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Books Life

Four Thousand Weeks in the Midnight Library

Matt Haig’s novel The Midnight Library asks: What if you could explore every what-if of your life, specifically those that turned into regrets? How many of your other lives would actually turn out better than your real one?

It’s an intriguing philosophical question that quickly turns personal for the book’s protagonist, Nora Seed, who comes to learn that each book in the titular library—rendered as a kind of metaphysical manifestation of purgatory—represents one of the infinite versions of her life.

Adventures in space-time

The idea of exploring what-ifs through magical realism or sci-fi isn’t new. It’s the narrative foundation of some of my favorite films (It’s A Wonderful Life, Back to the Future trilogy) and other intriguing cinematic counterfactuals (The Man in the High Castle, The Last Temptation of Christ, About Time).

But rather than focusing on (as Doc Brown would call it) one specific temporal junction point in the entire space-time continuum—what if George Bailey had never lived, what if Biff stole the Almanac, what if the Nazis won—The Midnight Library extends its ambit to the many sliding-doors moments in a single life.

Nora is given countless opportunities to choose and experience parallel lives where none of her regrets came to pass. “I stayed with that ex-boyfriend” and “I didn’t give up swimming” and “I pursued my dream of becoming a glaciologist” all get a spin. But none of these supposedly ideal realities live up to her expectations.

While she’s able to shorten her list of regrets—an immensely valuable gift in itself—her pursuit of happiness doesn’t solve the deeper existential crisis that plagues all of us at some point: per Mary Oliver, what will you do with your one wild and precious life?

4,000 Weeks

That question infuses another of my recent reads: Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman, an approachably philosophical exploration of the wily, incorrigible thing called time and our dysfunctional relationship with it.

I have an extensive list of quotes from the book that make for good ponderin’, but there are three specific ones that would fit right into The Midnight Library. (Synchroncity knows no bounds, temporal or otherwise.)

First, a reality check:

The world has an effectively infinite number of experiences to offer, so getting a handful of them under your belt brings you no closer to a sense of having feasted on life’s possibilities.

Therefore, Burkeman writes, you have to make choices:

Once you truly understand that you’re guaranteed to miss out on almost every experience the world has to offer, the fact that there are so many you still haven’t experienced stops feeling like a problem. Instead, you get to focus on fully enjoying the tiny slice of experiences you actually do have time for—and the freer you are to choose, in each moment, what counts the most.

And once you do that:

If you can hold your attention, however briefly or occasionally, on the sheer astonishingness of being, and on what a small amount of that being you get—you may experience a palpable shift in how it feels to be here, right now, alive in the flow of time.

That “astonishingness” of being alive in the flow of time doesn’t arrive on command. You have to reorient your mind and your attention to create the conditions that allow for it to reveal itself.

In The Midnight Library, that process looks like an anguished young woman replacing her perceived unworthiness with gratitude for mere existence. (Just like George Bailey.)

In Four Thousand Weeks, that looks like embracing temporal limitations rather than resenting them.

And in my life, that looks like treating the things I love—my wife and son and family and friends and typewriter collection and bike rides and movie nights and library books—as the temporary gifts they are, for however long I live.

Categories
Books Life

Learning fictions

I’ve been on a fiction reading tear recently. In the last fortnight I’ve finished The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All by Josh Ritter, and The Midnight Library by Matt Haig—all with a mix of print and audiobook. I just started The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller on audiobook and am hopeful about it.

In the midst of this streak I texted my buddies that I was resolving to read more fiction.

“It’s an ongoing struggle,” I wrote, “to come to terms with the fact that I won’t be able to learn everything I want to learn via nonfiction books, so I might as well start to nourish other parts of my consciousness too.”

My friend Steve replied: “I feel like I learn a lot about the world from nonfiction, and I learn a lot about myself (and my relationship to others) from fiction.”

Couldn’t be truer. And when I said I typically tilt much farther toward the world, he replied: “While vast, it is sometimes less daunting.” Compared, that is, to ourselves.

