Who is Grumpy Old Writer?
I’m going to tell you my favorite story about my father.
He ran a business in Bellingham grinding lenses. When it failed, his partner made off with the money and his relatives, who had invested, changed the locks of the business so he wouldn’t get any big ideas about selling off the remaining equipment and leaving himself.
I imagine that was the low point of his life.
So he said to himself, “I can be broke here in rainy, dark, cold Bellingham, or I can be broke someplace nice.”
He scraped together the rest of the money he had and sent our two big sisters off to Honolulu find an apartment for the rest of us.
Then, one early morning, in the dark, when I was 6, Mom packed my clothes into a tiny suitcase for me to carry and piled us into Grandpa’s car (we were all staying at my Grandparents’ house by then) and drove to the Seattle airport, got on a plane and stepped off on the sunny tarmac in Hawaii.
Born 1960, number 5th of 6. Bellingham, Washington. Rainy, gray, cold. But there was also Grandma and Grandpa.
1966. Lanikai, Hawaii. But you never appreciate what you have when you have it. I spent my time in paradise reading books in a dark room and dreaming of the Middle Ages.
Hawaii really is paradise, and a true melting pot. It was normal for me – a haole – to be in the minority.
My dream was to go to Europe, see the Middle Ages, maybe discover a real dragon sleeping the sleep of ages under a castle ruin, and become a writer in a black turtle neck sweater in a cafe beside a river somewhere where spies are swapped at midnight
How to become a writer in Europe if you’re a dumb kid growing up in Hawaii
In 1990, I had my Master’s but knew I was not cut out for academia. So I turned to the craft my father had forced me to learn.
I bought up every English-language newspaper I could find and called the editorial offices and asked them if they needed a correspondent. I was sure I would have not luck – guys who get correspondent jobs are either well-connected, or they have worked their way up from the mail room. I was sure they would smell the dumb kid in me.
But they said, “Send me something.”
So I wrote up a story about some eccentric German artist who was tattooing bar codes on his skin (he was the first) and the now-defunct “The European” printed it.
I was shocked. These guys didn’t care about degrees or CVs, they needed something to fill their pages.
It’s a lesson tat seems obvious to me now, but it wasn’t then:
A writer is kind of one-man business. His first question isn’t what to write or how, it’s what the reader wants to read. If he can figure that out, he can get someone to publish the story.
When I turned 40, I had to make a decision: Either go to Los Angeles and become international editor for “The Hollywood Reporter” or finally realize my dream of finding the Middle Ages. So I threw it all away and took the trip I had always dreamed of taking.
But I wasn’t dumb. The writer in me knew there was a book in it ad he knew how to sell it, too.
Every little town I visited, following the footsteps of Hildegard von Bingen, Charlemagne, Faust, Walther von der Vogelweide and others, I called the local newspaper office and told them a crazy American was in town looking for clues to some local hero of theirs nearly a thousand years ago.
The next morning my picture appeared in the paper.
When I went looking for a publisher a year later, I had a folder full of news clippings about my journey under my arm.
They didn’t care about the articles themselves – they knew everything they needed to know just by looking at the size of the folder:
My trip through the Middle Ages was interesting for newspapers and their readers – I had a market.
The stupidest idea I had about writing was that I didn’t have to learn it. The best thing my Dad did was to convince me to join the school newspaper and learn. At Kailua High School I edited the Surfrider, at the Brigham Young University in Laie I edited the Ke’alakai.
I was a believing Mormon and I knew there was a good chance I would accept a calling to go on a two-year mission for the church. I also wanted to get to Europe. So I devised a plan. You don’t get to decide where you go on a mission, but the church needed missionaries with foreign language skills, so decided to take a foreign language in high school – any foreign language. Neither Japanese nor Spanish would have –most likely – gotten me to Europe. I was with German.
Discovering a foreign country was incredible. I felt like an early explorer or an anthropologist, learning a new language an customs, trying to figure out an incurable people. so different form my own.
But there were also scars. Germans can be hard people and they don’t particularly like outsiders, though they mask their aggression with manners. They don’t like outsider religions either, and it was here that my faith began to crumble. How that process began and how it ended is a story I tell in my most personal book, “Losing My Religion.”
