Sunday, January 30, 2011

on running, boredom, and survival

jamie, mari, andrew, and nora at the 2011 resolution run 5k & polar bear dive
i recently told my friend nora that running was boring. when i said this, i was surrounded by runners. in fact, i myself was running. there was some serious irony dashing about.*

we were threading our way through a pack of new year's day marathoners, racing toward a chilly finish--a plunge in lake washington. the sun was shining bright, but the temp never broached the freezing mark, and so runners would periodically wave their arms in the air and cry, "ice! ice! ice!" as a warning to the surging crowd behind. there were even doughnuts. 

but i didn't mean that i was bored at that moment or even in that race. the brilliant sunshine, the excited banter of our running cadre, and the anticipation of our impending polar bearization all added up to a fine level of happy engagement. i simply meant that the motion of foot, foot, breath, foot, foot, breath, foot, foot, breath, foot, breath, foot, foot, breath, foot, foot, breath, foot, foot, breath, foot, look left, breath, foot, look right, foot, breath, look left, foot, breath, look forward, foot, foot, breath, foot, foot, breath, foot, foot, breath, foot, foot, breath, foot, breath, foot, foot, breath, lift shirt to brow, foot, wipe brow, breath, foot, foot, breath, foot, foot, breath, foot, foot, spit, foot, big breath, foot, foot is dull.**

yet it turned out that the 5k was fun, but not because the running was fun; not because i found a head-foot groove where the world slipped away and there was just me and the motion, just me and some kind of meditative trance; not because i rejoiced in the burning of calories or the achievement of a new personal best. the running that day (and in the days since) was not boring in the same way that this blog entry may not be boring. because if you got this far, you probably know me; when you read this, you can probably hear my voice or imagine me making the wacky facial expressions i inherited from my dad--the arching eye brow, the wrinkled forehead--and so it's not that you're reading a well-crafted thought piece or an explosive, jaw-dropping page-turner (this is, after all, about running), it's that we are connected.

and if i am to run, i need connection. i need something outside the self and the path and my feet. i need ice patches and obstacles. i need the promise of a mind-bending dip in the lake. if i am to run, if i am to press on, if i am to run this race where it takes me, then i need my friends and i need my family. i need you running beside me.***


here's a youtube clip of me playing alexi murdoch's "orange sky," which expresses a similar sentiment to the one i concluded with in this post--i even adjust the final lyric to make it more personal--though murdoch sings of brothers and sisters "standing by," not running beside:


* i went to a philosophy colloquium today and perhaps i should have asked our prof about irony. it's a word that, despite my english major roots, i hesitate to use. in fact, when i come upon questionable uses of the word irony in my editing career, i tend to avoid correcting writers, instead opting for something more wishy-washy like, "please confirm that this usage of irony matches your personal understanding of the word. for more reference, see the oatmeal." yet in this blog entry i use it with abandon, even combining it with a bad pun.

** the dull sentence of a thousand nouns is inspired by an essay from lorrie moore's collection birds of america, in which moore has two consecutive pages of the word "ha." i read somewhere that moore used well over one thousand has.

*** this wasn't just an excuse to write a lame, heartwarming metaphor about life being like running or to highlight my stellar ability to adapt two-chord pop songs to the piano. i've actually been running several times a week since that new year's eve marathon, and as the post suggests, i'm running with friends. surprisingly, running and chatting with friends who run at a similar pace is quite the opposite of boring.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

if i were discussing this film: the american

do you sometimes have trouble sleeping? do you wish the travel channel had more programs with no talking and more sex with prostitutes? do you have a soft spot for facile love stories and senseless plots? 

if yes, i highly recommend the film the american

i fought the urge to sleep all movie long because i really believed it was headed somewhere. big mistake. i forgot about the men who stare at goats and leatherheads. i figured, this is george clooney. he only appears in good flicks. 

one of the marks of an excellent film is the ability to get in viewers' heads, to make them question their own lives and beliefs and actions. a truly great film will challenge your view of the world and the self. and i suppose i have to give some credit here--

watching the american made me question my own qualities as a friend. how could i inflict this film on anyone i cared about? or even worse, given that the primary purpose of this film was clearly to serve as a tonic for insomnia, how could i behave as i did halfway through the film when i noticed my friends' eye lids droop, when i noticed him finding the great blessing of sleep? indeed, how selfish of me to deprive him of that nap, to nudge him, even gently, awake. misery loves company.

but there are some cool shots of street-lamp-lit italian mountain villas. and the prostitute-love interest is attractive and naked, if you like that kind of thing in your films. there's also an inexplicable friendship between the ever-silent clooney and a platitude-pronouncing, philandering priest, so again, if you're into that kind of thing, enjoy!


rating: 6/17

did anyone on the web reading this like the american? apparently some critics did; it has a bloated rating of 65% on rotten tomatoes.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

what i like about my kindle (samples!) part 2

for the past few years, i've been a bystander in the e-reader revolution. i've read a lot about how e-books are going to destroy the publishing industry and i've read a lot about how e-books will be the salvation of the publishing industry. but, of course, the future of publishing is more nuanced than either of those two perspectives, so i've also read a ton (which is like three a lots) about how e-books will be both the death knell and the salvation of the publishing industry. at the same time.

