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!
“Do you want fries with that?” runs the old saw, referring, of course, to what the Arts graduate said to the Business major when they happened to meet again soon after convocation.
And like all perpetual, proto-binary debates — Liberal vs. Conservative, Mac vs. PC, boxers vs. briefs — we choose sides, dig in, and are immediately locked into a sort of intellectual trench warfare where casualties on both sides continue to mount, but no real advances are ever actually possible given the constraints of the existing mindsets. Two solitudes et al.
Wendell Berry, in his book The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, puts it thus (and I quote at length as the sum of the parts is simply too vital to be taken out of context):
It could be said that a liberal education has the nature of a bequest, in that it looks upon the student as the potential heir of a cultural birthright, whereas a practical education has the nature of a commodity to be exchanged for position, status, wealth, etc., in the future. A liberal education rests on the assumption that nature and human nature do not change very much or very fast and that one therefore needs to understand the past. The practical educators assume that human society itself is the only significant context, that change is therefore fundamental, constant, and necessary, that the future will be wholly unlike the past, that the past is outmoded, irrelevant, and an encumbrance upon the future — the present being only a time for dividing past from future, for getting ready.
But these definitions, based on division and opposition, are too simple. It is easy, accepting the viewpoint of either side, to find fault with the other. But the wrong is on neither side; it is in their division…
Without the balance of historic value, practical education gives us that most absurd of standards: ‘relevance,’ based upon the suppositional needs of a theoretical future. But liberal education, divorced from practicality, gives something no less absurd: the specialist professor of one or another of the liberal arts, the custodian of an inheritance he has learned much about, but nothing from.
Kudos Mr. Berry! And though I couldn’t agree more, it still remains something of a guilty pleasure when one nonetheless manages to score a run for the “home” team.
Which brings me to a recent Saturday evening, when my wife and I had the great pleasure of attending an incredible live concert of Baroque music — harpsichord, violin, cello and lute — performed at a beloved, heritage church not far from where we live.
As part of their first set of the evening, the cellist gave the audience a brief summary of a contemporary cello score which she herself had had commissioned and then treated us to her solo performance of the piece. The selection, haunting and evocative throughout, began with a deep, bass rumble, and ended with the hand-trilling of strings and a number of almost imperceptible, plaintive bow strokes. It was enthralling.
During intermission, after my wife and I had managed to polish off a tasty serving of strawberry shortcake that was on offer in the venue’s new gathering pavilion, we wandered back to the entry vestibule of the church where the quartet had a couple of their CDs for sale.
While checking out the CDs, we were also fortunate enough to meet the cellist herself in person, and began chatting with her about how much we had enjoyed her solo. She explained how much she liked performing it as well, and how the complex musical composition that underpinned the work was actually based on the writing of Hildegard von Bingen.
At which point the proverbial light-bulb went off in my head — because I actually had some vague recollection of this von Bingen person to whom she was referring! And, in an instant, it was if I had suddenly been transported back through the decades to a sparsely-attended medieval literature seminar deep within the hallowed halls of my own alma mater. (An image that seems to fade to a deeper and deeper sepia with each passing year.)
And, thus armed, I stepped boldly up to the plate. “She was a ‘seer’. A religious mystic of some sort, right?”
“Yes, exactly,” responded the cellist, enthusiastically. “Hence the title of the piece I played: Visions.” At which point she was called away to prepare for the second set of the evening, and my wife and I proceeded to buy our CDs and return to our seats.
So let me ask you this: How many other avenues of higher learning could have sufficiently prepared a person to partake so fully in an impromptu conversation about a 12th century Benedictine abbess / Christian visionary, with a Baroque cellist, in an obscure, though acoustically-renowned, rural church in Atlantic Canada?
Try pulling that off with a Business degree, Mr. Trump! *thumbs his nose and blows a raspberry in a vaguely southerly direction* I dare you!
Who says an MA in English is worthless?
Oh, and sorry, but I seem to have forgotten your original order: “Did you want fries with that?”
