Tuesday, June 29, 2010


I have managed to keep Expatriate Act aloft for just over four years now. Free Expatriate Act beer koozies for all, etc. But if you were to start from my very first post and read all the way through to this one, you would not, for the life of you, be able to find anything in the way of a narrative. There is no overarching plot here. There are very few recurring characters and even the narrator remains a vague (but hopefully likable) vagrant fop on the horizon. There are no themes or symbols in my story, or if there are, I am unaware of them. There is, naturally, no setting to speak of. One day our protagonist is in Krakow. The next he's back in Omaha. Then he's off to South Korea all of a sudden. Thanks for letting us know, Mr. Foppish Narrator. Much later, we learn that he's in Omaha again, by way of Poland and Mexico, though in neither country did he bother to write about much of anything other than the contents of his stomach. And now he's in China, apparently for a much longer spell than is usual for him. He is writing somewhat regularly these days, though what he writes isn't much different from what he wrote while serving puberty in the American Midwest. Disillusionment, social discomfort, moral ambiguity. Is that all there is to the world? You begin to wonder whether he ever left the country in the first place, whether he might not be hiding out in his parents' basement after all, drinking Miller High Life on the sly and siphoning his ideas from 4 AM reruns of M.A.S.H.

If I am evasive, I swear it isn't deliberate. Really, I wish I could be one of those super personable bloggers who updates four times a day with pictures of himself snorkeling, pictures of himself mounting a camel, pictures of himself mounting a snorkeling camel. But I've never been one to take a whole helluva lot of pictures. I tend to rely on my brain camera. And I wish I could've weaved this blog into a cohesive whole, but it's a bit late for that now, isn't it? I would've very much liked to have explained the trajectory of my life more clearly along the way, but the problem is this: I am chronically unable to come through in the writing clutch. I am the Bill Buckner of the written blog. Let me explain.

Whenever something momentous happens to me, I seem to lose all inspiration to write about it the moment I set pen to Moleskine. I never wrote about my trip to North Korea and wrote only sparingly about my time in Mexico, perhaps the happiest six months of my life. Here in China, I waited so long to write about the Kunming Dwarf Kingdom that Matt Lauer and those muckraking Today Show hacks broke the story before I could. And I will make them pay, believe me. But for whatever reason, I just can't write when the plot is spelled out for me beforehand. It's like I'm doing algebra instead of writing. I have to sort out all these predefined narrative variables and figure them into a story, when what sticks out in my mind, the things that are really interesting to me, are mere trifles: the lispy, contemptuous way the North Korean passport officials spit out the word Yesss when I greeted them in their native tongue, the Brothers Lounge on 38th and Farnam, my long walks into the Świętokrzyskie woods with Walden as my guide, the late night burrito van on Calle Uruguay, the spectacle of piling out of a Toyotavan in downtown Kunming with three Caucasians and six midgets ... These trifles I could weave into prose poems, but the stories that go with them are beyond my ability as a writer. It's as though the moment I try to capture any experience that most people would consider significant, the story acquires a plotline that won't bend, characters that won't budge, and the whole damn thing gets as big and blocky and cold as a Frigidaire.

I don't have that problem when I write about my absurd day-to-day existence. That world is more of a connect-the-dots game for my brain. I sit down with an empty page and nothing to go on but the children peeing in the street and the old men hawking laserbeam loogeys, the ever-present threat of death by trishaw and the sauna-grey skies of Sichuan in summer. This is background radiation. These are Chinese cliches. These are things I have written about tens of hundreds of times already. But amidst that overwritten backdrop, some minor spot of bother acts as the grain of sand that gets the whole snowball rolling. Everything adds up; the semicolons align. One hour later, when the sooty ol' snowball has finally come to a rest at the bottom of the slagheap hill, I've gone places I hadn't planned to, made connections between any number of things that were unrelated in my mind until the moment I wrote about them - and yet the end result is something manageable, something I can sculpt and polish between my proofreading mittens before flinging it at the internet to watch it splatter into oblivion.

