My Personal Demon

“My nemesis is dead. Now what?” – Michael Cunningham

The intriguing part of that six word story is the second sentence. But I couldn’t get past the first.

What is my nemesis? My own, personal demon that trips me up at every turn. That haunts my days and nights, threatening always, never resting. What is it that defines my existence by virtue of my constant struggle against it?

I’m thinking about this as I sit curled up in my comfy chair, notebook in my lap, pen in one hand and a mug of hot chocolate in the other, staring up at the ceiling. The latest manuscript attempt sits open on the computer, untouched for days. Laundry looms in a teetering pile next to the bed. Paper and scissors and glue lie scattered across the floor, detritus of a half-finished christmas gift.

Perhaps laziness is my nemesis.

And guess what, there’s a demon for that.

In Zoroastrian mythology, Bushyasta is the Demon of Sloth. The wikipedia entry describes her as ‘long-handed’ and ‘yellow, golden and green.’ There are hints, woven through the words of the entry, to hitting the snooze button in the early morning, and to the unproductive hours of the late afternoon that drag into days and weeks and years. “She is the cause of procrastination as she strives to keep the righteous from performing productive tasks.” She is also said to ‘weaken the breath,’ apropos for a person like myself with crappy lungs and no stamina.

Can Bushyasta help define me? Can a mythological invention add depth and shadow to the image I have of myself? A nemesis should be inescapable, implacable, and worthy of a lifetime of struggle against. Bushyasta could be that for me.

In an episode of RadioLab, Elizabeth Gilbert spoke of the benefits of having a muse, something external to oneself to blame for the successes and failures of any creative endeavor. I don’t feel the need for the muse, the inspiration part anyway. I don’t lack for ideas. I just lack the will to do anything with them. But maybe by anthropomorphizing and externalizing the obstacle, I can do something about it.

be-gone-demon
Be Gone Demon! Can’t you see I’m working here?

Thing is, I know exactly how to banish my demon, I’ve done it before. It’s simple: all I need is a deadline. The laundry will get done very soon because I am leaving in a few days and need clean clothes for the trip. The christmas present will be done by the 25th because it must be done by then. I’ve never missed a deadline imposed on me by another person or event.

But I can’t seem to set a deadline for personal projects that I will take seriously.

In that same episode of RadioLab, Oliver Sacks tells of setting a deadline to finish his first book. He said to himself, “You have ten days to write it and if you’re not finished by ten days, you’ll commit suicide.” Harsh and scary, but it worked. He finished the book in nine days and survived to tell the tale.

For me that would be an empty threat. I’d laugh at my own brain for even suggesting it.

And for the same reason, Bushyasta isn’t going to work either. It is all me. I don’t want to do the thing that I want done. And I’m not talking about the laundry or the christmas gift anymore – there are tangible consequences for not doing those things, so they will get done. But when I am the only one who wants it done, who needs it done, when there are no consequences for inaction, I find my wants are not important enough to motivate me.

My nemesis is not laziness or sloth, it’s something I can’t externalize. It’s just me, just my strange, little brain. I can’t fight that nemesis, all my weapons are tricks and fakery. As the source of those tricks, I see right through them. Bushyasta dissipates into nothingness, and the manuscript remains untouched.

I remain in my chair, sipping at hot chocolate, ignoring the computer. I wonder if, in some sort of masochistic way, I enjoy the anguish of the uncompleted task. I must be deriving some sort of pleasure from this moment, a pleasure that outweighs the assumed pain of the work.

And this is where I derail my own train of thought. Because there is nothing painful or difficult about my self-initiated tasks. I like working on my book. Once I get started that is.

Imagine a beautiful park with lovely, manicured paths, trees and flowers where the weather is always perfect. There is a babbling brook with a comfortable bench near by, and the wildlife isn’t wild at all. But to get to this place you have to climb a long, steep, rocky, dusty hill. That is what working on my long-term projects feels like to me.

Perhaps I can take that analogy one step further. What if the park had seasons? What if the trees and the brook and the non-threatening squirrels all represent the elements, (the plot, the characters, etc.) of my story?

Like Oliver Sacks, I can use the threat of death as a deadline. The death of the story’s season. If I don’t finish writing down the story, all the elements will shrivel up and die in the winter cold. (I’m not going to complicate this with the possibility of hibernation – it’s insane enough already.)

