the film adaptation of her novel I Smile Back, check out her site. You can also follow Amy on Twitter.

This episode is also on iTunes.

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Fiction: Threat of Glass

Photo credit: Mohammed J

Photo credit: Mohammed J.

As they parked around what Google had indicated as the entrance to the Venice Beach Boardwalk, Alex reiterated, for the fifth time, her need to pee.

Nick had to pee as well, but Alex had been holding it in for longer, or had at least vocalized her condition earlier and more often. Thus it was Alex’s journey.

Though they were only in the city for about thirty-six hours, two-thirds of which had already passed, Alex had decided she didn’t like LA. Nick hadn’t formed his own opinion yet, but could understand where she was coming from. The traffic was as bad as everyone had said it would be. Still, it bothered Alex more than it did Nick, who had much more experience in traffic. Alex was a native New Yorker, and didn’t even have a license. Driving hardly made sense to her.

Nick killed the engine and was mildly surprised when Alex didn’t leap from the car. He removed the keys from the ignition and looked over at her. Despite being out of traffic and in range of a number of surrounding small-business bathrooms, she did not appear relieved.

He asked what was wrong. She said she didn’t know.

“No. It’s — I’m not relaxed. We’re supposed to be relaxing but we’ve spent most of the day in traffic.”

She went on to remark upon the weather. While in traffic, it had been sunny. Now that they were by the water, the sky was overcast. Also, Alex noted (as Nick well-knew) — that it was getting late. According to the friend they had met for coffee earlier that day, there were only a few hours of peak beach time remaining.

Nick again considered her feelings but also expressed his own. They were here now, the traffic had been definitively annoying but they were also trying to do quite a bit, around the city, in a single day.

Also, he reminded her, they both had to pee. This seemed the most pressing concern.

Alex didn’t reply directly but seemed to hear some of what he had said and, after a moment, asked for some time. He fell silent. He became privately annoyed. Time would still be there after they found a place to pee, in his opinion.

Eventually, they got out of the car. The simple action, while it would pale in comparison to the primal physical relief soon to come, provided some liberation from the lingering trappings of their previously trafficked state.

Nick fed the parking meter with what change he could scavenge from the front pocket of his backpack. Alex crossed the street to pee in a Starbucks — a modern urban tradition that immediately called New York to mind for Nick but probably also occurred throughout the western world and known oases.

Just as Nick was approaching the Starbucks, Alex emerged saying that she would not be using their bathroom. She had more choice words for why. She was upset again.

They argued for a moment, about the exact same things they had discussed in the car. Nick spotted an independent cafe a few blocks down. He remarked that it was time for his afternoon coffee, and suggested they go there for both that and mutual peeing. By now, he had to go badly as well.

Alex remained annoyed but agreed. They entered the cafe and Nick observed the interior and instantly liked it. The place had been designed, and seemed to be run (if early impressions were any indicator) without pretension. Yet by the smell and appearance of things, the proprietors appreciated quality.

Alex bristled at what she perceived as Nick’s dallying. She still just had to pee.

They approached the counter and were met by a pleasant, smiling, tanned Japanese man, who greeted them warmly and inquired as to how he could help. Nick felt comfortable replying that they needed not only coffee but also, urgently, a bathroom.

The man laughed and told them the bathroom was around the corner and in the back. Relieved, Alex smiled and expressed her thanks and went to pee. Nick got his coffee, paid for it, went to drop a dollar in the glass tip jar on the counter and noticed that he had been given too much change. He let the man know. The man laughed and said something about how dollar bills are always sticking to each other. Nick privately wished more of his money would stick to itself and also realized – with bemusement, if not surprise — that the man behind the counter was high.

Nick took his coffee and turned around to the counter of milks and creams and sugars and spices. He put the coffee down, isolated the cinnamon from the cocoa via a careful analysis of each shaker’s pores, and ultimately tapped some cinnamon into his coffee. He picked the coffee up, smelled it, and felt his body relax. Soon, he too would be high.

Nick put his coffee back down on the counter, found a lid, placed it over the cup and then picked the coffee up a final time and wandered to the back to find the bathroom.

It was located in an alcove, adjacent to the cafe’s kitchen, which looked disorganized but not dirty. Still, Nick wondered if Alex had found the bathroom clean enough. Ultimately, he reflected as he waited, that she must have. Or else she had given up.

“You’re lucky you have a dick,” she might say — not for the first time – if the bathroom didn’t end up meeting her standards.

Again, he couldn’t argue.

