My son and I sat down and watched Empire of the Sun — the second instalment of my “Laying a Foundation for a Life in 24 Films” series — about a week ago. While his reaction was not nearly as overtly cynical as it was for Heartbreak Ridge, — he is a teenager, and Empire was directed by Stephen Spielberg after all — it certainly wasn’t effusive. “It was pretty good,” was about the highest praise I managed to eke out of him.
Remembering my own first viewing of the movie, I thought he would at least have experienced some innate identification with the adolescent Jim, the young protagonist who, ironically, seems to flourish as an internee in the Japanese POW camp that serves as a backdrop for much of the movie. But though my son seemed to “like” and “sympathize” with this “prison camp Jim”, the only comment he ever actually made about the character (twice) during the film was: “I hate that kid.” But in those two particular instances he was referring to the naive, spoiled, pre-prison camp, young Tai Pan Jim that lived in Shanghai with his rich parents prior to the war (and who seemed patently unable to surrender to the Japanese as they proceeded to occupy the city).
But with such a condemnation I felt my son was missing the point. Not because this early version of Jim wasn’t stupendously naive and obviously needed some significant emotional comeuppance to grow as a character (which, ultimately, was the major theme of the movie), but because he (i.e. my son) wasn’t willing to see beyond young Jim’s shortcomings to the subtle tapestry of confused, juxtapositional adolescent wonder which makes Jim such a richly complex character to begin with.
Nor, in the week and a half since we watched the movie, has he admitted to any manner of after-the-fact “a-ha” moments. In fact, I asked him the other night if he had had any further thoughts on the movie, but though he says he laid awake for a couple of hours the night we watched it, — trying to determine what he felt it had all been about — he concluded that nothing particularly “stuck” with him after that.
For me, on the other hand, the movie was just as good as I had remembered it, and will continue to remain one of my all-time favourites. The scenes I had recalled as particularly meaningful I seemed to have remembered with a reasonable level of fidelity, and they more or less unfolded as I described in my previous post. I was awash in goosebumps, and my heart was in my throat, for example, as Jim raced to the top of that ruined building to watch the P-51s attack the Japanese airfield adjacent to the camp (and then proceeded to have what was essentially a nervous breakdown). And then, in the final seconds of the final scene, as he closed his dry, young / old world-weary eyes — dry eyes being the perfect metaphor for the moment as it re-iterated the fact the he was now a proverbial empty vessel — and finally embraced his mother after more than three years of separation, my own eyes ran with tears.
But I guess, given my son’s reaction (or lack thereof), that I’m starting to figure out that things don’t always resonate the same way across all audiences. Duhh? “Meaning,” after all, is seldom an objective concept, but rather something we discover anew via the unique filter of our own personal experience and preferences. Empire struck me as so poignant, I now realize, because it was a perfect storm of things that I found meaningful at the particular point in my life when I first experienced it, including planes, military history, the ebbing of English imperialism, and the idea of a “plucky” young man coming of age. These things do not, I’m beginning to appreciate, necessarily represent the current mind-set of my own son; hence he’s obviously going to view the films I choose through rather a different set of lenses than I do. Significantly different, I’m starting to understand. He is patently not who I was at that age, so setting up these films as guideposts to try to assist him in becoming a grown-up version of what I optimistically consider to be my own best self may not necessarily be the way to approach this endeavour.
So where does that leave me given the initial premise of this entire exercise?
If nothing else, I suppose, I’ll simply continue to focus on the “overt” lessons that each film seeks to bring to light. As you might have noticed from my previous post, however, I was experiencing some difficulty trying to boil Empire down to a such a singular, pithy world view. But it turns out that I had forgotten one of the key exchanges of the movie. One that demonstrates the extent to which Jim appreciates that though he may have learned innumerable strategies for surviving in the world — any type of world — as a result of his “friendship” with Bassie, he and Bassie don’t, ultimately, share a common philosophy.
Irritated with Jim because he feels that he’s not doing nearly enough to cash in on the good fortune of their liberation from the prison camp — as the movie is coming to an end and food and supplies are now literarily falling from the sky — Bassie asks him disgustedly, “Haven’t I thought you anything, Jim?”
“Yeah, Bassie,” Jim responds ruefully, finally, it seems, truly beginning to understand what “Bassie learning” has actually cost him. “You thought me that people will do anything for a potato.” Game. Set. Match.
So, as the smoke from the P-51 attack on the airfield next to Jim’s prison camp clears, it looks like an early success with Heartbreak Ridge, but not so much with Empire. Call it 1-1-0 for the moment.
And hope for a cinematic miracle to get this exercise back on track!
This month’s “Laying the Foundation for a Life in 24 Films” selection is Empire of the Sun (1987).
My son and I haven’t actually watched it yet, however. And I don’t think I’ve seen it in its entirety— save for snippets here and there whenever it occasionally shows up on TV — in probably 20 years.
So, why Empire of the Sun? Why do I think — or think that I remember through the mists of time — of it as being essential to my foundational list?
Well, like Heartbreak Ridge, there are innumerable images and scenes from the movie that have always stuck with me, if not as life lessons per se, then at least as hints or glimpses into what it is to live and to be human through a time of great crisis.
