Tattoo in black: Idiot, Slow Down

The Final Tattoo: Idiot, Slow Down

On the last day of the project, I walked around Manhattan until I found a tattoo shop to get my 18th and final tattoo for 10 Cities/10 Years.

Tattoo Work

I have known for years what it would be, but I’ve been holding it close to my chest (so to speak), and now that I have it, the full picture is complete. Idiot, Slow Down (Context)

For those whose wonder what these words mean and where they come from, I wrote an explanation more than 4 years ago on this blog.

But just to give a quick summary, it comes from the final track on Radiohead’s OK Computer, “The Tourist” and its meaning can be explained by this quote (originally found on

“The Tourist” was written by Jonny, who, explains Thom, was “in a beautiful square in France on a sunny day, and watching all theses American tourists being wheeled around, frantically trying to see everything in 10 minutes.” Jonny was shocked at how these people could be in a place so beautiful and so special and not realize it because they weren’t taking the time to just stop and look around.

As I enter the next phase of my life – whatever that may be – it’s important I remember the ethos of 10 Cities, which was not about quickly accomplishing as much as possible in order to mark things off of a checklist. Instead, my life was about slow travel, marinating in a place and getting to know it from the perspective of a local.

Now that I’m unshackled from the constraints of the project, the temptation will be to see as much as possible. This is especially true now that I’m older. I was 22 when this project began, in the midst of my eternal youth. Now, at 32, I’m still relatively young, but the burden of time is more acute.

I’ve never seen Europe, or Asia, or Africa, South America, Australia or Antarctica. And believe me, I want to see them all. The trick going forward is to find a way to fit in all the travel I want to accomplish without losing sight of the reason I want to do it.

So, every morning when I look in the mirror, I will have a reminder to slow down, appreciate the space, take in my surroundings. Don’t be an idiot.

Like all of my tattoos, it’s both a marker of my past and a lesson about the future. The 17 phrase tattoos that adorn my chest make up the philosophy and truths of 10 Cities/10 Years. They are the Bible of my belief system. Essentially everything I could hope to say is already written on my chest, stolen from minds more interesting than mine.

In time, there will come a New Testament, but for now, this is the final word.

Full Chest

X in X: The Project Gets A Tattoo

With 2015 marking the final year of a project that began in 2005, it was time for me to finally get a tattoo for 10 Cities / 10 Years.

The 16 other tattoos I’ve had inked onto my body over the last 12 years have spoken to a personal philosophy, much of which has developed over the decade of this project. They have been words taken from a wide range of literary and lyrical influences, melded into my own worldview. They are the words that make up my story.

But every book needs a cover. This is mine:

X in X Tattoo 2

10 cities in 10 years is, of course, the defining narrative arc of my life. Everything before it a preamble, everything after it will be a sequel. I set out nearly 10 years ago to accomplish something unique and ambitious. I can’t say that, now nearing the end, this project looks the same as how I imagined it in the beginning.

For the last couple months, I’ve stepped back and attempted to put this decade in perspective. I’m writing about the years now, hopefully with the end result being a book, part memoir, part travelogue, part historical re-examination. But as I try to form my memories into one cohesive narrative, various themes are taking shape. Some stories that felt important when they happened are now less interesting to me, whereas seemingly inconsequential details are taking on new, weightier resonance.

I still don’t know how this story ends.

My ‘X in X’ tattoo doesn’t mark the end of my project. I have one specific tattoo in mind for August 31st to cap the whole affair (and, no, I’m not telling what it is). This tattoo simply acknowledges that I’ve completed one aspect of my project: Reaching the 10th city, New York.

The project is only finished when I’m able to look back on all 10 completed years and see the whole road behind me.

Until then, though, I have a permanent reminder of what I have been through in my life, where I have been and what I have seen. Nothing can be undone now.

X in X Context

Fiction is often the best Fact

“Fiction is often the best fact.” ~ William Faulkner (ostensibly)

I am, first, foremost, forever a fiction writer above all. Despite the poetry, despite the essays and articles, despite 10 Cities / 10 Years, the reason I write is because of fiction, and when all is said and done it’s the form I cherish most. I’ve read thousands of books, fiction and non-fiction, and while I’ve learned a tremendous amount from the latter and had my mind and worldview expanded because of it, no book has ever carved as deep an impression in me as the best works of fiction.

Faulkner’s assertion that “Fiction is often the best fact,” is a big part of that. We have two ways of learning about our world. The first, research and empirical evidence is best explored in works of non-fiction, whether that be science, history, math or even, to a lesser degree, philosophy.