Wendell Berry:

Fantasy is of the solitary self, and it cannot lead us away from ourselves. It is by imagination that we cross over the difference between ourselves and other beings and thus learn compassion, forbearance, mercy, forgiveness, sympathy, and love—the virtues without which neither we nor the world can live.

Angus Fletcher:

Whatever the power of truth may be, literature’s own special power has always lain in fiction, that wonder we construct.

Categories
Life

5 tips for planning a wedding

Wedding season has got me thinking about what I learned from my own experience putting together a wedding six years ago. Here’s what I got.

Pick four things to really care about.

Wedding planning is chock-full of choices, but you can’t care about everything equally unless you want to have a mental breakdown. Pick four things that really matter to you and invest some thought/time/money into making them happen. For my wife it was a good photographer (see below) and good flowers, and for me it was enjoying the time with our friends and having a fun reception. Everything else we tried to keep in perspective. (You will fail at this. Just try.)

Invest in a good photographer.

We considered and met with a few photographers before landing on the final choice, who also did our engagement shoot. Outside of the venue, this was probably the single biggest expense but what we got were exceptional photos that captured the whole experience beautifully and remain treasured artifacts from the day.

Do the receiving line leading into the reception.

Don’t go around to each table during the reception assuming you’ll get to talk to everyone. You’ll get stuck in chitchat, waste valuable party time, and won’t even talk to everyone. If your venue and schedule can swing it, do the receiving line leading into the reception so everyone gets face-time and then it’s out of the way.

Have a buffer day between wedding and honeymoon.

I do not understand the people who fly out the night of their wedding or even the next day. Not only did we have a bunch of stuff to bring back from the venue to our place, we also had to repack for the honeymoon and have some time to decompress and process the incredible day we’d had. You’ll appreciate that transition time before heading off onto the next adventure.

Pick the right spouse.

This will make everything easier and much more enjoyable.

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Film Life

Stargazing with WALL-E

Spent the holiday weekend at my wife’s family’s beach community, where they do a fireworks show every year on the beach. (Read my 2017 reflection about this experience.)

Though it was fun to watch Little Man experience fireworks for the first time, my personal highlight was being able to see the clear night sky without much light pollution for the first time in a while. And, man, was it glorious to behold.

All that love’s about

It echoed a moment that stood out in our recent rewatch of WALL-E, which we decided to try with Little Man after he gravitated to a WALL-E toy at Target (probably because it looked like a truck).

In the film’s transcendent first act, WALL-E pauses during his garbage collection routine and looks up to the sky just as the otherwise dense smog clears just enough for him to see stars. “It Only Takes a Moment” from Hello, Dolly! underscores the moment, specifically at the line “And that is all that love’s about.”

This is a lovely bit of foreshadowing for later in the movie, when WALL-E and EVE perform their fire extinguisher-fueled space ballet among the stars—a scene I love so much I named it one of my favorite movie music moments. (The movie itself is #2 on my best of 2008 list.)

The robot toddler

Another takeaway from the movie this time around was something I couldn’t have realized before having a kid: WALL-E embodies all the best characteristics of toddlers.

He’s diligent, curious, enthusiastic, loving, loyal, temperamental. He’s a tinkerer who tosses aside a diamond ring because he’s more interested in the box it came in. He’s eager to show EVE all his toys when she visits his home. He basically has two speeds: inching along or sprinting. He’s charmingly clumsy, quick to make friends, and an accidental agent of chaos—but one that ultimately brings life to those around him.

In short, an excellent role model, and not just for kids. Here’s to all of us being more like WALL-E.

Categories
Life Nature

Mulch ado about gardening

We’re finally, finally, doing stuff in our yard and garden areas. Some of it is remedial caretaking—fertilizing and weeding the lawn, removing dead bushes and trees—but a lot of it has focused on beautification and planting vegetables we’re not totally sure will thrive but are giving a try anyway.

I gotta say: I’ve really loved it. Perhaps because the work is the polar opposite of my digital, desk-bound day job: it’s an ancient practice, outside, requiring arduous physical labor, with visual progress toward to an end goal but no screens whatsoever.

