Grace notes

I grew up with a mom and dad who played music every chance they got. Most nights after dinner, one parent would turn up the classical music coming from the local station on the kitchen radio, the other retired to a room to read, while the kids each went off to practice their respective instruments. One child on the upstairs piano, one on the downstairs piano, another in the TV room practicing a wind instrument.

They took the kids to piano lessons, French Horn lessons, saxaphone lessons, flute, clarinet, whichever instrument struck our fancy. For some period of years, all kids were required to take two instruments, so mathmatically, our practice sessions took most of the weeknight evening not already taken up by homework. But the house was, interminablely, filled with “music.”

My mother was a whistler and when not actually playing the violin, she was whistling her way around the house, making certain no room was unfilled with sound. Every morning about 5AM my father would rise first and start tea or coffee, making the most of what little solitude one could find in the house. (For years, I also woke at 5AM to “keep my father company,” thinking he was lonely. Not until I had kids in my own house did I realize those early solo hours were not lonely, but intentional — a needed respite from the clamor of everyday life.)

Learning to play music is an long exercise learning to to be kind to yourself. As your fingers stumble to keep up with your eyes and ears, your brain will say unkind things to the rest of you. And when this tangle of body and mind finally makes sense of a measure or a melody, there is peace. Or, more accurately, harmony. And like the parents who so energetically both fill a house with music and seek its quietude, both are needed to make things work. As with music, it takes a lifetime of practice to be kind to yourself. Make space for that practice, and the harmony will emerge.

Listening is how we eat music. Hearing is how we digest it.

Robert Fripp cf. “Use familiar knowledge unconsciously. Sight-read. Make your own pieces with the notes you know well and the rest of the piece, the story, the language, will fall into place.”

A lesson

I like things. Full disclosure: a lot of things. More things, perhaps, than can be reasonably liked by one person. To me, rose-colored glasses have always seemed a curious concept as the world seems shiny enough without them. So I steer clear of conditions that might increase the likelihood of increasing the world’s sparklehood.

Choice then, becomes the primary tool to navigate like, as it gives each thing its priority, assigning an algorithm for liking, for doing, and for being in the world.

You see, for the like-striken, it’s hard to say no. Everyone and everything is interesting.

As I suffer from this condition myself, something a friend said to me several years ago has stayed with me:

It’s easy to say no if you love something.”

Wrong. Wrong, I thought at the time. If you love something, say yes. Say yes to everything. Yet what did he mean about loving something, I quietly wondered. Did he mean to imply that having a focus for one’s passion also functioned as a tool to help make better choices?

Making a life

In a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe said there are two kinds of writers: putter-inners (like himself) or leaver-outers (like Fitzgerald). These categories, like all categories, are of course oversimplified, but they still illustrate a great point. Just like saying yes, saying no creates your story. It’s what you leave out, not just what you put in, that forms a story, that makes a life.

Creative pursuits hold an inherent need for choice, whether we consider music, art, literature, dance, or design. Every great story is surrounded by white space of some kind. Blank spaces are powerful. The author and designer choose not to lay out a page with text to every edge. Its white space is part of the story it tells. What we choose to leave out creates the story.

Making a story

Consider your favorite novel. You probably don’t recall the most memorable character in the book doing the most mundane of tasks—eating breakfast, getting dressed, using the bathroom, tying shoelaces—day in and day out. The author made an intentional decision to leave these details out. He or she, the leaver-outter in that situation, crafted a story about another arc that didn’t need those ordinaries.

As a reader, you didn’t consider those absences, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. Their presence, like the silent subjects of sentences or the silent strength of typographic scaffolding, creates the supporting structure to guide the main story, the primary choices, that the author, the artist, the creator is making.

“Love and the leaver-outters,” originally written for The Manual.

The same is true in layouts in design. In pauses between crescendos in music. In absences in architectural archways. In blanks in the maps of oceans. Rather than fill the spaces with unnecessary distractions, their creators have chosen to leave these areas blank. And the blanks speak for both what is and what is not there.

Choice-makers are doers. And doers seem to also be leaver-outers.
I’ve always paid attention to and wondered at the leaver-outers of the world, so I do often come back to that phrase:

It’s easy to say no if you love something.”

No matter what it is—be it a business, a person, a piece of art, a career, a song, a family, a way of life, or a pursuit of any kind—it’s easy to say no to all the other choices that will present themselves if you truly love something.

Finding that thing is the hardest part. But that’s another lesson.