What, in particular, continues to resonate and come back to me from this movie across the years?
- The fact that, if nothing else, it is a hugely compelling coming-of-age story.
- The theme of airplanes, and the thread of the protagonist’s love of them throughout the story. (I too was an airplane nerd as a kid, so I’ve always felt an especial connection to young Jim given his enduring aeronautical fascination).
- Empires fall, and new ones rise, and residents of the former have a tendency to fiddle while their particular version of Rome burns to ashes around them. It’s easy to recall a number of instances illustrating such creeping dissolution in the film, including Jim’s family’s chauffeured excursion, in full Halloween-costumed regalia, through the thronged maelstrom of downtown Shanghai in the immediate lead-up to WW2. Or the hard, contemptuous slap across the face Jim receives when he attempts to impose his immature will on a former servant after the war has broken out and all the “foreign imperialists”, including his parents, have now either escaped or have been taken into custody and no longer hold sway.
- As John Malkovich’s character points out shortly after he meets Jim, and as the war is beginning to unfold in earnest, living through stuff — war included — is relatively easy. The tricky part, the part where you can get into serious trouble, is at the beginning and end of things (war included). I ponder this dilemma every time I undertake a new project at work!
- Identity is malleable. Except when it’s not. There’s who you want to be (i.e. Jim styling himself as one of the gaggle of brash young Americans with whom he’s interred in the Japanese prison camp) and there’s who you are (i.e. Jim coming to terms with the fact that self image does not trump reality when he has to explain to Malkovich that he wasn’t able to protect Malkovich’s hoarded booty after he had been taken away for punishment by the Japanese. “They were bigger than me,” I remember Jim admitting simply, simultaneously gutted at the loss of his own fragile persona in the process).
- Joy and mania are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps my favourite scene of the whole movie is when Jim’s prison comes under attack from the American Air Force at the end of the war. Jim runs heedlessly through the explosions and debris to climb a tower and thus get a closer look at the planes which are loosing their destruction upon the compound. By the time he gets to the top of the tower, however, we’re starting to suspect that he may have snapped, that all the stress and crises in his young life up to this point have coalesced into this overt, manic exuberance. He jumps up and down, pumping his hands above his head like a madman, watching the planes flash by like lightening bolts. “P-51!” he screams, “Cadillac of the sky!” One of the Mustangs passes by in super slo-mo, parallel with the tower, and Jim is able to make out every detail of the gleaming fuselage and the pilot who cheerfully returns his wave. But in the next instant, the spell is broken. Jim is being pulled down to safety — and I’ve only just remembered this — not by his “supposed” friend, Malkovich (who we would expect to have been looking out for Jim were he the friend he should have been), but by the long-suffering doctor who understands that, regardless of appearances, Jim, in many ways, is very much still a child in need of adult intervention. And it is here that we truly understand that Jim has come to the end of himself. The doctor has to slap him back into sense (if I remember rightly), but Jim is broken, and stares off blankly, crying and whispering plaintively, as if it’s just occurred to him for the first time, “I can’t remember what my parents look like.”
- After the Japanese guards desert the prison, the internees undertake an apocalyptic exodus from the camp. This journey concludes at a giant sports stadium — in the middle of nowhere — which enfolds a surreal cornucopia of looted war riches. Jim barely registers it, however, as he is by now essentially an empty vessel. Instead, he looks across the horizon to see a mushroom cloud rising skyward in the distance. “I leaned a new word today,” he tells us in voice over: “Atom Bomb.” (In September 2001, this scene came back to me in shocked horror as I stood in from of my TV and watched the debris clouds from the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre billow upward across the New York skyline. All I could think of in that instant, like Jim, was that I was looking over the brink into the abyss of a new world. And I knew with certainty, at that very moment, that my one-and-a-half-year old son — for better or worse — would not grow up in the same world I had).
Yikes! That’s a huge amount of flotsam and jetsam left bobbing in the wake of a movie I haven’t really spent any quality time with in two decades, innit?
Empire of the Sun is obviously a richer, more subtle and complexly layered movie than Heartbreak Ridge, — Duh? — but, admittedly, it was far easier to drill down and extract a single “teachable moment” — “Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.” — from the latter.
I suppose, at this juncture, I’m still trying to figure out exactly what point I’m trying to make with Empire. And, no doubt, I’m not truly going to be able to do that until we sit down and actually watch it. Still, I expect the resultant “take-away” will probably have something to do with how an individual’s “character” evolves and develops during the formative periods of one’s life. Typically such development is associated with the passage of time (i.e. the transition from adolescence into adulthood), but sometimes that development is artificially accelerated through crisis instead. In either case, at the heart of such a process there appears to exist an inexplicable, natural feedback loop, a weird, fundamental symbiosis between how life forms you, while you, concurrently, are seeking to form it. How, ultimately, we’re all shaped by a world which we, in turn, help to shape by our very existence.
Stay tuned; I’ve got the movie downloading from iTunes even as I type. We should know shortly how it all pans out.
