From the Lips


Making It Up As I Go: The Six-Word Memoir

The myth is that the six-word story concept evolved from a challenge Ernest Hemingway once accepted. He came back with, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Stunning, right? It’s like the counterpoint to “a picture’s worth a thousand words.” Back in 2006, SMITH Magazine took up the idea of creating six-word memoirs and started collecting them. A couple of years later, they published, “Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Famous & Obscure Writers.” (And you can still follow their story experiments here.)

It’s a great book, and though there’s technically no plot (though you could count the hundreds of life stories as individual narratives), it’s extremely hard to put down. These are real people giving you a snapshot of how they view their own lives. Some of the entries are inspirational. “Open road, no map. Great scenery.” A lot are funny and good for a smile. “I fell out of the nest.” But every now and then there was one full of regret that just dropped into my heart with a thud . “Followed rules, not dreams. Never again.” or, “My life’s a bunch of almost’s.” True to reality, our lives are not all witty and amusing, and I was impressed by the bravery of people sharing the hard stuff.

It’s almost impossible not to start imagining what you’d write for your own life, so I started trying to think up my own. A few candidates so far:
• Jumped in pond. Made good ripples.
• Libraries saved me from total bankruptcy.
• Death’s great. No clocks. No clothes.
• Came to terms with snowflake speech.

Think about it. What’s your story?

Categories: From the Lips, On the Page, Uncategorized, Visual Books | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Love Means Nothing in Tennis: Thoughts on Motivation

Why do we do anything we do? From primal urges to impulse buys, there’s motivation behind every simple thing we do, even if we’re not giving it conscious thought.

Sometimes after a string of hectic days I get to the point where I feel frazzled and tired and confused, and I find myself asking, “Why am I even doing this?” Some days I can answer that question fairly easily, which keeps me from going back to bed to hide under the covers. But when the answer is, “I honestly have no idea,” it makes me take a couple of steps backward to see how I got to the point to where I no longer feel connected to what I’m doing.

There are a lot of ideas lurking behind why we do things, and I found motivations falling into a few different categories–and finding some really interesting insights as to who’s really making my choices.

This has become a fun little game for me now—a multiple choice test that has produced everything from snorts of laughter to some fairly profound revelations.

The game: Why am I ___________ today?

a) Tradition: the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way. (I group nostalgia in here too.)

b) Habit: a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.

c) Obedience: compliance with an order, request, or law or submission to another’s authority.

d) Obligation: an act or course of action to which a person is morally or legally bound; a duty or commitment.

e) Desire: a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen.

f) Love: an intense feeling of deep affection.

(Note: all definitions taken from the Oxford English Dictionary online.)

So just for fun, here’s this: Why is ham always served at my family’s Easter dinner?

Tradition is one reason, full of memories of family Easter dinners from years before—but it doesn’t really have anything to do with Easter, or the actual ham itself. It could also be habit, but again, not actually about the ham. It could also be obedience—which could actually be about the ham in some cases, but the motivation is based on someone else’s—not yours, and trust me, probably not the ham’s. Obligation is also external motivation. Desire? That’s where it really begins to connect to you personally. Desire to eat ham? Desire to prepare ham in order to please your family? What’s your desire really for?

And finally, love. Well, no, definitely not for the ham. I think love is probably for non-ham-related motivations. It’s more deep-seated, intrinsic motivation. It’s more personal.

The last time I played the game, it was, “Why am I going to the gym today?” It definitely wasn’t tradition. It could’ve been habit, though it wasn’t that day. It could’ve been obedience, because my doctor wants me to achieve certain health goals. It could’ve been obligation, because I’m paying for my membership, or because my health plan gives me a discount if I go a certain number of times per month. And that particular day, let me say it definitely wasn’t desire.

No, I went to the gym out of love.

Recently, a friend of mine related some advice he received about the nature of discipline—that discipline was not about being punished or forcing yourself to do something you didn’t like just because you know it’s good for you. She told him to remember that discipline was based on the idea of being a disciple—a committed follower of someone or something you loved. And so her advice to him was this: discipline is remembering what you love.

I went to the gym because I’ve learned to love my heart and my lungs and my muscles and showing up at the gym is my way of telling them that. I love my completely beat-up running shoes that have run more miles than they ever thought they would run. I love feeling completely out of breath but strong and resilient. I love feeling alive.

