Wednesday, June 29, 2016
Monday, June 20, 2016
For the last two decades I haven’t wanted to write.
After spending the first 25 years of my life (not to mention an alarming amount of college and grad school tuition) attempting to hone that particular skill set, the idea of putting one word in front of the other had become unpleasant. Daunting. Difficult. Even painful.
Which was a little problematic, considering “Writer” was the box I had ticked on every "What I Want To Be When I Grow Up" questionnaire Life had ever handed me from as far back as I could remember.
I used to love it. A lot. There was nothing I enjoyed more than making up characters and having adventures with them.
But in my late 20s something happened. Something changed. Something I didn’t quite understand.
I just couldn’t do it anymore. The storytelling impulse – the storytelling compulsion, really – that had been with me since even before I could read - that impulse I’d taken for granted for so many years - had just vanished.
It was gone.
The tank had run dry. The engine wouldn’t turn over.
I have spent the past two decades slogging through a sludgy mental torpor, unable to do the one thing I was ever marginally good at.
Through it all I never quite gave up. Out of bone-deep stubbornness, I somehow managed to drag four or five screenplays across - or within shouting distance of - the finish line.
But I really had to force it. It was like pushing rope. It was all I could do just to focus for half an hour at a time.
A total number of pages that should have taken me two years tops, ended up taking nearly twenty.
And, if I’m being honest, they weren't particularly good pages.
Writing had become hard work. Exhausting work. Impossible work. Work I couldn't even attempt unless I took multiple weeks off from my job and crammed myself to the gills with caffeine. And even then, the results were paltry, at best. What had once been a fire hose had slowed to an occasional drip.
So what changed?
I didn't know.
For years, whenever I was asked why I never tried to pursue much of a writing career, I would quip: “Graduate school cured my love of theater.”
Was it sardonic? Certainly. Clever? Maybe. But was it true?
Well, honestly it seemed to be. It felt true. My experience in grad school had gotten a little bumpy near the end, and in the years that followed, I just couldn’t motivate myself to write.
Seemed like it.
But, come on. It hadn't been that bumpy. And even if it had been, it shouldn’t have affected writing non-theater pieces, right?
But it did.
Whether it was prose, screenplays, shorts or even blog entries, I was still slamming headlong into the same problem. Writing in any form had become a Sisyphean chore. I just didn’t seem to have it in me anymore. My brain just wouldn't cooperate.
So what was the problem?
Had I just peaked early and burned out? Had I run out of stories worth telling?
In truth, the problem ended up being less metaphysical and more physical.
It turns out my brain really wasn't cooperating.
Because it was being strangled.
"My safe word is: 'Please Stop Strangling Me.'"
I’ve always been a snorer. This wasn’t news. Even as a little kid, I could rattle the windows at night. But apart from irritating a long string of roommates, family members, a fair number of neighbors, and certainly The Missus, I had never thought much about it. People snore. So what?
And as I slid from my 20s to my 30s and on into my 40s, a sedentary office job, a long commute, and the slowing metabolism of encroaching middle age all conspired to pack a considerable amount of extra meat onto my already stout frame. As I’ve detailed previously, I have never been slender. But in the last 20 years I’ve managed to swell pretty far above my natural weight class.
What I didn’t realize was, the snoring and that extra fat were just symptoms of a problem. A problem that was pretty much destroying me from the inside out.
It’s called Sleep Apnea, and it can totally kill you.
"Show me on the drawing where the death gets in."
It turns out, every time I went to sleep, my soft palate -- the fleshy bit in the back of the throat -- would collapse like a deflated bouncy castle and drape itself over my airway.
This was what was causing my snoring.
But the snoring wasn't the problem.
The problem was that it was starving my brain of oxygen all night.
Spoiler Alert: Your brain needs oxygen to live.
“This is where you dipped into R.E.M. state,” the doctor said, indicating a brief dip on the chart a few days following my sleep study. “You stayed there for less than a minute.”
“But it was a six hour test,” I said.
“Is that why I don’t dream?”
“No,” he said. “You’re not dreaming because there are three more levels of sleep below R.E.M. That's where dreaming happens. And I don’t think you’ve been to any of those levels in years.”
“According to this, you’re experiencing an apnea event about a hundred times an hour.”
“Which translates to ...”
