Literary Lunch: Jaed Coffin In Conversation with Kathryn Miles

Literary Lunch: Jaed Coffin In Conversation with Kathryn Miles



I learned a lot reading this book and one thing that I learned and correct me if I'm wrong but in roughhouse bar bouts there are three rounds right each a minute each so we're gonna have three rounds today they're gonna go long that longer than a minute each we're gonna start Jed's gonna read then I have some questions for dead and then I'll open it up to ask you all what you would like to ask Jed and then if we have not knocked him unconscious I believe that the judges determine who has won yes all right good yeah I forgotten what the order is though so you want me to read first or we'll talk first okay good all right okay I will read first so thanks everybody for coming I really appreciate gosh it's so summer you know like every hour is precious I I thought that today I would read a very brief section from you know if you see the cover of this book I think it's it's kind of not hard to to tell like what what the book is on the surface which is yes a book about the year that I spent fighting in this bar in southeast Alaska and there's a lot of reasons why in the book one of the singular reasons I give is to is to shed some light on my family history in about 50 years ago my parents met during the Vietnam War they were married on a military base in northeastern Thailand and then came back to Maine to Portland actually together shortly after I was born my father left our family and took up with another family in northern Vermont and you know that was an experience it was sort of preconscious for me I was probably 2 or 3 years old at the time that most of these things are going on and so like many children you you don't recognize certain histories as they're happening until maybe much later in life and so the book is framed or the year I turned 24 and this moment of quickening when I start to understand these layers of history and unpack a past that for most of my life I kind of ignored or just overlooked so that is one of the reasons I find myself walking into this bar under a coach in southeast Alaska to fight it doesn't necessarily on surface it makes sense why I was fighting I had just graduated from Middlebury College with a degree in philosophy maybe not the most obvious choice for someone to with that background to travel all the way to southeast Alaska so yes I spent a lot of time fighting and there's a lot of reasons why and I spend the whole book trying to unpack those reasons but I want to read a short passage following the fight my first fight in this bar the bar is called Marlin teenies lounge it's on the second floor of a two-story building nine miles from downtown Juneau around the corner from one of the biggest glaciers a 13-mile glacier in southeast Alaska and I've just fought a man named Mike the nice guy Eden Shaw uh he's a custodian at a Senior Center in town and I've kind of knocked him out and and I'm realizing for the first time what I'm doing in that ring and and what what it's kind of waking up in me the other thing I'll say is that there's just a couple people involved here there's a man named Victor the savage Littlefield he's a clinking man who who's a former fighter who's also my coach kid ruh-roh Vincent Astor an Australian man who showed up in Alaska on a whim and a guy named Todd the dirty dog Thompson who's in this mix as well the parking lot of Marlin teenies was covered in snow the claw the sky was clear and full of stars the mountains beyond the airport circled the city like giant concrete forms as we cross the glacier highway to the Travel Lodge Todd danced in circles shouting dirty dog dirty dog Victor called out the stone the stone that was my nickname even Roo had stopped scowling upstairs Victor packed smoked past it to Todd Todd repack the ball and handed it to me growing up I'd never smoked like my friends did I always got anxious and couldn't sleep and just wanted the fun the high to be over but now it felt useful I was so empty a food of feeling that seconds after my first hit all the cells in my body felt like they were floating slowly rearranging themselves in new order I handed the bowl back to Victor it used to be the only thing that could calm me down after a fight Victor said we stayed up several hours watching videos of our fights we laughed at Todd's kick too Bennett's groin we replayed Roos forearm tulum bob's teeth but in watching my own fight i saw a version of myself I had never known my eyes were wide open with something like fear or panic in the first round then in the second they narrowed by the third as I pummeled the nice guy's head with uppercuts my eyes were alive with it was hard to say rage viciousness anger an expression of something I did not know existed inside me after I'd knocked the nice guy down in the final seconds I did not even turn around to see if he was all right as I pumped my fists and hugged Victor the nice guy remained on the canvas behind me he didn't get up for a full 30 seconds Victor rewound the tape we watched the punch sequence a second time me slipping the nice guys right hand then popping up with a left violence that's what it was for the next several hours I lay in bed forearms buzzing staring at the ceiling as if still waiting for the fight about 3:00 in the morning I got out of bed sat at the table next to the window staring at the light of the street lamps around 5:00 a.m. 9:00 a.m. back east I went downstairs to a phone booth dialed my father's number as I waited for someone to pick up I imagined a lonely farmhouse in the side of the road surrounded by snowy white fields then I heard my father's voice dad my son he said he was always calling me my son I narrated my way through each second of the fight drawing a picture of the nice guy that made him sound like a more formidable opponent than he actually was I wanted my father to know about the world I had entered to see to the violence that had revealed itself during the fight I must have talked for 20 minutes before I stopped to ask my father how he was doing I'm good I'm good he said but his voice was drawn hollow he just come off another trip to a military base in the Midwest to debrief a group of Guardsmen arriving home from Ramadi I was up at 3 in the morning talking to guys about what it was going to be like to go from driving around the desert in Humvee to driving around a nice burg falls and a goddamn bread truck he took a long breath I heard in the exhale that same despair the men at war the heaviness of their pain the truth of their suffering every conversation