Life

Lyrics, And The Importance Thereof.

So here’s the story about how lyrics I’ve known for over 30 years brought me to happy tears tonight.

You first need to know that my wife, Leanne, is a fabulous artist. She makes amazing jewelry, and she had the courage to strike out on her own several years ago. Since then, the economy has performed its usual fol-de-rol, and as such she’s decided to take on a side job at a grocery chain.

Her shift this morning was 6 AM – 2 PM, and she left the house before I was out of bed. As such, when I came home at 4:30 (PM), she was cocooned in a blanket on the sofa. While I am often out of bed before she is, it’s rare that I have a chance to see her sleeping and at peace; which brought this song to mind.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnuCo6jAgz0

My late father Craig Ewert loved Jethro Tull, and I inherited that love when he shared it with me. Several old friends have told me they think of me when they hear Ian Anderson sing, and that makes me happy.

I kinda wanted to send Leanne this song, after watching her sleep this afternoon. But I’ve been burned by lyrics before, so I decided to double-check. And my mind, it was blown.

This song was recorded before I was born, and I’ve been mis-hearing the lyrics forever. In my head, they always went like this:

What a reason for waiting
And dreaming of dreams
So here’s hoping you’ll fail
In impossible schemes

A very Scots warning against over-reaching yourself. A very reasonable note that you won’t always succeed, that it’s all right to aim lower than you could, that nobody could blame you for settling. That really, in the end, you’re always going to fail.

But tonight, before sending them to my sleeping beauty, I looked up the lyrics on Google Play.

What a reason for waiting
And dreaming of dreams
So here’s hoping you’ve faith
In impossible schemes

I’m still in tears, frankly, over this confusion. That for thirty or more years, I’ve held back. And that I’m not too old yet for faith.

Thank you, Ian. Thank you, the long-gone Mr. Tull. Thank you to the Blades. Thank you to Leanne for this gift, and thank you to my father, who bequeathed me with cynicism and hope in equal measures.

Right. It’s a work night. No more tears, but thirty years of memories to unpack.

Transitioning to Marginalia

I am not, as a rule, one to write in or mark up books.

There are exceptions. I took notes in my college textbooks, of course. And I love workbooks, those companions to books designed to help you better some aspect of your life. I enjoy filling out the forms, ticking off the boxes, noting what’s most valuable to me. It would never occur to me to make those same notes in the primary book, though.

This may stem from the fact that I’ve got a 1st edition game book in my library which sells for over $200 on eBay, into which I scribed my name and address with magic marker as a child. Ce’st la guerre.

With that said, I adore finding marginalia that others have created. In used bookstores I’ll look for them most well-worn versions of whatever I’m interested in, hoping for dog-ears, annotations, long-forgotten mash notes.

I love the fact that my wife writes in her cookbooks. Sometimes it seems as if the entire recipe is crossed out, replaced with new ingredients and instructions; while at other times a simple “YUM” in capital letters lets me know I can prepare this dish without an issue. And a sweet friend recently presented me with a book simply riddled with highlighted passages, gifting me with a glimpse into what they find valuable and important.

There is something I adore about people who take notes like this, who treat the book not as some sacred relic but as a living part of their world. In a time where guarding ourselves seems so central to “getting ahead,” notes like these are a way to look into someone’s soul, to better understand the secret heart of the previous reader.

It also seems I may be in the minority when it comes to this reluctance to adding ephemera. A recent article in Business Insider, with the unfortunate click-bait title Five Principles That Will Help You Read More, included this gem:

One day I came across this idea where a book should be like a conversation between the reader and the author (…) and it just clicked. I realized that for me, books were too much like lectures. I could talk back. I started writing and making notes in the margins.

I don’t know. I understand the appeal in doing so, and as admitted, I delight in the fact that others work this way. It’s something to try, I suppose; starting with one of those self-improvement tomes that’s been assigned by the dayjob and which, miraculously, could actually be a decent read and of import to my current state. This is a revised edition of a book titled Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, and while I’ve technically borrowed it from a co-worker, he’s made a gift of it. It seems like a logical place to start changing this habit.

