Mini-biography

Who is Juli Berwald? [Or: The Allure of Something That's Barely There]

[GUEST POST by BEN RICHARD]

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview the wonderful Dr. Juli Berwald, the author of Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone. She’ll be the guest speaker at Module 1 of Cider Spoon’s Intro to Memoir Writing Course, and I got to talk to her about the inherent weirdness of jellyfish, the art of finding an inciting incident, and why you should always be 100% sure you want to see your end goals before you actually reach them.

WHY JELLYFISH?

 Ben Richard, Cider Spoon Stories’s Fall 2018 Intern

Ben Richard, Cider Spoon Stories’s Fall 2018 Intern

BR: Thanks for meeting with me! At least virtually. So yeah, the first question I wanted to ask was, ‘Why jellyfish?’

JB: Well, I mean, I think that answer is kind of scientific. It started off as a question about what’s happening to our planet. And it seemed like there were these changes that some people were noticing in jellyfish abundances that were saying a lot about bigger questions about what we’re doing to the oceans.

And that moves into this story that was more interesting than other ways to tell that story because jellyfish numbers seem to be growing more in certain places. But no one can agree if the population of jellyfish is actually growing or shrinking. Jellyfish are interesting and we don’t know much about them, which made me kind of curious, and so they were a way into this bigger kind of story that I found kind of fascinating—so fascinating.

BR: Yeah no, they really are. I went through your book a couple days ago and there’s so much cool stuff!

JB: Yeah, they’re so cool! And then once I started looking around scientifically, I was finding out about how they sting, and how they swim, and I just found those stories super interesting, on top of the overall question.

BR: Yeah, that was my favorite part, learning how they swim, how they pull themselves through the water instead of push. And how you tied that into how humans have been developing boats, I was like, man, they’re so simple but they got it figured out.

JB: Yeah, they got it figured out, huh? (laughs)

Jellyfish.jpg

EMBRACING THE INCITING INCIDENT

BR: So in memoirs, there’s often an inciting incident that spurs the person writing the memoir to pursue what lesson they’re gonna learn. So my question is, what advice would you have for someone who was looking for their own inciting incident?

JB: I think the answer is simply being open to good things that come to you in the universe, and instead of walking by a moment and saying “Oh no, that’s not actually something I should step into or deal with,” or “I’m not good enough,” or any of those internal “hater” kind of thoughts, you should just embrace those moments. I could have easily walked by the question “What do we know about jellyfish and acidification?” if I hadn’t been open to it.

EXCITED BY THE HUNT

BR: So you wrote in your book about the emptiness you felt after finding that rare jellyfish in Japan that you had worked incredibly hard to see in person. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that.

JB: Yeah, I mean, I think that a big part of that was just that it was dying, and you know, although I have feelings about jellyfish, so this is kinda hard to say, but, because jellyfish have this complicated life cycle and they start as a polyp, they’re kind of like fruit. The jellyfish scientists don’t like it when I say that (laughs). But, you know, the medusa (Note: Medusa is the term for the stage in a jellyfish’s life where they look like the picture at the top of this interview) dying was already gonna happen. It was already at the end of its life cycle.

It wasn’t a triumph because I’m not sure I learned anything by seeing that jellyfish. And I kind of hoped I had, that I would learn something, but I didn’t. Because I didn’t know what to look for in the animal. I didn’t know what answers I would get by pulling it up on the back of the boat. I should’ve paid attention to that before I went looking. So I think it was maybe because of my ... there was a sense of my own unpreparedness for the moment. I was so excited by the hunt, that I didn’t really know what to look for at the end of it.

BR: That’s so relatable though. Definitely worth writing about.

JB: (laughs) I’d have to agree.

BR: Well, that’s all the questions I have. Thanks so much for sitting down and talking with me.

JB: No problem. I’m lucky because my job’s done, now you have to sit down and transcribe all of this (laughs).

Who is George Lucas? And Why Do Fans Hate Him? [GUEST POST]

All this hate for George Lucas, the person, has done nothing more than alienate the creator from the fans of his work.
— Caleb Heine

Star Wars isn’t perfect. I’m a hardcore fan and I’m willing to admit that. I even wrote a seminar paper on how George Lucas screwed up the Prequel Trilogy by choosing the wrong character as the audience’s POV. I love having heated debates about which parts were amazing and which parts sucked. But I have never understood the hate for George Lucas. I disagree with many of his storytelling decisions, but I have never in earnest uttered the phrase "George Lucas raped my childhood," a common phrase in Star Wars fan communities.