He heard a flush, running water, and then the churning of a paper towel dispenser (good sign). Then a latch clicked and the door opened and Alex emerged looking much relieved and not at all disgusted.

She held the door open for him and said she’d wait outside. Nick asked her to hold his coffee until he got back and she took it and went.

***

They couldn’t find the boardwalk at first. Alex wondered aloud whether they had started in the right place. Despite the relief that the bathroom break had provided, they both still felt disappointed by the weather. Also, so far, they hadn’t found much activity at the beach.

Nick squinted in the direction where he figured the boardwalk might be. Leaving Alex, he wandered to a bike rental hut nearby. A bored-looking man appeared from behind a partition and Nick politely asked him which way it was to the boardwalk. The man pointed and Nick, somewhat put off by his choice to reply inaudibly, briefly nodded his thanks at the same time that he was turning around to rejoin Alex.

He felt like a tourist. He didn’t like feeling like a tourist. At the same time, it was what he was, today, so he let it go.

They found the boardwalk and, soon, there they were – experiencing Venice Beach as tourists.

Overall, in a general way, the beach didn’t seem too dissimilar from Coney Island, or from other boardwalks Nick had walked in the past, both with and without Alex. On the other hand, its carnival feel seemed more stripped down, less urgent, more Californian, than anything in the east.

This minor proof of prevailing stereotypes comforted Nick, somewhat.

***

Everything was for sale.

On the inland side of the boardwalk, vendors stood outside of tiny alcoves selling the usual: t-shirts, pipes, various trinkets.

Fried food was infinitely available.

Unlike Nick’s first visit to Coney Island, he was not tempted to sample any of it. He was similarly disinterested in accepting any of the offers, extended lazily at intervals by either a stoned young white man or woman dressed in bright green scrubs, to pay to see a doctor about getting a prescription for marijuana.

Maybe he would have gone in for that at another, earlier point in his life, in different company (dudes) — but not today. Even in wondering how the process might go, Nick knew well-enough to leave the idea alone. He imagined that paying for the consultation would invariably lead to paying more money for terrible, over-priced weed.

Artists and musicians sold their wares or performed their crafts on the beach side, to the left of Nick and Alex.

Nick mostly swiveled his head while they walked, but paid more attention to the artists. They were his people. Even before any initial estimation of their talents, or any measurements of their offerings against his tastes, he felt his heart reach out to them in solidarity.

As they proceeded, hand-in-hand, with no agenda towards anything but the sensation of seeing (and hearing) the world around them, Nick and Alex, both — began to relax.

***

Walking felt good. The feel of Alex’s hand, soft in his, felt good. Even being among people who mostly appeared reduced, in stark terms, to culturally-defined roles of Sellers and Buyers — felt refreshingly honest.

They arrived at Muscle Beach. A small teenage girl giggled, almost fatally, as a very large, well-built man lifted her above his head, like a barbell, as her similarly afflicted friend struggled to steady herself long enough to take a photo of the action.

Alex’s gaze lingered on the exploit. Nick didn’t blame her, but privately lamented how long it had been since he had lifted weights.

A minute after they had passed, Alex wondered aloud if the man could lift her, too. Nick didn’t answer. He let the jealously ride, and found after a while that it had gone.

Reasoning the scenario out had helped. The muscled man, like the other beachside sellers, was in addition to a (essentially non-real) masculine threat — also a fellow artist. Despite his natural envy, Nick respected the man’s commitment and apparent excellence.

As it often did when contemplating things like art, commitment, and excellence, Nick’s mind then turned his own chosen path of salesmanship: his screenwriting.

Nick had arrived in LA while at a strange crossroads in his life as an artist. He was in the process of completing his tenth year as a writer. There was a clear reason he felt direct kinship with the street musicians and painters who were hocking their talents, with varying results, along the view of the beach. Apart from the comparatively higher costs of film production, he was, after all these years, in a similar position – casting for buyers from the outskirts.

This was not necessarily bad. In fact, Nick had lately, finally, begun to view his own exploits through a similar lens of pride as the one through which he now viewed his brethren on the street. He had come quite a long way over the years (thanks in no small part to Alex, who seemed for the moment to be engaged in her own private reverie). The challenge he now faced, however, was how to navigate the intersection he felt himself approaching, which very much resembled the two sides of the street he now walked.

His art, and his ambitions with it, had evolved now to the point where he felt confident not only putting himself out there, and seeking support in doing so (like the singers, painters, and sculptors on his left), but also, increasingly, crossing the divide between them and the others, who were definitively selling products, in pursuit of not only the means to provide for themselves but also profit and growth.