and so, this fall, when my mother asked me for a christmas list, i asked for (and then received) an e-reader. i figured it was finally time to (potentially) throw my parents' two cents into the ring and develop an opinion based on the real thing. enough theory, i thought, let's touch and feel the thing. let's see what it's like to actually read a book using an e-reader.

i just e-read my first book, big machine by victor lavalle, and the kindle reading experience was neither off-putting nor a mesmerizing delight. like any new experience, there were little boring things that i liked (e.g., the ease of reading while my hands are busy, that is, not having to prop the book open to a page) and didn't like (e.g., the difficulty of making in-text notes that include "advanced" punctuation marks like commas, question marks, and smiley faces), but i'm neither tempted to sell my bookcases nor return the kindle. i don't have much else to add on this point.

however, my learning-through-the-generosity-and-consumerism-of-others approach to understanding the effect that e-readers might have on publishing has been a success.

i mentioned in an earlier post that when in sleep mode the kindle displays some kind of an image, often a portrait of an important literary figure or some ancient-looking text. occasionally, the kindle also displays a silhouetted  image of a person, perhaps a child, reading a book under the cover of a single tree. below this image is a definition for kindle--"light or set fire. arouse or inspire"--followed by some examples of the word's use.

i hadn't thought of the product name kindle except as a nonsense word, like nook (although i suppose that too is connected to its parent word, as if the nook provides some kind of a cozy space for reading and learning). but my exploration of the kindle interface gives me hope that it may indeed kindle readership, and in a way that i hadn't imagined.

what i found most interesting and awesome about the kindle, especially for the future of publishing, is the sample feature. it turns out that every kindle book has a sample. i've been using google books and amazon's preview function for awhile now, so perhaps this shouldn't have been so surprising. but nonetheless, reading something on the internet, whether on my laptop or iphone, is so much less cozy than on my e-reader. and the good news is that the samples are fairly lengthy, long enough anyway to give a good sense of the book.

my kindle really is like a portable bookstore. i can download samples (or purchase books) from anywhere there's a cell signal or wi-fi connection, and i can download (or purchase) as many samples (or books) as i like. this means i'm not bound by a visit to a store. a coworker might mention a book to me on monday, and so i download a sample. and then, while walking to my car on thursday, i might read the sample and decide it looks worth a read.

and so, although i'm probably wrong about this, i'm hopeful that the convenience of this sample function could indeed open readers up to all kinds of things they might not otherwise read. it could make people more likely to pick up a new book. i'm a strange bird, but for me it already has. for whatever reason, i've doubled my reading pace since owning a kindle.  

if nothing else, the immediacy and ease of the purchase function should lead to more sales. and as someone who appreciates good books and great writers, who wants publishers to continue finding and publishing good books and great writers, and who imagines a universe where great writers can make a living pursuing their craft and someone like me can make a living helping them do that, that makes me happy. 

hooray for e-readers! hooray for people who spend money on books! hooray for happiness!

Monday, January 17, 2011

what i like about my kindle (faces!) part 1

when my kindle hasn't been used for awhile, its screen flashes and the text of whatever i was reading is replaced by a black-and-white image. sometimes that image is an ancient-looking scene bound by foreign calligraphy. sometimes it's a portrait of a well-known author--jules verne, jane austen, ralph ellison.

these images sometimes bother me because they remind me of barry moser, the artist who does beautiful black-and-white prints of figures ranging from flannery o'connor and joseph conrad to potiphar's wife and jesus. that's not so bothersome, except that my ex-girlfriend loved barry moser prints, and i sometimes prefer not to think about my ex-girlfriend. or about love. or about my ex-girlfriend loving something or someone else.

however, dicey personal relationships aside, i really like this feature. in fact, i believe it could very possibly change the world for the better. it could even succeed where school, society, and our own misguided preferences have failed us.

since i'm making grandiose statements, here's another one: i believe we are a culture that doesn't like to think. i believe that we don't like to be challenged. we prefer our routines and simple comforts. our lives are hard, and so we take our life lessons and use them to build forty-two-inch tvs. we take that hardness and build sofas and lazy boy recliners.

when i come home from work, i slip past my dirty sink, my messy floor, my unopened mail, my hulking copy of Swann's Way. i pour myself a bowl of cinnamon toast crunch, and i eat my way through an episode of some meaningless drama, perhaps even a meaningful drama. i rarely do the hard thing--i don't invest time and energy into a fine meal, a community need, a new idea. 

and i think our book reading habits are a symptom of this cultural trend. fantasy, children's lit, mysteries, thrillers, sci-fi (excepting hard sci-fi), historical fiction, women's fiction, romance, and occupation-related material all sell relatively well, whereas that segment of publishing which keeps the language alive, which makes a think, which values a word, a phrase, an idea, well, literary fiction is simply managing to survive (see "pimp my novel" for a more thorough autopsy of genre sales). 

