Me and Prufrock’s Love Song

I love T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It’s been one of my favourite works of literature since I first heard it read on my first day of university in the fall of 1999. My English 101: Introduction to Poetry professor (whose name I don’t remember anymore) played us a recording of T. S. Eliot reading the poem himself. His accent was odd and his reading plodding, but I fell in love with it and I’ve been in love with it ever since.

I’m not really a nostalgic person. I don’t watch movies or read books from my childhood or even think about them particularly often. I know that many point to the books they read as a child and speak about how important they were in the formation of their adult selves, but that has never clicked with me. I look back at those books and movies and TV shows with some fondness, but I have little interest in revisiting them. I don’t really consider them to be particularly important in my development as a person, even though I did enjoy them heartily at the time. I would say that this is partly because I believe I have changed significantly over the course of my life and also because I like to move on to new things: keep learning, keep evolving, keep sucking up new knowledge.

But I have lugged Prufrock around with me for nearly 20 years now. It’s really almost humorous, because for many years I spent very little time thinking about what the poem might actually mean. I liked letting the words be what they were. I became remarkably skilled at reading Prufrock aloud (mostly to impress men I was interested in), but didn’t really understand what I was saying. I’m not sure we can ever know what any poem truly means unless we ask the poets themselves and they deign to tell us. We can interpret and guess, but I always believed inferring authorial intent to be a little dangerous. These days I do have my opinions about what T. S. Eliot might be getting at, or at least what the words suggest to me.

Prufrock is a rambling and contemplative journey where a person is exposing and then accepting various truths about themselves. I did some reading online a few weeks ago and it seems that the central debate about Prufrock revolves around the “overwhelming question”:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

Whenever Eliot mentions this overwhelming question, it always seems to be something that the narrator is working up to, something that the story is moving toward. Personally, I’m inclined to think that the overwhelming question is a marriage proposal or confession of love. It seems simple, but it makes sense to me based on how the the concept appears throughout the poem.

Regardless of what the overwhelming question might be, the poem has many powerful moments that I think can speak to any of us, no matter where we might be in our lives. My personal favourite excerpt, which has been a great companion over the years and which has taken on a great deal of new meaning recently is:

“But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.”
While I have spent a good amount of time in my life being a self-important asshole, this stanza has always reminded me that, while my life may be of great importance to me and those who love me, my existence, in the grand scheme of things, is not particularly important. This is not to say that I am powerless and that individuals can’t accomplish things on their own, because I wholeheartedly believe that that is not the case. But it is a reminder of the importance of humility and that, even when you experience great hardship, the world will continue to turn without you: I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter.
Do you have a favourite poem? Is there a fictional work that is a constant companion for you? I’d love to hear all about it! Post a comment below or let me know on Facebook or Twitter!

A Moratorium on YouTube

In 2013, my New Years Resolution was to stop mindlessly watching TV after work.  At that time, I was living and working in Red Deer, Alberta and I had cable.  I didn’t have a huge package with loads of channels, but I did have the two most important channels (for me): HGTV and the Food Network.  Due to the shortage of jobs in my field (and also to my own stupidity) I had been unemployed for some time before moving to Alberta.  I was unaccustomed to working full time and, for the first few months that I lived away, it was a tough transition.  I found myself spending far too many evenings lounging on my couch, mindlessly watching House Hunters and Chopped.

These shows are fine and I still love watching HGTV and the Food Network, but I was getting bored.  I was spending hours watching TV shows that I wasn’t engaged in and didn’t really care about.  I wasn’t excited about watching them or experiencing any joy or happiness, I was just tired after work and wanted to be halfway amused without making any real effort.  This was, in my opinion, an enormous waste of time.

If you can manage it (and I definitely could at that point), time away from work should be spent doing things that make you happy.  Things to which you are devoting 100% of your attention and that are bringing you a great deal of joy.  It could be watching TV series or reading or knitting or playing video games or sports.  It could be spending time with your family or friends or your partner.  In my opinion, no free time is wasted as long as you’re wholeheartedly enjoying yourself.

I’ve been wasting too much of my free time lately, mostly on YouTube.

We have cable in our home, but I don’t use it.  Since I went back to work in 2016, I have replaced HGTV and the Food Network with YouTube.  If I can’t decide what I want to do or I’ve had a tough day at the office and I can’t be bothered to make an effort to entertain myself, I watch YouTube videos.  Like most folks, I have some weird things that I like (studio apartment tours, Van Life home tours, videos about Japanese food) and a slate of YouTube channels that I watch on a regular basis.  I will also sometimes spend hours watching videos about a topic I’d like to learn about.  Sometimes all this can be valuable time spent and can be relaxing, but recently I feel like I’m spending too much time watching recommended videos from my home page that I am not particularly engaged by or interested in.

I want to spend my time in treatment doing things that bring me joy and enrich my life.  I don’t want to waste my free time vegging out with YouTube.  From today on I am going to stop being so lazy and put more effort into having fun.  Here’s a short list of things I’ll be doing instead of watching YouTube videos:

Re-watching my favourite anime series

When I’m working, I often feel a bit guilty about watching shows I’ve already seen, reading books I’ve already read or playing video games I’ve already played.  I have a unique opportunity right now, however, to revisit some of my favourites.  I think that this will be fun, relaxing and a great source of comfort.

Playing simple video games

Normally, I play a lot of console video games; however, since starting chemotherapy, I have had significant issues with neuropathy in my hands and fingers.  This makes it difficult for me to play games on handheld consoles or using a controller.  Fortunately, I can still play simple mouse and keyboard games, such as as visual novels and adventure games.  I have a nice backlog of simple PC games already installed on my laptop that I hope to start playing soon.

Reading books

I often think that going to school for as long as I did ruined reading for me.  After finishing my two degrees, I associated reading books with work and not with relaxation.  I am ashamed to admit that I haven’t spent much time reading since 2008.  Since I haven’t been able to play video games the way I could prior to my diagnosis, however, I have been reading constantly.  My goal is to get through 2-3 books per month while I am in treatment.

Playing with my new puppy

We will be bringing home our new puppy from the breeder on February 19th.  I am assuming that house and obedience training will be taking up a good chunk of my time from that day forward.  I am so excited that I can hardly contain myself.  I have a significant update to share on our puppy situation, but that can wait until we get her home and settled.  Please look out for it.

There plenty of other ways that I can purposefully and joyfully spend my free time, but it is my hope that these will be my focus over the coming weeks.  I will still watch YouTube from time to time, but I don’t want to let it swallow so many hours from now on.  Do you sometimes feel like you aren’t spending enough of your free time doing things that actually bring you joy?  Do you have any YouTube guilty pleasures that you can get lost in for hours?  Let me know!  I’d love to hear all about them!

 

Me and Self Improvement

Over the past several years, I have been developing an interest in self improvement.  I’ve always been an introspective person and I’ve always been committed to lifelong learning, but recently I have been trying to take a more purposeful approach to achieving my goals and living a happy and full life.  I will own that the results of all this have been mixed.  Some years I do a great job with following through on my goals and other years, life throws a few too many curve balls and I get distracted.  Due to my illness, however, this year I want to make sure that I am doing everything I can to stay grounded, live in the moment, and manage my time well.  I have things that I want to accomplish, and I have a great opportunity to get started on them.

I haven’t always lived my life with this much intention.  In fact, for the first 30 or so years of my life, I mostly played things by ear.  In university, I chose my major solely based on the courses that interested me the most, rather than based on what could assist me in developing a successful career.  I applied for a Masters program in Archival Studies mostly on a lark.  There aren’t words to express the relief that I felt when I fell in love with it.  After finishing graduate school, I continued to learn new things and to challenge myself intellectually; however, I never made an actual plan and I never had a clue as to where I wanted my life to go.

Throughout the years when I was trying to cultivate my career as an archivist, I lacked self awareness and personal insight; as such, I completely destroyed my chances of being successful in that endeavor.  The fumbling ridiculousness of my adult career development is an essay for another day, but it was the difficulties that I encountered in my career that served as the genesis for my self improvement journey.

During a long and depressing stint of unemployment, I began to realize that I was basing all of my self worth and happiness on obtaining a highly specific job in a field that was shrinking.  With the job, I would be happy and fulfilled and without the job I would be miserable.  This attitude destroyed my self confidence (which has never been particularly great) and made me even less attractive to potential employers — I couldn’t hide my desperation.  After a great deal of soul searching, I decided that I was going to have to change my attitude, or I was going to be stuck in this negative feedback loop for a very long time.

And so I started to seek out mentors.  I tried to think of people in my life who might not be 100% satisfied with their jobs, but were constantly striving and working toward happiness in their lives.  I evaluated what those people were doing that I was not doing and eventually the tremendous error I had been making became clear: I was relying on something external to make me happy.

In order to be truly happy, I would need to work to be the source of my own happiness.  From there, I started making a lot of positive life changes.  I started setting goals, even if I wasn’t always great about following through with every intention I set for the year.  I made more conscious plans for ongoing learning and began focusing on skills that I felt would be both fun and useful, such as cooking, baking and knitting.  I sought out tools and mechanisms that I could use to accurately and honestly evaluate my life and my progress.

I won’t lie and say that all this suddenly turned my life around and instantly made everything better.  I still struggle most of the time with depression that can make it difficult for me to take aggressive action on aspects of my life that need improvement.  I am still working through the heavy slog of trying to figure out which path I’d like to start meandering toward career change and growth.  I am still completely selfish and judge others too harshly.  I am a work in progress.

Despite the fact that I’m still not exactly where I would like to be, I feel I do need to give myself credit for making some great changes.  I have indeed come a long way.  I am far more comfortable in my own skin these days and I have let go of at least part of the enormous chip on my shoulder.  I’m more understanding and vulnerable; I’m a better romantic partner.  I’ve always been introspective, but I am now much better at accurately assessing myself without being either way too harsh or way too lenient.  I am more honest and better at taking responsibility for my actions.

Because I have learned so much from my self improvement journey over the past few years, I will be writing from time to time about tools and techniques that I have used to facilitate all of these changes.  I hope that some of you find them useful or, at least, interesting to read about!  Have a great weekend, everyone!