Authenticity/”Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”/Other ephemera

I- Moaning, the ukulele, and podcasts

The reason I haven’t written anything in a moment is because, well, I haven’t been inspired to. It’s a kind of failure: if you’re writing, you should write. 

I play the ukulele, an instrument that gets a lot of crap for no particularly good reason. I’m an intermediate player, which is a position which has taken a few decent years of fairly dedicated practice. I play a little every day, and go through spurts of attempting to learn more complicated things, and then incorporate them into what I play. This is a standard way of doing things; however, you don’t hear me spending ages and ages doing those things. If you were to sit down and listen to me play, I’d probably play a song or two I know. You’d hear the result, not the practice. 

The problem here is that if I ‘play every day’ you kind of see the practice. In some respects, that’s fine. It’s a blog, and not a well trafficked one, so, who cares? I have, after all, spent a number of entries trying to figure out what the blog *is*, in real time. But it sort of gets tedious. I’m playing the c-major scale over and over in a way that’s not engaging, and the blog is ‘onstage’, so to speak. The notion of content burnout is a real one, and I’ve watched a number of creators who’s work I enjoy go through it in some fashion. In the case of some of the podcasts I listen to it means the odd duff episode. 

And I heard one of those today; Chapo Trap House, a podcast I have more or less listened to since its inception, did an episode on Ted Lasso, a show which the cast didn’t care about, and I doubt there’s a large crossover fanbase. What they had to say about it was kind of cranky and repetitive— the show isn’t funny, there’s no real conflict to it, it’s anodyne. I’ve summed up their hour and change podcast in that those twelve words. It was sort of hard going. Normally, I just stop listening to these things and wait for the next episode, but I found myself oddly engaged. With so little to say about something, why say so much about it?

II- In which I am an irritating teenager

When I was an irritating, pimply faced teenager, I met this person who called himself ‘Phaedrus’. He seemed a worldly, mature, funny person who treated me, an irritating pimply faced teenager, like an adult, which most people did not, mainly because I wasn’t one. But he was interesting and quirky in a way that I hadn’t run across, and he answered dumb questions and dealt with dumb opinions with a kind of thoughtfulness I didn’t encounter a lot. I looked up to him. I learned he got his name from a book called “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (which lifted the name from Plato, but let’s put that aside), so naturally I read it. I don’t honestly remember a lot about it, and I think it was mostly above my head at the time. It’s been on my ‘to re-read’ list for some time, but I’m distracted a bit these days, so it may be a while. 

What I do remember, however, that the main character went insane after becoming obsessed with the question “what is quality”? The idea that a single idea can become lodged in your brain until it drives you over the brink is one that’s stuck with me over time, and, I guess, is something I am sort of afraid of. I don’t think this is actually a reasonable fear, because my mind really is more like a cocaine-addled rat in charge of a radio dial than it is one of slow, singular obsession… unless I am reading. 

And even that’s not always true. Sometimes, I’m not great at focusing when I am reading. I got a chapter or two into “Hurricane Season” and a fair distance into “Titus Groan” when I realized I wasn’t really giving either work its due. I’ll go back to “Hurricane Season” in a bit, and my progress on “Titus Groan” is now glacial. When this happens, I usually pick up a sci-fi or horror potboiler, something nice and plot driven and that doesn’t ask big questions about the human condition or deal with someone having a feeling of lassitude in a hotel room in the fictional town of Gestalt, Norway.  There’s nothing wrong with those, but sometimes, I can’t do it. 

Which leads me to my “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” obsessive question… “What does it mean to engage with a work authentically?”

III- Authentically engaging with things

The reason that the Chapo Trap House critique of Ted Lasso was crap was that they were never going to engage with Ted Lasso authentically. They sat down having been irritated by Ted Lasso discourse on twitter (Chapo is extremely online), knowing and understanding its basic premise, and they weren’t going to come to any conclusion other than “I hate it”. And, let me stress this, that’s fine. The notion that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover is, in some senses, absolute bullshit. If you don’t like a thing, repeated exposure to it isn’t going to make you like it. 

I’ve tried both Brussels Sprouts and the music of Billy Joel a few times, and I find them both resolutely unpleasant. You’re not gonna get me to sit thorough “Storm Front” while eating this one really good Brussels sprout recipe that you have. They fucking suck. 

But this means, in a a real sense, that I can’t engage with them authentically. I can’t write more than a paragraph or two about Billy Joel because my criticisms of him are “ugh, that voice”, “those are some terrible lyrics,” “ugh, that VOICE, do you not hear it?” In other words, the kind of cranky repetitiveness I complained about a few paragraphs ago. 

IV- Stuck

And so, nearly 1000 words later, I find myself stuck. I’m asking a big question that I don’t have a particularly good answer for. Am I engaging with something authentically if I am reading it specifically to write about? This has stopped me from starting “Bottom’s Dream”, for example. Am I engaging with something authentically if I know it will probably be my thing? Once I read the first half of “Septology” it was kind of a foregone conclusion that the remainder would be a thing I liked— unless Fosse changed it into a book length appreciation of Brussels Sprouts (spoiler: he did not). When I write about what I read, what am I engaging with?

I stopped taking notes while I was reading, aside from the few I normally make out of habit; not thinking about what I was going to say let me enjoy reading again in a way I wasn’t, but if I’m going to continue in this endeavor I’m gonna have to resume the practice. At a minimum, I need to keep plot points straight so that I don’t look like an idiot when talking about something. 

Maybe it’s time to just start “Bottom’s Dream” as there’s zero chance I will look like an idiot writing about that.  

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