it's possible that i'm wrong and the lagging sales of literary fiction tell us nothing about our culture--though i may fight to the death to defend that notion--and it's possible, even likely, that we are not what we read, not entirely. 

but regardless of one's perspective on the relationship between what we read and how we live, i'm encouraged to see the bookselling segment of corporate america fighting back. i'm ecstatic that my kindle doesn't sport portraits of dan brown, stephenie meyer, and jk rowling. and i have hope that by highlighting texts that seems ancient (and therefore, somehow important) or famous figures from literary fiction's past, the kindle could implicitly prod its owners to consider again the classics. those images very well could be the seeds that lead us to supplement our escapist fiction and work-related texts with great literature.

and this sack of lazy bones likes that.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

if i were discussing this novel: big machine

in the last year, i spent a month doing nothing but staring at computer monitors. i spent nine intolerable months plotting the destruction of the very thing i valued most in my life (which was not a computer monitor). and i spent most of my nights in clumsy chase of questions i couldn't ask. i also did some ordinary things, like drive my ford, make soup, and write stupid stuff on the internet. there was enough existential angst in that year to people a squabbling troop of teenagers, enough relationship madness to secure a plot line on days of our lives.

but i don't think my year would have made a good novel, unless, that is, someone like victor lavalle got a hold of my story.

lavalle's big machine is the kind of novel that blends emotional depth and ordinary life with the absurd. he takes a troubled character--an andrew, if you will--and bends him around a series of ever-more shocking circumstances. imagine haruki murakami's the wind-up bird chronicle without the strange sexual fixations and with a more tangible sense of personhood and culture--lavalle's story consciously focuses on particular racial and economic groups (and the protagonist, in his cleverness and humble beginnings, and perhaps, i'll admit it, his non-whiteness, actually reminds me of the narrator of aravind adiga's the white tiger).

big machine is a novel that confronts some of the whys, whats, and hows of my 2010. and in doing so, it sidles right up to the darkness and says, have faith.


i'm leaning toward a 13/17 rating, which makes big machine a 17 point scale-recommended title, unless you prefer to avoid titles with profanity, fantastical events, and almost-too-perfect chapter-ending cliff-hangers.

you can purchase big machine here.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

on christmas lists, god, and the seahawks

some people hate christmas lists. they hate to write them and they hate to receive them. these people see the christmas list as a failure of knowledge and intimacy. they rightly point out that the purpose of gift-giving isn't to fulfill some need but to provide one another with meaningful tokens of our love and thanks and friendship.

i'm not one of these people. i suppose i'm a christmas list moderate.

i don't eagerly keep a list all year of the things i'd like for christmas and then postmark that list for the north pole on the fourth friday of november. and honestly, i never really know what to put on said list. but if my mom calls me up and asks what i want for christmas, i'll certainly oblige.

and as a giver, i really do want to light upon the perfect gift, the gift that would never find its way onto a christmas list. i want to give that very thing that will communicate a special bond between us, that will say, this is a gift uniquely from me to you, and it is awesome. because you are awesome. and i am awesome. and yes, we, together, are awesome.

but finding that special gift is hard. it's not something you can force. it comes to you like a poem, a word or phrase nestled in the rubble of otherwise useless dreams. and you may not know this, but most of us are bad poets. we mistake cutesy rhythm and rhyme or archaic verbiage for inspiration. we can't feel the imagery or themes outside the cage of our own skull.

and so, barring the miracle of the true muse or the true poet, the giver who undertakes a listless christmas may be giving just that, a listless christmas.

instead, i like to think of the christmas list as a tool. if you tell me you like bawdy limericks about snails or that red wheelbarrow poem by william carlos williams, i might still write a bad poem, but at least i'll know where to start. at least i won't be groping around in an infinite wasteland of content, imagery, and form.

so why the post-christmas post on christmas lists? well, mostly i wanted to write about my new kindle. but i got sidetracked by memory and discovery.

this year i mostly received gifts that were on my list, and perhaps some part of me, the christmas list antipath, i suspect, felt cheated by the absence of new poetry.

yet there were little surprises--the fingerless gloves were black, not wool; the e-reader was a kindle, not a nook. and both did the trick; both delighted me in the end--the fingerless gloves perfectly allowed me to adjust my temp when running the polar bear 5K on new year's day, and the kindle has pleasantly surprised me with how much i enjoy reading (and browsing) using its interface.

but above all, there was the unsuspected awesomeness of sharing in those gifts with the givers, in reading to my parents from my kindle as we trekked south to eugene, in accompanying my dad to a chilly wild-card playoff game at qwest stadium and high-fiving him ecstatically (while wearing those gloves) when marshawn lynch clicked it into beast mode, breaking eight tackles and stiff-arming his way to a sixty-seven yard run.

because, after all, what's more awesome than a crazy game that makes nfl and underdog history? what's more awesome than sixty thousand people losing their voices in praise of one thing? this is how i imagine heaven--a gift and an unbridled sense of exultation and joy. and no list could have scripted that.