Friday, April 18, 2008

Amen and Namaste

Like every other self-respecting English major in the world, I am currently working on the Great American Novel, the book that will single-handedly bring print back into fashion and intellectual thought back into everyday conversation. Unfortunately for me, my creativity recently took a nose-dive, as did my interest in and ability to work on the book, and it's been stagnating on my laptop for the last several months.

The novel itself is fascinating, in my mind. It has two separate storylines which will ultimately connect at the end in an explosion of brilliance and luminosity--just as soon as I figure that part out. The first storyline (told from the point of view of the archangel Gabriel) is an exploration of the role of God, the angels, and mankind in the Old and New Testament--it focuses on God's expectations of men and angels, and vice versa, from Genesis to the birth and rebirth of Christ. Ultimately, it concludes that Christianity's insistence on black-and-white ethics and morality is damaging to both heaven and earth, especially in light of many not-so-nice things the Father has done in the past. There is a middle ground, it's just a matter of finding it. The second storyline is about an involuntary prophet living in a not-so-distant future fascist state that bears a striking resemblance both to the US today and to the laws of heaven as dictated by God. It explores the role of academia in society, the necessity of intellectual freedom, and the degeneration of individual rights, as well as the juxtaposition of salvation and enlightenment in theology.

You don't have to tell me that it's a bit arrogant and pompous. I already know that.

But it's also an incredibly large project. For the first three or four weeks after I moved to Colorado, I spent six to eight hours a day on the book, straining my eyes and my back and actually damaging my laptop keyboard. So far, I believe it's the best thing I've ever written, but it's absolutely nowhere near completion. I've been working on it for about a year, and I'm only about a quarter of the way done--with the first draft. I'm anticipating I'll be working on this until I'm at least 30, which is fine by me. Most of the greatest works in the English language took years and years to complete, and I comfort myself with that knowledge on a daily basis. Tolkien is one example, as is Milton. Chaucer. We can't all be Jack Keruoac and spit out a book in four weeks, after all, and I'm not sure I would want to be even if I could, given the other options.

So you can see why I'm a mite bit concerned that I can't seem to focus enough to work on it. It takes me a little while to get into the novelist mind-set--plus, I'm on the computer all day at work, so it's less than appealing to run home and boot up. That's why I was pretty excited to get the spark several days ago--I was up late, re-reading what I've done and making changes to the outline, changing my perspective on where my characters are coming from and where they're going. It was a good beginning, and I'm hoping it can lead to positive results in the semi-near future.

What's bothering me, though, is where I received this inspiration. It wasn't a spark of creativity sometime during the day, it wasn't my inner self whispering in my dreams. It was the Mormons.

Let me explain. For the last six months, my family has been visited by Mormon Elders once or twice a week. They will generally stop by, chat, eat and drink, and leave. Period. End of story. There's been very little talk of God in our visits with the various young men, and even less talk of the Church. We would discuss what they do and who they see, but never what they believe.

Our most recent Elders, however--they trade-off every six weeks--haven't followed this exact mold, and I can tell they're bound and determined to save my soul. The problem is that I have no interest in salvation. Spiritual health does not equal baptism and church attendance, in my mind. When I mentioned that I was writing a book about a modern-day prophet--essentially a Latter Day Saint--their ears perked up, and we began to discuss, in a purely academic vein, the theory of heaven, of life after death, of the role of faith or lackthereof. I invited them to come back, to discuss the Degrees of Glory, which, in Mormon tradition, is the different "levels" after death--Spiritual Paradise, Spiritual Prison, and Hell. They gave me a pamphlet and told me to read it "prayerfully."

When they returned, they gave me lots of food for thought. We discussed being a Christian vs. just being a good person, the role that angels play as messengers (versus God or Christ speaking for Themselves), basic Church history. Basically, the works. But when they packed up their Bibles and their Books of Mormon, they asked if they could pray, as that was what they normally did after they discussed the Good Book(s). I was immediately on my guard, as I had made clear--crystal clear, I thought--that I have had exceedingly bad experiences with organized religions and Christians as whole, and I will not join their Church. I did not attend the art festival I was invited to, I did not watch General Conference. But their very respectful, non-denominational prayer for my happiness and peace made me suspect that--though they know I have no intention of becoming Mormon--they think, or at least hope, that they'll be able to convert me, despite the fact that I ended it with an "Amen and Namaste" and told them I generally preferred meditation to prayer.

As soon as I realized their hopes, however, I felt immediately guilty. Here I was, using their good will and hopes for my "salvation" against them, as research for my heretical, virtually anti-Christian book. Their hair would stand on end if they even suspected how far I'm pushing the envelope in my novel. Cruel and vindictive God who cares little for humanity? Check. Homosexuality (or at the very least homo-social) on part of said God? Check. Final conclusion that it's better to Fall into a third category of spiritual world--neither heaven nor hell--which looks an awful lot like a personal search for enlightenment? Double check. This is not really something these good missionaries would really approve of, and my selfishness made me feel both guilty and ashamed.

