Living In The Romantic Present

Cahill Park at Sunset Wolli Creek Sydney Australia

People have always told me I think too much. The accusation didn’t make much sense to me when I was a teenager. My view of the matter at that time lacked nuance: didn’t we all think the same amount, I wondered – and didn’t we do that thinking during every waking moment of our lives? How, then, was it possible to think too much?

Beyond the aforementioned lack of nuance, this was an altogether naive view that considered thought only as a function of time: my days are the same length as anybody else’s day, so how can I possibly think more than anybody else?

Obviously, young Greg was missing the point that was right there in front of him: the very act of thinking about thinking (metacognition, if you’re feeling nasty) would be considered by most people to represent ‘thinking too much’. In attempting to defend myself, then, I was actually only incriminating myself more deeply. As usual, I was my own worst enemy.

It will surprise few readers to hear that all of this caused me quite a bit of discomfort in those adolescent years. Later in life, I would learn some of the theory that perfectly describes the pain I had felt during those years: notions of cognitive dissonance, of objective and subjective perceptions of social ‘fields’, etc. Of course, some would say that engaging with such theory once again constitutes ‘thinking too much’.

However, in finding that I was experiencing very observable and not altogether uncommon phenomena, I found a measure of peace in the quantity and quality of my cognitive gymnastics. It turns out that I’ve never engaged in thinking too much in any general way, I just tended to think about things that other people didn’t. There is no small measure of judgement in the insinuation that thinking differently – perhaps frivolously, in some views – is, in fact, thinking too much. Only in adulthood am I able to see that “too much” was – with a few exceptions – code for “differently”. As is typical in the USA, much of my development centered around ‘discovering’ and refining an individualistic identity. I was encouraged to “find myself” and yet I was right there the whole time, being told that being myself – that engaging in abstract thought as a means of making sense of my environment – was too much.

But this isn’t a story about all of that, exactly. Being told that I think too much was really no different of a fate to that of kids who were told they should focus less on sports and spend more time on homework. It’s the protective instinct of adults-who-care to round off what they see as pointy edges of personality. Everything in moderation, as they say. If I had an uncomfortable childhood, it would only be because I wasn’t equipped to deal with my boundless thought, not because of the boundless thought itself or the guilt I would sometimes be made to feel at engaging in such thought.

As I ‘grew up’, I began to appreciate abstract thought as a pastime that could entertain me; protect me from loneliness or isolation. If focused properly (say, into a PhD, for example) – it could even bear fruit quite productively. It turns out I don’t think too much – I just have a different idea of what is and is not worth thinking about in the first place.

In much the same way I’ve always been an abstract thinker, I’ve also always been a creature of ritual. For most of my life this trait of mine has been most apparent in the way I consume live sport: I wear the jersey, I sit in the same seat, I do the first-down chant with the crowd even though I’m sitting alone in my living room. I get into it, basically, and yes, I’ve been told that I take things too seriously.

But ritual isn’t about taking something seriously – let alone too seriously. It’s about entering a specific cognitive and physical state. If you’re one of those people who “haven’t started their day” until they’ve had their morning coffee, you get what I’m saying. You’re adjusting your own settings for maximum utility. You’re setting a scene in which you know certain behaviours will lead to expected outcomes. You’re becoming a mood.

One such mood for me involves ceremoniously watching one of my favorite films: Midnight in Paris. It is the story of a man at several existential crossroads who finds himself prone to nostalgia and romance. While staying in Paris, he discovers a way by which he can travel through time back to the Jazz Age and party with his literary heroes – the stars of the Parisian expat community: Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, etc.

I’ve watched the film a dozen or more times, to the point where The Girl knows what mood I’m in if she comes home to find me watching it with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc in my hand1.

When I watch the film, I – like the main character – am transported outside of myself. And when I say myself in this context, I am referring to my self which is defined within the context of my social and physical environment. Since this is a self I have always had a hard time knowing – in no small part because I have a hard time understanding the machinations of the society in which I valiantly try to operate – such a respite is welcome. I once joked that watching the film is a kind of therapy for me, and the notion is true insofar that watching the film allows me to ritualistically calibrate my mood into predictable parameters.