P.S. For those of you who have somehow managed to stumble your way through a post-secondary education without obtaining an arts degree, don’t despair — all is not lost lost. As it was for Radar O’Riley, the naive, teddy bear-totting company clerk from the TV series M*A*S*H, the “Ah, Bach…” Gambit remains a viable option. No, really, Google it. It’s a thing!
Amish for a Day: The Psychological Underpinnings of Barn Raisings, or Why the Grass is Always Greener at the Other Guy’s Home Renovation Project
Pssst, c’mhere. I got a secret to tell you. Closer — it’s a dirty little secret…
Think back to that soul-inspiring Amish barn raising you once saw in a TV program or a Hollywood movie / documentary. The archaic clothing and frilly bonnets, the funny beards, the dust motes sparkling in the camera lens as children chased butterflies across the job site. I know you can picture it. And no doubt you’re smiling as you think about it, ruminating on how this is the way societies should work. Everybody coming together selflessly for the common good of the community.
The problem is, it’s all a big fat lie.
OK, maybe that’s a little harsh. But the truth is, even though Amish men would no doubt be “shunned” if they didn’t show up to help erect the barn (or school, or church), they ultimately — or at least unconsciously — do so, I would argue, for reasons far less selfless than you might expect. The truth is, spending a day helping out on your buddy’s project (or barn) means a day set free from your own (probably) hopelessly stalled home maintenance or DIY-project(s), to say nothing of it being a welcome hiatus from that insatiable, hydra-headed domestic monster, the loathsome “Honey Do” list. Such an opportunity for release is a strong drug. Trust me.
I’m sure it comes as no surprise to folks that one of the main reasons why people choose to become architects is because they love to build things. I’m no exception. And being an architect certainly gives me something of leg up when it comes to DIY and renovation projects around the house. When all is said and done, there’s very few residential-scale construction projects I can’t tackle myself — with the exception of seamfilling drywall which, to do well, I consider something of a magical art form.
But the problem with being an architect is that I also have such well-honed visualization skills — that is, I know exactly what the finished project will look like in my mind’s eye. Why is this a problem you ask? Well, it’s like this: after I’ve completely torn apart the built-in book shelf / entertainment centre in the basement to re-build a new cupboard unit for the flat screen TV we purchased last fall (mostly as an excuse to try out my new Kreg Jig Junior pocket fastening system— https://www.kregtool.com/store/c13/kreg-jigsreg/p169/kreg-jigreg-r3/ — which I recently discovered on YouTube), and have expended all my initial first-day enthusiasm on the project, I’m already looking at the hole left in the wall and seeing a bright, shiny, newly-completed finish carpentry project.
All my wife sees, unfortunately, is, well, reality: lumber and saw dust strewn across the family room, a chop saw stored in the hallway, a panoply of miscellaneous tools underfoot and a veritable obstacle course of electrical / internet / co-ax cords snaking across the floor to service the TV, XBox, cable converter and Apple TV module, all of which now perch precariously on the coffee table about four feet away from us as we sit on the chesterfield to watch something. (My 14-year old son, of course, is in Nirvana — when he plays video games these days, it’s almost like he’s actually in the TV given how close to it he’s sitting).
Sure, I may trip over my nail gun every now and then as I walk through the room, or drive the head of the crowbar into the soft underside of my foot on occasion trying to step around the detritus, but once I get started on a project, as far as I’m concerned it’s pretty much done — ‘cuz, after all, I can see it done in my head. But actually completing the project? Well, that’s just a time thing. What’s the rush?
Helping friends work on their projects / raise their barns, though? Well, that’s a whole different story. Now you get to be the hero instead of the villain.
First crack at the “fun” stuff. Perhaps the best thing about helping a buddy with his or her construction or renovation project — especially if building is generally something you like doing anyway — is that you typically don’t get stuck doing the crappy jobs. The unwritten rule is that since you’re doing them a favour, you get first crack at the plumb jobs. Painting? You get to roll; they have to do all the cutting in. Putting up drywall on the ceiling? You get to screw the drywall to the strapping; they have to heft it overhead and try to hold it place. Flooring? You get to install all the easy, long runs while they have to cut and fit all the end pieces. Imagine getting to work all day at something you enjoy without having to do any of the tedious bits. Sweet!