WTF, I hear you gasp. Heartbreak Ridge? Really? Hardly a cinematic gem, granted, but this whole exercise, I would argue, is actually about uncovering gems of other sorts. Or pearls, I suppose, might be the more appropriate metaphor since, at the epicentre of this treatise, must reside an on-going commitment to achieving sufficient personal “grit” (see Part 1) to tackle one’s life in a truly meaningful fashion. Likewise, at the very heart of Heartbreak Ridge beats a thematic imperative breathed into existence via the mystical incantation of three simple words, a sort of intellectual talisman against any potential for physical or existential laxity: “Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.”
We’ve all seen Heartbreak Ridge before — even if we’ve never seen Heartbreak Ridge before — as my son, who really wasn’t having the time of his life watching it, was quick to point out: “A grizzled, end-of-career NCO [in this case a Marine Gunnery Sergeant] takes a rag-tag collection of young soldiers [in this case a dysfunctional reconnaissance platoon], promptly puts them through their paces to mould them into “real men” and thus, through his gruff, no-nonsense, hard-as-nails approach, demonstrates just how much he actually loves them because now they — or at least most of them — have developed the skills they will need to survive their first battle [in this case the “Invasion” of Grenada].” The going gets tough, the tough get going, and faint-hearted chickenshits are exposed at every turn. Thanks Gunny!
OK, so I have to admit, having not seen the movie in a number of years, it may have lost a bit of its lustre. Whole scenes, for example, seem to unfold as little more than a recitation of some generic military “drop-you-cocks-and-grab-you-socks” litany of verbal pyrotechnics, which, no doubt, I found irreverent and bad ass back in the day. Rings a little overplayed to a more nuanced, more mature ear, however. Plus I never could warm up to Marsha Mason. But you gotta love Eastwood. He marches from one end of that film to the other, rigid and coiled as a high tension wire, raspy voiced and imperturbable to such a degree that his portrayal of the gnarled Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway is almost comforting, almost transcendent in its sheer caricature.
Still, Eastwood notwithstanding, for me the movie — or at least my memory of the movie — was always about those three deceptively simple words: “Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.” This was a clarion call for me in 1986, and — I remember thinking at the time — it was a theme that was played out with an especial metaphorical subtlety in the “T-Shirt Kerfuffle” sub-plot.
T-shirt scene #1: Eastwood shows up to start training his new, motley squad of misfits. He assembles them outside their quonset hut in their PT shorts and mismatched t-shirts, and prepares to take them on their first — first with him, that is — run. But before they sprint away he tells them all to discard their aforementioned tees, because no squad of his is going for a run unless they’re all wearing the same shirt.
T-shirt scene #2: Another day and another run. The squad members form up and appear to be feeling rather pleased with themselves given that they’re all standing there in the same t-shit. “Off with the shirts, ladies,” instructs Eastwood. “Why?” they ask, incredulous. “We’re all wearing the same shirts.” “Not the same as me,” he growls.
T-shirt scene #3: The squad shows up for their next run with each man carrying all the t-shirts he owns — just in case. But none match Eastwood’s. They hurl them to the ground in frustration and run off at Eastwood’s command, shirtless and beaten.
Then one night, after helping another senior NCO take Eastwood / Highway home from jail after he had been arrested (again) for “drunk and disorderly,” one of the marines from the squad encounters Eastwood’s landlady who happens to be walking by with a basket of the Gunnery Sergeant’s clean laundry. Turns out this woman not only does Highway’s laundry for him, but sets out his clean clothes every morning as well. Which means the squad now has “intel” on the on-going shirt situation…
T-shirt scene #4 (aka the t-shirt finale): The next time Eastwood calls them to assemble for their run everybody’s wearing the same t-shirt — i.e. the same as him — and, low and behold, their metamorphosis into disciplined brothers in arms, ready to face the enemy, is nearing completion. Now all they need is a war…
“Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.”
Life is a challenge at the best of times. Often you have no idea what the answers are and, metaphorically at least, you’re left shirtless. At other times, you’re pretty confident you’ve figured out the answers, but, before you know it, they’ve gone and changed the question on you and, you guessed it, shirtless again.
“Improvise. Adapt. Overcome,” I told my son. “That’s all I really needed you to get from this movie. That’s the hidden treasure [or the “rare pearl” if you’re worried about continuity]. Whether it’s breaking a t-shirt stalemate, or figuring out how to capture an enemy emplacement, or any other seemingly insurmountable challenge you’re going to face in this life, your best chance for success will always be the same: Improvise. Adapt. Overcome. That’s what you need to learn. That’s what you need live.”
Still, I could tell that he wasn’t convinced that it had been necessary for him to sit through the entire movie if that was all I had intended to share with him. But I guess what I’m trying to do with this gestating pedagogical film fest, when all is said and done, is to create opportunities for him to make certain “connections” for himself. To “get” things, rather than just listening to me bleat banal homilies at him over and over again. (Of course, I’m still just making all this up as I go if you haven’t already figured that out for yourself yet!)
Ironically, however, it turned out he “got” the Heartbreak Ridge message far more clearly than I ever could have anticipated. A few days after we had watched the movie I was leaving for work quite early in the morning and reached into the closet, in the still-dark back hallway, to pack up my sneakers for my usual lunch-time walk. At noon I reached into my bag to retrieve the sneakers only to discover that I had actually taken only one of my sneakers, along with one of my son’s sneakers by mistake. Which meant that he would have had no footwear to wear to school — on this, the second day of grade 11 — other than two mismatched sneakers or the dirty, paint-splattered pair of black, low-cut work books he uses to help me around the yard. I swallowed hard: he was going to kill me when I got home!
