Distractions? Distractions, Anyone?

For something that I enjoy doing so much, its extremely easy to find an excuse to not do it.

I’m speaking of writing, specifically. One of the reasons I force myself into a regular posting schedule here is to give myself deadlines to meet, because I know you have come to expect these posts to be up on certain days. I currently don’t have those deadlines looming on my other projects, and, try as I might to set personal deadlines for them, I just don’t tend to be that successful. Setting a time limit, or a word or page count, for a day’s work on my current work in progress (a novel) seems arbitrary, and I know that I typically won’t manage to keep it. The best I can do is schedule specific days for which I am going to block off significant time to write. That’s about as (successfully) structured as I get with timing.

I sort of face a particular problem, though…and I’m positive that I’m not the only writer who experiences this. I’m an auditory learner. I’m very, very keyed into sounds, which is the reason I’m a music lover, and the reason I entered theatre by doing sound design. So, I don’t do well (even with reading) if there’s conversation going on the background. Even music with lyrics tends to be a significant distraction.

Our apartment, which I love, has an open floor plan, in which the only rooms with doors are the bathroom and the bedroom. Its an energy efficient, “green” apartment, using its open floor plan to provide a significant amount of natural light during the day. We love that. The best part of an open floor plan is the openness.

And, the worst about an open floor plan is…the openness.

My writing desk sits in the upstairs loft, and whatever Karen happens to be doing downstairs drifts its sounds remarkably well upstairs, leaving me hopelessly distracted. Thus, I’m essentially in the same position going upstairs as I am sitting in a coffee shop to hope to do some writing. Earbuds and my iPod become my best friend, and I had to invest in some nice earbuds, to prevent myself from hearing all of the ambient conversation and noise. I have to play jazz or other instrumental music, though, because lyrics will seriously mess with my word flow.

None of that is a challenge in and of itself, of course, but setting it up (as trivial as it is to do so), or to travel to the coffee shop, sometimes seems so daunting when so much else is on my plate that I simply use it as an excuse to not write at all.

Fellow writers, what specific environmental obstacles do you face when working on a project? How do you overcome them?

And, I promise, I’m working on that work in progress this weekend!

Photo Attribution: underminingme 

The Basics

Several years ago, Karen and I came to the conclusion that there are two types of education in our society: education in really cool and important things that contribute to the deeper direction of society, and education that earns you money. Rarely, if ever, are they the same.

When I finished a graduate degree in religion, and mentioned to a colleague that I was considering an MFA program in writing, the colleague wryly expressed something to the effect of, “You don’t like to get degrees that will make you money, do you?”

Along the lines of how, in some college towns, it is not uncommon to be waited on at a restaurant by someone with a PhD, Karen and I openly acknowledge that we have quite a bit of the first type of education, while perhaps not so much of the second. That doesn’t mean that I regret the education I have…I think that it has contributed to making me who I am, and to making me a productive member of society. Certainly, it was conducive to becoming a critical thinker. Still, I’m finding myself in a position of considering going back to more of the second type of education before I consider pursuing any more of the first. Karen went to undergrad with someone who, instead of going into college straight from high school, spent a few years becoming a master carpenter. He then used that skill to pay for his undergrad. There’s wisdom in that. Profound wisdom, I think, because he got the best of both worlds…and the personal growth that comes with both experiences.

So, as I am now pursuing some growth in area number two, I found myself particularly sensitive to this op-ed  piece on CNN when I read it last week. Essentially, this is written by a member of the movement that states that college is over-rated, that it emphasizes the wrong things, that it is over-priced, and that it does little to nothing to help you acquire a successful career. This writer is encouraging entrepreneurship in the technological field, and insisting that college is not only not required, but that those who do not conform to the institutional expectation of higher academia will be the ones who change the world.

I’ve personally known some people in my life that felt the same way, and eschewed as much formal education as they could. They were still well-read and very knowledgeable individuals, however. I think, though, that they were limited in what they could achieve professionally, rather than the opposite.