The other way we learn about existence is through personal experience of our world. This is a far less accurate, reliable and repeatable means of learning about our world, yet for the majority of us it is this knowledge that we lean on most heavily. Our beliefs, prejudices, preferences and morality may be informed by factual evidence, but they are rooted in our experiences.

Which is why fiction matters. A non-fiction writer gathers information and presents a narrative with a more-or-less specific conclusion. A fiction writer, on the other hand, merges both experience and evidence, memories and education into a literary story with characters who, at worst, represent an amalgamation of people or, at best, become true to life living souls, as real as anyone you’ve ever met in life. The story that is told is not true in a technical sense, but the greatest works of literature hold more truth than any textbook.

I came to the above quote and newest tattoo while on a Wiki rabbit trail that led me to reading up on Gonzo Journalism, Hunter S. Thompson’s rousing writing style that mixed personal narrative with impersonal journalism. Thompson was an inimitable writer (as proof, read anyone who has tried), and his articles and books are among the most thrilling true-life stories you will ever read. In an introduction to one of his most famous works, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson wrote:

“More or less…and this qualifier is the essence of what, for no particular reason, I’ve decided to call Gonzo Journalism. It is a style of “reporting” based on William Faulkner’s idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism—and the best journalists have always known this.”

In the process of reading about this idea, I came across the quote, “Fiction is often the best fact,” credited to William Faulkner, the brilliant southern novelist.

Here’s the thing about that quote, though: I can’t find any evidence that Faulkner ever said it. At least, not those exact words. Many quote websites list him as saying, “The best fiction is far more true than any journalism,” though there doesn’t seem to be a specific source for it. Apparently it was just something he said. Despite the Wikipedia page on Gonzo Journalism specifically attributing “Fiction is often the best fact” to Faulkner, I wasn’t able to track down where or when the author said or wrote it.

And isn’t that perfect? It’s not so important whether or not the words in this form ever actually emerged from Faulkner’s pen or mouth because we know that the sentiment was essentially his. Or maybe we don’t. Maybe Thompson made it all up. Thompson put a lot of emphasis on accuracy in his writing, and yet he also knew that absolute accuracy was never possible.

That is the beauty of fiction. Whereas the academic arts such as science and history (rightfully) make stringent demands for veracity, literature plays with facts, muddles them with lies and peppers in details plucked from the ether. And yet, if the writer has done her or his job right, when the final product comes out, it has the revelatory impact of an entire year of collegiate study.

As a writer, I may be forced to make my bread and butter on gimmicks like 10 Cities because literature is a dying breed (unless it boasts a vampire or teenage protagonist), but make no mistake: Fiction is where I live and die. Everything else is just passing the time.

Fiction is often the best Fact context

"There is no humor in heaven" tattoo in black ink

There Is No Humor In Heaven

“Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.”
~ Mark Twain, Following The Equator

Starting in college, I began getting tattoos that represented various facets of my personal philosophy. Considering the direction of my life, it seems rather prescient that my first tat was “the Road is Life” from Kerouac’s On The Road.

Now, 15 tattoos into my inkification, I have added one more literary icon to my chest plate: Mark Twain. I have always been a fan of the great American satirist, even taking a course in college devoted entirely to him (taught by the incomparable Susan K. Harris), but this was the first quote of his that struck me not as more than just a pithy insight, but also a universal truism.

In fact, I didn’t come across this quote through reading Twain. Instead, this phrase was brought to my attention while reading Touched With Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison, a masterful investigation of the link between bipolar disorder (or manic depression) and the artistic genius. I cannot recommend highly enough this scholarly exploration of mental illness and creation. So rarely does a book tickle both the right and left hemispheres of the brain like this work does.

So why did this quote stick out so much that it would earn valuable (and ever dwindling) skin on my chest?

Over the years of this blog, I have written about both my personal struggle with mental illness as well as my adoration for the art of stand-up comedy. If you have any familiarity with comedy, you’ll immediately know why those two are linked. Stand-up comedians are generally known as miserable people in real life, the type who will turn their personal misery into comedy gold for an audience. With the uptick of popularity for the form in the last couple decades, that is by no means a rule anymore, but the great comedians from George Carlin to Louis CK, from Don Rickles to Maria Bamford have always pulled their best material from personal darkness.

Humor doesn’t come from the perfect peace of heaven, it is formed in the stark despair of hell.

