Saturday, October 29, 2011

How Does One Kill Fear?

"I sit down religiously every morning. I sit down for eight hours and the sitting down is all. In the course of that working day I write three sentences which I erase before leaving the table in despair. Sometimes it takes all my resolution and power of self-control to refrain from butting my head against the wall. After such cries of despair I doze for hours still conscious that I am unable to write. Then I wake up, try again, and at last go to bed completely done up. In the morning I get up with that horror of the powerlessness...The ideas and words creep about my head and have to be caught and tortured into shape."

Now guess who said that?

No really guess.

Here I'll give you another clue worthy of Halloween:

"One evening coming in with a candle I was startled to hear him say a little tremulously, 'I am lying here in the dark waiting for death.' The light was within a foot of his eyes. I forced myself to murmur, 'Oh, nonsense!' and stood over him as if transfixed.

"Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn't touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror -- of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision -- he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:

"'The horror! The horror!'"

That's right. Joseph Conrad.

Conrad, the great British writer -- made greater in my mind by the fact that he didn't speak English fluently until he was in his twenties -- whose writing and language is so beautiful, so meticulously crafted and so magnificently descriptive, if not a bit thick (never try to speed-read Conrad), and who, with Kurtz's breathy cry, incited now over a century of debate about what exactly "the horror" is meant to signify, struggled with writing.

And he didn't just struggle with writing, but it frustrated him to the point he wanted to bash his head against a wall, he couldn't sleep for all the turmoil it caused him, and it was, at times, so frustrating that it was as enjoyable an experience as performing acts of torture. And yet from that torturous exercise comes such exquisite craft as this:

"Nothing easier than to say, Have no fear! Nothing more difficult. How does one kill fear, I wonder? How do you shoot a spectre through the heart, slash off its spectral head, take it by its spectral throat? It is an enterprise you rush into while you dream, and are glad to make your escape with wet hair and every limb shaking. The bullet is not run, the blade not forged, the man not born; even the winged words of truth drop at your feet like lumps of lead. You require for such a desperate encounter an enchanted and poisoned shaft dipped in a lie too subtle to be found on earth. An enterprise for a dream, my masters!"


The point is this: knowledge of Conrad's pain is comforting; at least now I know I'm in good company.

The above-quoted words of Conrad come from here here and here respectively.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


I've realized that most of my blog posts (seriously, is blog not the worst word ever?) tend to be very text heavy. So here's a picture. This hangs just over the foot of my bed and is usually the last thing I see before I go to sleep.

It's a print mounted on foam core of a tapestry done by the Modernist artist Wassily Kandinsky. Y me gusta.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

I Wanna Rock

A couple of weeks ago, as I was gathering my things at the end of my class that I teach, I noticed that one of my students was hanging back. I could tell he wanted to talk to me about something, but that he wanted his peers to not be around while he said what he had to say. Realizing this, I made an effort to drag out my own packing up process so as to ensure that he and I were alone after everyone else had left.

Once we were alone he came up to me and said, "Sam, can I ask you a question? It doesn't have anything to do with class or anything though."

Naturally I responded that of course, he could ask me anything.

He replied, "You want to be a professor someday right?"

I smiled and nodded affirmatively saying, "That's right."

He then asked, "What made you want to study English? I've never liked English before -- I hated my high school English classes -- but I've loved this class so far, and I've been thinking more and more that maybe I'd like to study English. So I thought I'd ask your advice."

He didn't have class to go to, so we sat down in a couple of desks and he told me how he came out of high school thinking he wanted to be a doctor but was never 100% sold on that idea. In short, he was thinking a lot about his future and wasn't coming up with much except for the fact that he loved my class. So I told him my story of how I came to study English and, more importantly, how I came to decide that I want to be a professor someday. (It's a great story, maybe I'll write here about it some time.) He asked me a few questions about the kinds of things English majors study and he asked what kinds of jobs are available for those with English degrees and so on.