“Almost every breath.”
So what did it all mean?
Well, it meant that with nearly every breath, I was choking on my own throat.
It meant that every night my brain was being starved of oxygen.
It meant that my brain was never getting a chance to rest and recover.
It meant that my mind was being strangled for hours on end.
And as he rattled off the symptoms, all the pieces started to fit. Constant physical exhaustion, extreme mental lethargy, weight gain, persistent mental fog, utter lack of short-term memory, shortened temper, complete loss of concentration ... check, check, check, check, check....
My brain, he said in so many words, was a tattered, wrung-out dishrag. It hadn’t been able to rest or recharge in nearly twenty years. Frankly, it was kind of miraculous that I’d managed to shamble through my life generally, let alone write what little I had.
I was essentially staggering through each day with the needle pinned below empty. Coasting on fumes. My brain was never getting the sleep it desperately needed to function.
Oh, and did I mention it can totally kill you. Sudden heart failure is fairly common with untreated apnea, as are strokes, and incidents of falling asleep at the wheel. Hypoxia, irregular heartbeat, and even diabetes are all linked strongly to it.
"Seriously. It's SO not good for you. As your doctor, I would recommend that you should probably stop having it."
So no, this wasn’t a case of snory chubster needing a few extra hours of shut-eye. This was severe oxygen deprivation to the brain. Staying in bed for a few extra hours on the weekend wasn’t going to help. Longer strangling sessions weren't the answer.
So ... what was?
Was there a treatment?
Could anything be done?
It's called a CPAP machine. And it just might be saving my life.
Every night I strap what looks like scuba gear onto my face and the machine blows air through a tube and up my nose - Continuous Positive Airway Pressure. The air pressure keeps my soft palate from collapsing over my airway and choking the life out of me while I sleep. It’s a little bit like a stadium with a fabric roof – the air pressure keeps the dome from caving in.
Sounds invasive and terrible, right?
How could a person possibly sleep in that get-up?
Well, it turns out, beautifully.
JUST LOOK HOW BEAUTIFUL!!!
I love this goddamned thing.
Because, for starters, it’s not as invasive and terrible as it sounds. After some initial trouble with a bulky and unpleasant face mask, I was able to switch to a much smaller “nasal pillow” which plugs into my nostrils perfectly.
And I'm thrilled to report that it’s working!
In the months since I’ve started using it, my memory has snapped back, my mental acuity has returned, and my energy level has ticked steadily upward.
Most noticeably, my once horrifying caffeine problem has been eliminated entirely.
There was a time I needed FOUR TO SIX LITERS of Diet Pepsi a day. Just to function. (For those not in Europe at the moment, that’s nearly TWO GALLONS.) Each day. Just to drag my swollen carcass to work and back.
The sheer volume of soda I have consumed over the last two decades has surely done irreparable damage to every organ and bone in my body, but I am happy to report that since I started using this machine, I’ve cut caffeine out of my diet entirely. With no repercussions whatsoever. Unless you count the fact that I’m now saving about $4,000 a year by not needing to drown myself in an ocean of aspartame.
And that's not all. My mood has markedly brightened, my thinking is quicker, and my vision has even gotten a smidge better. I’ve even dropped about fifteen pounds without exercising. (Admittedly, fifteen is just a drop in the proverbial fat bucket, but it’s an encouraging start!)
But the biggest change I’ve noticed is that my concentration has come roaring back. Time was, the state that Malcolm Gladwell calls “flow” was a fairly regular destination for me. Whether I was writing, reading, sculpting, model building, drawing … anything that required intense, focused attention ... I would slip down into a kind of concentration hole and emerge many hours later with the task completed and a back stiff from hunching.
I’ve started doing that again. Often without meaning to. And it’s fantastic.
And guess what else ...
It started almost without my realizing it. One day on the train home from work – a time I used to be helpless to stop myself from nodding off – I just flipped open my laptop and started absently plinking away.
And before I knew it, a few weeks had passed and I was 70 pages deep into a new script.
And it was different this time. I wasn’t forcing it. I wasn't doing it because I felt an onerous sense of obligation to live up to a life choice I’d made four decades prior. Nor was it a guilty attempt to justify the life-crippling student loan debt I’m still trapped beneath.
No. This time I was writing because it was fun. Because I wanted to.
