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On the vagaries of what can only be deduced as an elaborate plot by WordPress to limit traffic to my blog

Photo credit: comedy_nose via photopin cc

Photo credit: comedy_nose via photopin cc

Reader Advisory: The blog contains graphic scenes of whinging and whining and may not be appropriate for all audiences. Viewer discretion is advised.

Dear WordPress,

I think you’re broken. You may want to try a level-three diagnostic or a hard re-boot or something. I mean I haven’t seen anything in the media yet about your “little problem” but it’s apparent —  to me at least — that you’re obviously not quite firing on all cylinders.

I know this must be the case because none of my recent posts have generated any new traffic to my site. No shower of new “Likes” or thoughtful messages left for me to review and respond to in the comments section. And new “Followers” are barely trickling in in dribs and drabs, if at all. (In fact I’m now certain WordPress must have recently hit a serious software glitch: I’m not even getting those goddamned make-money-blogging-on-line marketing types “Liking” / “Following” my site any more!)

I mean, I appreciate the fact that the limited bandwidth you have available via the internet probably doesn’t have the capacity to let everybody who’s out there clamouring to get through to my site arrive here all at once. But that doesn’t mean you have to shut off the spigot altogether! I’m sure if you reviewed the dilemma with your IT department one of your techies could come up with a compromise solution that might, at the very least, let several thousand of my would-be readers through at a time.

Think about it. How can I not help but conclude that there’s a deep-rooted systems problem on your end? After all, there’s a ton of crap blogs of “questionable literary merit” out there presently overflowing with comments and gaining followers at an exponential rate. So it only stands to reason that there must be a technical issue with my particular account that is currently rendering it traffic-less for some reason.

I know my stuff is often a little wordy. A little dense. Maybe even a little inaccessible on occasion. But I’m confident that could have nothing to do with the recent dearth of visitors to The Gooseyard. Sure, my sentences, at times, may get lengthy and parenthetical, but they still hold together internally and, if one pays particular attention to the form and the rhythm of their inherent structure — which is maybe a little more challenging in these days of tweet-sized ideas and communications — there comes a significant payoff upon arrival at the end of such a sentence knowing that you’ve stuck with it and teased out its central thesis with no other tools than your own pulsing grey matter and predisposition to appreciate a complex array of thoughts and intuitions interpreted through the skein of another person’s consciousness and presented in more than 140 thumb-punched characters. It can’t all be just cat videos, on-line psychotherapy and lollipops. There are clever, thoughtful people out there who can handle my kind of depth. I know there are because I sign up as a “Follower” on their blogs whenever I happen to stumble upon them. All four of them.

Or perhaps the folks at WordPress have simply taken some of my posts to heart and are so worried that — as I have often bemoaned — my other creative writing has suffered as a result of all the time I now spend on my blog, that they have decided to save me from myself by not letting anybody through to my site. While I appreciate the intervention guys, — I truly do, it’s a wonderful feeling knowing my friends at WordPress are out there trying to do right by me and help me get that first novel written — I really have to work through this one on my own. Let the readers back through to my site and after I get “Freshly Pressed” a half a dozen times my work here will be done and, no doubt, I’ll probably migrate naturally back to my novel.

I do hope we can find resolution on this issue — maybe even with this very post! Please don’t make me go public with this.

Best regards,

Philster999 (for The Gooseyard) 

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My Writing “Problem”

Photo credit: Nanagyei via photopin cc

Photo credit: Nanagyei via photopin cc

I suppose the impending apology / explanation for my near seven-month absence from The Gooseyard isn’t going to write itself, so I might as well get it out of the way once and for all. In fact, I’ve already broached it somewhat over at my “de-clutter” blog, Project One for the Win:

The truth is I took a little break from writing, which turned into a long break from writing. Like most of us who write, I have a bit of a love / hate relationship with the process and I suppose the pendulum has been swinging along the “hate” arc of late. Well, maybe not “hate” exactly, but sometimes you feel like you’re just not getting a sufficient return on your authorial investment. Y’know?

