The Rehearsal Hall

Where the magic happens. You may notice the Linear Calendar on the wall, it was a kickstarter buy from a really cool designer from L.A. named Jeff Schwarting. Look him up!
Where the magic happens. You may notice the Linear Calendar on the wall, it was a kickstarter buy from a really cool designer from L.A. named Jeff Schwarting. Look him up!

There are a lot of ways to work. And there are even more kinds of work, but most have a few things in common. To be as elemental as possible; they happen in some kind of space, and they require your brain. So it stands to reason that the shape and quality of that space will come to bear on the performance of your brain, and impact the work that you get done. To that end I’d like to share the experience I’ve been having in my own recently rearranged Brain Space.

I alluded in a post last week to having spent a fair amount of time rearranging the furniture in my home in some kind of combined procrastination and thoughtful improvement to my circumstances. The result is my fairly compact domestic existence fits completely within my bedroom, dining room (now serving as living room), and kitchen. This leaves free the entirety of my largest room (the living room, if you were counting) free to be my workspace. Previously the living room was a living room… you know, couch, arm chair, TV bench, bookshelves, the whole nine yards, PLUS a small table in the corner (crowded with computer, tented ergo-keyboard, Wacom tablet, note paper, and microphone which I almost never used). This was all fine and good, but I moved here to this apartment (which is fairly large for a single man of modest means) after sharing an apartment of 2/3 its size, and then taking up residence in a spare bedroom at my parents house before making the big relocation. Point is, my existence has been pretty compact over the last few years, and that left me with sorta swimming in this apartment. More importantly I took stock of my habits. And wouldn’t you know, my best creative flow was happening when I took my Laptop to the nearly empty dining room and sitting at my “dining table” (really a folding-leg table slightly smaller than a typical card table) and sitting on a $6 stool from IKEA or an old oak dining chair. 

Now I’ve taken all the pictures off the walls, and put the former dining table in the middle of my new, large, nearly empty workroom space. the laptop sits in the middle and the fancy keyboard only comes out when there’s a lot of writing to do. This leaves me with a distraction-reduced space for working complete with empty hardwood floor. I’ve jokingly started referring to the room as “the rehearsal hall” because it reminds me very much of a theatre rehearsal space. Its just a room. I’m not pretending that any of my work REQUIRES fancy equipment, or perfect circumstances, a great chair, a stack of reference material, or a wall covered in inspirational aphorisms. I just need a space for things to happen. Sometimes I lay on the floor and let all my muscles fall into the wood. An ounce of awareness and relaxation is worth at least a pound of comfort. And a hardwood floor does more for awareness than any chair I’ve ever met. 

I’m not going to think of this as asceticism, just a realization that the pomp and circumstance are really just clutter. All that is required to invite the muse is that you show up. If there’s lots of stuff, if there’s too many tools and connectors and hoopla and jargon, I know that even if I go there, there’s a good chance I won’t ever show up.

A broad, white mat for life

Spent a little while matting prints last tonight. I stood over my work table with this one for quite a while. It was a moment of unusual clarity (I just rearranged all my furniture to get more clarity in my workspace). It’s spare, it’s simple, but it drew me in. When you stand under this stone it’s quite wonderously large and imposing, but in black and white, with the world blurring around it surrounded by a pure white mat, it’s something harder to put a finger on. I stood in the now blank walled nearly empty room myself matted in white and with a distance from the world. I had to step back for a few minutes and reflect on all the things that got me here.

Have a happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Joy Postponed, Drudgery pwned

I wish I were posting today about my very successful trip to the Catskills to photograph a few beautiful waterfalls and their lush attending mountain forests. Alas I decided to postpone that jaunt due to the high degree of cloud cover predicted for the region. And so instead I’ve spent the weekend playing a few video games, running many miles and getting around to some business that had been eluding me. 

This is often the most difficult thing for me to accomplish. The tasks that were second tier but are allowed to move forward by a hiccup on the first tier. Plans are a wonderful thing for those of us who have spent more of our lives procrastinating than doing. And when those plans get disrupted I feel uniquely challenged by my desire to get things done anyway. Here I sit, in time I had slated for driving down from the hill country to the flat and sandy shores of Long Island, unable to do that thing from which I had already tasted the thrill and triumph. So how is it that one makes one’s way back from a daydream into the reality of useful drudge work? After all, my love for entering data about and pricing prints of my photographs is not what drives me to take them. Nor is applying for juried hangings of my work with local arts councils. The fact that I keep running into here is that there is simply no way to casually make my way back from that daydream, for this work is completely and utterly unrelated to the dreamscape. Instead this is a process of ringing the bell at the change of periods, rudely rousing myself and setting off to plod through a lab period, where daydreaming over a colorless lecture is not an option. The really good news here is that its hard to emerge from the lab without feeling energized. 