Once I'd answered all his questions as well as I could he sat there quietly for a moment looking at his hands. Then he looked up and asked one more question: "Sam, what do you think I should do?"

I just smiled.

The first thing that popped into my head was Mr. Cox, my high school yearbook teacher, raising his fist into the air and yelling to our class, "WHAT DO YOU WANNA DO WITH YOUR LIFE?" before playing Twisted Sister's "I Wanna Rock" so loud that the school newspaper advisor from down the hall came into our classroom, gave Mr. Cox a withering glare and told us to turn it down.

The situation also kind of reminded me of that scene in Joe Vs. the Volcano where Joe asks Marshall the limo driver what kind of clothes to buy and Marshall says:

"Clothes make the man. I believe that. You say to me you want to go shopping, you want to buy clothes, but you don't know what kind. You leave that hanging in the air, like I'm going to fill in the blank, that to me is like asking me who you are, and I don't know who you are, I don't want to know. It's taken me my whole life to find out who I am, and I'm tired now, you hear what I'm saying? "

A part of me wanted to be that blunt with my student. I wanted to say that he had to figure out who he was and once he did that he could answer that question for himself and good luck, let me know how it goes. But I didn't. I just smiled and said, "that's the question, isn't it?"

I told him not to worry about it too much because everyone goes through these kinds of existential crises. Somehow we all seem to make it through them alright and, for the most part, tend to find some niche where we really do fit. Naturally I talked up the English program because he expressed interest in it, but I told him that ultimately he had to decide for himself what was right for him.

I knew I wasn't telling him anything he didn't already know, but sometimes we just have to have someone tell us the things that we already know before we actually believe them, right?

He nodded, grabbed his bag and thanked me for my time. As he was leaving he told me that my class is his favorite. I thanked him and probably blushed.

Aside from being flattered that mine was his favorite class and that he would turn to me for advice on what he should do with his life, this experience proved to be just what I needed. It was nice to have an opportunity to explain verbally why I'm doing what I'm doing and why I've chosen this path for my life. There have been times this semester when school has gotten me down and I've wondered if this really is what I want to do or if it really is what should be doing. Talking about it with my student reminded me that I need to "cast not away therefore [my] confidence" because this is where I am, in fact, supposed to be.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

I Can Do Hard Things

From reading that title you might be thinking to yourself, "oh crap, Sam's gonna go off on one of those stereotypical braggy blog posts." If those are your thoughts then you're right. I am. I usually refrain from doing this because I figure that the few people that actually read my blog are already aware of the fact that I'm awesome, so I don't need to further prove it to them. But in all seriouslyness, I find it hard to strike the right balance between talking about being awesome and the awesome things that happen to me without coming off as a braggart, so I usually just avoid it altogether. Today I'm making an exception.

If that didn't scare you off and you're still reading this, you might be thinking I'm going to talk about how I'm in graduate school now and how it's really hard and how I don't get enough sleep because of it. But that's not what I'm talking about. (Did you see how I did that? I said I wasn't going to talk about graduate school being hard, but by saying that I'm not talking about graduate school being hard, I talked about graduate school being hard. Two birds, one stone.)

Instead, today I'm talking about running. Running is awesome. Over the summer I did a decent job of going running fairly regularly. Not great by any means, but I was probably running 3-4 times a week. I wasn't training for anything and I rarely, if ever, ran more than five miles. Lately, though I've been bad. I'm running maybe once a week, if that often. And then, on the rare occasion that I do go for a run, I avoid running around here in East Provo where I live because it's too hilly and, to be honest, I'm not in good enough shape to tackle these hills.

It may seem like that's not really a big deal; I mean, who likes to run on hills anyway? Well, I do. It's true; I like to run on hills. Call me weird but I do. In fact, because I love hills, my favorite run in Provo involves one of the nastiest, beastiest hills I've ever run on. Unfortunately, like I said, I've been avoiding this part of town and its hills for the better part of two months.

