Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Failure of Mindset

I think I had an epiphany tonight. I was practicing piano, for the first time in a long time, and I was flubbing rather badly. I stopped, and I looked at my hands, and I realized two points.

1. I failed as a student of piano.

2. That failure is due to my philosophical approach to piano.

The reason has to do with technique. Learning how to play piano is all about mastering the technique. There is a list of "musts" that every piano instructor will probably agree on:

You MUST have good posture. You MUST hold your hands correctly. You MUST understand the art of correct fingering. You MUST learn how to read music, and you MUST learn how to sight-read music. You MUST understand how to practice. You MUST accept the discipline of daily, intensive practice.

I got two of those MUSTs down. Why? Because I wasn't focused on learning the technique. I was focused on results, rather than process. I tried to learn how to play piano pieces, rather than learning how to play piano.

Good piano players can be given a sheet of music they've never seen or heard before, sit down at a piano, and play it. Eventually, and perhaps not brilliantly. But they play it. Good piano players have learned the technique. They have learned empirical skills that can be theoretically applied to any piece of music. (I say theoretically because there's some music that defies empirical ability. See: Liszt's Rondo Fantastique. It's said to be unplayable.)

I never focused on learning how to warm up correctly, or how to cross over during trills, or anything about good pedal work. I only tried to learn the pieces I was assigned at that time. I never even thought to myself, "Ian, you need to learn how to play the piano, not just how to play a few piano pieces."

And now I pay the penalty for my mistake. For when I sit down to play piano, after an absence of several months, I struggle. I flub. I flop. I falter. My technique is imperfect, in the archaic sense of that word: it is incomplete, and therefore it is unusable.

In an interesting aside, one might compare the technique required for Playing The Piano to the technique required for Reading A Literature. And one might compare my inability to grasp the technique for Playing The Piano to my inability to grasp the popularly accepted technique for Reading A Literature. My hope is in the fact that Reading A Literature is a science rather than an art, and therefore results are more important than technique.

Long live depressing epiphanies!

A Window In

It's been hard for me to blog meaningfully of late, because in addition to work I've been trying to get back on track with my novel. I have only so much creativity to expend every day, you see. Anyway, here's a rare bit of cross-promotion, in celebration of the fact that in my editing of my novel, I recently passed a significant milestone: 60,000 words.

A word of explanation. I won NaNoWriMo with this novel, 57,000 words. Of course, many of those words were of questionable quality, so I've been doing quite a bit of cutting. The fact that I've been cutting so much, but have still been able to add 3,000 important--dare I say essential--words, is an accomplishment. So here's a screencap, which incidentally includes a glimpse of one of the pivotal early scenes in the novel. Just a glimpse. Nothing more.

Click on the image to see a wider screencap.

Long live tortoises!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

I, Contemptible Archetype

What is the thing that I am?

I am Barista.

I have long hair. (The length varies.)

I do not always shave. Sometimes I neglect shaving accidentally; sometimes I am unshaven on purpose.

I look down on you as you order your drink. No matter what your order, I subtly and nonverbally communicate to you that you're an idiot for drinking slop like that.

I follow Stephen Fry on Twitter.

I know why Stephen Fry's nose is crooked.

No, I won't tell you. Google it.

I wear t-shirts and other clothing with slogans that are incomprehensible to you, but deeply meaningful to me.

I have volunteered in at least thirteen other countries, all of which are infinitely superior to this one.

I am fluent in Espresso Italian. That is to say, I do not know Italian, but I am convinced that I do.

I have a beautiful Espresso Italian accent. That is to say, I have the accent of an American speaking Italian, but I am convinced that my Italian accent would put an Italian to shame.

I despise the letter x, simply because so many people see fit to insert it into the word espresso.

I have a quirky blog.

I write self-referential blog posts. Also, I write self-self-referential blog posts.

I understand the importance of offering iced drinks to customers, but that doesn't mean I approve of it.

I speak demeaningly and snidely of Charbucks.

I long to travel one day to that holiest of Meccas, Seattle.

I do love sports, thank you very much! Every year I choose the most obscure team I can find and learn everything I can about it, then drop it abruptly when it becomes mainstream.

I can recite Jack White's ode to Detroit word-for-word.

I smoke a pipe.

I try other coffee shops and inevitably end up "setting them straight on a few things".

I Yelp! Oh, how I Yelp!