And so I am a disciple of feeling alive, which is why I lift the weights and run the miles and say thanks to my heart and lungs and muscles for working hard for me. And then I drag myself up the gym steps (because, don’t get me wrong, I’m elated but completely exhausted), and pass the tennis courts and think to myself, “Interesting… love means ‘nothing’ in tennis.” That’s about keeping score. That’s not love–for me, at least.

But, thankfully, I don’t play tennis.

Categories: From the Lips, In the Lexicon | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Subversive Joy, and Other Fun Hobbies

During the Writer’s Guild of America strike in 2008, when a lot of people were arguing about power and control and rights and money, writer/director Joss Whedon put together this little supervillain internet musical called Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog. He wanted to create something great in the middle of all of the haggling–just to show that great things could still be made—not with a huge budget, not with a lot of contracts and restraints, but just out of the sheer desire of a bunch of people who wanted to create something fun. When it later won a Creative Arts Emmy, Joss ended his acceptance speech by saying this: “Remember, the greatest expression of rebellion is joy.”

What a fantastic concept. To respond to frustrating situations and setbacks not with anger or hostility, but with sheer irrepressibility of your own spirit. And Whedon knows a thing or two about having to keep going. His fantastic tv shows keep getting canceled and his movies don’t hit blockbuster status (of course, directing The Avengers coming out this summer could change that), but he’s definitely had his share of setbacks. A lot of us look at each other when they hear he’s making something new for television and say, “Hasn’t he learned that they just keep canceling his stuff?” But still he keeps making stuff he loves, and there are an awful lot of us out here who love it too, even though we know it’ll probably have a short run. We curse the sudden-but-inevitable betrayal. (That’s a Whedon Firefly joke. And if you don’t know that gem of a short-lived series, you really should. Go pick it up.)

So tomorrow is another Monday, and because of Daylight Savings Time, it’s going to be here an hour earlier than normal.

Do something fun with it. Rebel creatively. Suggestions welcome.


Categories: From the Lips, Movies, On the Screen, Television | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Anything Too Stupid to be Said…

is sung, at least according to Voltaire. “But,” I would add, “it isn’t sung by Stephen Merritt.”

I discovered the many worlds of Stephen Merritt in a rather roundabout way. Having become completely enthralled with Lemony Snicket’s dark, dire, and cleverly written “Series of Unfortunate Events” books, when I discovered that the audiobooks, at least the first few, were read by Tim Curry, I couldn’t help myself, and began at The Bad Beginning (which is a very good bad place to start). But the first recording began not with the story, but with a song—a dark, accordian-lurching waltz sung by an equally dark, melancholy voice, low and dead-eyed, forewarning the horrors of Count Olaf and his henchmen. (“You might be thinking what a romp this is, but wait till you meet his accomplices…”)

Extremes are a funny thing. For instance, there are some animals that are just so homely that they’re completely endearing. Likewise, the Snicket books are so gloomy and macabre that they’re hilarious and delightful—this is also true in the world of Stephen Merritt. Under the guise of The Gothic Archies for the Snicket books, he wrote a dreary, depressing tune for each book filled with tales of the terrible things to come, and about what a horrible world it is.

Lots of people have done this. Lots of people sing depressing songs about what a terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad world it is. But they’re not funny. What makes Merritt’s lyrics hilarious is his wordplay, his juxtapositions of strange words and rhymes perched jauntily on top of dreary ukulele melodies that lurch under the weight of the awfulness to come. Anyone who can rhyme “accomplices” so cheerily and then fall into a folk song-y cadence of “run, run, run, run, or die, die, die, die die…” is a delightful genius in my books.

All thirteen songs from the Snicket series have been since compiled onto a standalone disc, The Tragic Treasury. But to my delight, I discovered that Stephen Merritt had yet another group, a “real” group, The Magnetic Fields, that had been recording long before Snicket and the Archies even existed. I picked up the “i” recording, more than a little nervous that it would be much more mainstream than the Archies. But not to worry… the same melancholy tunes, Merritt’s same melancholy voice, the same deadpan humor and despondency. A little more mature in content than the Archies in places, but all the same beautiful, terrible tales of love and lost love and fanciful desires. “I wish I had an evil twin, running round doing people in…”

There is laughter and mischief mixed in there with all the melancholy. And the world can be a very scary place—a little chuckle in between can take the edge off just a bit.

