Prehistoric Bird Spring Mix

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“This is the goods.” – Clay Jones

Veteran producer, ace guitarist, and LentMag friend Clay Jones made us this mix for your springtime delight. Check out his upcoming solo album under the moniker Prehistoric Bird. It’ll make your insides shiver.

SIDE A

SIDE B

Don't get bitter: An interview with Willy Vlautin

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It’s hard to say what makes Willy Vlautin’s books so wonderful. I guess something happens to you when you read a Willy Vlautin novel. One of the characters will hook into you somehow—for me, the first was Allison Johnson in Northline—and all of a sudden you can’t stop thinking about her, worrying about her, wondering if she will be okay. Even long after you finish the novel, the people and their lives stick with you. I’ll love Allison Johnson forever.

Willy Vlautin’s fourth novel, The Free, just might be his best. I could try to explain the plot of The Free to you, list the characters, hint at how the book might play out, do all the crap you’re supposed to do when describing a book, but none of that will even come close to explaining why I love it so much. Suffice it to say The Free is a novel about people in truest sense, that in every person exists vast worlds well worth exploring, that everyone has value, is a mystery.

It also helps that Willy Vlautin is one of the nicest guys in the world. Prior to the release of The Free, I called Willy up for a chat.

Here’s how it went:

Jimmy Cajoleas: I just finished your new novel The Free, and I have to say I absolutely loved it. It’s really something special.

Willy Vlautin: Thank you for saying that. That novel about broke my head on a bunch of different levels. Number one, the subject matter is so intense across the board. There wasn’t a lot of good times in the book. Some of my other books, although they can be rough, have some easy-going times, or adventure, or more beer drinking and messing around. This one was really pretty tight. And with the subject matter of the brain injury and a nurse, those were things that I had to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. You know, I must have spent three years rewriting that.

JC: Damn.

WV: Yeah, I know. It drove me nuts.

JC: It’s funny that you bring that up, because a lot of this book is about repetition, people doing their routine every day. You have somebody like the nurse, Pauline, who carries us through the book, because her attitude is so damn good. Even at her worst, she’s still able to get her dad up and get him moving. I felt like she’s sort of our guide through the book.

WV: You know, I started the book with her, with the idea of her. I’ve always admired nurses. In my family’s life and in my personal life, we’ve been lucky. All the nurses we’ve had have been like saints to us. I think I wanted to write in a way a tribute to one nurse, and kind of explore and talk about how rough it is every day to be around such intense dark situations, where not only do you have to deal with people who are suffering, but you have to deal with the tricky dynamics of families.

Everybody’s scared. That’s the part of Pauline that I was interested in. And just having met and known nurses, a lot of them do come from families that are a little rougher or there was a family member that they grew up taking care of. They were just kind of born into a care-giving situation, like Pauline. She’s scarred by the way she was raised and she still takes care of her dad even though he’s kind of handcuffed her to this isolation. The way she lives, they’re kind of codependent on each other.

So I wanted to talk about that. You don’t know when you see a person walking down the street. They could be in that same kind of grind for their entire lives, taking care of an ill or mentally-ill loved one, whether it’s a brother, mother, father, or a husband or wife. I’ve always been interested in that, especially in this book, the grind of taking care of people with long-term illnesses.

JC: I think that especially came through in the sweetness that you always allow with Pauline. She has her despair moments, she has her crying, but she’s still going to call her feet her “dogs.” She never lets the book feel hopeless to me.

vlautinbooks

WV: I think in a lot of ways she’s a great romantic. It reveals itself when she meets Jo. You find out that there is a lot of hope and love in her, and a desire to take care of somebody or help somebody out. I think that part of her she’s just boxed away. I think in a lot of ways she lives in a sort of forced isolation. Because she’s scared. She was raised by a really tricky guy where she had to navigate her whole life so she wouldn’t get beat up mentally by her father.

So I think she’s pretty stand-offish and pretty scared, and so I think she picks and chooses pretty carefully who she lets in. I think the kid who she kind of falls for and wants to help was the right combination of things to help her let her guard down enough to where she’d open up.

JC: The dad is a tough character, being capable of such love at some times, and then downright meanness. Just the unpredictability of him. But you never let him be totally evil or anything like that.