So that is one hangup of mine. Another one is this: I happen to be the worst breed of packrat, hoardicus dishevelicus, the packrat who keeps everything while simultaneously losing it all. I am both archivist and book burner. I keep everything I have ever done, but I wouldn't know where to begin finding any of it. If worse came to worst and I had to clean my apartment for some reason, before the rent-a-maid arrived, I would hire a private investigator to sift through the rubble for any writing I may have done over the past year. When I say I didn't write about North Korea or the Dwarf Kingdom, that isn't quite true. I wrote about them, and probably on several occasions, but the ideas never clicked, so I gave up and ripped the pages out of my notebook, dropped them on the floor, spilled coffee on them, ashed my cigarettes onto them, slept on them, walked over them for several months, and eventually kicked them under the bed and forgot they even existed.

Even with the aid of technology, I am no less a packrat, and no less a slob. I save all of my incomplete writing - even the stuff I am proud of - under titles like skoobfob.doc and gompbar.doc and pimwarts5943682.doc. Months later, when I go looking for those writings, I am shocked and outraged that I cannot find them. And yet I continue saving them with Seussian titles. And I write a lot. For several years, my harddrive was little more than a vault of stories I'd meant to write but didn't, blog posts that weren't, the aborted fetuses of novels, snippets of dialogue, quotes from Hemingway and Borges and Dostoevsky, all of them saved as jabberwocky.doc. Then, sometime last winter, my computer suffered a major stroke. What happened was this: Windows shut down, as it often does, but when it came back up, my computer was a blank slate. Generic pastoral background, no non-Windows programs, no non-Windows files, no non-Windows nothing. Just me and Bill Gates. I didn't believe it at first, but when I searched the harddrive for "Radiohead" and turned up nothing, I knew something was amiss.

After that, my computer started to run much faster. But I had lost everything I had ever written. Good, I told myself, perhaps you will start to run faster, too! Ha ha ha. But really, I was devastated. I had always meant to make something out of all those Keith Petit b-sides, elusive and incorrigible as they were, just as I had always meant to make something out of all the crumpled, coffee-stained, cigarette-burned Moleskine pages under my bed. I wanted people, eventually, to read those stories. Those trifles. The Hermit Kingdom and the Midget Kingdom. Burritos and The Brothers Lounge. But lo, the rent-a-maid had come before the private investigator and now, all was lost. Clean, but lost.

Then, this past Sunday, when my internet started running so slowly that it took me a full two hours to download a Ramones album, I finally decided once and for all to purge the harddrive of spyware - a heaping Chinese tumor that, apparently, did not reside in the non-Windows hemisphere of my computer's brain that had been wiped clean in the great stroke of '09. I fired up some virus-infected antivirus software and as I watched my doddering machine psychoanalyze itself, I began to notice an unusual number of blorgdash.docs and sloopbunk.docs. I did some half-ass hackery and discovered that all of my writing, all of my b-sides, had been neatly saved away in a gibberish directory that my computer, perhaps mimicking his master, had cooked up in his last fading seconds of continence: /ZSKGZ7MVCBKET/

Stifling a dry heave, I delved into my writing of yesteryear. Some of it wasn't half bad. Most of it wasn't half good, either. But much of it was worth rewriting, if I can wrap my head around the task. So I think I'll do that. I'm on vacation for the next week. Seven days of voluntary volunteer leave. Then I go to Beijing. Then to Dazhou, wherever that is. I hope that I will be able to write about those places before I crumple up the memories and kick them under the bed. But for these next seven days, I'd like to delve into the nostalgic hemisphere of my brain that hasn't been wiped clean by the asbestos in my room, the lead in my tapwater, or the formaldehyde in my nightcaps. I'd like to revive a few of these amputated tales and chopped-up yarns. They are old stories, broken ones. But we can rebuild them. We have the technology. So, tomorrow, I shall begin with a story I call The Illegal Raëlian.

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