Dreaming vs Planning vs Monitoring

One of the things I did with my time away from the day job was sit down and catalog all the ideas I’ve had for projects swimming through the fishbowl of my brain. I put them down in Excel and counted them up.

There are twenty-eight of them. Mostly novellas or full-blown multi-novel series.

And here I’ve historically decried my lack of ambition.

That’s a fair criticism, however, if all I’ve done is think about them. Not a single one has more than a few thousand words devoted to it; and those words are just starting character sketches, plot outlines, errant scenes that wouldn’t leave me alone until they got on the page.

That’s why I wrote them all down, and why I chose Excel. In theory, if I pay attention and apply intention, I could finish one a year and be through with my output before I turn 75.

Historically speaking, that’s a pretty big “If.”

Now this isn’t a resolution. But it makes these dreams look a lot more solid, and at least somewhat more real, more important. It provides a framework against which I can theoretically prioritize and plan, set goals and deadlines.

Again, this isn’t a resolution.

In many ways, to be honest, it’s another form of procrastination. I get that. Making lists and making plans is just sooo seductive. It feels like making progress! And when you’re done planning, you’re done for the day! The work is planned for tomorrow. And if something knocks tomorrow off the plate, well, you did build some wiggle room into the plan …

Planning is a part of work, but it’s not the real work. You need an architect to build a house, yes; but you need a bricklayer more.

Which leads me to the second form of planning. Oh yes, mid-post turnaround, ha HA!

Planning how to spend your time is all well and good, but it’s not as good as tracking and monitoring what really happens. I learned that in Weight Watchers. You can plan good meals all week long, but if you actually eat pizza every night and call it a salad, well, your plan’s a bit crap.

So I set up a second Excel sheet, not to plan my days, but to track my time. I’m a big fan of the visualizations at Podio.com of The Daily Routines of Famous Creative People, and initially I’ll follow their buckets for the most part – I am including a section for “hearth work” based on my earlier post on improving our living conditions.

I do have a few pieces in my daily or weekly routines I’m unsure how best to categorize:

  • Reading seems to fall under Leisure for the Podio purposes, so I’ll reluctantly adopt that.
  • My public speaking and Toastmasters work will be either Creative Work (writing, delivering, critiquing speeches), Administrative (in my official capacity) or Other (attending conferences, etc.)
  • The commute is currently part of Dayjobbery, and I don’t see that changing. Given that I often listen to podcasts or audiobooks, I could count it as Leisure, but honestly there’s nothing leisurely about the two hours a day in traffic, and I would use the time differently if I were working remotely or at a closer location.

I’m going to keep this tracking private, at least initially, but I do plan to share trends as I see them.

SPOILER: I hope to see Creative or Hearth Work increase 6 days a week. I also plan on it.

The First Dish

The first thing I ever “cooked” was … well, something I didn’t cook at all. I planned the menu, though. And we all paid the price.

I was in my elementary school’s “gifted” program for a while. In the seventies, this was a place they put kids who either showed an awful lot of promise or a lot of trouble paying attention, on the grounds that maybe they’re just under-stimulated. I’ll let you guess which camp I fell into.

One of the books we read was Old Yeller. I know, right? Deep end of the pool for young kids. Now, part of the gifted program involved taking the literature we were assigned, and doing something different with it, often something tactile.

(As an aside, I think this is where I first heard about the different types of learning – at the time, classified as visual, auditory, reading and kinesthetic. That fascinated me then and it still does today.)

One of the many things I wanted to be as a kid was a chef. Before they were celebrities, before they were world travelers. I just loved eating, and I loved reading about good cooking, and I wanted to share that with people. So, when I saw “cook a frontier meal” on the list of sanctioned activities, I grabbed it, then went home to tell my mother, bless her heart.

My mother’s a saint, and my memory is that we sat down to plan the meal we would serve to my classroom. It was all set out in the book.

