Posts Tagged 'inspiration'

Where Glen E Friedman and Travel Blogging Intersect

Friedman/Fairey collab that happens to hang in my living room

I didn’t expect to get so sucked in. I didn’t expect to get so inspired, and I certainly didn’t expect my interview with photographer Glen E Friedman to have anything to do with travel writing or blogging.

Which it didn’t, not explicitly. But in talking to Glen, crosslegged on my bedroom floor for over an hour one Monday morning, in asking him about his drives and motivations, about what inspires him and what doesn’t, I saw so many parallels to my own experience in the travel blogging world that I couldn’t help but write something up about it. Our chat served as a kind of check, about what really matters to me and what I really want to do with my writing.

Glen is old-school. Some would say “an idealist from a bygone era,” and I suppose I can appreciate where they’re coming from. But that wasn’t my experience with Glen. My experience was that he didn’t want to fuck around, that he didn’t want his time wasted by people who didn’t actually care or didn’t want to work hard, and that he truly truly believed in what he was doing and had done. And fuck if you can say that about a lot of people.

But in fact, the most personally inspiring part of my interview with Glen didn’t make it into the actual published interview (up in two parts, one and two, on Hi-Fructose). Because, well, an hour-long interview is really fucking long transcribed.

I was intrigued by Glen’s frustrations with the contemporary art scene, and asked him about it. He went on a kind of rant (homeboy can talk) and some of the lines he used I’d actually read in other interviews. But as he described the scene of it all, what is really the inherent bullshit in any artistic scene, I couldn’t help but think of what one writer dubbed “the circle jerk of travel blogging” (don’t worry, I won’t dog you out):

There’s definitely some people out there that are doing some good stuff—Shepard’s name goes to mind—but there’s a ton of shit out there too. And it makes it boring and frustrating to go to a museum or an art gallery and see the stuff that gets the credibility, because the people hobnob with the right people, you know, or they get high with the right people or had sex with the right people, or they’re just in the scene. I have a strange feeling that if you’re in the scene, then you’re probably not very good. It’s all about the emperor’s new clothes in art. I’d say maybe 5% of people actually have a real talent for what they’re doing and aren’t just getting over. And that’s in most of the fields, whether it’s in music or painting or any kind of craftsmanship that’s considered an art.

It’s a pretty bold position, but as he spoke, I replaced “art” with “blogging,” and well, the same held true.

“I don’t know what suddenly makes so many people artists these days,” Glen wondered aloud. He talked about a laziness, a getting-over attitude, enabled by the ease of having one’s voice heard these days; when he was young, you had to be really driven—you had to really want it. Everything was DIY, because there was no other choice. No one was making any money off their bands or their skating; you did it because you loved it.

It reminded me of my own beginnings in writing—the little callous on my thumb from the pencil ridge, fingertips covered in glue from making zines, waking up from a long night with bits of poetry scribbled across my arm because I hadn’t had any paper on me. I didn’t do it for page ranking, I didn’t do it to “travel the world and get paid”—I did it simply because I couldn’t imagine not doing it. Because there was a voice in me that would not be still.

And I wouldn’t say I’ve sold out or even sold myself short. But it’s easy to get caught up in the scene of it all. It’s easy to see all the recognition other people get and to want it too—to want something measurable, to drive traffic, something to point to: “See, it actually matters; what I have to say matters.” And if you’re a decent writer, it’s easy to write the kind of stuff people want to hear, that garners retweets and comments and link outs. And it’s even easier to get lost inside all that.

Glen’s always followed a higher call that went beyond this scene or that scene, the cool kid club. He’s done his work in order to inspire other people, and he’s really held himself to it. To be fair, he’s had the luxury to hold himself to it: he begun being successful at age 14, and has supported himself through his art his whole adult life. But despite that, there’s always always the opportunity to get lazy, to ride the gravy train, to put your images on a tshirt and make a fuckton of money cause who can’t use more money?