You just get weary sometimes. You’re sure you have a book — or two or three or eleven — in you (which, in fact, you should probably be working on now instead of continually feeding the thankless, insatiable blogosphere). And you know you’d have the will-power / confidence / energy to complete these literary masterpieces if only you had the luxury of being a full-time writer. But you’re already a full-time something else, and, in many cases, a full-time parent (or some other type of care-giver), housekeeper, Man / Woman Friday, etc., as well. Time — or, more accurately, perhaps, the lack of energy associated with having to expend so much time elsewhere — is your nemesis. But time itself? Well, as the irreverent, onanistically-minded Chuck Wendig points out in a recent post, Stupid Answers to Common Writing Questions, time doesn’t much give a shit:

How do I find the time to write? You do not find the time to write. You make it. You snatch it from the jaws of whatever temporal beast has your minutes and hours clamped between its gnarly teeth. We all fight for our time, whether it’s time for a meal, time for a TV show, time to mow the lawn, time to masturbate wantonly on the neighbor’s front porch so that their cat can watch you from the family room window. Time is not a lost set of car keys. It’s not extra money you find in a pants pocket just before you wash them. Time is a thing for which you fight. And if you want to write, you need to fight for the time to accomplish that task. Because time doesn’t care about you. It keeps on keeping on until you’re mulch for the fucking marigolds. Seize it. Or don’t. It doesn’t care.

Still, I would argue, time is only a symptom of the larger problem. More than time, what a writer really needs (OK, what I really need, ‘cause, if you haven’t figured it out by now, these blogs are really all about me) is discipline. Time can’t generate discipline after all, but discipline can generate time. And here I find myself wishing for the millionth time that I could actually muster enough discipline to write, instead of simply writing about writing. But at least I recognize I’m falling short. That’s a start, right?

Writing’s easy (it’s just putting words together). So is dieting (eating fewer calories than you expend). And quitting smoking (not lighting up). And staying out of debt (spending less than you earn). None of this — intellectually, computationally — is rocket science. It’s straight-forward action / reaction stuff. The difficult part of the process — and this is what keeps the self-help industry raking in obscene amounts of money year after year — isn’t in acquiring the knowledge of what has to be done, but exerting the will-power and discipline to, well (sorry Nike), “Just do it.” But you can’t order discipline on-line from amazon.com. I checked.

I mean, c’mon. How many pity-the-poor-writer posts like this have I issued from The Gooseyard? Most? Probably. When it comes right down to it, I’m really not sure to what extent the Internet has actually succeeded in liberating aspiring writers. What I think it has done, instead, is give wannabe writers a forum in which to while away the hours writing about writing without actually following through on the type of original, creative projects they’ve always dreamed of pursuing. Then they — OK, “we” — dole out all this psuedo-writing (yes, just like I’m doing now — the irony is not lost on me!) to all the other non-writing writers clogging cyberspace, gaining just enough “Followers” and “Likes” along the way to keep us motivated to pen our next self-indulgent missive. Instant gratification. Why does the phrase “circle jerk” come to mind?

Yikes, that got a little dark, didn’t it? Sorry. I guess I probably need more “Followers” to bolster my fragile ego. Either that or I might actually have to start writing something other than a blog to get my fix — though that seems like waaaay more work. As usual, where writers — pseudo or otherwise — are concerned, Wendig strips the emperor bare:

Uh, hello, please to meet every writer ever. We’re all fucking headcases. We all hit a point in every piece of work where we hate it, hate ourselves, hate publishing, hate the very nature of words (“Marriage? What a stupid word what’s that goddamn little ‘i’ doing in there FUCK THIS HOO-HA LANGUAGE IS STUPID I QUIT”). We all bang our heads against our own presumed inadequacies and uncertainties. Writing and storytelling isn’t a math problem with a guaranteed solution. It’s threading a needle inside our heart with an invisible string strung with dreams and nightmares. We are afforded zero guarantees. [Failing Versus Quitting (Or, “Your Lack of Confidence Is Neither Interesting or Unique”)]

Two blogs in, after more than a half a year hiatus, and already I’m starting to implode. But I don’t think I’m necessarily being unfair. Do you?

Blogito ergo sum

Photo credit: Kristina B via photopin cc

Photo credit: Kristina B via photopin cc

My love / hate affair with blogging continues.

