I always skip the Oscars

Okay, so I have very lit­tle to say about the Acad­e­my Awards tonight (or ever, real­ly), but what lit­tle I do have I will say now.

I have noth­ing against awards cer­e­monies per se, and while I know rather lit­tle about the film indus­try aside from what is com­mon pop-cul­ture knowl­edge (which feels like know­ing a great deal, giv­en the cen­tral­i­ty of that indus­try, but I am sure those of my friends who actu­al­ly work in the field can reas­sure me of how lit­tle I tru­ly know about the inter­nal work­ings of their craft), I would absolute­ly agree that the efforts of the many many tal­ent­ed peo­ple involved at all stages of the filmic art form deserve to be rec­og­nized and laud­ed by their peers.

How­ev­er, I do not think that said event of (self-)congratulations needs and/or deserves to be a break­ing-news, live-tweet­ed, world-stop­ping cul­tur­al event. This has noth­ing to do with the lav­ish excess of such events (which some might deem scan­dalous, but I am done being scan­dal­ized as a gen­er­al rule). Nor do I intend to cast asper­sions on any­one who finds such spec­ta­cles enjoy­able and enter­tain­ing on their own mer­its, pre­cise­ly as enter­tain­ing spec­ta­cles: if you dig that, then keep on dig­ging it. Instead, I take issue with the degree to which such riv­et­ing atten­tion to the Oscars (and the sev­er­al oth­er awards shows that the same indus­try cycles through every year) tempts film-view­ers — indi­vid­u­al­ly and col­lec­tive­ly — to abdi­cate respon­si­bil­i­ty for their own appre­cia­tive fac­ul­ties for the films they see.

I love film as an art form. The con­cate­na­tion of the actor’s craft, the expres­sive impact of the visu­al arts, and the infi­nite emo­tion­al palette of music into a uni­fied art of visu­al sto­ry­telling that is far more than a sum of its com­po­nents, is some­thing I have hap­pi­ly spent prob­a­bly thou­sands of hours enjoy­ing already at this point in my life. (As a more-or-less direct result of my tran­si­tion to my rôle of hus­band and father, I have not seen any­where near all the films I wish I had in the past decade or so — I’ve kept a list, obvi­ous­ly — and I should prob­a­bly get start­ed on my list for this decade pret­ty soon, too, before I lose track.) I know which films I enjoy (for var­i­ous rea­sons), which I feel are par­tic­u­lar­ly amaz­ing, which might even deserve to be called impor­tant. But I do not know one rea­son why the bestow­al of an award of any kind upon any film I see should have any rel­e­vance to my rela­tion­ship to that film as an indi­vid­ual work of art. Just as when I read a book or a poem, or look at a paint­ing or a pho­to­graph, or even eat a burg­er and drink a glass of ale, I am the only crit­ic in that moment. My taste is the only arbiter whose judg­ment is of any inter­est to me as I con­sume, in what­ev­er sense is rel­e­vant, the expe­ri­ence I am fac­ing.

So it sad­dens me, I guess, more than any­thing else, when peo­ple make such a point of see­ing the five (or now ten) films nom­i­nat­ed for best pic­ture, or lat­er, when I hear some­one say “Oh, I did­n’t real­ly like that one, but it won Best Pic­ture, so…” So what? Yes, your taste may well be crap, as indeed mine may be, but it is mine, and I gen­er­al­ly stand by it, gild­ed tro­phies be damned. For a long peri­od in my life I watched David Fincher’s Se7en about once a week, and even now would nev­er think of part­ing with my DVD copy, but I could­n’t tell you to save my life whether it won any awards or not. I am pret­ty sure Titan­ic did, yet I strug­gle to imag­ine a sce­nario where I would will­ing­ly sit through that par­tic­u­lar film again.

So, yes, if you love to watch the dress­es come down the red car­pet with celebri­ties inside them, then pop anoth­er bot­tle of what­ev­er and sit back: tonight is your night. But if you love to watch movies, if you delight in the immer­sive expe­ri­ence of film, please do your­self the sim­ple cour­tesy of hon­or­ing what you think is good, great, and leg­endary, and not wor­ry whether it match­es up with the awards list from this or any oth­er sea­son.

Messing up the blank page

Of all the many many ter­rors which life seems to hold for me, few are as par­a­lyz­ing as a new blank note­book. That is why I have so many of them: I love note­books, I am drawn to almost every­thing about them, and I pur­chase them almost (but not quite) com­pul­sive­ly. But most of the time I can­not bring myself to spoil them with my clum­sy imper­fect words.

Lent is com­ing again this week. I say ‘again’ because it seems like we just had it a year ago, and I did­n’t get around to writ­ing a jot about it then, despite a seri­ous knot of thoughts on the mat­ter and mul­ti­ple attempts to com­pose them. Fall down, get up again, right?

