Saturday, April 27, 2013

Grown Up. Ness.

I'm terrible with names. Of people, books, places, movie stars, TV shows, songs, bands, restaurants. What I am good at is keeping in mind chunks of detail - phrases, associations, memories, plot points, actors, structure. The internet is a boon for someone like me because I end up using these fragments to get to what should have been my starting point - the name of whatever it is I was thinking of and consequently, looking for.
 
A couple of weeks ago, I was thinking of a movie I'd recently watched and fallen a little bit in love with. It's called Beginners, stars Christopher Plummer, Ewan McGregor and an extremely adorable scruffy dog - a terrier, I think? My search for the name took me to a well-written, equal parts matter-of-fact and contemplative NY Times review. The article closed with the movie's rating and an explanation for the same, 'Beginners is rated R...Grown up language and feelings.'
 
Grown up language and feelings. What a lovely phrase. And, for the last two weeks I have been thinking over and over and over again - what exactly does it mean? What are the words and feelings that constitute being an adult?
 
The language part of the question is easier to answer. The 'grown up' part of a vocabulary includes, but is not limited to - curses, euphemisms, polysyllabic words, jargon, terms that signify everything and nothing and rightfully become the fodder for games of bullshit bingo,  the forbidding artillery of academia, isms, all the phrases that help dissemble, obfuscate and hedge bets. On the brighter side, there is potential for nuance, precision, beauty, wit and arguments well constructed.
 
The feelings part of the question is one that I'm still grappling with. There are reams of psychological, sociological and possibly even spiritual literature that address the question of the tipping point between childhood, adolescence and adulthood. This is tricky terrain, an area that experts and researchers can still only theorize about. I have nothing to draw on but my own experience and observations, and a sneaking conviction that children are not always the simpler and more innocent creatures we presume them to be.   
 
In my book, grown up feelings would include certain varieties of love and loss that need not be more acute than those experienced by children, but are possibly more specific. The love for a romantic partner. Lust. Loss. Regret. Resentment, which is more complicated and insidious than jealousy. Bitterness ensuing from repeated or emphatic disappointment. Resignation. Pervasive anxiety, born of the knowledge of factors beyond one's control - although childhood is also rife with its own worries, some of which cause children to mature far too soon.  A sense of acceptance. Pleasure in food, wine, single malts, art, fashion, performances. Joy derived from the excellence of another and also from one's own personal and professional accomplishments. The satisfaction inherent in identifying one's limitations and pushing past them. New (age-old) fears.
 
Is it easier being a child? Possibly, although the transition to adulthood now occurs early and abruptly. Children remain children very briefly, and their spontaneity, truthfulness, fearlessness and ability to embrace and delight in the moment pass all too quickly. Have you heard anyone between the ages of 6-10 speak recently? Their savvy, world weariness and self possession is disconcerting.
 
One of my newly minted theories about growing up is that it is a process of  acquiring the vocabulary with which to experience, discern and explain the world in a more sophisticated, complex way. Grown up words allows us to articulate grown up responses to situations, to feelings, to thoughts, to beliefs. This is both pleasurable, and painful. Is it possible and even desirable to dismantle this architecture, to regress to an imagined childhood simplicity? Can religion, faith and art harness verbal and ideological facility to elevate the spirit? Or do they merely end up complicating the simple and simplifying the complex? 
 
Aha. There we have it. Complicating the simple and simplifying the complex. My working definition of being a grown up.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Here, Not Away.

I'm become something of a lapsed reader over the past few months. I own multiple stacks of books that I perpetually intend to read. I pick one of them up, make it past a few chapters and then put it back down. I carry slimmer volumes around in handbags stuffed to capacity, all in the hope that a one hour window in my working day will magically open up, at precisely the same moment that I am experiencing an unusual degree of receptivity and concentration. Yes, I know.
 
In the meantime, though, I've been wondering about why it's important that I (continue to) read at all. I've spent a reasonable number of hours curled up with books, and maybe this lapse is a natural progression? Maybe, once I've chalked up enough half-read titles, I'll move on to something else - film, indiscriminate eating, walking tours, cat video production? In thinking about this, I keep playing back something a colleague once said - 'People read to escape.'  Does this have something to do with it? And, more to the point - do they?
 
It's easy to understand why books are seen as an 'out.' Other people, other worlds, other concerns - pedantry, history, contemporaneous hand-wringing, science fiction and fantasy - striking notes that range from the reassuringly relatable to the expressly exotic - accompanied by the proliferation of communities dedicated to giving favorite narratives their own spin, coupled with the constrasting but ever present stereotype of the reader as sole inhabitant of a self-constructed ivory tower - this seems all of a piece with wishfulness, wistfulness, wilful immersion, away-ness.
 
But when I  revisit the books that I most enjoyed, I realize that what I experienced when reading them wasn't escape, but a very forceful presentness. In those moments, bringing all my attention and emotion to bear on a character or a plot point, imagining, anticipating  and then feeling each 'twist' or development, I was fully aware and engaged, much more so than I have been through many classes, meetings, social encounters and conversations. The best writing - insightful, warm, joyous, laugh out loud funny, terrible and tragic, grand, remote, great - evokes a response that can be startlingly real, sometimes uncomfortably so. Even non-fiction, that preserve of research, analysis and opinion, can cast a unexpected light on the prosaic, misunderstood and taken-for-granted, making the world look a little bit different.  
 
I've written elsewhere about why reading is important. But what the actual act and experience of reading can do to the reader at a particular point in time is another thing altogether. Maybe the reason I don't read as much isn't that I've outgrown escapism. Far from it. It might be that I don't have the resources, right now, to fully inhabit the present.
 
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