Archive | February 2012

Anything but the Routine

When I started this blog, I committed to write at least four days a week. For the most part, I have. My intention was to rekindle my love of writing, any kind of writing. If by spending a few hours contemplating, composing and writing about something (anything really), I could sharpen old skills, get better at it, love it again, then it seemed worth it.

I am a lazy person in many ways. I love sleeping in. Love it! I am a night owl, and my favorite time of the day has always been just after dark. Strange enough, once I am awake, I am usually quite happy. I wouldn’t say I love mornings, but once I am going, I see no reason to be miserable about it.

If not for me wanting to see my boys off to school, I wouldn’t get up until around 10. As it is, I usually get out of bed just before 8. Before the new year, I would get the kids out the door then crawl back into bed for a nap. I would steal a few minutes in the early afternoon to write, but in order to really commit to the process, to get better, I had to set a more disciplined routine.

Up by 8, then to the gym by 8:30. Breakfast between 9:45 and 10, followed by a shower and a drive to get a warm beverage. Most days I can get to the computer by 11 and be set for the next two or three hours.  This routine works for me, makes me responsible for my work and my effort.

The past few weeks, a few small things have thrown a wrench in my perfect plans: Boys home from school, Sheryl home sick or working from home, meeting with friends or family.

Having to adjust the routine made me a bit frustrated at first. I don’t have to go to work, but I feel that what I write is my work and I felt that schedule was not taken seriously by those around me, which wasn’t true. It got me pondering. I am still working it out, but I think I am becoming  less thrilled with routine.

Some routine can be a good thing, a way to focus on a task or make sure that things get done. I worry that by becoming so set on a structured flow of events, we become complacent, lose track of why we do certain things. We stop finding joy in the process and instead become trapped by the things that were meant to enable us. I started my routine to find time to write, to make writing a priority.  having to adjust that process should not throw my entire day off or make me feel like I have not accomplished anything.

Some things you have very little control over-School start times, work start times, meetings. At certain moments all of us have to be certain places, but how we get there, how we approach those things is where we get to exercise some control. I am sure all of us have experienced that feeling of frustration at how determined our lives can become. We become creatures of habit, doing the same things the same way, every day. When I worked outside the home, I would take different paths to and from the library. It was a small way to break up the monotony. Sometimes that required me to get up earlier, plan a bit better, but I would feel more relaxed at work.

I think creating a morning routine helped me at first, then became cumbersome. I still want to be writing before noon I still want to go to the gym. I still need to eat and I still want my coffee. Tweaking is in order. If not in the order of things than in the way it all works together in my mind.

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And the Oscar Goes To

I am always fascinated by contradictions, especially in myself.  Every year as the Academy Awards approach, I find that once again I have not seen most or any of the nominated films. I like to get smug at this point, thinking of how I don’t get caught up in that sort of thing, how I watch what interests me, regardless of critical acclaim. If by chance, I have seen a film or two on the list, it is easy to rationalize that it is the Academy moving towards my taste. It is not that I watch artsy or independently produced films (though some of those have been my favorites while others have bored the holy hell out of me). I am a mainstream Hollywood kind of guy. I just do not usually pick the films the Academy does.

Sometimes, after the awards are given, I manage to see one or two of the movies that won awards or were nominated. Crash was one. American Beauty was another. I saw No Country for Old Men before it won any awards and I am still sort of shocked that film was so successful. Strangely enough, despite my sometimes criminally perverse obsession with Natalie Portman, I did not see Black Swan until it came out on DVD. Also, even though I loved the movie, I do not own it. There are films I think I can only sit through once and that feels like one.

But my contradiction is more than just my smugness about movies I haven’t seen, that I often end up seeing. Right up until the day of the awards, I pride myself on my disgust at the entire production. I don’t like the focus on wealth, or material things. I ignore the talk of who is wearing what, or how much jewelry so and so will be wearing. I shun the red carpet talk and make wicked fun of anyone foolish enough to get tickets or stand in line for a chance to scream the name of some starlet or other while 500 other people scream along with them.