There’s usually food — and beer — involved. Thankfully, when your spend the better part of you day volunteering your labour at a friend’s house, they take great pains to make sure you don’t go hungry. And there’s usually cold beer involved as well. This is not always the case when you’re at home, working in isolation on your own projects.
Great opportunity to develop new skills. Say you want to try to tile your bathroom on your own, or build a new deck, but you’re a little unsure if you can manage it? Assisting a buddy do this at his (or her) place goes a long way in helping you develop the skills and confidence you need to try to tackle the same job at your own house. (Translation: it’s less expensive to make first-timer mistakes on somebody’s else’s project than on your own). Plus there’s usually food and beer involved at your buddy’s place.
You don’t have to make any of the hard choices. When you’re doing your own home reno or DIY projects, you have to make all the hard choices yourself. Can I afford the the extra $329 to upgrade to the nicer, pre-finished baseboards? How do I install that additional circuit for the new microwave even though my panel is already maxed out and the breaker would end up tripping every time I tried to defrost food and blow dry my hair at the same time? When you’re at your buddy’s place however, even though they’re allowed to ask you what you think about a particular dilemma, they have to make all the hard decisions themselves — plus they have to make these decisions in a timely manner lest you spend all your available volunteer time with them simply staring at the issue and trying to figure it out. (Buddy: “Um, when I put that new partition wall in it wasn’t quite 90 degrees to the existing wall which means the corner we’re working on now isn’t going to be square which may throw off the installation of my t-bar ceiling. Since the wall’s only 8’ long and it isn’t drywalled yet, d’ya think we should we take it out and try to re-set it properly before going any further?” You: “Whatever you like, it’s your show. Got any more beer?”)
No prep or clean-up required. Similar to Item #1, when you’re working at a buddy’s place, you don’t have to worry about getting the “site” ready for what needs to be done, or cleaning up after yourself at the end of the day. It’s expected that since you’re the “help-er” on the project, the “help-ee” will have things all ready for business when you arrive. Furniture will be moved out of the way, tools will be set up, material will be arrayed where easily accessible — you can hit the ground running. Likewise, at the end of your “shift”, when the work is finished but the site is now a complete disaster, you’re free to leave without any sense of guilt whatsoever. “Don’t worry about that,” they’ll gratefully inform you as you’re unfastening your tool belt for the day, “We’ll clean all that up later.” This is, indeed, in stark contrast to your own projects where you’re responsible for absolutely E-V-E-RY-T-H-I-N-G and, if you’re anything like me, actually seem to spend the bulk of your productive time either setting up prior to the start of the project or cleaning up after you’re done.
The right tools and material. Because your buddies will typically want to leverage the limited amount of time you have available to help them out, they’ll usually make sure to have the right tools on hand to make the job run smoothly, as well as sufficient construction material laying around to complete the project at hand so that you don’t have to waste time running out to the Home Depot to re-stock. This can be an especial real treat for a guy like me who can easily waste a couple of hours on my own projects looking for a three foot length of 2” x 4” I thought I had in the shed so I don’t have to go to town and buy a full eight footer, or piss away an entire morning trying to invent a track system to cut sheet goods with my circular saw so I don’t have to waste 15 minutes trying to excavate my table saw from the furnace room.
Have I mentioned the food and beer?
My well pump died last Sunday which (a) left me with no water; and (b) left me reflecting — as I found myself sending my son next door to the neighbour’s to fill up an assortment of plastic water jugs every couple of hours or so — on how much fresh water it takes to run a modern, Canadian household. The result? Shock and awe.
I’ve always been a bit of a “tree hugger”. Granted, at this point in my life, it might be argued that I’m more of an environmental “self-identifier” than an “active fundamentalist”, but still, when all is said and done, the fact remains that I much prefer Mother Nature to Father Mammon.
