Thursday, 31 October 2013

Adults-Only Halloween…

Hello Friends.
It’s time to put away childish things. I really can’t abide contemporaries who cling to the preferences of their youth. Kid’s movies, for example. I fully exempt friends of mine who are parents of children (by the way, most parents are parents of children). You watch what they watch, you can appreciate a girl who says, “It’s fluffy!” or some nonsense like that. But the rest of you! Look at yourselves! What attracts you to this? The bright colours? The funny voices? The fart jokes? Let’s expect more from our entertainment. The other night, I went to the ten o’clock showing of Enough Said, a really smart comedy-drama where Julia Louis-Dreyfus contemplates a summer romance with James Gandolfini as her daughter prepares to head off for college. The theatre was nearly deserted and the sound bled over from the screening next door; Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 in 3D. That theatre was full and, considering the time of night that it was, it was likely full of adults. You know what’s wrong with that situation? Everything.

I digress, and am perhaps, a Grumposaurus. By the time you read this, I will have spent Halloween day at work, informing children that we have, unfortunately, run out of candy. I should mention that I work in an adult upscale clothing store that has nothing to offer children but, because this store is in a mall, children will move store to store in costume, with their parents, asking for candy. Not door to door, but store to store. This is what passes for Halloween now, apparently. I know it’s cold out. I know there are kidnappers lurking behind every rosebush. But do we really have to rob kids of the experience of going door-to-door? Meeting neighbours? Getting cold but powering through because there’s CANDY to be had?!

A coworker at this same store mentioned offhandedly that he didn’t like Halloween. My reaction was an almost visceral disgust. “You don’t like HALLOWEEN?! But it’s so fun! You’re allergic to fun!” I accused.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized he was right. Like kid’s movies, if you’re a childless adult, what is the appeal?

Dream: Create an adults-only Halloween.

Goal: Achievable. I know what some of you are thinking. “But James!” you object, your mouth full of Jello shots, “Adults-only Halloween does exist! And it’s fun!” NOPE. No. I know the Halloween you’re referring to, the drunken, slutty, pay extra at the bar, elbow past three Heath Ledger’s Jokers to get a spot at the goddamn urinal, can’t do it. I’m talking about a truly adult Halloween. Where October 31st is a celebration of maturity, responsibility and good decision-making.

Plan: Upend every aspect of this popular holiday to make it more grown-up (and also less fun). For instance…

Let’s stop eating candy. I read that as you get older, your tastebuds actually change. This transformation accounts for the fact that we crave Kool Aid as a kid and beer as an adult (well, that, and the alcohol content in beer is considerably higher). The same must be true for the sweetness of candy. Have you purchased anything besides gum on the little rack up at the front of a convenience store lately? Like a chocolate bar? Goddamn, what happened to chocolate bars? Religious zealots on campus were handing out Three Musketeers as incentive to go to their God Rally or whatever it was, and I took one while waiting for my bus. Good GOD, the tooth-aching sugar bomb of it all! One bite and I felt it zing to the back of my throat. I don’t deny myself sweets, I like cake and ice cream and sugar in my coffee and stuff, but this was like having a can of frosting thrown at my face. Anyway, I propose on Adult Halloween, that we celebrate the savoury! Won’t it be great to pay a call on your neighbours for a Bloody Mary or small piece of jerky? “Oh, don’t you two look adorable! Here’s some lamb.”

That’s another point, the costumes. Boy, I’d love buy one of those Hallloween Megastores just to burn it to the ground. Where’s the creativity in taking a costume from out of a box? Adult Halloween demands costumes be homemade, witty, and relevant. I will bake and give an entire Duncan Hines chocolate cake  to a fat guy tomorrow if he comes to my store dressed as Mike Duffy, for example. A story. One time I worked in an office with a bunch of slovenly writers. Our department was alongside the sales department, which was filled with slickest, dudelist, broliest, dude-bros you ever saw. These were hair-gelled, tailored suited, Glengarry Glen Ross meets the cast of Entourage, all spewing insufferable sales jargon into their hands-free phones every day, while we schlubby scribes wrote marketing copy for the very deals they were hoping to score. Anyway, we writers planned Dude Bro Friday, where we planned to dress and behave like our salesman neighbours for the entire day to see if anyone noticed. Man, was that fun. I slicked back my hair and wore a blazer. My friend Marisa wore heels, a pencil skirt, and too much makeup. Pat stuck up his hair and wore dogtags (he may have misunderstood the assignment). Anyway, no reprimands were issued, the sales team didn’t even notice, but I don’t think I had a more enjoyable working Friday. The point is, by rote costumes are boring, but dressing up can be so fun. Let’s all work a little harder.

