Almost exactly one year after I survived the 2004 Asian tsunami, my first column appeared in CityBeat. In some ways, it was scarier to have the column published than to run for my life in Thailand. Running from a big wave, you know exactly what will happen if it hits you. But when you write about the leadership of a populist political movement having ties to a white-supremacist organization, as I did in the first column (“What’s in a name?,” December 2005), or about the shady, mobbed-connected past of a local business leader (“Don’t film here,” August 2008), you never know what kind of response you’ll get.
When the first column hit the streets, I received a creepy email from a former grand wizard of the KKK, who thanked me for allegedly helping him recruit new members.
And in a college writing course I was teaching at the time, an ex-con skinhead— after unsuccessfully trying to dominate the classroom discourse—came to me after class and said he’d been reading Mein Kampf in prison and wanted to know if I’d read it. I told him I hadn’t read it but that I used a copy of it for handgun target practice. It took me weeks to be certain that his presence in my class during the week that my anti-racist column hit the street was a coincidence.
Fortunately, most of the creeps I’ve made my enemies in these pages during the last six years have left me alone.
I recently chatted with CityBeat writer Enrique Limón about another columnist fear: the fear of having nothing to say. Aaryn Belfer, the girl in our columnist boy’s club, has also talked with me about fear of writer’s block, or at least “topic block.” I also recall Ed Decker once mentioning this concern over a scotch on my patio—Ed’s strategy of maintaining a stash-folder of column ideas and bits and pieces at the ready influenced me to do the same.
But no matter how full or bare the backup-column cupboard, you find that if you’re the type of person driven to write about things, you just don’t run out of things to write about.
Prior to writing Presently Tense, I’d churned out mostly academic-journal articles, research papers, movie and book reviews, website copy and short stories. My position as a columnist came about when I wrote a long letter to the editor—a diatribe, really—about Starbucks moving into North Park. The letter was published and editor David Rolland wrote back:
“Who are you and do you want to write for us?” I knew that between completing graduate school, teaching in three colleges, playing in two bands, and trying to finish a novel, I wouldn’t have time for it. I assumed it didn’t pay that much, and I was right. And penning a 900-word column for a scrappy, free alternative weekly in a city where reading—an already globally beleaguered activity—has to compete with “perfect” weather, wasn’t going to make me the next O.O. McIntyre. But despite having good reasons not to subject myself to regular deadlines, or readers to my writing, I knew I had to say yes.The thing is, having grown up in San Diego seeing so many creative, smart people move to Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Europe and other, less-deserty pastures, I always admired those who stayed, or relocated, here for their resolve to make it work in a town where picking up a newspaper is less popular than applying zinc oxide to the nasal region.
I’d been involved in the city’s cultural and civic life, such as it is, for so long, that I’d developed an enthusiasm for the struggle
against the odds to get Diegans excited about it. In cities with a stronger tradition of such pursuits, you could find established institutions and circles to dive into—but in the San Diego I grew up in, if there was no underage punk club, you’d rent a generator and hold your show in a sewer pipe. If you wanted to join a club of like-minded individuals, you’d probably have to start the club yourself—and then go out and hit people over the head with it.
So in December 2005, I gave Dave a list of about 30 potential names for the column, from which he selected “Presently Tense.” The tension between how things presently seemed, how I’d rather them be, or in some cases, how they used to be—and how that made me, or you, or us, feel—formed a theme broad enough for me to cover everything from my personal boycott of an infamous local coffeehouse owner who dissed me (“Goodbye Bassam,” April, 2006) to exposing an ill-informed CNN story about a fake doctor in South Africa who capitalized on the Olympics by inventing a dick-shredding vaginal rape-prevention insert (“Toothless reporting,” June 2010); from a fake guide for Arizona cops on how to put the finger on illegal aliens (“Identifying illegal aliens,” May 2010) to a real guide to knowing whether your hand is demonically possessed (“Giving God a hand,” January 2008).
Throughout the course of these five years, the columns that often resonated most with my co-workers were narratives or vignettes about life in San Diego—the musical, architectural, historical, hysterical, cultural, personal and often true stories about what it means to live here in the borderland between Hollywood and Tijuana, between crystalline towers and crystal meth, desert life and desert death.
So, starting with my next column (Aug. 24), the name and its location in the paper will change, and, most importantly, the column will direct a sharper focus on local. Does this mean that I’ll no longer turn my pen, like a scalpel with a fuzzy-googley toy critter on the handle, to the task of attacking the universe writ large with characteristic, cutting, satirical hyper-analysis? Yes, that’s what it means.
Didn’t you read what I said? It’s all about San Diego now. Well, mostly. You never know. Let’s see what happens. Did I just reach the end of this thing? OK, let’s shut her down. See you inside the whale’s vagina.