Sunday, November 30, 2008

Escape Artist

These last couple days I've found myself pondering the idea of "escape". I've been thinking of the various ways in which I use the term "escape" and how I apply it to my life.

An escape is a break from the usual routine. Often the word is used with travel, vacation or adventure. It therefore connotes something outside the boundaries of daily existence. We escape from life's duties, life's routines; we break from the mundane world to take a vacation.

And yet have you noticed how many aspects of our culture are masquerading as escapes? The shadow side to a hyper-capitalist culture with a Protestant work-ethic is a profusion of escapes. Our escapist culture seeks solace in virtual worlds, food and drug addictions and sexual fantasies. I am a product of this culture and in many ways a poster child for it.

An escape doesn't have to be mindless. I consider my books an escape, my writing an escape. Perhaps there are healthy escapes and unhealthy ones, but they all seem to follow the same logic: I wish to be somewhere else right now, take me there.

It's true that I fear boredom and listlessness and thrive on work and productivity. It's true that I'm frequently restless and impatient with the slightest things, such as making a meal or preparing the coffee in the morning.

The churn of daily stuff--jobs and activities that consume me--begins to feel like an escape in itself. I ignore myself, how I feel, and my surroundings, the weather outside, the air. My mind is focused on one thing, sadly; what I have to do. Beyond this, I am aware of how time is passing. Recall Charles Van Doren's marvelous essay, "If We Loved Time,":

The fear of time -- of time lost, of time wasted -- is a mortal disease. It shortens a life to an instant -- this instant -- which will be followed by other instants that are equally fleeting. There can be no joy in moments that are carefully measured and doled out.

This creates a perpetually unsettled feeling inside of me. Always under the assault of fear and haste, my first impulse is to seek out an escape. I've put myself into a prison and now I'm craving release.

I retreat to Borders where I can grab a book off the shelves and buy a tall Vanilla latte. This atmosphere immediately calms me down while at the same time I'm aware that it too is not static. I will finish my latte, read a couple pages and have to return home where I will give myself another job to do. Even my moments of rest begin to feel rushed. But that's not the ironic part of this "mortal disease". I'll get to the irony in a minute.

I also escape into fattening, easy-to-find or easy-to-make meals. My girlfriend and I go out to Chipotle or Thai food instead of cooking at home. Instant gratification is a first cousin of escapism.

I escape into the dizzying vortex of consumerism. There is always some item, some product, some material thing bobbing on the horizon of my ever-expanding sea of desire. Recently I bought a new Mac computer. Shame on me! One week later I wanted to buy a video game to go with it. I haven't played video games in fifteen years. But the thrill of my usual escapes seems to fade with time. I'm constantly on the look out for fresh, new escapes, more immediate and easier to obtain. I seek to colonize new worlds (of pleasure).

My girlfriend and I watch the Daily Show almost every night. Another escape; nothing wrong in itself; but compared to the vast amounts of escapes we partake in, our lives seem to be strung together by numberless incidences of the same thing. I was getting bored with watching the same show with her every night so I suggested video games. We had played a car-racing game in a movie theater once and had a ball together, so when I purchased the computer I thought it might be fun to try something new.

The new Mac computer provided an enormous escape. Twenty-four inch LCD screen, superb graphics, lots of cool software, crystal-clear photos and video, you name it. And then with the Internet, I was so buried in possible escapes that purchasing a video game on top of it seemed on the verge of profligacy.

When I finally got the video game, it was more like an escape from my escape. I'd waited two weeks to receive an extra controller for the car-racing game. When the controller arrived I was ready to play.

That night my girlfriend and I sat in front of the computer, helplessly trying to figure out how to make the game two-player mode. Nothing on the menu of options (or the back of the box) suggested this was possible. We spent an hour clicking buttons until I realized that the game only allowed one person to play at a time.

Computers are solo vehicles. I forgot that part.

But when I played the video game myself, I wondered why I had bought it in the first place. I don't even enjoy video games. I'm a writer, an intellectual. Video games are anti-intellectual, anti-creative. How far I had drifted from my original desires!

Escapes can become addictive as well. My addiction to the Internet is unprecedented. I check my email on average eight times a day. I check my six blogs three or four times a day. I loiter in cyberspace, I wander, I get lost on purpose.

Not that there's anything wrong with wasting time. But I'm so driven to accomplish things that in an ironic reversal I find myself escaping more and more into a cloud of petty aggravation. What I'm saying is after a certain point, the escape blurs. You're no longer moving from routine to escape, from normal life to fantasy, from mundane to dream. Soon the routine becomes the escape and vice versa.

That's what happened to me. With all my escapes, I trapped myself in the very thing I was trying to break free from.

Just as a prison is mental, so is an escape. The two can easily switch on you when you're not paying attention. The desire for escape intensifies the prison.

I guess this leaves me with the hope that I can distinguish things from now on. My escape is supposed to be fun. My work might not always be. More importantly, I would like to return to those original escapes that once gave me a sense of fulfillment. Reading and writing are escapes that don't dull my mind. Reading and writing make me sharper. They are difficult pleasures that also happen to be magnificent escapes.

Or perhaps I don't need an escape at all. Maybe I just need to look around and check into reality once in a while--rather than longing for someplace else.

Stumble It!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Book Chat

This being my first video blog, I give a sort of introduction before venturing into the realm of fiction and literary theory. I tell a short story about how I found the book Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. Then I digress to discuss the literary theorist James Wood and his book, The Broken Estate. I return to Shantaram with renewed zest and give an informal critique of the first chapter.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

On Reading and the Web

I'm coming off a technology binge and trying to reconnect with what was once important to me.