And the speeches! Oh, how I hate the pretentious speeches. The faux shock at winning, the cheesy smiles of those that lose (who secretly know they should have won, only amplifying the fake shock of whoever did win), and the often fake tears. All the pomp, all the pretense, all the phony sweetness, it wears on me.

Then, every year almost without fail, there I am, clicking the channels looking for some star’s arrival on the red carpet, some talk about the gowns or the suits or the hair or the shoes or the necklaces. I eat it all up! I agonize over who is going to win what, and even though I don’t know the films, I know the work of the actors and that seems justification enough. I about jumped out of my seat when Natalie won for best actress and (while I was sickened by her baby bump, or was that jealousy) when she shed tears,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I believed them. I believed Meryl Streep’s shocked face last night when she won another Oscar. I vowed to see three or four of the films, I bought into the who kit and caboodle all over again.

Next year! Next year I will grow up, do better and have some integrity. Next year, I promise to be a bigger ass.

 

Dig

I am letting you take my confidence. Illusive looks at each question, eyes darting up and to the right (and I am never sure if that means you are making it all up, or accessing memory), telling me where your heart currently resides, what makes you giddy. If you were more powerful, you could do this all without stealing. but you have always said, stolen coffee tastes better than other coffee. I cannot help but agree as we sit, sipping, contemplating our collective night sky, where stars have shifted with the orbit of the earth and the ones we used to count in a straight line have become crooked, like our hearts.

Nostalgic for the times when I saw you less, or the times when I saw you every day; full of deliberate touching, or when you wore that same red shirt and savvy jeans. I could let my fingers wander to the back of your neck, feel you pushing into me, holding your breath, just in case. Instead we find ourselves here, everything measured and heavy, and I am less liberated by it.

Together we have written words numbering thousands. Borrowed phrases from songs and singers, writers and cowards who left us such stinging discourse that we did not trust our own voices to say what we might have felt, thought we were feeling, wanted to feel. How could we know better than they? Euphonious voices all of them, even the screamers, now blending to this gnat like hum, picking at the back of my head.

I drink some more. Blackened, acidic and necessary. Something ritualistic and comforting in the process. You are only taking what is given and no one can fault you for that.

Out of Mind

I have always been able to entertain myself. Inventing games or adventures was what brought me the most pleasure and while I enjoyed the company of my friends or siblings, I was just as content alone in my room. Before the invasion of video games and cable television, I found numerous ways to play baseball games in my head or direct my own action movies.

I had a large, white bucket full of plastic army men and would take them into epic battles that would range all over the basement or have them fight hand to hand in jungles or city environments I would make out of clothing, books and bottles. I even gave some particular pieces names and back stories. If I decided to make the wars more “realistic”, I would add an element of chance the soldiers fate by rolling dice to see if they were hit by the bullet or grenade, then again to see if they were only slightly wounded, maimed or killed.

The rolling of dice became a recurring theme in my inventing. Following the idea for a baseball game my father played as a boy, I created a game  using trading cards as players, setting  up a ball park on a table or floor. Paper bases formed the diamond and pitchers rubber. If I was craving more realism, books would create stadium seating, foul lines and walls. I separated the cards into actual teams and leagues, usually limiting myself to 6 or 8 teams to make playing multiple games more reasonable. I kept stats for hitters-strike outs, home runs, singles, doubles and triples. Since no one outside of baseball statisticians understand ERA, I would just keep track of innings pitched, strike outs, walks and runs given up for the pitchers.

The dice controlled everything, though in my head I easily ascribed every success and failure to the player card. I would pull players, pinch hit for those I felt were weaker hitters, and change pitchers if they were tired or a left handed pitcher had better chances of  getting a right handed batter out.

Pages and pages of game box scores and statistics covered the floor during games and I had a drawer where I kept records of completed seasons and career stats. As multiple seasons (and actual summers) passed, I would trade players from team to team. I released some players and made stricter limits on how many players could be on each team. This allowed me to institute a mock draft, taking newly acquired cards to replace older (and usually no longer on the team) players.