Nick knew, consciously, that he was not a product (though his scripts were). Still, even as he walked with Alex, reflecting upon this still newly mature point of view, he felt some lingering sentiments of doubt, which were themselves quickly latched onto by all vines of fear that could grasp them as they crept through the jungle of his mind.

More than anything else, Nick wondered whether he had truly arrived at this crossroads, or whether, instead, he had reached only the end of his patience – and then whether there were any real difference between the two states.

***

They remained quiet. There was plenty of sound to soak in, without either of them needing to add anything.

Salespeople sold, most of the fine artists sat quietly beside their wares, incremental live dance performances added some blooded life to the boardwalk’s otherwise steady, lackadaisical buzz.

A soulful young woman with large sad eyes strummed a guitar and sang softly. As Nick and Alex passed her, they paused, realizing almost concurrently that she was quite good.

“Do you have cash?”

Nick nodded, and gave five dollars to Alex. They turned around, approached the woman together. Then Nick slowed and hung back as Alex smiled, dropped the bill, and turned halfway back around to resume their walk in the other direction. The woman kept playing, but smiled at Nick and nodded her thanks.

The transaction had done nothing to dim the sadness in the woman’s eyes and voice.

He hadn’t supposed it would. She kept singing, and he held on to the sound as long as he could as they proceeded. But, invariably, the woman’s voice faded back to where it had come, from within the din of the crowd.

***

When the end of the boardwalk appeared in the distance, they stopped. Nick realized, quite suddenly, that his hand was shaking.

The coffee had been strong, and they were overdue to move on in their tourist-ing to a recommended nearby lunch spot. It would require walking back to where they had started and then driving ten minutes (to go a few miles). Nick addressed Alex and reported on his condition.

She then waited outside while he ducked into a convenience store for a snack. Inside, a gregarious old Korean man was faking his way through a conversation, with a couple of young women, about the wines he sold in the store. They were not wines that merited much conversation. As more people wandered in, Nick realized that he was the only person in the store not buying alcohol.

This was a new experience.

He paid for a protein bar and bottle of water, noted that the prices weren’t nearly as bad as he would have guessed, and went back out to meet Alex.

After a couple of minutes, once the protein bar had been swallowed, he felt better. They took less time to make their way back towards where the rental car was parked.

Still, they mostly remained quiet, as they walked and swapped the water back and forth between them until it was gone.

***

Nick wondered what Alex was thinking. She still didn’t seem to be enjoying LA very much, and it worried him. He neither liked nor disliked it yet, except for the weather, and the relative glut of parking, both of which were a relief compared to New York.

The city would have to be on the radar, if he were to proceed with his planned attempt to cross — or at least jostle his way into to a rare encampment somewhere in the middle — from the busking artist’s side of the street to the salespeople’s side.

He felt his jaw tighten. He paused, and wondered after the accuracy of his conclusions.

There was little fundamental difference between the artists and the salespeople. Most were working on slim margins, probably scraping by, spending just as much time hocking their wares or talents as they were developing or employing them. The real difference rested outside the neighborhood, where the big money was being spent by far wealthier — but when it came down to it, mostly, behaviorally identical — people.

It all came down to where the personal threshold existed, for each man and woman, didn’t it? How much were they willing to sell? What was the right price, what were the true costs?

His jaw tightened further. He glanced at Alex.

Again, she was deep in her own reflections. He realized, then, that there was no way of knowing what she was thinking. She could be worrying about the same things, probably if not certainly as they applied to herself and her artistic career. The constant state of persistent questioning came with the territory – but knowing or suspecting it was shared would not on its own have made the situation any less exhausting for either of them. Talking through their concerns might have helped, but for the moment they were not doing that.

Nick by now had built up a fairly effective practice of taking immediate note of any tightening of his jaw as a sign that he needed to breathe and let go. It could be that simple. He could relax his body and use this is a signal to his mind to follow suit.

He employed this strategy, and soon thereafter found a handhold in reason.

There was no way of knowing what the right move would be, what would happen, whether this abbreviated test trip was a success, a failure, or nothing at all of significance. He knew this, knew that all he could do was what he had always done (keep his head down and work), and also to do more of what has been helping much more recently, which was to actively pursue opportunities to grow and learn – in short, to ask for help.

“I’m hungry.”

“Yeah.”

“Let’s get lunch.”

He nodded.