Apparently, however, guilt and shame was what it took to jump-start my inner novelist, and I stayed up into the wee hours sifting through my past brainstorms to weave in my newest revelations. The Mormons are coming back on Sunday--after all, it's not merely a black-and-white ethical issue.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Hang in There!

This is what I'm talking about: this is just one more example of the slow, painful, excruciating death of the English language. This phenomenon has been sweeping the internet and has multiple spin-offs. The thing that is truly sad, however, is that the whole point of that horrible website is to take funny pictures of animals and come up with ways to use 'lite speak (or whatever they're calling it) by warping the English language into a combination of phonetics and excruciatingly bad grammar.

And, yes, I know the theory behind the website is that cats don't have lips and so can't pronounce "have." Were they able to speak, they could only say "has," which was made somehow more cool here by changing the s to a z. If this were truly the guidelines for the accompanying text, however, it would have to say, "I can haz cheezdurger." And since when were cat ladies "cool," anyway?

Whatever happened to the good old "hang in there" posters? You know, the ones that are cloyingly sweet but at least practice passable language arts? Are those somehow less cool than the annoying "I can haz cheezburger"?

I'm officially boycotting this website. I might even start a major--and I mean major--leaflet campaign. Hang in there, English! I'm in the minority, but I might still save you, yet.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Hero with the Swiss Army Knife

"We can't all be heroes, because somebody has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by."
--Will Rogers

In today's world of The Hills and American Idol, it's nigh impossible to find anything thought-provoking in popular culture. And so it is that Bill Watterson, the artist behind perhaps the best comic strip ever, Calvin and Hobbes, finds himself toward the top of my list of Literary Heroes. While he worked in a medium that some might claim is fundamentally un-literary (because the "funnies" tend to inhabit a world that has little to do with the stuffiness that most people probably associate with literature), I believe that he dealt with literature-esque themes in a more accessible and highly popular manner, while always fighting to stay true to his own vision.

The first thing that stands out as being particularly praiseworthy about Bill Watterson's work is his manner of addressing serious social and philosophical issues. Watterson himself pointed out that, "Reading those turgid philosophers [...] may not get you a job, but if those books have forced you to ask yourself questions about what makes life truthful, purposeful, meaningful, and redeeming, you have the Swiss Army Knife of mental tools, and it's going to come in handy all the time." And so he employed his own Swiss Army Knife of mental tools in many of his strips. While some might say that his strips were not specific enough to hold concrete arguments one way or the other on many of these issues, Watterson was carefully using non-specific references to allude to political events so as to avoid dating his works. Few reading Doonesbury would say that the strips from ten years ago hold as much value to a modern reader as they did at the time, if only because the issues of 1998 are so very different from the issues of 2008. (For some reason, Clinton's political problems are seeming more and more petty when compared to today's political problems.) Still, Watterson addresses these broad topics with wit and fervor, and while he does not present arguments, per sei, he does present food for thought in an incredibly smart way.

I also admire Watterson immensely for standing up for what he believed in--namely, the integrity of his comic strips as works of art. He despised the commerical and financial emphasis that newspapers put on comic strips, as well as the restrictions that emphasis inevitably put on artists. He also refused to sell out--there was never any Calvin and Hobbes merchandise sold in stores, unlike the many Garfield and Peanuts lunchboxes and pencil sets that were made available by the bucketload. It is this respect for art as art that puts Watterson apart from much of the rest of the media. Imagine how much money he could have made if he had allowed the sale of a stuffed tiger--every kid in America would want one, as well as most of the adults. But this also would have cheapened what Hobbes stood for, as well as what the strip stood for. Watterson, himself, perhaps put it best:

"The so-called 'opportunity' I faced would have meant giving up my individual
voice for that of a money-grubbing corporation. It would have meant my purpose
in writing was to sell things, not say things. My pride in craft would be
sacrificed to the efficiency of mass production and the work of assistants.
Authorship would become committee decision. Creativity would become work for
pay. Art would turn into commerce. In short, money was supposed to supply all
the meaning I'd need."

It is this idealism that I respect the most, the idea that one can stand up for what one believes in, and succeed.

Finally, I admire Watterson for ending his strip when he did. While its popularity hadn't diminished, he knew enough about himself--and the world in which he worked--to be able to acknowledge that the strip couldn't get any better and would probably get worse, and the fight to save Calvin and Hobbes from the world wouldn't get any easier and would probably get harder. The last strip of the series, so final yet optimistic, still brings tears to my eyes, in part because he didn't let it go out with a whimper. He didn't grind his strip onto the public for years and years until the funny had worn off and the interest died. Instead, he respected his work enough to let it end completely naturally, preserving its freshness for years to come. He is, I believe, an intellectual hero, and I salute him.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

How would you like to curl up with a good book?