The game was simple. The pitcher would roll first, followed by the hitter. If the pitcher rolled a higher number, it was a strike, lower equaled a ball (rolling a 6 always equaled a strike, a 1 was always a ball). If the numbers were the same, the ball was in play and the hitter would then roll both dice. The sum of the dice would determine where the ball was hit (2 for a bunt, 3 to the first baseman, etc). If a 10, 11, or 12 was rolled, the first version of the game called that a home run. I had to alter that after some teams were hitting double digit home runs in single games. Later versions of the game gave those numbers doubles, triples and finally, only a 12 was a home run. If the ball was hit to a fielder, dice were rolled again with the higher number determining if the batter was safe or out, ties always going to the runner.

I loved to play this game alone, but I taught it to friends and family. Dylan and I would play often and we have one favorite story of me running a pencil through poor Dick Ruthven after he failed to get a single out and gave up three straight home runs to Dylan’s NY Mets.

It was a clever and fun game. Of course, current video games have taken away the need for this sort of imagining. I am not condemning video games. I play sports games all the time and they are fantastic. NCAA Football is a game I play at least three times a week. It gives me that same rush, keeping track of stats and records. I get to recruit players, make my team better, suffer crushing defeats and deal with injuries and unhappy players. I get to win national championships and take on rival teams. It brings out that same feeling I had in my basement bedroom when I would imagine my teams playing in crowded stadiums.

I do worry though, that much of the creativity of children is reduced. I know my kids don’t invent the same way I did. Maybe they are just different than I was.

I still have those baseball cards. They are in a box downstairs in the storage area. I bet if I dig, I can even find the card with a pencil hole through it. Perhaps I can find a few dice around the house and clear off the kitchen table for a game or two. You are welcome to come along if you want.

 

Top Stuff-Week 3

Top Five Poets-

I really don’t read much poetry anymore. I wish I did. When I was attending University, I took several class on reading and writing poetry.  This gave me plenty of opportunity to read a wide variety of writers from published famous poets to not so famous and student poets. I often disagreed with my poetry professors, as they tended to be a bit to strict in their interpretations of texts. One time in particular I was discussing an alternative meaning to Yeats poem, The Second Coming  with a humanities professor. I thought the discussion was moving along quite well, each of us offering point and counter point, seeming to be moving towards some agreement on an interpretation when the conversation was cut short with a “no, you’re wrong” from the professor. I was stunned for a second but was able to eek out an “excuse me, did you say I was wrong?” To which the professor responded, “yes. Now moving on…”

Now I believe there are better or stronger ways to read poetry and that not all readings or ideas about a poem carry equal weight or allow for better understanding of a work, but I refuse to believe any personal interpretation, supported by the text, can ever be wrong. Perhaps this is why I loved the poetry writing classes better. The focus was on tightening prose, strengthening  metaphor and avoiding phrases, line breaks and rhymes that seemed cliche, pointless and obvious (rhyming fire with fire for instance or with higher. Seriously, Jim…do better). One instructor in particular was unrestrained in his criticism or his praise. When he looked at a piece of writing, he could completely remove any personal connection to the writer and clearly see the text. He came closest to a truly objective voice as I have ever heard. It also helped that he was nearly always spot on in his critique. Every poem that he helped me with always ended up better, tighter, more powerful. He taught me that form was a means to and end, not the end itself. A valuable lesson that I will never forget. Sadly, he was killed in a hiking accident a few years back.

We start the list with him-

Craig Arnold-With only two collections, there are few poems to appreciate and enjoy but the language, the imagery and the subject manner of Arnold’s poetry is immense. Unconventional line breaks and unexpected phrases make reading slower, forcing the reader to pay attention. Not easy to do, harder to do well. I recommend “Shells” and in particular the poem titled Hot 

W.S Merwin-With Merwin, I tend to stay with his earlier work. As he has matured as a poet, his work is much more dense, but also much longer. I really enjoy his work from the collection “The Second Four Books of Poems. In these poems he uses punctuation sparingly, or not at all. The line breaks become pauses. This is one of my favorite, though there are several fantastic poems in this collection.

Jorie Graham-I had the privilege of listening to Jorie read. Hearing a poet read her own work can have a startling effect. The way her voice would rise and fall, pause, offering some strange and distinct life to the verse. It can also be dangerous as it can affect the way you individually relate to a text. Regardless, hearing Jorie read made me a fan for life. Her work is very complex and often hard to crack. Still, give some effort and read her. Here you can read AND listen to her. lucky you!