How living in Germany made an American out of me
And the definition of being young is when you believe it all. When I left America, I knew nothing about politics – I cared only about writing. But politics for Germans is what celebrity culture is for America: they talk about it constantly, and they know more about American politics than Americans. Or at least they think they do. I didn’t know then that Germany is, according to many polls, the most anti-American country in Europe. But the more you hear how terrible your country is, the more you start to question what you’re hearing. So I started to look into what I was hearing. Was America really dominating other countries with their exports of hamburgers, Coke and rock n roll? Not at all – in fact, the opposite is true: For every dollar of goods and services American exports take out of Germany, German exports in America send 2 dollars back home. Is Germany a socialist country, and American a capitalist one? Germany spends about 55% of their state budget on social services every year – America spends 65%. Is America racist? After all, every year, some 200 to 400 illegal immigrants on the Mexican border trying to get in. The number of annual deaths of illegal immigrants in the Mediterranean trying to get to Europe is between 2000 und 3000. What about America’s terrible history – slavery, the Indians? The Germans know a lot about that – they learn it in school. But what they don’t teach in school is this:
And the definition of being young is when you believe it all.
When I left America, I knew nothing about politics – I cared only about writing.
But politics for Germans is what celebrity culture is for America: they talk about it constantly, and they know more about American politics than Americans.
Or at least they think they do.
I didn’t know then that Germany is, according to many polls, the most anti-American country in Europe.
But the more you hear how terrible your country is, the more you start to question what you’re hearing.
So I started to look into what I was hearing. Was America really dominating other countries with their exports of hamburgers, Coke and rock n roll?
Not at all – in fact, the opposite is true: For every dollar of goods and services American exports take out of Germany, German exports in America send 2 dollars back home.
Is Germany a socialist country, and American a capitalist one?
Germany spends about 55% of their state budget on social services every year – America spends 65%.
Is America racist?
After all, every year, some 200 to 400 illegal immigrants on the Mexican border trying to get in. The number of annual deaths of illegal immigrants in the Mediterranean trying to get to Europe is between 2000 und 3000.
What about America’s terrible history – slavery, the Indians?
The Germans know a lot about that – they learn it in school. But what they don’t teach in school is this:
And the Indians – when Columbus reached the Caribbean, there lived somewhere between 5 and 100 million aboriginal people in North and South America – when the first boatload of 200 English pilgrims set foot in New England, less than a million Indians had survived to live in North America.
What about American imperialism? American wars?
There’s a strange conundrum here – Germans are critical of American military force and self-congratulatory on their obvious pessimism – but when Putin invades a neighboring country to the EU, they turn to America for help. As of March 2023, Germany has contributed 4 million dollars in financial and military aid to the Ukraine – America has given 25 billion.
Today, America is trapped in a vicious cycle of self-criticism and self-hatred – many young people really believe their country is the worst place in the world.
Back when. was their age, I would have agreed – now I know that America, with all its faults, is still the greatest country in the world, and the one country all other countries in the West cannot do without.
Germany was also where I met my first big love, and after my mission I returned to marry her and study the Literature of the German Middle Ages in Munich.
It was tougher than I had imagined to finish my studies in a foreign tongue – not because of the language but, but because I wasn’t a natural academic. I didn’t want to study the Middle Ages in a dusty library, I wanted to see them. Years later, that’s what I did: I dropped everything and took a year-long trip through Germany and Austria in a VW van from castle to monastery to village in the footsteps of nine medieval heroes, and that’s how I found the Middle Ages. That journey changed my life and became my first book, “Die Nibelungenreise.”
After the divorce, with only a few articles to my name, I moved to Berlin, which was still thrumming from the energy that exploded when the Berlin Wall came crashing down. I knew no one, and I am a shy guy – so I decided on a plan: I found the best bar within walking distance and vowed I would be there at least once a week and not leave until I had talked with someone or it was after one in the morning. I had not money, so I ordered one whisky and just held it, leaning against a wall and talking to no one, for hours. Before the year was out, I had friends and before another year had passed, I had fallen in love again. Here’s to the storied, the famous, the infamous Zoulou Bar.
When I turned 60, I stood at dawn with a cup of coffee on a nearby bridge in Berlin and looked back: Through the confusion and the succession of life events I never really had complete control over, I saw a strange process that is still not finished: In Hawaii I wanted to be somewhere and become something else; as a Mormon I thought religion would save me. When I left the church, I thought leaving it would save me. I thought becoming a writer would bring fulfillment, but now I am a writer an I am still searching. I can see what I did right and what I did wrong, and I can see the nonsense and confusion of human life, but I don’t know what any of that it means, and I don’t know if achieving fulfillment before the end is possible. But it seems to be that searching is not a bad way to spend your life in the meantime
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