Through a fluke of circumstance, I recently had the opportunity to watch the first few minutes of Conan the Barbarian (1982) for the first time in 20 years. Say what you want about the acting chops of the Austrian bodybuilder they hired to play the lead, the screenplay was written by pros—John Milius (Apocalypse Now) and Oliver Stone. Based loosely on the sword-and-sorcery stories of Robert E. Howard, the film follows a conventional rags-to-riches arc. After witnessing the slaughter of his parents, the young Conan is sold into slavery, where he is forced with others to push a human-powered mill, the Wheel of Pain. Eventually, Conan is the only wheel-pusher left standing, trudging around in an Sisyphean circle. (There is a darkly humorous YouTube mash-up of this scene set to the guttural droning of the Slovenian industrial band Laibach’s “Life is Life.”)
In case you haven’t seen the film—and I’m not saying you should; its flaws are legion—Conan slays James Earl Jones in the end, as all good heroes are wont to do. But the Wheel of Pain became embedded in my mind as such a fantastic metaphor that I found myself carrying it around in my pocket like a string of worry beads.
Waiting in line at the grocery store, stuck behind four full grocery carts, my own cart stacked with a week’s provisions, inching toward checkout, I thought—sadly and with little comfort— “This is just like that scene in Conan!” All of us shuffling forward, an inch at a time; out to our cars, home to our cupboards, and back again next week.
In the midst of shoveling snow during that last, mad March snowstorm, my back aching, feet and hands cold and wet, the Wheel came to mind.
Looking at the mountain of work on my desk, I was again reminded of the Wheel. (Actually, this is not entirely true. In an irony of the Digital Age, most of the work we are responsible for is not stacked in reams of paper anymore but queued in unanswered e-mails in our computers. The tool that empowers also enslaves. Just like the Wheel of Pain!)
At the gym this winter, spinning the pedals in yet another stationary cycle class while waiting for the weather to warm up, the Wheel was much in my thoughts.
Scraping three layers of caked-on old paint off the intricately rounded columns on my front porch, the Wheel was being shouldered.
I found the Wheel such a handy-dandy metaphor that when asked how I was doing, I would reply, “Turning the wheel.”
And then you wake up one day when the sun is high and bright and warm and you realize you’ve turned the Wheel right into spring. The forsythia is hinting at yellow. The sorrel patch has sprouted again in the garden, unbidden and glorious. Or, perhaps you realize you’re just a wheel within a wheel. That the Wheel of the Year—the ancient pagan term for the cycle of the seasons—spins as well. So caught up in the force of our own spinning, we lose track of the greater rotation. (Beltane, the pagan ritual announcing the arrival of spring, is enthusiastically celebrated each year in Rosendale. A preview of the event is on page 93.)
Where does all this turning get you? Nowhere or everywhere, depending on your philosophical framework, but sometimes it gets us noticed. (Just like Conan, who was plucked off the Wheel to fight in the gladiatorial pit.)
I’m pleased and honored to relate that Chronogram has been nominated for an Utne Independent Press Award for our health and wellness coverage in 2009. I’ve mentioned Utne Reader in this column in the past, as the magazine has published excerpts from a few articles originally seen here in recent years. We are in prestigious company—Mother Jones, The Nation, Spirituality & Health, Orion, and Columbia Journalism Review, along with 30 other titles, have all been nominated along with Chronogram. One of the more interesting wrinkles to the Utne awards is their nomination process. From the Independent Press Award press release: “Utne Reader’s editors select nominee publications through an extensive reading process and careful, yearlong examination, rather than via a competition with entry forms and fees. In this way, the magazine honors the efforts of small, sometimes unnoticed publications that provide innovative, thought-provoking perspectives often ignored or overlooked by mass media.” There was no entry fee or application process. Chronogram did not pay to be offered this nomination. It’s the kind of accolade that fits our style.
The Independent Press Awards will be announced on April 25. (We’ll let you know if we bring home the trophy.) Win or lose, that Chronogram has been chosen from among 1,300 magazines to be nominated for an Independent Press Award is as humbling as it is gratifying. A special shout-out is due to Lorrie Klosterman, our health and wellness editor, whose engaging and sagacious writing and editing is the wheel within the wheel here.
We all must turn the wheel. Most likely, we will not be recognized for the incessant effort it takes. (Who is there to clap for us? We all have our hands on the wheel, pushing, pushing.) But if laurels do come, we will accept them with gratitude. And then pick up where we left off, pushing that darn wheel. Turn it with malice or turn it with mirth, it still needs pushing. And that is not a bad thing. To everything, turn, turn, turn.