between us then had a way of spiraling into that same abyss real men were impossible to understand real men suffered real men were broken real men were alone you know my father said the other day I was rereading that passage from The Sun Also Rises you know the one I'm talking about Jake's up in his hotel room drunk after Brett's gone home with some guy you know that passage it's a good world to buy in I knew the exact passage my father was referring to after he'd shown it to me I'd read it probably 20 times the way that Hemingway broke down existence into an economic equation you gave up something and you got something else you paid in some way for anything that was any good the world as my father liked to say in his various improvisation was a good place to buy in but hearing him say those words now I couldn't think I could think only of the shadow of that conceit in which Jake contemplates Bret's experience I had not been thinking about her side of it I had been getting something for nothing the bill always came I thought I had paid for everything Jake says not like the woman pays and pays and pays her side of it in my eyes my mother was an autonomous figure too fixated on survival to reveal its toll for most of my life I saw my mother as a somewhat lonely distant figure consumed by work only now that I had left her behind in Maine did I see for the first time how my father's life had created the terms of her existence and now talking to my father the equation of his life appeared more clearly to me than ever in going to war he had made his payment that he had met my mother brought her back to the United State this was his exchange of values that she had given him a son this was how he'd gotten his money's worth and when he had found the next thing he wished to buy another woman another family another life he had made a final irredeemable transaction it was a good world to buy in but how the woman pays and pays and pays first with her country her culture and origin then with her family in her life in her heart yes I said my hand tightening on the receiver I remember that part my father took a deep breath exhaled wow what a story what a story he said yes I thought as I hung up the phone it was quite a story I love that passage because it gets at all of the themes in the book and there are multiple themes in the book and and I'm hoping what we can do now is kind of unpack them kind of one by one a little bit and in a previous conversation you had told me that this book began is almost sort of like an investigative journalism deep dive into the world of bar boxing right and there's one passage towards the end of the book that I wanted to just read to folks because I feel like this encapsulates the richness of what you were seeing and you mentioned the idea of someone who was a janitor at an old folks home and there's folks from all walks of life we're doing this men and women for all sorts of different reasons and this passage that really struck me you say even the most raw unskilled bouts when when watched with any empathy at all for the people in them reveal a tender story about each fighter what they are made of who they are what sadness they carry what joy and tell us a little bit about this culture and what brings people to the ring well you know it's it's really interesting I don't know if any of you have been to Southeast Alaska maybe yeah some of you so you know that there gosh you know it's not it's not dissimilar to Maine so small communities in connected by tight waterways and oftentimes the communities have deep indigenous history or are primarily indigenous so these and they have long-standing historical either clan or tribal affiliated rivalries so there is a promoter who showed up from Anchorage he's kind of this like arch huckster PT Barnum figure who arrives in Juneau in the late 1990s he has a history of setting up bar boxing in our excuse me bar boxing shows in bars and one of his like quotes I just hear every time I think about him is like it just so happens that it dance flourished about the same size as a boxing ring and it's this idea that like you can always get someone to people always show up if there's a fight you know so he shows up to Juneau and brings in all these people and he his name's Bob Hague and I talk about him at length in the book he he offers anyone the opportunity to step into a ring for a hundred and fifty bucks for three one minute rounds to show everyone how tough they are and at from the outside that sounds like a pretty vulgar and maybe not very appetizing thing to take part in or watch or pay $35 to see but it takes place during the wintertime in Alaska there's sometimes not much else going on I mean there's a lot else going on but for a certain group of people myself included that was the best show in town and so the people come from all different walks of life that's kind of the appeal of the show you know there were one of my favorite opponents was a man who spent who've been working in the greens Creek mines several miles underground up at 4:00 in the morning on a ferry working in the mines all day and then getting out of the mines and coming to fight in a bar but people come from all these different places the the line that Hague often used was a fisherman fighting a cop a schoolteacher fighting a bus driver sometimes a guy next door and these were all like wonderful little buzz buzz buzz words that he had for to advertise his show and so anyone shows up and like I said from the outside it looks really kind of raw and primal and vulgar but but when you start to hear the stories of these people and what brings them into the ring and why they feel like they need these three minutes to show the world what they're made of you can't help but but understand that what drives them is maybe similar things that drive all of us and you list some of the motivations sometimes people need money for a new snow plow sometimes people are sort of fighting through their own demons and things like that and and one of the tensions that shows up in this book again and again that that you experienced as a character and some of the other fighters experiences you talk about this tension between like this energy that you get from being in the ring and also the profound loneliness that so many of you are feeling can you talk more about that yeah well I think that one of my with a my trainer and a three two time roughhouse champion who's produced several champions out of his community in southeast Alaska Sitka this guy Victor the savage Littlefield and the savage is obviously a name that he gave himself he's Klink