Twain’s quote could be limited to the art of humor and it would still be profound (especially considering that he remains the greatest American humorist of all time), but I believe that he meant to convey even more in those simple words. It’s not just humor that is forged out of hurt. The basic creative spark is birthed there, too. Are there musicians and writers who have created great works without suffering from mental illness or facing horrific life events? I’m sure. But they’re the minority.

Any study of artistic achievement and mental illness will reveal that the two are intrinsically linked.* A creative mind will create regardless of circumstances, but creativity spurred on by the dark nights of the soul will almost always produce works of grander, more universal elegance. As technology advances and our ability to predict the genetically preordained occurrence of depression grows stronger, our society will face the challenge of whether we should pre-select for healthier, non-inflicted offspring.

If I were to be a potential parent, I could understand the instinct to protect my child from the pain of mental illness, especially that of depression and its many variants. As someone wholly devoted to the creative longevity of the species, though, I find the idea that we could selectively eliminate mental illness quite terrifying. What great works of art would be lost if such possibilities had been available to us centuries ago? (A fair rebuttal to that concern is to ask, “What great works of art would we have had if the mentally ill had not succumbed to their disease before their time?”)

There is no simple answer.

The question of whether or not mental illness in general (and depression, specifically) has its benefits in human society and art is one that we will likely never satisfactorily resolve. But, as long as such ailments still exist, we can take solace from the truth that the erstwhile Samuel Clemens articulated so many years ago: There is no humor in heaven.

*This is also likely true of important scientists, but I haven’t studied that enough to make a definitive statement.

Nothing upon another’s word

Nullius in Verba
~ The Royal Society

Nothing upon another's word

Yet another tattoo.

Count it as either 13 or 14, it’s my 2nd in New Orleans. Generally with the tattoos I get each year, they are meant to sum up something about the previous year leading up to the inking, but because I’ve already gotten 1 tattoo here in the city, I decided to get a phrase that was less about marking a moment in time and more just part of my personal philosophy.

“Nothing Upon Another’s Word” (in the original latin) is the motto of the Royal Society of London, one of the oldest (if not the oldest) organizations dedicated to science. It has existed since 1660. There are religions that are younger than that.

This motto is the essential heart of science, and the hallmark of a skeptical mind (note: skeptical, not cynical). Every atheist has the spirit of this phrase running through their veins, even if they’ve never read it. Of course, you don’t have to be an atheist to respect this basic tenet of the scientific pursuit (there are, after all, scientists who are religious), but to live it in your day to day life is to refute the very notions of ‘blind faith’ and ‘authority.’

There are those who will claim ‘science’ is just another ‘faith,’ revealing that they don’t understand either word. The phrase “Nothing upon another’s word” is what sets science apart from religion. Being an atheist or admiring science doesn’t mean one lacks the ability to believe, it only means that we don’t believe based on someone’s word or assurances. If a scientist makes a claim, s/he has to provide evidence to support that claim. Once that has been done, a portion of faith (used in the sense of “good faith” not “blind faith”) is allotted to that person, so long as each additional claim is supported with additional evidence.

Science builds on what has been established. The Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection didn’t just appear in Darwin’s head, he built it on observations and well-established facts. These observations and facts were so well established that Darwin wasn’t even the only person to come up with the theory. He was just the first to get it published and widely disseminated.

Religion doesn’t work that way. It makes a huge claim (an omnipotent God, a Holy Prophet who speaks for Him, Heaven and Hell) and works backwards, demanding that the believers accept the most outlandish claims first (with no evidence) and then everything else they say is pretty easy to swallow in comparison.

When religious people attack science by claiming that the Big Bang Theory or String Theory are just matters of faith, they’re displaying the very mindset that makes them susceptible to religious faith. They are used to thinking about the big and working small, whereas science takes the small and builds up to the big. Those religious people who dismiss scientific theories don’t understand that such theories are built on smaller observations and well-documented facts, because their personal “theories” (God) have no such foundations.

When I say I believe in the Big Bang Theory or the Theory of Natural Selection, I’m not saying I have faith in someone else’s word. I’m saying that there has been enough research, study and established facts to make each theory believable. The theory could be proven wrong, but if that’s the case the base facts won’t change any. On the other hand, if God is disproved (obviously this will never happen), every religion will suddenly be meaningless (I mean, more so).

When someone proclaims faith in a particular religion’s God, their belief is built upon accepting the unproven claims of another. When I state that the only thing I believe in is science, I’m plainly saying, “Nothing upon another’s word.”