I do not, this evening, feel energized in the way that I would arriving home with a couple of CF cards from which will flow many additional hours of ecstatic work. Instead it is the slow and confident energy of preparedness. Necessary work was never my strong suit. This is me making a change, I suppose.

The Ben Franklin Daytimer, and keeping odd hours…

It was not very long ago that I finally got around to reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. Now this was in many ways an exercise in abject envy of one of history’s most effective people. The man was an unstoppable productivity machine. It seemed every one of his setbacks suited him just fine and he made them into great opportunities instead. But this kind of positivity I believed stemmed from the man’s ability to shelve what he could not do and focus cleanly and purposefully on his at-hand tasks. Which brings me to the real subject I’ve set out to write about today: Benjamin Franklin’s Daytimer.

One of the more difficult bits of maintaining my personal creative momentum has been guilt. Yes, guilt. Above the endless distractions of the internet and competing projects and planning trips and making tea and a mountain of reading I have mostly resolved is never getting done, guilt keeps me from maintaining my momentum. Now, doesn’t this seem illogical coming from a man who believes that the best way to motivate one’s self to their important creative work is by acknowledging it is their social responsibility? Yes, I admit it seems a little backward. But in truth the biggest problem is focus that falls apart. For me, I do not lose focus (I don’t misplace it), nor does it slip from one task to another. Instead it is as if I’ve fitted the wrench of my focus onto it’s bolt and its handle promptly resolves into sand. But what does that have to do with my guilt? 

There are certain ambient pressures of the world that enter into my thinking on focus and productivity. The first is the rampant and destructive glorification of “busy”. Working late nights and early mornings and all through the weekends is supposed to mean you’re doing something right. But Benjamin Franklin didn’t say “Toiling late and early to rise.” And more pointedly, that famous mantra, “Early to bed early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise” doesn’t just promise that you’ll get a lot done. The promises of health and wisdom are probably more important than the wealth that always seems to catch our eyes first. So my guilt over not having accomplished enough during the day leads me to diminishing health and wisdom. After all, when I’m late to bed it usually means I’m bleary eyed and exhausted when I get there. This is never a state in which I feel healthier or more wise. 

Now I’m no neurologist but I do have some neurons of my own and I can say with some confidence that attempting to overcome chemistry by force of will is a losing battle. But with this revelation in mind one sees a way out. Some time ago I came across an exercise in “Write” by Karen E. Peterson Ph.D. which suggested allowing your more intuitive side guide you in structuring your day. The exercise asks you to carry a chart of the hours of the day with you on a daily basis along with a box of colored pencils, and to fill in the hours with whatever color occurs to you allowing your mood to be reflected by the color choices you make. After doing this for some time you’ll discover a pattern as to what parts of your day are your most active and creative or most relaxed and least apprehensive. This understanding goes a long way in building an effective routine, which brings me back to old Mr.Franklin. 

In the autobiography one notices in several places Franklin’s proclivity for forming routines. It seems every new location or undertaking is accompanied by a description of its day to day, down to what kind of roll to be bought for a daily walk about town, whether it should be buttered, how much should be paid for it, and how it might affect the afternoon’s swimming. There is a section in the book which outlines the broader blocks of Franklin’s time each day, breaking out a 3 hour Rise, Wash, and Breakfast period, from two 4 hour work periods split by a 2 hour lunch, and a 4 hour evening for socializing and relaxation. Did you catch that? BENJAMIN FRANKLIN took 2 HOURS for lunch! It is at this point that we should all give ourselves license to quit feeling lazy about not spitting turkey sandwiches all over our computer screens during our half hour “breaks” and start getting serious about the effective use of our time. Guilt trip over, its time to fix the problem.

I have been playing with what I’m going to be calling the Ben Franklin Daytimer for a couple of weeks now. Essentially I am combining Franklin’s idea of an 8 hour workday in two 4 hour blocks separated by a generous break with the Pomodorino system to bolster the effectiveness of those work periods. If you’re unfamiliar with Pomodorino time management, do a little google searching and you’ll find a great many descriptions and best practices. Its a simple method of dedicating short blocks of time to a specific task using a basic kitchen timer, and then taking short breaks between those work periods. I don’t actually use a kitchen timer, instead I use a great Mac App called ChronoSlider which makes setting timers and even recurring alarms a really smooth and incredibly quick process, if you’re a mac user, check it out. As a person obsessed with organizing my projects it can be a challenge to put those things out of mind and the security of knowing that the bell will ring in a half hour makes it much easier and allows me to focus with greater intensity. But there is the even greater obstacle of having focus that will not dissolve to sand when you try to use it, and this I believe is where routine becomes important.

