Bryan Joiner

Why then I

Category: MV

Nate Silver was wrong about one thing: The ocean

I’ve known Nate Silver for a long time, and spend 10 minutes in my presence and I’ll be sure to remind you of that. I finished his book last night, and it’s amazing. I wasn’t surprised at the depth of his knowledge, because no one with an Internet connection would be, but the breadth of it knocked me off my feet. We often talk about baseball and poker and politics, but he doesn’t go quoting Julius Caesar here and there. The book is a masterpiece, and like all great masterpieces, it has a flaw. I wasn’t looking for it: most of the time, I was shocked that I’ve spent time with this human, whose brain could be running America (and as of last month, is qualified to do so!). But Nate grew up in the spartan hills of central Michigan, and I grew up on an island, and got to spend my early life near the ocean at all times. That’s the other thing I’ll tell you in the first 10 minutes you’ll spend around me, without fail. Martha’s Vineyard. Nantucket sucks.

In his conclusion, Nate writes:

Staring at the ocean and waiting for a flash of insight is how ideas are generated in the movies. In the real world, they rarely come to you when you are standing in place. Nor do the “big” ideas necessarily start out that way. It’s more often with small, incremental, and sometimes even accidental steps that we make progress.

I agree that small, incremental steps are how we form ideas, but they will hit you on the beach. What Nate doesn’t account for is that they have to hit you sometime, and his conclusion implies that these times are random, but the “getting inspired by staring at the ocean” isn’t contrived: It’s a real thing that happens.

Look at it this way: If you are building toward an idea, a “Eureka!” moment will come, at some point. For the same reason cloistered thinkers are encourage to take a walk in order to give their brains a chance to start putting together some puzzle pieces behind-the-scenes, looking at the ocean is one of the best ways to help you come to your magic moments. The staring-at-the-ocean “meme,” may I call it that, came from a place where staring out at the biggest feature on our planet affords us insight by bringing our own ideas down to size. And here’s the thing, the one thing I can speak for from experience: It never gets old. I can’t remember a time, growing up, when taking time at the ocean didn’t help me reorganize my thoughts in a constructive way. It may have happened, but if it did, it was rare. That was part of the magic of growing up on an island, a magic I still think and write about to an outsized degree, more than a decade later. It’s less “Lost” magic than  pure practicality: When faced with the infinite on all sides, it’s hard not to be awed by life, however contained. It’s no accident Hollywood is mere miles from the ocean. As Nate might say, it’s the single greatest tool we have to separate the signal from the noise.


What I read and wrote this summer

Not pictured: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Motherless Brooklyn

Those of you who have followed the WordPress site, and the fewer of you who have followed the Tumblr site, know that I’ve written many, many things over the past few years. The one thing I’ve been bad at is bringing them together in any sort of cohesive way, and I’m going to change that. This is a list of everything I’ve read and written this summer as defined by Memorial Day through Labor Day, because that’s how I’m defining it. I’ll start with the books I’ve read, in the order in which I finished them:

As you can see, I spent a lot of time in the classics, new and old. I picked up Kavalier & Clay because it was one of those books I hadn’t read but every friend of mine had read and liked. Oscar Wao was the same deal, and I actually put a copy of it down at the bookstore to pick up K & C, only to have a friend lend me a copy later in the summer. I had never read Moby-Dick, despite growing up on Martha’s Vineyard: mistake. Somehow I hadn’t read Of Mice and Men, either. Ben got me hooked on David Mitchell, first on his new one—the first half of which probably changed my writing style forever—and later, Cloud Atlas, which I finished yesterday to meet the unofficial deadline for writing this post.

You can probably see the progression from Moby-Dick to Heart of Darkness to Things Fall Apart, or at least the second part of it. Hitchens I picked up because I’ve seen several interviews with him since he fell ill, and realized that I’ve been delinquent. I wasn’t disappointed. Are We Winning? was a review copy based on the interview I did for Leitch’s last book, though I have yet to write any sort of review. I tore through Motherless Brooklyn in less than 24 hours on M.V., during which time I also managed to sleep for eight hours and paint two ceilings. It helps that it mostly takes place within three blocks of my Brooklyn home. Finally, I was iffy on A Visit from the Good Squad until a single paragraph mid-book ratcheted the awesome up to 11 and it didn’t stop until it was over. Highly recommended, especially if you like music.

What I’ve written

I spent the majority of the summer writing imaginary conversations, which I enjoyed immensely. I really liked fitting all the dialogue together, which I had never tried before. It was a little exhausting, though, which is why my production plummeted in August.