Finally, I’m going to keep Halloween alcohol-free. It’s on a Thursday, after all. But even last weekend, the Doc and I begged off a house party we were invited to, partly in fear of gay drunks (the worst kind of drunks). I wonder about my need for booze, and whether I could simply go without it (but that’s another blog). I also wonder if I’m allergic to fun. What do I care if people my own age go to kids’ movies, get sloppily drunk, and unimaginatively dress like pimps and hos? Maybe it’s because we get so few chances as grown-ups to pretend to be something that we’re not. It’s so easy to play into our roles, consume whatever we’re being spoon-fed, and not ask more of ourselves than we do of our children. Maybe that’s the scariest thing of all.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

The Masters...

Hello Friends.

Have you ever seen that show Chopped? It’s a reality competition show on the Food Network where chefs have to make an appetizer, entrée and dessert within a certain amount of time, all while incorporating certain ingredients that are unknown to the competitors until they begin each round. So, for instance, the chefs have twenty minutes to create an appetizer, and they find out the mandatory ingredients they must include are grapes, Vienna sausages, liquid smoke, and a bus ticket. Course by course, they are whittled down until the champion is left standing. This show has been on for years and is syndicated, so it airs in reruns every day. I’ve only just started watching, so every episode is new to me, and I’m fascinated.

It’s not the food that’s particularly compelling, nor even the sense of competition. I think what makes this show so good is that even the chefs who don’t make it past the first round are excellent. It is often splitting hairs to determine a winner as none of the chefs are amateur. The tremendous appeal of this show is that everybody watching at home gets to witness mastery.

I’ve become obsessed with the idea of mastery, in any arena. The notion that one can have complete superior knowledge and complete control of a thing is suddenly so attractive to me. Also, I think I’m at the age where I have contemporaries who are masterful, and it makes me stop and marvel. It’s remarkable how little we care about masters, though, especially if they’re adults. A five year old playing classical piano is mind-blowing, for instance. We soil ourselves with delight and take pictures and video and we shriek and we cry and we say, “This is a gift from GOD!” But when a 30 year old plays classical piano it’s like, who gives a shit?

The point is, there is mastery all around us. I’m sure recognition for one’s talent and ability is lovely, but I think the true satisfaction a master enjoys comes from simply being aware that they are masterful (I am clearly not a master of synonyms, but I don’t think any other word applies here). I think that kind of satisfaction would give one’s life a purpose and direction that the rest of us muddle-throughers don’t enjoy. I’m tired of muddling-through, and it would be nice to feel confident about my ability to do something for once, thus a Dream is born.

Dream: Become a Master of something.

Goal: Achievable. I’m old enough to know that skill and expertise aren’t acquired overnight, but I’m young enough to take on a new challenge with vigor and optimism, so surely Mastery is in my future.

Plan: Examine mastery, at least what I’ve seen of it, to determine how to harness it for myself.

It’s the common realization of the liberal arts graduate that he doesn’t know how to do anything. Allow me to pause at this moment to acknowledge just how privileged I sound right now. If I wasn’t me, I’d beat me up.

GUY: Hey James, what’s wrong?
JAMES: Aw, I’m not a Master at anything. (Kicks stone, trips, falls into pile of money and preferential treatment because he is a white male)

I don’t regret any of my education as a Fine Arts Theatre Major, but I do regret placing such emphasis on vague ideas and not enough in practical application. For instance, I could probably trot out a British accent, or break a scene down into beats and objectives, but I don’t know how to fix the sink.

That said, I have a friend from the same background, with the same fundamental education as me (even less as she didn’t pursue acting at a university level, I don’t think, but I could be wrong), and she is clearly, obviously masterful. She’s on television shows and movies now and is so good that I don’t recognize her as someone that I know. I have about ten seconds of, “It’s so cool that she’s in a show!” and then it’s, “Ooh, is she mad at him? Is that why she left the party? What’s she doing now?!” In other words, I become invested in the character that I’m watching and forget the actress, which is what is supposed to happen.