Well today in my "Research Methods in Rhetoric and Composition" class I got into a discussion with one of my classmates about running shorts and how awesome they are. Our classmates didn't get why running around in short shorts could be awesome, and though we tried to explain it to them, we decided it's one of those things that you have to experience to really understand. Like the Holy Ghost. Anyway, just talking about running shorts got my heart racing and I wanted nothing more than to go running right then and there. I didn't. But needless to say, when class was out I went straight home, pulled on my running shorts and shoes and took off, determined that today would be an awesome run.

As I ran out the door I thought about how I've been avoiding the hills here in East Provo. For a moment I contemplated continuing in that vein and running down into hill-less Provo yet again. But for some reason though I didn't. Something in the air made me change my mind, and I decided I would see how well I did with the hills. Bear in mind, I'm in terrible shape right now. Fully aware of my shapelessness, my intention was to run just a part of my favorite run. I figured I'd run up the road that leads to the monster hill to the base of the beast where it starts to get steep. There's a road right there that heads down out of the hills, and I figured I'd turn there. That way I could hit a few of the hills along my favorite run, and then cut it short before potentially killing myself on the that Titan.

Well, I didn't get 1/4 mile into my run before my lungs felt like they were on fire. It was awful. Immediately I began adjusting my route in my mind to head down to flat Provo. I felt like if I continued with my previous plan, I might be able to run a mile tops. But for some reason I made no adjustments and just kept putting one foot in front of the other. As I ran up and down some fairly minor hills, my lungs started to feel a bit better which was encouraging, unfortunately as my lungs improved, my legs took a turn for the worse. I could feel my leg muscles straining harder yet getting weaker with each step I took. I hadn't realized how truly out of shape I was; I hadn't been this bad since I got back from my mission. As I approached the turnoff road at the foot of the beast I was glad because I didn't think my increasingly jellified legs were going to be able to take much more incline.

Getting nearer and nearer to the foot of that mother of all hills I kept thinking to myself, "This road is getting kind of steep; I must be getting close to the turnoff...any time now." But it never came. The earth had somehow swallowed the road which was going to be my saving grace; the road had vanished off the face of the planet. Immediately all kinds of things possible reasons for this travesty began popping into my head. Somehow some evil force, maybe aliens, or Satan, or the Taliban, or the Democratic Party, or...I don't know who, but somebody had deliberately taken this away from me. They knew I needed it, and decided they wanted to watch me suffer. That's when I realized these half-cocked conspiracy theories were the least of my worries. I was running straight for it--straight for the one thing I felt least capable of handling at that moment--straight for The Hill. (I hope you shuddered reading that; I shuddered writing it.)

My eyes widened and my pulse quickened. Okay my pulse was already pretty quick so I doubt it got any faster, but what I'm trying to say is I was nervous and intimidated. I can honestly say I was positive that there was no way I'd be able to run up that hill. I contemplated just turning around to go back and looking for that disappeared Amelia Earhart of the tree streets, but something was stopping me. In that moment of vacillating fear I realized Providence had probably swallowed that road for a reason. I was being given an opportunity to prove my mettle and prove my doubters (namely myself) wrong with regards to my ability. I realized that all too often, when faced with giant problems, I'm much too aware of and controlled by my weakness. Instead of facing the issues head on to see what I can make of it, more often than not I turn around and dodge off down the easier road.

So I steeled my nerves (I wish I could have steeled my legs; they seriously felt like jelly) and I just kept taking one step after another.