 Caleb Heine, Guest Blogger

Caleb Heine, Guest Blogger

This hatred for Lucas comes mainly from his decisions post-Original Trilogy (released from 1977-1983). Beginning in the 1990s, he made a Prequel Trilogy which told the origin story of Darth Vader, one of the greatest movie villains of all time, and he released special editions of the Original Trilogy on DVD and later Blu-Ray. Both sound great in concept, but Lucas failed greatly in execution. The Prequel Trilogy is overloaded with CGI, has terrible dialogue, and shows Darth Vader as an angst-ridden, mopey teenager. Lucas added CGI to the Original Trilogy in the special editions and even changed the story in some very iconic scenes. But his worst mistake of the special editions was not allowing the original versions to be released, so if you want to watch Star Wars but not on VHS, you must watch the special editions. 

Yes, George Lucas made stupid decisions with the thing we love, but he’s the one who gave it to us in the first place. He has the right to do what he wants with it, including run it into the ground. And the fans have the right to criticize the work, the choices, and not watch it. But all this hate for George Lucas, the person, has done nothing more than alienate the creator from the fans of his work, so much so that he sold Star Wars to Disney. As a writer and creator who aspires to create fictional worlds as captivating as Lucas’s, it is daunting to think that any fans I accumulate could one day turn on me, too.

Who is Jan Svankmajer? [And What's With His Claim That We're All a Bit Sadistic?]

This post is the EIGHTH in a series of mini-biographies that chronicle the power of the memoir. Some of the stories are great and inspiring; some are tragic and teachable; some are about ordinary people just like you. Maybe after reading them, you’ll consider writing your memoirs.

In August 2016, I had the opportunity to interview Czech animation king and Surrealist film director Jan Svankmajer at his summer house outside Prague. The questions stemmed from a Masters thesis that I wrote on Svankmajer’s work in 2012 (available here). Enjoy his thoughtful answers, below.

  Jan Svankmajer in his study, August 2016.

Jan Svankmajer in his study, August 2016.

1. Do you believe that childhood is malevolent?

I do not think that childhood is malevolent, though it could be said that childhood is “cruel”—at least from the adults’ point of view. Children stand outside of “good and evil.” They have not been domesticated yet. Unaware of morality or its lack, they are innocent—even as they tear the wings off of flies.

2. What is special about children that makes them more sensitive to magic, surrealism, terror, imagination, etc.?

Neurologists have determined that mankind’s instincts—the lizard brain—have not changed much since the Neolithic Age. Despite the pragmatism and rationality of civilized life, man’s tendency is toward the irrational (even the magical). There is no ‘homo economicus;’ rather, civilization is at odds with human nature, and that is why it cannot end well. Evolution occurs too slowly for people to keep up with civilization as it changes. The preschool-aged child is protected from this contradiction. Just as children are exempt from morality, so, too, are they immune to those habits of civilization like logic (the principle of reality). They live by the principle of pleasure—which has its source in the imagination.

3. How do you think the intrauterine (prenatal) experience influences the people we become?

Surrealism concerns itself with mental morphology, or how the preschool-aged child’s milieu/surroundings influence the formation of his interior life. As Freudians, Surrealists place the greatest importance on the first three years of life, and much less on the intrauterine experience. That said, I do not want to claim that the prenatal experience has no influence—but I am afraid we would be veering too much into the realm of speculation. Who could retain any relevant memories from the prenatal state?
  A Surrealist sculpture by Jan Svankmajer.

A Surrealist sculpture by Jan Svankmajer.

4. What color is your imagination?

Brown—puzzuola to be more precise. When I was five, my family (my father, mother, and two older sisters) moved to Vrsovice (a district in Prague). One of my earliest memories is of painting the kitchen floor brown in my family’s new house. I’ve never forgotten it.

5. From where do sexual fetishes originate? Phobias?

According to Freud, fetishes and phobias arise during the pre-genital phase of psychosexual development—probably in the sadistic-anal phase. Phobias are therefore relics of childhood. They are rationally unsuppressable, because having once accepted them emotionally, phobias and fetishes live in our emotional cores. For the same reason, they are the strongest sources of individual creative output.

6. What are your dreams like?

Colorful and usually related to persecution. I was growing up at the time of World War II, during the German occupation. At night I used to be haunted by recurring dreams in which I was being chased by soldiers and I had to escape through gardens and yards in a block of houses. (I reference those dreams in my film Surviving Life—and they still come back in different variations.)
  The Sedlec Ossuary, which inspired one of Jan Svankmajer's short films.

The Sedlec Ossuary, which inspired one of Jan Svankmajer's short films.