In fact, the thing I'm writing isn’t even something I could ever sell. It’s really just for me.
And that’s okay.
In fact, that's better than okay.
That's pretty goddamned great.
Till next we meet ...
Monday, May 30, 2016
Ladies and gentlemen, could I please have your attention.
The Captain has turned off the "It's Not Summer Yet" sign.
You may now feel free to move about the season.
Thank you for choosing U.S. (h)Air.
... till next we meet.
Tuesday, May 3, 2016
(My apologies in advance. This one's a bit more serious minded and thinky than my usual nonsense. Sorry. Occasionally I do get drawn in by the tractor beam of matters of actual import. It happens. I'm human. But rest assured, silliness will follow anon. Promise.)
As any writer will tell you ... if you want to write better, you have to read more.
But it's not just about picking up tips from other writers or honing the subtleties of narrative craft.
Yes. There are many, many things you can learn from reading that will help you develop your own literary voice or fine-tune your personal creative process.
But there's something else about the act of reading that's even more important.
Something not just for writers.
Something I believe is pretty darn fundamental to our humanity.
And it's something that seems to be disappearing from our culture at an alarming rate.
We all know people who seem to have been born with an innate hypersensitivity to the plight of their fellow human. They have that rare ability to feel for others on a deep and meaningful level.
But those folks aren't very common.
For most of us empathy is a response that must be actively and regularly cultivated. It's not an autonomic response. It's a muscle that must be worked out regularly or it will atrophy. Use it or lose it.
And right now, as a culture, we don't seem to be using it.
I'm not a sociologist or an anthropologist and I don't have any hard data to back up this observation, but I don't think it's hugely controversial to suggest that over the last couple of decades we've grown darker and meaner as a culture.
I'm not saying that there is no more kindness in the world. Just watch the response after a hurricane or an earthquake and you will see people show their best and most generous selves.
No, I'm talking about everyday sympathy and understanding. That's what seems to be in shorter and shorter supply.
We don't seem willing to walk a mile in the other guy's shoes anymore. Indeed, we seem now to resent the very fact that the other guy even has shoes in the first place.
Consider the catastrophic state of disrepair of our political discourse. It seems like we've devolved on a societal level. There's a ravenous, Lord of the Flies bloodthirstiness to our culture now that I just don't remember us having when I was 25.
Maybe it's the haze of memory, but I seem to recall a time when we could disagree without utterly loathing one another.
Today we seem to have an all-or-nothing, scorched-earth, I-win/you-lose-and-your-descendants-shall-be-obliterated-from-history way of dealing with each other.
I don't know. Maybe nothing's changed. Maybe I just wasn't paying attention back then.
Or maybe that open hostility was always there, but we just couldn't see it because the technology didn't exist yet that would reveal it. (If you're like me, a cursory glance at virtually ANY Internet comment section fills you with aching despair.)
Or maybe this frothing geyser of hate is really only representative of a small number of monsters but the electronic bullhorn of social media makes them seem far louder and more numerous than they really are.
I don't know.
But I can say this: The kinds of viciousness, cruelty and screaming rage that's being vomited up so openly just sets me back on my heels. Just look at some of the monstrously racist responses we've seen to the Black Lives Matter movement ... or the wretched misogyny of GamerGate ... or the reprehensible pro-gun backlash to any mass shooting ... or the naked hatred driving the recent wave of harassing transphobic bathroom laws ... or ... or ... or ... or ...
Is this really who we are now?
As a culture, we are hemorrhaging empathy at an alarming rate.
Where did it go? Can we get it back? If so ... how?
Oh, and what the hell does any of this have to do with reading?
Well, I believe there has never been a better tool for building an empathetic response in humans than reading long-form fiction.
I know. It sounds weird, but stay with me.
Long-form fiction -- specifically the novel -- cultivates our capacity for empathy like nothing else. There is no other activity that forces you to plant yourself behind someone else's eyes -- and more importantly, inside their thoughts -- quite so fully as novel reading.
Roger Ebert once famously defined the movie as "a machine that generates empathy." And yes, under the best of circumstances, movies (and TV) are machines that can work beautifully.
But it's the unfortunate nature of an audio-visual medium that we must start on the outside of a character. Hopefully we find our way inside over the course of the next two hours, but there are no guarantees we'll make that connection. Importantly, with a novel we generally start inside a character's mind.