it and you know I had he had grown up in a in a community that was about 30% native and he said you know someone tried to call me the promoter tried to call me Big Chief until I decided to call myself the savage taught me a great deal about the genesis of these names he told me that the reason why I fight is because I didn't want to be just another native kid who slipped through the cracks and this idea of slipping through the cracks started to have like almost existential resonance for me that so many of us carry histories identities past that that for whatever reason structures of American life tend to kind of like steamroll over those histories or those stories or make it very difficult to give those stories life and fighting was was one way to make sure to prevent yourself from slipping through those existential cracks and I think that's you know we can get a little more into this later but that's one of the things that I often thought like what is the crack that I'm slipping through and why is it so important that I that I don't and that gets into you know my own heritage and cultural history but as we you know I think the idea of falling through that crack it's a it's almost a despairing kind of lonely vision of of a life if it takes three minutes and around fighting someone did not experience that like yes by all means let's fight you know and we there's this great moment to where we see that crack that you may be slipping through there's um so he's working as a tutor for lack of a better word in a high school and he's working with Native Alaskan kids who are kind of slipping through the cracks and the School Board decides it's going to consider cutting the funding for this program and so the Native Americans who Native Alaskans who have benefited from the program and who have kids who are benefiting from them decide that they're going to come forward and kind of present kind of their story and kind of advocate for the return of this program and and as they come up to the stage one by one to introduce themselves they began by sort of reciting their sort of matrilineal history and ancestors until they kind of come down to themselves and and judges sitting in the back row and he's trying to decide how he's gonna introduce himself and first of all everybody in Alaska is calling him Jade for reasons nobody really understands so he's Jed who's going by Jade and then he's thinking about his own history and he's like he's thinking about his last name coffin right this venerable name from Nantucket and Nantucket whalers and he's also thinking about his matrilineal history and his mother from Thailand who met his father in Vietnam who kind of wishes she came from Chinese ancestry because it's lucky and so you're thinking about all of these different identities and how you're gonna try to make sense of them and and how have you made sense of them in your life so much for identifying that passage I think and I want to return to that question but I just can't hate to say pause for a second because I'm sure you've experienced this like the passages that you work hardest to create and that feel the most important to you as a writer are the passages that no one seems to pay attention to critically right like people like uh he writes about the fights with gusto or you know there's like an amazing father-son story here and you're like man that is the easy stuff like writing about punching someone writing about stuff that happened between me and my dad like I've been thinking about that my whole life but take you know that the time that I had to put in like going back through local papers and journal entries to recreate that page and a half of the book it was geez the time that I spent doing that and it was really extensive so I will say also that I don't know you know I think part of the what it means to be American is that we just have this like default assumption that we are here by some cosmic miracle you know I mean we all have our like informal creation myths like oh I think my parents came here on a boat like through Ellis Island or maybe they were you know whatever you typically is it's amazing how often war plays a part in our migrations but I don't have a better answer for that you know I don't I haven't in in klinke society historically it was a matrilineal line so you identify yourself through a series of clams and house and tribal affiliations that are about six cycles deep before you get to yourself so you wouldn't you wouldn't meet someone on the street and say like hi my name is Jed I'm from Brunswick you would say my mother is from the monte irvin family they're from central Thailand her father was from Laos her mother is probably Chinese they lived next to a canal in a neighborhood owned by this family they migrated on my father's side he is a coffin that is historically a Nantucket name etc etc etc and you keep moving through that those lineages until after about six iterations you say and by the way my name is Jed coffin so you locate yourself within a kind of like psychic Geographic lineage before you just deliver your identity right and so I think almost reverse-engineering identity as a way to gage with the world is a pretty powerful experience I think often about that in my own life like what do we get to pass down to the people in our life how do we identify ourselves to the people in our life you know I it's I think part of the reason I thought is because I had to ask myself like what is my story and and there's because for I think that I gave us there's blank space how does fighting help you get to your story I don't I don't know if it helps me get to my story but I think you gave me an opportunity I mean there's nothing more this is gonna sound very strange I think to many people and it sounds strange to me even as I say it but I am the kind of person who feels the gravity of not having a story weigh very heavily on my shoulders when I know that on my mother's side of the family it's reaiiy don't really know anything about her family history it exists in Southeast Asia I have Facebook connections with a few cousins but that's about it right I know my father's side of the family a little bit but his family is quite limited and of course there's the fissure between those lineages when my parents separated when I was very young so and also growing up in Maine which as you know is not mostly Thai I I found myself like looking for signifiers to locate that story and in many ways saad saw none and so fueling the gravity of that blank space in some way started to kind of offer me this strange like melancholy or alienation that