This concept of art as a mood resembles nostalgia in obvious ways, but the two are not the same. Each time I watch Midnight in Paris, I am not thinking fondly of, say, the first time I watched it2. No, the viewing at hand is always independent to those that came before it, even if it looks the same… and it does look the same, because I design it that way. Viewing the film in this considered manner generates a particular mood, and so I am careful when I ‘set the stage’ so as not to risk damaging the outcome.

Compare this to the nostalgia that one associates with a song, for example. You cue up the tune and immediately you are transported to the summer before your freshman year of college. You can almost feel the wind coming in the window of your car; smell the grass you had just cut to pay for the gas. This is a mood, to be sure, but it is a mood frozen in time. It is changeable only by viewing it through different lenses as you get older and have different experiences. As Alan Watts would remind us: accessing the past is an activity done in the present. We can never actually go back.

Rather than nostalgia that can be reliably called up with the press of a button, then, these ‘moods’ are more like paintings that hang in a cognitive gallery of my own creation. They look just like I remember them, but I can step into them at any time and experience them anew; manipulate them however I so desire in order to generate the same or different emotional or physical outcomes. And then I can step out of them again and they reset back to the starting position, ready for me to return at any time.

The character in Midnight in Paris has a similar experience with an actual painting. He encounters the painting in two different time periods: in the past, immediately after Pablo Picasso had painted it; and in the present, as an object given definition by decades of intellectual interpretation that was devoid of the painting’s actual genesis. What he experiences is not nostalgia – rather, he feels a familiar embrace changed only by external circumstance. Because of movie magic, he is able to exist in the past and the present at once.

But one does not need movie magic to do this – one merely needs rituals, cognitive or otherwise.

The character in Midnight in Paris can literally go to the past and live it as his present, but that past is not his past. Ultimately, he finds that his romantic fantasies of that bygone era are just that: fantasies. He resolves to live fully and romantically in his present.

And in the end, this is all I’m doing with my flights of abstract thought: living fully and romantically in the present.

Is that too much? I guess I haven’t really thought about it.

My Helmet Is Down

A post shared by Greg Joachim (@jimmygoodwords) on

The next six or so weeks will be mega. Much like this fella, I’ll have my head down and focused on my work. The thing about a PhD is the same thing with any big project: you have to focus on one task at a time or you’ll easily overwhelm yourself. My helmet is down; my torch ignited.

One Man’s Appalachia Is Another Man’s Crapalachia

Crapalachia by Scott McClanahan

I have always felt – and will always feel – a connection to my home state of West Virginia. It’s very much an organic connection to the land; the mountains. Yet, the impetus for this connection is one of fate. As Ron Currie writes in Everything Matters!, who we end up taking out a mortgage with is largely an accident of geography and economics. It stands to reason that any children which result from such an accident stand a good chance of enjoying that same geography (and are almost guaranteed to share the economics). Indeed, I was born in Wood County, West Virginia, as my parents were, and as their parents were. My connection to the land is the product of another generational output of this cycle of destiny and yet this accidental origin of that connection does little to dilute the potency with which it perpetuates. I might have moved to Australia but I am what I am, and that’s West Virginian.1

The author of Crapalachia, Scott McClanahan, likewise is what he is, but what he is somewhat more difficult to ascertain. He was born in West Virginia and he lives there now – this we know for sure – but his connection to the land is difficult to triangulate. Perhaps this is because he writes of the land – the mountains, in particular – with an awe that drips (somewhat) with resignation. He writes of how his childhood friend Bill tried to teach him and his friends about the mountains that surrounded them – their names and elevations – but not a one of them cared to learn about where they were from. He writes of coming to regret this in adulthood, but the resulting interest seems to have come on a little too late.

McClanahan seems to wish either that West Virginia were some other place, or that his own accident of geography and economics had rendered him from some other place. Either way, there is a meaningful disconnect between what he is and what he wishes he was that seeps into this novel / memoir / journal. The feelings are real, and the prose that conveys those feelings is capable – in momentary heights – of breaking your heart (“I told her I was putting blankets in the trees for our children, so that no matter where they went – they would always be home.”), but the target is unclear. In this way it sometimes reads like a love letter to a girlfriend he can’t quite remember, or who maybe never existed, or who maybe he never really loved.

