Tuesday, September 27, 2011

La Belle Amour

The song “Nature Boy” (covered over the years countless times by a slew of artists) provides us with one of the most insightful lyrics you’re likely to ever find. I have heard the song countless times in, sometimes in the periphery and sometimes while paying strict attention. The lyrical content of the song still strikes a chord with me (I promise that was not intended to be a pun), even after all those listens. The lyric is “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is how to love, and be loved in return.” I find the song’s popularity over the years remarkably refreshing, considering how wonderfully poignant and insightful it really is. The idea that it takes effort to love someone is something that most of us come to understand over time and through experience. We learn that falling in love can be relatively sudden and easy, but that demonstrating that love takes work. Actually, it takes quite a bit of work. Unfortunately, the amount of work we put into to giving love leaves is negligent to the idea that we may need to learn how to be loved… in return. I feel that all too many people struggle (more than they may think) to be comfortable with being loved. Amidst all of this, it is exhilarating to find an example of two people who not only love one another every day, but who are at peace in being loved by the other.

In my humblest of opinions, there is no better way for someone to learn how to be loved than to be accepted for exactly who he or she is. In a world where individuals seeking romance feign qualities in order to appeal to a potential romantic partner, the process of learning how to be loved is deterred as a result of resistance in revealing to someone your “truest” of selves. As a young adult male, I know all too well the reasons why individuals pretend to be a certain way. In the end, it may just be a product of over thinking. The presuppositions that go along with attempting to appeal to a certain someone are often counterproductive to the end goal of being accepted by that person. To be accepted for who you really are is the first real step in learning how to be comfortable with being loved.

There has been no romantic partnership, real or fictional, that has embodied this type of love and acceptance more than Paul and Julia Child. My knowledge of their love and commitment to one another comes from having read Julia’s nationally bestselling book My Life in France (co-written by Alex Prud’homme). The book documents the couple’s lives living overseas while Paul was stationed as an employee of the United States government. As most of you probably know by her personal fame, Julia took to culinary arts with a tenacity and drive that is enviable by anyone’s standards. Still, despite the glorious successes she had during her career, there were some serious ups-and-downs. Disputes over authorship of work, unsuccessfully “shopping” for publishers, and tensions with culinary school instructors are just a few of the arduous and tedious events that no doubt placed stress on Julia’s shoulders. As she mentions countless times throughout the course of the book, however, it was her husband who helped her get through all of these troublesome steps on the way to fame, fortune, and happiness. Happiness, I feel, is something that Julia found long before literary and televised fame. In reading her book, I was genuinely inspired by the ways she described her life with Paul before they had any money to speak of. While they were able to live off of his government earnings, they spent the vast majority of their adult lives as expatriates with no considerable fortune to speak of.

Let’s be honest. By no means would Julia Child be acknowledged as a stereotypically attractive woman. I’m sure she would tell you the same. On the other hand, I like to imagine that she felt more beautiful than any woman who has ever walked across a beauty pageant stage or adorned the cover of a magazine. I like to think that Paul made it a daily ritual to tell his wife how beautiful she was. In a way, a scenario like this makes me think about the perceptions we have about the people we are the most fond of. How evident imperfections, over time, become what we cherish most about them. Apart from her inordinate stature and height, Julia most likely never attracted second or third gazes from onlookers roaming the streets of Paris. I doubt it mattered. I take great joy in believing that she was made to feel radiant every day by the person who held the opinion that mattered most.

For as much as I love Julia Child’s book, I was overjoyed to see that the union between herself and Paul was depicted on the screen in as genuine and heartfelt a fashion as it was in the book, penned by the Julia herself. Julie and Julia (2009) principally follows the life of Julie Powell, the woman who set out to conquer all the recipe’s contained within Julia’s opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In addition to tracking Ms. Powell’s culinary conquest, the film also incorporates a storyline that follows Paul and Julia as they live their lives together in France (essentially based on the writing in My Life in France). The story of Julie and her husband is cute in its own right, and echoes many of the relational themes that were present in the lives of Paul and Julia. However, the present-day narrative doesn’t quite compare, if only because Julia and Paul had uniqueness about their relationship that is hard to replicate with any other subjects. Luckily, the filmmakers were able to cast the superb Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci in the leading roles. While these two have certainly contributed stellar screen performances in the past (some that are certainly more dramatically memorable than what is contained in this film), there is something special about the way they captured the incredible connection that the real life Paul and Julia had together.

