focusing on focus

Yesterday I responded to a journal prompt, and I decided my response wasn’t too embarrassing to share here on my blog:

The word I want to focus on in 2019 is “focus.” (How very meta.) I’m almost always thinking about the next thing I’m going to do. My work suffers from this, my walk with God does too, and certainly so do my relationships with other people. I don’t even go to the bathroom anymore without taking my phone. But those short tasks (brushing teeth, etc.) are great opportunities to practice mindfulness. I’m not wasting my mind when I think about brushing my teeth; I’m letting it be quiet and rest.

I know that focusing on whatever I’m presently doing is a habit of mind that comes from practice and prayer (another thing that’s hard to focus on), but there are adjustments I can make to get my life to be more conducive to focus, and one of them is to do fewer things. One reason why I was so eager to hit “reset” on my life by moving to Michigan is that I felt like I was doing many things and doing okay at them, but I wanted to do a few things really well (and joyfully). True, I’m doing fewer things than I was before, but I keep coming up with new things to make me busy so I can avoid focusing on important things. This appears masochistic when I really consider it.

My flexible work schedule is both a blessing and a curse. I’m so thankful I don’t have to be in my office 40 hours a week. But that doesn’t mean that those few hours when I’m teaching are the only hours I owe to my job. I know there are ways I can enjoy my flexibility while still working productively (e.g. checking email in a coffee shop, reading for class in a park, having online “office hours” for 1-2 hours on weekends). By spreading out my work this way and priming myself to enjoy it (and I really do enjoy most of the actual work), I can avoid that rush to get things done at the last minute and come to class better prepared.

I want to experience “flow,” that state that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote about, when I don’t feel like I need to look at my watch or daydream about what I’m going to eat later or obsessively replay conversations in my head. I want to enjoy Tuesday instead of wishing it were Friday. I want to enjoy February instead of wishing it were May. I don’t ever want people to hear in my voice or see in my eyes that I’ve stopped listening to them and started thinking about something else, because that feels really crappy. I want to do whatever I’m presently doing with no shame or dread about what I “should” be doing instead.

I want other people to see me as an integrated person, not necessarily a busy person. I want to stop treating busyness as a virtue. I want to model self-care for my students by having boundaries and letting them know I’m not always working, but I also want it to be evident to them that I respect them enough to prepare for class, reply thoughtfully to their emails, and really read their written work. I don’t want my default response to be “Oh, I forgot you asked me about that” or “What page are we on?” Being an absent-minded professor isn’t cute; it’s lazy (for me).

This year, I want to really learn to focus. I’m tired of making false starts on this. I want to write in December about how much more focused I became in 2019.

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my take on the 2019 Best Picture nominees

I watch the Academy Awards every year and have blogged about them several times over the years, but this year I decided, for the first time, to see all the Best Picture nominees before Oscar night. Since there are only eight this year and I had already seen Black Panther (probably the only nominee that many people have seen), I was able to do this in one weekend. I did watch the rather inordinate number of five movies in my local cinema last weekend, which means that I saw the trailer for Isn’t It Romantic no fewer than three times. (It still looks pretty funny.) I rented one of the nominees from my local Family Video (yes, we still have rental stores around here) and finished up last night by watching one on Netflix.

Instead of writing a separate review of each film, I thought it would be more interesting–and less wordy–to make some lists of themes and motifs that appear in two or more of the films. Think of this as a textual Venn diagram that shows where the nominees overlap and thereby shows, perhaps, what was on Hollywood’s (and America’s and the world’s?) mind this year.

Let’s start with the obvious: Films that have the word “Black” in the title. Okay, maybe too obvious. Let’s move on.