This year I am more inclined than ever before to approach Ash Wednes­day as a New Year’s sur­ro­gate: this is the time I want to tack­le some of the (many) things about me that I know need to change. And a lot of that change is going to involve this new note­book I am already dar­ing to mar with line after line of scrawl­ing words in Pelikan 4001 Königs­blau ink.

What shape will my Lenten ambi­tion take? Cer­tain­ly a return to the most ele­men­tal activ­i­ty for a writer — writ­ing — and with it a renewed effort to shift my iner­tia from con­sum­ing stuff to mak­ing stuff. There are a few facets to this, the expli­ca­tion of which I will attempt to drag out over the next few days, but this time I feel, more than ever before, that I am attempt­ing some­thing simul­ta­ne­ous­ly chal­leng­ing and achiev­able: a sus­tain­able move away from indo­lence (and the resul­tant self-loathing) toward a life of dili­gent self-expres­sion in my cho­sen medi­um. Will it work? We’ll all have to stay tuned to find out.

A Moan about a Meme

I ful­ly real­ize that this is an odd thing to feel strong­ly about, par­tic­u­lar­ly with all that is going on in the polis right now, but I real­ly hate the lat­est viral meme that is mak­ing the rounds on Face­book (and per­haps else­where) in seem­ing­ly tire­less iter­a­tions. You’ve seen the one I’m talk­ing about: four or six hasti­ly-select­ed pics gleaned from an image search arranged on a black back­ground with a pro­fes­sion or inter­est group for a title and a pro for­ma series of cap­tions pro­gress­ing from “What ___ thinks I/we do” to the con­clud­ing “What I/we real­ly do.” Some do a bet­ter job than oth­ers of cov­er­ing the most well-worn stereo­types of the giv­en group, but none, for me, have done any­thing ter­ri­bly well.

I don’t want to fault any­one for get­ting their yuks where they can find them: laugh­ter is a healthy and indis­pens­able part of a bal­anced life, and any­one who knows me knows I crack up at (almost lit­er­al­ly) the drop of a hat. But, boy, I just find the thing any­thing but fun­ny. I can tell it is sup­posed to be fun­ny; the intent at humor is unmis­tak­able. But in ver­sion after ver­sion that pops up in my news feed I can­not see past the thrown togeth­er nature of these paste-ups, the evi­dent haste with which the cap­tions were com­posed, and the lead­en plonk of the punch line, if it can even be called that. And the over-the-moon enthu­si­asm that peo­ple seem to respond to these with only adds a fur­ther lay­er of baf­fle­ment and iras­ci­bil­i­ty to my own reac­tion.

Ulti­mate­ly, I sus­pect, the ire that this meme’s explo­sion has aroused in me is pro­jec­tion on my part: I’m mak­ing this cycle of trite­ness the whip­ping boy for a very real rage that has almost noth­ing to do with it. What am I real­ly angry about? My fail­ure to make things. So while yes, I sin­cere­ly think most of these things are crap, and unfun­ny, uncre­ative crap at that, I am painful­ly aware of how I am spend­ing my own pre­cious time — look­ing at these things and get­ting pis­sy about them. And deep down in my murky depths I am already seething because day after day, month after month, near­ing year after year, I am not mak­ing any­thing of my own, crap­py or oth­er­wise. I have become sunk deep in a rut of con­sum­ing for far too long, and my diet (to bela­bor the metaphor) has been far from healthy to boot. I have been unable to push myself to find the moti­va­tion to climb off my back­side and get scrib­bling. I guess there is only one way to fix that:

I need to climb off my back­side and get scrib­bling.

I know the name”

I am, as many of you know, a whole-heart­ed embrac­er of social net­work­ing, or at least the ver­sion of it that hap­pens on spe­cial­ly-designed web­sites ded­i­cat­ed to some aspect of that pur­pose. Face­book, LinkedIn, Academia.edu, even Goodreads: I’m on them all. I am remark­ably dili­gent in scour­ing up per­sons from var­i­ous eras of my life, and most of the time, even after the pas­sage of years, I am appar­ent­ly remem­bered pos­i­tive­ly (or at least not neg­a­tive­ly) by a whole lot of peo­ple.

But there is a down­side to this. I spend so much time and, yes, ener­gy detail­ing an elec­tron­ic map of past con­tacts and rela­tion­ships (and, to be fair, main­tain­ing a good many cur­rent ones) that I have had even less prac­tice than usu­al of late in doing the thing I suck the worst at: meet­ing peo­ple I want to meet. This was a prob­lem all those years I thought girls might be inter­est­ing, and now it is a prob­lem when I think estab­lished pro­fes­sion­als in my cho­sen field might be both inter­est­ing and impor­tant to know.