Categories: Audiobooks, From the Lips, In the Ears, On the Page, Visual Books | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

The OED: Possibly the Funniest/Saddest Read Ever

“This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel…”
– Horace Walpole

Depending on your view of the glass being half full or half empty, the Oxford English Dictionary could be either the funniest or saddest collection of words in existence. I suppose it depends on the order in which you read it. Having not read the entire work myself, I can’t say for certain, but I stumbled upon a book some time ago that has convinced me it’s quite the comical thing.

“Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages” is Ammon Shea’s recounted adventure of reading the OED from cover to cover—all 150 pounds and twenty volumes of it. It’s remarkable. It’s death-defying. And, most importantly, it’s hilarious.

Shea’s book is divided into 26 chapters, A-Z, each chapter beginning with a description of his current emotional and physical state during the mammoth undertaking, followed by short commentaries on a handful of words beginning with the chapter’s alphabet letter. If you read the book in alphabetical order (which you don’t necessarily need to do), you’ll follow along with his descent from exuberance into just a little madness, eye strain, backache, and his eventual return to pleasure upon reaching the final pages.

As one could expect, the experience became completely surreal at times, with words and sanity losing context in the real world—somewhat like watching any more than five episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in a row.

Shea’s book is such a fun read, and his short asides on words often made me laugh out loud, which created some interesting complications when reading excerpts to friends. The peculiarities he chose to share are delightful and odd and enlightening. There are words we use today that we would never think to connect with their origins. And there are those I simply fell in love with, even though I can’t bring myself to use them casually in conversation. It’s where I fell in love with “epizeuksis,” and how I found out that “petrichor” describes the smell of rain on the ground.

True, Shea’s is an abridged adventure through the OED, but it’s a fantastic one, and it will do for now. Some things can get away with being abridged. Others cannot. More on that later.

Categories: From the Lips, In the Lexicon, On the Page, Visual Books | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Weltschmertz (and a Happy New Year to you, too)

Weltzschmertz: Fun word to say, terrible lifestyle choice. It translates directly from German as “world weariness,” and is defined here as “sorrow that one feels and accepts as one’s necessary portion in life; sentimental pessimism.” Egads. You know what that looks like? It’s a solemn kid who grows up without laughter in a grim, dust-coated house, who’s told that he shouldn’t even bother looking outside because it’s grim and dusty everywhere else, too, and that’s just how life is. It’s Eeyore, except less cute and purple and fuzzy. What a way to live.

In presenting a somewhat shinier alternative, I have to admit to a terribly embarrassing guilty pleasure: a couple of years ago I ran across the Disney movie Pollyanna (1960, Hayley Mills) while flicking through tv channels, and I was fairly horrified to discover that the more I watched it, the more I liked it. (My ego compels me to tell you here that Fight Club ranks high on my top-five favorite movie list, just to retain some semblance of credibility with you.) But there’s a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln in Pollyanna (though in truth actually written by director David Swift) that really struck me:

“If you look for the bad in mankind expecting to find it, you surely will.”

And you know, I believe it. You’ll find it in yourself. You’ll find it in everyone around you. You’ll find whatever you’re looking for, and looking through grime-colored glasses is a choice. Yes, Pollyanna is a Disney movie. And I know the word “optimistic” is often considered a synonym for “ignorant.” But her good-seeking game didn’t stem from some loopy, mindless dementia that denied reality—her kind of optimism took guts. (You try finding a way to confront the political and religious leadership in your life, not to mention your own family, and just see if that doesn’t require guts, results notwithstanding.)

There is actually a very similar (and verified) quote of Lincoln’s, in which he says, “People are just about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” And so, for this new year, I wish you Pollyanna’s guts—to look purposely for the good in and around you. Not to pretend away the very real, terrible and tragic things that we keep doing to each other on varying scales. (And by all means, let’s try not to add to them.) But just don’t settle for only seeing those things.

Bah, weltschmertz. Who needs it?

Categories: From the Lips, In the Lexicon, Movies | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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