Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The return of Advice PKD

I'm feeling nostalgic for my writing days so I'm re-reading Now Wait for Last Year by Philip K. Dick. Not really one of his best, but it's been so long since I've read it that I forgot the plot, so it's like having a brand new PKD book to read. That's the great thing about your favorite author being a hyper-prolific button masher on speed, it might take a good five or six years to cycle through their books (assuming you re-read something by them 3-4 times a year, and I do), and by the time you get around to the beginning of the cycle, it's all fresh to you. (The worst part about your favorite author being a hyper-prolific button masher on speed is having to suffer through sentences like "Virgil had become almost hermaphroditic, a blend of man and woman into one sexless, juiceless, and yet vital entity.")

Anyway, I figured it was high time to bring back a feature introduced on ye olde LiveJournal, Advice PKD!

Anyway, the book starts badly, but gets better. It's the story of a drug that induces time travel, multiple dictators, some or all of which may be robots, a failed marriage, Martian playgrounds for the immortal rich... somehow PKD manages to shoehorn a dozen plots into two hundred pages of book. Every time I read PKD (and to a lesser extent, Jonathan Lethem), I always feel a little bit of passion toward writing again, which is the reason I have a few of his books queued up: I want to write. But at this point I wonder if it's not sort of pointless, since I don't really care overly much about playing the publishing game. I want to be published, but I'm not willing to go through all the work involved, the politics that need to be played, the cons I must attend and the professional blog I have to do to be "real." Someone once told me that I was basically making a fool of myself by using my LJ as anything BUT a springboard to find an agent and the almighty Deal, and I'll be honest, that stuck with me for a long time.

It's not writer's block: if anything, I have too many ideas and find it hard to focus on just one. Rather, it is a form of self-preservation, of not wanting to be sucked back into the "writer's life" just because I write short stories. Because frankly, it can be boring and petty, and far too much work for something that will never return a living wage. I love the writing, I hate everything that goes along with it. And sometimes it feels like doing the writing is pointless if you aren't prepared to do everything else. But I do know that I was a lot happier when I was writing short stories on a regular basis, even factoring in the "other crap."

Sorry this post isn't very funny!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Getting my "driver's permit"

That's ri-god-damn-diculous.
Last week I finally got my driver's permit. Well, my third driver's permit. Ten and seven years ago, I had one, but managed to fail every one of my road tests, due to a combination of poor attention, poor vision, and poor instruction (note to new drivers: you should be the most nervous person in the car, not your teacher). It was a bit of a struggle to even get a permit this time, since my right eye is so bad that I had to get a note from an optometrist saying that I am okay to drive, even though I am functionally as one-eyed as a one-eyed cat in a pretty pink sweater. This necessitated getting a new optometrist here in Maryland, which frankly I wouldn't have done until I lost a contact because I am super-lazy about my health.

I expected more static about my age than I actually got, although I did get some static re: my optometrist's form, since the little old lady behind the counter hadn't ever seen one before and had to make sure it exempted me from the vision test I'd already flunked a month ago. After the knowledge test (which I shouldn't have studied so hard for as it was well and truly nothing) and some paperwork, I was in! I'm a (trainee) driver!

When I left the MVA I was practically quivering with excitement, clutching my brand-new learner's permit, the photo of which makes me look like a mushroom. I sent the message out to all the Interwebs, as is the style at the time. Perhaps this makes me seem like a sell-out to the various punks and zinesters who possibly read this blog, but I am VERY excited about getting my license. I didn't feel any stigma about not having one when I lived in Pittsburgh for the last five years, but since I moved to semi-suburban Baltimore County (and especially before I moved to Pittsburgh, when I lived in a town of less than 2000 people), I've been feeling, well, kind of useless. I can't seem to land a job, since a lot of the retail stores want someone who can commute to different store locations if need be, and I'm restricted to what I can get to on the bus line. (And while there is bus service in the county, it's about as sparse as it is for Pittsburgh suburbs that don't get T service... rather spotty.) Not having a license also makes my eventual goal of getting a nursing degree less likely, since what are the chances that I'm going to get a medical job within walking or biking distance of me? Not very good! I am sure there are also people who would also call me a sell-out for desiring a 9-5, five days a week lifestyle (although, as I'd rather work part time unless it's a "career" job, I guess that's more of a 10-4 three days a week type of lifestyle)... but I need structure like the desert needs the rain, I desire financial independence even though I'm married, and ever since sorting out the situation with my "meth," I've realized that having a job will not necessarily mean a complete shutdown in all other areas of my life, and that I have the power to keep a job for longer than six months. I also would like to be able to go to shows, visit friends in other cities, etc., without having to bug/drag along the resident driver of the house. Even if he's game, there's still things I'd rather do on my own. At this point my freedom means more to me than any possible ecological damage. Can I stop justifying this or should I go another 400 words?