I walked in the door after work that evening, and as he came upstairs from the family room to greet me, I immediately started apologizing. “Oh, crap,” I said. “I’m so sorry. I accidentally took one of your sneakers this morning when I was packing mine up in the dark. What did you end up wearing to school for shoes?”
He started laughing. “So that’s what happened,” he said. “I looked all through the entire closet and could only find one of my sneakers, and I started having kind of a panic attack because I thought I was going to miss my bus. But then I remembered I had an almost new pair of sneakers in my bedroom closet from gym class last year, so I dug them out and put them on and ran to the bus stop with time to spare.”
Then he grinned at me. “I just thought you hid one of them on me deliberately to see if I was paying attention to the movie the other night,” he chided. “But, you see, I handled it!”
By Jove, I think he’s got it! Score for dad, and hurrah for movie night! The hook is set!
*Thunder crashes, lightning forks through the sky, and a father’s maniacal laughter rings out across the darkened countryside.*
One down, 23 to go…
As many of you who read this blog know, I am the proud owner of one of those new-fangled (and yet strangely ancient) gizmos called a 16-year old. And, as those of you who are familiar with this exotic species are no doubt already aware, any number of previously latent conditions seem to become suddenly chronic at this stage of development — on the part of the aforementioned young adult, that is — including excessive eye rolling, exasperated sighs at receiving parental input in almost any format, and the continual reminder that you, as a parent, are no longer “cool” or “hip” or “jive” or whatever the current nomenclature happens to be for something you are so clearly not.
But I present the above (mostly) in jest, because my 16-year old is (mostly) awesome. Better than I could have hoped for. Arguably better than I deserve. Far better, I’m convinced, than I was at that age (sorry about that, mom!) And as my wife and I watched him head off for his first day of grade 11 earlier this month, it occurred to me that whatever I had left to teach him about life, whatever experiential wisdom there remained to impart, whatever psychological armour I longed to hand down to him to fend off “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that he would surely face over the course of his life, I now only had two years, a mere 24 short months, in which to do it.
But 16 brings with it a strange resistance to absorbing the wisdom of one’s elders via a medium so mundane as simple verbal exposition. “You need to try harder at things and not give up so easily — this will be imperative when you’re trying to start a career or deal with a difficult problem at work. Trust me.” “Sure, dad. I get it. Oh, and would you be able to take me into the game store later today ‘cuz the new [insert newest cool game name here which I’m not cool enough to know and be able to insert myself] was released on Monday.”
Mindful that a strong offence is often the best defence, I have consistently sought to share many of the subtleties of childrearing with my son from an early age. The “tight rope” is our shared euphemism for the balancing act I frequently advise him I’m forced to undertake daily in order to mould him from the clay of childhood and adolescence into a successful, fully-fledged, fully-rounded, adult participant in the 21st century. A veritable “Sophie’s Choice” Lite of neither pushing him so hard that he rebels altogether and / or becomes an anxiety-ridden, over-achieving basket case, nor not pushing him hard enough, and thus providing tacit approval for him to devolve into a chronically lazy, under-prepared slacker. Somewhere between those two solitudes — at least to my thinking — lies the existential sweet spot. Where an individual can boast enough personal grit to effectively move forward in life without imploding, but also where he (or she) has been able to develop a sufficient depth of ease and confidence to actually enjoy the life he (or she) is pursuing.
And “grit” is a word that probably goes to the heart of the matter in my case. Because, when all is said and done, I suppose I do see life as something to be overcome. It’s not an easy thing, and I think we lull ourselves into a false sense of security — at our peril — if we approach it as if it were. So, full disclosure, this is obviously the bias under which I am approaching the current project of prepping my fledging teenager to leave the nest.
But what does all of this vapid parental introspection have to do with 24 films, you ask? Well, if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m getting ready to launch a flanking attack on my blissfully unaware teenaged son. He and I are about to engage in a little media experiment. A “themed” movie a month, — hand picked by dear old dad, of course — for the next 24 months, until he’s off to university. Watched together and, if all goes according to plan, discussed in some detail after the fact — and perhaps even for the months to follow. Each film selected to engage, challenge, inform and, hopefully, maybe even to delight. My thesis is that, “digital native” that he is, the immersive nature of film may ring truer for him than any one-dimensional verbal “life lesson” diatribe I could ever hope to offer.
Have I thought this through completely? Of course not. Will I even be able to find 24 films that will help to establish the type of on-going, expositional interaction that I’m looking to achieve? I dunno. Is it ridiculously facile to seek to develop a solid foundation upon which to establish one’s adult life based on Hollywood fluff? Probably.
In any case, I started this month — without actually even having an inkling that I was about to turn this into an on-going two-year exercise, which has only recently occurred to me — with Heartbreak Ridge (1986).
Part II to follow shortly…
If you’re reading this, it means I’m already dead… (Oops, sorry, that’s another blog I’m working on!)
If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re a blogger. Which means you’re a writer (of sorts). Which means you’re probably also a reader. Potentially, even a crazy, hardcore, old-school, the-book-as-artifact-is-the-thing-loving bibliomaniac reader like myself. Or maybe not.