Films about lonely musicians who abuse alcohol and/or drugsGreen Book, Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star Is Born

Films about political intrigue and insiderism that have zero likable characters: The Favourite, Vice

Films that deliberately hark back to older styles of filmmaking: Vice, BlackkKlansman, Roma

Films that incorporate multiple genres: BlackkKlansman, Vice (editorial note: Vice takes the cake in this category, using Shakespearean blank verse, restaurant menus, a helpful narrator who’s also sort of a character, historical footage, and even a fake credit roll in the middle of the movie in order to explain concepts. Also, a side note: BlackkKlansman and Vice have another feature in common–really cool, sometimes funky, sometimes epic scores by composers I’m not familiar with but whom I hope to hear more from in the future.)

Films in genres that traditionally don’t get nominated for Best PictureBlack Panther, A Star Is Born (And remember, a monster movie won last year. And the year before that, a musical won. Oh wait, no, it didn’t. Never mind.) I almost put Bohemian Rhapsody here because I was thinking of it as a feel-good movie/sort-of musical, but the Oscars do tend to love musician biopics (c.f. Ray, Walk the Line). Green Book somewhat fits into all of the categories I just mentioned as well, except that the focus is not so much on the musician as on his driver/bodyguard/friend.

Films that address contemporary issues: Oh wait, that would be all of them.

Films that felt like they were trying to out-weird last year’s weird period costume drama, Phantom Thread: I guess The Favourite is the only one that belongs here.

But perhaps the average filmgoer who doesn’t want to spend the equivalent of a full-time job in the movie theater will be most interested in these three categories.

Films that made me feel good: Black Panther, Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody

Films that made me feel sad but okay: BlackkKlansman, A Star Is Born, Roma

Films that made me want to become a cynical world-hating hermit: The Favourite, Vice

That’s all for now. If you’ve seen any of these, let me know what you think. And if you happen to know why Roma is called Roma, let me know that too, because I’m pretty sure I missed something.

 

thoughts while watching The Return of the King

I’m watching The Return of the King right now, and I thought I’d blog about it. (Excuse me while I do a 20-second plank because I just saw the Eye of Sauron; I’m doing a LOTR workout I found on Pinterest.) I just heard the line that I blogged about a few months ago–“I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you”–so I’m nearly at the end. Here are just a few observations.

First, zombies. A little while ago, I saw an orc who looked like a zombie. I think he’s only in the extended edition, in that scene where Sam and Frodo dress up like little orcs to blend in and then start a (rather unconvincing) fight to cause a distraction and get away. The orc in question had a missing nose (but not Voldemort-style; it looked like it had been burned off) and a generally ravaged face, his one working eye was a milky pale blue, and the first time he opened his mouth, he roared rather than spoke. He looked like he could have blended in just fine on The Walking Dead. But this was not the first time I had thought about zombies while watching the movie this afternoon. When Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli take the Paths of the Dead and meet those glowing, ectoplasmic ghosts, I was thinking of what an unfortunate special effects choice this was and how the army of the dead would be much cooler–and more threatening–if they looked like zombies. And it occurred to me that if this film had been made ten years later, this scene probably would have taken more inspiration from The Walking Dead and less from Pirates of the Caribbean; The Curse of the Black Pearl. (Not that the ghosts in Pirates were badly done at all. They fit better in that movie than in Return of the King.)

And now, a more serious observation. I’m far from being the first person to have noted this, but it really struck me this time. Okay, so in the tower on the edge of Mordor where Sam is reunited with Frodo (you know, the one with an orange light at the top but that isn’t the Tower of Barad-Dur–I wonder how many people thought it was and were totally disappointed when they found out that Frodo and Sam still had many more miles of stumbling dirty-faced through Mordor)–anyway, in the upper room of that tower, Frodo is in a panic because he thinks the orcs have taken the Ring. When Sam hands it back to him (with a slightly cocky little flourish that he totally earned by being absolutely kickass for the past fifteen minutes of the movie), you can see the instant relief in Frodo’s eyes and his whole demeanor. But when he puts the chain back around his neck, you can almost see a physical weight descending on his shoulders. The Ring is keeping him alive, and it’s killing him at the same time. That’s why, of all the symbolic meanings that have been suggested for the Ring (and I know, I know–die-hard Tolkien fans say it’s not a symbol at all), I think the most appropriate is that it represents the object of addiction, or perhaps addiction itself. Frodo needs the Ring at that moment, but in the long term, it’s the last thing he needs. Just like drugs, or lies, or whatever we keep going back to even though we hate it. Elijah Wood portrays this descent into psychological prison extremely well throughout the trilogy. And of course, Andy Serkis as Gollum masterfully shows what it looks like when you’re so deep in that prison you forget who you are.

