Merry Christmas 2019

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Merry Christmas, friends! I hope that, no matter what you may or may not observe, this Wednesday finds you in good spirits and resting, perhaps enjoying time with family, having a nice glass of wine, watching basketball or, as in my case, all three. We’ve been surrounded by beauty of many forms these past few days, and much of it will feature in this blog in the form of pictures I’ve been taking.  And whatever you’re up to, I wanted to take a moment to write to you — no, I have not forgotten you, I promise. I’ve merely been doing some reflecting about my writing and, frankly, about my career.  Perhaps my absenteeism this December makes up for the onslaught of mindless posts I put you through a year ago as I struggled mightily to produce daily content for the blog.  That experience was probably as harrowing for you as it was for me, and over time lead me to give some thought to my craft; if I’m willing to beat up on those who fill grocery store shelves with flimsy, mass-produced plunk, then perhaps I oughtn’t be a purveyor of its literary equivalent.

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Writing is a funny business. There was a time not long ago that I was relatively certain that my New York Times Bestseller was but a flash of inspiration and a summer spent in coffee shops away from its inception, and yet no amount of coffee ever brought it to fruition, and I haven’t published a book in nearly a decade. Sure, I’ve published a fair amount of academic writing, a doctoral dissertation, and I publish poems these days as if I’m getting paid to do it (any fellow poet can tell you: I am not!). But I have started to fear that the craft I once honored has never fully developed in me. Last year, I wrote an autobiographical work, 500 pages about my first year teaching at Omaha North. And yet, to be painfully honest — and it is painful, those few who I dared to share it with were so nonplussed by it that, to my knowledge, none of them even finished reading it. If they did, well, then they politely decided not to mention it to me.

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In response to this, I’ve tried to do less writing, hence my absenteeism from this blog. I’m trying to write less, but to write better. I recently took up writing for Edible Marin Wine Country, with my first piece published in the most recent edition and my next due by the fifteenth of January. When I turned it in, I was proud, and when the editor wrote back simply “I love it,” with no revisions, I felt for a moment as if, yes, there really is a writer still, lurking deep inside me somewhere. I’m enjoying taking on these relatively small assignments, spaced months apart, and attempting to do some of my best writing in the process.  And yet, I can’t help but feel as if I have much more to say than the medium of periodical publications will enable me to do.

The problem with my writing is twofold, I think. The first problem is direction, or lack thereof. I am easily distracted; I want to do everything. I want to write everything. I flit from wine to politics to poetry to novels to academic work like some irritating insect that can’t decide who it wants to bite.   The second problem is, again to be painfully honest, confidence. Not just confidence in my ability to write, but in the merit of some of my ideas themselves, in the value of my work as a professional.  I tried to explain this to Sonja on our drive to the ranch yesterday, but I’m not sure if I made sense. I’ll try again here, for you, knowing that she’s likely to read it sometime, of course.

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I started my career on a meteoric rise. In my twenties, I published two books and countless articles, and gave so many public talks, presentations, and lectures that I have no record of most of them.  I was regularly recognized in public by people I had never met, but who had read my work or attended my talks, or both.  I was asked to give a TED talk, and I did. I was the youngest ever teacher-fellow of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the only American ever to hold my fellowship with the Imperial War Museum. I was offered a free Ph.D. program at a prestigious school in England and turned it down. I was flown all over the world by universities in Hungary, museums in the UK and Israel, and the governments of Poland and The Netherlands. I felt wanted. I felt like a star.

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Fast forward to my thirties, and gradually, upon completing my doctorate, it all gradually seems to have dissipated without my realizing it. Two nights ago, a few moments after losing my fantasy football league championship, I got a rejection email from the Fulbright Commission, informing me that my intended research this summer on Operation Anthropoid in the Czech Republic would not be funded.  And in that moment something sort of clicked in my brain.   I remembered that I did not win Teacher of the Year in Nebraska this year this fall, and that when I had proposed a TED talk last spring, I got the same, polite, “Thanks but no thanks” that had, without my realizing it, begun to feel all too familiar. At thirty-eight years of age, I looked in the mirror and realized that I was staring at someone who looked dangerously like a has-been.  What had happened to me?

I told Sonja these things as we were driving home through the Sandhills yesterday, and she glanced into the backseat at our children. Titus was playing with his Woody toy, and Zooey was asleep. “I used to feel like a big deal,” I told her candidly, glumly. “You’re still a big deal to some people,” she replied. I felt warm inside.

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I’m hoping for something revolutionary in 2020. I don’t know what it might be, but I know I’m unwilling to settle. Maybe that will look like being a far better dad and husband than I have been. Maybe I’ll grow as a teacher. Maybe I’ll finally publish another book (probably not). I don’t know what it will be. I just know I’m going to keep my eyes out. I’ve never reached the top tier of Maslow’s hierarchy; I’ve been stuck on the rung second from the top for over a decade now, admittedly self-obsessed and overly concerned with what people think and whether or not I’m going to be remembered for my accomplishments. I don’t think it’s as pathetic as it sounds when I write it down; I just think I’m extrinsically motivated, and I think that knowing that — and being able to admit it, is valuable.

Today, I woke up out at our ranch, got out of bed, and did some writing on my next article for Edible. I don’t think I’m going to find my soul in writing anymore, but I know that I can do it well when I try — and when I don’t crank out thirty pieces in as many days. When my kids woke up, so did my heart. We opened presents, and I spent some time obsessing over the natural beauty that surrounded me. We had a lovely wine with the amazing Christmas ham my mom made, a Materra Cabernet Sauvignon, and then Sonja and I took a walk and played a board game. Incidentally, for the wine folks, Materra has quickly become one of my favorite Napa labels, the Cunat Family Vineyards producing amazing fruit that Michael Trujillo, a personal hero of mine, turns into baller juice every time without fail — I highly recommend it!  I’ve never been able to sit back and be content with my lot — I’m too ambitious for that, but sitting here with a great glass of wine in a place with no cell phone reception and spotty internet, I have been reminded that there’s some wisdom in slowing down a bit. And maybe, when things slow down they’ll get less blurry, and I’ll see more clearly the pathway forward.

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Whatever you’re doing today, my friends, I hope you feel content. I hope you feel happy and fulfilled. I hope you’re surrounded by people who love you and that your glass is full of something worthy of a special occasion. And if you happen to feel like you’re not quite sure which fork in the road to follow, where to invest yourself, or what 2020 should hold for you, well, just know that you’re not alone, that we’re in this together, and that maybe if we work together we can even figure it out. As always, I’m grateful to those who read the things that I write down. I’ll try to fit a bit more blogging into 2020, along with all of the other amazing things I hope to do.

Merry Christmas, friends,

Mark

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