The following is an open letter / essay of gratitude to those people who made my participation in the 2009 Annenberg ~ Getty fellowship possible.
I began writing this letter in Boulder, Colorado, two hours before giving a talk to students at Naropa University on the subject of writing about place. As has become typical, fifteen years into a peripatetic career as a travel write, time tilted. Despite my efforts to focus on a classroom of earnest graduate students, mentally I was eight weeks back, in the great city of Los Angeles, the honored guest of the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California and The Getty Foundation, one of six individuals taking part in an academic program geared towards writers of the arts, journalists of leisure.
So be it, I thought, and when the students embarked upon a writing exercise, I opened up my laptop and got down to doing what professionalism should have compelled me to do long ago: writing the folks who made it possible a note of gratitude. More than this, I wanted to write a few paragraphs to encapsulate the experience, something perhaps that could be summed up nicely under the heading, The Annenberg ~ Getty Fellowship & What I learned.
I began by apologizing for not writing sooner, and citing as an excuse the fact that I split the comforts of my fine Los Angeles hotel (paid for by Annenberg/Getty) right after the fellowship ended and headed directly to Central America (airplane ticket also paid for by Annenberg/Getty),where I spent the next six weeks slogging through sand and jungle as per the research dictates of my chosen profession.
After this half-hearted mea-culpa (a “who, me-a-culpa?”), I hit a wall. How was I going to summarize what the Fellowship meant to me? Two months on, and as Zhou Enlai famously said, when asked to make a quip about the effects of the French Revolution, I felt that it was still “too soon to tell.” Two months later, the experience was still a blur, whizzing by like Greater Los Angeles from the window of our classroom on wheels.
Artistic license aside (the scenery mostly crawled, as my fellow-fellows & any Angelino will attest), I felt that there was something to be gained – inspiration, perhaps – by exploring further the idea of images whizzing by. So I opened a sub-folder of the my pictures folder on my laptop entitled LA 2009, and in just under three minutes, I cycled through the 500+ digital images shot during the three weeks of the program.
It looked something like this:
Interior, Hollywood Bistro…LA Skyline from up high…wrought iron insides of a building from another age…shimmering red gelatin …bamboo groves surrounding a rectangular structure… fellow-fellows, sitting on the floor of a strangely constructed house … a man with hair like the plumage of a baby bird…bicycles hanging from a ceiling…Joshua trees surrounded by endless, majestic desert…faces and more faces…sculpture and more sculpture…an incomplete Renaissance-era painting ….a seashell covered wall….two lovers embracing on a bright green lawn…stage actors in film-noir garb…a jumbled structure…sunset over Santa Monica…
And much, much more. These photographs didn’t so much clarify the experience as they broadened it, each image causing small ripples of memory, vibrations that expanded the pool of memory itself. What was lacking, then, for a proper essay of gratitude, was backbone – a center.
With a few minutes left to go before the students stopped writing, I felt a bit melancholy. I jotted down a few more notes and folded my laptop and gave an extemporaneous talk, which, according to all present, went smashingly.
Later that evening, I found the center I needed, the context, sitting where I’d asked for it to be sent to await my eventual arrival in Loveland, Colorado (the closest thing I have to a home, at least on this side of the Date Line). It was a cardboard box containing brochures, my handwritten notes, and the “schedule,” the heavy binder I’d carried with me for the duration of the fellowship that told us daily where we’d be going, what we’d be seeing, and – most important – with whom.
As I read through this, the images I’d scanned earlier all connected, each expanding to form a linear narrative.
Hoping that ink from my just-done tattoo wouldn’t stain the tablecloth that first night in the garden of the Café des Artistes, Listening raptly to a talk given by Mister Jalopy and imagining that I, too, might one day live in Los Angeles and become a post-industrial guru (or at least hang around with and write about one). Having dinner with Peter Sellars and feeling blessed in the presence of a rare and beautiful mutant genius. Wandering through the desert and realizing that at last I was in a place of unearthly beauty in which I, as an American, needed no visa, and could in fact live if I so chose. Mistakenly suggesting that a lovely woman at the Hammer Museum looked like a particular Robert Crumb drawing. Watching a Renaissance painting being brought back to life inside the Getty and thinking so that’s how it’s done! Visiting Watts Tower, a study in craftsmanship and obsession, and wishing that I had just a bit more of both.
And a hundred other experiences there for the telling.
A life of near-constant travel has left me with thousands upon thousands of images burned into my mind; people, places, things…you name it. Each of these comes with a story, some of which I get to tell. But this surplus of reflections comes at a price: A deficit of linear context that often makes me feel as if my life is lacking in center. It’s an issue, one which I, in my 41st year on this planet, I am currently addressing. (Perhaps its high time I hung up the knapsack?)
But a center is forming. And though it’s still too soon for me to say exactly how, I feel strongly that my participation in the Fellowship, the three weeks of education, experience, and, most importantly, connection, is a part of this new center. I offer my gratitude to everyone involved for inviting me along on this transformative experience is immense.
There’s a line from one of my favorite film monologues, one delivered by Rutger Hauer at the end of Blade Runner. That parts of the movie were shot in the Bradbury Building (in whose wrought iron insides I and the other fellows wandered on the first full day of the fellowship) makes it feel even more worthy of use in closing to this letter, which is fast in danger of becoming something of an essay.
Hauer’s character, Roy Batty, an artificial life-form, squats next to a seriously wounded Harrison Ford, whose titular Blade Runner he seems about to murder. Instead, he delivers his own last words, which begin with the sentence
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…”
Part of my job consists of describing the often unbelievable to people. In addition to everything else, my time in this fellowship has made me – perhaps only slightly – more believable. And for this as well, you will always have my gratitude.
Joshua Samuel Brown,
Author, Vignettes of Taiwan,
Co-author, Lonely Planet Taiwan 7, Belize 3, Singapore 8, Greater Mekong 2, Co-author, Fodor’s China, 2006 edition
Loveland, Colorado, January, 2010