I was hesitant to even start a blog in the first place — see my first-ever post on this site back in February (https://philipjefferson.wordpress.com/2013/02/03/on-writing-2/). And, as it turned out, all the worries that I started with have actually become realities — especially my prediction that blogging would begin to leech time away from my other writing. Which it has. In spades!

Surprisingly, however, — well, to my surprise anyway — it’s also been a fantastic learning experience. I think blogging has really helped me hone some emerging skills. Chief among these would be developing the discipline to write regularly (i.e. trying to turn out a fresh blog every week or so) and, perhaps most importantly for me, actually learning to let stuff go into the ether. Screwing up my courage and finally hitting the “Publish” button rather than simply holding on to something forever and editing it into non-existence because I’m afraid it’s not quite ready yet. Not as perfect as I could, ultimately, make it. If I worked on it for the ret of my life, that is.

But blogging also drives me nuts. Maybe it’s because I still don’t truly understand or appreciate the medium. My 13-year-old son tells me my posts are probably too long. People are on the internet for instant gratification. Most of my posts are at least 1,000 words or more. And typically require some concerted effort on the part of the reader to follow and appreciate whatever thesis I happen to be laying out at the time. And maybe when someone — magically, because I still haven’t quite figured out how this happens — stumbles across my blog at 11:30 at night, having previously enjoyed several of the latest YouTube offerings, or just finished updating the images on their Pintrest  homepage, the thought of tackling 1,000+ words, compressed tightly into a minimal number of densely-packed paragraphs (even with a nice, evocative photo at the top) is simply too daunting.

Should I dumb it down?

Should I, like many of my fellow bloggers seem to do, revert to staccato one-sentence paragraphs like some remedial virtual newspaper so as not to tax my poor readers’ ability to take it all in at one glance?

 

Use More Sub-Headers 

Or use sub-headers within the post to break things down into bite-sized, easily digestible pieces?

Or pepper the blog with ever-popular grumpy cat photos?

Photo credit: Scott Beale via photopin cc

Photo credit: Scott Beale via photopin cc

Or maybe, instead of trying to actually attempt to weave together a thoughtful, critical — and, hopefully, often humorous — approach to something that interests me, simply revert to banal, sophomoric clichés about the way we appear to live in the world. This seems to be a staple of many a blog with thousands of followers:

“It’s rainy this morning and I’m blue. I don’t even want to get out of bed today, so I’m just going to call in sick and work on my blog instead. Only through such rebellion can I embrace my inner “Creator”. Life is hard, isn’t it? Here’s a dancing cat video that helps me out when I feel this way.”

Likes: 425 (within eight minutes of posting somehow).

Comments: 87 and counting (most of which applaud the writer for his / her deft handling of the intrinsic meaning-of-life question and involve an emoticon of some sort in response to the cat video).

 

Another Strategic Sub-Heading to Focus My Readers’ Attention

WTF!?

 

In Which Our Hero Attempts to Extricate Himself from this Morass

I, on the other hand, with my complicated, long-winded, over-earnest blogs, typically average only a couple of “Likes” per upload (friends and writing buddies not included), though I do, somehow, seem to gain at least one new “Follower” every post or so. Given that part of my rationale for starting this blog in the first place was to create a platform — and an audience — from which launch a “lucrative writing career” (sorry, is than an oxymoron?), and that to do so, I calculate, would require somewhere in the vicinity of 250,000 potential readers, and allowing for writing a blog a week, I should pretty much achieve my goal, at this rate, in another 4,800 years. Though I’m probably being overly-optimistic here as I’m not sure in what capacity several of my existing 30 recorded “Followers” actually or still exist as viable “WordPress” entities.

And with these happy thoughts in mind, I’m going to close for today — under 800 words for a change, so I don’t scare anyone away.

And since, apparently, the only way I’m ever going to gain enough readers to make this whole blogging thing worthwhile is if The Gooseyard somehow goes viral, please enjoy the requisite cat video. 😉

 

The Calm Before the Post: Stalking my Inner Luddite

Paul Mayne via photopin cc

Photo credit: Paul Mayne via photopin cc

Consider this a pre-post. A teaser of sorts. Or a trailer, as they refer to it in the movie biz — though why they continue to call something they show before the movie starts a “trailer” still eludes me.