I started to encounter in my early twenties and I think fighting it's so raw and physical and basic that it almost made me feel like I could just float above all that stuff in those moments it was like the deconstruction of all those half stories finally finally just washing away as if like swept away by tide and in those moments of like he did intensity in the ring I just felt like they were gone and that's that was a pretty beautiful powerful thing what are the things that you write about – is that your dad has this sort of romanticized notion of like knights and shining armor and the sort of chivalrous fight right and and that as a brand of masculinity and then when you go to Alaska you're meeting men who have different brands of masculinity like rooh the Australia and fighter and and so talk a little bit about the way in which this book is sort of examining and kind of looking at different roles for for men and the masculine sort of threat of gender yeah well I think that part of the the interesting or the the gift of spending time to write this story was it allowed me to say like alright what what are the inheritances that I for what have I inherited as a man in America from my patrilineal line right like what are the what are what is the what are the creation myths that have come my way and you know one of them early on probably too early was encountering the work of Robert Bly which in you know a a kind of leader of the you know what was called the men's movement in the 1980s that would really struck a chord with my father you know that evokes all these images archetypal kind of Union motifs of of like a while an inner wild man you know like some deep sense of masculinity that's like been either wounded or lost that's deeply attached to you know different notions of warrior hood and so forth my father was also very interested in Arthurian legends and I think to this day still believes in some way that like in our DNA is like a kind of arch like royalty about what it means to be a man so that's a very complicated legacy to inherit and then of course there's there's the that finds its way into a fusion of sorts with some of the messages that I was getting from a guy like Victor who had his own meditation on on what it meant to be a man growing up on an island in the Gulf of Alaska where yes I mean the things that he learned growing up were how to fight and how to hunt and how to fish so you know I don't I don't know how those things live in me still but but to say that I kind of just like saw them and discarded them and overcame them would probably also be a myth one of the things I really like is I think this really opens up for people the possibility of starting to really kind of talk about these different definitions of masculinity and what our expectations are and and and what what limitations there are four men who subscribe to different categories and how they get kind of boxed in because of their definition of masculinity yeah yeah I I think the predominant excuse me I think the predominant narrative that we have about you know what it means to be a man is that men don't wish to be vulnerable or to share feelings and I think in many ways that's true but what's interesting to me is that fighting with guys on a nightly basis in a very small room with your shirts off you know is one of the most intimate things you can do with the person I mean I can't visit you know I remember one night Victor this isn't in the book but one night Victor said you know we had just sparred seven rounds together you know like just bathed in sweat smashing into each other bleeding and whatever and and he's like oh man my back's been really sore too much fighting and I said you know you ever thought about you she'll get a massage you know get some body work done like kind of joking and he's like no I mean I don't let anyone touch my body except for my wife and like we just you know you could see like the marks of me all over and his marks all over me and we're sitting there just like you know there's a scene where I work out with kid route toward the end of the where you know we've like it's just the two of us the the gym has kind of dissolved in the spring people are getting busy with life and we just go we meet each other every night and we spent 45 minutes like this far apart wrestling you know like totally locked into each other and then one night I hit him sort of for the first time and it it seems to have broken his nose and remove some cartilage around his nose and he invites me over the next night for dinner and we watch fights and his wife comes up and she's like I don't get it like you just beat the out of each other the night before and now you're like best friends and I know this sounds like a version of Fight Club and and in some ways it is but it helped me understand that there are ways that men historically and currently engage that it's it's almost like a branding problem there's deep intimacy in those experiences but we don't necessarily have a language to frame what those experiences mean to us you know yeah and so you go on this kind of personal quest during your year and Alaska to try to find it and one of the one of the places where you settle to kind of find our contemporary myth is in movies which I think is where so many of our narratives and myths come from right now right and and you will kind of eventually settle into a bunch of Vietnam movies which I you know I can't help but think about your parents and their experience in Vietnam can you talk a little bit about what brought them both to the war and how it impacted them yeah yeah well I think there's this is something that's really interesting to me right now because we are sitting in what is the 50th anniversary of so many experiences moments during that that conflict you know my mother is from a village called Pineau masala calm and and one thing that I sort of knew but didn't really know is that the eight oh ninth Engineer Battalion came to Panem to set up infrastructure in Thailand dramatically changed the infrastructure of her village and then moved north to Nakhon Phanom or secona Cohen to the military base where my mother and father Mette where my father was in an officer a communications officer with the same 809 and they were brought together by these like massive historical global forces and I don't it sort of strips away the romance of love sometimes when you're like oh you know but for the Vietnam War do I exist you know and and I but I think that's kind of a reality for me and so it's only much later I've been raised like many I think you know young men of my