WV: In a way I think that’s what makes those kind of people the scariest. Abusers are the scariest. If you classify Pauline’s dad in that light, you see that he’s really nice sometimes, and he’s smart enough to know what he can get away with and what he can’t. It is abuse, the way he treats her, and his moods swings, whether he can control it or not.

I’ve always been interested in people who take advantage of other people or abuse other people, because usually they’re also really charismatic and sweet. There’s nothing scarier to me than being around someone that will seduce you into relaxing or being nice, and then they change and show their darker side when you’re not ready.

It’s so tiring to be around people like that. You have to build up these really immense defense mechanisms if you have to deal with people who are like that day after day after day. And that’s why I think Pauline won’t ever let him come to her house. She’s got these rules that she’s had to implement over the years, and that’s something that I understand.

JC: That type of character has come up in your work before. Like Jimmy from Northline.

WV: Yeah, that’s kind of a theme that I can’t shake, because a lot of my life was like that. It’s almost nicer if they were just mean all the time because then at least you could follow that map. But when the map and the rules of the game always change, it’s just rough.

I think that you’re right, Jimmy from Northline is like that. He’s not an evil guy by any stretch of the imagination. He’s a really confused, fucked-up guy whose life has fallen apart. He blames other people. He’s a young man so he’s more prone to violence and being a jackass that way. But still he’s got a good side to him, a sweet side. And those are the kind of guys who have the ability to beat down weaker people.

In that book, Allison Johnson is really weak, and it’s just bad. She found the wrong guy. And it makes sense that she would find a guy like that. But he was just the wrong guy for her and she just gets sucked up into trying to play his game, play his life, and she’s just obviously not strong enough to do that. His life spirals out of control, and his faults and his ability to manipulate and his mood swings get exaggerated as the novel goes on. In Lean on Pete, the trainer Del Montgomery is a little bit like that as well. Never thought of that. Holy shit.

JC: I love Allison. Talk about one of my favorite characters ever. On every page of Northline I’m rooting for her. Even the smallest victory for her feels hugely important to me.

WV:  For such a short book, that was another one that I must have written four hundred pages for it maybe. There was a time where I wrote for a hundred and thirty pages maybe where she moves in with T.J. Watson and goes back to college and all these things. I wanted her to do those things so that, in my own way, I would do those things. It would make her life easier. But it was wrong. It wasn’t what she would do. It wasn’t going to be that easy for her.

Willy Vlautin

You know, I liked her so much I wrote fake stories for her—I’m fucking nuts, but—that weren’t as rough for her. But I knew the situation she ended up going through in the book would be what would probably really happen. For instance, there’s a scene where she meets these two guys in a bar called The Doc Holiday’s. And she goes home with them. I cut that scene out maybe four or five times. But then I realized that she would do something like that, and that I just had to face it.

I think why I took that gal so seriously was that she was basically me and my mom and my grandmother all wrapped into one. I kind of wanted to lay to rest writing about weakness, and how you get into a lot of jams being weak. I guess in some ways Carol in The Free is the same sort of gal, just a little darker and a little weaker.

JC: You have this line in the The Free that Pauline says about Carol. It says, “She’s really messed up, but I like her. There’s something about her. You’d like her too, I know you would.” That describes so many of your characters, and what seems like your attitude towards them.

WV: You know, I never think of them like that… when I write Pauline or Carol or say Charlie Thompson in Lean on Pete… For instance,  with Charlie Thompson I was getting so cynical about things, and dark. I can be pretty dark obviously, and I just started running out of reasons… I just started going down that hole. And so Charlie Thompson, thinking about him got me out of bed every day, and kind of was like shaking me, saying “Alright man, this kid can get up and face these sort of things and get by, and so you should be able to too.”

I think I wrote, at the beginning, both songs and stories as escapism, or so I could have someone around me to help me out. And I still do that. I think Charlie’s like that. And Pauline has been beat up a few times obviously, but she’s tough, and resilient, and she’s still got a good heart. I think for my own life, that’s what you want to be.

You get beat up in life, and you get sucker-punched, and bad things happen. If you keep an open heart and don’t get bitter and you keep trying, then shit will break your way once in a while. I really try to believe that all the time. So I think the characters kind of reflect that.