Okay, now the hobbits are all cleaned up and looking adorable and giving bittersweet toasts in the Green Dragon. I’m going to go enjoy the last few (30?) minutes of this movie. Let me know your thoughts on The Return of the King.

writing for joy

My grandfather, John Vernon Stockslager (we called him Pappy), passed away last week. My uncle preached his funeral sermon on Monday, and he mentioned something I had almost forgotten about: Almost 20 years ago, when Pappy first got a computer, he created a series of comic strips about two birds named Tweets and Blu. Technically speaking, they’re simple and even a bit rough–he used the Draw program in Windows to create them–but they’re funny and big-hearted and short, just like Pappy. Also at the funeral, one of my cousins read aloud a poem that Pappy had written not long ago. (We had also read one of his poems at my grandmother’s funeral nine years ago.) At some point during the service, I was struck by the sudden realization that although it had always seemed normal to me that my grandfather, a retired electrician and farmer, drew cartoons and wrote poems for fun, it’s actually not that common for adults to do these things. Kids do these things, and then when they grow up and decide they’re not good enough to get paid to do them, they get embarrassed and stop. Pappy never stopped.

I see this same impulse to write for the pure joy of it in Pappy’s children and grandchildren, particularly in my own immediate family. The examples range from the short-lived family newspaper my sister headed up when we were kids–The Fine Five–to my brother’s songwriting to my dad’s extensive reviews he posts on Goodreads for every book he reads. I see it in my own blogging and fiction writing. None of us are getting paid to do these things. Maybe we could, if we worked harder at marketing ourselves or knew the right people. But while I can’t speak for anyone else in my family, I can say that I’m content with writing for a small audience of family, friends, and Facebook connections–and for the delight it brings me. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m content with this, like when I see colleagues’ blogs and YouTube channels going viral or when I watch other people in my Facebook writers’ group (which I feel like a poser even belonging to) finding great success in self-publication through a combination of persistent marketing and real writing skill. I admire those people, and what I’m about to say is not, by any means, meant to fault them. But for me, I think it’s a useful discipline to be able to see the value in sharing my writing with the people who matter most to me, even if it reaches no further than that. That’s what Pappy did. I remember there was some talk of looking for a wider distribution channel for Tweets and Blu, but his family was always his favorite audience, whether for his comic strips, his poems, or his music, which I haven’t even mentioned in this post. (And he did get to play and sing in front of a wide range of audiences throughout his life.)

I’m not trying to make the worn-out, false argument that getting paid for doing something makes you love it less. But I do think there’s something to be said for writing–or drawing, or singing and playing–for nothing but joy. I’m thankful that Pappy taught me that.

a Christmas thought

This year, I thought a lot about people who had to spend Christmas alone, or far from home, or working, and that made me think about a scene from A Christmas Carol that hardly ever gets dramatized or remembered. The Ghost of Christmas Present, after having taken Scrooge to some of the bleakest places inside London, takes him to some of the loneliest places outside of it:

And now, without a word of warning from the Ghost, they stood upon a bleak and desert moor, where monstrous masses of rude stone were cast about, as though it were the burial-place of giants; and water spread itself wheresoever it listed, or would have done so, but for the frost that held it prisoner; and nothing grew but moss and furze, and coarse rank grass. Down in the west the setting sun had left a streak of fiery red, which glared upon the desolation for an instant, like a sullen eye, and frowning lower, lower, lower yet, was lost in the thick gloom of darkest night.

“What place is this?” asked Scrooge.

“A place where Miners live, who labour in the bowels of the earth,” returned the Spirit. “But they know me. See!”