The key reason we’ve been able to do so much thus far is Mr. 2 Years Old is now old enough to help, and boy does he enjoy it. We got him his own set of tools so he can work along with us, both for real and in the little dirt area we set aside just for him to romp around in. So far it’s collected a bunch of rocks and sticks, though we also set him up with a geranium to water.

As is the case with homeownership writ large, the list of things to do is seemingly endless and grows longer the more ambitious we get. Who knows what we’ll actually get to this year. That said, I’m kinda shocked by how much progress we’ve made with only partial weekends and the scattered weekday morning at our disposal.

Next up on the list: laying down a goodly amount of fragrant cypress mulch!

Categories
America Life

Marveling at masks amidst the plague experience

In his latest column “Are Face Masks the New Condoms?” (paywalled), Andrew Sullivan reflects on how difficult it is to change pandemic-induced behaviors:

With HIV, as with Covid, a transformation of the facts did not necessarily mean a transformation of psychology. Human psyches take time to adjust to new realities; fear and trauma have a habit of outlasting our reason; and stigmas, once imposed, can endure. Camus noted how his citizens in The Plague were oddly resistant to the idea that their pestilence was over, even as the numbers of deaths collapsed. Reactions to the good news were “diverse to the point of incoherence.” But for many, “the terrible months they had lived through had taught them prudence,” or imbued them with “a skepticism so thorough that it was now a second nature.” They had become used to their new routines, and the sense of safety they gave. However bizarre it seems, they became attached to their plague experience.

Sullivan is specifically referring to some people’s resistance to going mask-less outdoors despite the latest science condoning it. But his larger point about the stubbornness of human psychology and becoming emotionally attached to the pandemic experience rang very true for me.

Marveling at masks

Not long before lockdown last year, wearing a mask was still liable to be seen as paranoia even as the specter of the pandemic lurched ever closer. Yet now, long after mask mandates went into effect, it’s not wearing a mask that attracts suspicion and consternation—at least in the Chicago area where I live (obviously it’s a different story in other parts of the country).

And that’s one aspect of pandemic life I’ve become not necessarily attached to, but certainly appreciative of. Anytime I go to a store or other indoor public place, I see every person wearing a mask, even young kids, and think, This is pretty cool.

It’s pretty cool that all of us—whether willingly or begrudgingly—are undertaking collective action to benefit the health of our neighbors and nation. Again, whether you see it that way or not is irrelevant; it’s the fact that it’s happening at all and on such a grand, widespread scale that’s a bit of a marvel to me.

It makes me feel a kind of kinship with my fellow countrymen and women, an esprit de corps that makes the frustrations of pandemic life a little more bearable. Or, as Matt Thomas tweeted:

(Notably this tweet was from before we knew COVID transmission was far more likely through air droplets than direct touch, but the sentiment remains valid.)

To be clear, I’d rather not have to wear a mask. Once mask mandates end and the prevailing, science-based wisdom allows for a more normal life, I’ll celebrate with everyone else. But until then, I consider masking up something to embrace as a small but significant action I can take to nudge this plague in the right direction.

(That and getting the vaccine, which I’ve now done.)

In this together?

“We’re all in this together” started the pandemic as a motivational motto that even yours truly deployed, but over time kinda curdled into a cheap slogan of hackneyed false optimism due to the decided un-togetherness fostered by a very tumultuous 2020. We all haven’t had the same COVID experience.

I’m one of those people for whom there was very little that was negative about it. I didn’t lose my job. I got to and continue to work from home (saving a bunch of money on commute fuel, among other things). I avoided catching COVID, as did my immediate family and friends (knock on wood). And above all I got so much more time with my wife and 2 year old than I would have otherwise, which was a priceless gift.

For those reasons I’ve very much become “attached to the plague experience.” The new routines it generated will be hard to kick. Slowly, as more people get vaccinated and another summer outdoors approaches in relief, maybe a new mindset will take hold. (I for one eagerly await going to a movie theater once I’m past my post-vaccine waiting period.)

Until then, the plague experience abides.

Categories
Film Life

Favorite Films of 2006

My annual top-10 movie lists begin in 2007, so I thought it would be fun to start going backwards from there and create lists for each year retroactively.