This writer is arguing that undergraduate education does little to nothing to prepare one for the professional world. I would argue that an enormous amount of personal development is built into the college experience, to say nothing of networking opportunities and the opportunity to explore all of the liberal arts, to test the proverbial waters regarding potential fields in which one would like to make his/her living, and to be exposed to the foundation of well-rounded personal development: freedom of inquiry, and the resulting skill of critical thinking.

This is to say nothing of the fact that many people, myself included, find themselves able to function quite well in fields other than their college major, and performing better because of the education they received in other disciplines.

The writer of the op-ed piece, Mr. Stephens, is blindly following the emphasis in Western culture on business, and that is where he goes amiss. There is more to a successful life than business success. Earning money and making profit does not, and cannot, substitute for exposure to the humanities, exploration of the sciences, and opportunities to read, explore, and be instructed in fields in which one might simply have a passing interest. A fulfilling life is composed of infinitely more than earning a good salary and climbing the career ladder.

Similarly, a fulfilling existence for a culture is composed of infinitely more than innovation and technological progress. The progress of humanity, and the exploration of the human condition, is not dependent upon technological innovation. Rather, that innovation is a product of exploration of the human condition, and to invert those priorities is indicative of a poor knowledge of history. Need I say that a poor knowledge of history is indicative of a lack of emphasis on quality education? Stephens claims that time is often better spent in trying and doing instead of learning a theory, but he forgets that doing something well pre-supposes a knowledge of theories.

Now, I’m the first to admit that Western education is far too heavily focused on credentials instead of learning. I’ve expressed before how troubled I am about how heavily compartmentalized our education in different disciplines has become. I hate that education is operated as a business, and is thus far too expensive (again, the Western emphasis on business fails us). To avoid higher education altogether as an effort to correct this, however, smacks of a knee-jerk reaction that involves throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water. That is the mistake that Stephens is making…a mistake that might be avoided with just a bit of education.

Innovators who avoid formal education might well alter our world. Devoid of a cultural soul, however, this would be a most Pyrrhic victory, indeed.

What do you think?

A Review of “X-Men: First Class”

X-Men: First Class

 While I had collected comic books for some time before I first encountered the X-Men, they have remained by far my most profound comic book experience. I remember my first glimpse of these literally life-altering characters, on an episode of Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends one Saturday morning, and buzzing with excitement for the rest of the morning. I promptly picked up the most recent issue on my next outing to comic book shelves, and still remember that issue today, as Cyclops, Colossus, Wolverine, and Ariel took on Mystique in a carnival funhouse. I was hooked, and have remained so ever since.

I heard mixed reviews about this weekend’s opening of X-Men: First Class before I could carve out time to go to the theatre myself, both this somewhat flattering review from the New York Times, and this harsh, if somewhat hollow, review from the blogosphere. I went in open to the possibilities, and hoping that the X-Men would find the phenomenal cinematic interpretation that Thor recently experienced. You see, prior to this weekend, the last worthy X-Men movie was X2.

And, after this weekend, the last worthy X-Men movie will still be X2. X-Men: First Class was, sadly, not first class.

The movie continues the “origin” trend that has become popular in cinematic comic book adaptations over the last few years (and apparently is continuing with their comic book predecessors, as well). We pick up here with Magneto’s tragic childhood in a Nazi prison camp, and follow his later meeting with Charles Xavier as they become allied with the U.S government to defeat a plot by the Hellfire Club, introduced well in this movie, who are behind the Cuban Missile Crisis in this version of history. What follows is an unpredictable mesh of mutant history with international intrigue as Xavier forms the first group of X-Men to prevent nuclear annihilation.

