30 April 2013

The Euphoria of Completion

SQUEEEEEAK! That was the sound of me squeaking in just under the wire with my term paper. Okay, technically I could have had until the end of June to finish this course, but I wanted to get it done before the summer semester starts tomorrow. So I buckled down, and got 'er done, just. And oh, does it ever feel good!

Have you ever felt that, the euphoria of completion? Post-term-paper euphoria. Post-exam euphoria. Graduation. Reaching the mountain summit. Crossing the finish line on a marathon. Okay, okay, I've never experienced the last one, being an inveterate couch potato. And the one before that only under duress - when I was a kid, they made me go hiking in the Swiss Alps in our holidays, when I would have much preferred to stay home with a book. I was so put-upon, I was. Once I got a bit older, I did go hiking voluntarily, especially when there were friends involved. But really, I usually preferred the easier hikes, not the ones that were really strenuous. The mountain tops were still quite nice there, but I'm pretty sure that the thrill of the summit is directly proportionate to the strain of the climb.

That's why it feels so great to have these term papers out of the way. You see, I do get in quite a flap about writing those things. My stress level rises to the roof, my blood pressure tries to follow suit, and my acid reflux... well, you get the picture. So why do I do these things in the first place? Why did I get myself into this degree program? It would have been so much easier to rest on my laurels (or my BA certificate, as it were. Except it wouldn't be very comfortable, and probably get crumpled, which would be a pity.). Well, why do you climb the mountain, or run that marathon? Because you know you have to, that's why.

And so you lace up your hiking boots, boot up your computer, lay out your paintbrushes and strap that four-foot canvas to the easel. You go to the library and check out foot-high stacks of books on Goethe and Kate Chopin, get the 1:50,000 topographic map that shows all the little hiking trails, do your training runs along the back roads of your town. And then you just get down to it. You run the race, climb the climb, paint the picture, write the paper. On and on, and on some more.

And then it's done. You crest the summit. And put your signature in the bottom right corner. And cross the finish line, type the last sentence, format the references, finally click "submit".

And you abandon yourself to the head rush of completion. Yesss!! You take a few deep breaths of the mountain air, and just take in the view. Look, there's the path we came up on! Oh, see, that's the spot where the cat wiped her tail through the ultramarine blue. Hey, that reference came from the article on Goethe and Chopin, that was fascinating. And aren't you glad somebody had a bottle of water for you at the half-way point? Now that you're done, you can look back, and turn the experience into story. You can start telling others how you got here. But first, you have to get here, you have to finish.  And when you do, it's all been worth it.

Life, the Universe, and The Euphoria of Completion. There is no other feeling like it.

24 April 2013

World's Best Cup of Coffee

World's Best Cup of Rooibos Tea
I heard on the radio this morning that a barrista from Toronto is going to be representing Canada in the "World's Best Cup of Coffee" contest in Australia. Well, congratulations, Josh Whatever-your-name-is. I sincerely hope you have a marvellous time in Oz, whether you win or not.

But it got me to thinking: how silly is that? World's best cup of coffee? What a strange society we live in. Everything we do, everything that exists, must be graded on a scale from bad to good, with one item, and one only, at the very apex as "world's best". One "best cup of coffee". We set up committees (lots of doubled letters in that word. Almost like Mississippi. World's most-overloaded-with-double-letters word?) to determine just which cup of coffee is THE best - the BEST! - which means we have to determine who is the best coffee taster in the world - because obviously, only the best coffee taster can determine the best cup of coffee. So now we have the apex of the human pyramid, with ultra-coffee-taster at the very top, far above the dull and witless masses who are only able to enjoy their ordinary, un-best, dull and witless coffee (by the potful, no less), not comprehending the quality, the sheer superiority of the Best Cup of Coffee (note caps).

But, wait - the witless masses enjoy their coffee. That first sip from your favourite mug, poured from a freshly brewed pot of the roast you like best, on a morning when you're still half asleep, but the birds are chirping outside in the sunshine because spring has finally arrived - I defy any barrista, even the national coffee-making champion, to brew a cup to match that bliss. Okay, I'm talking just a little bit through my hat here (or through my teacup, as it were) - I don't drink coffee, never have. So the "you" in that preceding sentence is intentional - it's your first sip of coffee, not mine. Mine's the sip of tea, of which I consume gallons (being a confirmed teaist). But the principle is the same.

Because, you see - there is no "world's best cup of coffee", at least not one that everyone, everywhere will agree on. World's best cup of coffee was not, as my favourite radio show host would have it, brewed yesterday in Toronto, and it won't be brewed sometime next week (or whenever that contest is held) in Australia. World's best cup of coffee, if you're lucky, will be brewed in your coffeemaker, by you, maybe even today. And again tomorrow. And the day after that. Or maybe your husband will brew it for you. Now that would take it right over the top. A blissful hot drink, served to you by the person you love best - it doesn't get better than that.

Sorry, champion barrista - I'm sure you make an amazingly good cup of coffee (at least good for those who like coffee). But it's not the world's best. It can't be. Because the best cup of coffee is the one right here, right now. As is the best cup of tea, the best piece of cake, the best bout of lovemaking. There is no apex to the pyramid, because it's not a pyramid. It's about the here and now. Best is what I have today. And perhaps tomorrow, or the day after. Best is mine.

Life, the Universe, and World's Best Cup of Coffee. Pass the tea, please.

17 April 2013


Steve waving at you
I was driving home today along our little country road, about one kilometer from the highway to my house. It's a popular road with people going for walks - not that it's a particularly interesting road, just sort of straightish and flattish, wending its way through orchards and houses on largish lots, some pretty, some not-so-pretty (I'll give you three guesses which category my yard falls under. No, not that one.). Actually, looking to your right, as you walk northwards, you see the lake. I guess that's pretty spectacular, all right, so it probably accounts for the popularity of the road.

Anyway, point being: I was driving home. And there were people walking on the side of the road. So I waved a greeting at them. It's what we do, us country folk - we greet people who walk on our road. When I was a bike-riding teenager in the countryside of the Bavarian Alps, I used to take fiendish delight in startling poor unsuspecting tourists, hiking along the roadside, by shouting a cheerful "Grüss Gott!" at them as I whizzed past on my bike. You see, being city folk, out in the country on holiday, they weren't used to being greeted by strangers; in the city you stare straight in front of you and avoid eye contact. So being said hello to always made them jump. It was quite amusing.

But around here, people aren't as jumpy, so it's not actually for entertainment value I greet them. I just do it for ordinary country-folk friendliness. So there was one stranger with her dog, and I waved at her as I passed. And then there was another one, stepping out with a brisk exercisey kind of stride, and I gave her the same wave. She waved back at me, and then I recognised her: she was a neighbour, someone I know by name and like to talk to. But by then I had already passed her, and could no longer amend my wave.

Because, you see, there are different kinds of greetings. There's the ordinary for-anyone greeting, a generic wave, just a lift of the hand or, if you're on foot yourself, a "HE-llo!" or "GOOD morning!", called out in a cheerful sort of voice that says you don't know this person, but isn't it a nice day and you hope they're enjoying their walk. Sometimes the from-inside-the-car wave amounts to a kind of Albrecht-Dürer-ish hand signal - I don't even raise my whole hand, just the first two fingers, and the thumb and remaining two fingers form a little ring below them. (Pax vobiscum, my children.)

 And then there's the I-recognize-you-as-my-friend kind of greeting. On foot and verbally, that's a "Oh hi, [insert name of person if you know it]!" said energetically (with a higher pitch on the "hi"). It means "I recognize you and am glad to see you, personally". The from-inside-the-car equivalent is an energetic wave - your hand has to waggle back and forth at least a couple of times, with the express purpose of making sure the other person has seen you and your wave and knows they've been acknowledged. Usually they'll waggle right back

I think my friend today recognized me before I did her; I'm pretty sure I got the more enthusiastic wave from her. But that's okay. Next time I see her, I can wave at her extra-energetically, so it'll be evened out again. Or perhaps a special emphasis on the "HI!" if the encounter is verbal?

Life, the Universe, and the Fine Art of Roadside Greetings. How're you doing today?

07 April 2013


Random picture of cat hanging out on towel shelf
I was reading this most excellent little book the other day: Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon. Great book, really. And then suddenly I run across this passage: "First, you have to figure out who to copy. Second, you have to figure out what to copy. Who to copy is easy. You copy your heroes - the people you love, the people you're inspired by, the people you want to be. ... What to copy is a little bit trickier. Don't just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don't want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes" (p.35/36). It's another articulation of Kleon's main point: There is nothing new under the sun. Everything we do has been informed by the work that's gone before us, so we might as well acknowledge it and capitalise on it. Oh, and if you're wondering what the difference is between good  theft and bad theft (of ideas, that is): good theft credits, bad theft plagiarises (i.e. claims the idea for one's own). So I've just committed good theft here, because I'm crediting Kleon's great book. Go out and buy a copy, it's worth it.

However, that's really not what I was going to waffle on about. What got me to writing this is the little matter of a missing "m" in the first sentence. Did you spot it? "...you have to figure out who to copy." And then again: "Who to copy is easy..." Urgh. The grammar nerd in me is drumming its heels on the floor right now. Whom, people, whom! But then, I had to tell my grammar nerd, just shut up. Because the fact of the matter is that normal people, people like you and me, don't actually say "whom" in daily life. Well, okay, maybe you do - I don't. "Figure out who to copy" is exactly what I would say if we were talking about rip-off artistry in real language, the spoken tongue-and-lips variety, right now. And Kleon's book is written just as if he was talking real-life talk; he writes colloquial. So, I vote, he can get away with it.

Because, you see, language changes. Yes, "whom" is the correct form. And I'm going to keep using it where it's appropriate in my writing, because I'm kind of anal that way. But to turn up one's nose at those who cannot or will not use the accusative of the interrogative pronoun where it is called for is a sign of mental immaturity. Or, in normal language, don't be a snooty so-and-so about using "whom", it's childish. As I said, language changes - we no longer say "whence" for "from where" either, and I bet it first started with spoken language.

However, if you do have, somewhere in the depths of your being, a long-held desire to plumb the mysteries of said interrogative pronoun - in other words, if you want to know when to say "who" and when to use "whom" - let me give you a little hint. The form "whom" is called the accusative because it's the word we use when we accuse someone. Whom do we accuse of being a snooty so-and-so? Him, that's whom. Who does the accusing? He, that's who. See? It's pretty easy. When the answer is "him", you use "whom", when it's "he", use "who". That's why, strictly speaking, in Kleon's sentence it should be "whom", because when you copy Van Gogh (or Austin Kleon), you copy him, not he.

And then there's this writer I met who told the story of how he was standing in line at the deli counter in the grocery store. The sales lady turned to him and the people next to him, and asked: "What can I get for you?" The writer, being of the well-spoken variety and not entirely clear on who was next in line, asked: "To whom are you speaking?" Without missing a beat, she replied: "To youm!"

Life, the Universe, and Interrogative Pronouns in the Accusative. Whom are you going to read next? I recommend Austin Kleon.