Early to bed. Sleep is hugely important to whether I can focus and think and be creative. I made mention above of chemistry and as I understand it nothing is quite as important to the chemistry of productivity as the time you spend asleep. This is another place where guilt shows up. After all, when you are uncomfortable about not having done enough, or you want to wear your sleep deprivation as a badge of honor, you are not likely to sleep well. Again, we need to think more about the ways we really do our best work and not use the hours and stress we put in as a measure of our commitment. I’ve personally been having the most trouble with this bit, the regularity of my routine. This is for several reasons (including my part time jobs with inconsistent schedules) but most frustratingly because of the nature of the work I’ve been doing. When you come right down to it, you’ve got to show up. And for me that has meant not just being at my computer and ready to do some post processing and writing but also being several hours drive from my home at sunrise to photograph seascapes. Breaking my routine has been detrimental to my sleep cycle and to my focus, but the pictures are coming out great, and thats the most energizing part of my day.

Not all challenges are trouble, just take them as they are, set your timer, and dive in. If you’re like me, or like Franklin, you probably have more stuff on the back burner than you care to admit. So if there’s a block in your way, don’t spend too much energy regretting it, instead just pull something else to the burner thats working and set your timer. And if you’ll excuse me, its time to get up and stretch.

My Least Favorite Dilemma

After a long weekend of shoveling snow up here in the great wet northeastern states, I am struggling to overcome a mite of sickness. I’m the first one to admit that I am not brilliant at facing down my resistance, and that recognition helps me. However, when I begin to feel less than 90% physically, my ability to focus drops clean off the table. This is one of my ultimate moments in the dilemma of effort, should I push through and ignore the discomfort to raise my spirits by the satisfaction of getting things done? Or would I be better served resting, napping, drinking tea, for the chance that I recover sooner? The hard part of this question is that neither option feels good. And that is where the trouble begins.

We all know that happens then, we attempt to do both, and therefore accomplish neither. And so I will likely be forced to move on to the next days no better rested than usual and with little accomplished. Writing this is merely a half-witted escape from this scenario. This way I’ve done something easy and self-referential, which can masquerade on my to-do list as successful work time. I promise more actual content is on its way. 

In fact I’m even formulating some technical advice some folks could make practical use of. But for now, TEA, and maybe I’ll move over to some reading I had planned to do before today… 

Reading Writing and Running

I fantasize about a small cabin on a hill above some New England bluff. Its an imaginary place where I live for a few years with a like minded young woman. Yes, in part this is a fantasy about loving, warming, companionship, fantastic sex, and long lung-stretching, mind-expanding, heart-filling morning runs in beautiful places. The house has just 2 rooms, and rustic ramshackle siding but reliable electricity and hot water. It sits in a town where the sprawl of modern life has yet to penetrate, but where the local economy has built its own measure of convenience. And although the world goes on as usual, my companion and I quietly live out a kind of private utopia. We work simple jobs just half the week to support our habits of running, reading great books, and writing for ourselves and for everyone else who wants more.

We dedicate a chapter of our lives to a simple companionship and the cultivation of my newly designed Three R’s of personal development. Its a concept that operates much the same as the classic Three R’s many of us remember from elementary school, “Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic.” Of course if you ever learned the first two the last is hard to justify. And for many of us, especially those living a simple, quiet life in a shack above some small atlantic bay, arithmetic beyond addition and subtraction to balance a meager budget, has little utility.

So in this imaginary seaside shanty, the experiment of Reading, Writing and Running begins. The deep and distant humanity of our nature can be awakened in the primal simplicity of running for joy, for health, and for basic transportation. And then to write and deepen the understanding of this connection to the future, and to the distant past. Finally reading, primed by the regular practice of running and writing, we may dive into the classic literature, the new masterpieces of universal humanity and be moved not by the words but by the, wondrous nature of the base and fragile people who wrote them.