I have built a roaster from hand tools and kitchen implements, and I roast coffee in my parent's garage.

I used to have a tumblr, but it became way too commercialized, way too fast.

I am going to see the Black Keys in May, it's true, but I'm going ironically.

I pluck my eyebrows.

I have written a novel. It has not been published. It probably will not be published.

I was one of the first to disbelieve the Kony 2012 scam.

I am experimenting with my signature. Its latest iteration is pointillist.

I have never, ever used a trending hashtag, and I never, ever will.

I shudder when people refer to coffee as "java".

I shudder when people refer to coffee as "joe".

I shudder when people refer to caffeine as "that extra jolt, ya know?"

I shudder a lot, come to think of it.

I used to have a beard, but I couldn't find organic beard shampoo, so I shaved my beard off.

I named my beard. It's name was Wilgus.

I used the incorrect form of its just now. I know that. I did it to annoy you.

I created my own personal blend of coffee. I import the beans in small amounts at ridiculous prices. It tastes like heaven in a cup.

I will never share the recipe for Ian's Blend. It accompanies me to my grave.

I do not plan on being buried. I want to be cremated and have my ashes sprinkled on my garden, which I have set aside in my will as open to the public for foraging.

I have seen Patton Oswalt's stand-up live four times. His best was the third time I saw him. His material is a little tired now; it needs to breathe.

I am convinced that people care deeply about my opinion. In my mind, that's why they look so attentive when I'm talking to them.

I can't tell the difference between an attentive look and a glassy-eyed look of absolute boredom.

I am far too self-aware.

I am nowhere near self-aware enough.

I used to like Bukowski, but then Modest Mouse had to go and ruin him for me.

I am infinitely outraged that Kurt Cobain is a playable character in Guitar Hero 5, since his personal philosophy was diametrically opposite to the commercialism of the video game industry.

I have to go do some yoga. I suppose I must end this post.

I end my quirky blog posts on my quirky blog with a quirky yet reliable signoff. It's often a non sequitur. Something like this:

Long live deprecation!

Monday, March 19, 2012

"Ooooh, What's That?"

Gender-neutral nouns, I'm a barista. I work at a coffee shop, and I make people drinks, and it's an okay job, I guess. My biggest problem with it is that I don't have much opportunity to be creative in it. Perhaps that should be rephrased: I'm too lazy to be creative in it.

I can be creative, I suppose. I can pay attention to my banter at the counter, for instance. I can figure out if the "LOL @ THIS WETHER" gambit works better than "HOWZ UR DAY GOIN?" gambit by comparing tip totals on different days. I can keep struggling fruitlessly at creating even halfway-decent latte art. I can try to come up with more labor- or cost-saving methods to run the shop.

Or I can try to create new drinks.

I've tried, you know. I've tried coming up with new flavor combinations. I even tried steaming espresso shots in milk. (It turned out to be terrible.) I've tried this, and that, and the other, and then I've forgotten that I tried this already, so I try it again, and then I remember that I already tried it and it wasn't that great.

I think my problem is that I'm infatuated with newness rather than quality. The quality I'm aiming for is not deliciousness but newness. I want to come up with something nobody's ever tried before.

And if it tastes bad...well, that just pushes me more precipitously toward my next essay.

I've become addicted to the open-ended question "ooooh, what's that?"

Maybe I should try writing sonnets on paper cups. That should exhaust some of this excess creativity roiling about inside of me.

Long live juices, creative or otherwise.

EDIT: Speaking of creative juices, check this out. 

GAWSH I love independence.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Writing The Pain Down

I can't write pain.


I think it's because I don't really feel pain.

Let me explain. I am a person who hasn't ever experienced real pain. Muscle soreness? Yes. Toothache? Yes. Bee stings? Yes. Fingernail crushed in a closing car door? Yes.

Broken bones? No.

Serious lacerations? No.

Ruptured organs? No.

I've never been in a serious car accident. I've never even experienced whiplash from getting rear-ended. I have lived a remarkably pain-free life.

So when I try to write about pain, I can't. I'm currently trying to edit/clean up my first novel. There are scenes of vicious physical aggression in this embryonic novel (they'd be called "fight scenes", but this is Literature, and Literature doesn't have "fight scenes". It has "scenes of vicious physical aggression".) The most significant problem I'm confronting in this Augean stable of fiction is making the scenes of vicious physical aggression...believable.