As I chugged rather slowly up the hill, the chorus to Army of Helaman playing on repeat in my head, my legs burned more than they had since I first started running back in high school. My lungs were actually doing okay, but as I came around the first switchback (yeah, the hill is so steep it has switchbacks) I thought my calves were going to jump off of my legs and collapse on the pavement in protest to what I was doing to them. Despite the pain I continued on, but the farther I got up the hill, the steeper it became. If before I started the climb I doubted that I'd be able to make it to the top without stopping or walking, now I doubted whether I'd be able to make to the top at all. I just wanted to lay myself down on the pavement and give my aching body a rest. But no, I decided that I was going to make it all the way up come hell or high water, so I kept running. As I came around the second switchback onto the home stretch, my lungs fired up again and though I was getting steadily closer, the top never seemed farther away. At that point I started talking aloud, encouraging and cheering myself on.

I grunted and groaned and pushed (I sound like I was in labor) and somehow, against all common sense and against what I'd before considered to be within my realm of possibility, I made it to the top of the hill. It was exhilarating. I don't know how I did it, but I did.

I was about to stop and fall over in a pile of sweaty limbs, when Coach Platis' voice rang in my head, "Run through the top of the hill. Just because you're at the top doesn't mean the race is over." It went against everything I wanted at that moment, but I knew she was right. I'd made it this far, how could I bear to just stop? I had just done something I didn't think I could possibly do just by making it to the top, but that wasn't enough; I hadn't arrived yet. So I kept running. My body was screaming at me, telling me it wanted to stop and walk for a bit, but I didn't. I just kept running. I ran a couple hundred yards beyond the crest of the hill and decided that I would be justified in turning around and heading back. So, without stopping, I turned around and began my descent.

As I was running back down that hulking Goliath of a hill, my legs felt even more weak and wobbly than they had before. I had made it up the hill, but now I began to honestly worry that gravity was going to literally bring me to my knees. Considering my proclivity for breaking limbs, I didn't think it prudent to fall. This wouldn't have been the first time I'd fallen down during a run, heck I've even fallen down during races...multiple times, but never had I fallen down from sheer exhaustion, and I wasn't about to start. Somehow I managed to keep myself together and I made it to the bottom of the hill without incident.

Arriving at the bottom, the thought popped into my head, "Good work Sam. You made it all the way up and back. Go ahead and take a little walk now; you deserve it." The prospect of walking was perhaps even more tempting at that moment than it had been when I was at the top of the hill. Not because I was exhausted, though I was that, but because I felt like I'd earned a walk and that walking could be acceptable. That may have been true, but I felt like it would cheapen everything I'd just achieved if I stopped now. So again, I gathered some strength I didn't know I had and I told myself I wasn't going to walk or rest until I was back on my street in front of my house. Once again, I kept running.

I continued running all the way until I was in front of my house. I looked up at it and without a second thought I stopped and crumpled to the ground in a red-faced, sweaty-backed, sore-legged, breathless heap.

I stayed there on the lawn for quite a while. The grass was a little prickly on my back and legs and I could feel my skin starting to itch, but I wanted to savor the moment as long as I could.

That was a couple of hours ago now and I've been thinking. If I had decided to avoid the hills altogether and just run on the flat streets today, I'm sure I would have had a nice run. If I had turned around to look for the turnoff street and not faced that hill at all, I'm positive I would have have been satisfied with my run. If I had stopped to walk one of the many times that the thought came to me, I would have caught my breath and been on my way content with life. Frankly, if I had done any of those things, I have no doubt that I would have felt pretty good about myself just for having made the effort of going out for a run this afternoon. But I did none of them. Somehow, by sheer force of will I was able to push myself beyond my perceived limits and accomplish something I didn't think possible. And that gave me cause to smile.

I've been smiling ever since.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

You're the Voice

Sometimes I'll be writing a paper and I get stuck or discouraged. That's when I remember that scene from Hot Rod where this song is playing:

To be honest I wasn't a big fan of Hot Rod. Some of my roommates might hate me for saying that, but yeah, not a huge fan. But for all of its faults (and there were enough that I'd be content never seeing this movie again), I do owe it a debt of gratitude for introducing me to "You're the Voice."