In short, I am now ready for adulthood to begin. But I need the requisite laminated card, which is a driver's license!

So far I've been out three times, and I've found the process a lot easier than it used to be. Normally the view from the driver's seat looks a lot like this:

This time around, though, I'm paying attention to a good 90% of what's on the road. There are still some issues with speed (namely, not enough speed) and turning etiquette, but it's not nearly as bad as when I would stop driving whenever I got confused or distracted by something on the road. I haven't run over any traffic islands... yet. And according to my "driving mentor," I rate a solid nine stars on a scale of eight to ten stars.

Maryland requires a lot from their "rookie drivers." Everyone has to take driver's ed, regardless of age or driving history. So I put in a $200 deposit on driving classes, which are going to cost almost half a grand all told. The classes are being taught by a Mr. "Wigs" (quotation marks theirs), who is either a) a man named Wigzienewski or b) a man whose last name is actually Wigs, and he's balding, but nobody wants to tell him that his toupee really stinks, and he also doesn't understand sarcasm quotation marks, because maybe he's slightly socially maladjusted and never really got subtle social clues? So someone (perhaps a temp desperate for approval) comes up with the idea of printing his name as Mr. "Wigs" in the brochure and everyone at the driving school is snickering at him, and poor Mr. Wigs can't understand why, puzzling it out at night over his sad TV dinner, brushing his sad little toupee. For shame, driving school brochure typographer. For shame.

And with that, I'm out.

Friday, January 14, 2011

"The Shallows" by Nicholas Carr: now available on Kindle!!

I've always been one for pop neurology and scare journalism, so this week I read The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. Equal parts communications history, neurological case studies, and screeching polemic, Carr's book promotes an interesting theory, but fails to prove the conclusion he is obviously trying to make: that the Internet is making us think more shallowly, and that literacy itself may be at stake as the result of this brave new invention.

The theory, in the micro-sense, is sound: the act of browsing the Internet makes us skim a lot more than we read, and the constant presence of ads, hyperlinks, etc. makes it hard to focus on any one article or blog for too long, since after all, why read a scholarly article about Latin cognates when Plants vs. Zombies is just a screen away, and Angry Birds is sitting uncompleted on your smartphone, stuck on that goddamn level with the stone train Jesus that level is frustrating. In addition, the fact that everything is available online is causing us to take our memories for granted, not allowing our memories to filter through our consciousness but instead relying too heavily on external aids. Of course, a book is also an external aid to memory, but Carr apparently gives books a pass. Because they don't have hyperlinks, or something. And that makes all the difference!

I have anecdotal -- and thus entirely scientific -- proof that part of his theory is correct. Earlier last year I worked as basically an Internet stalker. Without getting into the details, I'll just say that it's a job that required a lot of scanning, a lot of hyperlink clicking, and I never spent more than thirty seconds on a single page (more like ten). And after I finished the day's stalking, my distractibility was one bajillion times worse (actual number). I could feel my mind slipping whenever I tried to read fiction, refusing to stay on the page. And normally I like fiction, and don't find myself distracted when reading (TV, on the other hand...).

The book, though, kinda veers off its own path when Carr makes the bold claim that this newer, "shallower" way of thinking will mean the end of intellectualism, nay, perhaps even of Western culture itself. Who's to say that a restive, undistracted mind is automatically better than one that mimics the rhythms of the Internet? I mean, I sure prefer it for myself... but Carr doesn't prove that your brain is worse on the Internet, just different. He doesn't even seem to take seriously the (completely credible) hypothesis that our brains will adapt to new environments. Early on in the book he brings up Socrates' hypothesis that writing will ruin our memories and lead to intellectual laziness, and dismisses it, roundly. But by dismissing the potential positives of the "Internet mind," he is doing the exact same thing, and it's not even as good a dismissal as Socrates', since (I assume) he was not wearing a toga while writing this book.

The statistics were also faulty, I thought, because pretty much everyone included in these studies would have to be adults, due to the strict regulations re: using minors as clinical research subjects. Would Carr's theory hold up if he tested the attention span/reading speed/eye tracking of "digital natives," people who don't remember a time before the Internet? I mean, if you used a time machine and brought a caveman into the Renaissance, he would also show an immense failure to adapt to books, which again, Carr points as an example of technology that has been wholly beneficial to mankind. This part of the book honestly comes off as a grumpy old man not understanding kids these days.

In short, I think this is a worthwhile subject that needs to be studied further, perhaps next time by someone without so many preconceived notions. I also think it repeated itself a lot and could have been about fifty pages shorter, but hey! I am one of those easily-distracted Internet users. I sort of get the feeling that Carr is one of those people who thinks Idiocracy is a documentary.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Finally Loathing Yourself

So I am a person who needs a to-do list to survive. Without my to-do list, I have a tendency to flail randomly through my day without much plan at all, considering that I don't yet have a job here in Maryland yet. I'm pretty crap at structuring my own time, due to my ability to get distracted from my "goals" by pretty much anything: a shiny rock, the antics of cats, rainstorms, the Internet the Internet the Internet.