Nothing upon another's word Context

and tonight this letter is my last hope.

and tonight this letter is my last hope

I got my NOLA tattoo yesterday. I found a parlour down on Magazine called Idle Hands, strolled in with my bit of text printed on a paper and in no time the quick and cordial Flex Wenger whipped up my 12th (or 13th, depending on how we’re counting) tattoo. Not only was the experience fast and enjoyable, but the price was the cheapest I’ve gotten in years. (So, take that as an official Lyttleton recommendation.)

As with all of my tattoos, this text has both a general meaning taken from its context and also a personal context in which it fits into my own life and philosophy.


The quote comes from Jack Kerouac’s* novella of tragic romance, The Subterraneans, a book I first read during my year in Charlotte and recently re-read while living in Seattle. I’m a sucker for doomed romance in literature and movies (probably why that’s the only kind I have), and this is one of the great ones.

Kerouac’s surrogate, Leo Percepied, meets and woos the beautiful, black Mardou Fox, a relationship that in the story’s 1950s setting would already have the deck stacked against it just based on racial lines. But the story isn’t a Romeo and Juliet struggle, it’s an ecstatic, dizzying exploration of two lovers whose personal demons and insecurities undercut their love at every turn until eventually there is no other possible ending other than for the two to part ways.

Throughout the story, the characters hurt each other or allow themselves to be hurt. In one particular scene, Percepied decides to stay out drinking even though he had promised to go home with Mardou. He insists she go home alone and he’ll meet her later, but he keeps drinking and stays out all night. This is essentially the nature of their relationship, but she puts up with it and a few days after this particular incident, she writes him this letter**:

Dear Baby,

Isn’t it good to know winter is coming and that life will be a little more quiet – and you will be home writing and eating well and we will be spending pleasant nights wrapped round one another – and you are home now, rested and eating well because you should not become too sad – and I feel better when you are well.

I am full of strange feelings, reliving and refashioning many old things and feeling the cold and the quietude even in the midst of my forebodings and fears – which clear nights soothe and make more sharp and real – tangible and easier to cope with.

But why am I writing to say these things to you. But all feelings are real and you probably discern or feel too what I am saying and why I need to write it.

My image of you now is strange. I feel a distance from you which you might feel too which gives me a picture of you that is warm and friendly (and loving) – and because of the anxieties we are experiencing but never speak of really, and are similar too.

I am going to sleep to dream, to wake. You have a very beautiful face and I like to see it as I do now.

Forgive the conjunctions and double infinitives and the not said. I don’t know really what I wanted to say but want you to have a few words from this Wednesday morning. We are like two animals escaping to dark warm holes and live our pains alone.

Write to me anything. Please Stay Well Your Freind [misspelled] And my love And Oh [over some kind of hiddenforever erasures] [and many X’s for of course kisses] And Love for You  MARDOU

As the narrator contemplates the letter and what it meant at the time, and what it means now that the relationship is over, the letter seems dishearteningly naive while strangely prescient, as all love letters do after the fact. After recounting the letter and contemplating it, he closes the passage:

(And tonight this letter is my last hope.)

In those doomed relationships when the end is inevitable but you still haven’t resigned yourself to it, haven’t thrown in the towel, it’s the love letters and tokens of affection that give you the final glimmers of hope, the beacon of light in your despair. I’ve been there, holding onto a last hope.

Personal Context

While this passage (and the whole novel) rings true with my experiences, that isn’t why I choose the quote for my latest tattoo. I remember when I was reading the book, that sentence stuck out to me so I wrote it down. At the time I couldn’t really articulate why, but as the months passed and I grew more and more certain that I wanted it preserved in ink, a meaning came into focus.

‘Letter’ in this context, isn’t a letter, but rather the conceptual idea of literature and writing, as in a ‘Man of Letters.’ When all else fails, and it often does, what brings me back from the brink is literature and my desire to create it. When I want to throw in the towel on this project (or everything), I think of that literary legacy that I’ve sought for as long as I can remember, and I hold out just that much longer.

When friends, family and lovers fail, and they do because they are human and finite, it’s my letters that hold fast, because they are not human and they are infinite in their wonder.

I don’t always feel like writing, and sometimes I cheat on books with stupid videos or mindlessly stumbling through pages of ephemera, but when I come back I don’t have to beg forgiveness or offer penance, I can pick up where I left off and it’s like we never missed a beat.

Words on a page, mine or another’s, they are a lifespring.

I’ve been at the end of my rope, certain there was nothing left to hold on for, ready to call it quits. And on those nights, these letters were my last hope.

My Chest this Year

*Making it my second Kerouac quote tattoo, for those counting.
**In the book, it’s broken up by line as the narrator comments on each thought.