“What do you mean, Phib?” asked Miss Squeers, looking in her own little glass, where, like most of us, she saw – not herself, but the reflection of some pleasant image in her own brain.”
― Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby
“One swallow does not make a summer,
neither does one fine day;
similarly one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy.”
― Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics
They said it would be the last hot weekend – the end of summer.
“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”
― Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt
Every year at the end of October I, along with every other wannabe writer across the whole wide world (and many others), is faced with a tough choice. To do NaNoWriMo or not?
To those of you that don’t know – NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month. The idea is to hammer out 50,000 words (not quite a whole novel – but close enough) in the month of November. It’s a tough decision – you want to make an honest shot at it, but it is a huge commitment of time, energy, and pride. It is hard to do, easy to give up.
November won’t be the best of months for me. I’ll be in New Orleans for the first few days (Halloween in the French Quarter is not to be missed) and then off to Louisville, Kentucky for a week long business trip. I know it sounds easy to sit in a strange hotel room and hammer off a couple hours of work every evening – but in practice it doesn’t work out very well. I’m always really worn out after any work day – especially one on the road. Plus, folks always have extra work – want to go out to eat… that sort of thing.
I will almost certainly be behind right from the beginning – and playing catchup isn’t fun.
I’ve given this a serious shot about three times, and only succeeded once. My two failures were when I wrote myself into a corner and couldn’t figure out a way out. I know this sounds silly – the idea is to write, not necessarily write well – why didn’t I just change things up when stuck? Well, it doesn’t work like that. The characters take on a life of their own and sometimes they simply refuse to do anything worth writing about.
The one year I won I wrote a story that included a lot of flashbacks (the framing story was an old man in a beach house during a hurricane, the water is rising and he is taking stock of his life) so that I could always add another vignette if I was stuck. That worked.
The only problem is that at eleven fifty at night on the last day of November I thought I had finished. I ran my stuff through the word counter one last time and to my horror discovered I was about a hundred words short. Trying to hammer out that last hundred words in ten minutes with the clock ticking was unbelievably and unbearably difficult. I don’t want to do that again.
It helps to not be in this alone. A friend of mine is giving it a shot too – there are always some social events (there is something amazingly cool about writing in public with a group of strangers – all hammering away in silence) – maybe I’ll organize one or two.
My username is Chancew1 – if you want to write sometime. I can even post a snippet or two here, if the fancy strikes me.
Wish me luck.
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet
an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says
“Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a
bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes
“What the hell is water?”
—-David Foster Wallace, from the 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address
The other day I stumbled across a blog entry that posed the question, “What Book has the Most Page-for-Page Wisdom?” I had read most of the links on the page – but one that I was not familiar with caught my eye. This is Water, by David Foster Wallace.
It’s a short work, actually a transcription of a commencement address, and readily available in book form or online.
There are a lot of good ideas here, but I want to look at one piece of text – a description of the hell everyone’s life can become if we give in.
By way of example, let’s say it’s an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired, and you’re stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home — you haven’t had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job — and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the workday, and the traffic’s very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store’s hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out: You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day-rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.
Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etcetera, etcetera.
—–David Foster Wallace, This is Water
The excellent piece goes on to explain how important it is to not let this sort of thing get to you, to realize that we are all in the same boat, that we need to look at life in a non-selfish way and go with it – or else we will go mad.
All good advice and interesting thought provoking… but I want to present an alternative. Find out about this shit and simply don’t do it… or rather, figure out something else.
For example, I know all too well the hell of exhausted grocery shopping. So I decided not to do it.
My goal for this year… and probably for next year too, is to never drive my car to the grocery store. My commuter bike has room for a pair of big, cheap panniers I found at Wal-Mart of all places. With those and a backpack I can carry a goodly bit of groceries – enough to get by for a few days.
This has transformed my grocery shopping from a gas-fueled frustration fest into a series of fun little mini-adventures, complete with fresh air and a little exercise.
It helps that I have five grocery choices within easy cycling distance from my house. I define that as less than, say three miles… and no killer streets.
First is the Super Target – good for general shopping. They have bike racks sort of hidden in little alcoves near the entryways. This is the closest place to the hell described in Wallace’s speech. But, somehow, when you have ridden a bicycle to a store, it’s impossible to be overly frustrated at the inevitable delays. You simply feel too silly.
Then there is the Fiesta Mart – a Hispanic slanted grocery store. It’s the farthest away – maybe two miles – but a nice route, mostly bike trail. It has a beat-up but serviceable bike rack around by the propane cylinders.
Those are the only two groceries with bike racks near where I live. No big problem – they all have cart racks, which can be locked to as well as a dedicated rack. In the other direction – in Garland, actually – is the Saigon Market Mall – a big, cool Asian Market – good for noodles, fresh vegetables, and fish.
Then, very close to where I live is an Aldi – great for staples like milk and eggs. It’s nice to buy milk there since it is uphill from my house and I can ride up there light and coast home heavy.
Finally, there is an India Bazaar in the same center. Great place for rice, beans, and, especially spices. Their spice aisle is a wonder – I love to stand there and simply smell.
I know that the Wallace speech deals with much larger and more subtle issues than how to get your groceries. But in this tough world we need all the weapons we can muster and being able to roll out of the garage on a cheap, used, crappy bicycle instead of a smoke spewing SUV makes life a little bit easier to bear. For everybody.
“Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills”
― William Shakespeare, Richard II
A week ago I went along on an organized bike ride that, in the spirit of upcoming Halloween, explored three of Dallas’ historical cemeteries. I left the house and rode to the DART station, taking the train downtown. This was the last week of the giant State Fair of Texas and the trains were packed with last-minute fairgoers, but I made it without any problem. I rode from the West End Station down to the Continental Bridge Park and met up with about twenty folks there.
We rode down into the Trinity River Bottoms and followed the new paved bike trail and some gravel roads to the Santa Fe Trestle Trail. Then we headed up Corinth and into South Dallas. Working our way through the neighborhoods we arrived at our first stop, Oakland Cemetery.
This was a very peaceful and interesting place. It’s one of the oldest cemeteries in the city and is full of locally famous folks – the names on the tombstones are reflected in many familiar street names. One feature is that when they constructed the cemetery they left the native trees – making it one of the few first-growth forest spots in the city. There are a number of unique sub-species of trees found only there.
We rode around without stopping – I plan on going back soon for some photography there.
Leaving Oakland Cemetery we went a few blocks up a side street and stopped at an ordinary small rental property. It was the house where Ray Charles lived for a few years in the 1950s – while he was making some of his most famous music. I had no idea there was any connection between Ray Charles and the city of Dallas – the house is not marked or preserved in any way. The local blues scene was influential on his musical growth and style at the time. He was traveling a lot – but became a regular performer at local clubs like Woodman Hall and the Arandas Club.
We rode back on side streets into The Cedars where we stopped for lunch and a beer at Lee Harvey’s – which appeared as we turned the corner like an oasis in the desert.
The day was getting long and I thought about heading home, but I was convinced to ride back across the river to another historical cemetery, Oak Cliff Cemetery. It was another interesting and beautiful spot – but the sun was starting to set so we headed off to our last destination, Western Heights Cemetery.
I was getting tired and started to fall behind the main group. A strong cyclist stayed back with me and we became separated from everybody else. It was dark when we made it to Western Heights. We waited for a bit – but the others never made it.
The most famous person buried in Western Heights is Clyde Barrow. A few years back I visited Bonnie Parker’s grave, north of Love Field. Her family insisted on her being buried far away from her infamous partner – there has been some interest in having them moved together over the years, but nothing has come of it.
We clambered over the fence to take a look at the grave of Clyde and his brother Buck.
It was getting late and I was a long way from home, so I took off, riding back to the Trinity River, over the Continental Bridge and catching a train at the American Airlines Center back to Richardson. We had ridden a little over thirty miles, which is a long way in the city, especially for me. There is nothing better than a fun and exhausting day.
This new quantum mechanics promised to explain all of chemistry. And though I felt an exuberance at this, I felt a certain threat, too. “Chemistry,” wrote Crookes, “will be established upon an entirely new basis…. We shall be set free from the need for experiment, knowing a priori what the result of each and every experiment must be.” I was not sure I liked the sound of this. Did this mean that chemists of the future (if they existed) would never actually need to handle a chemical; might never see the colors of vanadium salts, never smell a hydrogen selenide, never admire the form of a crystal; might live in a colorless, scentless, mathematical world? This, for me, seemed and awful prospect, for I, at least, needed to smell and touch and feel, to place myself, my senses, in the middle of the perceptual world.
—-Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten
Over the last couple of years, I have seen two simulcasts of the Dallas Opera, both at Cowboy’s Stadium on the giant video screen. First was Turandot and then, a year later, The Barber of Seville. Despite the compromises in seeing an opera in a football stadium – I enjoyed both performances… a lot.
So now, I found out that the Dallas Opera was doing another simulcast on opening night, this time The Marriage of Figaro, and outdoors at Klyde Warren Park, instead of the stadium. This looked great to me, I’m a big fan of Klyde Warren and it’s a sequel to The Barber of Seville. Plus it’s free. Plus I have never seen a Mozart Opera.
I shoved a thick blanket into a backpack and took the DART train downtown after work. I thought of taking my bicycle, but decided to walk it anyway. I hurt my foot (Plantar fasciitis) a couple weeks ago backpacking, but managed to limp my way down to the park. I arrived early, so I was able to stake out some grassy real estate right in front of the giant screen.
As I was waiting I finished reading Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata. It was interesting to compare the novella with the opera. Although they could not be any different in tone… and of course in the ending, the two shared a lot of theme in ideas of jealousy, the treatment of women, and how love can turn unhappy. Although The Marriage of Figaro is billed as a light farce – a comedic farce – there is deep meaning and sadness concealed under a layer of genius.
The opera was great. The park was a better setting than the stadium – the sound system was so much better. Without the echoing of the vast dome, the sound came through loud and clear.
It was also fun watching all the other people at the park. Most arrived in big groups with packs full of tupperware containers bulging with food and coolers of wine. As they drank and ate – the behavior on the lawn became as slapstick as the ones on the screen.
The only problem was one of time and comfort. I arrived at the park at five o’clock and the opera ended around midnight. That means I was stuck on a blanket in the grass for seven hours. That’s too long – I’m too old for that. I was awfully sore when I rode the train back home in the wee early hours.