While there is really no doubt in my mind that Paul and Julia child were physically and romantically compatible, Julia’s glorious writing on the subject leads me to believe in their relationship as the pinnacle for what companionship should be. As well all surely know (but are often too afraid to admit), physical beauty fades away with the passing of years and the accumulation of experience, making it all the more important to find yourself walking alongside a lover who is also the dearest of friends. Someone with whom you can share life’s grand and idiosyncratic moments, and whose mere presence will put you at ease like you never knew possible. Finding such a person may be difficult, and it will most definitely prove frustrating at some point(s) along the way. Still, I trust that it will all be worth it in the end.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Pen in the Stone

I have felt increasingly burdened lately with the ability to write relatively well. This may not seem like a burden to some, but it is. I can write, but I am by no means a writer. While I openly acknowledge my prowess as a composer of a coherent sentence, I am ashamed to admit that I do not come close to possessing the discipline it takes to write for a living, or to be a writer. At least, I don’t possess those skills yet.

During my time as a Masters student, I spent a great deal of time becoming in awe of real writers, both academic and non. Academically speaking, I became enamored with the writing of Dr. Bud Goodall, professor of Communication Studies at Arizona State University. Dr. Goodall is a superbly gifted writer and thinker. Although he spent the better part of his early academic career as a researcher in the subfield of organizational communication studies, he took an “interpretive turn” later on. Since this transition, he has published numerous books and journal articles on what it means to be an interpretive ethnographer. Dr. Goodall’s work taught me that not only must the writer maintain a presence in his or her work (even if he or she attempts to disguise the work as objective), but that that presence places a wonderful “spin” on research. While the discussion of objectivity vs. subjectivity in academic research is a rather large and complicated one, I will state here that I am moving closer and closer to being a complete proponent of the latter when it comes to conducting research. This may be why I have always been drawn to autobiographical works. I most certainly understand the proposed purpose of objectivity in academic research, but there is an inherent (and necessarily posed) question of whether such a concept can even exist. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this entry, I feel content in stating plainly that I am a proponent of acknowledging the author in the presence of his or her work. Dr. Goodall’s ethnographic accounts of his life as an academic and as an observer of the world inspired me to document cultural phenomena as they stand in relation to other artifacts and stimuli, most importantly, myself. Experiencing the world as a detailed observer and documenter is something that I am working on every day.

In truth, Bud Goodall’s work may represent the totality of academic writing that had an impact on my life. While it may make some of my former professors cringe, most of my assigned academic reading was dismissed to make way for more pleasurable literary accompaniments. (Pleasurable, only in the sense that I had a special inkling to read them over academic texts). Although this may be a rather awkward spot to place it, I would like to note that I did not appreciate the concept of reading for pleasure until at very least my second year of graduate school. I labeled myself a “film buff,” most likely because viewing motion pictures was an easier exercise for me than reading a book. I am ashamed to say it here and now, but I spent a very long period of my life too lazy to read a book. Shamefully, I made it through high school, community college, and undergraduate studies quite easily, with the assistance of Spark Notes and the ability to skim passages. The fact that I was able to “bullshit” insight also served a noble purpose in getting me to my first degree. Still, there was a ton of guilt. Returning to the subject at hand, I became enamored with a number of authors and literary works during my graduate studies. It was at this time that I finally became fed up with the unsupported claims of religious institutions. This led me to absorb the works of esteemed writers and scholars like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens, in particular, has become a role model for me both as a writer and thinker. Moreover, Hitchens floored me with his outstanding eloquence as a speaker and public figure. I recall during one interview I saw him featured in that he was once told by a colleague or friend that he speaks in the way most people wished they could write. This appeared to strike him as an impeccable compliment, and is the kind of thing I can only dream of hearing from someone during my own lifetime. Since I have realized my passion for literature, I have also tried to consume seminal literary works that I should have appreciated when they were assigned to me during my younger days. I enjoyed Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment when I skimmed it in high school, and can only imagine how the masterful work would strike me today. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden has been cemented recently as one of my very favorite works, but I still must face the fear that I would not have appreciated it if I had actually read it when it was assigned to me in high school.