  • Sports
  • Baseball busts the barometer; a mistake shows how big the game has become (WordPress)
  • Dwyane Wade and LeBron James (WordPress)
  • LeBron, the Knicks, the Nets, and the red pill (WordPress)
  • If I was LeBron James (WordPress)
  • Chris Bosh, -$28 million man; David Stern, superstar (WordPress)
  • If everyone always did the safest or most popular thing, the world would be a shitty place (WordPress)
  • A few more LeBron thoughts (WordPress)
  • Oosthuizen (Tumblr)
  • “Superteams” (Tumblr)
  • A-Rod at 599 (Tumblr)
  • David Tyree and David Patten (Tumblr)
  • Pet Peeve (Tumblr)
  • Mad Men Recaps
  • Episode 1: Betty’s Alive. Yay? (Tumblr)
  • Episode 2: Enough Foreplay (Tumblr)
  • Episode 3: “You know what’s going on here? Handjobs!” (Tumblr)
  • Episode 4: I’m the asshole (Tumblr)
  • Episode 6: The cure for the common Mad Men season (Tumblr)
  • Humor
  • We’ve changed our name to SeaStreak Martha’s Vineyard (WordPress)

It is my intent to “drop,” so to speak, a post about the 2010 Patriots on Thursday morning. We’ll see how it goes.

My 17-year-old self and I argue and play basketball, I win

We’ll pick up my conversation with my 17-year-old self the morning after we left off, when I come downstairs for breakfast.

ME: Good morning.

17-Y-O-Me: (waves aimlessly, doesn’t take eyes from TV)

ME: Did you make coffee?

17-Y-O-Me: (looks at me like I’m crazy)

ME: Oh, right. You don’t drink coffee.

17-Y-O-Me: I’m not a pussy.

ME: Right. I forgot I felt that way.

17-Y-O-Me: Big softy now, eh?

ME: You wait until you have a 9-to-5 job.

17-Y-O-Me: I’ll never have one of those.

ME: Hey moron? (does a pointing back and forth between us to indicate yes, in fact, you will)

17-Y-O-Me: (throws remote at me, I dodge it, it hits glass front door but doesn’t break it)

ME: You idiot.

17-Y-O-Me: I’m the idiot?! You’re the one with the 9-to-5 job!

ME: It’s not that simple. And wait, are you blaming me for dodging something you threw at me?

17-Y-O-Me: Of course! You know the glass door is there!

ME: What do you want me to do, catch it?

17-Y-O-Me: Ha! Good one.

ME: Alright, that’s it. We’re playing basketball, right now. You and me. One on one.

17-Y-O-Me: (mocking) Don’t you need your coffee first?

ME: (fuming) Grab your shoes, dickwad.

(He grabs his shoes and we walk the 5 minutes to the basketball court in tense silence. I beat him handily. He’s in better shape, but not better enough, and he doesn’t use his body as well as I do. He challenges me to best two out of three but halfway through game two, which he’s losing, he starts visibly moping. He misses a jumper, and then…)

ME: What’s the problem, hair in your eyes?

17-Y-O-Me: (shoves me, I don’t lose dribble)

ME: Good defense? Where’d you learn that? (Does turnaround jumper, misses)

17-Y-O-Me: Look at Air Jordan over there! (tries running layup, goes out of control, misses wildly, ball rolls into the woods and under poison ivy. Him, instantaneously:) Your ball.

ME: I’m not getting it.

17-Y-O-Me: If I get it, it’s my ball.

ME: I’m not getting poison ivy because you suck at basketball.

17-Y-O-Me: (rage) If I get that ball, I’m taking it.

ME: If you’re taking that ball, I’m not playing anymore.

17-Y-O-Me: Fine, then I’ll just keep shooting until I win without you here.

ME: You think you can make 10 baskets by dinner?

(He attacks me, and now we’re fighting right next to the ball, rolling around in the poison ivy we were just trying to avoid. A car drives by and looks at us strangely, but we stop to both wave to indicate it’s all in fun, relatively speaking. When the car passes, we start again and kick the ball even further in and we stop, and, simultaneously:)

US: Shit.

(Looking all around us, at the plants)


ME: We should probably…

17-Y-O-Me: Go to the beach and get this stuff off of us.

ME: I’ll drive.

17-Y-O-Me: Like hell you will, grandpa.

(Ten minutes later, we’re in the car)

ME: Do you have sunscreen?

17-Y-O-Me: (chortles)

ME: I suppose you like getting sunburnt?

17-Y-O-Me: I don’t mind.

ME: That translates to “I’m too proud to put on sunscreen” in adult.

17-Y-O-Me: Oh Jesus.

ME: We going to South Beach?

17-Y-O-Me: Of course.

ME: I figured as much.