There’s this famous old saying, and I forget who said it, but it says, “You have to remember to be kind to everyone you meet, because everybody you meet is going through a great battle.” And so remember kindness, kindness, kindness. I try to remember that in my own life, and so I think the characters really reflect that.

JC: It makes me think of the truck driver, T.J. Watson, in Northline who shares his own story with Allison. It’s a heartbroke moment that is also really hopeful.

Willy Vlautin on stage with his band Richmond Fontaine

WV: Well, there’s nothing better than when you’re down and out, and somebody’s kind to you. And there’s nothing worse than when somebody who should be kind to you is rough on you. That’s been one of the things that I’ve never really quite figured out. Or I’ve just been scarred by it, that idea of when you’re down and out and when the person who is supposed to be nice to you is rough to you and you meet a person out of the blue—whether it’s a friend or a neighbor or a teacher or whatever—who takes the time out to say, “No, man, you’re alright.” I think, for me in my own life, that’s meant a lot, and saved my life in a lot of ways.

I think maybe that’s why my characters do what they do. Like when Pauline tries to help Jo out, or when Pauline’s a kid and her neighbors take her under their wing, and when Charlie Thompson gets some breaks here and there, and when Allison gets her breaks. Because I do believe in the kindness of strangers. Some people really do go out of their way to try and help you out. And it’s not necessarily their family members are the ones that do that. I guess in my case I do tend to beat up the family members more. The kindness of strangers is more relevant to the characters’ stability.

JC: Yeah, family never quite works right.

WV: Well, for some people I think it really does. I personally have never gotten great comfort from a lot of my family, but some I have. I guess that just comes out in the books.

JC: There’s great brotherly love in The Motel Life, and in Lean on Pete, there’s some kindness there.

WV: Yeah, I’m not a total sad-sack mother, and I do have a tremendous brother.

JC: It’s nice to hear you talk about all that. You know, I’ve spoken to several writers who don’t necessarily think of their characters as anything real, as anything more than a bunch of words. One guy told me that to care about your characters in any sort of reality was foolishness.

WV: Well, yeah. I mean, everybody does things differently. I always wrote stories for myself, to help me out. I’ve always thought of writing stories as taking a box of all the things that scare you or haunt you or what you want, and pulling them out one by one. And hopefully if you write about them, they don’t scare you as bad, or you figure them out or they don’t haunt you.

For me, I write because I want to tell stories that make me feel less lonely. And I want to write stories that hopefully make someone else feel less lonely, or not so beat up or messed up. Because those are the stories I’m looking for. Same with songwriting. I always like the sad ballads, so I write sad ballads because those are the kind of songs that bring me comfort. So I’ve always written from that side.

And I tend to try to write as a fan. I’m a firm believer in a being a fan of things. I try to write with blood, you know, with the things that haunt me the most. And fuck, I’m a lot different than whoever said that quote you mentioned, because the characters I write got me through a lot of my life.

You know, it’s foolish, but like the guy in The Motel Life, Frank Flannigan, telling the crazy stories. That’s how I’ve always been, and that’s how I’ve gotten through life. When I’m stuck, or when I’m in that hole, I’ll make up a story to get myself out of it. Maybe I won’t actually get out of the situation because I’m a lazy alcoholic, but I can dream myself out of it.

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Yoga and Fear

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I’m no expert. I’ve been practicing steadily for some time now, but I don’t think of anything I say as the inside scoop. I’m not a life-long yogi setting forth the truth from deep experience. I’m just a writer writing about yoga.

And only hatha yoga at that, which is what most Occidentals mean when they talk about yoga. I’m going to follow that usage, because it’s too much trouble to keep writing “hatha yoga” over and over. So when I write “yoga,” I mean hatha yoga. If I mean something different, I’ll tell you.

One of the main things I like about yoga is it really works. Just do it, things go better for you physically. You don’t have to take anybody else’s word for it. You could probably manage to start with nothing but the pictures in a paperback book, but it goes quicker, at least at first, if you have a teacher.

A knowledgeable teacher, I mean. There are genuine things to be learned. And a compassionate if firm teacher. If you get hold of one of these latterday exotic jocks who treats yoga as a competition, run, do not walk, in the other direction. That’s a view that’s common to westerners. It’s the misconception a friend of mine was under when she asked how many tricks I could do.