Phillip Larkin-One of the few poets I read for a class that I fell in love with. Larkin has a rare gift of making simple rhyme poignant. He can sing song you through some dark places, which can be a wonderful thing when having to travel dark places. Read this poem.

Seamus Heaney-Nobel prize winning poet and translator of the only version of Beowulf I can read, Heaney writes very stunning poetry. Plus, he is Irish, which makes him all the more special. The bog poems are fantastic and enthralling. Read any of the bog poems but also try this.

I am going to throw in an honorable mention and add Margaret Atwood to the list. She will most likely move ahead of Larkin or Heaney once I read more of her work. This poem is pretty swell. (though I cannot vouch for the additional information provided by the blogger). I love her story telling and her poems read almost as flash fiction.

Well there you have it…more top crap.

Over the Counter

One of my favorite places for breakfast is Over the Counter Cafe . This tiny hole in the wall diner is the perfect place for a casual meal with friends or an intimate breakfast with someone.  Smells of fresh coffee and frying meats great you when you walk in. While it can get very crowded, it is usually not a long wait for a table. The service is quite good, friendly and fast. My cup never runs dry and the food comes quickly and is always steaming hot. Nothing waits under a heat lamp. I recommend the omelets, any of them, though I am a huge fan of two in particular- The Utah and Chicago Omelet. The Utah comes with green peppers, onions, mushrooms and cheese along with spicy ground beef (which is fantastic and has a pleasant spice, hot but still flavorful). The Chicago replaces the beef with a tasty sausage.

The peppers, onions and mushrooms are grilled together then placed inside folded egg. The ingredients pour out an onto the plate. The vegetables retain a nice crispness to them and the mushrooms blend in fantastically, while the cheese melted on top of the egg is not too sharp and adds a nice creaminess to the meal. The home fries that accompany the omelet have a nice crisp, brown edge and with a little pepper are quite tasty.  Surprisingly, nothing is too greasy and the portions are a good size, not too overwhelming but filling.

They also serve lunch, but I am so stuck on the omelets that I have yet to venture into the other menu items. The hours are 6:30 to 2:00, so don’t doddle.

All in the Execution

The hardest part of writing is actually writing. That may sound silly or ridiculous, but in my experience, it is spot on. Putting the right words next to other right words is difficult for most writers. Whenever I discuss writing with people who also write, it’s a common theme. This is part of why a writer is never fully satisfied with any piece of writing, whether it be a poem, short story, essay, blog, memoir or novel. There is always something to fix, something that needs altering or rewriting.

I recently shared a piece called Three Rooms. I originally wrote and posted it over a year ago on a different blog. I agonized over it, tore it apart and felt that I had put something quite clever on the page. I read it over and over to make sure I still liked it, then finally shared it. The other day I felt it needed to be moved to this blog as it remains one of my favorite bits of writing. I thought it would be a simple cut and paste job but as I read, making sure it still felt good enough, I instantly found seven things in the first paragraph I wanted to change. An hour later I felt I had once again made it ready to post.

Now, it wasn’t bad the way it was. It just felt overwritten in parts, underwritten in others. If I were less prideful, I would post them side by side and let everyone see and decide. If you want to see the older effort, you can find it here. I am a bit curious if anyone will like the first version better.  I haven’t read over the edited piece in a few days, but I am sure I can find something else to change.

The point-Ideas are easy, maybe the easiest thing. Getting those ideas onto the page is where it gets tricky. It is all in the execution, much like everything worth doing.  We all have stories to tell; they make up our lives.  So many say that they know we have novels inside us, just waiting to come out. It is getting them out that requires skill and effort, learning self-discipline and sacrifice.  I don’t trust the art of someone who puts no effort, suffers no loss in its creation. Something is lacking there. It should be difficult, should be painful. There are always moments of effortlessness, where things flow, but those moments are few and rarely make up the entire process of the work.  Like good song writing, fantastic painting, or a poignant novel, greatness takes time and pain.  I have to prepare myself for that experience every time I get ready to write.

I am in a constant battle with myself over if I have it in me to suffer that again and again.