There’s a bunch of subject-specific stuff zooming around in the old noggin at the moment, but I’m not quite willing to generate a final post on it yet. It’s all still whirling — airborne, malleable, coalescing. I gotta wait for it to stop shifting and for the dust to settle on it for a bit yet.

What’s got me all in a lather? Kids and technology. Or, more specifically, I suppose, kids and their dependence on addiction to technology.

A couple of weeks ago I caught the tail end of a documentary on PBS that argued that being brought up with a strong connection to nature generally helps kids fare better later in their lives. The underlying theory, of course, is that having a reasonably sustained, direct exposure to the natural world — finding your way amongst the flora and fauna, appreciating the vicissitudes of the weather, learning how many tree trunks you need to nail that 2”x4” to before you can use it to support the floor of your tree-house, etc. — teaches you transferable, real-world, problem-solving-type skills that will be hugely valuable in your future life as an adult.

At this point, not pausing to analyze the premise too critically, I would have to say I’m in general agreement.

I stumbled upon the program when it was nearly over; when the teens in the show — urban and suburban kids who had been brought out to the “wilderness” to experience it first-hand for several weeks for probably the first time in their lives — were playing at ambushing each other with home-made bows and arrows, swimming in the the nearby streams and sitting companionably around the camp fire. Idyllic sylvan frolicking all around. Many of them were a little homesick, and a few of them generally thought the whole exercise was “stupid” and sorely missed the conveniences of their “real” lives, but these certainly aren’t foreign emotions to any kid who has ever left home for summer camp.

It was when the kids returned to the bosom of their families, however, that things started to go south for me. Upon returning home, one of the remaining challenges the filmmakers wanted the group to undertake was a “technology fast,” to see how long they could fare without jumping right back on the “virtual” bandwagon where they had left off. It was voluntary, so some agreed to go ahead with it and some didn’t. Those who declined to participate in the fast walked in the door of their homes and were soon once more stationary in front of one type of screen or another, once more cresting the horizons of their digital frontiers.

Of those who agreed to participate in the fast I’m not sure that anyone lasted more than a day (maybe two days, tops) without being overwhelmed by their addiction and having to return to their smart phones and computers in fairly short order. And it was one young girl’s “video diary,” after only a single day back in the “world,” that ultimately sent me reeling. This poor young thing, who, ironically, was one of the kids who actually seemed to have some fun out in the woods, was nearly trembling with withdrawal symptoms as she spoke into the camera about how she absolutely had to get back to her cell phone. That she just couldn’t hold out any longer. My heart nearly broke. This child — our children — have become literal technology junkies.

I remember experiencing a similar feeling of desperation about six months ago after stumbling upon a blog in which a mother was describing how upset she was at having to develop an arsenal of new strategies to talk with her young daughter about many of the things the daughter was seeing other girls post on Facebook relating to “cutting” themselves. I think the daughter was 10- or 11-years old. I can’t for the life of me remember what series of random clicks would have ever brought me to such a web page to begin with, but what I can remember thinking about at that point was what kind of parents would let their child have their own Facebook accounts at that age in the first place? Hello?

But here’s where it gets complicated. I’m a huge fan of technology — always have been. I love gadgets and gaming and blogging and essentially having the entire world available to me at my fingertips via the internet (though I hate texting and despise Facebook, but that’s probably fodder for a whole ‘nother blog). I couldn’t earn my daily bread without a computer and a cell phone (though millions of architects have in the past!) and, truth be told, I also frequently turn to technology to soothe my weary soul via streaming entertainment in some form or another.

But when it comes right down to it, my relationship with technology is probably very similar to my relationship with, say, booze. Like most folks, I enjoy a drink every now and then — maybe even several, given the right occasion and venue — but no one I know, by any stretch of the imagination, could ever call me an alcoholic. I’m an adult. I know when enough is enough. On the other hand, I think it’s damn near impossible these days to find a kid who’s not a “technoholic,” who even begins to comprehend what “enough” means.

Where I live the drinking age is 19-years old, and, for the most part, this limitation seems to do a reasonable job of preventing those who are still honing their emerging decision making skills from becoming mindless drunkards. Maybe we need something similar where technology is concerned. Maybe we need to establish an age of “digital” majority. All things being equal, maybe we’d be better off helping our kids learn to experience, appreciate and contend with real life before letting them escape down the rabbit hole of virtual life.