***

They passed a small crowd that faced the beach, at the center of which was a thin, slightly-hunched, middle-aged Caribbean man with a folded bandanna encircling his head around the temples.

Nick craned his neck to look back as the man loudly corralled people into the painted white square he supposed the man was renting from the city for his performance.

Nick noticed that the man was holding an empty bottle of rum with the bottom broken off, and a large bed sheet, folded like a sack, that appeared to hold a heavy load of variously-sized, similarly broken glass bottles.

Alex’s gaze was drawn to the scene as well. The man continued to gather his crowd.

“Come in close! Come in close! Don’t be shy!”

Nick slowed. Alex did also. The man let go, partially, of the sheet, dropping it and its contents, not very carefully, in the middle of the square. He still held loosely onto the back two flaps of the makeshift sack, which he kept bunched in one hand.

Then there was a popping and a tinkling of broken glass as the front of sheet opened and several large pieces and shards were revealed. The man dropped the bottle of rum, atop the sheet and onto the sidewalk. The top broke off.

“Don’t be shy! Last show of the day, ladies and gentleman! Last show before I go back to the island!”

The man cackled loudly. The cackling had a hidden air of privacy about it, but Nick felt even this was part of the show — feigned madness but with a touch of the real informing the performance. He recognized the exploit.

He looked at Alex.

“I kind of need to know what’s up with that glass.”

***

Nick sensed a disappointing ultimate result almost immediately.

He remained watching, though, standing beside Alex, their bodies pressed especially close together to offset their discomfort at being part of an also-pressed-together crowd of strangers.

Partially Nick remained because it had been his idea to stop and watch — which was a decision they were now invested in, which he would realize later was part of the trick — but also he did so out of some morbid hope that the man would eventually perform some sleight-of-foot trick that might at least momentarily flirt with a real possibility of blood.

The man would, eventually, strategically, briefly — via a prior training that to Nick would seem incomplete and honestly not impressive enough, given all the build-up that would first come — make good on his unspoken promise to endanger himself.

But a matching act in New York, he knew even then, at the beginning of the performance, would not succeed.

New Yorkers would need to see a real trick, and would need to see it sampled more quickly. Fake blood might even work, but a true and obvious magician’s exploit would have to go on display, sooner and with escalating stakes, for a show such as the one they now witnessed to work effectively.

Then again, New Yorkers might not even be impressed by broken glass at all. They saw it every day, anyway. Nick additionally began to doubt if such a performance would even be permitted back home.

The man was at least a good performer.

He strode energetically about the circle he had created out of the crowd. As a few police officers in the distance ignored him completely, he continued to loudly cite and leverage an obviously overstated need to keep them from writing him a ticket, as an excuse to address lingerers directly, drawing them more tightly in on the circle, usually via an outdated and/or racist (but effective) name-calling joke.

Any white male was Eminem. Asian males were Jackie Chan. While he spoke to women as well, he did not assign them names in any matching fashion.

Nick considered this an important detail. If not a true endangerer of the self, the man was at least a practiced and ruthless performance salesman. He was going after men. He was highlighting the differences between they and him. The women, he flirted with — mildly, just enough to cause discomfort. Machismo. Race. Sex. He was aiming for the strongest, and most primally-based, social power structures he could manipulate.

For several minutes, the man continued to play the crowd, returning only to the pile of glass to tease various methods of harming himself with it. Each tease was well-timed to arrive just at the edge of audience impatience. All were abandoned abruptly once people were reintroduced to their initial dark curiosity, and followed by more crowd work, more jokes tinged with racial tension — until suddenly and quite unceremoniously — he performed what Nick guessed would be his only move, a definite but well-orchestrated two-step shuffle onto the pile of shards that was over as soon as it started.

Nick didn’t check for blood, figuring there wouldn’t be any. Indeed, there was none (or someone would have said something). He glanced at Alex, who looked bored and a touch uncomfortable. Nick also felt uncomfortable, and he wondered after the emotion, even as he realized that the show was already over even if it hadn’t yet ended.

The man brought out his hat, finally, and became instantly aggressive in soliciting payment for his services. He addressed couples, particularly, often playing a stoic unimpressed male against his more gregarious girlfriend.

Many of these couples had already been primed, by the man’s prior crowd work, for a direct ask. When he was done with them, he thrust the hat towards whole groups of tourists from foreign countries, briefly summarizing, in his own fashion, how the whole transaction worked and how much it was worth here in this country.