generation on a on a take on the Vietnam War that I was just talking to a journalist last night who was a correspondent in Cambodia in the 1970s and she said you know the thing that struck me was that the Vietnam War was always portrayed as so cool like the soundtrack and the the these kind of motifs of masculinity were bred into the the the stories that we decided to tell about Vietnam in the 1980s so platoon and Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now there's almost this like psychedelic cool to the way these stories are told so one of the things that I find myself doing for a period of the the time when I'm fighting is staying up til like 5:00 in the morning every night watching The Deer Hunter watching platoon watching Apocalypse Now and really feeling sad not not moved or impressed or like wowed by the exotic ism of what's happening but just sad for one because I realize the terms upon which these stories are being told which is often through the lens of my father's experience not the experience of the very quiet presence of Southeast Asians who are either dying or being or being murdered or or or serving the war effort in a way that's been muted so part of the experience and part of the project of writing that book was to experiment with what happens when you give a voice to the other side or at least reckon with it and your mom emigrates to the u.s. yeah and then I can't remember if she enlists so she Commission's but she ends up serving for the US military yeah yeah and this is a part of her life that I didn't get into into the book because I just you can only take so MA so much on in a single project you know before the container starts to crack but in the actually I was just telling this to the cab driver who i sat with between the honda dealership and downtown I know totally different yeah different cab driver um and and you know when I was in fifth grade my mother was deployed as it from her reserve unit in Auburn to work in an Army Hospital in Panama and for a year and I went home til I went to my father's house in northern Vermont to live with him he was a lieutenant colonel at the time to live with him in and his wife who happened to be my mother's former very close friend and and to live in their home and you know as a kid it was sort of just interesting like get to live with that for a while cool but you know I was there alone and and and only now kind of recognized the irony of that that my mother is now serving the country that she has made her own while I am living with my father who was the soldier who was sent overseas to to serve in her country there's like a lack of parallelism there or there is a parallelism there that is so rife with irony in tension and confusion that yeah kind of I don't think I could the book itself had room for it in some ways and you I mean in some of the some of the rawest in from an emotional perspective some of the rawest moments of the book are as Jed is sort of unpacking these family relationships and this kind of long storied relationship he has with his dad and some of the sort of conflict or lack of conflict or emptiness they've had and and you know you're sort of triangulated relationship between your mom your dad you and then your mom's former best friend and it's it's so incredibly honest and I think that you know one of the things that nonfiction writers especially memoirists have to deal with is is the sort of emotional toll you know of writing about these very true very painful stories and and so it by way of sort of last question before I open it up to the audience absolutely you have this you you you you address this very briefly in the acknowledgments and I'm gonna totally put you on the spot with an uncomfortable question right you say my aim in writing this book was only to understand our past he's talking to his parents my aim was only to understand our past so that in understanding I might be a better father and husband and tell us more about that aim and the degree to which she think maybe you achieved it or didn't or maybe just wrote that line to get a path it's like sorry mom and dad there's no purpose I think that you know I was I have this after writing this book I feel like I've developed this grand theory of history and generational experience and it's it's basically that like many families well maybe unlike some families my family is is pretty good my father loves to talk and he's always been very open with me about his experience and his feelings and his thoughts and wants to hear mine and so forth the one thing we didn't talk about for 30 years was why he left we never once touched that subject and and I'll be very frank you know as I was writing this book I signed to write this book with a different publisher in 2010 and for about six years I struggled with this story and I frankly didn't want to tell it I didn't have the language for it I felt that I didn't have the emotional temperament to dig into it I felt that it was too complicated and and almost like the ballast ship you know it once I wandered into that story everything else got thrown out of whack I also probably fell if any of you were memoirs I felt like I was just making it about me you know that I was driving the story back to myself when there are many other interesting things to write about so I stopped writing that story until an editor who I was working at with this previous publishing house wrote a letter to me and said you know books kind of interesting the way that you talk about the history of indigenous people and why they fight and why you're sort of fighting and why you're hanging out with them kind of a neat environment you brought me to but you're I remember the words I can see them like printed on the page she said but your family story looms so large that to avoid it makes this book impossible and that really around my bell and but not in time because the following Monday she wrote me on a Friday the following Monday the book was dropped and I owed this publisher of the first half of my advance you know not cagey about money was about thirty thousand dollars that I had two pegs I didn't deliver a product and you know in a commercial sense that's kind of a bummer it's like oh you know that's too bad you actually owe someone $30,000 it's like buying a brand-new car that you don't get a car you know and that sucked that was dreadful and but it also made me recognize like my job is to be a writer and to tell stories and to clarify confusion for myself and maybe by clarifying that confusion I can open channels for other people to see their own histories and to clarify