I dunno. Like I said at the start of this post, I got this issue stuck in my head and I’m simply trying to think / write my way through it. What I do know, however, is that pretty soon my son’s probably going to be the only teenager in junior high school without a cell phone and that any minute now my in box is probably going to start filling up with hate mail from every kid on the internet who thinks a digital age of majority is probably the worst idea since some sadistic old fart invented school in the first place.

Am I serious? I’m not sure yet. Is such an approach simply little more than a case of throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater? Might I actually be a Luddite in techie’s clothing? Your guess is as good as mine at this point.

Feel free to weigh in.

The Making of a Public Spectacle

Photo credit: David Gallagher via photopin cc

Photo credit: David Gallagher via photopin cc

 

‘Art is a lie that makes us realize truth’ (Pablo Picasso, 1923)

For me, when I break it down, I think writing is a meta thing.

I write, I am slowly beginning to realize, to figure out why I write. Not to re-present a life, but to seek to expose Life. The search for some kind of Platonic essence that transcends existence by its very existence-ness. A sort of philosophizing from first principals without the requisite guise of academic convention.

Maybe creating all art is like this. I dunno. All I know is writing and architecture. What you might consider the “slow-burn” arts. Where the practice of the visual arts (drawing, painting, sculpture) or music (singing or playing a instrument) is concerned, on the other hand,— those forms of artistic expression with substantially more inherent immediacy — I draw a blank. Nada. I’ve a huge appreciation, certainly. But insight or ability? Not so much.

And that gets me into trouble sometimes — ‘cause I get jealous.  Jealous because the painter or singer can make an instant, visceral connection with an audience in a way a writer — at least a writer of anything longer than a haiku or short poem — simply cannot. Plus, once they reach a minimal level of competence in their field (not always an easy thing, I grant you that at least), they can generate and be out there flogging their latest still life or love song in little or not time at all. As competent as I become, however, it takes me a long time to write and publish that novel. And if it doesn’t quite take off, well, that’s years of my life I can’t get back.

In just under two weeks from now my writing group is undertaking a public reading of some of our work at a local library. I was instrumental in backing the group into this particular corner because early in the new year I kept on at them about how frustrated I was that yet another local artist was having a lovely showing of their watercolours or oils in the library foyer. Or I had been to a benefit concert where the singers and musicians had those in attendance tapping their feet, clapping their hands, and hooting with appreciation. Meanwhile, all we did was meet sheepishly once a month and read passages of our latest work to one another. But damn it, I challenged (pleaded?), we were artists as well! Weren’t we? (The answer, of course, was “yes,” but, as our intrepid facilitator Tom pointed out, apparently some of us “artists” needed a little more external validation than others!)

God only knows how the evening is going to turn out. We’ve put posters up, and are trying to get the word out with PSA’s and news releases, but, in my mind’s eye, I can already see the assembly in front of me as I stand at the lectern about to get underway. The first row comprised of a handful of spouses and / or significant others (who, by now, have probably heard the material enough times to be thoroughly bored with it already) and a few really close friends who feel obliged to attend though, if truth be told, they’d probably be having more fun at home watching the Stanley Cup playoffs with a cold beer in hand. Then, behind them, a veritable sea of empty seats. Empty until you come to the last row that is. The last row is packed — populated entirely by a gaggle of hobos and rubbies, whose “Free Admission” has gained them unimpeded access to the “Light Refreshments” advertised in our promotional material.

I wish I had some clever McLuhan-esque interpretation of how this should go down. Or, at least, some explanation of why we’re not going to pull in the same droves of people we would if we were, say, an amateur jazz quartet instead of just four writers. Something about how the medium relates to the message. Because as engaging as the various snippets of our stories might turn out be, ultimately we’ll be nothing more than talking heads. Nobody’s going to be stomping their feet or singing along with abandon.

Maybe these reading things only work when the author is already well known and the event is more about simply being in the same room with such an accomplished wordsmith than it is about listening to what he or she has to read. Maybe, until you’ve already made a mark of some sort, you should simply be satisfied if every now and then someone curls up alone in a corner somewhere and dives into something you’ve written. Maybe, in the final analysis, that remains the best way for writers to communicate with their “audience” — not with them sitting in front of you, but, instead, with them in that place where they truly have the time and freedom to embrace the work, to sit and think with the author’s mind.