7. In what ways are men manipulated like puppets?

When I compare people to puppets controlled via wires and strings, of course I mean it metaphorically/symbolically. In reality, those wires or strings can be, for example, advertisements, populist politicians, religion, mass media, laws, the police, etc. Civilization is based on manipulation. How else would the minority be successful in controlling the majority? We live in a manipulated democracy—as Noam Chomsky remarked.

8. What value is there in isolating objects from their original contexts (e.g. feet dancing by themselves?)

Comte de Lautréamont, the predecessor of Surrealists, wrote this sentence: “As beautiful as the meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” Real poetry begins when we take reality out of its natural surroundings and put it into an inadequate context. Only then does it excel in its forced/constrained/unnatural beauty, which Surrealists love so much.

9. How are fear, dream, and eroticism related?

Fear, dream, eroticism—and I would also add childhood—are our imaginative values. They are the most significant and the most intense sources of imaginative (magical) creation/output.

10. Why the emphasis on the tactile in an audio-visual medium?

Sight and hearing have been ‘spoiled’ by an audio-visual-heavy society. I think that just the ‘primitivistic’ touch could bring some fresh authenticity to creation.
  Meeting my animation idol, Jan Svankmajer, August 2016.

Meeting my animation idol, Jan Svankmajer, August 2016.

11. Are we all a little bit sadistic? Narcissistic? Masochistic?

Yes, we are. At least Freud says so. According to him, as children we are poly-perverted, and remain so to a certain extent into adulthood—some people more, some people less.

12. How do you feel about technology?

Even though computer animation made new techniques possible in animated films, I still have objections to it and whenever possible I do not use it. I miss the tactile dimension that gets lost in digital animation. Computers works in ‘non touched’ reality, which I believe deprives animation of one important emotional level.

13. Can you pinpoint the loss of your childhood innocence?

I cannot, because I view my childhood as not being over yet. I consider it to be an unfinished chapter of my life. I am infantile. I have never closed the door on my childhood and I am still having a dialogue with it. I do not understand how I can be getting away with it in this civilization of adults.

Making 'Big Magic' in Life, Love, and Business

Does the name Elizabeth Gilbert ring a bell? What about EAT, PRAY, LOVE?

Gilbert had authored four books prior to EAT, PRAY, LOVE, but it was the wild success of that travel memoir that really launched her into the international consciousness.

If you haven’t read it, EAT, PRAY, LOVE follows Liz’s travels to Italy (to eat), to India (to pray) and to Bali (to love) after her particularly brutal divorce. 

The next book she wrote, called COMMITTED, picked up where EAT, PRAY, LOVE left off. Liz’s Brazilian, Bali-living boyfriend visited her so often in the United States upon her return that Homeland Security became suspicious and barred him from ever entering the U.S. again—unless he and Liz married. The only problem with that stipulation being that Liz no longer believed in marriage, and never wanted to marry again. Hence a book-length investigation into worldwide cultural norms around marriage, and various interpretations of the institution that challenged her (and my) American viewpoints. Pretty fascinating stuff.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest nonfiction book, BIG MAGIC, treats the topic of creative living. There are lots of amazing moments in there, though none of them are particularly earth-shatteringly new. Mostly they’re interesting because they’re backed up by Liz’s own rich life experiences, of which she’s had more than most. 

The two things that stuck with me after reading BIG MAGIC were her ideas about, well, IDEAS, and trusting your own shamanic abilities.

According to Ms. Gilbert, ideas are like sentient beings with their own whims and feelings. They come knocking on your door, and if you’re listening, and if you’re open, maybe they decide to stick around for awhile. But if you then sit on them and prioritize everything else instead of entertaining your houseguests, eventually the ideas will leave. They will go and knock on someone else’s door, because the ideas don’t belong to you. You didn’t claim them, and therefore they are not yours.

What I love about this concept is the sense of urgency it gives to acting on your hopes and dreams. It’s about getting stuff done, people! Definitely not a guide for the natural procrastinator. At the same time, relinquishing the notion that we ‘own’ every idea also frees us from the responsibility to act on every fleeting thought. We get to consciously choose which pursuits to devote our time and energies to. Ideas are gifts and opportunities, and we can forgive ourselves for not picking up every bread crumb! Such moments are not failures!

The second lesson that really hit home for me is trust. Trusting not that you will succeed, but that you might very well fail (spectacularly), and asking what you would be willing to risk anyway. What is so important that it must be attempted regardless of an undesirable outcome? When you have the answer, go do it, and don’t look back.