Whatever the case, if you’re someone who has seldom, if ever, left a bookstore empty handed, then you’re my kind of people.
I do try to control myself. Sometimes I even just use my cell phone to take photos of the books I want to buy, then rush home and submit an on-line request for them at my local library. But even in those instances, I still hardly ever leave the bookstore without at least one bag of “product.”
So thank the book gods for the “remaindered” tables, or, as I like to call them, the “how-can-I-not-buy an-interesting-hardcover-book-for-between-$6.99-and-$10” displays. (Though it pisses me off when the retailers insist on marring the underside of a book’s textblock with a marker line before moving it over to the “discount” side of the store. We know they’re remainders already, so leave the marker in your pocket for Chrissake, and stop defacing my future books!)
That’s not say I don’t buy full-priced new books hot off the presses as well (anything by Ian McEwan or Carlos Ruiz Zafon, to name a couple), but it’s amazing what eventually makes its way to the remaindered table if you’re patient.
Yesterday’s catches, for example, for just under $30CAD (including taxes, and allowing for my 10% loyalty card discount), were as follows:
Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?, by Alan Weisman, for $3. Yes, $3! I have, in fact, taken this book out of the library before, but never did get the chance to read it, so this is a double win for me. Personally I think we’ve damaged the earth beyond repair at this point in human history, so it’ll be interesting to see what Mr. Weisman has to say.
Shady Characters: Ampersands, Interrobangs and other Typographical Curiosities, by Keith Houston, for $10. Yeah, if you haven’t figured it out already, I’m a bit of a word / grammar / punctation nerd too, so I’m excited about this one. Plus I really liked the design and feel of the mock-imprinted dust jacket.
The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction Writers, by Donald Maass, for $10. This goes on the shelf with my gazillion other writing guides. Well maybe not a gazillion, but — especially if you’re a wanna-be writer like I am — you know what I mean; there’s enough of them that, even if I started reading them this morning, and diligently completed all the various exercises and prompts each of them takes you through, by the time I finished the last of them, and was ready to start writing — or, I should say, finish writing — my breakout novel, I’d be about 107 years old. But, still, it’s got that nice Writer’s Digest binder-esque workbook construction about it, and seemed like such a perfect companion piece to my similarly-bound The Nighttime Novelist: Finish Your Novel in Your Spare Time (also purchased from the remainder shelves), that I simply could not not — notice the clever use of the double negative there to further accentuate my thesis and expose my internal state of conflict about the whole matter — bring it home with me.
A Fatal Likeness, by Lynn Shepherd, for $7.99. Well, I couldn’t leave without at least one work of fiction in my bag. Right? And this one traffics in that 19th century Gothic mystery atmosphere I’m such a sucker for, to say nothing of promising some sophisticated literary intrigue and even a Frankenstein connection: “Hardly a conniving criminal, Claire Clairmount [who is trying to sell a cache or rare papers that supposedly belonged to Percy Bysshe Shelley] is in fact the stepsister of Mary Shelley, and their tortured history of jealousy, obsession, and dark deceit looms large over the affair that Maddox must untangle.” Again, even if it turns out to be crap, how can you go wrong for $7.99? It still fills up a bookcase as convincingly as any other of its more worthy brethren.
So, tell me, how do you curb your bookstore cravings? Or do you?
Hello Saturday! That first full week back to work after vacation — Christmas or otherwise — is always a bit of drag, eh?
But you’ve made it through, so here’s a little YouTube treat to start your weekend. Before you head to the gym that is. ‘Cuz it’s that time of year, innit?
(Nota bene: If you’re already familiar with Adele’s Hello, jump right in and give this a watch. If not, as funny as it probably is on its own, it’s going to be exponentially funnier if you familiarize yourself with the original Adele version first — so off you go!)
I am sloth incarnate.
I sit alone in a wing chair in the corner of my living room. The seat is an old friend and knows my shape by memory. It has already gone noon, but I remain rooted here, as I have done since early this morning, still clad only in a housecoat and slippers.
Like an animated, picture-perfect Christmas card, the snow is falling gently outside the living room window opposite me. Shrouding the landscape, the bare branches and the evergreen sentinels that comprise my view, in the tenderest of soft, white embraces. Except for the sound of the furnace engaging every now and again, and the metronomic constancy of the dining room clock calling out the passage of the seconds to me from around the corner, all is peace. The placid, untrammelled presence of early winter in the countryside.
It is the final day of my two-week Christmas break. I had plans aplenty to fill this day (as well as those that preceded it). Useful and vigorous schemes to “get things done around the house,” given that that I was going to have some extended “down time.” Now, however, there is only the complacency of my arse on a soft cushion. A tall stack of partially-read books rests companionable beside me, amongst which I flit like a busy, inconstant bee, drawn from one pretty, intoxicating bloom to the next. There appear to be some promising new releases on Netflix, as well. And, within reach, there’s a fresh, steaming cup of coffee…
And a lingering unease that it’s all slipping away too quickly. That I’ve used up these days of light and freedom far too indiscriminately. But I also know I must let such unease pass me by with nary a hint of recognition. For only if I am truly committed to wasting this final day will it, in turn, capitulate and reward me by offering up access to the depths of the recumbent, tranquil treasures it has in store.