The disconnect I suppose I’m stumbling over here is that writers aren’t typically performers in the same way as, well, performers, are. (Traditional storytellers might be, but that’s a different blog altogether). If you’ve got a half-way decent voice and can play your own guitar accompaniment, hell, you can busk on the street — singing somebody else’s songs — and people will typically throw at least some coinage in your direction. I wonder how much money I’d make standing there reading somebody else’s book out loud? Ironically, it’d probably be about the same amount I’d make standing there reading my own work — zilch!

Okay, the pity party’s almost over. As convoluted as my ravings have become at this point, I think what I’m trying to say — with a tip of the hat to Tolstoy — is that though the creative process seems strangely similar from individual to individual, different types of artistic endeavours are difficult in different ways. I think one of the reasons writing is so hard is because people think it’s so easy. Most folks would admit freely that they can’t paint, or sculpt, or play the oboe or piano, but I imagine many of them think they could write something, in one form or another, if called upon to do so. They can speak after all, and writing’s just an extension of that, right? This has the tendency, as you might imagine, of de-valuing the writer’s currency. Of placing our work in the realm of the potentially “do-able” for most folks, rather than the realm of truly inspired creativity like, say, writing a pop song!

For me writing’s hard. Like pulling a full-grown elephant out of my butt hard. Then again, maybe I’m just a poor writer.

Painting (and Life), Not Exactly as Advertised

monkey

No time for my usual full-fledged, navel-gazing missive this week, I’m afraid. I’ve just been too busy. Not finishing the floor tile in the back hall as you might expect after last week’s post, but painting the master bedroom instead.

I truly like painting. I kinda get a zen thing going on when I’m in the “paint zone.” Painting takes your mind off things, especially once you get a good, steady rhythm going. It’s not particularly taxing, but, like driving, it still requires your undivided — if only partially conscious — attention to keep from having an accident.

What makes me crazy about painting, however, is that is doesn’t involve as much, well, painting, as one would hope. Advertising, DIY flyers, and every damn RomCom that has ever sought to depict an attractive couple painting a room, are, not to mince words, full to the brim with crap!

Check out these morons from the Women’s Day decorating site, for example: http://www.womansday.com/home/decorating-ideas/blue-walls#slide-4. They’ve obviously just got their requisite bout of pre-painting playfulness out of the way by having an exuberant, romantic paint fight. But staged paint fights are as phony as Hollywood fist fights — no furniture or flooring ever gets ruined in the case of the former, and nobody ever seems to lose a tooth in the latter. In real life, things — and teeth — get damaged.

And don’t even get me started on the fact that they’ve rolled out a giant island of paint onto the middle of the wall with nary an attempt to first cut-in their surrounding interior corners or maintain a proper “wet edge” necessary for recommended coverage as one moves neatly from one end of the wall to the other.

Rolling the paint on the wall is the best part of painting, but actually undertaking to paint a room requires more than simply showing up with your roller and some product from Benjamin Moore. It’s like . . . well, in many ways it’s not unlike sex, I guess. You don’t just get to jump right in. It requires a reasonable investment of time and no small amount of effort dedicated to “prep” work in one form or another. When all is said and done, you’re pretty much committed to at least a minimal level of, shall we say, foreplay, if you’re to have any hope of real success.

For the five minutes it might take me to smoothly roll out 100 square feet of wall, it’s taken me ten times that amount of time to move the furniture out of the way, cover it, repair any damage to the surface that is about to be painted, sand the wall and trim to better accept the new paint, repaint or mask off the affected trim, tape off the heaters, remove the electrical plug and light switch covers, take down the draperies, and complete the “cutting in” on all the interior corners and trim on the wall which I’m about to paint. (The related parallelism of the afore-mentioned sexual metaphor, I’ll leave with you to explore on your own time…)

Everything other than the actual “rolling” out of the wall with paint, I don’t particularly enjoy. But it’s a means to an end. And I enjoy the “end” enough that I just kinda put my head down and muddle through the “means” part as necessary. Which, I suppose, encapsulates so much of what we find ourselves doing in our day-to-day lives. Working 50ish weeks a year to get two or three off for holiday. Paying down a mortgage for most of our lives in order to enjoy true home “ownership” for at least a few years before we die.