My friend Amber* once made a list where she wrote down all the traits she wished to find in a husband, then read it to the universe under a full moon. Later, she met the man of her dreams at a wedding, where he said he’d been led to her by the Archangel Michael. One year later, they married in the same place they met. I can’t comment on the validity of these strange happenings, but it seems like Big Magic to me. They embraced a common idea and they ran with it—marriage being one of the biggest risks of all. They have a lovely life together in Austin, and they’ve never looked back.

Who is Colin Meloy? [And How Does He Get Away with Pseudo-Rapey Art?]

This post is the SEVENTH in a series of mini-biographies that chronicle the power of the memoir. Some of the stories are great and inspiring; some are tragic and teachable; some are about ordinary people just like you. Maybe after reading them, you’ll consider writing your memoirs.

LYRICS OR MELODY?

Every single one of you fall into one of two categories: lyrics-person, or melody.

Me, I’m a writer. I hear the words long before I memorize the telltale guitar riff or that wicked drum solo. If the lyrics are boring, unoriginal, or just plain silly, the singer/songwriter/band has lost in me a fan.

Then there are those of you who will be humming mindlessly along with your quote-on-quote “favorite” song one day and go: “Wait—THAT’s what those lyrics says?” You’ll shake your head and smile at your own ignorance and your life will go on … because, hey, you still like the music.

THE DECEMBERISTS

Luckily, there’s at least one band who combines them both: witty writing and exceptional chords. Colin Meloy is the front man of the Portland-based Decemberists, a group unmistakable for their signature sound (and voracious vocabulary).

PSEUDO-RAPEY ART

I remember the first Decemberists song I ever heard: “A Cautionary Song.” Set to an upbeat yo-ho-pirate accordion frenzy, it tells the story of a young mom who is kidnapped and gang-raped at sea every night, so as to pay for the collard greens that her children then refuse to eat. Dark, yes, but darkly hilarious and infinitely catchy. All the Decemberists songs follow a similar bent: epic storytelling, fairytale morality, tragedy that inevitably falls just shy of morose, and fantastic phraseology like “indolent,” “odalisque,” and “parapet.”

talented colin

Colin crafts these masterworks almost singlehandedly: as the band’s singer, guitarist, and principal songwriter, he has produced seven studio albums, eight EPs, thirteen singles, two compilations, and a live album. He variously plays the acoustic guitar, 12-string guitar, electric guitar, bouzouki, harmonica, and a handful of percussion instruments.

THE WILDWOOD CHRONICLES

When he’s not song-writing, he’s fiction-writing! The Wildwood Chronicles are a trilogy of 800-page tomes marketed to young adults (I still read them, though). Colin writes the text, and wife Carson illustrates. Together, they describe the story like this:

PLEA TO THE UNIVERSE

Colin Meloy, musician, author, hipster heartthrob: please come read/sing my someday-children to sleep.

Who is Ayn Rand? And Why is She So Damn Controversial?

This post is the SIXTH in a series of mini-biographies that chronicle the power of the memoir. Some of the stories are great and inspiring; some are tragic and teachable; some are about ordinary people just like you. Maybe after reading them, you’ll consider writing your memoirs.

Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was a Russian-born immigrant to the U.S. and subsequently, an accomplished American author and screenwriter. She is perhaps best-known for her seminal work of fiction Atlas Shrugged, the characters of which embody in word and action Rand’s own branch of philosophy known as Objectivism.

In recent years, the Tea Party movement has coopted Rand’s language in support of their campaign. There is little evidence, however, to suggest that were Rand still alive, she would have lent her voice to the libertarian cause, uncomfortable as she was with any political party or model other than that which espoused pure laissez-faire capitalism.

To clear up the many misconceptions, here’s how Rand *actually* felt about a wide variety of topics. Quotes have been sourced from the anthology entitled Objectively Speaking: Ayn Rand Interviewed (edited 2009).

Definition of Objectivism

How Objectivism Differs from Conservatism

Objectivists are fundamental capitalists, a notion diametrically opposed to today’s conservatives.

Taxes and Federal Government

Rand objected to the income tax, believing that mankind was entitled to profit from business to the utmost extent that his mental faculties afforded him. Recognizing that government still needed to be funded in some way, Rand advocated for an optional contract tax. In this scenario, any business transaction conducted contractually could be subject to an insurance fee (a set percentage of the transaction) at the signers’ discretion. If they chose not to pay the fee, they could not seek legal arbitration from the government in the event of a party’s non-compliance—which Rand further saw as the federal government’s only acceptable role: a police force meant to uphold the law.