confusion in their own lives so in many ways I feel like I'm still cringing like as this book is coming out and I am NOT that comfortable talking about it if the words don't come easy but I do know that after having written it I feel like this kind of weird inner phantom has like risen out of my body and I walk around a little lighter and things don't have the same gravity that they used to and I can look at my father and give him a hug without feeling like a little flinching sensation as I do that you know and so that sounds like it's therapy and I think it is I talk to a therapist for the first time in my life for a summer once a week and I just I mean she had a background and biracial clients I guess and she just said just tell me what happened and I just talked to her and every time I talk to her I felt a little better you know I'm not like I don't have no big agenda about creativity or writing or whether or not you see I don't think it's just everybody has their own approach but I just know that there were things they were eating at me internally the same way that we all have family things that eat at us internally and I'm just better it being a dad and a husband and a person now that those things are gone you know I'm not and therefore I'm not passing them on to my kids or my wife or the other people in my life I've kind of this sounds very mystical but I've sort of exorcise them I think by going through what is essentially a nine-year process of writing a book and feeling horrible about the demise of a literary career and all this stuff you know so that sounds very like on the body and I think really it is you know yeah I'm going to go ahead and jump in do you all have questions for Jeff or you've written two memoirs and they sort of take place one after another in time I'm wondering how they inform each other and does it feel like a continuing story does it feel like totally separate stories I wish that's such a that's why I feel like I must have asked you to ask that question before okay could you just ask that because I don't help me clarify some things so yes I've written two memoirs and in the first memoir I wrote a chant to soothe wild elephants I came out in 2008 I was 28 years old about I found out not long after the publication of a chance to see wild elephants that my girlfriend at the time now wife was pregnant with our first child so a lot of things were happening as that story was being told but it was written and I don't mean to be you know offensive to people who are in their 20s like I think your 20s are such an important time and I loved my 20s but I think in my 20s I was trying to write about how different I was than other people in my life to like let everybody know that the details of their life didn't reflect the details of mine maybe for cultural reasons or artistic reasons or whatever it was really important to differentiate myself and part of that was telling a story that was very exciting to me which was basically about being a monk it's like kind of the coolest thing anyone's ever done like I remember at college when that happened I was like what'd you do over the summer oh I interned at a blah blah blah and I'm like I was a monk in my mom's village now what are you gonna say you know you know and so it was really exciting to have that story and I didn't necessarily want our there's a single line in which I addressed my entire family history in the opening chapters of that book before I arrived in Thailand which is you know my mom my parents met at a military base in northeastern Thailand my mom came to America when I was a little boy my father left for another family and then I you know and then my mom and I grew up in Maine and then I went to Thailand become a mom and that's kind of all I I didn't know what was going on how that was affecting me you know and I still even as I say it I'm thinking like am I just making this all up am I just looking for a good reason to explain why I thought like I mean the word that you know like father issues or something you know the oldest trick in the book but I remember is a point when I was writing I had this great fear that I'm just gonna write about the same thing over and over and over again like most writers do and I've kind of made peace with that like it's okay you know that's that's what's on my mind is like what does it mean to have parents from two very different places what does it mean to be an American with that history and I know that this book I was like okay what if I just take that one line where I like deleted an entire chapter or an entire history of my family and I just say that's where I start you know and so in the rough house Friday I start with this the prologue is called Galahad which is kind of like my father's take on Arthurian legends and how it informs we used to get these yellow t-shirts and said Cheerios on the front and then Lancelot and Galahad on the back and we used to walk around wearing these t-shirts and if any of you know that the kind of the deeper levels of that story Lancelot is Lancelot largely because of a betrayal and lost with Guinevere and so forth so just trying to be like what if I go right to the thing that I can't talk about and that's my starting point for this other book so I do feel like there it's like a diptych almost or like two sides of a coin you know like turn it this way there's like the happy easy version you turn it over and here's like the dark version that I didn't really want to talk about ever and I think what we learn about those things those taboo things is that the more we like bury them the more they just kind of find their way to the surface and get like a stranglehold on us you know so yeah thanks I'd only yeah any other questions about writing art whatever story Inc hey yeah I'll make him hard yeah did your parents speak a common language when they met so yeah my father never learned any Thai a little bit you know a few phrases and expressions he was actually my mother's English teacher on the military base that was one of his like kind of semi civilian duties and so no no not really probably yeah I'm like thinking probably that I would that have helped yeah I do and I this is gonna sound very self-promotional but shortly before this book came out I wrote a piece for the New York Times that was called out to sea which is a expression my father uses to talk about something that men do at a certain period in their life you know in a kind of a whimsical romantic way you know men they just go out to see any this harkens obviously back to our Nantucket heritage which I had zero contact with you know says