My recently acquired love of reading has partially contributed to my lack of productivity as a writer. When I sit down to write, I usually can only go about five minutes before I conclude that my time would be better spent reading one of the almost countless literary masterpieces that are in existence. I don’t know how long I have on this earth, but I know now that I want to absorb as much knowledge and insight that past writers have left for me. I would feel guilty if I felt any other way. I have noticed that a great many splendid writers have remarked that one must be a great reader before he or she can be a great writer. I completely agree with this. However, I also feel that there is a risk that comes along with being a great reader. That is, you may never want to stop reading… to the point where you will find that the transition to composer is futile when attempting to conceive of worldly insights that may rival the esteemed “scribblers” of past and present. This is the trap I currently find myself in.

I am beginning to realize that there is no quick fix for my lack of writing discipline. I am beginning to understand that I must progress slowly from penned coherency to worthwhile prose. Lord only knows I’ve tried my fair share of “tricks” to expedite this process. When I was having trouble sitting down at my desk and writing for long periods of time, I tried sitting in a reclining chair, with my computer resting on my lap. When the reclining chair didn’t prove any more useful than the desk, I tried relaxing on the couch in a half-lying down position. This strategy only led me to become drowsy – the opposite of productive. Later, I thought that conceiving of copy on my laptop was the problem. Perhaps a blank, white, pixilated canvas was not what I needed to write a masterwork. So, I began writing longhand on a yellow legal pad and transposing that copy onto a word processor. This worked for a blog post or two, but then I noticed that my hand would begin cramping up after short stints of fervent writing (this was most certainly the time that I regretted not growing up in a time when cursive writing was revered and practiced). Lately, I have turned to the bottle for assistance. When my body is completely sober, my mind has trouble focusing. It is hard for me to focus on any singular task for an extended period of time, so the prospect of writing something long and halfway decent is a far-fetched whim. Through experimentation, I realized that I can remain relatively insightful when inebriated. So, I figured why not try using liquor to enhance focus and perhaps stumble on some insight? I’m currently three quarters of the way through a bottle of inexpensive but surprisingly good quality red wine from Rioja, one of Spain’s most heralded wine regions. My fermented indulgence seems to be working (I have been writing for quite a long time now), but I am starting to feel a rather uncomfortable pain in my side. This could prove troublesome very quickly.

Last, but certainly not least, I now officially have to deal with the burden of being related to an astonishingly fabulous writer. Those of you who keep up on my sporadic blog posts will know that my great grandfather was himself a gifted writer. I wrote a post for this blog months ago that attempted (however in vein) to pay tribute to his brilliance. If you find this post, you will most surely notice that the quotation I feature from his book at the end of the post puts my writing to shame, in an absurdly intimidating fashion. He wrote brilliantly, and the frustration I feel over his relative anonymity as an author is rivaled only by the frustration I feel when I realize I must do him justice. My grandmother once told me that she has his trusty typewriter stored away somewhere. If I remember correctly, she even told me that I could one day have it. If I were to receive it, I would most likely have to store it away in a secluded place of my own, for fear that keeping it out in the open would remind me of my shame on a daily basis.

Writing isn’t difficult. Writing something that matters, however, is extremely difficult. Perhaps the sad truth is that no writer thinks that what he or she writes is any good. If this is the case, then I smirk when I think about brilliant writers like Steinbeck or Hitchens, somehow reflecting on their own works as subpar. At this point in my life, all I can really do is revere them for all that they are. With any luck, they sat in front of stationary or a word processor during their early twenties in the same fashion I sit in front of my computer screen today… youthful, ambitious, and petrified.