A more reasonable child might have gravitated to the turkey suppers, or the pork which Old Yeller is introduced as stealing. A less indulgent mother might have insisted. But that wouldn’t do for me. We ate pork and turkey all the time, that wasn’t a frontier meal. No, we had to do something to show I’d paid attention to the novel, that I was invested in the process, and one sentence in the book had leapt out at me:

“After that, Old Yeller caught onto what game we were after. He went to work then, trailing and treeing the squirrels that Little Arliss was scaring up off the ground. From then on, with Yeller to tree the squirrels and Little Arliss to turn them on the tree limbs, we had pickings. Wasn’t but a little bit till I’d shot five, more than enough to make us a good squirrel fry for supper.”

Squirrel fry? Squirrel fry?

FASCINATING. MOTHER WE MUST DO THIS THING. WITH CORNBREAD.

Did I mention my mother’s a saint?

Now, our family wasn’t a hunting family. Dad was a scholar, not an outdoorsman, and this was before girls were encouraged to take up arms. Fortunately, one of mom’s friends had a son who hunted, and he was able to deliver a reasonable number of pre-skinned rodents without too much advance warning.

I have no idea if mom butchered them herself, or if they were pre-delivered as discrete chunks of protein; but I know for a fact she went the route of stew rather than fry, because the seventies were the start of the health-conscious craze and mom was right in the thick of it. I could tell you stories of tofu’s first appearance in the Midwest that would roil your stomach, but I digress. Stew she was willing to make, stew it would be, though I vividly remember she dredged the meat in flour, salt, and pepper before browning them to drop into the stew. I’d never paid so much attention to food prep in my life.

Potatoes, carrots and celery were staples. Black-eyed peas featured heavily in the book, so in those went, and a pan of cornbread to spoon the stew over. We drove to school with the unplugged crock pot feeling very proud of what we’d managed.

The class was excited, too, to have something besides the industrial lunches of the educational cafeteria. A room full of third-graders and  their teacher, tucking eagerly away into a hot home-cooked meal, smug and self-assured. One of my classmates, about halfway through, mentioned that “this chicken stew is a lot better than cardboard pizza.”

“Oh,” I said, “it’s not chicken.”

I like to imagine the teacher paused here, spoon halfway to her lips. I do recall her asking, “Well … what is it, then?”

“Squirrel,” I said. Pandemonium ensued.

If you’re a parent, I want you to imagine this. Really imagine it. Today, as I understand it, a single peanut is classified right below an AK-47 in terms of no-nos for your children to bring to school. Try to picture your precious little Madison or Jayden texting you, “Ivan just made me eat a squirrel! OMG. And cornbread isn’t even Paleo!”

I don’t know for a fact that this faux pas got me removed from the gifted program. It’s possible that I just wasn’t keeping up.

But I do remember coming home with a lot of leftover stew, and I remember the phone ringing quite a bit that afternoon, and a few days later I was in a different program altogether. One which featured a lot more one-on-one time with a counselor.

Birdsong at Morning

Most of the creatives I know are night owls, who prefer to push themselves into the latest hours before they can’t keep their eyes open any longer. It’s one of the most persistent, romantic myths about creativity that it takes wing in the late night.

I can tell you, though, that the early hours are even quieter.

You share this time with far fewer people, at least in modern America. The darkness is just as thorough, just as sublime as midnight; but there’s promise here of more than slumber. There’s the promise of sunrise, of renewed warmth, of the life and bustle to come. The quiet pleasure of being secretly awake in a sleeping world is made sweeter by the knowledge that others will be awake soon enough, that the sound of footfalls on the stairs will come, that the doors will open and the world will join you soon enough.

The only sound I hear right now is the constant thrum of the furnace, the industrious buzzing of my laptop, the endless whirr of the infrastructure that keeps our world humming even in the hours when no human ear is awake enough to need it.

I’ve already slept – the world of dream and dust is over for a while, and the world of flesh and blood is stretching its claws and sharpening its teeth for another restless hunt. Here I am, ready and waiting to tend that world, between the gates of dreaming and doing.

I’m comfortable here, waiting in the between-time before dawn. Is it the silence of the hour I enjoy, or the thrilling sense of anticipation, or the simple fact that I’ve grown accustomed to waiting through years of life and therefore find contentment in it? I don’t know for sure, but I know that for now, this hour is my own.

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