The Illusion of Progress

I’ve been thinking very intensely about time – a necessary result of writing a time-travel novel – and though I’ve been gathering thoughts on the subject since stumbling in off-campus attics as a freshman in college, discussing seconds passing while slobbering over solo cups of mysterious blue liquids, interrupting myself with “man” and “like” and “whoa” as much as a 90s rad dude stereotype, I’ve come to no firm conclusions on the topic. But it has never failed to fascinate me, and continues to completely boggle me while staring at vistas or sitting in my car alone or staring at blank walls. In popular culture, in the public eye, it’s a topic sidelined to either enthusiastic, poofy-haired physicists drawing maps at CERN or open-minded surfers who are “spiritual, not religious, man.” It’s regulated to the far corners of society, but it touches all of us: What is more ubiquitous than experiencing the strange sensation of time passing along our bodies like the current in a pool?

Some academic-minded English and Psychology majors would say that fear of mortality is a primary motivation for most things, if not everything, from creating a pyramid to writing stories.

I would argue, however, that fear of time and fear of mortality are separate from each other. Death is an event, either desired or feared; time passing is constant. Its motions never stop. It continuously drops on our foreheads as we’re waterboarded by minutes, to the point that, as a thirty-year-old, it’s both blindingly fast and hard to notice.

This latest project, which I have decided to name The Madonna, demands something impossible of me: to imagine an existence outside of time, independent of it. It goes against the whole narrative of our world. There is a beginning, middle, and end.

Of course there is. Indeed, it goes against the whole idea of narrative in the first place.

Something happens, then something else happens. Existence is this. If you’re reading this, you’ve patiently read down the page and are now further along than you were before.

Some who meditate or enjoy illegal substances might claim to tap into the world of the timeless, to let go of ego enough to not feel its weight and float above the waters of time like a buoy.

I believe them; however, no matter what temporary (temporary, temporary) experience you might have with the timeless, you’re always dragged back under.

It’s something I struggle with a great deal. My mother’s illness makes me very uncertain events in the past at times. Guilt and memories can be crushing, and the lack of them is even more terrifying.

And it’s impossible to see the future – but that doesn’t stop me from having ruminations so terrible that they stun me to a catatonic state as I struggle to control, to see, to master the possibilities, trapped between choices like a child between two walls.

And the now? What is now?

Until very recently, I felt a victim of time, as a climber feels the victim of a mountain. It’s taken me many years to realize that, really, now is the only time that not only matters but exists; everything else is a fiction we tell ourselves to make sense of things.

Yes, actions have consequences, and we – as time-based Earthlings – need our consequences to form our moralities, else life would be very difficult. But there’s a reason why AA members tend to “offer up” their past sins to a higher power at the beginning of their programs. Carrying all the weight of it all is too much for them. It cripples them from all action, positive or negative. And if you walk around trying to anticipate a thousand of the most negative and positive possibilities, you will never do anything. For many years, I’ve been frozen by looking up and down the long tunnel we’re all in, petrified by the two mirrors on either side of me showing a row of an infinite amount of objects that that don’t exist.

The past and future are full of distractions, and real meaning is only found when one burrows their eyes into the depths of the present.

To be present. To see. If you cannot see, you cannot create art. If you cannot observe, you cannot judge. If you cannot be present, you cannot be happy.

Perhaps my new book will only be enjoyed by trip junkies and very angry physicists (I’m OK with that), but I want to bring readers to a place where their imaginations can fill in a world in which time exists, surely, but is irrelevant in every sense, powerless next to greater forces. Just because we are trapped in time, that doesn’t mean timelessness can’t exist. We’re not its master, and it’s not a master of us.

Wish me luck, friends!

A Man Has Dreams: On Updates and Becoming Bert

I have a lot of feelings about Mary Poppins. I have a lot of strong feelings about the weird apology note that is Saving Mr. Banks. Some feelings have been more eloquently put by dear miss Lindsay Ellis: the practice of historical revisionism, the refusal to see its own flaws (or deal in “gravitas” according to the main character of Saving Mr. Banks), and selling out while still having an in-depth emotional message told through a well-done story. I have weird feelings about Disney’s conquest of Broadway and the bizarre Mary Poppins musical. And I don’t even want to talk about the apprehension I feel at the notion of a Mary Poppins remake/sequel.

But there’s a character who’s often glossed over in these deeper discussions about Mary Poppins, one who’s seen as dumb comic relief: Bert.

Maybe it’s the accent.

(Yes, it is terrible and much the hatred of many a British person I’ve met.)

Bert serves the purpose of a dramatic foil to Mr. Banks. He’s very unsuccessful. A wacky artist. A musician. A blue-collar man. Happy-go-lucky. A damn hippie. Haphazard. Boyish/childish.

Mr. Banks is responsible. Respectable. Strict. Manly. Capitalist. White collar. Successful. A man/adult.

They are – and bear with me, here – essentially two representations of the forces within a single person, two archetypes roiling and doing battle inside all of us.

The Artist

Bert is an artist to almost Williamsburg hipster levels. He’s irresponsible. He starts projects, then stops them. He’s constantly doing odd jobs, learning new skills. He doesn’t seem to care how much money he has in any given moment; he almost seems homeless in certain scenes.

Bert is the personification of the artist, someone who doesn’t really care about capitalistic success, embodied by the term: “I does what I likes and I likes what I do.”

There is an artist in all of us that wants to be as free and roaming as Bert, to just do what we like. To do something for the joy of it, to give to people some enjoyment before moving on.