First up is 2006, which is now 15 years ago and a notable year for me in several ways: it’s when I graduated high school, went on tour with my band (RIP Ice Cap Fortune), entered college, and started this blog.

I also have a lot of movie-related memories from that year, including:

  • seeing Brick at my beloved Hilldale Theatre in Madison not long before it closed permanently
  • going to my first and last midnight screening (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest)
  • suffering through some truly awful movies (X-Men: The Last Stand, Superman Returns, Lady in the Water)
  • starting to write about movies (Quinceañera, The Prestige, the 2006 Oscars)

But the abiding memory from 2006 was the day I saw five movies in a row.

My mediocre movie marathon

This may be a common occurrence for film festival-goers or professional critics, but for me it was something I did just to see if I could pull it off—both as a tactical feat of avoiding detection by the theater staff and as a moviegoing stunt.

I walked into Marcus Point Cinema in Madison, WI, for a 12pm showing and reemerged into the darkness just before midnight (paying for only one ticket—yes, I was a teenage scofflaw). It’s not the best lineup, but here’s what I saw:

  1. The Pursuit of Happyness
  2. Rocky Balboa
  3. The Nativity Story (an unplanned addition but it fit perfectly between other showings, and my mom joined me with some contraband McDonald’s)
  4. Blood Diamond
  5. The Good Shepherd (my dad joined me for this one)

I never did this again and would not recommend it. By Blood Diamond my eyes were getting blurry and my butt hurt, so I don’t think I could fully appreciate that or The Good Shepherd. But it was bucket list cross-off and gave me a story to tell on my blog 15 years later.

Anyway, on to the list…

Top 10 of 2006

I suspect this won’t continue to be the case as I move back in time, but I saw almost all of the films in my top 10 in theaters at the time. By then I was an ardent cinephile with a job and a car, so I was able to see a lot of movies. And there were a lot of great ones. Here are my favorites:

  1. Children of Men
  2. Brick
  3. Tell No One
  4. Casino Royale (review)
  5. Inside Man
  6. Stranger Than Fiction (review)
  7. The Departed
  8. V for Vendetta
  9. Pan’s Labyrinth
  10. Jackass Number Two

Honorable mentions: The Prestige, Borat, Little Miss Sunshine, Idiocracy, Half Nelson, United 93, Marie Antoinette, Shut Up and Sing, Monster House, Old Joy, This Film is Not Yet Rated, Mission: Impossible III

Categories
Life

What music is that noise?

We were driving with Mr. 2 Year Old and he heard some noise outside and said: “What music is that noise?” And I’ve thought a lot about it since.

Categories
Family Life

At the age you are

“I love you at the age you are, and every year you grow / into more the special someone I forever want to know.” — I Love You All Ways by Marianne Richmond

I love that line (from a board book that’s in his regular rotation) because it reminds me not to focus on hitting benchmarks or anticipating his next phase of life. Love every age, every stage, because you’ll never get them back again.

Happy birthday to my tiger-tastic, truck-loving, snow-trekking two year old.

Categories
Film Life

Final lines on second chances

(Spoilers for the films Soul and Driveways, two of my favorites of 2020.)

At the very end of Driveways, Brian Dennehy’s elderly Del finds himself recounting a story. He concludes:

You know what I wish? I wish me and Eddie were just leaving Joplin this morning. I wish we could do that whole trip all over again. Maybe we’d be a little more deliberate this time, drive a little slower, take our time. Take a good look at stuff. Really see the country.

This echoed in my mind at the end of Pixar’s Soul, which finds Joe being offered a restart for his life:

JERRY: We’re in the business of inspiration, Joe, but it’s not often we find ourselves inspired. So, we all decided to give you another chance. … So what do you think you’ll do? How are you gonna spend your life?

JOE: I’m not sure. But I do know… I’m going to live every minute of it.

I liked the contrast between these two versions of starting over. Del’s second chance is only imaginary, a nostalgic and bittersweet reverie that won’t come to pass. Joe, on the other hand, has an actual opportunity to restart his life with the benefit of the wisdom he acquired on his journey.

Which also hearkens back to the advice Viktor Frankl gives in Man’s Search for Meaning:

Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now.