It is still just a trick, and I can still see right through it, but it is a new trick. A novelty, a new idea-toy to play with. My nemesis is the wintery, frozen death of uncaptured ideas. And when that nemesis is beaten, when the story is written, maybe then I can move on to the last two words of that six word story, ‘Now what?’

To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under the sun.

You might notice I have the comments turned off – I’ve been getting some strange, spammy comments lately – easy to delete, but still very annoying… If you feel the urge to tell me something, send an email…  jaschmehl at gmail dot com

Success, you are dead to me.

successI’ve decided, after many hours of careful contemplation, that I do not like the word ‘success’ and will attempt to avoid, after the completion of this essay, any further use of it in my writing and speaking.

My reasons for this exsection are as follows:

First, while the word’s antonym is definitive which implies a simplicity to its definition, we do not use the word ‘success’ in such a simple way. To explain, the word ‘good’ is easily defined by comparison to its antonym, ‘bad.’ Good and bad are such non-complex words, children learn them along with ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy.’ To be good implies something is ‘not-bad.’ To succeed is to ‘not-fail.’ Just as you can not help but use the word bad to help understand something good, you must use the word fail to understand success.

However, we use this seemingly simple word with massive amounts of complexity, with weighty contextuality. Compare the following sentences:

She is the successful mother of two charming and intelligent children.
He is the successful CEO of a multi-million dollar corporation.

Those two statements, when combined, or worse, compared, are enough to raise the voices and collective blood-pressure at any social gathering. They feed the pundits of the world with contrasting thoughts of ‘equality’ and ‘feminism’ who then spew their outraged opinions across the media outlets of the world.

One simple word with so much baggage.

My second problem with the word is in its implied singularity. While people can be good at many, many things, when we attempt to narrow down all they’ve done to one ‘success,’ we pick whatever we feel to be the biggest or most important achievement. Again, referring those two sentences above, the use of the word ‘successful’ implies that it is the only thing those people have done. The word denies the woman’s profitable art gallery showings as well as the man’s impressive collection of 1940’s comic-books, the aspects of their lives each is the most proud of, and worked the hardest to achieve.

You’ll notice, I hope, a certain word that I used twice in that last paragraph. The word ‘achieve.’ This is the word I plan to use from now on to supplant ‘success.’ Achieve has no definitive antonym. ‘Fail’ can be used in some contexts, but only where the goal is singular. For instance, one may fail to achieve the summit of a mountain. But even that example can be tempered in that the attempt itself was an achievement.

In the video gaming world, part of playing is winning (which involves ending the game), but another part – a more important part – is gathering the achievements along the way. Similar to the way the boy and girl-scouts earn merit badges. As they obtain a new skill, they sew a patch onto a sash for all the world to see. And what impresses the world is not the content of each individual badge, but the number of badges on the sash. Same in the gaming world. While each achievement represents a skill gained, or a puzzle solved or a monster slain, it is the total number of achievements that the player is proud of.

And to return, one last time, to the two people mentioned above, let me close with an image of the achievements adorning the sash of each. His has a CEO badge and badges for each level of comic-book collecting he has achieved. There is a badge there for ten years marriage, and one for the first purchase of a car. Her sash holds achievement badges for the births of each of her children, for each painting she’s completed and sold, for ten years of marriage and one for the first purchase of a house. With each life covered in achievements, versus defined by a single success, no comparison is possible.

And so we part, success and I. Goodbye limited, narrow-minded word, I’ll stick with my achievements from now on, and my life will be the fuller for it.

A new perspective

Oh, who are the people in your neighborhood?
In your neighborhood?
In your neighborhood?
Say, who are the people in your neighborhood?

Well, they’re the people that you meet
When you’re walking down the street
They’re the people that you meet each day

People In Your Neighborhood, Sesame Street

I want to write about the people I encounter over and over again in my life. The UPS guy, the bartender, the woman who makes the awesome salad for me at the deli.  I want to follow them around for a day and see what it is like to live their life. I want to listen to the way they talk to the random people they meet.

Isn’t it sad that we only get to live our own life? We only get to see the world through a single pair of eyes.

Well, except the recipients of an eye transplant. It isn’t possible yet – too many connections… but eventually… Would they see the world differently than they did before?

What if, when you got bored or depressed, the solution was eye replacement instead of pills? But that might mean you started seeing things about your loved ones or friends that you’d never noticed before. Like the way he chews his food. Or the way her face looks all squished up when she laughs.