And this certainly seems to hold true for writing as well. The actual joy of sitting down and having the opportunity to compose something — unencumbered by anything else for even the briefest of moments — is the sweet spot of the whole process. But it’s the tip of the iceberg. So much of the real work of writing — research, editing, marketing, networking, publishing, and generally finding the motivation to  drag your ass to your desk every day — lies below the water. Where it’s dark. And murky. And cold.

Still, the “prep work” is simply too significant a portion of any endeavour — of our existence — not to try to figure out a way of attempting to enjoy it, of embracing it, as an integral part of the process. (Crap, that sounds a lot like that cloying “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey” refrain, doesn’t it. Sorry. But shut up — mine’s better.)

Maybe the answer is simply more foreplay. What was the question again?

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chrisjohnbeckett/2468154839/

Toward a Civil Society; Or, Just Because You Have Your Four-Way Flashers On Doesn’t Mean You Can Park Wherever You Want, You Dick!

manners

(Spoiler alert: In case you haven’t figured it out from the title, this is going to be something of a curmudgeonly post. What my old copywriting pal and wordsmith Margaret MacQuarrie, wordperson.ca, tags on her blog as “General Grumpiness”.)

I’m a fairly well-behaved, open-minded guy — in a charmingly uptight kind of way. (That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!) I’d like to be able to say that I strive to give folks the benefit of the doubt, but, truth be told, I don’t have a lot of faith in people to “do the right thing” when left to their own devices. One need only consider the last several bloodstained millennia of human history. The rise of the body corporate at the expense of the body politic. The obesity epidemic in the west. Reality TV.

And, in a way, it’s hard to blame people. Tens of thousand of years of instinct and conditioning, driven by that ancient reptilian brain of ours at the epicenter of our neural network, are difficult forces to bring under control. Back in the — evolutionary — day, it used to be if you could slice off even a little more for yourself than the next guy, gain the smallest of competitive advantages somehow, your genes would probably survive while theirs might perish. Greed was good.

But in an age of abundance, too much of a good thing — too much of anything, really — often ends up creating more problems than it solves. *Cue Supersize Me.*  We can — and need to — do better.

As an architect, for example, I have always tried to champion more environmental sensitivity and efficiency in the projects I’ve been involved with. We could save huge amounts of resources and energy if we truly embraced green architecture — but we’re not going to get there if we leave it to people to voluntarily do the right thing. Sorry, we won’t. It’s hard. It costs more money and requires a far more thoughtful approach to the issues. It involves sacrifice and a re-alignment of priorities that we hardly feel the need to impose upon ourselves given that our neighbours are still driving their kids to soccer practice in humvees. We’re not as bad as that after all, we like to tell ourselves. And it’s not like consumption  — even the conspicuous kind — is illegal or anything.

Whenever I try to convince people that we may all very well need a little kick in the ass to do the right thing, I always use the example of rationing during the second world war. Combatant nations had only limited pools of resources (food, raw materials, gasoline, manufacturing capacity, etc.) with which to wage war, and it was imperative that these resources were effectively marshaled to defeat the enemy. People weren’t asked to do the right thing in this instance — limit your gas intake for example, because we need the fuel for our bombers — they were compelled to do right thing through the imposed rationing of scarce resources. And it worked. I admit it’s an extreme example, but the point remains the same. If people could have been trusted to do the right thing in the first place, they wouldn’t have had to have been compelled to do so via external forces.

It’s the same with civility, the largely unwritten laws of social conduct that prevent interactions within our communities from coming to a complete standstill as a result of our own intensely personal interests. In the first-world, at least, such interactions usually roll along fairly well. Still, I’m long-enough in the tooth at this point in my life to appreciate just how thin the veneer of civility actually is in our ostensibly civilized society. A season of involvement as a parent in any minor sports league makes this immediately evident (but that’s a whole ‘nother blog!). You put even a minimal stress on a group of otherwise normally functioning people and you don’t have to scratch too deeply to see the rules of common decency and consideration start to falter. *Cue the footage of Black Friday line-ups gone bad.* Then, unfortunately, all bets are off. This is why we need to embrace civility with renewed vigour — not because it greases the rails for other people, but, if we’re all participating as we should, because it helps to grease the rails for ourselves as well.

