Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Subdivided Self

Self-actualising dog (2013) digital photograph by Pants

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said something like 'applicants for wisdom should enquire within'. My Intro to Classics 101 is a little rusty but I have an idea that he got there before Aristotle. And many have gone there since - Nietzsche, Sartre and Rilke, to name a few. These days it seems like a no-brainer of deductive reasoning that nourishment for the soul is most satisfactorily dispensed via the inner automat. It's not like there's a traffic jam down the Avenue of Enlightenment, after all. In fact, you could even say that one's personal GPS is the only reliable instrument for pinpointing one's ethical safe house in a culture where self-actualisation is more likely to involve cosmetic surgery than a quest for a transforming truth.

Ma Pants's pooch, Louis the Bichon gets through his fair share of inner reflection if the amount of time spent lying about on the sofa chomping on teething toys is any indication. And he watches television. Much to the amusement of the entire family, he takes a special interest if a dog appears on the screen. He's also stimulated by the appearance of zebras and orang-utans. Animal Hospital had to be banned - Louis seemed particularly incensed at the sight of those cone things they make dogs wear after an operation.  We did encourage him to watch a segment on 'small dog syndrome' as he has taken to snarling at other dogs on his daily walks, a gesture which has proved unconducive to community harmony. We can only hope he has internalised the lesson. Ma Pants won't be subscribing to the special television channel just for dogs though. For such an occasion was the expression, oh puleeese! invented and we are grateful for it.

I don't make New Year's resolutions normally but I'm thinking now a useful one might be to avoid Jung until at least June. Just kidding. I'm not reading Jung. I'm reading Tim Winton's new book Eyrie, actually. And very good it is too. My NYR is to 'keep calm and carry on'. External craziness doesn't tend to impact too much on Fortress Pants. Having said that, Australia in 2013 certainly presented a challenge to defences at times. I learnt long ago that if you want to get anything done, you put on the blinkers and run the race as if you're the only horse in it.

There are aspects of self-knowledge where I reckon I could give Heraclitus et al a run for their drachmas. I'm acutely attuned to my own needs when it comes to gratification and I design personal projects very specifically for maximum payout. My strategy has two strands; one is for directing process, the other to ensure a steady stream of product. Time is already conveniently broken down into all manner of useful chunks. I just use the framework that's already there. To keep things simple, I divide my day into three large segments - morning, afternoon and evening. And, like Nick Hornby's character in About a Boy, I dissect those into hour-long, or sometimes half-hour-long blocks. An hour is a useful amount of time. Just enough to achieve and not so long as to get bored. The circuit breaker is that it's a minimum rather than a deadline. If I want to keep working on whatever I'm doing, I go with the flow.

Sometimes when people retire, they panic because there is no one telling them what to do. Consequently, they have no idea what they are going to do for the rest of their days. (Note to people on the cusp of retirement - if you have no idea what you are going to do with your retirement, give it some thought now.) I, on the other hand, have never been especially good at being told what to do by others. In fact, the only person I've ever willingly taken orders from is, er, me. See, I told you I had this Heraclitus thing sorted. You could say I was born retired, or, at the very least, into a state of aspirational hermitage. Unlike Will Freeman in About a Boy though, my freewheeling is not funded by the royalties from a Christmas song written by my late father. This is why you will very often find me picking through the throw-out vegetable bin at the Larrikin's End Foodworx or digging in my own veg patch, activities for which I schedule a half-hour twice per week and one hour per day, respectively.

Despite global contraindication, I can honestly say I was entirely happy for all of 2013. I seem to have gotten a lot done, but also spent a luxurious amount of time lolling about and contemplating the beauty of the ocean and the sky and thrilling at the infinite wonder of their intersection. For me, that's a perfect balance. It took about a year for me to get my mojo back after a really dreadful work experience. I still made notes. I still made plans and I'm very glad that I did. Self-motivation is only partially the result of efficient scheduling. Even more important is the generation and management of ideas. If notions were currency, I'd be very wealthy indeed. Some people will tell you that ideas are worth money, but I have no desire to sell any of mine, even presuming I could work out how to do that. They are much more valuable to me as raw material. I work on the principle that every idea has a conclusion. I just have to follow one until we get there.

The second strand of my strategy is to have a portfolio of Works In Progress comprising small and large, repetitive/planned and innovative/improvisational. Here's where the pay-off comes in. The small project, (collage, pastel, poem, blog post, mowing the lawn), can be conceived, executed and celebrated in an afternoon segment. These are excellent for using up ideas - except mowing, which is only good for using up petrol. 

The large projects (novel, oil painting, renovating the house), I break down into stages so that the celebrations come frequently. (As do the bills in the case of house renovations). Completing a chapter, a layer, a room - all hurrah! moments. The reward, in case you should be in any doubt, is wine. It turns out that I'm pretty good at project managing my life, so naturally, I accrue rewards. This is the only part of capitalism that I actually get. Where I fall down is that I don't like to compete against anyone but myself. I would have made a great tennis player but I have fat legs, poor eyesight and a lousy serve.

I always have a novel and a large painting on the go. I can usually finish a painting in 3 months - or I could when I was working in acrylics. Right now, I'm working on an oil painting with lots of layers. It will take me up until next winter sets in, at least. During the coldest months, I only undertake projects that can be done on the laptop under three duvets. I can heat the whole house with free, legal firewood that would only rot on the ground otherwise but the parsimon* in me refuses to allow it. Besides, I don't need an excuse to stay in bed all day - just a reason. I have Proust on my side in this so don't even think about judging me, okay?

On the novel front, there may have been a deadline failure on my part in 2013 but that would very much depend on one's definition of a deadline. I faithfully promised my writing buddy Phil that I would complete The Full English, (WIP for ten years and counting), last year. I partially broke that promise. I was only a hundred pages into the revision before I realised that I was just working on another draft (No. 11, as it happens). So I finished that. I still didn't manage a vaguely plausible resolution, even in draft. I learnt last year that Hemingway had written 47 endings for A Farewell to Arms, and that made me feel slightly better, although I'm not sure why. But, it means I have work to do on it in 2014 and that can't be bad.

Small projects are living. Big projects are life. Combined, they are purpose.

* I know it's not a word but it ought to be. It's derived from the Latin. Why shouldn't I be able to make up a word that comes from Latin too, eh? EH?