The man leaned over and addressed children, sending them to ask their parents for money. He eventually put the hat down, resumed his flirtations with the glass, and then, perhaps marking the beginning of his final act, the tone of his voice shifted again and Nick sensed hostility, within a now barely-veiled demand for compensation. This attitude had the effect of illustrating (and exaggerating) a non-verbalized accusation that the people who were left — and had yet to pay anything — were cheating him.

He wasn’t entirely wrong. He was leveraging his true talent beautifully.

While all this was going on, Nick felt Alex growing increasingly restless beside him. He turned almost completely around to face her this time, at the same time withdrawing his wallet. Alex nodded when he asked her if she was ready to go.

While the man was busy trying to extort an a Korean male tourist, who clearly resented being called Jackie Chan, Nick withdrew the two dollars of cash he had left on hand, quickly entered the circle, dropped the money and nodded curtly when the man swiveled his head to address the contribution.

A child ambled into the circle by the time Nick was almost out of it, dividing the man’s attention once again. In his performer’s tone, with the hostility gone at least for the moment, he quietly looked down at what was in the child’s hand and then told him to go back to his parents and ask for more.

***

They went to lunch, which was delicious and relaxing. Nick thought back to the man and his glass. He thought about his current existential dilemma.

He compared the two situations.

There had been something beautifully naked and honest about the man’s hustle. The racial aspect of the transactions, and the socio-economic reality in which they existed, too, couldn’t be ignored.

In a way, the artistry of the performance was genius. Re-considering the show in this light, as a white man who had paid to watch a black man threaten self-harm — led Nick finally towards both an understanding of his discomfort and an appreciation of the lesson.

But it also made him sad.

He did empathize with the performer, but even in his sadness he could not shake his disappointment in the hollowness of the man’s promise. The threat of the glass, upon which the entire artistry of the performance relied, had just been a guise for the more real and uncomfortable pressured reparations that the man had been in the midst of bringing to their final pitch when Nick and Alex had left.

The man could not be blamed for what Nick supposed was an underlying righteous anger that informed his performance. He continued to respect the effort, and to see the sense and appropriateness in it. There were artistic merits to his exploits. And he didn’t know the first thing about the man’s overall story.

Still, the man had made a clear choice, to organize his performance in the way that he had. He had chosen cynicism, of that common and damning sort which in Nick’s opinion cut even righteous effort off at its nub.

Nick, too, he acknowledged, had made a similar choice, in recognizing the dangerous potential of the pile of shards and deciding to stay and watch to see what would become of the man standing behind it.

Yet he had been waiting for a trick. For a real performance, steeped perhaps in the realities that informed its genesis — even if those realities were huge and hidden, as ugly as racism or inequality — but crafted from some burning desire to see a true and heartfelt empathic connection form between artist and audience. Even the blissful pause provided by true entertainment would have been enough.

He did not suspect that many of his fellow observers had dug into their discomfort as he had. Neither did Nick believe that the complete onus should be put on them to identify the possibility and/or to try.

It all just would have been better, he decided, if there had been magic.

Everything else, every invisible social strand or historical or ongoing sin, would have fallen away momentarily — if there had been magic. Nick believed that.

Enough people would have thrown their money in the hat. The manipulations could have been avoided, or at least abandoned after they had done their good work of bringing charged discomfort to the surface. There was always a threshold, in such cases, a chance point at which the artist could decide to pivot and forgive, to embrace true vulnerability.

That was the space in which art lived, Nick reminded himself. To be naked and honest but to also leave the audience with a promise fulfilled.

There was already enough threat in the world. Enough broken glass already scattered the paths of life. It didn’t need to be collected and repurposed in only half-honest ways.

Nick looked at Alex, smiling in the sun across the table from him, sipping an iced tea, and he felt at least momentarily up to the task of proceeding down whatever path might soon open up before him. He looked down at his beer, watched a bead of condensation reach critical mass and then slide down the side of the mug.

“The glass isn’t enough.”

“What?”

He had uttered the words softly, almost as an afterthought. He looked up and saw Alex squinting at him. She was still smiling. She always smiled, when there was sun in her face.

“Just the threat off glass isn’t enough.” She lowered her tea and cocked her head slightly.

“You talking about that guy?”

He nodded. She picked up her tea again, wrinkled her brow ironically. The expression momentarily vanquished her smile. He could sense the decisiveness in her gaze, even though she wore sunglasses.

Then, as she often did, Alex described the whole situation much more simply, and succinctly.

“Yeah. That was disappointing.”

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