Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Power Of Not Giving A Shit

Status Update: Coffee supplies strong. Spilled a bit of it on the way back to the Lenovo and it ate a hole through the floor. I had to pause before typing this to wave at my downstairs neighbor, who seemed surprised but happy to see me. Scout's honor.  In other news, resolve is mighty. No story started yet. No idea what I'm gonna write, but something will get written. Probably something on the short side. Maybe flash, maybe not.

Back when I was a kid and fresh out of college, I'd spaced out on an application deadline to get into grad school. As a result, I had to get a series of fairly awful jobs to support myself because, as it turns out, starving kind of sucks. I had no real office skills at the time and lacked the self-confidence to apply for a "real job", so I just took what I could find.

One of the jobs involved warehousing ice cream for a company which handled distribution for a big local grocery chain. Even though it was the hottest summer in recent memory, with temperatures hovering around the three digit mark for weeks on end and endless blasting sunshine from sun-up to sun-down, I had to invest in arctic gear. I'd spend anywhere from 50 to 70 hours a week loading boxes of ice cream into large semi trailers while slogging around in a warehouse which was kept at a near-constant twenty below, except on Sundays, when it dropped to minus thirty. I had two days off per week, unless the job load demanded we cancel one, and they were not contiguous.

It was a terrible job and I was awful at it. I lasted about two months, but at the end of it I had a fat wad of dough in the bank from all the overtime and my body fat was in the single digits due to the job's physical demands.

Needless to say, I was going through a rough patch. I was on my own for the first time in my life, dealing with life in a very low rent neighborhood. When I say I was living across from a crack house, I am not laying a metaphor down here, folks. It was a crack house. As in, a house...where crack...was sold. Yeah.

I was terrible at the job. At first I could barely keep up with the physical labor, even though I was in pretty good shape, due to being something of a gym rat and huge into martial arts at the time. It required a different kind of shape from what I was used to--the ability to be on your feet, hauling weight for hours on end without flagging. It was the difference between a draft horse and a show pony and entirely outside my college-life experience.

But the job required more than that. Even once I got into the right kind of shape, I discovered it demanded a type of thinking which my brain simply was not wired to do. You needed to pack your ice cream packages on the bare minimum of carts, performing--on the fly and under tight deadlines--a form of three-dimensional Tetris which you either had the knack for or you didn't.

I lacked the maturity at the time to realize I could simply quit and find a less stressful job. It took me...well, two months, come to that conclusion. In the meantime, I had constant nightmares. The weekends, split into two one-day blocks, were never short enough to recover, both emotionally and physically. Life sucked, hard.

But I was still an English major, right? I still wrote things. Poetry.  Awful poetry, where I'd try to deal with my anxiety.

I wish I'd saved some of it. It's truly dreadful, Vogonian in its sheer, epic, balls to the stars level of pants.

In later years, I've come to refer to anything I wrote when I was emotionally too close to the subject as "freezer poetry," defined as the sort of rubbish I wrote when I was stressed out of my noggin from my awful freezer-warehouse job.

In lit-nerd circles there is a thing called "negative capability." It's a term coined by John Keats, the British wunderkind who rhapsodized about Grecian urns and shit. It's mostly about being able to step outside of the bonds of what's holding you to the moment and achieving artistic objectivity. If you hang out with enough pretentious people, you'll probably hear it about once a year or so under the right conditions. I call it "the power of not giving a shit."

In order to really write or, for that matter, do any sort of real thinking, you have to be willing to step outside your own brain, see what's in front of you clearly. You have to be able to remove the limits of your context and be willing to not be mired in whatever's holding you down, whether it's your preconceptions of how society relates to the topic at hand or the completely fucking awful day you just had.

The worst writing I've ever done was the sort of writing where I'd bang down words and then fist-pump and give out a loud "hell, yeah." Or, even worse, the antithesis, where I was dealing with awful drek in my life, when I'd attempt to capture the horror of a terrible job and the basic existential despair of missing out on grad-school deadlines.*

* Sarcasm! I've got it! Late-thirties-Mike is vastly amused by early-twenties-Mike's complete lack of perspective on life.

In order to write (or think clearly about) something, I had to develop the ability to not give a shit about it, see all sides as clearly as possible, listen to alternate voices. And if I wasn't ready to do that, I had to build the ability to put it on the back-burner until I was ready. "Not giving a shit" is not "not caring" or being apathetic. It's about being in a mental place where you can see all options before you objectively and outside the moment.

These days, I never use my writing to vent. If I can't abstract a problem down to the point where I view it as a puzzle to be manipulated, then I'm probably too close to it and need to fix my brain before I can write about it.

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