I saw a Ted Talk once with a woman who wore prosthetic legs from the knee down.  She designed custom legs for herself and could be any height she wanted. ( I wonder what her driver’s license says: DOB: 1/1/1981, Eyes: brown, Height: varies.)

We can all add a few inches to our height with the heals of our shoes, but what if you wanted to be shorter?  Say you were a thief or a pickpocket where being 5 foot nothing would be an advantage.  Just wear the short legs while you are on the job.

I like my height, but I can imagine people who don’t.  The 6’6″ girl or the 5’1″ guy.  I know I am projecting, but I always imagine that the people who have the crazy body piercings, like the string of ball bearings implanted along the top of their head, or the metallic horns in the forehead, must be dealing with some fairly serious body issues. The self-hatred must run deeper than just the skin to cover your face with disfiguring bits of metal or to hide behind a layer of permanent ink.

But what do I know? If I could follow them around, if I could live their life for a day, see the world from their perspective, maybe it would make perfect sense. Maybe I’m missing out on something with my limited view.

I certainly hope so. I searched for some pictures of people with extreme piercings – but I can not bring myself to add any of them here. They made me feel like crying – and not for the imagined physical pain. I’m trying really hard to not make assumptions, but all I can think is that they didn’t get enough hugs as children.

Alright, I’m going to end this post in the opposite direction and invite you to see the world from my perspective.  Lately I’m all about drawing trees with ‘digital finger paint.’ So here is my latest attempt:

The Perfect Husband

During an otherwise uneventful drive, I said to my boyfriend about a man we know, “He makes the perfect husband, he is loyal and dependable.” My boyfriend laughed, glancing at me and away from the road for longer than I was comfortable with, and said I was crazy, “And besides, no man would want to be described that way. It’s insulting.”

The Etymology of Husband According to Google
The Etymology of Husband According to Google is basically ‘Master of the House’

I looked up the word ‘husband’ – The definitions seem to all point to the same thing – a person (male implied if not explicitly stated) married to a wife. While I will concede we can’t separate the word husband from the word marriage, it obviously doesn’t imply male anymore. Just look at the etymology of the word – originally it just meant the person in charge of the house, not gender explicit at all. When we use the phrase, ‘who wears the pants in the family,’ aren’t we talking about the husband, the master of the house, regardless of gender?

But back to my description of the ‘perfect’ husband. In my own mind, I’m imagining the person in a relationship who makes sure the bills are paid on time, who remembers that it is garbage day. The breadwinner – which doesn’t have to mean the person who makes the most, just the person with the steady income and the health benefits. The rock of solid loyalty, the calm foundation, the ‘always willing to work on the relationship even when the shark has been dead for years,’ person.

I asked a few friends and family, “How would you describe the perfect Husband?” A 60-something year old uncle who’s been married for about 40 years said the perfect husband is, “A Knight in Shining Armor,” (he is a total romantic, which is probably why I asked him.)

A woman, also in her sixties, and in an enviable relationship with her second husband said, “A best-friend, a lover, a partner.”

A single, thirty-something man said the perfect husband was a balance between the romantic lover and the dependable bread-winner.

My boyfriend answered this question with no hesitation: “Wealthy and Deceased!”

The best description by far came from my 39-year-old cousin.  I’m not sure if he was describing himself or his husband, but then, they are still newlyweds… “Affectionate. Supportive. Generous. Embracing. Tender. Strong. Consoling. Understanding. Sympathetic. Amusing. Available. Attentive. Engaged. Ambitious. Motivated. Industrious. Callipygian*.”

Most of the people I spoke with did agree that my ideal was a little cold. What is it about me that completely dissociates the word romance from the word husband?  Is it wrong to think of marriage as primarily a business relationship?

My ex-husband (in fact the very same man we were speaking of earlier) is entirely loyal and dependable. Romance wasn’t a part of my thinking at all when he and I decided to marry after six years of dating. The lease was up on my apartment and he owned a house, it seemed impractical to continue to waste money on rent for another year, so we eloped.

But that marriage, based on sound financial sense, eventually ended. Perhaps when one is choosing a husband, one should think with their heart rather than their mind.

I’ve discovered that the internet is full of quotes about husbands but none of them are helpful. If you learned everything you knew about a husband from ‘wikiQuote’ you’d quickly believe they are  good for nothing but as the butt of many, many jokes. Not a single quote used the word ‘perfect’ and ‘husband’ together in a serious manner.