I have another friend who is a playwright. Not someone who mumbles quietly at a party about “writing plays on the side sometimes, I guess.” He makes his living writing plays, which is very hard to do, but again, he is masterful. Much like my actress friend, my playwright friend does work that transcends my relationship to him as I read it or see it performed. He rendered one character in one of his plays who is a teenager with Asperger’s or social anxiety, he sits somewhere on the autism spectrum, and his parents are divorced. He has monologues and scenes throughout the play and is rendered so deftly, with moments of such heartbreaking clarity, that it’s the character I connect with, beyond the artifice of a play, beyond an existing relationship with the playwright.

I know a guy whose job it is to render water. He spent years at different institutions getting his undergrad, masters, PhD, and now he works for a software company and leads a team in developing technology which somehow convincingly mimics the movement and undulation of a body of water. Apparently this is useful for animation, marine biology, making trippy screensavers. Can you imagine what goes into this kind of work? The patience required, the dedication, the single-minded purposefulness?

I don’t know exactly how it relates, but I’m confident mastery must somehow tie into Flow. The psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (turns out it’s spelled just like it sounds!) is credited with defining the concept of Flow, or the Flow State. That’s when you’re so completely immersed in a task that a kind of time-suck occurs. You sit down to noodle a riff on your guitar (that’s the technical term, “noodle a riff”) and suddenly four hours have passed. Isn’t that satisfying? That happens to me sometimes when I’m writing. Writing is an agonizing process, to be sure, and nothing looks as good on paper as it sounds in my brains, but suddenly it’s 11 pm and there’s a crick in my neck and my bladder is full but there’s a page of stuff that wasn’t there before and I don’t know how any of it came about and where all the time went.

I think Malcolm Gladwell is the 1000 hours guy. He believes that if you devote 1000 hours of practice to something, you will master it. 1000 hours is a lot, but that still seems too simple. By that definition, every super-dedicated kid who played basketball every day after school for ten years would be drafted into the NBA. Any child of strict parents would be a virtuosic pianist. Time alone cannot equal mastery. I read an interview recently with David Epstein, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated who wrote a book called The Sports Gene. Among other things, he determined that training not only cannot replicate the same results in different people, but some athletes who seem preternaturally gifted at a particular sport can plateau with training and even get worse. Some long distance runners, he theorized, have a certain number of races in them. Training is important, to be sure, but a good runner can simply run out. I wish I could cite specifics here, but I can’t find the piece. I believe him, though.

I’m embarrassed to report the one thing at which I may have been masterful and that was, I’m loathe to admit, working cash at a drugstore. As much as I hated it, as mind-numbing as working a till can be, talk about a flow state. If I had a line of customers, no price checks, no refunds, no machine malfunctions among them, there were moments I swear I was better than a machine. I could scan, demagnetize, sort, bag, take payment, and make change in seconds. Truly, seconds. This was before we had to charge five cents for a bag, mind you, and custies would whinge and guess at how many bags they needed and that was of no use to me. I could take down a line like a champ. My tills were never out money, my items never set off the beeper from not being properly demagged. I work in a store now, but the process is not the same. There is necessary chit-chat and precise garment folding and I’m more often on the sales floor than behind the till anyway. And I certainly don’t want to be back bagging Tylenol and baby formula, not for anything. But I was good at it. Extremely good. Masterful.

How exciting that we live in a world where we can witness the best of ourselves. I just saw this movie Gravity, for instance? Holy god, what the fuck was that, am I right? The whole movie takes place in space, there’s very little dialogue, the visual effects are rendered spectacularly, and the performances are amazing. I have the new Katy Perry album on my pod and haters can step to the left because those tunes are TIGHT! I feel sorry for people who dismiss pop music because I think it’s as intricate as any other musical style and incredibly appealing, if not long-lasting. Katy Perry might be bubblegum, but who doesn’t love a stick of bubblegum every once in a while? I saw a guy at the gym today put the machine to maximum weight and just power through it, conquering physical resistance with sheer power. On Chopped tonight someone made a taco out of eels. I don’t know if I’ll ever find my own mountain to climb or dragon to conquer, but at least with mastery all around me, I’ll enjoy the muddle through.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Does Not Compute...

Hello Friends.