The snow continues to fall. My books await. Tomorrow, sitting on a very different chair, in front of a screen straining under the burden of an inescapable digital avalanche, this peace will be a dim, unlikely memory.
I am sloth…
The world is a strange and mysterious place, and there are any number of things in life that simply don’t seem to make any sense whatsoever. Like Intelligent Design, for example. Or Donald Trump being considered as a serious presidential contender. Or how a person (i.e. me) who absolutely loves all things Christmas (atheist though I am — sorry, that’s another blog altogether) can so viscerally detest putting up exterior Christmas decorations.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t like exterior Christmas lights / decorations. It’s just that, all things being equal, when I’m at the top of that ladder — you know, standing on that very final step that has the embossed raised lettering on it that reads “DANGER: THIS IS NOT A STEP!” — and my fingers are frozen to the bone and about to snap off due to frost bite, and I’ve just broken off another plastic clip trying to get that bloody string of un-straightenable lights fastened to the eavestrough, and I’m doing this all one-handed because I’m using the other hand to cling to another part of the eavestrough — where the bare skin of my fingers may or may not have stuck itself fast to the exposed metal — to counterbalance the alarming pendulum-like sway that seems to have developed in the rickety step ladder below me, well, at times like these, my mind has a tendency to wander to the consideration of more enjoyable pastimes like, say, being flayed alive.
Today, as you might have guessed, was the day that we undertook decorating the outside of our house for Christmas. What we traditionally refer to, in Clark W. Griswold parlance, as “doing the exterior illumination.” And as much as I — as a matter of principle — approach this exercise with hatred and loathing, today, as it turned out, wasn’t a complete disaster. Granted it didn’t start out all that auspiciously. Just five minutes into the exercise, before we even got out of the basement storage room with the exterior wreaths, I was already hurling expletives at my 15-year old son as I found myself traipsing through a sea of loose kitty litter on the floor that he was supposed to have vacuumed up two days ago. Once we put that behind us, however, it was more or less smooth sailing.
What made this year run so — relatively — smoothly, you ask? I think there were probably several crucial factors.
- The cat litter incident notwithstanding, my 6’-0” tall, nearly 16-year old son is finally of an age that when he helps me out around the house, he’s actually capable of truly being a help, rather than just something else I need to take care of as I’m trying to get the work done. (“You wanna pay room and board or do you wanna help me put up the Christmas lights? Your choice. Pick up that ladder and those extension cords and let’s rock!”)
- I can usually predict with some certainty what will be the coldest day of December. ‘Cuz it always seems to be the Saturday or Sunday I finally get around to putting up the Christmas lights! This year, blessedly, not so much. It was a nice crisp day to be sure, and there was even some lightly falling snow that helped to accentuate the pre-holiday atmosphere, but no mind-numbingly cold temps where you worry about your fingers snapping off if you risk working without gloves for a couple of minutes.
- After six or seven years of putting up exactly the same exterior decorations in exactly the same locations, I think I may have finally got it figured out! For instance, I know now, from hard-won experience, where to best use zip ties instead of string and vice versa (and to make sure I have a reasonable supply of both on hand prior to getting underway). And this time around, for the first year ever, I wasn’t even missing a single extension cord, and all the inter-looping electrical lines running helter-skelter across the front lawn terminated neatly and logically — on the first attempt — into the three exterior outlets that I have available. The key to this system is to store all your equipment together in one place throughout the year. I now have a a single box in which I keep all my wiring supplies and woe betide the the person who tries to steal an extension cord from this box in the off season! (“I don’t care that Nana needs another few feet of cord to plug in her oxygen machine, those are my Christmas extension cords — hands off!”)
Of course, the best way to minimize exterior illumination
trauma installation time is — you guessed it — leave stuff up the whole year ‘round! Yeah, sorry to burst your bubble, but I’m that guy. It’s not something I’m proud of, and I only do it for the single line of lights along the front of the eavestrough, and the lights are white and the eavestrough is white so you don’t really notice anyway….
The fact is, when the snow finally clears from around the house sometime in late April / early May, and those eavestrough lights catch my eye the first time I run the lawn mover across the front yard, I can’t help but think to myself, if I take them down now I’ll just be back up there — risking life and limb atop that damn ladder in a sub-zero arctic wind storm (no doubt with a vengeful teenager on the bottom rung trying to figure out a way to have it topple and not get blamed for it) — six months from now, re-installing them. Where’s the wisdom in that? As I like to remind my wife in these instances, our house is set pretty far back from the road, after all.
And I’m hopeful that the eavestrough lighting I put up last year, with integral clip fasteners on the lights, will serve me far better than the ones I used to put up where you had to install those persnickety plastic eave-fastening clips separately from the string of lights. The latter type seem prone to catastrophic failure after a year or two of full-time duty on the front of the house.
I know this for a fact since, two years ago, while seeking to add a single new clip near the end of the run of lights where an existing clip had broken off, I inadvertently set in motion a Griswoldian chain of events worthy of a Hollywood Christmas extravaganza. As I held on to the cord of lights that I was seeking to fasten with the new clip, the next clip in line, weakened from having been on the house for far too long, snapped in half. Then the clip after that snapped. Then the clip after that, and so on. Until the bulk of the 42 foot run of eavestrough Christmas lights — except for the end that I held in my hand as I stood on top of the ladder — was now laying on the ground in front of the house, covered in a sprinkling of snapped off plastic fasteners.