Manners, general decency, non-egocentric behavior. Who gives a crap about this archaic stuff anymore? I suggest we all should. It needs be at the heart of what we teach our children and teenagers. It’s about how to get along. When my mother was a student in the 1950’s and 60’s, she informs me,  they actually had Civics classes. Imagine! An organized forum from which to share with children and young adults the concept that they had fundamental responsibilities within the culture they were lucky enough to be born into. That they were citizens and neighbours and it was vital for the vein of civic-mindedness to run deep if they were to maintain healthy, inter-dependent communities. (Of course, they also taught Latin back then, and the idea that an Africa-American might ever be elected as president of the Unites States seemed like an impossible dream, so perhaps backwards isn’t where I want to move this argument after all.)

We need to get it together. Here’s some food for thought:

  1. Four-way flashers do not absolve you from vehicular responsibility. “Parking’s pretty congested today so I’ll just park here in the barrier-free space [that’s architect-speak for the blue parking spot with the white wheelchair painted on it] in front of the Pharmacy. I seldom see any handicapped people parking here anyway, and I’ll be in and out before you know it. Just need get a Coke. And a pack of cigarettes. Oh, and a lottery ticket” [OK, so maybe I’m profiling just a little with this example]. “But not to worry, I’ll simply leave my four-ways on so everybody knows I’ll be right back. After all, it’d be rude to leave my car in the handicapped spot without the four-ways on.” Dick!
  2. Break the cycle of LCD TV. No, I’m not talking about your new 52” liquid crystal Samsung. I’m talking about lowest common denominator (LCD) television programming. Get a grip on yourselves, people. The Real Housewives of [insert name of city here], Honey Boo Boo, anything with a Kardashian in it. Really? Really?! This is the best we can do as human beings already a decade into the twenty-first century? They wouldn’t make this rubbish if we didn’t watch it, folks. We’re fiddling and Rome’s burning down around our ears.
  3. Lead by example. There’s a great TED Talk by behavioural economist Dan Ariely (http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_ariely_on_our_buggy_moral_code.html) that outlines some of the key difficulties with what he refers to as our “buggy moral code.” He suggests that most of us  are willing to cheat a little — up to a level he refers to as a “personal fudge factor” — provided we’re fairly sure we can get away with it essentially unscathed. These proclivities, however, can be easily swayed by the behaviour of other individuals within our immediate surroundings. Where an atmosphere of virtue and honesty are made manifest, for example, people are far less inclined to cheat. Of course, the opposite is also true. And we call that the stock market.
  4. Put yourself in others’ shoes. The Golden Rule — “Do unto others, etc.” Always a classic regardless of religious affiliation (or lack thereof). Our brains are sophisticated enough at this point in our evolution that we shouldn’t actually have to experience something for ourselves first-hand in order to be able to develop a reasonable conclusion about it. Consider American Senator Rob Portman’s recent decision to support gay marriage in opposition to beliefs he had previously held throughout his life. Why the change? Because he recently learned his own son was gay. See the problem? If we have to be poor before we understand that poverty sucks, or die at the hands of someone of a different ethnicity to find the will to act against the horror of genocide, we’re really up the creek.
  5. Understand that civility demonstrates power, not weakness. This is a variation of lead by example. It means that we’re always paying it forward a little. We get to take the high ground when we do the right thing. We’re in control and conscious of the decisions we make to facilitate our interaction with others. It’s like anything else. You keep making good decisions about things over and over again — ignoring that sibilant egocentric hiss emanating from the top of your brain stem — and it soon becomes second nature. You’re not left constantly wondering what’s the right thing to do — you’re just doing it.

*THUMP* OK, that’s the sound of me stepping down from my soapbox. Thanks for letting me vent. Bottom line is that it’s better for all of us if we simply leave our — metaphorical — four-way flashers off and just park where there are actually empty spaces available that were designed to accommodate us. Yes, even if it’s at the far end of the parking lot and all we need is a Coke. And a pack of cigarettes. And a lottery ticket…

Oh yeah, and stop going to WalMart in your pajama bottoms. I mean, really, are you 12?