I did however, stumble across a number of references to the play by Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband. I decided to watch a recent incarnation from 1999, starring Rupert Everett and Minnie Driver. A most enjoyable hour and a half, but not really helpful either. Again, the ideal, the perfection, is not found and is proven an impossibility.

“Why can’t you women love us, faults and all? Why do you place us on monstrous pedestals?”

I don’t believe Loyalty and Dependability are such high ideals. I think they are practical, even average sort of ideals. A loyal and dependable person isn’t being placed on a pedestal. It is more likely they’d be placed next to a Volvo (or whatever is the most practical car theses days.)

Yup – the perfect husband… boxy, but good.  I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. But the lesson I’ve learned is that the practical side is not enough. The word must also imply the softer side, the best-friend, the companion.

In conclusion, dear reader, here is my new and improved definition of the perfect husband:
loyal, dependable, and romantic.

Doesn’t mean I want one another though. I get all that and more from my boyfriend without all the damned paperwork.

*Callipygian – adjective – having well-shaped buttocks.

 

Thoughts on Quotes on Death

“I don’t want to go.” – The 10th Doctor

But that wasn’t really death was it – it was rebirth, reincarnation.  The wish fulfillment of a hundred million souls.  What if… when we die we just get popped into a new body? Keep the memories, ditch the bad hair and judgy personality. Start all over, and this time I’ll get it right.  This time I wont eat so many cheeseburgers and fries.

“The hardest thing about death is not that men die tragically, but that most of them die ridiculously” – Mencken

But Mencken was an atheist, and the core of atheism is the knowledge that there is no life after death. Therefore – ridiculous or not, I couldn’t care less.

“I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” – Banksy

But if no one knows the real you, or your real name, does the second death count?

“Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.” – George Eliot

A variation on the above theme – with the same problem, does anyone remember George’s real name?  (it was Mary Anne – there, now she lives again.)

“I saw few die of hunger; of eating, a hundred thousand.” – Benjamin Franklin

Which is more true in our time than his… and ironic considering his own obesity helped to kill him.

No particular reason for these morbid thoughts on a Wednesday morning.  Sorry…  well, here’s something that will cheer you right back up:

 

Instant Gratification

Clementines citrus are very sweet, easy to pee...

I bought a box of those clementines at the store the other day.  All orange-like products taste better when the weather is gray. They taste like luxury. Like civilization and progress and modern instant gratification. Like all the good things our global connectedness can provide.  I know nothing about how they arrive at my grocery store, and I refuse to google it.  I don’t want to learn that they were actually picked a year ago, via the tiny tortured hands of malnourished infants, then flash frozen and stuck in a shipping container for six months only to sit in the back of the grocery store’s warehouse until the temperature outside dropped enough that suckers like myself will drool over these tiny, pulpy, juiceless, dyed-orange balls and think they are worth buying.

No, I already feel enough guilt over the fact that half the box will end up in the trash. Why do they have to sell them in such large quantities for so little money?  If they were more expensive I might resist the temptation.   This is the problem I have with shopping altogether.  I don’t like buying things in bulk.  I have a small kitchen and a small budget and a small appetite. I don’t have the family that the ‘family size’ is meant to feed.

What I really want is a machine in my kitchen that will store, frozen I suppose, all the things I like to eat, and then with the push of a big red button, portion out and thaw exactly what I want when I want it.  No waste, no shopping, no need to plan ahead. Now that I think about it, the ‘planning ahead’ is the part I struggle with the most.  Oh, I like making plans, I make them all the time. My house is full of bits of paper covered in lists and plans. I always leave a bit of space to the left of each item, just enough room for a checkmark.  But the checkmarks never appear. There is no follow through.

I’m interested in using the reward system found in video games as motivation in my own life. When I play a game, I get constant bursts of happy neurotransmitters exploding in my brain whenever I do even the smallest thing right. Defeat a bad guy, pop! Find a rare object, pop! Move up to the next level, pop!  This blog does that for me as well.  Every time I log on I look at my stats, and there – a new view, pop! A new follower, pop! A new like, pop!

My brain is awash in serotonin, or adrenalin or whatever. Which makes it really hard to do anything else other than blog or play video games. Nothing else in my life provides the same sort of happiness.  I have two different book ideas I’m working on right now, and neither of them get the attention they deserve.  I’m not motivated by word count, I don’t care about the length of the story, I care about how I tell it.  But because they can’t be typed up, posted and viewed (pop!) in a day, I don’t feel like working on them. I want the pleasure they can provide right now.

