letters from near and far

I probably don’t need to learn another language

March 10, 2021 • By

Tomorrow morning I have my first class in Swahili. 

It won’t be my first time with Swahili (I still remember  “Jambo” from my week in Kenya!), but for all intents and purposes, I’m as beginner as beginner gets. 

But if everything goes according to plan (and almost nothing has gone according to plan in the last year), it should be the first class of many as I get ready to spend time this summer in Uganda doing fieldwork for a thesis.

The plan for Swahili, if there is one since it came to mind this afternoon when I promptly signed up for a tutor (gotta bottle that lightning!), is to be able to introduce myself and put the people I’m speaking with more at ease to end up with a more pleasant and productive interview process. 

By being able to string together enough short phrases, I can (hopefully) express how coffee and the people who grow it have become more and more a part of my life recently, and the gratitude I feel for it.

(If not, there’s always Jambo.)

Because, intentionally or not, coffee and tourism have been on my mind for a good part of the last six months.

For one, I have had the pleasure of working with Indie Grow and 50 Amigas to support the launch of their impactful venture featuring women farmers in Colombia (their video’s a must-watch). Being able to watch their vision come to life, while also playing with words in both Spanish and English, has been a delight.

(If you end up ordering a bag, let me know!)

At the same time that I started with them, I was whittling ideas down for the thesis I’ll need to research and write to finish this program in September. After entertaining the idea of dark tourism, and the impact of Michelin-starred restaurants on the neighborhoods they’re in, I settled on the potential for coffee tourism as a tool for economic development.

(If you know anything about economics, I’m all ears.)

Once our first semester was finished, we were assigned an advisor to guide our thesis. One of the first questions mine asked was why I had chosen this idea. Unlike the others in my program, and perhaps to my own detriment, I hadn’t really considered those other options. Perhaps I could stand to be more calculating. 

Instead, coffee tourism was the idea I was drawn toward, the idea I felt could justify months of research and writing and bibliography-modifying.

In that move and that pursuit of an interest, I see myself as a 22-year-old deciding to go back to television after a job as a baker to launch a talk show with the host of a reality show. It was the Next Most Interesting Thing at that point in time. I committed to it, it bore some fruit, and that was that. 

But when the challenges were no longer there and it was clear my interest lay elsewhere (perhaps I should’ve read the writing on the wall that my time in TV was winding down when my TV bosses teased me for not having a TV), it was time to reconsider what interesting meant.

While I’m still figuring it out, at its core it’s been about finding people and projects that excite me enough to be earnest in my commitment.

(A job worth doing is a job worth doing well, as they say.)

It’s that interest that led to turning a random LinkedIn message on my girlfriend’s computer into a months-long opportunity with Indie Grow. 

It’s that interest that led to seeing a connection between two disparate summers, one in Rwanda and one in France, that led me to see what lay beyond the borders of the country I grew up in.

And it’s the interest that led me to throw down the Ph.D. thesis I was reading (well, close the tab, but I closed dramatically) to find a tutor with whom to learn Swahili.

We’ll see where we’re at after 30 minutes (and hopefully 3 months, or more!) of Swahili, but I remain hopeful that staying open to interests is a good way forward. 

It could be nothing, but at least it’s worth finding out.

letters from near and far

The last time I was jealous

March 3, 2021 • By

A friend from a former kids lit writing group published her first book this week. That means a draft I’d read way back when has become a real, in-the-flesh book.

And she’s not the only one from that group finding success. Of the five of us that were in it, the other four now have agents, and most have at least sold a first book, putting them on track for publication.

Along the way, I realized I was doing the bare minimum to stay a member of the group, knowing full well I had the potential to do more… and I just wasn’t. Even after a writing retreat to Palm Springs to polish a half-dozen manuscripts, it became clear that not even a binge effort could coax back to flame a spark that was spent.

So I stepped back and left the group.

The “what-ifs” of scenarios where I’d stayed in the group, committed to reading and writing more regularly to end up following a similar trajectory are pretty easily shot down when I remember how uneager I was to put the time into my own work, how hesitant I was to engage with second drafts and problem lines while they all kept at it, polishing, writing, reading, and working away. 

