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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?
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.
For anyone out there who either doesn’t have a military background, or isn’t over 40, the above-noted string of dots and dashes is Morse Code for “SOS”. For the purposes of this blog, however, this is not a reference to the traditional “Save Our Souls” distress call — at least not directly. Today, at The Gooseyard, it refers, instead, to “Shiny Object Syndrome,” a recent variation of the acronym I stumbled upon the other day that finally assigns a pithy mnemonic to my super hero-like ability to start about 87 new projects in the run of day, but seldom to finish a single one of them.
Last night’s foray into SOS territory was in pursuit of the new on-line writing game, Storium. The game’s in beta testing so I figured I’d drop by their site for few minutes, check out what was being written and how it worked, and maybe quickly submit a character of my own to one of the emerging stories. Four hours later I pulled my sorry, end-of-the-week carcass away from the computer and off to bed, having spent the entire evening not only creating and submitting a richly-developed, emotionally-conflicted Ranger-like character, christened Alswulff Glenn, for a “fantasy-type” story that was just getting underway, but also having set myself up as the narrator for my own “Occult Pulp Horror” themed tale which I’ve entitled Arcanus Rising. (Hey, don’t give me that look — the genres are pretty much pre-set and at least I had enough self control to not start developing my own unique story-line(s) from scratch! Give me some credit.)
Yep, just what I need (NOT!) — two more writing projects to work on! And, since those of us with chronic (terminal?) SOS like to spread our contagion like wildfire throughout the community, I figured I’d better invite one of my pals along to Storium to give me a hand. I mean, sure, he’s trying to get that YA book of his tweaked and edited for release this fall, but he’s still probably in need of a little shiny, writerly distraction as well, right? (Sorry Tom.)
And thus expired my Friday night, which should have been spent working on the weekly laundry, prepping for my writing group meeting today (sorry Jim), and fleshing out a couple of outlines for this week’s blogs. Yeah, blogs — plural. ‘Cause, hell, two blogs are shinier than one, right? And I really wanted to try out that new “Coco” theme from WordPress…. And why not hitch that second blog to yet another new project — Project One for the Win, where I slowly turn my modest country bungalow from a cluttered family home into a clean-lined, minimalist Nirvana. ‘Cause, hey, a guy needs projects, right? Right? Are we beginning to see a pattern emerge here?
My life— AKA my addiction to the “new”, to anything other than what I happen to be stuck doing at the moment — often reminds me of one of those old Family Circus cartoons. You know, where Billy or PJ, or whoever the hell the young son was, is sent to the kitchen to fetch the scissors for his mother and then we watch that thick dashed line trace his progress on this quest over the course of the cartoon. Starting from the hallway, just before making it to the kitchen, where he gets distracted by a butterfly and climbs out an open window to follow it into the yard. Then, while he’s chasing the butterfly around outside, he sees a low-slung sports car drive by that he decides is exactly the car he wants to own when he grows up, so back inside he goes, down to the family computer station in the basement, to research his coveted future vehicle.
While on-line reviewing car payment schedules he finds himself suddenly re-directed to a mortgage amortization web site and decides he can probably now negotiate a better rate on his own mortgage given the recent dip in rates. And, considering just how low the rates actually are, maybe he’d be better off doing those kitchen renovations he’s been promising his wife this year, rather than delaying it any longer. But if he’s going to do the renovations, he should probably download some nice shiny new 3D kitchen design software to get him started. Which means he should probably back-up his computer first, but his old external hard drive is full so he probably needs a new one, and Future Shop is having a sale, and I should pick up Thief for Xbox while I’m there, and where did I put my car keys?
“Where’re the goddamned scissors I asked for,” screams
your wife PJ’s mother from the top of the basement stairs….
Ahoy! The SS Gooseyard is going down! dot-dot-dot dash-dash-dash dot-dot-dot….
(Nota bene: Alright, I know I haven’t posted in over six months. And there’ll probably be a post about that sometime in the future. But this isn’t it.)
Hi. My name is Philip and I’m a bookaholic. Or biblioholic. Certainly a bibliophile. In the simplest terms, a lover of books who’s addicted to reading.
Were I retired and had no other interests or responsibilities in my life, this probably wouldn’t be a significant issue. Unfortunately, I’m far from retired and, like most spouses / parents / employees, have responsibilities coming out of my eyeballs.
Over the years of trying to self-analyze my reading “problem,” I’ve come up with any number of reasons why I just can’t seem to live without books.
- I love to learn new things and see the world from new perspectives. Books — fiction and non-fiction — are constant teachers.
- I love the way words fit together when an author is truly “on” his or her game. When you get that shiver down your spine as you read a sentence that “sings” out to you. And you think to yourself that there could have been no better way for these particular letters / words / ideas to be strung together to form such a unique, insightful narrative.
