Smell the Smell

In March of 2013 I flew to Los Angeles on short notice.

It was two days after the Veronica Mars Kickstarter project had launched. Kickstarter’s “Hollywood moment.” 

I was with Veronica Mars’ creator Rob Thomas in Austin. I sat in his office as the $2 million budget that had eluded him the past eight years suddenly appeared through the magic of fans and the internet. He cried, overwhelmed. 

It was an amazing moment for Rob, the fans, and Kickstarter. It was also a big moment in Hollywood. Everyone had a project like Veronica Mars. The one that didn’t get the greenlight but they couldn’t shake. Only this one raised millions of dollars and broke the internet. This was new.

That day my colleague Liz and I reached out to Hollywood people. Had they seen what was happening with Veronica Mars? Any projects they’d be interested in discussing? The responses poured in.

The email we were most excited to send was to David Lynch’s team. Would David like to chat? Yancey’s in town and leaving soon, we white-lied. 

They wrote back. David would be happy to meet. How about coming by David’s for coffee the day after tomorrow?

I canceled my flight to New York and booked a flight to LA instead.

---

Thirty-six hours later I pulled my rental car up to a pink stucco house in the Hollywood Hills. It was one of those hairpin-steep, one-lane LA side-scrawls. I had to lean over the steering wheel to see the house numbers.

I knocked on the door. A woman who worked for David answered. She was followed by a dog. 

“David’s in his studio. I’m going to walk you up there. I’m just making David coffee. Would you like one?”

“Sure,” I say. At the time I didn’t drink coffee.

“How would you like it?” she asks.

“However David likes it,” I reply, going with the flow.

The two of us, David’s dog, and two coffees walk through the kitchen, out a side door, and up a stone path behind the house. Outside is arid, natural. Not manicured or lush.

At the top of the path is an open concrete building. Glass-less windows, high ceilings, tables and chairs, and not much else. She walks me inside. “David, this is Yancey,” she says. 

Sitting at a drawing table is David Lynch. He’s wearing a white shirt buttoned to the top, khaki pants, and a blue workman’s jacket. His white hair shoots straight up. He steps forward to greet me. 

“Hi Yancey, I’m David,” he says. We shake hands.

I take a seat across from him. He asks me where I’m from.

“Virginia,” I tell him.

“Virginia? That’s where I’m from,” he says. “What does your father do?”

“When I was growing up he was a waterbed salesman,” I tell him. “What about yours?”

“Forestry service,” he says. “We moved a lot. Lived in Montana too.”

We sit across from each other swapping life stories and sipping identical cappuccinos. He pulls out a pack of American Spirits.

“Can I have one of those?” I ask. When was this going to happen again?

He leans forward. I pull one from the pack. He lights it for me.

We talk about his early days in LA. Moving here, making Eraserhead, living in an aging mansion with other artists. We talk Kickstarter. I pitch him on funding a Twin Peaks return — the ultimate dream project. But I can tell by his politeness that it won’t happen.

“Anything I should make sure to do while I’m in LA?” I ask. 

He thinks.

“You see those trees up there?”

He points up the hill behind me. I turn and look.

“Those are jasmine trees. At night, only at night, they open up and make this smell. Have you ever smelled the smell? It’s the most incredible thing.  

“When I first came here I would go up into the hills at night and smell that smell. And I’d think, John Wayne smelled this smell. Marilyn Monroe smelled this smell. And now I’m smelling this smell. 

"You know what that smell is? It’s the smell of Hollywood. You should go in the Hills tonight and smell the smell. That’s what you should do.”

I thank him for his graciousness. We shake hands.

“Anytime, champ,” he replies.

Foolishly I didn’t follow David’s recommendation. I didn’t smell the smell on that trip. In fact, I’d forgotten all about this exchange until Saturday night.

It was late. I was taking out the trash when a wave of soft perfume stopped me. It swam around my face. I was ready to close my eyes and rest my head on it. What was that?

Then I realized: this is the smell. The same smell that John Wayne smelled. The same smell that Marilyn Monroe smelled. The same smell that David Lynch smelled. The whole story came back.

I called my wife. She walked outside and stopped when the air touched her face. “It’s so gentle,” she said. Together we stood there, eyes closed, breathing it in. Ahhh...

