Thursday, 19 April 2012

Toronto blogger wraps 1,000 Awesome Things. So what’s the most awesome?

Michael Oliveira, The Canadian Press
April 19, 2012

They say all good things must come to an end — even the most awesome things.
Shortly after midnight on Thursday, 32-year-old Toronto-native Neil Pasricha posted what might be the last entry on his blog, which has surpassed 45 million hits after a little under four years on the web.
Pasricha’s whimsical odes to the often under-appreciated awesome things in everyday life — like laughing so hard you cry (No. 538), picking the fastest checkout line at the grocery store (No. 501), or the moment of relief when hiccups cease (No. 635) — also spawned a series of bestselling books, starting with The Book of Awesome, first released in April 2010.
But after years of counting down the most awesome things online day after day after day, Pasricha finally closed in on the end of his mission. On Thursday, the time had come to finally reveal the most awesome of the 1,000 awesome things.
It was bound to be a polarizing pick no matter what he decided on, but Pasricha’s final entry may leave some readers puzzled. Which is fine with him, since he’s hoping the open-ended final awesome thing inspires people to reflect on all the positive things in their lives.
“The No. 1 awesome thing, overall, is: anything you want it to be,” Pasricha said in an interview.
“Unlike every other post on 1,000 Awesome Things that are about small pleasures — like finally peeing after holding it forever (No. 529) — this post is the last one and ... it’s meant to be different than the other awesome things.
“The awesome movement isn’t going to stop. By saying it’s anything you want it to be I’m implying that you get to choose, you get to take it as far as you want, you get to fill in the blank.
“Awesome goes on forever.”
While many of the popular blog’s entries ring true with most readers, Pasricha quickly learned that awesome means very different things to different people. He said he receives about 100 emailed submissions a day suggesting awesome experiences in life, which range from flying in first class to Dubai to more simple pleasures like having a baby grab your finger or falling in love.
“That’s exactly my point, (with the final entry), the most awesome thing is what’s awesome to you,” he said.
Pasricha was inspired to start the blog after a rough patch in his own life that left him desperately needing to look on the bright side.
“Life just hadn’t been that great lately, I was in a marriage heading in the wrong direction, my closest friend was battling severe mental illness and I really thought I needed a way to focus on the positive some how,” said Pasricha, who later got divorced and lost his friend to suicide, two difficult chapters in his life that became awesome entries; getting to the light at the end of the tunnel (No. 567) and smiling and thinking of good friends who are gone (No. 829).
“I (first) wrote a little snippy post about broccoflower, the strange, mutant, hybrid child of nature’s ugliest vegetables, broccoli and cauliflower, and I went to bed and it put a smile on my face. That’s why the next day I logged on and I wrote about the last crumbly triangle of potato chips at the bottom of the bag, (and later) I wrote about finding money in your old coat pocket.
“I was making myself happier.”
The first few posts he wrote were mostly for his own personal amusement, but eventually his visitor counter was going up by tens, dozens and hundreds per day. He got a nice boost in readership when the popular links site directed visitors to awesome post No. 980, about the joys of old, dangerous playground equipment.
A year later, things really blew up when he got a strange call claiming he had the best blog in the world.
“It sounded totally fake but I flew to New York City and I walked the red carpet with Martha Stewart and Jimmy Fallon and I went on stage and accepted the Webby award for best blog in the world,” he recalled.
“Then I came home and 10 agents were in my inbox saying, ‘We’ve got to turn this into a book!’”
His books went to become bestsellers in Canada and the United States and got written up by press around the world. Meanwhile, he kept soldiering on, counting down closer and closer to the end of his awesome journey.
He admits there were some clunkers along the way.
“There was one night I was out really late at work, I think I went to the bar with some friends, I got home ... and I had about a minute to write an awesome thing. And I wrote one called Ducks (No. 806),” he said.
“Because they can walk, fly, and swim. Ducks 3, humans 2. AWESOME!” he wrote in the pithy post.
Even as the site and the books grew more popular, Pasricha decided to keep his office job working for Walmart and kept ads off the site.
“I’ve worked for Walmart for the last six years of my life and I absolutely love it there, I think there’s a lot of awesome things about work,” he said.
“And I always felt personally that ads took away from the website and I didn’t want my creative process to be affected. I really wanted to come home and just write for writing’s sake, I didn’t want to have to bill Colgate $20 because they put an ad for minty fresh toothpaste on the bottom of my (post) about squeezing the last drop of toothpaste from your tube (No. 904).
“I just wanted to have fun with it. I don’t know if it was the right or wrong decision, but it’s the decision I made.”
As for wrapping up his impressively long streak of blogging, Pasricha said he’ll miss the letters he received from readers. But he’s keeping the website up, hasn’t ruled out more updates, and says he hopes it continues to inspire.
“All the Book of Awesome really says is we’re surrounded by thousands of awesome things every single day, it’s just up to us to notice them.”