Short of cult leading, I expect to build my tribe one day on the merits of this system of learning, expression, and self actualization. The shack by the sea is the symbol that I’ve endowed to help me understand this hypothetical world, but the picturesque locale is not the fantasy. My yearning in this is most truly to be at the avant-garde of some new-millennium beat movement. When I read (or personally speculate) about my generation being one culturally lost in the torrent of commercial art, I feel it had ought to be my duty to stop that slide. I have no pretensions about being able to stand up, powerful and strong in the face of hollywood commercialisms’ fire hose and get anything but knocked clean off my feet and swept swiftly into the current. However, there is plenty of space today to stand just left of the line, not to level a playing field or to conquer a portion thereof, but to build an entirely new one. If that meant living in flop houses and smoking weed for the beat generation, I hope it could be reading writing and running in mine. Life needs little of its modern complications, I will happily live without restaurants and movie theaters, cable TV subscriptions or video games, corporate pop music made to sell soft drinks. All I ask is for a quiet place where I can share my life with someone sweet and concerned, and an opportunity to share the musings, learnings and stories of our lives with the world.

But in the world outside our private utopia, this might become a movement. Then I will have further obligations, which I will eschew. Because unlike many shaman before me, I know this message will not weather the inequity of being peddled. One cannot run angry, and one cannot peddle the careful, consistent, and ever deepening commitment to self betterment without causing it to crumble into dust. But I and the other practitioners of Reading Writing and Running will know that it is the way’s very fragility that gives it its power.

Abuse and Relief

Its been a long couple of weeks, and most of that time I have devoted to the work I consider unimportant to me. For the sake of making money I have two part time jobs in retail environments. Far be it from me to belittle the work that retail people do, I have seen it first hand and done it myself for a few years. The experience of working in retail is atrocious, and to that point I think EVERYONE should do it or some other service-oriented job dealing with the public at large. A huge amount of often tedious work constantly interrupted by people who believe they are the most deeply wronged, ferociously inconvenienced and fantastically important of all. Retail is not without its bright spots but these are the exception to the rule. And for those who find this rewarding, fun, interesting, and they wish to do more of it, I say, “More power to ’em.” But for me I cannot wait to get out in part because I simply don’t like it, but mostly because the other projects I’m developing are far more important, and deserve more of my time.
I’m sure many people have been in my shoes, but I know I do an exceptional amount of beating myself up about it. Hence the title of this post, when I’m “at work” I am often being abused by the public, when I leave home (where much of my real work gets done) to “go to work” I abuse myself for the waste of my valuable energy. Since deciding back in March to move at the beginning of next year I have been reporting to work for someone else 6 days a week, and the relief does not come easily. One day per week spent relaxing means that I will have wasted my once weekly opportunity to get some serious work done. This is no way to accomplish anything. But for now, until I have my tribe, my collaborators, my virtuous circle of inspiration near and accessible I will have to just deal with this frustration, and work harder until all my moving costs are covered and I’m ready to settle into dirt-bagging for my real purpose.

Not long ago I wrote about Motivational Love Letters, the little spots of writing that build up your confidence and provide positive affirmation for your dearest pursuits. These have become extremely important for providing myself the much needed relief from my grind and drab view of the world that closes in on me. But these too might give way to the pressure of a terrible question they beg me to ask myself, “If I’m so great, why am I still here?” There are no easy answers here, but there might be a few good ones. They will as always depend on just who you are as an individual, but for me this question has given me the opportunity to look at the yin to the Love Letter’s yang. I’m referring of course to the easy to write, hard to listen to, even harder to admit making use of, “Light a Fire Under your Lazy Ass, Tough-Love Letters.” Though its probably best to make use of these very sparingly I have found that lately with so many other things sapping my energy, these have been instrumental in helping me to hang on. While the world whips me around on its frothy sea of spite and joy and begrudging admiration, I am desperately gripping the edge of my life raft and hoping the change that falls from my pockets will be put to good use. And so it is that the cycle of abuse and relief continues. Praise, motivate, hurt, motivate, scar, heal, abuse, relieve.

In these last couple of weeks I have also decided it would be a good idea to return more seriously to my running practice. After all, who couldn’t do with a little extra meditation and blood-energizing exercise? Especially when in the throws of a struggle to maintain one’s own identity, subjugating the real work of your life to the false idols of money and expediency. But again, running has been teaching. There is such wisdom in the runner’s high. Its as if in lieu of inventing a time machine, or workable unifying theory, universally applicable philosophy or useful religions, truly virtuous savages gave us their wisdom in our genes, in our sweat, in our blood and literally in our hearts. There is a moment when you hit your runner’s high, and you know you’re back. I have not been running much lately and just yesterday had the fantastically invigorating experience of feeling more prepared to run faster and harder just as the effort necessitated i work harder to keep up. This cycle did not wear me down but instead built up my faith, my excitement, my speed, my freedom. Simply put, there are times when the harder you’re breathing, the faster you can run. Its like Pat Robertson always told you, the more you give away the more you’ll have to give. Except that I don’t want your money for my congregation/ TV Station. Just remember that your emotional life and your imaginary world, and at least your perception of your physical energy are as boundless as time and your will to explore.