For some, that’s financially viable, but for most we need to reign in our individual Berts to live in the real world.

The Salesman

Where Bert has flown off the wheel of progress, Mr. Banks is the axis. He works at a bank, upholds the systems in place, ignores the poor, and works hard to make rich richer. He’s not working for the joy of it, but working for the terrible purpose of it.

Salesmen don’t really work in real, tangible things, but being able to convince people of things. Her or his success relates to that almost uncomfortable level of forwardness, an interpersonal currency. What is money, really, besides a string of false promises?

As artists, we’re taught that salesmen are bad. Yes, they’re not really trustworthy. But you need these skills to make it in our modern society.

Even for the modern author, poet, painter, or creator: you can’t lock yourself in a cabin in the woods, create, and not network with people.

More often than not, we’re forced to be salesman. We need to be salesman to feed ourselves. We’re forced into working for the system that needs us to function, to work at the great machine in Metropolis, to manipulate, grind, power through, conquer, conquest.

We need to be grown ups.

There’s a lot of contempt, but it is a contempt for the reality of our nature and our situation.

(Conversely, though, there is a predatory side of the Salesman, one relating more to films like Wallstreet, but perhaps I’ll write more about that at a later time.)

Balancing the Salesman and the Artist Inside All of Us

In terms of archetypes, the Salesman is the absolute opposite of the Artist.

  • The Artist is inward-facing; the Salesman is outward-facing.
  • The Artist is producing-oriented; the Salesman is getting-oriented.
  • The Artist takes integrity seriously; the Salesman doesn’t.
  • The Artist believes in community; the Salesman believes in individuals.
  • The Artist believes in doing things for the love of it; the Salesman believes in working hard.
  • The Artist spends hours perfecting things; the Salesman believes time is money.
  • The Artist loves base pay; the Salesman loves meritocracy.
  • The Artist needs a great deal of training; the Salesman is replaceable.
  • The Artist is irresponsible with his own resources; the Salesman is irresponsible with others’ resources.
  • The Artist, in his view, is only worth what he creates; the Salesman, in his view, is only worth what he’s convinced others.
  • The Artist is self-obsessed; the Salesman is selfish.

It’s not “good versus bad.” You need both for a good company to function. And it’s not easy for us to balance these too extremes: Webcomic artists need to be active on Patreon and attend conventions. Authors need to review each other on Goodreads and print free bookmarks to give out at libraries. A marketer needs better slogans and artfully crafted graphics to sell their clients’ products. More and more, since the 50s, this line between them had blurred.

At one time, there were probably people one side of the fence and the other. People like Bert and Banks really existed. But today, we’re all Bert. We’re all Banks.

A Man Has Dreams and the Giving Solution

Let’s get back to Marry Poppins. The interaction between Banks and Bert is what I consider to be the turning point of the film. It’s pretty simplistic and straightforward as far as literary devices go, but there is so much power in this interaction if we dig a little bit deeper.

A man has dreams of walking with giants,
To carve his niche in the edifice of time.
Before the mortar of his zeal has a chance to congeal…
the cup is dashed from his lips,
the flame is snuffed a-borning,
he’s brought to rack and ruin in his prime.”
Richard and Robert Sherman

This is the cry of the everyman to try and accomplish things before the march of time brings his goals to a mortal end, especially one caught in a capitalistic society.

Mr. Banks has dreams that he is slowly realizing are unreasonable, that he’s out of time. That he will never reach them, that the sweet, sweet story and the promise of success is actually impossible except for a few, and always has been. I think we all can relate to that. Whatever dream we’ve had – publish a novel, win the lottery, reach the top of a company, own your own business – is likely too much to accomplish in one lifetime. As a salesman, we’re told a lot of things that won’t come true. We’re constantly fed fantasies from a young age, and as an adult we need to come to terms that they’re not going to happen, at least not for us. I’ve been relating a lot to this feeling lately. Life is too short.

And as he says, “It’s quite a bitter pill to take.”

After Banks goes on to blame a strong, level-headed woman for everything that’s wrong in his life (typical), Bert gives him an important insight in addition to his healthy helping of guilt sugar, a shift in perspective:

You’ve got to grind, grind, grind at that grindstone,
though childhood slips like sand through a sieve,
and all too soon they’ve up and grown,
and then they’ve flown,
and it’s too late for you to give.”
Richard and Robert Sherman

Bert puts it in perspective, that if you “grind, grind, grind at the grindstone,” you’re doing it for a system that won’t notice your individual life or death, something that’s ultimately useless in the grand scheme of things. Bert’s hippie perspective reinforces beautiful ideals: Yes! Life is too short! Do something you like! Do something (like being with your children) that you love! Don’t commit to the daily grind!

It is a joyous affirmation that life can be so much more than the failure to reach the impossible goals of the salesman, that doing things that you “likes” can bring happiness in itself. That success is comparative and irrelevant.

When balancing the line between the Artist and the Salesman, it’s important to take the time out to allow ourselves to be Bert. Do things for the joy of them, rather than that doing what society wants or needs you to do.

I’ve been hard at the grindstone lately. After a while, I came back to writing a new travel story, and I’ve felt so much joy for the process again. While I might be stressed about nearly everything in my life, it’s a relief to know that my work is my joy.

I hope everyone can be so lucky.

The Wanderers’ Way Complete

Yes, I also have a manuscript in my back pocket! The Wanderers’ Way has been completed. I’m deep in the editing phase – I expect I’ll never stop tweaking it, but I’ve set a deadline. During the winter I’ll be working on an untitled time travel story – more on that soon.