Gift giving and the golden rule

“Do unto others…”

81s7bals-l-_sl1500_If I gave to you what I would like to receive, you’d be getting an NES Classic Edition for christmas this year.

Obviously, that’s not going to work.  First of all – they’re sold out everywhere, and second, what if you don’t love it?  What if you don’t dream of playing Legend of Zelda the way I do? What if you’re not obsessed with the idea that maybe, now you are so much older, you can actually finish Super Mario Bros. for real, instead of lying about it for all these years… decades?

The rule should be, do unto others as they’d like to have done to them.  I guess it doesn’t sound as nice that way, but this is why we write wish lists.

Many years ago – I was asked, by someone who will remain nameless, what I wanted for christmas. I said I wanted an electric kettle – but I specifically wanted the one that has the base that the kettle sits on, not the one where the kettle itself has the cord that plugs into the wall. I should have known better than to ask her for something so specific. I knew what she was like – always looking for the ‘deal.’ She bought for me what she would have bought for herself – the cheap, “20% off” one – with the cord attached to the kettle!  I was gracious – I hid my disappointment. I simply smiled when she bragged about how much money she’d saved.

I googled, “I am bad at buying gifts” and I found an article about a study published a few years ago that said: we should all stop trying to find the perfect gift – we should just buy exactly what people ask for – that way, the recipient is happy.  But of course – the giver gets nothing out of the exchange –  you’ve turned them into your personal shopper. There’s no thought, or love, or proof that I know you so well in just buying you what you asked for. Why can’t I buy you something sweet and sentimental and utterly useless?  It’s the thought that counts. Right?

But that phrase – ‘it’s the thought that counts.’ is just an excuse for bad gift-giving, really.  And we say it because we’re all just afraid to admit that what we really want is the money and the excuse to buy something frivolous for ourselves with it.

Sigh.  The truth is – what I really want is to see you smile. So, hand over your wish list.  I’ll save my sentimentality and my creative spirit for the wrapping paper.


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! 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

Company for Christmas

Hello Readers!

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just a reminder… Regardless of your religious affiliation, if you will be alone on December 25th and looking for some company, click on the C4C badge over to the right to chat with some friendly folks.



And help spread the word by retweeting…


The First Time

“you like me, you really like me!”

I heard the news and I called my mother – because that’s what you do when good things happen to you. That is, if you are lucky enough to have a mother who, a) is still alive, b) is aware of your existence, and c) cares.

This isn’t starting very well.

The point is, when you are happy you call someone who will allow you to wallow in your happiness without being jealous or saying, “that’s nice, now let me tell you about my day.”

Anyway, I said to her, “Mom, guess what, one of my stories just got Freshly Pressed! ”
Mom: “Oh, uh, congratulations! What does that mean?”

I tried to explain, “WordPress a blogging website, there are like thousands [millions] of people who write blogs there. And Freshly Pressed is a kind of central place where the editors feature certain blogs and people can see what’s going on with their fellow bloggers.”

“That’s great! Can I send it to Grandma?”

To my mother, sending something to my 94-year-old grandmother is the same as sticking something up on the fridge.   In other words, the only proof that you have accomplished something.

I told her that the story was one she and Grandma had already read, and no, being Freshly Pressed wasn’t at all like being published. And without intending to, my mother brought me back down out of the clouds to the still as-yet-unpublished-wannabe that I am.

I gave up completely when my explanation of the WordPress community started sounding like a self-help group. “No, I don’t have to pay anything. Yes, I guess you can say it is all volunteer. No I’ve never met any of them, but yes, some of them are becoming friends, in that we have a great deal of mutual affection.”

My mother’s responses became monosyllabic. We changed the subject.

Diminishment through over-explanation. Have you ever told a joke to someone only to get to the punchline and have the listener give you a half-smile and say, “I don’t get it?” You try to explain and the joke stops being funny.

Anyway, I console myself with the knowledge that all of you get it. Thank you all for my ‘blogger high.’

P.S. I’d like to take the opportunity of my brief view count blip to share a link to Company for Christmas. (see the C4C badge over to the right?) On Christmas Day a group of bloggers will be hanging out ready for a chat or a comment if you are alone that day. From the C4C about page: “It can be hard to reach out. So RoS started this Blog, to see if maybe some fellow bloggers would be there to talk to around Christmas for others who are separated from loved ones.” Please check it out.