you know men that you know in their fifties like he he left his he left his he quit his job he left his family he just went out to sea you know and it's just like very heroic almost you know the the the examples I cite is on my father's one of his favorite movies is um five Easy Pieces with Jack Nicholson where you know at the end he just kind of like hops in a trailer or a 16-wheeler and goes up to Alaska just goes out to sea you know in Don Draper I think is like a modern vision of the sixties man who goes out to sea and and my father told me when I asked him one time why he left a family with two little kids he said I think I just went out to sea you know and and it sounds ridiculous right but then he said you know I always admired my own father because after my mother had his own mother my grandmother on my father's side had some mental health pretty severe mental health issues she was actually at am high in Augusta and and he basically my father just got back from the war and said you know I don't I'm not up for taking care of it's going you know becoming a caretaker for what she's struggling with and then he spent the next several years sailing out in Casco Bay and my father said you know I always admire my dad he just kind of went out to sea and and it's you know I feel for these guys and me you know you know whatever like I feel for humanity you know I mean like that's what we have work with that's not that's not a coping strategy you know what I mean it doesn't solve any problems it truly is and yet we romanticize and valorize that image of someone going out to see like Don Draper's character at least for me was kind of irresistible you're like oh there he goes again he's leaving it I can't stay done no it's not you know and and you're like oh I can't wait to watch the next episode but it's so messed up you know it takes it releases you know and there's so much kind of structural gender norms that are involved with that so it's um it is a family tradition yeah yeah any questions yeah the scene that you talked about I don't know if it's in the book but about how you were fighting with your friend and it sounded to me like and I think you said this that this was a way for the two of you two men to be vulnerable with each other and I don't know how other people feel but as a woman it seems like there should be another way other than you know you know backing each other in the head absolutely so I'm wondering since you've obviously thought a lot about right these issues like do you think there's other ways for men to get to a vulnerable place without I mean it seems I know this is a philosophical question maybe more than for a memoirs but it's still you're you're bringing these this issue up which i think is just huge in our society and relates to going out needing to go out to see which could argue is not that responsible of a choice yeah you know have you thought about so where do we go from here I guess my question imagine if my answer was like no never thought about it you could just walk out yeah great yes I have a great deal and I mean at the most basic level I will say that I suffered a pretty bad neck injury much later in my life after having box in the golden glove amateur world you know down in Lowell Mass and so forth and had very severe concussion symptoms after that which has given me a lot of time to think about it like is that worth it you know like why why so and arias we were just talking about this you know like cool like you punch each other that sounds really exciting and scary and that's how you connect like go got like yeah man you know what I mean and yet people are getting hurt you know like people are getting severely damaged I remember after one fight I um I had a series of three fights with a man from Dorchester Mass and in the third fight a punch landed they opened up the bottom of his lip and he needed several stitches afterward and I just had this it kind of that was sort of the beginning of the end of fighting for me we became very close this story is amazing not because it happened to me but just his wife was not well at the time and she was in the audience and I remember like seeing him through a window as his head is tilted back and a doctor is like stitching up his lip and thinking like what the hell am i doing like what world do we live in such that this has become necessary for us you know and so the answer I don't think I think the way to approach that question and this isn't an answer but to kind of like unpack that question for me isn't did I do the wrong thing and maybe I shouldn't I should regret having spent many years of my life fighting people because it happened and it still happens and you know but it's like what what world do we live in such that that feels meaningful that it's that it's still people feel a need to do it you know and I I don't this is gonna sound very judgmental of like the society and maybe cliche but I'm a person who I learned through physical experience you know I don't do very well like I don't learn a lot from reading necessarily are watching I learned from doing and I think something about the loss of a physical experience whether it be a deep engagement with the way that we produce our food or live in in a daily way like fighting scratch is an itch that nothing else is scratching you know what I mean like I know from my own life sitting in front of a laptop answering emails for 40 hours a week does not scratch that deep kind of primal itch inside of me it just doesn't and so so we find ourselves doing quite radical things in order to find it and the other thing I will say is that one things you know you could say well so you were fighting these guys and spending all this time knocking each other around how come you just didn't play basketball instead if you needed a physical outlet or happen you didn't do long distance running or something like that and I will say that fighting historically for me and for many many people has been the great common denominator athletically you don't need to have a season pass at a ski area to get in the boxing ring you don't you know it favors in many ways the underclass you know and and it's always been that way so there are those are the two vectors that I see one that there's a world that makes us that somehow takes something very important away from us that we have to go to radical ends in order to find it and to that that it's it's a it's a it's an experience which requires very little in the way of of resources to participate you know that I don't think answers your question but that's kind of where I'm starting in order to