Women’s Rights

Rand hoped all women everywhere could one day be the masters of their own destinies, choosing to work (or not), to marry (or not), to have kids (or not), to in all ways create and prosper … recognizing, as she did coming from a Communist state, that only in America were such dreams possible, as women here “have the opportunity to live happier lives than anywhere else in the world.” (7)

Media

“The culture of a country is influenced by its predominant philosophy.” In this country, the culture “tends toward the gray, the timid, the non-committal, the middle-of-the-road,” with the effect that “television [and the news] is a vast wasteland.” (77)

The Death Penalty

“Capital punishment should be outlawed—not out of moral consideration for the murderer, but to prevent the rare instance of an innocent man’s being convicted. It is better to sentence nine actual murderers to life imprisonment than to execute one innocent man.” (64)

Education

“As a system, public education instills social conformity and obedience, not independence. If education is in the hands of the state, then the teachers, in order to be honest, will tend to support the system in which they work. They will tend to endorse the ideas of statism … In private schools, self-reliance and rationality are stressed. If it weren’t for the public school system, private education wouldn’t be an expensive as it is today. Competition in private schools would have the same beneficent effect that it has in all other activities … furthermore, it is in the interest of the industrialists to have an educated work force.” (82-83)

Civil Rights

“The cause of civil rights has to start at the level of defining, protecting and fighting for the individual rights of all men, which of course includes minorities. The smallest minority on earth is the individual. If a man wants to be segregationist, he is evil and we have to fight him, but we have to do so by moral means. We cannot violate his rights. We don’t have to deal with him, but we have to protect his right to be wrong on his own property.” (88)

Raising children

“consists of one simple principle: never deliver moral ultimatums to a child. Never tell a child: ‘This is good because I say so.’ Instead, always say, ‘This is good because …’ Give the child a reason he can understand.” (91)

Joy

“The two great values in life [are] career and romantic love.” (231)

Sex

“It is a main source of happiness. If you regard sex as a value … then you carry on only one affair at a time and only very serious ones, not casual, one-night stands. If on the other hand you regard sex as evil, you either forbid it, as the religionists do, or you consider it so unimportant that you go around having sex like animals, as the hippies do.” (236)

Purpose of Life

“Life is the purpose of life. And nature has given us a very good way of knowing whether we are spending our lives properly or not: namely, whether we are happy or not.” (247)

Age of Envy

Today, the subconscious philosophical force driving our culture is envy. The actual feeling is: hatred of the good for being the good.” (207)

Drugs

“I am against all controls on drugs—except insofar as sale to minors is concerned. The government has no right to protect a man from himself.” (221) 

Guns

“If this country falls apart or the government collapses in bankruptcy, having a handgun in your pocket isn’t going to save your life. What you need in order to fight for a proper system of government are the right ideas.” (249)

Who is Anna Tibaijuka? And Why Did She Make Headlines as One of Twenty “Black Women to Know”?

This post is the FIFTH in a series of mini-biographies that chronicle the power of the memoir. Some of the stories are great and inspiring; some are tragic and teachable; some are about ordinary people just like you. Maybe after reading them, you’ll consider writing your memoirs.

India is famous for many things: rich curries, decadent sandalwood, gorgeous silks … and yes, slums. Slumdog Millionaire (2008) helped shed light on life in India’s slums with its Bollywood-tinged rags-to-riches plot line and nod to popular American TV show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, Slumdog was by all accounts successful.

Far fewer people are talking about Africa’s slums. Almost under the international radar, in 2005 Zimbabwean President Mugabe implemented Operation Murambatsvina (literally, Operation Drive Out Rubbish), also known as Operation Restore Order. As its dual names might suggest, the campaign was part of a large-scale effort to forcibly clear out slums across the country—completely disregarding the millions of nationals who would be and were displaced.

Today the United Nations estimates that as many as 2.4 million Zimbabweans directly or indirectly suffered from a loss of home and/or livelihood. Government officials say the operation was intended to curb illegal squatting and the transmission of infectious diseases like tuberculosis, but the relocation of thousands to cramped holding centers only increased the prevalence of both TB and AIDs. To top it off, Zimbabwe’s doctors fled the nation in droves after unsuccessfully striking for higher salaries to compete with out-of-control inflation. Suffering conditions “far worse than the demolished shanty towns,” more than one-third of the population became dependent on food aid and life expectancy plummeted to 33 years.

Further fueling the “humanitarian nightmare” of Operation Restore Order were rumors that the government’s motivations may have been far darker and more corrupt than a simple “spring cleaning.” Zimbabwe’s urban and rural poor comprised a large percentage of the oppositional constituency that threatened President Mugabe’s long reign, introducing a vulnerability that had to be crushed.