The Internet is a black hole. I lost myself to the Internet one year ago and now I'm recovering, trying to retrieve myself from the bits and pieces of cyberspace. As if during one of my trances, I was ground into two-dimensional data and now I'm floating around helplessly, looking everywhere but seeing nothing.

None of this makes any sense to me. How I can sit for hours in front of a computer and stare. But that is what controls me. I'm writing this essay to understand how technology isolates me from my sensory experience and why I get so addicted to this feeling of (dis)connectedness.

I used to think that technology was different from other pursuits. One year ago I began blogging. I experimented with creating web pages and exploring the vast corners of the Net. I introduced myself to virtual communities and regularly commented on people's blogs. There was something I was after. I suppose I naively believed in this new interface called Web 2.0 and thought it would bring me, if not happiness, then a feeling of connection.

That is not to say I haven't made any friendships since I began blogging. I have. And I continue to enjoy reading people's blogs and commenting on them. But as a writer, I want more. This is my makeup, you see. The Internet lured me deeper and deeper into a virtual world, where I became obsessed with creating profiles, new accounts, new services, new buttons, new widgets, and the elusive target of my satisfaction kept inching away.

Rather than describe how I've been lost in cyberspace for these last twelve months, I'd like to talk about what was once important to me.

Both the Internet and my favorite pastime, reading, seemed to offer me the same thing: immersion. I love the deep immersion of a text. It doesn't even have to be a novel. I used to retreat into the library and spend whole days in solitude.

But the immersion of the text and the immersion of the screen differ in significant ways. Lost in the library, lost in a book, involves active participation. You can become immersed in a television show, but it does not provide the same experience. Why not?

I believe it has something to do with the senses. Television only stimulates two senses (visual and auditory). The Internet stimulates perhaps three or four (visual, auditory, tactile, imagination). Reading simulates perhaps four or five (visual, auditory, tactile, imagination, memory).

The library has become a sort of symbol in my life. I've spent vast amounts of time in libraries. Throughout the years, there always seemed to be a library I could retreat to for safety and peace of mind. I developed relationships to these libraries by visiting them on a regular basis.

While the physical space of the library is there before I arrive, the mental space is my own creation. The mental space is part of the book I'm reading and my own imagination. The physical space of the library is silent and empty. I enjoy the transference that takes place while I'm reading in the library. Of course the experience of reading can happen anywhere; one can become transported from any location. However, because of the silence that allows for meditation, the library seems to open up my imagination tenfold.

The Internet is also a virtual world, albeit a noisy and cluttered one. Oftentimes after working many hours on my web pages I stand back from my work to appreciate it. Yes, I've accomplished something today. But where is it? And what is it? So I've changed my widgets around. Or I've customized the appearance of my blog. Perhaps I've even added a podcast. Nevertheless my work feels lacking in substance and never fully complete. A web page exists but you cannot touch it like you can a book or a painting. There is the sense that everything held up in this virtual world we call the Internet is likely to disappear at any moment. At the whims of a Google ranking and a body of readers in constant flux, who knows if you exist or not?

But when I'm in the library reading, I'm sure I exist. I'm so sure I never even have to think about whether I exist or not. The Net is constantly reminding me of myself. MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, nearly every media is geared toward me and how I want to present myself. The inevitable consequence is that I become sick of myself and yearn for another activity to help me forget (me).

I miss the childlike experience of reading in a library. When the physical space disappears and I am fully immersed in a novel, so immersed that my imagination feels like it is receiving a direct communication from the author's mind. The pictures and words are coming in so clearly that I am momentarily awakened, that is, conscious, inside another world.

For a while I was looking for a foothold in cyberspace; a place to stand; but the Internet is like quicksilver. The more work I put into my web pages, the less stable my tiny ledge seems to feel. Now I'm seeking more solid experiences outside of the screen. Until I reached a burnout, or many burnouts, I never truly appreciated reading, and having an empty library, an empty mind.

I love reading but it is hard for me to get addicted to it. Why? Because it is not such an easy pleasure to obtain. The pleasure takes time and patience and the reward comes but not too soon.

In the library barriers come down, the barrier between my mind and the mind of the author, the barrier between truth and fiction, actuality and dreams.

The Internet also dissolves barriers. Geographical distances are breached, multitudes of cultures are brought together, different age groups and income levels coincide. But the time and space of the Internet is compressed; everything moves faster than in daily life. While it takes two days for a postman to deliver your mail, Yahoo does it in less than two minutes.

Rather than contracting, time expands when I'm sitting in the library. As I enter the fictional world of a novel, time becomes infinite and extends in all directions, across history. My imagination also expands as if in tandem with the words I'm reading. I'm not the same person; I'm not the same mind.

On the Internet I skate on the surface of information, web pages, headlines, profiles. But in the library I probe mental worlds, unravel abstractions, witness people from different centuries interacting, and feel their emotions.

So I've returned to the library to write my novel. I've returned to the library to read. I've returned to the library to philosophize on these and other topics. To ask questions. I'm looking for a wider world than the World Wide Web.

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Saturday, November 8, 2008

By Way of Introduction: Part Two

In the second part of my introduction, I discuss what my "Book Chats" will be about. I discuss the Novel of Life and the Book of Innocence, and authors who have influenced and inspired me.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

By Way of Introduction: Part One

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