define meaning to that question thank you for asking that though that's a really good question that I think always needs to be leveled around these kind of stories yeah do we have time for more questions sure I was actually just in Sitka like two weeks ago oh no yeah I wanted to ask about I know this book is about the internal and the boxing room but you were in this place like this fairly unique place southeastern Alaska and I wanted to ask about how the like the physicality in the actual landscape and the water here to talk about the waterways and the similarity the main in some way but even the like the darkness and the winter and the light in the summer and just how the physicality of the place where the story took place shaped you or shaped your story I shouldn't I and such a fun thing to talk about I thought the previous question had me kind of like oh god think think think this is just one of those fun writerly questions where you know the darkness was really important you know and I think anthropologically like there's reasons why and as much as we endure the winter in Maine sometimes I feel like we're not very good at it like we're not good at being in the dark you know I can kind of fight it whereas I know that historically in traditional clinky culture the the the the period between October and April basically the return of the herring the big bait fish to the to the shoal waters was a time of creativity so like that's when you just sat around and like made all this amazing art you know I don't find myself being that artistic i watch a lot of TV in the winter you know what I mean like talk about how cold it is so I will say that that darkness the leveling of that darkness I think there's a real we have all this color mystic imagery about like Owen and then I saw the light and then I you know and then the the clouds parted in like tada revelation I think we get pretty used to that narrative Lee as storytellers being like you know truly like the Sun came out I can see clearly now you know whatever but the darkness was a time to kind of going deep internally inside I lived in a basement apartment under a vacant fisherman's house like three miles down this long road along the coast like you learn stuff about yourself living in a basement in Alaska in the middle of the winter you know what I mean like you take you have some and I didn't have this is 2003 so I didn't have a phone like a you know an iPhone or whatever I didn't have internet access I just read a lot of books wrote more than I've ever written like and the degree to which I was engaged you know I was reading books I remember I read Norwegian Wood by Murakami man like I felt like it was an otherworldly experience to read a novel like that after spending three months by myself in this basement and I don't read that way anymore and I just think that's it's a special that's an important message about the connection that one can have with a book and the circumstances that surround it now the other thing is of course the mountains and the wilderness and the wilderness in southeast Alaska is actually dangerous you know I often think of Maine is kind of a we think of it as like a wild place but I think it is a very safe wilderness you know I could just go out with a backpack and like if it rains I'll just build a little shelter and stay warm or whatever you're not gonna necessarily freeze to death in the summertime or get lost I mean I know that happens but you just stay on the Appalachian Trail or whatever but in southeast Alaska it's like when you go climb a mountain you have a map and a compass and you just bash out in there and hope that you're reading your map and compass right and I love that it's just like again so powerful with metaphor for like entering an uncharted territory of your own consciousness you know in the mountains have these amazing networks of ravines and ridges that all find their way into each other in stream beds and you're just kind of like hacking around trying to figure out how they all fit together and to me there is a point at which and later in the book I talk about how I almost feel like all the disparate stories of my own life from Camelot to you know whatever like sutras Buddhist sutras the mountains become this I'm standing atop one mountain looking at this vast network of ranges and I'm like maybe that's the best model I have for how a narrative in my own life can find resonance you know yeah I could talk about that for days I love that you've mentioned it very briefly but I don't know that it really settled and tell them how you got to Sitka or yeah I paddle the sea kayak from Washington State up the entire length of the Inside Passage into Southeast Alaska so it was like you know as the crow flies it's about 800 miles but I think it I was not going as the crow flies you know there's like yards that were taking me south and then East and then I had to go to open water and cut back and you know as a very like sir I would love to see like a GPS I did it this is gonna sound very braggy but I'd say this with like insight into how kind of wild I was and at 23 how lacking in like forethought or something but I did it without a cell phone or GPS or epub like a location device for the Coast Guard I did it without a life jacket because I had this theory that like life jackets were modern inventions that I shouldn't be using I held myself I was like if I'm going to expand this is totally II and like I can call myself out on this but I remember meeting these native guys in on the Makah reservation in Washington today and they're like yeah we've been here for you know for 300 years and then before that we were down there Bay for 400 years and had this like deep history and I said you know if I'm gonna like get to know this territory I got to do it on terms and so I'm gonna like I'll take the I'll take the bulletproof plastic I act sure but everything else I got from a dump like sourced from a transfer station and and just cobbled it together and and did it that way and um it was pretty fun you know I yeah I remember it very lovely period of my life forty days of kind of being blissed-out yeah eating rockfish yeah it was really good fish yeah so yeah maybe that's a magazine story or something but yeah so that that deep deep like dive into the natural world it's pretty powerful pretty powerful yeah I guess that that'll wrap up and I love yeah well Caracas so thank you everyone for coming and I would be happy to talk after and talk about books and sign books or what-have-you so thanks again [Applause]

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