This, as you can well image, was the highlight of my son’s entire holiday season. And if he didn’t pee himself laughing, it was not for lack of trying. In fact, he was still laughing as I got in the car and headed to Canadian Tire for new lights. You know, the ones with the integral clips.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a well-illuminated good night!
OK, so my long-anticipated, self-initiated, inaugural writing retreat is now little more than a blur in the proverbial rearview mirror of my life. And, like most things one spends too much time thinking about in advance, it was, and was not, exactly what I thought it would be. So what’s the take-away?
“Everybody has a plan — until they get punched in the face!” (It’s not often that Mike Tyson “out-quotes” a former US president, but I find the aforementioned snippet far pithier that Dwight Eisenhower’s rather more prosaic WWII-era version: “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”) The main worry I was grappling with in my pre-retreat blog was that by seeking to maximize what I hoped to get out of the weekend — either creatively or socially — I might actually “plan the life out of it.” Well, I’m glad to say that I didn’t. True, I knew how I wanted the days to unfold — how I had calculated I could eek the most productivity out of the limited time I had before me — but once I felt that first fist against my jaw (in Tyson parlance), I’m proud to say I just let things unfold as they presented themselves. I knew there existed an overarching structural “plan” lingering in the shadows that I could revert to if required, but, instead, I simply sought to channel my inner Zen-novice and “relax into things.” Relaxing, of course, is anathema to word count. But it was an incredible autumn weekend and we had a lot of fun out and about at the farmer’s market and local wine festival. And ate waaaay to much!
I’m pretty much toast — intellectually — by the end of the work week. Those of you who are regular visitors here at the Gooseyard know that I’m something of a “fanboy” when it comes to the writer Ian McEwan. The one exception is an interview I once saw with him where he pontificated — rather flippantly in my opinion — that you simply can’t write serious fiction if you haven’t managed to divest yourself of a full-time “day job.” I think part of the reason I was so incensed at this “literary pronouncement from on high” was that, deep down, I rather suspect he’s right. It’s damn near impossible to find the gumption to knock out a few thousand decent words a night when you’ve spent the bulk of the day toiling in the salt-mines of [insert your job here]. (OK, yes, yes, shut up, I know, if I were truly committed I’d get up an hour earlier every day and get my writing done then, or get divorced and move into a studio apartment or something, but that’s a different blog altogether). And as hard as it is to discipline oneself to sit down and write something worthwhile after a single day at the office, I find it damn near impossible to write — or do anything else requiring any conscious level of dexterity for that matter — on a Friday night, after having logged five over-busy work days in a row. Maybe it’s a symptom of middle-age, but lately my ideal Friday evening seems comprised mainly of seeking to achieve a kind of languid, Netflix-induced somnolent trance, my eyelids drooping somewhere south of wakefulness, my belly full, a liquid intoxicant of some description at hand, and the hum of the laundry tossing itself clean in the washer in the near distance. [Aside to Millennials: See what you have to look forward to when you grow up?] So even though my retreat-mates and I made sure to take Friday off to give ourselves a full, three-day session at the cottage, the limited amount of writing I was able to convince myself to do that Friday afternoon — after my nap — was still a bit of a slog. And the evening, as usual, found us simply relaxing with a movie (though, in our defence, it was, at least, a book-related movie).
Things suffer when you make them serve too many purposes at once. Remember those K-Tel ads for that ultimate, multi-purpose kitchen gadget: “It slices, it dices, it juliennes!” Well, sometimes — usually quite often, in fact — we end up over-burdening the things in our lives by trying to make them serve too many disparate purposes at one time. And thus overburdened they don’t end up serving their primary purpose(s) anywhere near as well as they should. The Porche Cayenne you bought, because you wanted a sports car, but still needed enough room to schlep the kids to school and pick up the groceries, is not going to perform like the 911 you always dreamed of. The writers’ retreat was no different. Because it was also a couple’s retreat. And a fall getaway. And a food fest. Which are all valid reasons to get in the car and go somewhere. But the more you load up something with the requirements for it to be something else at the same time, the less well it is going to perform in any of its expected roles.
[Greta and] “I want to be left alone.” The more I write, the more I realize that I need real solitude to do so. What Virginia Woolf referred to — though admittedly her focus at the time was on women writers — as a “room of one’s own.” This metaphoric room, as any writer will tell you, represents far more than a simple, physical space, however. It is, rather, the all-encompassing “realm” in which the writer most effectively undertakes his or her work. Every “realm” is different. In my case, I need three things to hit the “zone” running: a sufficient expanse of free time in front of me to get started and maintain some reasonable momentum; complete physical separation from other people (except, occasionally when I make the conscious decision to attempt some writing in a cafe or library); and a reasonably-sized window to look out of (preferably across a natural vista of some sort). Or to put it another way, and with a nod to Corinthians 13:13, “And now abideth time, landscape and solitude; but the greatest of these is solitude.” In a way — and this isn’t an original analogy, though it is one I’ve argued before in one form or another — writing is a lot like masturbation: it’s not something that’s particularly easy to undertake when there are other folks in the room (even if it is just your wife and a couple of really good friends). The retreat certainly gave me time to write, and we definitely had an incredible view across the Northumberland shore line from the cottage’s dining room window, but it seems I really need to be alone to truly hit my writerly stride. With all due respect to Meatloaf, two outta three may not be bad, but it’s not going to generate a proliferation of prose on my part.