For me, the time spent with a movie or television episode is just too brief. Alternately, even a fast reader is going to spend a significantly larger chunk of time with a book. And the longer we stay, the longer we psychologically marinate in another point of view. The more time we spend submerged within the thoughts of someone else, the more likely we are to build an emotional bridge to their perspective.
But it's even more than that.
Our engagement with a movie is largely passive -- it happens on the screen whether we're paying attention or not. Sets were built, images were photographed, words were written and performances were given. It's a fait accompli. And it happens on its own schedule with or without our input. If we wander out to the lobby for some Twizzlers, the movie doesn't stop and wait for us.
But with a book, when we close the cover, the story stops. It waits for us to open it again. If we stop reading in the middle of a sentence, the story waits right there -- suspended -- until we read the next word.
With a book, we are the engine.
By reflexively filling in the spaces between the words with imagination, we create a large portion of the experience ourselves. Our brains provide the thousands of tiny details. What the characters look like, what they sound like ... and most importantly ... what they feel like.
We supply a large portion of the experience. The engagement is cooperative, it's active.
The writer may provide the road map, but we're the ones driving the car.
We engage more fully. And consequently, we end up connecting with written characters and their experiences far more deeply than their filmic counterparts. We blend our own psyches into them. They become part of us in a way no other art form seems to.
Whether we started off identifying with that character or not, by the end, we've filled in so many of their blanks with own personas that we are actually changed on a fundamental level by meeting them half way.
No, seriously. It literally changes us.
Recent research seems to suggest that novel-reading physically changes the structure of the brain.
Let me say that again, louder and in bigger print.
It physically changes your brain.
According to a fascinating recent study at Emory University:
Heightened connectivity in other parts of the brain suggested that readers may experience “embodied semantics,” a process in which brain connectivity during a thought-about action mirrors the connectivity that occurs during the actual action. For example, thinking about swimming can trigger the some of the same neural connections as physical swimming.
And you know what that sounds an awful lot like?
Is it a coincidence that the rise of the novel as a popular literary form approximately coincided with the Victorian era's Industrial Revolution? And is it coincidence that many of the most influential early novelists, like Charles Dickens, were known for their ability to sway public opinion with their deeply humane and compassionate stories about the plight of everyday people being ground up in the gears of a brutal, uncaring world?
I don't think so.
And is it a coincidence that we appear to be getting meaner and nastier as a culture at a time when we're just not reading novels like we used to?
I don't think so either.
Just look at book publishing today. Sales are shrinking and several publishing houses have been forced to merge or shutter entirely. If your book doesn't feature a love triangle of mopey supernatural teenagers swanning around a generic dystopia ... chances are nobody's reading it.
With the Internet and smart phones and social media demanding our attention ... we're consuming vast amounts of media, but we're doing it in a remarkably superficial, scattershot way.
We need to learn to concentrate again, to deep-dive, to focus.
140 characters at a time isn't going to get it done.
The Internet has brought people together like nothing else in human history. But electronic connectedness is not the same thing as human understanding.
Because if novel-reading does, in fact, change your brain, you can bet spending all day every day staring at Twitter on your phone does too. And those changes may not be quite as desirable.
Humanity isn't something we're born with. It's something we have to cultivate. Something we have to work at. It's a garden that needs constant tending.
So turn off this blog and go read a book.
Till next we meet ...
Friday, February 19, 2016
Hi there. My name is Monkey Joe.
I've got nuts.
And I want you to pay money to buy them.
And then put them in your mouth.
Stop asking questions.
Just do it.
Put them in your mouth.
FOOD ALLERGY WARNING: We cannot guarantee "100%" that Monkey Joe's Nuts do not contain monkey. Those with monkey-based food allergies should avoid consuming this product.
Till next we meet ...
Monday, February 1, 2016
Monday, January 18, 2016
Yes, it's true that the movies Big Eyes, Frankenweenie and Dark Shadows failed to catch on at the box office.
And it's also true that Mars Attacks, Sleepy Hollow and Planet of the Apes were not adored by critics.
But COME ON!
You're better than this, Tim Burton!
And why the hell do you have a cuckoo clock over your batch?!
What are we expecting to come popping out of---OH MY GOD!!
Till next we meet ...