Friday, 13 April 2012

Mad Men and the triumph of television over books

John Doyle: Television, Globe and Mail

It is appropriate, though, to speculate why Mad Men matters. On the cusp of its return I was reminded of an incident from what seems, now, like the long-ago. About 15 years ago, when I was writing for The Globe’s TV magazine, I also wrote an occasional book review for the paper. After I wrote a negative review of a mediocre Canadian novel, a friend of the book’s author, this person a terribly distinguished Canadian writer, complained to the then-editor of the books section. The complaint was, as reported to me, a pithy and haughty question: “How can you have someone who writes about television review a book?”
For some months after this, any book review I wrote also contained the vital information that I have a BA and an MA from University College, Dublin. Readers were informed that the MA was in Anglo-Irish Studies. Just to reassure them that I was familiar with book-reading and such.
The distinguished writer’s complaint was rooted in a snobbery that still exists. Television is stupid. Books are serious. This is now the most ridiculous of notions. The very idea that some hack writer, churning out the clich├ęs of Canadiana, is a serious artist, while the creator of Mad Men and his team are airheads, is not only dated, it is wrong. (By the way, in the matter of distinguished Canadian writers, Canadian Semi Chellas, who wrote the movie The Life Before This and co-created the excellent series The Eleventh Hour, is a main writer on this season of Mad Men.) Mad Men stands as an example of how cable-TV series have replaced the novel as the most significant storytelling form of our time.
The novel’s rise as the principal literary form, from the mid-18th century to the mid-20th century, depended on twin virtues transcending mere storytelling or entertainment – its sociological importance and psychological depth. Typically, important novels offered a portrait of social distinctions, social groupings and social values. And, typically, the focus on one central character or a small group of people allowed for insight into how people feel, react, change and grow. Mad Men achieves both virtues with aplomb.
The series is a portrait of an age of change, one that seems shockingly distant because it is so close to us, and so much of its surface details (the typewriters, the telephones, the smoking and heavy drinking) appear antique. At the same time, it is about the psychological growth of its core characters. Don Draper is an archetypal character of American fiction, someone who literally reinvented himself by taking another’s man identity. But we spend more time with him in the multiple seasons of Mad Men than we would ever spend with a character in a novel. His growth, mistakes and the meanderings of his mind represent both the sociological and psychological depth of the series, more nuanced and authentic than any contemporary novel could deliver.
As any undergraduate studying the English novel knows, the novel rose to prominence because several factors unfolded almost simultaneously. There was a new middle class hungry for its own art forms. Technology made the production and distribution of books cheaper and easier. In the case of cable TV, technology has made such channels as HBO, Showtime and AMC viable for a new, small but paying audience hungry for tough-minded TV. The invention of the DVD disc has meant that an entire TV series or multiple seasons could be delivered easily and cheaply to consumers who could then savour a series much as they used to savour a novel. The parallels between the mid-18th century and now are striking.
Of course there are people who will cling to the view of television encapsulated in the 1976 movie Network. That is, everything on TV is about ratings, the audience is easily manipulated and sensible people should simply ignore the medium. Or there are those who cleave to the view of television expressed in Neil Postman’s widely read 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. The book essentially says that TV demeans and diminishes all discourse in the culture.
Both views come from the pre-cable era. They came before The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Deadwood, Rome, Homeland and so many other culturally significant series. They came before such series replaced the novel as the most important vehicle for sociological and psychological truth. Frankly, the views expressed in Network, Amusing Ourselves to Death and, indeed, the snobbery of that distinguished Canadian writer, now seem as outdated and antique as the office equipment on Mad Men.