As an architect, especially, I have always tried to pay close attention to how best to seek to limit the expenditure of scare resources, like energy and water, in the construction and operation of the structures I help to design and build. But it’s not always an easy sell, mostly because “greener,” more efficient buildings cost more money to build and nobody’s particularly thrilled about that initial, sometimes quite significant, up-front cost. The other part of the problem is that we aren’t typically in a position to understand or observe how wasteful we are with our resources in any meaningful or viscerally instructive way.
This hit me — personally — like a ton of bricks several years ago when my wife and son and I stayed at my wife’s parents’ house for a few days while they were out of the province. When we arrived and let ourselves in we soon realized there was some issue with their well pump and that we were going to be stuck without water until we got it fixed (like us, they live in the country so their water came from a drilled well rather than a piped municipal water supply). Luckily they also lived just across the street from a small country convenience store so I marched right over and bought a half a dozen of those big, four litre plastic jugs of water and lugged them — unless you do it every day, you don’t really appreciate how heavy it is to schlep bulk water — back to the house where I figured we’d now have enough water for at least a day or so and mentally assigned three or four of the jugs for on-going toilet flushing and a couple for drinking, cooking, making tea, brushing teeth, etc.
Very quickly, however, I realized the disconnect in my “mental math.” Even though the water I carried over from the store was really heavy and took up a lot of room on the kitchen counter, and even though as an architect I knew — intellectually — that the standard, older-style toilets in my in-law’s house were 13-litre per flush models rather than the newer-style, six-litre flush models that were just starting to find their way into the marketplace, it wasn’t until I physically stood over the toilet and poured three full, four-litre bottles of fresh drinking water in to the reservoir tank to flush a few hours of my family’s bodily waste down the drain that I had to stand back and think “WTF?”
For some reason, which I image had to do with the fact that a four-litre jug seemed like a lot of water (and weighed a fair amount), I had just assumed that each container would easily provide at least one complete flush. Four jugs, four flushes. If, as a family, we were judicious with our flushing, four flushes should easily get us through the day.
The problem, I suppose, is that toilet flushing, for those of us who are lucky enough too live in the “developed” world, is nothing short of magic — especially in as much as there’s a bunch of stuff going on in the background that we don’t usually perceive or pay conscious attention to. We push a lever and, WHOOSH, several ounces of urine, of which we have just rid ourselves, is neatly whisked away. But through what twisted, mind-dead scenario did we ever determine that it made good sense to use 13 litres of scarce, fresh drinking water to flush a few ounces of pee?
And, yeah, sure, I’ll grant you that the newly-required, code-mandated six-litre flush models have helped to cut water consumption for toilets by more than half (and the dual-flush models that also allow you to use a limited three-litre flush for liquid-only waste have minimized total consumption even further), but still, even using as little as three litres of water to flush away an average “urine event” of 0.207 litres (i.e. nearly a gallon to flush away 7 ounces) still seems like a poor use of a valuable, diminishing resource. Like trying to kill a mosquito with a sledge hammer.
And what lots of folks may not realize — ‘cuz unless you’re a plumber, who really gives this stuff much thought — is that the water that you flush your toilet with is exactly the same water that comes out of your taps and you use to drink and cook with. Potable (i.e. drinking) water enters your house via a single supply line and is then routed either to taps or toilets. But do we really need to use drinking-quality water to flush our toilets?
So, the next time you polish off a two litre bottle of pop, set it aside. Then finish a second one and set it aside. Then a third. When they’re all empty, fill them with water, carry them around the house for a bit, and then set them on your countertop. That’s how much water it takes to flush less than a cup of urine. Now multiply this by the more than 1,500 or so times a year you use the toilet in the run of a year. And multiply that by the more than 528 million people who live in North America.
Hi. My name’s Philip and, apparently, I’m an addict.
