Picasso said, “Only put off until tomorrow that which you would have died having left undone.” Malcom McDowell, who played Alex in the 1971 film, A Clockwork Orange, once told an anecdote on a late night talk show about Anthony Burgess, the author of the book the film is based on. Let me give you a little context. A Clockwork Orange is an extremely complex book. Burgess invents an entire language in which the book is narrated. It is a mixture of modern english, old english, and russian. There is a glossary at the end of the book to help you along, because when you begin reading it, it makes absolutely no sense. But after a couple of chapters, flipping to the back twenty or thirty nerve wracking times per page, you get the hang of it, and the book flows as if it’s being told by some futuristic teenager in the slang of his time, which is exactly what is happening. It is absolutely brilliant, and very impressive, not to mention that the book is a chilling examination of teen angst, youth gangs, the penal system, and the morality of inmate treatment and experimental rehabilitation techniques.
This is just a little perspective to emphasize McDowell’s anecdote, which is this: Anthony Burgess was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and given a year to live. He decided to see how many books he could write in his final year. He wrote eleven, ONE of which was A Clockwork Orange, which is impressive as all hell. He worked as a book critic at the time and wrote all of his books under a pseudonym, so he could give them rave reviews, which got him fired. He ended up living for 34 more years. I’m not sure how much of this story is technically true. Burgess was given a year to live and did write a lot of books, including A Clockwork Orange as a result. I imagine that McDowell met Burgess at least while filming the movie, and would not misrepresent him publicly, but maybe he did. I don’t really care. I just think it’s a terrific story.
Now, if you follow my column regularly, which I imagine includes a lot of you, as I think my readership is vastly dominated by people I actually know, you have noticed over the past month or so that I have come to a bit of a reckoning. I have been shaken out of my extremely comfortable and effortless routine and forced to make an actual decision for the first time in like five years, which is annoying, but probably for the best. Where before I had lots of money and scant free time to fill and spent my time working or decompressing, now I find myself repeatedly each day being forced to do things that it is not easy to do.
Now I’m not talking about stuff like breaking up with someone who is way more into the relationship than you are (Hah! Never had to do that,) or choosing between a child and a small kitten who are both in imminent danger (I’d probably go for the kitten. Just personal preference.) I’m talking about basic things that are really hard to make myself get down to.
Here are some things that are easy: Drinking beers on my porch with my roommate – although after a while he stops making as much sense as he did when he was less beers in. Playing Angry Birds – you knock things over with birds. What’s not to like? Watching an episode of Law and Order while eating a big breakfast with my favorite cat on my lap -her name is Godzilla. None of these activities require any convincing on my part. I do not include them on a list of things I have to get done today. I do not bargain with myself, like “If you play Angry Birds for the next half hour, you can take a break and eat this ice cream.”
On the other side of the spectrum, however, are all sorts of things like submissions to literary journals and grant proposals that are not as easy as beer to crack down on. Submissions take a whole lot of work and can be very discouraging, as quite a lot of people turn you down. And grant proposals involve a lot of really smarmy talk about community enrichment and diversity and artistic excellence and whatnot. You have to write really nauseating essays that make you sound really invested in your project’s artistic merit and impact on the community. I realize that I said community twice there. You have to use that word a lot. I always end up needing a shot of whiskey and a disinfecting shower after I write these.
Right now I am procrastinating writing an essay. It’s a creative essay, can be on anything I want, but it has to sound really good, because it’s for an application for a fellowship. I am actually writing this column as a way of putting off the essay. I kind of think that the people who will judge it would give me a black mark for letting the child die to save the kitten. Maybe you guys will too, but them’s the breaks.
I really don’t mean for this to be another column where I complain about how hard my life is, because I have to write a bunch of submissions and grant proposals. That’s not my point. My point is actually about the procrastination. I have thousands of things at any given moment that I am not doing. Lately I’ve been more focused, so I can usually think of several very specific things I am neglecting, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg. There are books I want to read and recipes I want to try, a pile of clothing I want to fix or cut up and sew back together, and songs I want to learn on the piano. Maybe some of these tasks shock a few of my more modern friends, the ones who eat takeout and focus their time on career activities and drinking. Those tend to be the ones who use Skype and navigate computers with ease. One made fun of me the other day for being confused about how to put my phone on speaker. I will say this now, and I will surely have to repeat it, as this type of friend tends to have a very sound byte sized attention span: I do crafty things, like to cook, am old fashioned in many ways and hate emoticons. Sorry. That emoticon thing just slipped in there. The rage burns within me like a fire and sometime just bursts out. I also really like crossword puzzles. And on my list of things I keep meaning to do, you will find a very distinct lack of anything relating to learning how to use my phone.
Back when I was in my work all the time haze, I would find myself on my days off, sitting here with Godzilla, playing solitaire (back then it was solitaire) or watching whatever, feeling like there was absolutely nothing to do, which was insane, because my house is bursting with unfinished projects. Then I’d pass one later on my way to bed and kick myself for not doing it, which is a self abusive thing to do, because there’s nothing you can really do about what has or has not happened but learn from it.
Now, I’m not disparaging quality time with my roommate. He’s good company, and we sang a lovely duet of “Tonight You Belong to Me” right there on the porch the other night. And Law and Order is one of my obsessive guilty pleasures, although it’s really easy to figure out who the killer is. It’s always the most famous person on the show. Like if they’re interviewing people, and they happen to chat with Judd Hirsch, I assure you he is not there to do a one liner cameo as a random shopkeeper.
But I need to take a lesson from Picasso and Mr. Burgess. My time on this earth is finite. And I need to spend a lot more of it doing the things that I have always wanted to do. They don’t need to make me rich or famous or advance my career. They just have to make me happy. If I go to my death bed not having achieved three stars on every level f Angry Birds, I will not have regrets over this fact. But there are a lot of things I will find very unfortunate to have neglected. So Picasso, I hear you. You painted Guernica. It’d be a real shame if you hadn’t gotten around to that. It’s time I start working on my legacy.