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Elder Wisdom

My Dumb Little Book

10:45 AM EDT on August 26, 2023

"Field Notes" notebook with pen
Photo: David Roth

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The last words I wrote in the notebook that I filled up on Sunday night are about a 2016 film called The Shallows, in which a shark tries and [spoiler] fails to eat Blake Lively in a picturesque Mexican cove. It’s not a great movie, but not really a bad one, either. It’s stylish and cheesy in roughly equal measure, cheap in ways that more or less rhyme with the film’s negligible ambitions, and the viewing experience still came in just a few minutes north of 90 minutes even accounting for the jarring commercial breaks that were the price I paid for watching it, humiliatingly, on a streaming service called Tubi. I didn’t plan on watching it, but I’d worked a Sunday shift and was still wired enough that I wasn’t ready to go to sleep when my wife was, and the combination of the running time and the director credit of the exuberantly competent Spanish-born genre guy and serial Action Neeson accomplice Jaume Collet-Serra did the trick. I have watched, in my life, maybe 300 such films in exactly these circumstances. I have not ever been moved to write down my impressions of any of them, and not only because most of those movies were made in part to be watched in something like those circumstances, and not to be remembered in any kind of detail, or at all.

But I’m different now. I have my little notebook, and I have another little notebook on deck for whatever goofy bullshit I watch next, and at Christmas my wife—who is a bona fide pen-and-notebook weirdo now, and who was plainly delighted at the prospect of researching and buying whatever notebook I’ll wind up unwrapping—will give me a new one, in which I will write down more of my donkey-brained impressions about just this kind of forgettable cultural product. I have and will continue to live my life along the principle of trying not to do extra stuff, but also last winter, when it came time for us to write our end-of-year roundup posts, I found that I remembered virtually nothing I’d read or watched or seen in the previous year. Some of this is because my mind is somewhere between going and all the way gone, and some of it is just reflective of The Broader Circumstances. But I didn’t like it, and so I decided to do the absolute minimum of extra stuff to make sure that didn’t happen again.

“Oh,” a friend said when I told him about my little notebook, while we were at a museum show I’d later write about in that very notebook. “Like what Steven Soderbergh does.” I did not know at the time that this was a thing that Steven Soderbergh did, although the thought was more appealing than the initial comparison that sprang to mind, which was end-stage Howard Hughes sorting and saving his own toenail clippings. Soderbergh releases an omnibus list of everything he watched and read at the end of every year, which among other things is how the general public knows that he is really into Below Deck. That last bit is a pretty funny thing to do, but absolutely the sort of thing that you can do when you’re Steven Soderbergh. I will settle just for writing stuff down, so that I can have some record of what I liked and didn’t like but also actually did over the preceding year. It’s something you can do yourself if you want. I, or really my wife, can recommend some good pens and notebooks for doing just that.

My little diary of all the art I looked at and movies and TV shows I watched and shows I went to and books I read will not be made public, and not only because I find my own handwriting very difficult to read and my own thoughts generally unpleasant to behold. It is nice to have something that is just for you, and it is also nice to make the time to note all the stuff that daily life tends to flush out and away. A painful part of getting older is bumping up against not just the finitude of what you can remember and do, but how much of it you will invariably wind up forgetting. I give more space to the stuff that mattered more to me—I wrote several pages more about a beautiful and affirming night seeing Unwound with some old friends in March than I did watching 2021’s Montana Story, for instance, although I enjoyed both experiences—but I feel like it’s worth it to save some room for everything that I used to fill or at least clutter my dumb and precious days and nights.

I love my little book and I love writing in it, but it’s hard to talk about it in a way that isn’t morbid. There’s something morbid inherent in it, or maybe just desperate—an attempt to hold onto some things I would otherwise lose. I only have so much time, and while I know how I am going to use it—as if there is more of it than there is, mostly, and in a way that lets me get as much of the stuff that I like into my life—I would also like to be able to look back some time later and see how that all felt, and what I thought of it. I don’t want to forget anything because I don’t want to lose anything; I want to keep all those hours, somehow, and to be able to revisit them even if it’s just in my own bleary, looping-but-cramped handwriting. I do not need to remember The Shallows; it was not really made for that. But maybe someday I’ll be happy to be reminded that I thought it was just fine.

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