17-Y-O-Me: I love it.

ME: You would. I still like it, but I feel old there.

17-Y-O-Me: Well, I’m 17 and the ocean is the ocean.

ME: You’re looking for that girl, aren’t you?

17-Y-O-Me: (obviously lying) No!

ME: Yeah, you are. All the teenagers are at South Beach. That’s why I don’t like to go anymore. Look at it this way: If a girl was two years old when I was your age, she’s 17 now. Just think about that.

17-Y-O-Me: (pulls car over) Lambert’s Cove?*

ME: Lambert’s Cove.

17-Y-O-Me: (turns car around) I feel itchy already.

ME: Oh, don’t be such a drama queen. It wouldn’t work that fast.

17-Y-O-Me: (takes hand, rubs it all over my face) You’d better hope not.

ME: (pushes stick into neutral, he immediately puts in back in gear)

17-Y-O-Me: … (rage turns to admiration)

17-Y-O-Me: Okay, that was pretty good.

(We high five, and then some pop song comes on the radio that we both like and we blast it and start singing together.)


* This would obviously not be happening at sunset, but I mean jeez.

My friend the banker

My friend the banker taught me how to make eggs. Small pan, a spritz of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, one side and then over. Easy. But mine don’t look like his. Mine are all tapioca-yellow broken-yoke muddle, his are all golden-brown, fluffy, yokes intact. Break them and the gold runs along your plate to the margins, waiting to be curled into a piece of toast.

My friend the banker recently bought a house. A duplex, to be exact. My friend the banker is 25 years old, and not even really a banker. He works at an investment bank, though, so it’s easiest to call him that. Snappier, too. My friend the banker is a snappy dresser and snappy with zingers to toss around. It fits, like the Mini Cooper he drives with the vanity plate that you couldn’t even imagine.

I explained the problems that I outlined yesterday to my friend the banker. He was uniquely qualified to comment on my situation, having no small number of his own things in my house, due to circumstances beyond his control. At first, he said that there were some things he would like to keep for posterity, and recommended gutting the house of its items and throwing everything in an above-ground garage. Expensive, semi-sentimental, and sensible, I thought. Then my friend the banker thought about it for another minute and spoke again.

“Throw it all away,” he said.

It caused me no small amount of joy to hear that. I consider it a healthy attitude to take toward one’s early youth, especially when is looking at it in the rear-view mirror. My friend the banker is moving in with his girlfriend, and embarking on a new life entirely of his choosing. It is altogether admirable. It’s something I did once.

That conversation was two weeks ago, on a highway in Phoenix, Arizona. Last weekend, I was face-to-face with my friend the banker’s stuff. Old photos, trophies, clothes, mementos, in boxes that chirped their owners’ suggestion to throw them out over the pulsating sound of the Bose speaker upstairs.* I did not do it. It’s not because I don’t respect my friend the banker’s wishes, but because having been reminded of the power of memory through the process of clearing the clutter from my own past, I have been reminded how it changes, like the colors of a sunset.

You know that moment at dusk when everything gets lighter all of a sudden, like someone pressed rewind on the night for 30 seconds? Doesn’t the same thing happen in life? I think it does, and I don’t know if my friend the banker has gotten there yet. And if he hasn’t, I can’t deprive him the opportunity to watch, in awe and wonder, as it appears the clocks are turning backward, that 8 o’clock has become 7:45, the the world has started spinning in the opposite direction, and that things that have faded in importance for him become, against all odds, resonant once more, final, shining beacons to the past.

So I’m careful. I throw away the trash.  I’m respectful of the past, and of the future. I’m as consistent as possible. But last weekend even I was taken aback when I found a shark hand puppet that belonged to me when I was six years old, and it all came swirling back, all of it. I put it in a box and onto a shelf and, unbowed, headed back to my project, the broken yokes of old dreams all around me, trying desperately not to break any more.

* On a lighter note, the Bose iPod dock is, in the words of C.P., the sixth man of the maintenance work. That thing is out. of. control. Wizardry.

Object in motion

In the northeast corner of the country, we have salty, wet, wooden America. The ocean. Evergreens. Boats. Lobsters for those who can afford them. The Red Sox. Islands big and small.

In the southwest corner, we have dry, air conditioned America. Cactii. Immigration laws. The Suns. Pizzeria Bianco. Those little misting devices outside of restaurants to keep you from becoming a sun-dried tomato.

In the last two weeks, I have bounced between and around these two Americas (John Edwards whut) like a pinball, but instead of leaving my normal trail of destruction, I’m actually cleaning up messes. I’ve left every place better than I’ve found it, in the maintenance I’ve done on my childhood home (Massachusetts), the paint I’ve slapped on my brother’s new home (Phoenix), or the economic stimulus I’ve provided to the U.S. economy (Las Vegas).