So, what’s the final verdict? Would I do it again? Definitely — in fact I hope to do it agin next year. Did I achieve the purported goals outlined in the last paragraph of my pre-retreat blog? Let’s review.
Enjoy some fall foliage? Check.
Have a couple of drinks and share a few laughs with friends? Check, and double check!
Produce a half a dozen pages of decent prose? Umm, not so much. Maybe three. Though they weren’t bad. (And we had a really invigorating discussion Sunday morning about using dialogue to advance one’s story — as opposed to a rambling interior monologue approach which, I’m sure, will eventually be my literary downfall.)
Next year, however, I’m going to take a page out of Bridget Jone’s diary and simply refer to whatever autumn excursion we decide to undertake as a “mini-break.” If I happen to get some writing done, great. If not, that’s OK too. And part of the reason that it will be OK is that I’ve decided to plan a true Writers’ Retreat before then. I imagine it will involve a locked door, a small room and a big window. I’ll keep you posted.
P.S. What are your “must-haves” when it comes to the creative endeavours you undertake? I’d love to hear from you.
OK, I’m pumped! In 11 days I hit the road for a long-awaited, three-day “Writers’ Retreat!”
(Which is a fancy way of saying that another writer friend of mine and our wives have rented a cottage along the Northumberland Straight, about three hours away, and we’ll be bringing along our iPads for the long weekend with the purported goal of “getting away from it all” sufficiently to undertake some “serious” work on our current creative projects.)
And here is where two little voices in my head start waging a war of words that often leaves me exhausted by the end of the day.
First, the architect in me takes over — for architects are nothing if not professional planners: OK, we’ll leave by 08:00; have breakfast at the Big Stop in Aulac; then head back toward the road that runs along the shore; arrive at the cottage by noon; get 500 words down by mid-afternoon; pause for a quick G&T, then 250 more words by dinnertime; eat dinner; enjoy some after-dinner refreshments; share / critique each other’s just-completed 750 word challenge; allow for an hour or so “free chat”; partake of wee night cap; and off to bed by 23:00 (after having tabulated the day’s expenses and divided them in half to make sure both couples are paying their proportionate share of the excursion’s costs).
You get the picture: schedules, performance targets, deficiency reviews, budget updates. How could we not have fun given the breadth and scope invested in such an elaborate planning exercise? I mean, c’mon, I’ve even gone so far as to allow for an hour of “un-structured” free chat! I’ll make sure the day runs like a finely-tuned Swiss watch! (Or, as Chevy Chase’s character, Clark W. Griswold, so poetically phrases it when he realizes that his extended family just isn’t properly embracing the holiday plans he had made for them in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: “Nobody’s leaving . . . . We’re going to press on. And we’re going to have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tapped danced with Danny fucking Kaye!”)
Then, through the other metaphorical ear bud, comes the sibilant voice of that darker, free spirit me. Hit the road whenever — sleep in if you want, no biggie; the Big Stop would be nice, but it’s a little out of the way — you’ll find some place to eat just as good somewhere along your route and, if not, you can always have an early lunch when you get to the cottage; 750 words for the afternoon would be great, but who knows if you’re going to be in the right mood to concentrate, and, ultimately, a trip to the nearby winery before supper might help to better put the weekend in perspective; as for presenting your work after supper, just let things unfold as they will — something will happen. Just chill, duuuude! Everything will work itself out. After all, there’s nothing quite so fun as having fun you haven’t scheduled. You can’t plan to be spontaneous.
Truth be told, however, I think I do tend to gravitate more toward the planning side of my personality. I’ve already established, for example, that the “Official Coffee” of this, our inaugural autumn writing retreat, will be the Pumpkin Crème Brûlée blend I picked up last week especially for the trip. Still, I’m not completely blind (or deaf) to allure of the “Other,” that elusive, inconstant beauty with her fickle, seductive, anarchic siren song of the “Un-planned!” At least that’s what I tell myself…
I struggle with this same dilemma every time the weekend rolls around. If I schedule the hours too carefully or too fully, Sunday night finds me feeling that I’ve not had the chance to unwind and truly enjoy what limited freedom these two wonderful days have to offer. Conversely, when I give myself permission to make no plans at all, and just enjoy the weekend as it comes, I end up Sunday night wondering if spending 27 hours binge-watching three back-to-back seasons of The Walking Dead truly represents freedom in any meaningful way.
I dunno. I’ve been told that I have a tendency to over think things. (Me? Really?) I guess when all is said and done, as far as the upcoming excursion is concerned, all I really want to do is enjoy some fall foliage along the coast, have a couple of drinks and a few laughs with friends, and produce a half a dozen pages of decent prose. That should be possible over the course of three days, right? Right?
Hap, Hap, Happy Christmas!