Yoga is for you. It isn’t about competition. It isn’t about tricks.

Nevertheless, there are difficulties.

Early in my practice, I was preoccupied with fear. I find myself fearful more often than I want to be, especially when I’m trying out new practices or new situations. Maybe you’re the same way.

There was also that minor panic, familiar to anyone who works out, that you experience before every session. In spite of knowing that you’ll be healthier in the long run, the fact is that now, just right now, you really don’t want to.

For what it’s worth, with yoga, I’m no longer particularly afraid. With maybe one exception, ado mucha srivasana (the downward-facing tree pose, or standing on your hands). That one, all of a sudden, after having managed without trouble for years, I suddenly myself incapable of.

I know what the problem is. I lost my trust in what would happen after I deliberately threw my feet over my balance point.

There was a while there when my original teacher, Kirsten Mustain, would practically weep at failing to manage ado mucha srivasana, though she had been doing it just fine for years. At the time I found it hard to imagine how she could lose an asana after being so successful at it for so long.

I get it now.

The kinds of fear that yoga aroused in me fell naturally into four different categories. I count them (1) the fear of pain; (2) the fear of falling; (3) the fear of humiliation; and (4) fear of the holy.

 The Fear of Pain

Nobody likes to hurt. We’ve seen the contortions that some yoga adepts go through, and we think how much we would hurt if we tried those. Or perhaps we’re trying to get into a recommended position, and all we’re aware of is how much it hurts. There was one Kirsten tried to get me to do that was simply impossible for a human with testicles. The thighs would crush them.

She saw what I was talking about, and that led into a fruitful discussion of sexuality and yoga, and how yoga was originally developed for young monks, whose sexuality had to be diverted into other activities.

It also led to dropping that asana for others.

I believe deeply that yoga teaches you to do yoga. I believe it because that’s the way it has worked for me. That is, if you simply begin, if you simply establish a regular practice, doing the asanas will lead you to a better understanding of the goals of those same asanas, and you’ll do them more successfully.

One of the better understandings is the difference between actual pain and mere discomfort. Too many Americans are confused about this difference. They refuse to exercise because they think exercise hurts.

If it actually did, only a very few people, the masochists, would engage in it. Exercise (including yoga) is about stretching your limits, but it is not about pushing your body too far. “No pain no gain” is one of the stupidest sayings around. What it ought to say is “No discomfort no gain.”

Here’s the difference as I see it. Pain, actual pain, means you’re damaging yourself. Discomfort means you’re stretching your limits, but not causing actual physical damage. If an asana hurts too badly, give it up for a while. Try a milder version, one that develops the flexibility needed for the one that hurts.

Kirsten could loop an arm over the pulled-up knee of the opposite leg and the other arm around her back and join her hands under the arch of that knee. I still can’t, not even close, but I’ve developed a modified approach that may, some day,

give me the needed flexibility.

It wouldn’t be surprising if you did have trouble distinguishing the two. I had trouble, and I had been working out for decades (running and swimming for distance, primarily.) In general, our culture simply fails to teach us that. It teaches us instead that there are only two sorts of people, jocks and non-jocks. This is patently and obviously untrue, since plenty of people have been one type and turned themselves into the other. Nevertheless, we get the message drummed into our brains constantly, and most of us accept it without noticing.

So the rule: If the asana hurts, if it seems likely to do actual damage, leave it. But if it is merely uncomfortable, not a position you find natural, but not one that tears muscle or tendon or damages you in some other way, embrace it. You will rapidly learn to tell the difference.

In most yoga postures (I’ll more often use the word asanas—AH-sun-Nas), if you can assume the asana at all, you are extremely unlikely to damage yourself, so the truth is you don’t really have to worry. Just don’t force your body, from a misguided sense of competition, into a position it can’t assume without damage. Don’t sacrifice your well-being in order to temporarily look more adept. No real adept will be fooled, and you won’t be able to do anything the next day.

In yoga, you have to think about time. The way you are now is not the way you will necessarily be in the future. You practice toward the goal of making the asanas more natural for you, not to impress others.

The Fear of Falling

Then there’s the fear of falling: We all have an instinctive dread of falling. We know it hurts. Many asanas require not just flexibility, but balance. Arda Chandrasana, for example, the half-moon pose. For a long time the balance will not come, and the pose will disturb you because you don’t feel well-grounded. Your body triggers an atavistic fear of falling.