---

When I last wrote I’d just finished a draft of the first half of the book. That's in the same place. But the second half has come alive in a new way.

I spent August researching and thinking about the second half. No writing. Only thinking. I lived with the ideas, let them come to me. I drew them. Made videos about them. I read five research books in a week. It was as deep as I’ve ever gone.

It worked. Last week I finished a 20-page narrative outline of the rest of the book. It felt like landing a plane that I always knew would get there but wasn’t sure how. Phew!

Midway through the month I gave a talk for 4,000 people in Chicago. I used the keynote to test some of the ideas. The feedback during and after was great. When I walked off stage I couldn't wait to get back to work. 

It’s still rough. I await feedback from my editor and others. Months of writing and revising are ahead. But laying the ideas out in a way that I can look at it and say, yes this is what I think, this is why I’m doing this, is tremendously exciting. 

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I highly recommended two of the books I read for research.

Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by EF Schumacher is an extremely insightful and gentle manifesto about the future written by a German coal industry economist in the early '70s. One of his core ideas is that urbanization and abandoning of the land are serious mistakes. His view, well-argued, is that equal distribution of people, resources, and opportunities across geographic areas is necessary for a healthy society. As he sees it, the challenges of urbanization aren't only poverty and overcrowding, but the magnetic pull those cities will have on the young as the only places of opportunity. They'll starve rural communities of their human capital. As someone who moved from Virginia to NYC and now LA, this resonated and stung.

Doubt and Certainty in Science: A Biologist's Reflections on the Brain by J.Z. Young is a series of ten brilliant lectures given on the BBC in the 1950s by a biologist explaining how the brain functions, and what that shows us about humanity as a whole. It's very accessible and alive. You can feel the wooden chair of the lecture hall seat and the buzz in the air as you read it.

Two ideas stuck with me.

First, he asks us to consider the fact that our brains are a tissue that specializes in creating memories. A physical material, a real thing that you can touch, does this. This isn't Harry Potter make-believe. This is in all of our heads. Wild.

Young uses the metaphor of a stamp to explain how a memory is formed. Images repeatedly imprint themselves on this soft tissue, making an imprint that becomes deeper with greater exposure. This is how memories are made. If you're interrupted before the stamp makes the next imprint, the image and memory will fade. A striking image.

Second, Young explains human history as the development of new frameworks through which to see the world. We teach our brains how to see. If a blind person gains sight later in life, it can take them a month to be able to identify a triangle, even though they know perfectly well what one is through other senses. They can touch it and know it's a triangle. But their eyes need time to "learn" what seeing a triangle is.

Because learning an entirely new framework is difficult, people learn through the metaphors of existing things. As new frameworks are explained through comparison, others become able to see this way. The new way of seeing is like a new shape pressed onto the brain. New ideas build on old ideas. They stretch the boundaries. They note the lines and then color outside them.

Young sees human history as a progressive narrative that evolves as much as our creativity and ability to communicate allows. What a beautiful thought.

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The best movie I’ve seen in a long time is Good Time. Made by the Safdie Brothers from NYC, it costars one of the filmmakers and Robert Pattinson. 

It’s a bank robbery movie that keeps the tension tight. Though the caper itself goes awry in every direction, the movie never loses focus. It never lets up. 

Yet there’s a gentleness to it. A kindness in its heart that reminded me of early Jarmusch — Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise especially. The movie is dark but it's there.

I came across Good Time when the Metrograph, a phenomenal movie theater in the Lower East Side, promoted its opening six months ahead of schedule. That must be something special, I thought. My friend Rafael saw and loved it. I got around to it only now, but it was well worth it. 

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Finally, a new mix of music. Tracklisting:

1. Yves Tumor, “Faith in nothing except salvation”
2. Gabor Szabo, “The beat goes on”
3. Ebo Taylor, “Love and death”
4. Philip Glass, “Part I”
5. Superpitcher, “Baby’s on fire”
6. Marcia Griffiths, “Don’t let me down”
7. Hailu Mergia, “Anchin kfu ayinkash”
8. Alice Coltrane, “Turaya & ramakrishna”
9. Lynn Tait, “To sir with love”
10. Cass McCombs, “Don’t vote”
11. Smog, “I was a stranger”

Listen and get lost in a haze of sweet-smelling night jasmine.

Peace and love,
Yancey