Permission to be Unproductive

A thing a sack of problems like me is supposed to do to mitigate crippling anxiety and PTSD is to allow oneself to escape, to decompress. I am notoriously terrible at this. And it’s not just because of the overt crazy from which I suffer, but all manner of tangential hangups.
Let me begin with an experience from earlier this afternoon. I was having my twice-yearly dentist appointment, which is really just a chunk of time during which a very nice hygienist scrapes, polishes, and flosses my teeth, wonders aloud at my bizarre lower teeth (long story), and warns me again to floss more.

But because I don’t floss much, portions of this otherwise banal process are rather uncomfortable. I was already coming into the appointment is a kind of emotionally exhausted daze, so this seemed like a good time to practice separating myself from any stressful stimuli, to rehearse something less uncomfortable.

So as that little sharp thingy scraped away at my teeth, and occasionally jabbed my tender gums, I made a point of gazing deeply out the window, trying not to think too hard or intentionally process what I was seeing, but just allow myself to take in the clouds, the colors, and the very slow movement. If I couldn’t see the window, I’d watch whatever tool was being used on me, as its handle went back and forth. I didn’t consider in detail what it was doing, just kind of stayed with it visually.

I had some success with this, and found it somewhat helpful. But the larger point is that I need to make myself escape in this way, become a little “mindless” more often, and at targeted times when I really need it.

I was unable to do it last night. I simply couldn’t allow myself to escape, to divert my attention from my issue-of-the-moment, but I so wish I could have.

My five or six regular readers will know that I have a lot of hangups around how I spend my time. I loathe going to bed, and I resist sleep, seeing it as a kind of “little death.”

I read books slowly, and often nod off, and worry about what other books I’m missing out on, what other things are happening while I’m reading, and what more productive things I should be doing. This is probably why I have tended to favor nonfiction over fiction, because at least with nonfiction I’m “learning” something in a way that is more concrete than I might with fiction.

I have made an attempt to calm myself and escape through music, and that turned into a nutty and obsessive hunt for The Perfect Headphones, documented here. But there again, I feel that allowing myself to sink into a reverie of musical consumption is somehow wasteful, that better uses of my time are beckoning. What they are, I don’t know.

And more of the same with TV and movies. I resist them both because I know that they take up chunks of wakeful time that I could spend on something that matters.

What are these things that matter that I ought to be doing? I guess writing, more creative pursuits, and whatnot. But do I engage in them when I’m not “escaping”? Not usually! Obviously, I do write, I do at rare times make music, but I’m certainly not filling every moment in which I could be watching a two-hour movie with artistic fulfillment. I’m probably just dicking around on the Internet and thinking about phones I don’t have.

But I’m coming around a little. A few weeks ago, because I knew we’d be seeing Age of Ultron soon, I leaned back in bed, plopped my MacBook on my lap, plugged in my headphones (I have stuck with the same ones so far!), and watched the first Avengers movie.

It was about the most therapeutic thing I’d done for myself in years.

What a release! What an escape! For the length of the film I was gone. I was just in this fantasy world, absorbed in something utterly removed from my own life, and when it was over, I felt, well, almost rested, even though it was probably two in the morning.

Most movies aren’t going to be that effective in this way, I know that. But there are plenty that are. I still have hangups about getting stuck in a movie that just isn’t all that good, and wasting those hours. But hell, being a parent, I can really only make time for the best of the best anyway. Experimentation with something stupid or ponderous is a luxury I don’t even have.

I am also being swept away by Seveneves, Neil Stephenson’s newest novel. Fiction! Long, long, epic fiction! Taking me away from me. I still nod off too easily, and I still take way too long to read, but I am trying to let that go.

Because at issue here is not achieving some sort of cultural or content-consuming quota, but to escape. To give my self a chance to get some distance, some room to breathe. So if it takes me all year to read Seveneves, whatever. So be it. (Or so I am telling myself.)

What really needs to happen is for me to be okay with being utterly unproductive, to allow hours to go by without anything to show for it. Not in total idleness, but in active removal. Not “boredom” per se, but engagement in activities or experiences with no industry attached. There can be some productivity as a byproduct, like when I zone out while mowing the lawn or assembling some new shelving piece or something for the house. But that’s incidental. Even in those “productive” times, I’m still not “here.” I’m still getting out of my own head.

This should not be hard for me, but it is. I know I wasted years of my youth on cable and late night TV, that I threw away precious time – after school, on summer vacations – time I could have used to better myself in some way. I just let my brain rot on pop culture, which was itself an escape from other things. But it was a poor avenue of escape, a kind of trap in itself.

But I’ve since overcompensated. It’s time to find the balance. The nice thing is that the only one who gets to decide what that balance is, is me.

That’s also the bad thing.

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The One Unwelcome Intrusion on the Near-Perfect “Gravity”

Having just now seen Gravity with my wife this weekend, I have a feeling that I had more faith in the movie’s power than even the filmmakers did. 

I realize I’m a little late to the party, but allow me to first add to the chorus of saying that Gravity is an extraordinary film, unlike almost anything I’ve ever seen, a genuine triumph of the medium. It’s also one of those extremely rare films in which an IMAX 3D showing really does mean something to the complete work, in that it’s a gimmick, and it’s not about “tricking” you into thinking what you’re looking at is actually in three dimensions, but in that it skillfully and tastefully takes advantage of the illusion of depth and change of focus to give an almost overwhelming sense of the immensity of the setting, the sheer vastness of the stage on which the film is set.

I loved it, and that’s why I’d like to see one simple but major change that I suspect (but am not sure) might have done a world of good.

I’d love to see a verion of Gravity, in its full, IMAX 3D glory, without the music, without the underscore.

 (Hereafter be spoilers!)

One of Gravity’s great strengths is how “natural” it feels. Despite any fudging of physics the filmmakers may have perpetrated, the film is harrowing and tense before anything bad has even happened. We are engrossed and tense right along with Dr. Stone from the first moments. When danger strikes, the stakes are obvious, and terrifying all by themselves. Later, when there are triumphs, they feel collossal, all on their own — because of what is happening before our eyes and from the sounds of the events and the environment.

I felt that the music often intruded on this. There’s the vast empiness of space, the simultaneous claustrophobia and vertigo of the spacewalks, the chaos and terror of the debris invasions and impacts, the physical and psychological struggle to reach each new phase of the attempt to escape. None of it, not a whit of it, needed any help from the outside. And the underscoring came from the outside.

It felt unnecessary, for one thing. But it also felt condescending, like someone was standing at the front of the theater with signs and a bullhorn telling the audience how to feel. (“Okay, now you’re really scared! This thing that’s happening now is very bad!!!”)

So what if they had tried a version without the music? The music itself was fine, but it was in the way. I didn’t need it. Give it to us at the closing credits, fine, but not a note until then. Have a little more trust in the film you’ve already made, before adding on an artificial layer of emotional button-pushing. Believe me, it’s already a doozie.