If I’m completely truthful with myself, however, some of the other reasons that I love to read so much appear rather more problematic.
- Apparently those things that I find most pleasurable in life seem tend toward the lazy and voyeuristic. Reading is easy. It involves nothing more than my ass in a chair — usually with a beverage of some sort. It’s not something that causes me to exert myself in any meaningful way, like cleaning the ice out of the driveway or doing the taxes would (both of which I should actually be doing now), or generally attempting to live my life. It’s escapism at its very best. The more time I can spend as a spectator reading about the trials and tribulations of other people’s lives, the less time and energy I will have to invest in trying to tame my own.
- Control. Imagine an entire world neatly encased between two covers. Things start to get uncomfortable? Messy? Close the book and put it back on the shelf. Now that’s a level of control I’d like to be able to achieve in “real” life!
- The search for . . . wait for it . . . “The Meaning of Life” (yeah, sorry, I know it’s a difficult concept to express sans irony, but what’s a body to do?); the Platonic ideal behind the very nature of existence itself. Try as I might, I simply can’t help but think that if I stuff enough information / images / stories into my head, some strange alchemy will eventually take control of my pulsing neural pathways and generate the answer for me. (Sorry, I mean “The Answer,” of course.) That thinking for long enough with the brains of others will eventually cause something to “click” in my own. That the veil will be lifted and I’ll finally “get it.” That I’ll truly, definitively solve for “X”. (Geez, that’s a lot of “air quotes”, isn’t it? This might be a good indication that I’m not actually “on to something” here.)
None of the above, I suppose, represent actual conscious strategies in any meaningful sense, but in seeking to reverse engineer why he hell I’m so addicted to reading, I can’t help but think it must be something along those lines. Accept it as a sort of grasping description of an overpowering compulsion.
It’s not even that I spend extensive swaths of time actually reading. I only really read — for myself, for pleasure, that is — about an hour a day or so all told (usually at bedtime). And maybe an hour or two more on weekends and holidays. But my weakness is that I’m not what you’d call a disciplined reader, at least if you define a disciplined reader as a person who finishes one book before moving on to the next. I’ve got a bit of a biblio-ADD thing going on when it comes to reading: the real challenge for me is that I simply can’t read just a single book at a time.
Right now, for example, I have the following books on the go on my bedside table: Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book (which seems oddly familiar enough that I think I’m actually reading it for the second time), Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves (which I’m reading on the strength of her first book, The Historian, but now, more than halfway through, am simply not loving as much), Robertson Davies’ The Salterton Trilogy (what a storyteller!), Victor Del Arbol’s The Sadness of the Samurai (because it was on sale in the remaindered bin a couple of weeks ago and the cover blurbs seemed to suggest the story was strongly Zafon-esque), and Elanor Catton’s The Luminaries (what an impressively-elaborated cast of characters!)
If that’s not enough, in the living room beside the chesterfield — my favorite spot to stretch out and read on the weekend — I have Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind (which I’m reading for the umpteenth time) and an audiobook of Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle (yet another compelling storyteller, and a first-time Canadian novelist at that).
On the counter in the kitchen (’cause I just got them out of the library yesterday and haven’t had time to transfer them bedside yet) are S.J. Parris’ Sacrilege, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve (both of which I’ve already started), as well as John Fleming’s The Dark Side of the Enlightenment and George Dyson’s Turing’s Cathedral.
And finally, on the desk in my home office, a copy of Peter Watson’s The Age of Atheists which I’ve only barely started but am dying to dive into full throttle.
So here’s the thing. As fond as I am of reading so many things at the same time — and, yes, I can keep them all straight in my head, which is the questions most non-compulsive readers always seem to ask me when we talk about reading — I seriously don’t think the multi-tasking component inherent in this activity is serving me well. We all know by now that the idea of actually achieving greater efficiency through multi-tasking is just a sham. What’s more, the constant low-wattage anxiety of continually juggling multiple unfinished projects (AKA books in this instance) no doubt keeps me in a continual state of cortisol-inducing cardio-vascular stress à la Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers. (And, to add insult to injury, with all these books on the go, I find I barely have enough time to maintain my Netflix addiction as well!)
Can I read a single book at a time? What would that feel like, I wonder? I dunno, but maybe I’ll give it a try. It couldn’t possibly stress me out more than reading 13 at once, after all. Could it?
But which one to start with? What’ll I do with the other 12? Uh-o, my pulse is starting to race again…
I’ll keep you posted.
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?
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
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. 😉
Eureka! It’s good to finally know there’s a scientific reason why I often feel like crap at the end of the work day — see http://www.lifeedited.com/edit-your-thoughts-for-more-energy/. Why, after I make it home for the evening, it’s so difficult to peel myself off the chesterfield and actually do something other than watch TV and ingest carbs until I fall asleep.