In June of 2005, the secretary general appointed Anna Tibaijuka, professor and UN delegate, as his special envoy to study the impact of the Zimbabwean government’s campaign. After two weeks in the field, Tibaijuka concluded that “while purporting to target illegal dwellings and structures and to clamp down on alleged illicit activities, [the operation] was carried out in an indiscriminate and unjustified manner, with indifference to human suffering.” The report was of course censored in Zimbabwe and plans to launch a flash appeal all but silenced. Mugabe disputed Tibaijuka’s findings, insisting that a mere 2,000 people had been affected by his evictions.

Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka (1950) was born to coffee and banana farmers in Tanzania. After graduating college in Sweden, she earned three doctorates and was the recipient of several more honorary degrees. Until 2010, she was the second-highest-ranking African woman in the UN system. Her resignation was inspired by her desire to run for political office in Tanzania. Tibaijuka won, and currently serves as a member of the Tanzanian Parliament.

Meanwhile, in 2008, Valerie Tagwira, a Zimbabwean medical doctor and author, published her debut novel The Uncertainty of Hope. The story is set in Mbare, Harare, where its characters struggle in the aftermath of Operation Murambatsvina. Check it out for a more personal (albeit fictionalized) encounter with Zimbabwean unrest.

Who is Neil Strauss? And How Did He Get Hundreds of Women to Sleep with Him?

This post is the FOURTH in a series of mini-biographies that chronicle the power of the memoir. Some of the stories are great and inspiring; some are tragic and teachable; some are about ordinary people just like you. Maybe after reading them, you’ll consider writing your memoirs.

Who says you’re allowed to take lessons in motorcycle riding but not in interacting with women?
— p. 247

It’s a widely known fact that to defeat the enemy, you must know the enemy. You must understand his habits, pigeonhole his strategies, and keep him closer than you do your friends. That’s why after so many years I finally had to read that holy grail of man-Bibles: The Game, by Neil Strauss. I thought if I knew what to look for in a pick-up artist, I could avoid becoming his target (or at least his victim). Plus, it’s much easier to disparage a person or a set of principles when you can speak about them intelligently. Meaning, it’s not fair to criticize/condemn ANYone or ANYthing without having that firsthand experience, right?

So, this week I read The Game. New York Times bestselling author Neil Strauss (code name “Style”) published in 2005 this pseudo-documentary about an underground movement among young (and not so young) men training each other on the best way to score. The definition of scoring changes: it might mean to “number-close” (get a woman’s phone number), kiss-close (make-out with her) or f***-close (yeah, that one) … the only real goal (beyond success) being to do so as quickly as possible, and with as many other witnesses as you can muster to later bow down and slobber over how amazing you are.

The thing is, as disgusting as the premise is, by the end of the story you feel pretty sorry for these guys. “Sarging” as the term goes (to “sarge” is to go out clubbing and hunt down women) more or less comes to ruin these men’s lives. It’s not the typical douchey jock who’s playing the game, but quiet, nerdy, unattractive men who have never had the confidence to even approach a women before (almost all of them enter the game as virgins). While, yes, over the course of two years they manage the minor miracle of sleeping with hundreds of women each, it doesn’t exactly make their lives any better. The original ringleader (codename Mystery) succumbs to a violent depression, two others feel so guilty and “defiled” in regards to their past misdeeds that they run off and join seminaries or ashrams, and our narrator Style finally admits he’s just empty and lost. You actually cheer for him when in the last couple chapters, he meets the woman of his dreams and quits the game altogether. For a time, anyway.

Project Hollywood sucked in anyone with mental problems and scared away anyone of quality.
— p. 356

This radical 360, from loser to hottest-thing-in-LA (and that’s not an exaggeration; the men befriend Paris Hilton and Courtney Love), back to well, loser, had me forgiving them on behalf of women everywhere for all the times they’d taken home a one-night stand and never called her back. Or they called back, only to refuse to commit to monogamy and instead suggest that the girl-of-the-week should hook up with the girl-of-last-week (while he watches or participates). You forgive them because while it’s never right to trick a woman into sleeping with you, ultimately the PUAs (Pick-up Artists) tricked themselves into thinking the playboy lifestyle could be personally fulfilling. Instead, it’s exhausting. They live in a pigsty mansion where even the stains have stains, ruin their closest friendships, cut ties with their families, lose jobs, and flunk out of school, all while investing every shred of their self-validation in how many women they “close.” They become robots and clones of the PUA gurus. There’s beaucoup money to be made on ebooks and seminars, but no one escapes happy.

