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The Joy Menu #31: Intensity
Your author swings from the branches, and wonders when and if (and how) he might land.
I’m thinking about intensity.
The way I swing from project to project — not like an ape among branches, so much as a King Kong using building spires and commuter bridges as grips and footholds.
Right now, I’m writing a novel, trying to smooth out a collection of short stories, planning a co-written book with a colleague, writing freelance conversion copy for a half dozen business, marketing copy for others, and maintaining a full-time job. And that’s just my professional commitments. I’m also trying to work out, eat well, learn another language, maintain healthy relationships, and shower. It’s a lot. (I don’t always shower.)
The low-level thrum of anxiety reminds me that I’d like to retire — and with enough time to spare so I can get some rest. In the meantime, I’d like to shovel something aside so I can stop this intensity, eventually, or at least dial it back so there’s more time to sit, and read, stare at the wall, or watch a movie.
Yet with each swing, each new foothold, I wonder if my entire life has become the equivalent of an Instagram feed, where I swipe, swipe, swipe, from one immersion to the next, unable to fully process a single thing other than the nagging feeling that I’d better keep swiping.
Manic, and harried. Or is it hurried? (And to what end?)
I think of my father’s intensity.
His swings into obsession. The grip his hands held around attractive ideas which he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) loosen until he’d burned his palm or torn a ligament in his wrist trying to wrestle them into existence, or to yank the urge away like a rope pulled from a dog’s pinched teeth.
I remember the racing book he loved, No Brakes by Louis Gould. He decided it should be a movie; bought the movie rights, hired a screenwriter, and got to work. (Until it was pulled from the dog’s jaws.)
I remember the series of world music albums he produced with a friend. The long days at the studio, the pan flute player they hired, the demos on loop in the car (and we were always in the car). I remember him tracking the royalties with pride, and sending everything they made to the composer.
I remember the houses he bought and sold when he had a little extra money; how frustrated he was by the ongoing maintenance and petty needs of the tenants (and how quickly he sold when the return seemed less than the headaches).
I remember the corporation he founded; the coffee shop he tried to open. I remember hearing about the paper business he ran after he finished (his first) graduate degree; the gallery show in Amsterdam he took my mother to when they were just dating.
I remember, soon after he was diagnosed, when I asked him sit with me and tell the full story of his seventy-two days in military jail for refusing to serve as a reservist in the occupied territories. “It was seventy-two days, right?” I asked. “Seventy-two days,” he said, nodding.
Then: “Seventy-Two. That’d be a good title for a novel, right? Maybe I’ll write one. What do you think?”
If he’d had another year, who’s to say he wouldn’t have. (Or at least a screenplay.)
To say I recognize this rangy, obsessive energy in myself — the leaping into projects as if out of an airplane (or, more aptly, out of a flat-bottomed airboat into a reptile infested bayou) — is no great revelation. The no safety checks, no equipment to soften the fall, the no second guesses: a reckless patrimony. The not enough time to feel brave or to self-congratulate, but just enough to leap: a dubious inheritance, at best.
I remember once: my dad picked me up from soccer practice in a different car than the one he’d dropped me off in. “Is this a rental?” I asked, scanning the new gold Camry. “I bought it,” he said, casually, as if the car were what he’d picked up for dinner. He hadn’t conferred with my mother about it. He’d just pulled into the dealership and bought it. (I’d have preferred pizza.)
And then there were the days when he quit his job. Always, an announcement after the fact.
I get it (of course I do): he grew frustrated with stasis; frustrated with bosses; frustrated by the grind of unnecessary bureaucracy, pecking orders, too-low pay, politics, repetition.
At the dinner table in the evening, over roasted chicken (it was all he cooked; five thick chicken breasts and a bottle of salsa poured into a Pyrex and cooked on high) and boiled vegetables (not salted), he’d lay out the terms of his latest situation: who was an idiot, what bullshit they were asking, who was holding what up. He never complained, as such. So it was always a surprise.
I see him coming in the door: eyes up, brow hardly creased. He unbuckles his pants, folds them onto the chair by the door, unbuttons the cuffs of his shirt, slips off his shoes, says: “I gave my notice. Put the water on for tea.”
As if one thing were as routine as the other.
I can still feel the tension sweep into the house. I look at my mother: she sucks in her breath. The scene plays out every few years.
There were also days when he sat at the kitchen table, eating chicken, or buttering toast, always sipping tea (with and after dinner), when he brainstormed out loud new schemes or businesses, ran through his thinking in real time: the plan he’d hatched, the contract he could land, the commissions he could possibly get. There were many factors to consider, many terms to mentally calculate, many potentials to be sketched onto the backs of the thick paper napkins he and my mother liked to buy.
It was always interesting. Always possible. Always a dynamic and viable possibility on the verge of fruition.
Of these plans, very few came to be. But just the same. There was always another around the corner. Another sweep of excitement — another wave of intensity — another three dozen hours of contemplation, conversation, figures drawn on half-sheets of paper torn from the pad by the phone.
So maybe it’s not Instagram, or King Kong, but just a nature — passed down like a hairy belly, flat feet, or a tolerance for overcooked chicken.
Maybe it’s not something I can blame on the 21st century, or late stage capitalism, or my own brand of ennui.
But it sure did feel better when he was the one doing it, when he swung from those branches. He had the bravado and confidence of a grown-ass man.
I didn’t realize that his was just as much guesswork as mine
I didn’t realize that the figures on napkins, the long conversations, the skyscrapers a and commuter bridges as leverage were his scratches toward justification; his quickly fashioned parachutes; his hurried searches for soft places to land.
I could sure use his grip today. He did always manage to land alright.
Even if he did sprain his ankle a half dozen times.
Onward toward creative joy,