The problem is the discontinuity with the classic X-Men story arc. This first becomes apparent as we discover that Professor X has adopted Mystique as his sister, and that the two have grown up together (all together, now: “What the….???”).  More overtly, however, this “first class” of X-Men is, in fact, not the original group of X-Men from Marvel’s history, which was comprised of Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Iceman, the Angel, and the Beast. Nowhere, in fact, have we seen this original group together as such in the X-Men movie adaptations. This is particularly unfortunate here, because the costume designers for First Class have captured the original X-Men uniforms with superb skill.  To find these costumes on a disparate re-casting of the first group of X-Men (only the Beast has continuity) is disappointing at the highest level. The inconsistencies don’t stop, there, however: instead of Cyclops, we see his brother, Havok (as a teen, like most of the others in the group), who has inexplicably been in prison. Moira MacTaggert, who rightly plays an extremely influential role in the film, is not only a CIA operative instead of a geneticist, but also American instead of Scottish. That’s not just odd, but downright wrong.

These examples highlight the larger issue plaguing the X-Men film adaptations, and that is the fragmentation of the history of the characters. Because the original X-Men film introduced the most beloved of the characters instead of the actual first team of characters, others have been introduced at incorrect stages of life in the story arcs (for example, Iceman and Rogue). First Class maintains some continuity with the other films (such as explaining how the Beast works for the government and has known Xavier for some time at his first appearance in X-Men: The Last Stand). However, the discrepancies far outweigh the continuities, even with the other films (how, exactly, does this work with the discovery of Emma Frost and Cyclops at the end of X-Men Origins: Wolverine?), because these characters were simply not intended to meld together in the way that the screenwriters attempt here.

The film does do some things right, though, and one of those is visuals. Emma Frost and Banshee, particularly, are extremely accurate visually, and Sebastian Shaw is an excellent and critical inclusion, as the Hellfire Club are the villains here. In fact, the entire cast of actors are extremely attractive people, which helps the movie tremendously. Its just too bad that the same amount of care couldn’t have gone into the writing.

Another positive contribution of this film to the X-Men cinematic canon is that this is the first time the audience understands Magneto, the first time we find ourselves thinking that we can sympathize with how he gets to where he is…similar to how we sympathize with Anakin Skywalker’s transformation to the Dark Side in Star Wars, Episode III.

Overall, however, First Class, while providing great visuals and its share of good laughs, further diminishes the legitimacy of X-Men film adaptations. Those of us for whom the X-Men hold a particularly special place in Marvel’s comic book mythos find it tragically true that even the best of these films were launched with deep difficulties and have grown unmanageable in the end…or, in this case, the beginning. The X-Men movie franchise should either be declared dead, or re-booted entirely.

As for seeing First Class on the big screen, I wouldn’t waste the money from your budget. Toss this one into your Netflix cue, instead.

Tragi-Comedy

A few days ago, Karen decided that she was in the mood for a romantic comedy. Thus, we bypassed the latest episode of House in the Hulu cue, and ultimately plugged in a DVD of Gilmore Girls. And, no, I don’t need to turn in my man-card…if you’ve never watched that program, I’d point out to you that it is one of the best-written television serials I’ve ever seen, from a perspective of dialogue if not plot arc. I made the comment that I would like to be able to write something that clever. At the end of the day, though, I just don’t typically have things that are that happy and funny make their way out of my keyboard.

While I personally found this recent post on Good Letters about the poor theology that underlies poor art to be spot on, Karen had a big issue with what it says…she feels that it throws the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. She spoke of how allowance has to be made for those members of an audience who struggle with certain things. She spoke of a scene in a recent television program that she watched that depicted a sexual assault. She says that, while the scene was well-filmed and not at all gratuitous, she was still very bothered by what she saw.

I take the stance that I can’t possibly be responsible for everyone who reads what I write, and whether or not they will have a deep spiritual struggle with what I have written.

This leads me back to the realization that I don’t really write comedy. I tend to not direct it well on stage, either…its just not my genre. Its not that I’m an overly somber or stoic guy…I’ve been told that my sense of humor, while a bit off-center, is quite funny. For some reason, though, my writing tends to be of a darker subject matter and tone. I don’t know why, it just is.

So, if every character that I create is somehow based on me, what does this say about me that my writing is always dark and shying away from the comedic?

Wouldn’t I be a better person if I could write profoundly funny things?

Or am I just being paranoid?

Photo Attribution: Cara Photography