We may have been supermen in the club, but on the inside we were rotting.
— p. 204

My takeaways: Ladies, if a guy approaches you and tries to run the Best Friends Test, entertain you with a magic trick, or ask if you saw the two girls fighting in the parking lot, walk calmly in the opposite direction. These men aren’t dangerous predators; they’re lonely, and kind of sad, and you deserve better than that. Gentlemen, if studying the PUA Way gives you the tips and tools to improve your self-confidence and skills with women, then by all means improve yourself, but for everyone’s sake, don’t ever take yourself that seriously.

Since The Game, Neil Strauss has written several more books, including a sequel that details his subsequent inability, post-seduction community, to stay monogamous to the woman he eventually married. I haven’t read it yet, but plan to. For all its faults, The Game is a hell of a good story. I couldn’t put it down! And that’s the business I’m in—telling good stories.

Who are Daniel Pinchbeck, Terrence McKenna, and Graham Hancock? [Ayahuasca and Other Psychotropic Plant Medicines]

This post is the THIRD in a series of mini-biographies that chronicle the power of the memoir. Some of the stories are great and inspiring; some are tragic and teachable; some are about ordinary people just like you. Maybe after reading them, you’ll consider writing your memoirs.

I really love contemporary satirical rocker Father John Misty’s music, and not least because his song “I’m Writing a Novel” mentions doing ayahuasca—a psychotropic plant medicine from the Peruvian Amazon. The first time I heard of ayahuasca was in a lecture by Daniel Pinchbeck on the Mayan 2012 prophecy, which of course predicted an end to the world that never happened. Whether or not some other, more subtle shift in global consciousness took place is up for debate, but I remember thinking, This Pinchbeck guy is either nuts, or a genius. And I had to respect someone who’d managed to integrate himself into what are still remote tribes in the Amazon and experience what I’ve come to understand is that rather powerful medicine called ayahuasca.

If I’m honest, sure—I’m curious. I’d like to have that mind-altering, consciousness-shifting experience for myself—one that a close friend describes as the “hardest and the best thing he’s ever done … ten years of therapy in four hours” (that’s how long the high/visions last). But. I want to work for the FBI, and there’s a drug policy. So for now I’ll live through others!

Before we get to McKenna and Hancock, one more name bears revisiting: Timothy Leary. You probably know of him as the LSD guy in the ‘60s. Especially if you've read Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. You could say Leary was McKenna’s and Hancock’s predecessor, and indeed McKenna has been called the “Timothy Leary of the ‘90s.” Basically, Terrence McKenna studied shamanism and Tibetan folk religion at Berkley, discovered psylocibin mushrooms in the Colombian Amazon, had a bunch of visions, and determined a fractal pattern in the I Ching that he called Novelty Theory, which supposedly predicted the 2012 world-endingness that had Pinchbeck’s panties in a twist. McKenna was less concerned with the end of the world, however, than using plant medicines to access the collective human memory (he was highly influenced by Jung) in an attempt to manifest that alchemical treasure: the Philosopher’s Stone.

Though McKenna, and later Hancock, were largely dismissed as New Agey, McKenna himself stressed not New Age dogma, but the importance of the “felt presence of direct experience.” He wanted people to trust their inner knowing (called prajna in Ayurveda). Unfortunately, McKenna died of brain cancer (1946-2000) and didn’t make it to see 2012; but Hancock is still going strong.

Graham Hancock espouses a “mother” civilization from which all ancient civilizations sprang. Like McKenna, Hancock believes in using plant medicines, particularly ayahuasca, to access that mother culture (also the collective human memory). According to Hancock, ayahuasca encourages self-improvement and social progress, especially in the form of curing deadly addictions, from alcohol and tobacco to controlled substances.

Want to try ayahuasca for yourself? It’s not legal in the States unless you join the church of UDV. First watch Chelsea Handler’s hilarious exploits with the drug in Peru. Then check out these Peruvian retreats.

Who is Elon Musk? [And how many people does he plan to send to Mars?]

This post is the SECOND in a series of mini-biographies that chronicle the power of the memoir. Some of the stories are great and inspiring; some are tragic and teachable; some are about ordinary people just like you. Maybe after reading them, you’ll consider writing your memoirs.

PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX. Hopefully you’ve heard of at least one of these companies and know something of the services they offer. What you might not know is that one relatively young man is behind them all—and at 44 years old, Elon Musk may just be one of the most important entrepreneurs and innovators of the 21st century.