A light shone from the window of a hut, and swiftly they advanced towards it. Passing through the wall of mud and stone, they found a cheerful company assembled round a glowing fire. An old, old man and woman, with their children and their children’s children, and another generation beyond that, all decked out gaily in their holiday attire. The old man, in a voice that seldom rose above the howling of the wind upon the barren waste, was singing them a Christmas song—it had been a very old song when he was a boy—and from time to time they all joined in the chorus. So surely as they raised their voices, the old man got quite blithe and loud; and so surely as they stopped, his vigour sank again.

The Spirit did not tarry here, but bade Scrooge hold his robe, and passing on above the moor, sped—whither? Not to sea? To sea. To Scrooge’s horror, looking back, he saw the last of the land, a frightful range of rocks, behind them; and his ears were deafened by the thundering of water, as it rolled and roared, and raged among the dreadful caverns it had worn, and fiercely tried to undermine the earth.

Built upon a dismal reef of sunken rocks, some league or so from shore, on which the waters chafed and dashed, the wild year through, there stood a solitary lighthouse. Great heaps of sea-weed clung to its base, and storm-birds—born of the wind one might suppose, as sea-weed of the water—rose and fell about it, like the waves they skimmed.

But even here, two men who watched the light had made a fire, that through the loophole in the thick stone wall shed out a ray of brightness on the awful sea. Joining their horny hands over the rough table at which they sat, they wished each other Merry Christmas in their can of grog; and one of them: the elder, too, with his face all damaged and scarred with hard weather, as the figure-head of an old ship might be: struck up a sturdy song that was like a Gale in itself.

Again the Ghost sped on, above the black and heaving sea—on, on—until, being far away, as he told Scrooge, from any shore, they lighted on a ship. They stood beside the helmsman at the wheel, the look-out in the bow, the officers who had the watch; dark, ghostly figures in their several stations; but every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it. And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for another on that day than on any day in the year; and had shared to some extent in its festivities; and had remembered those he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him.

–Charles Dickens, 1843

songs you should drop everything and listen to

Deeply embroiled in grading, I’m taking just a minute to share with you the front-runner for my favorite “new” (to me) Christmas song this year: “Christmas Must Be Tonight” by The Band. This is an old song that I just discovered this year, and I really dig it. I’ve been realizing this year how much I like The Band. Over the summer, I discovered their wonderfully surprising part-bluegrass, part-zydeco cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.”

Let me know what you think. And what Christmas songs are you enjoying this year?

Jesus was homeless

This morning while washing my face and putting on makeup and blow-drying my hair, I was trying to keep tears from streaming down my face. Let me briefly tell you why.

I was listening to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra song “Good King Joy,” which combines the tunes of “Joy to the World” and “Good King Wenceslas” (the moderately obscure carol about the king who feeds, warms, and clothes a poor man) but also contains a blues-gospel vocal riff on the journey of the wise men to bring gifts to Jesus. My first thought was “It’s odd that they would conflate those two stories.” My next thought was “Duh. They’re not conflating anything; those two stories are absolutely connected.” Jesus said that whatever we do for “the least of these”–like the poor man that King W. saw–we have done for him. And that’s why we sing about King W. at Christmas (well, we at least hear the song occasionally–I’m not sure if I’ve ever actually sung it) and why so many people give their time and money at Christmas. Charitable giving at Christmas is not something Charles Dickens came up with in the 1840s; Dickens was drawing from a very old tradition that stretches all the way back to the wise men and even further back to the innkeeper who did, after all, let Mary and Joseph stay in the stable. We give to the poor at Christmas because on the first Christmas, God became poor. He didn’t just become a baby unable to help himself; he became a baby born to a couple who didn’t have much in terms of worldly possessions and who, on the night Jesus was born, didn’t even have a place to stay.

This seems so obvious now that I’m typing it out, and it’s not like I didn’t know all this before. It just hit me this morning in a way that it never has before. This advent season, I want to pay attention to the people around me who are economically poor as well as poor in spirit, because in doing so I am paying attention to Jesus.