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.

The Road Trip

On Boxing Day, I spent fourteen hours in a Subaru, never dropping below 45 miles per hour unless we were coming to a full stop. New Years’ Day was similar, but light traffic meant it was only twelve hours.

My lovely wife has family near Atlanta, Georgia. I use “near” in the same sense that we live “near” Chicago proper – the city is easy enough to get to, but far enough away that we deal with different sets of daily struggles. Not suburbs proper, but smaller towns in collar counties.

We were meant to fly down to see my in-laws on Christmas Day, but heavy rains across the South scuttled our flight and rescheduled us for the day of my mother-in-law’s surprise birthday party. That wasn’t going to stand, so we decided to go ahead and make the road trip.

We’ve done it before. Each time, we say we’ll never do it again.

Part of the issue is half our route. Rather than take the expressway through Illinois, we usually drive State Route 47 all the way from the Wisconsin border to a small town with the unlikely name of Mahomet. If you’ve not been to our little slice of the country, let me say this: it’s really, really flat and featureless. In summer it’s not so bad. In summer you can watch the waving green and gold of the corn, the endless expanse of blue skies overhead, you can open up the windows and feel the warmth against your skin.

In winter, though, the crops are down and the skies are slate and the temperature doesn’t get above freezing even in the middle of the day. It’s a special kind of bleakness that comes with the fallow season of a land meant to grow, more hollow than the wide expanses of natural grassland and prairie in the west. There’s a promise of things to come in the rich black soil, yes, but it’s a promise that slumbers more completely than any fairy-tale princess or divine daughter of Hellas and it’s a promise that seems to stretch throughout forever.

You escape that dreamless slumberland when you enter Kentucky. This year, thanks to El Nino, western Kentucky is currently as emerald as Erin – a bright green carpet stretched across the rolling hills, broken by abandoned tobacco farms and herds of cattle in every color. Also thanks  to El Nino, the rivers are out of their banks, ancient grandfathers high on a second wind and straining to be recognized. The Ohio River crossing into Paducah, from whence you move on to Nashville Tennessee.

I don’t mind driving through Nashville. It’s a decent bypass, and you get to see the Tower of Sauron – no idea what it really is, but by the Valar it sure looks like Peter Jackson’s most famous phallic symbol, including the twin horns to hold the terrible eye. There’s a lot of traffic, though, and I don’t believe there’s ever been a time when it wasn’t under heavy construction, so Nashville is always my cross to bear whichever way we’re driving.

After Nashville you come to my most and least favorite part of the southern leg – Monteagle. I’ve never lived outside the flat confines of the Midwest, and while I took a single trip across the Rocky Mountains I was younger, more distracted, and therefore more immortal at that time. The road up the mountain isn’t so bad, as long as you’re not in the right-hand lane and stuck behind an asthmatic, lurching cargo truck; but coming down? Tennessee drivers fly down that mountain like Jesus in a Ghibli, and the truckers make up every second of the time they wasted crawling up the other side.

This time around, we had the misfortune to spot the most insane roadkill I’ve ever seen. A deer which had not been hit so much as torn to shreds, its head and antlers staring up from the middle of the left-most lane as we came around a curve, the rest of it who knows where? Maybe thrown over that black mountain side. Fortunately, we’d seen the reflection of the blue-and-white police lights before we got to the gore.

The Tennessee River wasn’t just over its banks, it was over the treetops. Literally covering the trees, with just the hints of branches peering up from the whitecaps. We could watch the currents in the center of the river throwing up their sirens, waving and beckoning to take your hands of the wheel for just a moment and drive yourself into the darkness.

Chattanooga’s a strange kind of wonderful in the dark of night or dim pre-dawn. Lookout Mountain looms, but in the dark you don’t see it except as an absence, a blackness against which there are no stars. The same is true of the river on the other side of the road, a void which developers have not yet managed to cover with fluorescent light and fire sales. The city’s a sprawl, but one contained out of nature and necessity, and its lights make it nearly as pretty as Chicago in the darkness.

From there it’s the strange and lovely silence of north Georgia. Towns like Ringold and Rocky Face, Calhoun and Cartersville, towns which are posted along the roadside but invisible to the eye thanks to the endless folds of forested hills. It holds but a single point of interest for me, as someone who collects little quirks of the people he loves.

Somewhere along the drive stands an immensely tall railroad bridge, towering over I-75. Alongside that bridge is a wide river, which 75 itself bridges. As a child, my wife was always told to “lift your feet and duck your head!” So in keeping with tradition of long trips her family made so many years ago, we dutifully carry out the motions – lift your feet as you cross the river, hand on your head as you pass below the bridge. I don’t know why that should make me smile, but it always does.

So, too, does arriving safely, and stretching my legs, and sitting to supper after an eternally long trip.

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