Each in its own way, PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX are ushering the world into the next generation of economic and scientific technologies. Musk’s ultimate goal, however, is to ferry mankind right out of this world entirely. SpaceX was the first commercial company contracted by NASA to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. Next, Musk plans to deliver human settlers to Mars: 80,000 of them by 2040.

Why? As Musk points out, it’s taken homo sapiens hundreds of thousands of years to evolve to this point. In just the last 60 years, man has both developed the atomic weaponry and effected the climate change to annihilate the entire species, and soon. If we don’t kill each other off, we’ll kill the earth that sustains us (the plot of 2014’s Interstellar). It’s time to explore other options—extraterrestrial ones, as Musk would have it.

Until then, he’s working to make life on earth ever more convenient and safer for its human denizens. PayPal protects your online financial transactions with more retailers than even PayPal can compile into a single directory. Tesla currently manufactures luxury electric vehicles, but promises to offer a sub-compact retailing at no more than $30,000 within the next year.

All of these ventures have (rightfully) made Elon Musk a very rich man. With a net worth of almost 13 billion, he’s LA’s wealthiest resident. Even so, he takes an annual salary of $1 as the CEOof Tesla, the rest made up by stock options.

Born to a South African father and Canadian mother, Musk was educated at Queens University (Ontario) but graduated from UPenn with dual bachelor’s degrees in Physics and Economics. He dropped out of Stanford’s PhD program in Physics two days after matriculating, preferring to follow his entrepreneurial leanings. Today Musk has American citizenship and 5 sons (1 deceased). His other venture capital projects include renewable energy (SolarCity), high-speed transportation (Hyperloop), and artificial intelligence (OpenAI).

Ready to write your memoirs? Contact Jess Hagemann, Austin's premier ghostwriter, today!

Who is Mary Karr? [Why truth is free, yet sometimes costs us everything.]

This post is the first in a series of mini-biographies that chronicle the power of the memoir. Some of the stories are great and inspiring; some are tragic and teachable; some are about ordinary people just like you. Maybe after reading them, you’ll consider writing your memoirs.

Maybe Karr’s is a name that doesn’t mean much outside of academia and literature, but her story is significant because it taught me, for the first time, empathy for addicts. After battling alcoholism and a loveless marriage, Karr went on to publish three bestselling memoirs and currently teaches writing at Syracuse University. 

Karr also recently came to Austin for a reading at BookPeople, but I missed it because I didn’t then know who she was. My cousin Kelli had recommended Karr’s latest memoir Lit; however, I didn’t associate the author’s name with that other book The Liars' Club, which is required reading in many high schools but was not in mine.

By now, I have read Lit, and I do know (in some sense of the word) who Mary Karr is, and I wouldn’t miss her reading if she came through Austin again. Besides the fact that a book devoted almost entirely to her fight with alcoholism deviates into a strange Catholic conversion story near the end, Karr’s writing is powerful and her language beautiful.

“There’s a space at the bottom of an exhale,” she writes. “A little hitch between taking in and letting out that’s a perfect zero you can go into. There’s a rest point between the heart muscle’s close and open—an instant of keenest living when you’re momentarily dead. You can rest there.” Here Karr describes learning the practice of meditation that proved both a lifeline out of addiction and a gateway to her eventual conversion. 

Mostly, I never understood before why a person with an addiction can’t just stop, cold-turkey, and never look back. Especially when they can see how much the addiction is hurting themselves and their relationships. Karr had a newborn son when they both took to the bottle hardcore: his full of milk, hers full of scotch. When she said: “For me, everything’s too much and nothing’s enough,” though, I got it. For a second, I could relate to the overwhelming anxiety of being alive, and the hunger, always, for something else. If I didn’t personally have more constructive outlets for such moments, perhaps I’d seek solace in blackouts, too.

Then of course there’s the fact that Karr is a writer—a profession near and dear to my heart. In a passage typical of her honesty and directness, Karr admits: “I’d spent way more years worrying about how to look like a poet—buying black clothes, smearing on scarlet lipstick, languidly draping myself over thrift store furniture—than I had learning how to assemble words in some discernible order.” In a nutshell, this is the brutal crux of growing older. We construct images of ourselves, and sometimes there is no substance to the image. When it crumbles, or the mask is stripped off, or the visage itself becomes an ancient and wrinkled thing, what is left? Only truth.

Funny, how truth is free, yet sometimes costs us everything. Karr’s truth-telling in Lit slides a razor into the soft flesh between ribs, exposing her many-times-over failure as a wife, mother, and writer. It was also returned to her many-times-over in the form of bestseller royalties—and more importantly, freedom from the daily oblivion of addiction.

You can read more about Mary Karr at her author website.