It’s also easy to get frustrated with the scene, to point the finger and scream (internally, of course), “For fuck’s sake, write something real, not just what’s easy or convenient! Write about what’s inconvenient, about what’s difficult and painful and scares the shit out of you.”

In my best of moments, I’d like to be able to take a more loving, tolerant approach. I’d like to not roll my eyes and shittalk (which I’m of course guilty of), but to somehow say to all those writers: “You’re fucking better than what’s easy, than what drives traffic, and you deserve to let that voice be heard.”

But I’ve got a big enough job just trying to hold myself to that standard. Cause, you know, I still have to pay the rent too. And I’m sure as hell not gonna do it transcribing Glen Friedman interviews. But what I will get from it is a reminder, like a small stone you can carry in your pocket and rub when you’re bored or lonely or nervous—of what it really is I want to do with my writing.

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Honolulu, Black and White and Back in Time

Faces stare out from a two-dimensional black and white. They are laughing, posing, cast in shadows and cut-and-pasted beside lush palm trees, neon hummingbirds, tan thatching and pinkened skies. Sometimes they smile; other times they gaze off, someplace beyond the camera, looking out from thin layer of time and plastic. And I am completely obsessed.

It’s my weirdest and raddest score from the Bay Area’s rummage event of year. The annual Oakland Museum’s White Elephant Sale is a cult event local collectors, scavengers, cheapskates and lovers of vintage live for. The Oakland Museum benefit is held out in a Jingletown warehouse, and hosted by the spunky white-haired ladies of the Women’s Board. Donations are collected throughout the year, culminating in the kitschy bonanza of bargains. The event takes over the neighborhood, complete with taco trucks and a free shuttle to the BART station.

While the main event is a two-day affair held on the first weekend in March, this last Sunday was the special preview—when the die-hards shell out $10-15 months in advance to get first pickings. A friend finagled us onto the guest list; we traipsed down across the train tracks, through the sour estuary smell and into the warehouse bustling with bodies digging for treasure.

Inside the warehouse

There was a little of everything: antique furniture, vintage suits, old Polaroid cameras, $1 LPs, 80s action figures that brought me back to my childhood—even a box of expired condoms. The prices put any flea market to shame, and everyone was in a good mood. The staff was sweet and grandparently. An old dude with a vest full of buttons from previous years’ sales stood by a Thomas Edison record player, explaining to whoever passed how it worked and the history behind it. Some staff dressed up—I saw a Napoleon look-alike—which added to the festive atmosphere and reconfirmed my aspiration to be a cool old volunteer/docent person when I retire (like I’ll ever be able to…). A truly awesome moment came when, rifling through old records, a tween boy with shoulder-length blond hair picked up a Van Halen LP and let out a long, “Yessssss.”

I scored a couple cool vintage-y household items, but by far the coolest thing I came across was a 20″ x 16″ photo collage. It’s cheaply framed, cost $1 and is full of the kind of mystery that gets my wheels turning, my imagination shooting sparks.

The artfully executed collage of photos is from a group of young people’s vacation to Honolulu. The handwritten note on the cardboard back guesses the year to either be 1939, or 1940-43, World War II. Beneath that, four names appear: Virginia Matthiesen, Cole McFarland, Bud Matthiesen and “Sailor Friend.” Those are the only tangibles I have to cling to, the only ones I want. In the grey photos of shorelines and hotel rooms, a garden and a roadside, I have all the fodder for fantasy I need.

The group is young, mid-20s I’d guess. They have the eyes and expressions of old-school rebels, a kind of pre-Beatnik vibe, something carefree and a little wild in their smiles and poses. One has a Neal Cassady look; a girl has sharp cheekbones and piercing eyes; another stares off from above bare shoulders and a shell necklace. In a different photo, Neal Cassady is wearing the shell necklace, leaning in towards the girl as she looks away. The light has caught her blouse, making it blaze with a whiteness that obscures her face.