None of this is problematic in a general way, of course. There is no right or wrong way to skin this particular cat. I wanted to like Crapalachia and I largely did. Stylistically it is memoir in the way that Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes – one of my favorite books – is memoir. That is: it’s so exaggerated and fictionalized that it’s really closer to being a novel. Exley never shied from that fact (he declares the fictions at the outset) and neither does McClanahan (who uses an afterword to roll out an itemized list of the liberties he took). Were Crapalachia not about the place that geography and economics destined my soul to be forever linked to, I likely would love it without reservation. But it is, and so reservations have manifested.

Writing about your home is a tricky proposition. The many ways in which such an endeavor is fraught with peril have long made me reticent to write of West Virginia in any general way. I’ve always kept it personal, hoping that leaning explicitly and overtly on my own, very personal experience would render my depictions of the state unassailable by those who don’t share my perceptions. The love-it-or-hate-it nature of the commentary around Crapalachia would seem to suggest that my fears are justified.

The book initially popped up on my radar while I was reading up on Breece D’J Pancake. Pancake resented the way that West Virginia – also his home state – was depicted in popular writing, and he set about crafting stories that would correct this deficit of authenticity. By virtually all accounts, he succeeded, and his single published work (a collection of short stories) has developed something of a cult following among readers and writers (not unlike A Fan’s Notes). Somewhere in the midst of reviewing this ongoing commentary, I saw Crapalachia put forward as a modern work that achieved the same authenticity that Pancake aimed to deliver.2

So it was that I cracked the spine3 on Crapalachia under the influence of high expectations of authenticity… and the touchiness about my home state that is the birthright of all West Virginians. Both were ultimately activated.

The impression that I get from McClanahan (from this book as well as a few interviews with and depictions of him) is that he wanted to deliver an authentic tale of life in Appalachia. This much is apparent from the aforementioned list of liberties that he took with the truth; the reconciling with the factual people and stories that were woven into the tale of this book. In many cases this list is apologetic. McClanahan states that the stories which ultimately became Crapalachia went through many forms. He stops short of saying that all of this reworking involved so many turns that he lost track of his destination.

Ultimately, McClanahan might have wanted to deliver an authentic Appalachian story – perhaps even for the same reasons that Breece Pancake wanted to – but that disconnect between McClanahan and the land seems to have prevented him from doing so. The story isn’t inauthentic, exactly, but it is peopled with amalgamations of real people who are rendered unbelievable by said amalgamation. All of these isolated themes ring painfully true – the obsession with death, the difference in perception of farmers vs. miners, the desire to escape, the bone-deep boredom – but they’re authentic in the way The Simpsons is authentic. Sure, it’s made for socially-conscious adults, but it’s still a cartoon.

The danger, of course, is that Crapalachia4 is seen by ‘outsiders’ as being essentially authentic. These are the non-natives who sing Take Me Home, Country Roads at karaoke and never consider the tragedy that finds the narrator of the song loving a place so much and yet ostensibly living elsewhere.

The authentic West Virginia is – among many, many other things – one where ‘Big Coal’ has taken advantage of a work force – of a people – for so long that those same people now believe not only that it’s the only work they deserve, but also that it’s the only work they want. The fact that one’s view of this phenomenon as inherently good or bad is measured on a wide spectrum underscores why it is difficult to write about West Virginia in a way that won’t offend somebody. You’ll note that I’m leaving my position on the matter as deliberately vague. The fear is real.

McClanahan has seen these same things. Indeed, he grew up in the thick of it whereas I grew up on the fringe of it. He shares similar thoughts in Crapalachia but he is careful about where to point his finger when doling out blame. He appears to share my fear. Unfortunately, this leaves the reader to fill in the logical blanks and it is his characters who end up copping the blame. For instance, the line “…only poor people are desperate enough to work in a hole and then thank [G]od that they have a job working in a hole” presents a chicken and egg dilemma – which came first: the mining company or the poor/desperate person? – without positing an answer.

The troubles of West Virginia are thus presented by McClanahan as being natural; perhaps God-given. That he might be right is neither here nor there – the danger is that the decision is delegated not to West Virginians exclusively (I can say this from experience: West Virginians rightfully believe that they are the best judges and defenders of their own misery), but to everybody. Once again, the state has been left to the mercy of outsiders and if history has taught us West Virginians anything, it is that this mercy will not be forthcoming.

Somewhat Chilling

A post shared by Greg Joachim (@jimmygoodwords) on

Wish I would have had my DSLR for this sky, but the iPhone X more or less captured it. Sydney smells like a campfire at the moment, which is somewhat chilling when you think about why that is.