Kludges, Adaptations, and Evolution

By Tony Comstock

"Next year, or the year after, or...." James Fallows, In My Other Life, January 7, 2011

Not too many weeks into the first grade it was decided I would be better off in second grade. I wasn't skipped, I was just moved up. I did the second grade twice, and I'm pretty sure this is why I never learned to read. You know that the joke people make "I was absent that day"?  I wasn't absent when my cohort was being taught was is now called "decoding", I was in the second grade. 


Instead of reading, I do something that's sort of like skimming. I don't read all the words, or even all of the words that I do read in their entirety. I sort of skip down the page like a skier bombing the fall-line of a steep, rutted slope, touching the page just enough to absorb the meaning, but not really absorbing the words.

My pseudo-reading works very well for non-fiction, but not so well for fiction. As a child I read non-fiction books and magazines, well above grade level (The Atlantic!), while showing little retention or comprehension of even below age-appropriate fiction. Even today, I struggle with reading. At present I am trying to work my way through Ulysses, and you can imagine how well that's going...

This fiction/non-fiction schism was baffling to my teachers and parents, and frustrating for me. I got remedial reading help, which was humiliating (and didn't help), and I when I wrote, I wrote the same way that I read (and still do). In school my papers were filled with missing and misspelled words and always came back dripping with red corrections. I drifted (fled!) towards math, science, music, and ultimately settled in the art department.

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When I was 25 (1991) I went to my credit union and asked to borrow $400 to buy a light meter. I already had the money saved, but back then one of the bits of advice doled out in high school personal finance class was that a great way to establish your credit was to borrow money to buy something you had already saved up for, and then pay it back.

But that's not what happened.

What happened is that I dutifully filled out the loan application, in ink, trying as hard as I could not to make mistakes. This was a terrible struggle. I didn't have a wife or friend to re-read before I hit POST, or spell check, or even backspace. I just did the best I could. Then a few days later I got called for an appointment with one of the credit union's loan officers.

When I sat down the loan officer started shaking a sheaf of papers at me. It was my credit report. Until then I had never heard of such a thing.

She seemed quite annoyed, rattling the papers at me as she spoke.

"No, you're not going to get the loan. Not with a credit report like this!"

"Can I see what it says?" I asked.

"No! This is confidential information! I can't show it to you!"

Throughout school I had avoided reading and writing as much as possible, but even still I knew the word for what I was experiencing: Kafkaesque.

I didn't even need their money. The only reason I was there was because I was trying to do the grown-up, responsible thing, but by the time I left, I felt like a chastised child.

When I got home I sat down in front of my roommate's computer (a Macintosh SE/30 that previously I had only ever used to play games) and did something I'd never done before: I pounded out a letter to the credit union's president, and then I rewrote it. I had never re-written anything in my life.

And then I rewrote it again.

And again.

And I kept on rewriting it until every single word, every single letter was exactly where I wanted it to be.

And then I got on my bike, rode down to the credit union, and hand-delivered the letter to the president's secretary. 

The re-writes must have worked because within six months that very same credit union had lent me over $15,000, which I added to my own savings to buy a professional medium format camera system, lights and grip equipment and a car to carry it all. My career as an independent artist was launched.

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When James Fallows e-mailed me to ask if I'd be interested guest-blogging for him, my first reaction was to yell out, "Goddammit. I knew something like this was going to happen!"

That probably seems a strange reaction to such a wonderful opportunity, so let me see if I can explain.

Everything I've written about for the last week I know about because I've lived it. All the research, all the writing, and all the thinking about how this all goes together has been in service of trying to make my movies.

I've been writing about my movies and the issues that swirl around them for six years, and in a way it's been like an extended version of that encounter with that loan officer 20 years ago.

I became a writer not because that's what comes naturally to me, but because that's what I needed to do to fight for what I want: to be an filmmaker, and to make the films that are important to me.

And now here I am. I've spent a week making my case while guest-blogging for James Fallows at The Atlantic. 

Except that a few weeks before Jim asked me to fill in, I had come to the conclusion, for all the reasons outlined in this last week, that I couldn't win. I had come to the conclusion that writing about my work, explaining and framing, was in essence, admitting that I was wrong. You can't just make movies about love and sex and say that explanations don't matter. The truth is, the explanations matter more than the movies themselves, and mine weren't good enough.

In fact, two days before Jim asked me, I received email from the managing editor of another magazine. His bosses (yes, even managing editors have bosses) had put the kibosh on his idea to have me as "featured contributer" (don't know what that is but it sounds good, doesn't it!) in an upcoming issue, and he wanted to apologize. (None needed JK, this is bigger than both of us.)

Faced with mounting evidence that my films were born of a time and circumstances that had passed, I resolved that Brett and Melanie: Boi Meets Girl would be the last film, and that it was time to move on to something else.

So what did I decide to do?

I decided to start a sustainable energy eco-tourism project in the community where I live. This project has a educational component for local school children which I hope we'll be able to provide at little or no cost. That's my attempt to skip as much of that "flinty middle stage" of life as possible and get on with the giving back part of my life while my heart still beats strong and true.

I am as excited about this as anything I've done before. But wizened as I am, I am now able to recognize that as much as this move is a product of my insight and willingness to take risks, it is also simply a response to social trends and technology. I am not a leaf in the wind, but neither am I a colossus standing astride history.

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My deepest thanks to my wife, and also to my dear friend Loraine. This week and in the years leading up to it they've been pressed into service to do the things I cannot do for myself; editing, proof-reading, and so much more.

Thanks also to James Fallows and his colleagues at The Atlantic, most especially John and Justin. To write under this banner is, to put it mildly, a personal triumph of epic proportions!

My thanks to my fellow guest-bloggers. I don't know when or if I shall ever find myself in such august company.

And most of all, my thanks to you, dear reader. To steal from Desiree, (from my film Bill and Desiree: Love is Timeless) I feel like I've been seen and heard. That's a large measure of what any of us hopes for, from love and life both.

Tomorrow is Valentine's Day. My fondest wish is that each of us get to spend some time with someone we love!




Tony Comstock is a documentary filmmaker whose company, Comstock Films, specializes in erotic documentaries. Follow him on Twitter at @TonyComstock.

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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