Having a to-do list, though, helps a lot. But there are a few issues. One of my problems with writing to-do lists has to do with the time of day when I write them. I usually write my lists at night, when my motivation and ability to follow through on things is basically shot. Night-self can't accomplish shit. But night-self also sees all the things that day-self has accomplished, and comes to one conclusion: day-self is a genius.

So night-self loads day-self's list with stuff that she thinks day-self will be capable of, and she is very optimistic. Night-self has complete faith in day-self, the confidence of the half-asleep and therefore only semi-conscious.

Day-self, of course, is not a genius. Though considerably more productive and organized than night-self, the fact is that these lists would be impossible for almost anyone to complete fully. Like you'd have to bend space-time in order to even physically complete all the tasks, even if you were a first-class multitasker wearing amphetamine-powered rocket skates which sad to say I am not. A lot of the time, day-self looks at the gargantuan to-do list that night-self has cooked up, shakes her head, and winds up playing Puzzle Quest until noon, when she decides it's probably time to tackle at least SOME of the list.

Generally, the easiest tasks get done first, with "harder" tasks shuffled to later and still-later slots in the to-do list. Normally, if something has been shunted every day for a week, it drops off the list entirely and is either completed by my husband or reappears much later.

In my quest for guides to writing the perfect to-do list or learning how to clean my house (because I don't ever actually notice the house is dirty unless it's really, really bad), I came upon a website called Flylady that promises a simple, structured routine for cleaning your home and keeping track of chores, designed for easily-distracted "home executives." Flylady is written by a real-life Jean Teasdale, and it is hilarious. Take a look at the website, which hasn't been updated since, I assume, 1999. (It is, however, sadly missing an animated construction worker GIF.) In some ways, I feel like a jerk for laughing at this website because it does help a lot of people, but in most other ways... come on. If you don't have the knowledge to do it yourself, it costs maybe $1000 to create a well-designed, accessible, attractive website, which a best-selling self-help author could easily afford.

But, seeing as how I truly AM in need of someone to tell me how to clean my house and run my life, I hung up my poor-web-design snobbery and decided to give it a shot. I signed up for the email list, which is even more hilarious than the website, but also sad. (Sadlarious!) In one email, "the Flylady" says that women never deserve physical or sexual abuse, but that if you're experiencing emotional abuse, it's probably because you're a shitty wife. Or you have a bad attitude. Let's turn that frown upside-down! There are emails about the ways in which "flybabies" pamper themselves, which for one woman means spending an extra dollar on dishwashing liquid that contains aloe vera. Man, what a selfish harlot.

One of the starting "rules" of Flylady is "dress to shoes." The rationale for this, according to the official website, is that "you are more professional." As it stands now, I'm not exactly a captain of industry, so I figured I'd give it a shot. This lasted a month.

With my shoes on, I'm always on edge, which I guess is kind of the "point." I certainly wasted less time. But it also made me sort of anxious; I could never relax enough with shoes on to read a book or work on creative projects. (Although considering that the creative projects of "flybabies" begin and end at non-ironic needlepoint portraits of Jesus, perhaps I was not intended to factor this into my decision to stop wearing shoes 24/7.) My husband also said he found wearing shoes in the house to be "creepy" and after some thought I had to concur. Although perhaps it's not as creepy as trivializing emotional abuse.

In addition to self-help tips, Flylady also hawks quite a few very overpriced cleaning tools on her website, including a $10 lanyard, $15 kitchen timer, and perhaps most egregiously, the "Rags in a Bag" set of purple microfiber cloths that "make you feel like royalty" whenever you use them. And clearly, people do, according to the many glowing "testimonials" sent in by her legions of readers, who count themselves so blessed to be "brainflywashed" (the site's term, not mine).

To be fair, the site/emails do have a few good tips, like cleaning in fifteen-minute increments to avoid distraction, and designating certain days of the week for certain chores. But, like the center of a Tootsie Roll Pop, the wisdom is buried deep in a pile of sour-tasting confection that makes you fling brown spittle everywhere if you talk while you're eating it, and you can't take it out of your mouth because there's nowhere to set the thing down, and you can't bite down on it because you might break a tooth and man, you really don't want to go to the dentist because he'll yell at you for going three years without a cleaning. And then when you get there, it's an anticlimax, because the Tootsie Roll isn't even as fresh as the individually-wrapped ones, and you're not a fan of Tootsie Rolls anyway.

But do keep a to-do list. Because nothing makes one feel more accomplished than drawing a line through all one's accomplishments and then visualizing The King of All Cosmos praising, yet also denigrating, your efforts for the day.