Looking back at what I've read and written over the past several months, I'm slightly dismayed by the fact that it is so little. What I mean is, compared to the several-hundred-pages-a-week I was reading and the forty-or-fifty-pages-a-month I was writing a year ago, one book a month and this little blog is a little pathetic, not to mention depressing. I've had Siddhartha by Herman Hesse sitting by my bed since I finished A Death in the Family, so it's been--a while, to say the least.

I'm wondering if maybe I didn't set myself up for failure. I have a stack of books sitting beside my bed, begging to be read, and I've promised each of them that I will do so in the near future. (Has anyone else seen The Pagemaster? It always made my eyes tear up at the end when he got to keep all three books, because they were each special to him in a different way. I know, I'm a dork.) But my point is, I've got my reading list prepared, but at the rate I'm going, it's going to take a good year to get through them all.
As hard as it might be for some people to believe, I really am kind of concerned about my new slower-than-molasses-in-December wpm reading rate, especially when I walk through a library or bookstore and see just how little I've read, compared to how much is out there.

I was wondering recently why it is that I haven't been able to do any reading at all--and I mean, at all. Several weeks ago, I was sick with the flu, and couldn't bear to use my eyes in any way that wasn't absolutely required, so when I would get home from work, I'd come into my room, turn the lights low, and listen to audio books so I wouldn't have to make my eyes actually do any work. The problem, however, is that I didn't want to listen to good books--by which I mean, books out of which I meant to get any substance--because I don't absorb as much listening as I do reading.

Anyway, I don't know if I just got out of the habit of reading, or what, but suddenly, when I crack open those books, I can read for maybe a page or two and then I have to put it down. Part of this, I'm sure, is because I'm taking notes in the margins as I go, because that's a hard habit to break and I like to go back and see what I thought was important the first time I read a book, versus what I think is important the second time I read a book. My instincts have been surprisingly well-trained; normally, things that I've underlined do have a special relevance in the novel as a whole.

But the other part of this is not just simple laziness or fatigue. It's a lack of time. I figured this out recently when I broke down my day to figure out just what the hell I do with all my time, and it goes like this:

7-8 hours: sleeping (or at least laying in bed trying to sleep)
1 hour: getting ready for work
9 hours: working
1 hour: walking to and from work.
1 hour: eating dinner, preparing for work the next day, etc.

This schedule leaves me with roughly four hours a day, which I am forced to break into family time, music, reading, writing, and yoga. Unfortunately for me and my cognitive development, reading--and therefore writing--has been left out of the loop.

I had someone suggest to me today that I take the time to read just ten pages a day, because even at that slow of a rate, I'll be able to read 140 pages in two weeks. It's not a bad idea; I'll see how it goes... as will the six books that are currently staring at me while I'm wasting 7-8 hours a day sleeping.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Grammar's Death. Stop.

It cracks me up when other people acknowledge how fun--well, maybe not fun, but necessary--punctuation and grammar can be. Granted, one runs the risk of over-doing it a little, but generally, I find the rules of grammar to be a bit soothing. They're the one type of formula I can remember--I never did well at Chemistry or Calculus, but to this day I can remember the Possessive Rule from Ms. Stave's 8th grade grammar class. It's a tradition, a set of rules, guidelines for everyday life that differentiate between the careful and the careless.
Now, though, grammar seems to be on its way out. I've heard the claim that it is due to text messaging and IM'ing; it is too much trouble to type out the whole word "because," so it is shortened to "b/c." ROFL is "rolling on (the) floor laughing." LMFAO is "laughing my fucking ass off." The problem, however, is that the rules aren't changing--this is just creating a sort of language gap between the educated and the not-so-educated, which will make that gap much harder to scale. Think Pygmalion, for those of you who know who the hell George Berndard Shaw is. (For those of you who don't, think Idiocracy: "Well, don't want to sound like a dick or nothin', but, ah... it says on your chart that you're fucked up. Ah, you talk like a fag, and your shit's all retarded. What I'd do, is just like... like... you know, like, you know what I mean, like... ")

I, for one, don't buy the claim that texting and IMing has caused this revolution; think about when the telegraph first came out. Not only did one have to pay for each letter, but one had to spell out the punctuation, as well. ("Dear Liesle stop I would like to take the time to tell you how I feel about you stop unfortunately this telegraph is already too expensive to send.") Grammar and the English language didn't wither and die; instead, it is the general laziness that has afflicted today's generations that is leading to the decomposition of the language, which will, ultimately, leave us with Dick and Jane books and erotica.
For example, I was having a conversation with a fairly well-educated young man who said he was going to the "lie-berry." This, being one of my biggest pet peeves, made me cringe, and I had to say something about it--something along the lines of don't-ever-say-that-again-or-my-head-will-explode. He, in return, said, "Hey, I wasn't the English major, you know."

"I know," I replied. "But you do speak English, so can you please at least pretend to do it well?" He grudgingly agreed, probably just to shut me up.
I guess my point--which I'm struggling to reach here--is that we are regressing; language is no longer expanding and growing to include modern life. It's shrinking to single-syllable words and bad spelling. Grr.
Anyway, check it out if you want to...
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