Turns out, try as I might to neutralize it, I’m addicted to words. And sentences. And paragraphs. To grammar. And stories. And books. Glorious books! And thus I’m back with you today — as Tom and Pam and Charles may have already known I would be. Eventually.
George Orwell reminisces that he knew from the age of five or six that he was going to be a writer, though he qualifies this certainty with the recognition that “[b]etween the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.”
I, likewise, seem to find myself “outraging my true nature” on an almost daily basis as I — consciously or otherwise — scheme to try to keep the siren call of the keyboard at bay. ‘Cuz I’m already busy enough with work. And with family. With trying to keep the house clean, and pay the bills, and plan for this summer’s vacation. Yet the more I try to quash these impulses to compose, the more they coalesce — fester, really — below the surface, gaining ground on me even as I struggle to keep them in check.
It hurts to write — at least to try to write well. It’s a difficult, solitary, alienating process, and not for the faint of heart. But it hurts me more, though in a very different way, not to write. As with the protagonist of the very first short story I wrote for Writers’ Group who simply can’t keep the supple iconography of a once-glimpsed adolescent bathing beauty out of his mid-life noggin, eventually such suppressed agony will always find its way to the light:
“It is this crescendo of images [of the young, scantily-clad teenager] that he fears most. They would come upon him without warning, overpower him and leave him nearly spent, exhausted from trying to keep them at bay, but, as on the very day itself, unable to look away, unable to disentangle himself from the misery that the images would eventually leave draped around him. In the midst of the memory, which he now suffers with alarming regularity, he feels fragile, barely capable of controlling himself. He feels encumbered by some sort of toxic, sexual Tourette’s, anticipating the twitching and sputtering and pornographic language of his obsession that he imagines at any minute must surely come pouring from him like rancid, projectile vomit, leaving him shaking and used up and alone, with nothing left to him but his own strangely muddled desires and humiliation.”
How’s that for a creative call to arms?
It is with a similar, nearly debilitating anxiety, that I continually find myself stringing words together. Not because I want to, you understand, but because — as much as it hurts and as much effort as it requires — it ultimately does me less psychic damage to write than not to write. And yet as true as this may be, even this is only true up to a point. Because that’s what writing is as well — a shifting quicksand of ideas and perspectives where we cling to certainty at our peril.
“Art is a lie that let’s us realize truth,” posits Picasso. And this is certainly as valid for writing as it is for painting. Perhaps even more so where “stories” are concerned. Still, the fact that fiction isn’t “real” has always been something of a sticking point with me as well. What kind of a person freely chooses to spend huge swaths of his limited lifetime in the netherworld of make believe at the expense of his actual human existence? With his literal head — or, more explicitly, perhaps, the imaginative capacity of his mind — stuck up his proverbial arse?
I guess there’s “truth” and then there’s “Truth.” The former is rather more straight-forward than the latter. It’s the brick wall that you walk into when you’re not paying attention to where you’re going. Or the 9-to-5 work you do on a daily basis without really thinking about it. It’s the place where you simply “act” and “re-act” to whatever your life throws at you. A place where “being” is only as valid as the natural laws — physical, chemical, biological — that constrain such a reality.
Creatively, however, as writers we’re after something far more elusive than the simple interplay of physics and chemistry and biology. What we’re after, I would argue, is no less than “Truth” itself. That’s the value the writer brings to the table. What is it to live? To love? To dream? To suffer? To exist as a human being? A real-word response to these questions only gets us so far. On the other hand, what the artist seeks to expose, I believe, is the Platonic ideal that animates the very essence of an issue, the existence-ness of existence that unites us in ways that our mere bodies simply cannot. The once and always, perpetually elusive, physically transcendent, “heart of the matter.”
Why do I write? To lance some some sort of intellectual, creative boil that continues to arise within me unbidden. Ultimately, I suppose, it’s all a mind trick. Everything’s a mind trick. These are not the droids you’re looking for.
Or are they?
(Written on the occasion of my return to my local Writers’ Group earlier this year after an eight month absence.)