There’s an impossible number of stories inside the collage, silent and lost like a dream you can’t remember. Whoever made it set it in a border of tiki-style thatch print, then pasted a couple cut-outs of palm trees, to add color and a tropical vibe. It’s visually cool and kitschy enough to be hip. But really, it’s the faces that make me love the collage.

Of course, I’m projecting all of this—maybe they’re not artsy rebels at all. But that’s the fun of it, imagining a trip like that, then: how long it must have taken to get to Hawaii, how rustic and undeveloped it looked, how more pointed and romantic everything looks in black and white. And the timelessness of getting into adventures on the road. I haven’t found the perfect place for it yet; one of my roommates loves it, the other thinks it’s creepy. For now, it’s leaning against my bedroom wall, where I can stare and dream.

At the center of the collage, pasted on a pastel sunset, is a solo shot of the sharp-cheeked woman. She’s looking back, over her shoulder, holding a straw hat down against what might be wind, what might be the passage of time. I like to think she’s looking back at me, out from a moment that’s long passed, a place that isn’t the same, a youth that is gone. Probably, she was looking back at one of the boys in the collage. But a girl can dream, can’t she?

How Many Dyslexics Does It Take to Rewrite the Travel Rules?

god forbid

god forbid

One.

Well, actually, you’d need at least one non-dyslexic to transcribe the edict. But that’s not the point, at least not of my latest article on BootsnAll, which explores untraditional travel techniques I’ve learned from my brother.

Aaron’s a severe dyslexic with a disarmingly positive outlook and tireless work ethic that’s enabled him to do all sorts of difficult things—things most of us take for granted. This includes traveling. Imagine trying to decipher a foreign language when letters mischievously switch themselves, or trying to understand unusual sounds through an auditory processing system full of static and interference, with all the wires crossed and smoking. Enough to make you want to stay at home, huh?

But for someone with such seemingly insurmountable obstacles inhibiting him, Aaron’s managed to get on the road a fair amount; he just hasn’t done the usual guidebook, itinerary, sight-seeing kind of travel. He’s traveled home with friends from Cuba and Guatemala, traveled up the West Coast into Canada, arrived reservation-less in New Zealand. An incredibly outgoing person, he’s relied on his own gregarious personality to get him along, rather than the clutches a lot of travelers lean on. I’ve tried to incorporate his seat-of-the-pants approach to travel into my own Lonely-Planet-endeared style, and the article was my attempt to share those lessons with other travelers.

The Editor at BootsnAll wanted me to go light on the dyslexic angel, and that’s understandable: it’s not something a lot of people relate to, and they want to publish articles with compelling titles that generate page views. And the article met a largely positive reception from readers. But there’s always that one comment, that one nay-sayer, and this time, I’ve got to say, I could see her point.

I realized that, for me, the real story wasn’t the travel tips, but my brother. My whole life I’ve watched him struggle to do things that were absurdly easy for me: writing essays, reading text books, enjoying novels. His determined, un-self-pitying efforts to intellectually engage as an adult have continued to inspire me. His natural curiosity led him slug through Open Veins of Latin America, not light material for anyone, let alone a person at a 6th grade reading level. He watches subtitled movies three times—once to just absorb the images, a second time to pause and read all the subtitles, and a third time to weave it all together. Yes, he travels, but he also makes it through daily life, and usually with a giant grin on his face.

Travel’s about a lot of things, and one of them is inspiration. It can come from a variety of places, in totally unexpected forms. And beyond trying to get off the guidebook and ditching the streetmap, my brother’s inspired me to push myself beyond what I think is possible for myself. And that includes, for me, traveling.

So that’s the almost-as-long-as-the-article backstory; you can read the actual story here.

If AC Transit Gave Passport Stamps

Inside the belly of the beast

Inside the belly of the beast

I started traveling at 15.