Ear­li­er this week, I had one the most sig­nif­i­cant net­work­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties of my entire life just hap­pen to me, and I com­plete­ly blew it. If we are going to go sports anal­o­gy at this point in the post (and I think we should), then I was the bat­ter tap­ping his bat on the cor­ner of the plate and adjust­ing his, um, uni­form while a nine­ty-three-mile-an-hour fast­ball blows past him. All he can do is stare stu­pid­ly and think, “Why didn’t I have my bat up so I could take a swing at that?”

To make mat­ters worse (and to bela­bor the image) this was a total soft­ball, too. It was not as if I had to suck up enough gump­tion to sidle up to a lumi­nary at a crowd­ed cock­tail gath­er­ing and intro­duce myself like a des­per­ate pick-up artist at clos­ing time. No, I was sit­ting in the office of one of my pro­fes­sors, work­ing with him on a project for which he hand-picked me to assist him, when there was a knock on the door and in walked the pro­fes­sion­al canon­ist who, beyond all oth­ers, I have most wished I could meet some­day. She is one of the only authors still writ­ing on a top­ic that I find of the utmost inter­est, and to have such a per­son stand­ing sud­den­ly in front of me was under­stand­ably dis­com­bob­u­lat­ing.

When intro­duced, I did man­age to say, with prop­er empha­sis, “Yes, I know the name,” but then I left it there. It would have been per­fect­ly accept­able for me to con­tin­ue, sim­ply and sin­cere­ly: “I am very inter­est­ed in the top­ic of ____, and have read all your arti­cles on the sub­ject.” How hard would that have been?

I know very well that I am not any­thing remote­ly like a nat­ur­al schmooz­er. And I am sure I nev­er will be. But there are lim­its to what I can tol­er­ate of myself. Mine is not a very large dis­ci­pline. While I am at school it is not unheard of — clear­ly — for a rock-star canon­ist to walk with­out fan­fare into what­ev­er room I hap­pen to be in, at any moment. I want to be ready next time, and this week’s encounter empha­sized for me the truth that no amount of noodling about with my LinkedIn pro­file is going to help me put out a hand and intro­duce myself to a real live human per­son. I am going to have to be able to do that myself, and it shames me that I have for­got­ten that.

Baby sister no more, and yet always

I remem­ber the first day of Decem­ber, eigh­teen years ago. It was a soft, snowy morn­ing on our farm on the west­ern edge of Min­neso­ta, and my two sis­ters and I had fin­ished feed­ing the goats and chick­ens, and had some­how wan­dered down to the end of our short dri­ve­way, where we were engaged in a play­ful fight with quick-packed balls of the wet, heavy new-fall­en snow. We were osten­si­bly watch­ing for the arrival of our chi­ro­prac­tor, delayed by the weath­er, but we had most­ly for­got­ten about that after a few min­utes of joy­ful squeals.

Then dad’s voice rang out across the silent yard.

If you want to see this baby born, you bet­ter get in here now!”

Oh, things were hap­pen­ing fast! We wal­lowed across the snowy yard, tum­bled into the house, and—no doubt leav­ing our win­ter clothes is a tan­gle heap in the porch—we qui­et­ly piled into Mom and Dad’s tiny bed­room which was today the birth room. And it was not long at all before a tiny new sis­ter slid into the morn­ing light and into our lives.

We had a spe­cial bond (I think) all the years I was still home. There are a great many pic­tures of the grin­ning teenage Me with an equal­ly-grin­ning wee sis­ter in my arms: “My two ends” our moth­er always called us fond­ly. I walked her to sleep for her naps, often to the sound­track of the bois­ter­ous Russ­ian clas­si­cal music I was so fond of in those days, or the jaun­ty Bea­t­les songs I was just then dis­cov­er­ing (or The King’s Singers’ cov­ers there­of). One of her first words was “Help!” to request the song of the same name.

And then off I went to col­lege, and I nev­er came back. Not to stay, any­way. She has grown up a great deal since then. Her expe­ri­ence of being a home­schooled teenag­er has been very dif­fer­ent from mine, prob­a­bly inevitably. She is a very tal­ent­ed musi­cian and dancer, although I have almost no first­hand knowl­edge of her impres­sive per­for­ma­tive vir­tu­os­i­ty, since my adult life has kept me large­ly far away in recent years from the excit­ing events back at my fam­i­ly seat. I have missed out.

And now she is eigh­teen, get­ting ready to leave the house her­self very soon, just as I did back when she was just mas­ter­ing the abil­i­ty to form whole sen­tences. Dance through life with con­fi­dence, Lit­tlest Sis. You will be awe­some.