The difference was clear to me and that made my decision easy.

Back when I was fresh out of college, my roommate, also fresh out of college, had already sold a screenplay. Then he got hired to write on a TV show.

I found out the news about the time that I was in full “do everything” mode – wake up at 5a to longboard to the pool to swim, drive across LA to be a PA on a daytime talk show, stay after work for two hours at a local bookstore to nurse coffee and revise my Simpsons spec script, then come home to run for an hour – and I couldn’t handle it. 

All I thought I saw was a peer lucking into things. Every night I came home he was playing board games, laughing, and having fun, while I was so much more visibly working. Then,  somewhere in between me commuting two hours and eating lots of packages of pretzels on stage and collapsing at home into a shared bedroom, he got hired to write.

The difference between us was not clear, and that made me jealous.

I couldn’t believe it. I want to say it pushed me even harder, but instead, I fell asleep mad, slept through a swim workout, and got to work late the next day (where my days were spent in a chair in a room just off the back hallway with low lighting reading celebrity gossip magazines looking for factoids that could be gabbed about between two stars pretending to be friends on national television so I don’t know that I was even missed, necessarily).

Soon, though, I started to see the work he was putting in. I heard stories of the time he’d already dedicated. It started to make sense.

If I was jealous then (which I was) it was not just because it was him succeeding in a realm I wanted to succeed in, it was because I didn’t have any idea what he’d done to get there.

Not in the same way that I do now with my kid lit friends who are publishing books that still exist as drafts in the dark corners of my inbox.

And it doesn’t have to be that way, of course. I could just not be jealous.

But can we really reason away a feeling?

Better, it seems, is looking at the source of those feelings. From what I knew about the people who’d put in the work, they’d found success. 

So are there really overnight successes, then? I doubt it. 

Most of the time, those people are living in the unfun, boring, tedious world of creating and revising, trying and failing, deleting and creating. 

Then something hits. A movie comes out. A book is published. A play has its debut. 

A moment of joy, a moment to exhale, and a moment in the spotlight, then it’s back to the work.

(Which, really, is its own joy.)

If there is jealousy now, it is only admiration of those who have found a calling worth sticking to, and have put in the time to learn and grow to deliver ever better work. 

On Sunday night, I emailed a draft to two readers of a new project, in a new medium. From a spark of an idea last March, through a summer of writing, and a winter revising, it is perhaps the most time I have put into any project.

It is not likely very good, but maybe one day it will be better. 

And in making it better, I hope to get a little bit better, too.

(Even if I still get feelings, sometimes.)

letters from near and far

How To Write The Best Craigslist Car Ad Ever

August 27, 2020 • By

I didn’t set out meaning to write the best craigslist car ad ever. 

In fact, I didn’t set out to write an ad at all. 

All I had was my car and a ticking clock. I leave next week to move to France, after all, and there’s no spot here to leave it.

Not wanting to engage with sixteen years of history, my first and only thought was just to leave it at a Carmax, then to take whatever low-ball valuation they had offer, and to move on. 

Yet with the gentle suggestion of my father to try, and a Sunday night to think back on a car I’ve been driving since before I could legally drive, I found myself thinking about what it meant to finally say goodbye.

91 replies later, including the following…

… and it seems like I’d hit a nerve.

(Or I’d priced it too low.)

Either way, I think I figured it out. I think I know now the secret to writing the best craigslist card ad ever.

At least, I’ve narrowed it down to two things. Two possibilities.

The first?

Own a car for sixteen years, let it be the car that takes you on your first date and drives you to your first job, that you practiced guitar in at your first lunch break during your second internship before driving to see her after that first day, that carried all your worldly possessions after you graduated to your first apartment, that guided you safely back from the desert after you and your roommates’ first festival experience, that carried enough handmade pesto pasta to make your first charitable catering gig a success, that … well, that was a part of nearly every moment you had in becoming an adult person in the world.

Or… just tell the story of your car. Give people a little something beyond odometers and oil changes. 

In re-reading my little ad, I recognize it’s not perfect. I don’t even know if it’s good. But I’m happy I was able to send my little green Honda off into the world with one last fun moment together.

P.S. Here is the original ad: