a year and two weeks without cable

It’s been a year and two weeks since I stopped handing over $90 a month to my local cable provider.  When I told my brother that I was going to not have cable at home, he looked at me as though I had three heads and was challenging the proper order of the world.  The question (indeed the proverbial question to so many decisions I make) was of course “Why would you do that?”.  This was followed by another question that at the time I really didn’t have the answer to:  How will you watch sports?

The decision to not have cable had been brewing in my mind for a long time.  January 2010 to May 2011 was a really intense time in my life.  I was writing a dissertation, teaching classes, and looking for a job.  I didn’t have a lot of time to sit on the couch and channel surf, and when I did, I felt guilty and bad about it because I knew I was supposed to be (needed to be) doing something else.  By the time June 2011 rolled around, the number of television shows that I actually watched when they aired was small, and I had discovered that I could do without the rest or wait until that golden era that I assumed would be my post-dissertation life.  I was also moving to a new city, and so the timing was ideal.  I should point out here that with my cable subscription, I didn’t also have some kind of DVR service, and that $90/month I mentioned above?  Yes, that was just for cable.  It didn’t include internet service or phone service or any other fun add-ons.  Just cable.  It didn’t even include premium channels like HBO and Showtime.  Yes, I know, $90.  Entirely too much on the salary of a graduate student.  But, perhaps I digress…

In the last year and two weeks I haven’t had cable at home.  I didn’t fit out my TV so that I could use an antenna and still get the basic broadcast channels like NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX and PBS.  When I say I don’t have cable, I mean I don’t have the capability of watching live television on my television.  I kept my TV, but I can’t even remember the last time I turned it on. It’s not even plugged in and hasn’t been for months—I’m energy-conscious! However, not having cable doesn’t mean that I don’t watch or consume my favorite television shows.  I just watch and consume them in different ways.  This will likely come up in future blog posts so let me just lay it out there right now.  My favorite (currently airing) television shows?  The ones I must see the minute a new episode is available?  Here they are, and this is in no specific order: Castle, The Vampire Diaries, Fringe, Sherlock, Doctor Who.  Yes, it’s a short list.  Certainly not enough to justify $90/month.  I’m not going to lie—in this last year, I bought the season passes for all of these shows, and you know what? I still came out ahead of what I would have paid with cable.  So yes, this decision has actually saved me money.  I get other shows through Netflix (right now I’m watching Season 8 of NCIS).  I already had Netflix and so I didn’t incur any new expenses as the result of cutting cable.  I also only have the DVD option for Netflix, but don’t get me started on all the reasons why.  Basically, I now watch television in one of three ways—season passes or individual episode purchases, Netflix, or watching free online.

But what about sports?  Yes, it’s true.  I love major league baseball, the NCAA tournament, the Stanley Cup playoffs, and grand slam tennis.  Do you want to know what I have discovered about this love of mine?  It’s not as strong and lasting as I had previously thought it was.  The only sports programming that I have gone out of my way to enjoy in some fashion is the Stanley Cup playoffs.  I found a way to listen to live radio broadcasts on my computer.  Not the same as watching but still satisfying enough.  So the answer to my brother’s question of how I was going to watch sports? I don’t watch sports anymore, and I honestly don’t feel like I’m missing anything.  I have discovered in this last year that a lot of things I thought were important to me, just really aren’t important to me anymore.  Will I miss watching the 2012 Olympics?  Maybe a little, but at the same time, how much do I really care?  How does watching the Olympics (or any other sports broadcast for that matter) affect my life in a positive way? If I’m being brutally honest with myself, it doesn’t positively affect my life.  It gives me the chance to stare mindlessly at the television for a few hours, and sure, that can be relaxing, but there are lots of other ways for me to relax. Like meditating.

Not having cable—or that is, not being addicted to staring at my television screen for hours on end—has given me time to do other things that I enjoy a lot more.  Such as reading for pleasure (reading is a big part of my professional life, so for me there’s always a distinction between reading for pleasure and reading for work), writing, trying out new recipes and cooking a nice meal more than one night a week.  I have no regrets about my choice.  Letting go has been one of my mantras over the last year, and letting go of cable has been liberating in a lot of ways.  Unless magic happens and my household gains another person, I can’t imagine that I will ever be a cable subscriber again.

it’s time to declare

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine a couple of months ago.  She has always wanted to take a pottery class, but she had never made time in her life to do just that.  One of the things that I got from our conversation was that she wanted to create something, and for her, that something was something tangible, something she could hold and touch.  During the conversation she said something to the effect of “but if we really want to do something, if we are really passionate about something, shouldn’t we find the time in our lives for what we are passionate about?”.  Fairly soon after this conversation, my friend enrolled in a pottery class.  The experience has taught her that making pottery is really difficult, and it’s not a skill she wants to continue to cultivate.  She’s decided to learn how to sew instead.

I, too, made a goal after this conversation.  I had said that writing was my creative outlet, that creative writing was one of the things I was passionate about, and yet I had to admit that I didn’t make enough time in my life to write.  Especially not in the last year.  I wrote when I had time, but only during a NaNo month did I strive to write a specific number of words each day and complete a draft of a particular work-in-progress.  I realized that I also wanted to make time to write, to cultivate a daily writing habit as far as creative writing was concerned.  So, starting in May, I made the goal of writing at least 1000 words each day.  This goal was also a way of preparing for CampNaNoWrimo which I intended to participate in when June rolled around.

It was while working on my CampNaNoWriMo novel that I stumbled onto ROW80.  I saw it as a hashtag in the tweets of other WriMos and was curious what it was all about.  So here I am, declaring my intention to participate in Round 3 of ROW80.  But here’s my secret confession: I’m not entirely sure that I belong here? I have been looking for a community of writers where I might fit in, but after reading through so many of the other blogs on the Linky, I feel a bit…intimidated to tell the truth.  Still, I am going to overcome that little fear and embrace this challenge and experience, and look forward to seeing how I grow as a writer over the next 80 days.  I think more than anything, I am looking forward to making time in my life for one of my passions and discovering where that commitment takes me.

review: the infinities

The Infinities by John Banville (2009)

“Everything blurs around its edges, everything seeps into everything else.  Nothing is separate” (65).

This novel has been on my to-read list for a while, and the first response to that statement might very well be “Why?”.  I have read two other novels by John Banville—The Book of Evidence and The Untouchable.  Both books have a narrative style that take a while to get accustomed to, but once entrenched in the fictional world his frequently unreliable narrators reveal, I find that I want to keep turning the page to see what happens next.  It is true that some readers may find Banville’s narrators reprehensible or unappealing, but as much as this may or may not be the case, the one thing I can say for them is that, for my part, they are all entertaining and complex.  I don’t have to like the narrator to like the narrative.  I think of myself as a fan of Banville’s work, and so I have wanted to read The Infinities since finding it on the shelf at my local bookstore.  Now that I have read it, I find that I am struggling to articulate what I think of the book.

The Infinities gives us a narrator who is, on the surface, the mythological god Hermes (or Mercury, if you will).  Yet, it becomes clear as the narrative unfolds that the narrator is not just Hermes, but also Adam Godley (père), who at the beginning of the novel is comatose after suffering a second stroke and lying on his deathbed at the top of Arden, his family home, in what the inhabitants call the Sky Room and what was previously Adam’s office.  Petra, his daughter, Adam, his son, and his son’s wife, Helen, have come home to attend upon Adam whose death is imminent.  Ursula, Adam’s wife, is also present and waiting upon him.  Banville attributes qualities to some of these characters that are easily recognizable within the mythological allegory he seems to be weaving—Adam at one time wanted to be a gardener (like the first Adam); Helen takes after that other famous Helen whose beauty launched a thousand ships and is pursued throughout the narrative by Zeus, father of the gods; even Ursula is compared to Hera at one point.  About halfway through the novel, the god Pan arrives mysteriously at Arden, and he and Hermes are placed in opposition to each other, the former seeking to create disturbance and the latter seeking to bring order from chaos.  As the narrative unfolds, the mortals (the Godleys, their servants, and one of their guests, Roddy Wagstaff) become the sport of the gods in some way or another, to the point that it is the meddling of the various gods—namely Hermes, Pan, and Zeus—that bring the characters to their “happy” ending.

There are two things that I think make this novel clever.  One is the persistent shifting of the identity of the narrator from Hermes to Adam to Hermes.  This permeability of identity points to one of the main ideas the novel is engaging, suggested by the quote above—that nothing is separate.  Hermes and Adam are not wholly separate entities, and thus we get the slippage that occurs in the text when we’re not sure who is speaking—Hermes or Adam.  Indeed, we come to believe that Hermes is Adam, and Adam is Hermes.  This leads me to the second thing that I like about this novel, which is the way that Banville is playing with the answer to an age old question—where does one thing end and another thing begin?  He does this by doubling his characters—Adam (père) and his son, Adam share the same name and is the most obvious instance.  Banville also doubles Helen and her mythological namesake, Helen of Troy; but it gets more complex and more difficult to distinguish between one thing and another when he doubles Hermes and Adam (père), Hermes and Zeus, Adam (père) and Zeus, and those are only a handful of examples.  Early in the novel the question is raised: “Was everything in the world so intricately linked and yet resistantly disparate?” (63).  This is a question that the novel, in an interesting way, is trying to answer, and how this question engages with the former idea—that nothing is separate but instead one thing flows into another thing—is the level on which I think the novel is completely fascinating.

While I think the novel is clever in the two ideas (or questions, or themes, however you want to label them) that hover over the narrative, I’m not sure that the novel works.  I happened to get a glance of a review of this book where the reviewer stated that the characters weren’t very likable.  Again, I don’t have to like the characters to like the book.  What I do think is faulty about the characters is that I’m not really invested in most of them.  I enjoyed Hermes/Adam as the narrator, seeing what they saw when they looked at the events taking place in Arden.  If I had taught this novel in one of my literature classes, some students would likely say that nothing happens in this novel.  For me, my complaint is not that nothing happens, but rather that I don’t care much about what happens.  This is complicated by the narrative style.  While I like the narrative style, it also further distances me as the reader from the characters, to the point that I didn’t feel any particular attachment to the characters or what was happening to them as they awaited the anticipated event—Adam’s death.

I always ask myself if I would recommend a book to friends and family.  Unfortunately, The Infinities does not make it into my “recommend” category.  There are many aspects of this book that I found thoughtful and provocative, but on the whole, my expectations were disappointed.

sunday unplugged

It was my first attempt this summer to completely unplug.  It happened one Sunday, last Sunday in fact…

Before I recount what went down, all the successes and failures, I should do what I expect my students to do—define how I am using the term “unplugged”.  For me, being unplugged means not checking my e-mail, or my Twitter timeline, or reading the newest items in my RSS reader, or visiting any of the sites and blogs I frequent on the Internet.  Not just on my computer, but on my smartphone, too.  Texting and calling friends and family are approved activities, and reading on my Kindle is also acceptable.  Only now am I able to identify what is out of bounds in order to achieve my idea of a blissful, unplugged state.  When I was at the starting line for unplugging, I had no idea what was in or out of bounds.  As you would expect, this presented some problems.

I didn’t wake up with the intention of unplugging.  This, I think, was the first obstacle to be overcome because I didn’t begin in the right frame of mind.  The decision to unplug came only after a sense of being bombarded by the Internet and deciding that perhaps it was a good day to take a break.  It also came on the heels of bemoaning the fact that it had been some time since I had started and finished a novel (specifically, a novel that I wasn’t in the process of teaching).  I didn’t consciously connect these two—being plugged in on a seeming 24/7 basis and not finishing a book—but maybe there is the tiniest link of causality there?  With the decision to unplug, the questions were how to stay unplugged (read: how to avoid the temptation of the Internet) and what to do with all of that time which was normally spent using the Internet to accomplish other tasks (shopping, reading, writing, chatting with friends, researching stuff, searching for entertainment to relieve the boredom, etc.)?

I have all sorts of applications on my computer to help me minimize distractions and get things done—Freedom, FocusWriter, Apimac Timer—and, I use Evernote as a way of keeping track of all the errant thoughts running through my mind while doing other things.  Once the decision to unplug was made, I fired up Freedom and set it for two hours (Freedom turns off your Internet connection for a specified amount of time, and you can only turn Freedom off by restarting your computer).  What did I get done in those two hours? I cleaned my kitchen from top to bottom, made a grocery list and then did some much overdue grocery shopping.

What else did I get done you ask?  I added over 3,100 words to my CampNaNoWrimo work-in progress.  Also, if you recall, last Sunday was Father’s Day, so I talked to both parents and got caught up with everything going on in their lives.  This is especially important to me because my parents are a three-day road trip or a 4+ hour airplane ride away.  I don’t get to see them as often as I want, and talking on the phone is how we keep in touch (my parents are not Skypers yet, but I have hope).

I also picked up a book I have wanted to read for some time and got through the first 150 pages.  I am not a fast reader, so it took me about four hours to read that much.  In hindsight, I wonder if my ability to sustain my concentration on the book is entirely attributable to the book’s appeal (having now finished the book, I don’t think this is the case) or if some of the credit goes to the fact that actively unplugging myself from the Internet helped improve my ability to concentrate and focus on the task at hand?

No, really, let’s think about this for a second.  On the average day, I have Twitter open and keep it placed on the left side of my screen so that I can always see the column in Tweetdeck where the latest updates appear (even as I am writing this, I have my word document positioned so that I can see tweets as they enter my timeline).  Then I check e-mail, or glance at my RSS reader, or look for updates in my online reading club.  I can’t help thinking that the constant movement from one site to another and back again is detrimental to my concentration.  Hence the need for all these distraction minimizing applications.  I know this is not a new idea; I simply feel it more acutely when actively trying to unplug.

Those are the successes.  There were failures, too, and I think some of these are attributable to not being in the right state of mind.  I did find my way to the iTunes store and bought some new music.  I did read through my RSS reader while eating lunch, which is a long-time habit of mine.  I did glance at Twitter when my Freedom sessions expired, and I did update the word count on my CampNaNoWrimo work-in-progress.  All told, these activities probably accounted for 60-90 minutes of my Sunday.  In the big picture, I realize that this is not a lot of time.  What is important about that estimate is that it shows me how difficult it is for me to fully unplug from the Internet.  Still, what my Sunday unplugged gave me was time and space to be creative, talk with family, read a (good) book, and though it is near the bottom of my desired things to do, accomplish some household chores.  I want more of those first three things in my life, and like it or not, I have to make time for chores.  I won’t say that my first Sunday unplugged was a complete success, but it was successful.  It was my first attempt to unplug this summer, but it won’t be my last.