I just (finally) finished reading Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own,’ after at least two decades of picking it up and putting it down again. (Not constantly for all that time, of course, where is the IG in that?)  It was, by far, one of the most brilliant things I ever read.  My wonderment of it might have a bit to do with the pride I feel in finally getting through it, but I’ll only know if it wears off in a few days, right now, I am in awe. BUT – she makes all the good points, ties together all the wandering bits of story threaded throughout, at the very end of the essay.  It is not until the END that you get the gratification.  This is why it took me so long to finish.

I know, I know, it is a sad sign of the times that our attention spans are so short that we can’t stick around for the payoff of a very short book.  But wait, doesn’t the word ‘span’ speak of length?  Isn’t the whole Harry Potter series somewhere around a million words long?  If you can read about 200 words a minute, that means 83 hours straight of reading. I think that is a decent span. It doesn’t feel like I’m forcing myself to get through them, because there are little payoffs all along the way. If reading those books doesn’t define constant IG, I don’t know what does.

Yesterday, I read this year’s Pulitzer prize winner for Feature Writing.  “Awarded to John Branch of The New York Times for his evocative narrative about skiers killed in an avalanche and the science that explains such disasters, a project enhanced by its deft integration of multimedia elements.” (the description from the Pulitzer website) It is called Snow Fall, and if you have the span of time required (90 minutes) to read it, I suggest you do. You will not notice the time go by and you will not mind reading it on a computer screen.  It is chock full of bits of instant gratification: gif’s and sound clips and short videos. It fully embraces our ‘short’ attention spans and all the modern tools available to tell a compelling tale.

I strive to do the same for you, dear reader.  As much as I admire Virginia Woolf’s writing, her clever prose and strange twists that all make sense in the end, I don’t want to make you wait that long.  I want every sentence and paragraph to be its own reward.  And I want, mostly for myself, to think, type and post as quickly as possible.  But am I stifling my own potential?

It took John Branch more than half a year to create Snow Fall. And you can tell, its depth is astounding. I would love to have the impact on you that he had on me. But that means six months of work with no steady drip of serotonin to keep me going towards that ultimate pay off.

I want the clementine – a sweet piece of fruit, easily peeled, easily popped into the mouth and eaten. No work, just pleasure, right now.

My Philadelphia

Liberty BellWhen I was a child, growing up in the shadow of Manhattan, Philadelphia meant the bell with a crack and Ben Franklin with a kite. On a class trip to the capital of the United States, confused, I asked my teacher, where is the bell, where is the kite? The teacher sighed, but unsurprised (I was never a good student) answered, “The capital of our country is Washington, DC, but its birthplace, the bell and the kite, are back up in Philadelphia.”

“Why don’t you take us there?” I asked.

“Too dangerous,” she replied. “Criminals and trash.” Then she whispered, “They hide the bell under a stairwell.”

Many years later, I fell in love with a Philadelphia boy. He held my hand and took me to see the cracked bell, not under a stairwell anymore, but in a glass box in a field of green. At the end of a bridge named for the man, we saw a statue of Ben Franklin’s kite in a circle surrounded by fast-moving cars. I wondered if Franklin, with all his open-mindedness, could have imagined such a sight.

Five years ago, I moved here for the love of a Philadelphia man. He showed me a city that was really a small town. A neighborhood reminiscent of Mr. Rodgers and Sesame Street. In no time at all, his neighborhood became mine. The people in the shops know my name and even the strangers smile and say good morning.  The streets are filled with people walking, to eat, to shop, to work. We stroll on an afternoon, hand in hand, pass this dog park, and the other dog park, and the other, other dog park. We watch the old buildings come down and the new ones go up.

And now this is my home. This is my city of brotherly love. It has criminals and trash, true, but that is not what I see when I look out my window. I see good-hearted people, and their ubiquitous dogs, talking and laughing and smiling. I see people who are proud of where they live. I see constant change and a desire to make it better.

This is the place I live and love and work. I walk its streets like I walk the hallways of my home. Its bars are my living room, its restaurants my kitchen. Its murals are the paintings hung on my walls. (Its museums are the guest room that you never use, but are really glad you have when people come to visit.) 

I love where I live, simple as that. This is My Philadelphia.

Mural Tour
Mural Tour (Photo credit: Zepfanman.com)