Which isn’t true–I didn’t leave the country until I was 22, and all travels leading up to that were pretty much of the camping and visiting-the-relatives-in-Milwaukee variety. I was a working class kid; international travel was the exotic, unattainable luxury of the privileged, or else something you only did a couple times in your life: your honeymoon, a cruise at retirement, maybe to visit your parents’ hometown in Vietnam. It was completely outside of the realm of what anyone I knew did, an opportunity I never expected and didn’t know I wanted.

But something that happened at 15 that I inextricably link to travel, to the little sparks flashing in that otherwise-dormant part of the mind you use when vagabonding and adventuring around unknown, foreign places–I started riding the bus.

It wasn’t a short ride. I landed a spot in a decent public high school a couple towns away from my house; my mom could drop me off in the mornings, but after school, I had to make the 10-some-mile trek by myself. It took about an hour and a half on at least 2 different buses.

My laminated, cheesy-graphic-ed youth bus pass was my ticket to freedom. My parents had been deservedly hesitant to let me ride the buses alone when I was younger–a skinny white girl, the mean streets of Oakland’s flatlands–they weren’t being unreasonable. But when necessity arose at 15, I was old enough and aware enough to be let loose.

And I loved it.

I listened to my Walkman, stared out the window. Everywhere I went, I noticed the bus stops, took note of the numbers, figured out what lines connected, the most efficient routes. My friends were scattered at high schools all over the East Bay; I got myself to neighborhoods and parts of town I only vaguely knew, learned the streets, how all the places fit together. I only used the overpriced, plush BART system to get across the Bay, choosing instead to rely on the unreliable, infrequently running tangle of AC Transit buses. I started dating a boy in San Francisco, and got to know the heaving electric buses and rattling streetcars of MUNI. I could get myself just about anywhere “worth going” in the inner Bay Area–Gilman, the Cocodrie, Mission Records, Ocean Beach bonfires, a constant sprinkling of house parties. I even transited to an all-night beach party in the North Bay’s Bolinas. I felt unstoppable.

But the cheif benefit about all that transiting wasn’t the freedom; it was learning how to be in the world. I learned, yes, that I could figure logistical things out, but also that I could handle myself. I knew exactly how to respond to cat calls, comments, advances from much-older and very-gross men, a fine line between acknowledging and not encouraging them. I learned what to do when the guy next to you is jerking off through his pants, or when the lady across from you nods out so hard to bashes her head into the pole. I learned how to laugh off the Oakland Tech kids asking me if I was in a cult because I wore all black. I learned what to do when a fight broke out (get out of the way). I grew comfortable with my ability to take care of myself, to just be myself.

I was also forced to slow down, to sit. I noticed little things I’d never seen before, the time the clock had frozen to outside a shut-down storefront (4:20, and I was convinced that it was a front for a weed operation). I discovered little shops and corner stores. I got the experience of watching a neighborhood gentrify, slowly, day-by-day, standing on the same corner waiting for my transfer–a sort of time-lapse photography of incoming punks, then yuppies, then stroller-pushing nannies. I wrote poetry in my head, silently recited my favorite works by my favorite poets. I got time–a lot of time–to just be with myself.

Why does this feel like the beginning of my traveling? In the most practical sense of the term, it is–the getting from point A to point B, the journey involved. But it’s more. It’s way I was thrown into the unknown, the unfamiliar. I get that same sort of tingle when I travel, when I stare at a map or figure out a metro system in a foreign city or try to decipher signs in other languages–this back part of the brain that gets ignited when you’re outside of familiar settings, your everyday life–that grows fat and numb as you drive to work, to the grocery store, the gym. It’s how riding the buses afforded me the time to sit and listen to music and think, about nothing in particular, an almost meditative chunk of time where I had nothing to do but just wait, just slow down. It’s the way I noticed the little things in the world again, instead of letting it be a big blurred rush of color and sound behind me, beside me, but always outside of me.

And it’s the way I loved it.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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