And here I was the whole time just naturally assuming that I was somehow being exposed to toxic levels of a mutated free-form hybrid tryptophan virus found only in the ventilation system of my particular office building. Who knew?
*Cue Dolly* Working 9 to 5, what a way to make a living…
Wanna share with the class? What gets you off the couch after a hard day at work? Do tell…
P.S. Sorry, the post I provided the link to above wasn’t a WordPress blog so I couldn’t figure out how to simply re-blog it.
P.P.S. If you’re into design at all — and especially “green” architecture — it’s well worth exploring the Life Edited site beyond simply the above-noted link.
I’m old enough that I can remember life without the net, and without PC’s in general. And I suppose that this has a huge influence on how continually astounded I am by the rate at which the virtual world continues its exponential evolution. It’s become such a ubiquitous presence that we seldom even think about it any more. But when I do stop to think about what it would be like — what it used to be like — to do the things I take for granted now, without a PC, or a smart phone, or a tablet or an internet connection, I’m often flabbergasted.
Blogging, for example, is a brave new world. Who would have thought that there were so many writers out there just waiting to exorcise their poor, tortured souls onto the virtual page? Imagine, the minute I upload this file, someone half a world away in Sydney can start reading it. Or in Berlin, or Peoria. No editor, no intermediaries — just me, open to the world for business. (Anyone born into the internet age is rolling their eyes at this point, — duh? — but get off your high horse for a moment and just dare to imagine how it must have felt to live in a world without such immediate syncronicity. In retrospect, it felt pretty good actually, but that’s another blog altogether…) And with the emerging availability of on-line translation protocols, folks can even read this flood of blogs in their language of choice. (Must be the death knell for Esperanto.) Oh, what I would have given to have had Google Translate when I was struggling through high school French!
Last week the top part of the agitator in my washing machine stopped turning properly. A couple of minutes on the internet and I soon discovered that the top part of the agitator is actually called the auger. A couple of minutes more and I discovered that, in fact, I was lucky it was an auger issue because this is far preferable to having a problem with the agitator proper (i.e. the wider, lower part of the shaft that twirls the clothes around in the bottom of your washer). If you’re having a problem with the agitator, I learned, it could be a motor or a belt or a clutch problem — all requiring serious and potentially expensive fixes. With the augur, what usually happens is that the plastic “dogs” that turn against the teeth of the main agitator, to keep the upper spindle turning independently, often wear out. When they’re stripped and don’t engage properly the augur doesn’t turn. Five minutes on YouTube with weezie63, the “red neck” plumber, and a trip to the local appliance store the next day to purchase four plastic replacement “dogs” ($8 plus tax), and I was good to go. Back in the day, this would have meant an expensive visit from an appliance repair person. Do they even have appliance repair people any more?
Then yesterday, doing a bit a research for an upcoming blog I’m planning on life lessons gleaned from minor hockey, I went searching for an image of one of those “Hockey is Life” t-shirts that were so popular (for so many sports) a few years ago. Of course, I found one immediately, with my first search query. And then that started me thinking about other funny t-shirts I’d seen over the course of the years — because, hey, this is the internet whose apparent raison d’être is to lure us down these alleys of lateral thinking so that we waste huge freakin’ swathes of our evenings and weekends without even realizing what we’re doing and that it’s already 1:32 in the morning.
Any variation of the classic “I’m with Stupid” shirt, as you might expect, offered no challenge either — found those images in an instant as well. Then I remembered a t-shirt I had seen years and years ago, but have never seen since. A shirt that became the stuff of legend, my grandfather’s favorite t-shirt of all time. We would have seen it together some time in the late the seventies or early eighties — while I was still in junior high school — on one of our summer excursions to a local “Wildlife Park”. This was around the time when “Egyptomania” was on the rise and the funerary treasures of the young King Tutankhamun were being shipped to key museums around the world for display, and attracting huge crowds in the process. Gramps and I certainly never made it to the Met in New York to enjoy the exhibit. But what we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one enchanted summer day at the park was a buxom, t-shirt-clad young lady striding languorously toward us with matching imprints of the sarcophigal (sp?) visage of King Tut emblazoned proudly across each of her breasts. And, below that, — just in case you happened to be a complete moron and miss the pun altogether — the dire warning, “DON’T TOUCH MY TUTS!” Surely, I thought, there’s no way the internet has that one on file. I was wrong…
Provocative pharaoh-centric fashion statements aside, however, don’t you find this vast, seething, unbounded, what? intelligence? of the Net unsettling somehow? The coalescing hive mind at work. Call me a pessimist, but I simply can’t imagine this will end well.
Neo? Neo, help! I think we’ve entered the Matrix…