Writing on a computer that’s not your own is like using your non-dominant hand. Or, in the case of blogging, it’s like masturbating with your non-dominant hand. But here I type on Dr. Jon’s laptop, heretofore only used for academic text and research papers, and two sentences in I make a self-abuse joke. Should a well-meaning historian researching the work of Dr. Jon come upon this hard drive in the vast wasteland of what was once Earth some twenty years hence after we’ve all been obliterated (it’s a bleak future, folks), know that some other kid was writing this and don’t taint his legacy with my filth.

I was unable to write to you last week both because I was heading out of town for a fantastic weekend back home with the folks and old friends, and because my dear laptop has finally died for good. Thankfully, I was smart and backed up all of my stuff, so this loss isn’t traumatic, just inconvenient. So now I’m the ass-hat who will be standing in the middle of Best Buy going, “WHICH IS MY BEST BUY?” Before I do that, I think I’d better first determine the criteria the new Old Compy must meet.

Dream: Find the perfect computer for me.

Goal: Achievable. It’s like my computer watched me do online banking as it was dying and thought, “Hold on. I can’t leave now.” But recently, I got paid all at once for a bunch of different projects and am actually in a position to make a big ticket purchase and so, secure in the knowledge that he was replaceable, my laptop finally keeled over. So budget is still a concern, but it’s not the biggest one. Also, and I’m aware how precious this sounds, but I actually need a computer to work. Scoff if you must, but if the marketing company I freelance for doesn’t get that scintillating copy about water heaters, their profits could be down 0.00 percent, and I’d be out nearly forty dollars.

Plan: Figure out what features would be perfect in my new machine. Here’s what I want in my new computer:

  • It has to be a laptop. I rarely, if ever, take my computer anywhere like those Starbucks dink-donks who alternately work on their screenplay and letters to their relatives asking for money. But do you ever even see a personal computer anymore? Like with the monitor and the tower and stuff? Whenever I encounter one I’m always like, “What is this, the forties?!” and then nobody laughs except a very old man who nods sagely and says, “We didn’t know better back then.”
  • Microsoft Word. I hate shelling out for stuff like that, but it really is superior to the free stuff you can get. I did without it on my last computer, the one that just died, and Open Office was a bit of a joke. Inserting page numbers takes a day and a half, for instance, and Track Changes only works when it feels like it, which is never.
  • Virus protection. I don’t download anything illegally, ever. I pay iTunes whatever they request to get a song from an artist who definitely doesn’t need my money (but that new Katy Perry 90’s house jam is worth ten times what I paid I am sorry I am no longer sorry), I don’t do torrents or leeches or biopsies or whatever-the-fuck. But I’m the idiot who got an email from someone I haven’t spoken to in years who lives in the UK that said, “hey looks like ur famous!” with a link attached and of course I clicked the link (because hey, maybe I’m famous in the UK, you guys) and naturally my email became screwy evermore. Or I get those, “james make ur penis bigger!” emails and think, “Ha ha! Surely a hoax! Nonsense!... how much bigger, though?” So I need a program that beeps and blorps and says, “Don’t click on that, idiot.”
  • Skype. I’m really waiting for the shoe to drop as far as Skype is concerned. I sometimes get to interview people in the US and the call function on Skype lets me do it for just pennies, and additional software records the calls so I can transcribe everything after the fact. The only thing I don’t care for is the video function. No one needs to see what I look like in front of the computer. If ever I’m forced to Skype with someone, I spend more time looking at myself and how my face looks when I talk than I do looking at their dumb faces.
  • Sound quality. This needs to be good, but not necessarily perfect. Have you ever accessed material of an… adult nature on the internet? I haven’t, but my friend did and he relayed this experience. Sometimes when you click on a video, a pop-up pops up in another window that you don’t notice and it’s somebody on a live cam show and you hear them say something like, “How’s it going, stud?” I know it’s impossible, but for a few seconds, I always think they can see me. It’s TERRIFYING! So yeah, if the sound is tinny, that’s not the worst thing in the world.

Look, I’m aware how reliant we are on technology. It’s sad that a failed internet connection has me pacing the floors going, “What do I do now? How will I live through this?!” But I think about how far behind I would be in the world if I didn’t use a computer. I love the immediacy of typing something faster than I could ever write it longhand, then sending it into the ether instantly. And surely there are times when unplugging is critical. I don’t need my phone to look at a tree, for instance, and a recently-walked dog doesn’t care for even your funniest tweet. But all the same I’m excited to put Dr. Jon’s laptop back on his desk where it belongs, and soon fill mine with a new technological marvel. It’s a lot to buy, but it’s just the best.