Even on the trail, and along the beach the cycle continues. Abusing your feet, wearing down your legs, working your lungs, the air relieves it all, and your smile will rebuild your strength. Take that moment and remind yourself to go out and spend your time in the ways that you are the virtuous vagabond, the dirt-bagging hobo king. Light your fires in the dustbowl-refugee jungles of your day, and give away your fear and self loathing, your frustration and your joy will bring you home. Tell your stories, and scar and heal, shock and comfort, abuse and relieve.

Dreaming

Did you ever wake from a very frightening dream only to be sorely disappointed that the rest of your world was right where you left it the night before?
Last night I was washed out to sea. I floated on a sheet of old siding and was borne out to open ocean. For a great long time there was the changing topography of the water, and then the current granted me a gift. In the neighboring valleys of the sea there were others just like me. And if we were lucky beyond hope we might find ourselves desperately stranded, broken, without our lives or families but at least in uncertain company.

It was about this time that I woke, alone, in my darkened bedroom, under a somewhat deflated down comforter and shivering like it were a cold ridge-line morning in a leaking tent. I knew it could not be later than 1 am, but the decision to rise from bed to get another blanket was never more difficult. My only desire was to shut my eyes and turn again, back to the unreality of my dreaming sea where perhaps I could justify my shivering cold with the wet and exhaustion. And with that beautiful destiny in mind I steeled guts to amble down the hall and collect from the closet an underused 35 degree sleeping bag. hurriedly and still shivering I tucked my feet into the bottom leaving it unzipped and laying on top of me before throwing the comforter over as well. But I continued to shudder, harder, almost convulsions. Seizing an extra pillow I hugged it to my chest and feverishly pulled the edge of the sleeping bag around me, I need more insulation. All this for getting to bed a bit too long after the heat turned off for the night. but then, as I began to turn a corner in the real world, my mind rolled over my right shoulder and back into the water.

The sky is grey but the water no longer rushes and heaves my fellows and I have landed a few together here is a place unfamiliar, but similar in its brokenness to the one I slid from. The hills are steep and the buildings are short their doors, their windows, and some of their walls. On the beachfront I am wary of my fellow castaways, but there is nothing to know, there is nothing say and nothing to fear. With new eyes we explore a destroyed neighborhood seeing the great boon of all this easy material and pre-made shelter not the despair of its great loss.

On the second floor of a house, the street-facing wall removed, the center hall and bedroom now a great open-air balcony, I spy two others. I and my three fellows approach the house, we offer our assistance. No names are exchanged because what could they mean in a place like this? We can trade only kindnesses. And soon we sit, provisioned and warmed by a fire. As the sun runs out we clarify our new national project, in the morning we will look to find, help, and cheer who we can. Sitting closely by the young woman who had been on the second floor of this house, a laugh rings out from us both and I suddenly recognize her. We had met before but I never could see her in this way, we talk of the future and not of the past, not of loss but of our find.

By a fire with sweet closeness, and dear warming in her eyes I have another date with a woman I always hoped to see in the yellow light of nostalgic love. Our small new future in the light of this fire and new family. Terror, wariness, shivering against hope is all toothless connecting of past to present as the stars make themselves known and a new world is born. A utopia is born from hell.

Then the alarm rings and I am adrift and dry in a bed ill equipped for the world so well appointed. I cannot bear the loss.

Whirlwind in a Watery Mind

After a long stretch of days spent working for someone else, I am disoriented today by an unfamiliar degree of self direction. Its time to break out the pencils and pens. Its time to make the doughnuts. Then just in time to put my feet on the ground, to find my stroke, it will be another stretch of days dedicated to the pursuit of a dollar in a big corporate paycheck.
I heard today that some migratory birds can use a cyclone or a tropical storm, like a slingshot to accelerate to far beyond their typical speed, entering the storm at 7 miles per hour and exiting at 99 miles per hour. There is a whirling, uncertain, unbalanced pressure in my mind, and my resistance says this is frightening, that it may be best to read, to play a game, to turn it off. Or at least to plan, create a strategy, define a new workflow that will improve my lifestyle and productivity. But one thing is sure, flying into the storm means more muffled underwater-ears and swimming vision, more disorienting spinning of the winds.

But this is wrong.

My vision only blurs because I am trying to fly across this wind. This is a time to muster one’s hope, one’s courage and more trust than I know myself to possess and turn into the storm. At one hundred miles an hour I should find the far side of the clouds in no time at all.