I think the problem is that I can't communicate the weight of the fights. I can't say how it would feel to be punched in the jaw by a strong man, because I have only been punched in the face once, and that was not by a strong man. I haven't really had my head smacked in punching fashion--by a door, say. I can't feel my characters' pain, because I have no point of reference. So when I write down my characters' pain, my readers (probably; there haven't been any yet) don't feel the characters' pain. And the scenes of vicious physical aggression lack weight. The reader might even say, subconsciously, "so what?"

And that's never a question an author wants to hear.

To lend weight to this conjecture, there is the matter of loneliness. I don't think I'm being melodramatic when I say that I know what being alone is. I'm a naturally solitary person; I cultivate a few close friendships, and that's it. And if those few close friends are unavailable, well then, I am alone. I'm fine with being alone; I have  come to know being alone.

I write loneliness well, I think. One of my earliest short stories is microfiction about an old man walking up a hill, pursuing memories. There are all sorts of tangled strands of interrelated theme that squirrel about in the story, but running beneath all of them is a heavy line of loneliness. I still love reading that story. I go back to it, and I say "I wish all of my stories were like this."

My point is this: I know loneliness, and I write it well. I don't know physical pain, and I write it poorly. Coincidence?


Long live loneliness.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Most Of You Are Welcome, Except That Guy

I was driving my automobile today in the small town in which I live. I drove past a church. It had a sign. I read it. Then I drove past a different church, about a block away. It had a sign too. I read that sign as well.

Then I went home and thought about the signs I had read.

The first church I saw was an Established Church. It had all the hallmarks: membership in a large, historically-rich denomination, big stone building, advantageous location. Its sign read, in part:


Okay then.

The second church I saw was a Hip Church. It had all the hallmarks: denominationally-indistinct name, logo with a plant in it, building that had obviously been acquired recently. Its sign read, in part:


Both signs communicated a point. A mindset. A tone, if you will. Both signs were in keeping with the worldview of the respective churches involved. Of course the Established Church uses the old-fashioned, literal, weather-worn way of welcome. And of course the Hip Church uses a slightly sarcastic, eye-catching, unique catchphrase.

I don't think there should be a place for sarcasm in the work of the church. I don't think that the old way of doing things is of necessity the best way of doing things. I don't think that the church should shut anyone out, even those who believe they're perfect. I don't think the church should be a shelter for self-deceived people who are unaware and unwilling to be aware of their own shortcomings.

In short, I don't know which sign I prefer.

I'd appreciate input. This topic is evolving in my mind, slowly but very certainly. Leave a comment below, and tell me what you think.

In whatever form it takes, long live welcome.

Friday, March 2, 2012


I'll be the first to admit that I didn't expect much out of Hugo.

I saw the trailer, and I saw that it had little kids in it, and I wasn't interested. I generally don't like child actors or actresses, because they seldom deliver convincing, layered performances. I've seen some good movies with child actors, like Let The Right One In, but those good ones are few and far between.

Fortunately, I'm fallible. So I was wrong. I went to see Hugo last night, and I was very strongly affected.

It didn't hurt that Sir Ben Kingsley and Sir Christopher Lee, two of my all-time favorite actors, had important screen time. It didn't hurt that the script was close to perfect. It didn't hurt that the score was even closer to perfection.

To be honest, though, what I appreciated most was how self-referential the film was.

Now, self-absorption and self-reference are almost always pitfalls, vices to be avoided. Even in the right circumstances, the execution of the concept must be perfect. One film that achieves this circular reference is Singin' In The Rain. Its plot simultaneously parallels and links to then-current advances in cinema AND the movie-goer's experience.

Hugo is, in essence, a fable. It sets forth a fantastical tale with magic and a happy ending, one that "only happens in the movies". And it has a moral, which I won't spoil by revealing here. As I finished the movie, I felt no sense of reality in my mind. The film had not asked me to suspend disbelief. Rather, it told me, "What you are about to see is illustrative of truth." In short, Hugo was filmed like one of the films of Georges Méliès: it is intended to prime the dream-pump.

Much may (and perhaps should) be said of Scorcese's vision of himself as Méliès, but that's a post for a different time. For now, I give Hugo Five Reels in Ian's Totally Subjective Film Rating System.

Long live rarity!