This song, however cheesy it may be, has an uncanny ability to refocus my attention and get me back to the task at hand. It makes me realize that yes, I really can be and even already am "the voice." Therefore, I'm not gonna live in silence and I'm not gonna live with fear. I do in fact have the power to be powerful, and ohhhh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh, whoa oh oh oh oh oh oh oh.

Also, it has bagpipes in it. How could I not be inspired?

(This is me resolving to be the case that wasn't clear.)

Monday, October 10, 2011

On Walking

Yesterday morning I woke up and, realizing it was Saturday, decided to lay in bed for a bit and read. I reached over and picked up what I'd been reading a couple nights earlier: The Lost Art of Walking by Geoff Nicholson. As I was reading I came to this line wherein Geoff describes walking in the Hollywood Hills neighborhood of L.A.:

"I was one of the few people who ever seemed to walk there. I encountered a few dog walkers, the odd person pushing a pram, the occasional jogger, a Mexican maid who didn't have transport, but I seldom saw anyone who was simply walking for the hell of it, as I was."

He then goes on to talk about the time he went out walking, fell down and broke his arm in three places. Maybe it was because I can relate so well to having medical mishaps caused by seemingly innocuous activity, but as I read about walking, I decided that I wanted to do just what I was reading about; I wanted to go for a walk.

So I did. The sky was a steely gray, and there was just enough chill in the air to warrant donning a sweater over my thermal shirt. I left the house thinking that it would start sprinkling before I got back, so I prepared myself mentally for moisture. My concern proved to be unfounded. I did feel several drops as I walked, but it was never anything more than leftover rain that the trees had kept in reserve for passersby such as myself.

I went at a fairly slow pace, allowing myself time to consider the homes along the "tree streets" where I was walking. I entertained myself looking at the homes and the landscaping and gardens around the homes searching out clues that would tell me a little bit about the people who lived in them. I came up with stories about the families living in the homes that were, I'm sure, much more adventurous and exciting than the truth. But who am I to let the truth get in the way of a good story?

As I was walking along, passing broad, generalizing judgments on every home I came across, an older home that was for sale caught my eye. It was clearly well taken care of and had even had some minor remodeling done on the exterior. Not so much remodeling that it lost its old home character, but enough to make it attractive and livable. It was on a corner so I was able to walk past the yard and peer over the fence into it. (I had to see what I was getting into if I bought the place.) I looked into the yard with an eye of criticism, deciding what would need to be done upon purchasing it. I decided that I'd tear out the juniper bushes next to the house and plant roses in their stead. Along the back property line, where the garden met the fence, I'd run a few grape vines. I'd definitely have to cut down and grind out the stump that was in the middle of the yard. The large, established trees that surrounded the home and property, including and apple and pear tree back by the shed next to the garden, made the whole proposition worthwhile and I decided I was sold. As such, I kept walking.

While the weather was a bit threatening and seemed to be keeping most people indoors, I did see a few people along the way. I walked past an older man, complete with overalls, a straw hat, and a small radio tuned to the KSL Greenhouse Show, out weeding his flower bed. I passed a young mother in a house coat gathering up toys that had been left in the front lawn overnight. There were two little boys riding Razor scooters in wide circles in their driveway talking about how awesome the parade was going to be later on. In each case the individuals looked up as I walked by, whereupon I nodded cheerily and said, "Good morning." (I might normally have waved, but my hands were busy keeping themselves warm in my pockets.) To be honest I was a bit surprised to find that, to a person, they responded in kind and were just as cheerful. It was nice to see that some people haven't lost that unconditional friendliness that seems, at times, to be in short supply. I suppose it didn't hurt that my appearance was far from intimidating or imposing as I was wearing glasses, an old gray sweater with white Cosby-esque designs on it, and smile.

By the time I got back to my place I'd been gone for about an hour and the tip of my nose was a bit chilly. As I walked up the steps to the sliding door that would lead me into the kitchen, I felt more content with life than I'd been in some time.