The fear is not realistic, though it’s powerful. It isn’t realistic because, as with hurting yourself, even if you were to fall, for most asanas you won’t fall far enough or hard enough to really hurt yourself.

Ado much srivasana may be one of the rare exceptions, though even with it you aren’t likely to get badly hurt. For one thing, unless you’re a deep adept, you are probably doing it against a wall. The couple of times I’ve fallen over backwards it was because I was doing it against a door and although I thought the door was firmly closed, it wasn’t. Even so, I wasn’t really hurt, not enough to skip a single practice, just thumped up a little.

The Fear of Humiliation

There’s the fear of humiliation. This fear is more prominent in classes, because we’re all afraid of looking like clowns to others, and especially when you’re a beginner, you’re acutely aware of your limits.

And yet many people learn better in classes, will not keep on with practice unless they have the structure of a class.

There’s always a troll or two who want to show off how far they’ve advanced, and who may play on your fear of humiliation. Just ignore them. Most of the people in the class are suffering the exact same fear you are, but you aren’t thinking about what clowns they are, are you?

This is really just self-consciousness. Fight it by saying to yourself, many times each day, that yoga is about stretching your limits to live a healthier and more fulfilled life. It isn’t about impressing other people. Which is better, developing gradually, over time, a practice that will give you new life, or attempting to impress your temporary classmates right now?

This approach gets easier once you begin to notice that you do, indeed, feel better, that it isn’t just that sudden easy freedom and relaxation you feel after a session, but that it carries through into your daily life.

I realized once that yoga could be thought of as a martial art. You train your body to adapt many more positions than most adults do. What do you think that body will do if you’re ever in a frightening situation, when the adrenaline kicks in and it’s time to break a few moves to save yourself?

Under adrenaline, even the asanas that feel difficult to you will become available to your body’s need for instant reaction. That’s one of the things training is about: enlarging your menu, so to speak, of crisis moves.

If you stick with it, you may be able, someday, to manage impressive feats. But that’s a by-product of regular practice. It isn’t a goal, and until you can see it as no more than a by-product, you’re crippled by your own fear of humiliation.

There’s simply no learned behavior in which you can start out at the top. Think constantly about your fear of humiliation, until you have reduced it to a ridiculous little quiver, one you can vanquish at will.

Fear of the Holy

I phrase the fear this way even though the phrasing isn’t as immediately obvious as in the other cases.

There are certain asanas—downward dog, for example—which communicate a sense of submission. You’re literarily putting your body into a position it can’t help sensing as submission. These asanas make you feel like a peasant kneeling to a king or god.

Then too, there is the awareness that you are not all you could be, physically or morally, that there are forces larger than you and greater than you. You feel not merely the concept of such a thing, you feel with absolute certainty that there is something out there so wise and so loving and so far beyond you that you feel completely exposed, completely obvious. You feel yourself a preposterous little jackanapes in the presence of the holy.

But you cannot advance in your practice, or in love, until you learn to quit being afraid that there’s someone more advanced in practice, or in love.

This fear touches on yoga and religion, but I will leave that discussion for a later column. Perhaps I should call it fear of submission, but I think that the awareness of other and greater forces and beings is salutary.

And here’s the thing, finally, about all these forms of fear: Yoga brings them home, forces you to notice them, deal with them. We usually hide our fear from ourselves, but yoga won’t let you do that.

Yoga is a way to confront your fear over and over, to actually work on it. Every day if you like. It was years after I began before I could see how there was no solution to fear except to do away with its physical symptoms. One cannot think one’s way out of fear, or talk one’s way out of it. One can only train one’s body to maintain those positions and rhythms that do not permit fear.

Fear doesn’t go away because you figure it out. It goes away when you learn to breath deeply and fully and to expand your heart center at will.

More than all that, yoga is a safe way to confront your fear over and over. Nothing bad is going to happen to you. You might be afraid that something bad will happen, but it won’t. Trust the powers who give you yoga.

Pay attention to your fear. See where it comes from. See what physical behaviors remove it. This approach turns your fear into a teacher. When you have learned to send that fear away at will, you will be a far more powerful being.

And far more accomplished at yoga.

 

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