I returned to my apartment for more than 12 hours for the first time on Sunday night, fresh off the superlatively beautiful boat ride back from M.V. I was anxious. I had a leaky faucet, a stack of recyclables that have been long ignored, and a cluttered apartment setup. After all the arranging and rearranging I had done, did I have to live this way?

Of course I didn’t. Last night, I took upon the task of gutting my apartment. Bookshelf: gone. Books: in the closet for now. Trash: deposited. Bicycle: headed to Craigslist, or West Tisbury. Guitar I never learned to play or really cared to: eat me. Dresser: justify your existence, or go home.

This all sounds like boilerplate stuff, but there’s an underlying issue.

In performing maintenance on my childhood home, I’ve brushed up against the memories of some of its fellow former occupants. Okay, “brushed up” is the most delicate way of putting it. I have, with only a slight intention, jabbed at them completely and violently, like hundreds of razor-sharp needles. This has been difficult for some people, even if I’m striving to remind them that their memories are, if not the first thing on my mind (and they could be), darn close to it.

What it comes down to is the power of things, and how those things come to define us. Of course, it’s completely up to us how we let that happen, and there is no right or wrong way. There are differing philosophies, but other people could give a hoot about my philosophy. Their way works for them. That I initially tried to argue my way out of this shows a gap in my understanding that has been rectified, if not forgiven, by the people it bothered. I believe my grand plan for that house is 99% of what everyone else’s grand plan is, but it’s the 1% that’s important in this case.

So returning home (to New York this time), to a place that’s 100% my vision… it’s too grand an opportunity to pass it up. The thing is, I wouldn’t be able to do it had I not done it in Massachusetts or Phoenix. I learn by doing, watching, tinkering. In the end and in the future, my grand projects will be limited to what’s mine unless explicitly directed otherwise. Some people don’t even trust me anymore. That’s something I’ll have to live with. I suppose we all do.

The most beautiful sight in New York

The return ticket on the admirably named SeaStreak Martha’s Vineyard costs something on the order of $100 one-way. It’s worth it for the city approach alone. First, you’re hugging Long Island, with a house or two visible in the formless coastline on your left. Then the houses and terrain get bigger, more pronounced and then WHAP—there’s Connecticut on your right, beginning the gradual process of pinching you toward Manhattan, which is still invisible for about 20 minutes as the features on both sides of you grow and grow and grow. The sun is also setting to your right, its reflection off the water pointing back at you in white, then yellow, then gold, then orange, then blood orange and finally red before, in an instant, vanishing completely.

And then you see it.

Straight ahead of you, a small row of rectangular gray shapes on the horizon that takes up no more than one-twentieth of your visual panorama. But make no mistake: you’re headed right for it. You get closer and closer and it still doesn’t seem to grow but the houses on your left do, to the point you realize you’re looking at mansions, and look at all the sailboats in the water now here at dusk, and there’s “West Egg” and now “East Egg” and as the lights turn on in the June 20th night, you look for a green one, and you continue…

The lights are popping on in front of you now and suddenly the gray shapes are bigger, less rigidly rectangular and they are not all visible. You approach the Throgs Neck and Whitestone Bridges, sailing underneath both of them against an amazing pinkblue sky. (You text your friend below and implore him to take in the views). Immediately after the Whitestone, the boat slows down, as if slammed in the face by the idea of New York, but really just because you’re in a no wake zone from here on out. The breeze is still defined, but it’s no longer relentless. It alternates hot and cool, and you have no idea—as you pass LaGuardia Airport now, under the belly of a plane—how it happens, but it’s great. After LaGuardia, there’s Riker’s Island, and you have the only view of it you ever want.

You hang a left after Riker’s, and the city is no longer in front of you: It’s vertically materializing on your right. As you face it down just beyond Astoria, you see the railroad bridge imposed upon the Triboro imposed upon the skyline. It might be the prettiest thing you’ve ever seen. And then Astoria Park passes on your left and you’re past it, and now there’s nothing between you and Manhattan and the FDR on your right and suddenly this isn’t New York but Hong Kong: A megalopolis on the water effectively using its waterways not just for function but for wonder and awe. You watch the streets pass as the sky darkens and the lights get brighter and brighter, reds and greens and the blue of the Empire State Building, which is no longer just the building you work near. It’s the symbol of a city you are, at long last, able to see with new eyes.

As it builds to a crescendo you hear a voice behind you. “Bryan, are you getting off?” Pulled from your—my—trance, I nod and head below, ready to enter the belly of the beast.