Monday, April 22, 2013

Circus Mortem

I seem to be using my stories now to air things which are bugging me about life. Next up, a little piece about how I can't abide traffic lights or people who whistle too much. My God, I'm turning into Kilgore Trout in my dotage. I'll be telling tales about aliens who can only communicate by tap-dancing and farting in no time.

I'm fifty-fifty on "Dr. Wilkes." It was a fun piece to write and it went fast. It's a bit heavy-handed and all over the place. The science fiction elements were a relatively late addition, but probably a good call. I think things in general are more fun when you can toss a robot in whenever you're getting bored.

The village idiot was another late addition and came from an experience I had in college that I fondly recall as "The Worst Essay Ever."

I minored in Spanish back in those days. Now, I'm a lousy Spanish speaker. When people try to speak Spanish to me, usually I get four words in, they get a pained look on their faces and then they switch to another language, any language, even if they only know two or three words. My reading ability is quite a bit better, but I have my limits.

I was in a Spanish lit class and mostly rocking it...until our professor assigned us a six page essay on Miguel Unamuno's "St. Emmanuel, the Good Martyr."

It was one of those occasions when you open an assignment, take a good hard look at it and your brain entirely deserts you. Like one of those nightmares I occasionally still have where I'm in school and realize I haven't bothered to come to class for four months and, hello, there's a test today. Except this was in real life.

I pound through the story, referring back and forth to a dictionary as needed. Then I read it again. And again. I think I've gotten the general gist of it,'s a pretty dense story. Lots of symbolism and characterization. I realize that I'd probably have a hard task writing six pages on it in English.

Now, these days I am an adult with reasonably good problem-solving skills. When confronted with an assignment like that I probably would translate the story into English--or as much of it as I need--then I would write the paper in English and translate it into Spanish and only after thinking everything through as thoroughly as possible. I might pay a visit to the professor to make sure my ducks were all lined up in a row before I turned the paper in. Did I do that then?

Oh hell no, that would've made too much sense. Twenty-year old Mike was not going to go for that. I wrote the essay in Spanish first, at the last minute. It was...rough. I think I mentioned mermaids at some point, but I'm not sure. I got the paper back and it was a D-, the lowest grade I'd ever gotten on an essay in any language. The professor's only comment was "Are you joking?" Ouch. I still went on to get an A in the class because I didn't have much difficulty with any of the other assignments. I just seem to have a blind spot with regards to Unamuno.

But that didn't stop me from ganking the village idiot for "Dr. Wilkes".

Overall, the story isn't awful. It's not really my best, but it's a notch or two better than "Fences." I tend to have only marginal success with Stories That Are About Things, but I guess that's not going to stop me from trying.

"Dr. Wilkes" arises from a growing irritation I have with technology. I have a love-hate relationship with it. On one hand, I work with it for a living and I think it enables some great things. This blog, for example.

On the other hand, it feels like a distraction much of the time. Social media, smart phones and other such things keep you connected to everyone in your life twenty-four hours a day. It's hard to argue that it isn't a great thing that you can stay in touch with the people you care about constantly, no matter where you are on the planet. I think it's pretty great that I can upload a photo of what I'm eating right now and my friend Moto, who lives in Japan (and apparently doesn't do much else besides jump off mountains in wing-suits and get into constant adventures) will comment on it within moments. It's great.


I think it's damaging peoples' social skills in other ways. If you're at a bus stop, it's so much easier to mess around on your phone than make small talk with the person next to you. I've lost track of how many times I've been in a restaurant and seen entire tables of people ignoring each other to use their phones.

Modern society is developing a deep abhorrence of boredom. Nobody's comfortable just wool-gathering now--boredom has become some kind of monster to them. If you're killing time in a waiting room, you take out your smart phone instead of watching other people. If you have an hour free in the afternoon, instead of taking a walk to the park or sitting outside on the porch with a beer, watching life happen, you pull out your phone and check Facebook. And why not? You have what amounts to a supercomputer in your pocket which can play the best games ever made, contains the sum total of all human knowledge, plays you any song ever written, a good quarter of the movies ever filmed and lets you communicate with just about anybody you've ever met who's still alive.

It's pretty tempting to take advantage of that capability whenever possible. If there's even a whiff of boredom or down-time in the air, most people do. And that makes perfect sense. But...

Wasting time is becoming a lost art and that's a shame. A lot of really great thinking has been done over the ages by people who've sat under a tree and watched the clouds roll by until everything's that's been bugging them makes sense. Social media is a poor replacement for gathering a bunch of people together and shooting the shit.

I think having free time--completely unstructured moments of vacuum during the day--is absolutely essential to mental health, whether you are a kid or an adult. Modern society, I think, has completely lost sight of that. And that's a shame.

Next up: probably another installment in Cameron's story. And some redrafting of the original to reflect my latest thinking on the metastory.

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