Interactivity

Douglas Adams (in 1999 no less):

[T]he reason we suddenly need such a word [as “interactivity”] is that during this century we have for the first time been dominated by non-interactive forms of entertainment: cinema, radio, recorded music and television. Before they came along all entertainment was interactive: theatre, music, sport—the performers and audience were there together, and even a respectfully silent audience exerted a powerful shaping presence on the unfolding of whatever drama they were there for. We didn’t need a special word for interactivity in the same way that we don’t (yet) need a special word for people with only one head.

As Eno pointed out, by naming something you say, “this is now real.” We can define something just as much by what is than we can by what is not. Unhappiness, for instance, teaches us invaluable lessons about happiness. When, then, will “wireless” become extinct?

[This and this via]

Stillness in motion

I think a lot about what I would say to the younger version of myself if I met her again, if I met her through the still moments of all the motion of youth — when she was sitting at the piano, or if I saw her alone on the playground, or if I watched her read, voice quivering, her short stories in front of the class.

If I met the younger version of myself, we’d take a walk — the same walk I take every day — so I could explain to young me that routine and tradition are paramount. You have to choose a category header, but it’s only as permanent as you need it to be. You have to choose a theme song and stay with it. Decide. If only for an hour or a day or a week.

See also:
One equals one

If I met me, but younger, we’d talk about the value of one thing. You have to choose one thing to do for yourself every day. No matter what practice you choose — how fulfilling or meaningful — it will sometimes overwhelm you. Choose something for yourself every day. Do it repeatedly and without fail. If you do something for yourself every day, no matter how many standoffs or negotiations or letdowns you face throughout the day, no one can take that away from you.

If I met younger me, we would sit quietly and listen to music. We might put instruments we did not know how to play in our laps. “Play,” I would encourage. Younger me would stare straight ahead uncomfortably. “No one knows what they’re doing,” I would continue. “Being expert means starting. Knowing is playing your first note.” We would scratch out notes on new instruments together.

See also:
On love

If I met me, but many years before, we’d talk about love and time. Love will not be polite. It does not wait for opportune moments to approach you. It knows not your life plans or schedule or current or future intentions. It will not wait for you to be ready. There is, in this way, no time for it. If you wait for it, then, it will not come. As love — for a person, a profession, a practice, a city — comes to you. It crosses your path and is only yours to accept. It is up to you to open your hands and heart.

I used to think life was an intricate series of spreadsheets and grids, weights and balances, promotions and boardroom standoffs. As grew older I realized life is less grid and more raw data, less stop sign and more yield, less urban and more sprawl. Life passes by in seasons, not days, and best we can do is choose our category headers, theme songs, and instruments to make the most of every day. With that, we can see the world as we move through it.

Because there is stillness in motion.

First written for AIGA Centennial Voices series, September 2014.

The perfect year

In 1979, I sucked up a crucifix. Schlawapffk is the sound it makes, FYI, when the special gift of a First Communion necklace disappears into the head of a 1970 Electrolux Deluxe Automatic 1205 vacuum.

It was an unassuming piece of jewelry, the kind that decorates not dictates Catholicism. Its delicate 14-karat gold choker nearly invisible, letting the cross pendant do its thing.

But then it happened. In a moment of what I would like to remember as devout responsibility, but was in fact a young me rocking out to a boombox while vacuuming my pink shag bedroom carpet, I knocked it off the dresser. And in one fell swish of wand and nozzle, all was lost.

It took me years to get up the courage to tell my parents about that necklace. What would they think of me if they knew? Just like it took me years to tell them that our hamster didn’t just die a natural death, but fell to her death one morning when I was trying to give her a hug before school. Et cetera.

What if they found out I wasn’t perfect? What if they knew I’d lost myself in music so deeply that I got carried away? If they knew I’d loved an animal so immensely that I wanted to be close to her. What then?

And henceforth imperfect aversion began. Better if I kept these things, and all, to myself.

Imperfection protection is a training regimen that requires constant attention. Let your guard down (fall in love, get lost, be in awe, get distracted) and your guard is down, susceptible to attack. Even after years of practice, pruning, trimming, training, the armor is vulnerable. The typos slip through. The hem shows. The human is.

More years and many regimens later, I can confidently say I’ve lived the most imperfect year on record. 2013 was a year of loss and tragedy. But it was also a year of honesty. Of saying what is. And of owning up to not being perfect.

Of course, much sooner than 2013, my family learned of the necklace, the hamster. What came of it wasn’t nearly what I had expected, but instead support and a profound connection.

Like the things we intend to be, but never are quite that, the things we do, but never fall quite right, these systems are ever in motion. And the key is not to focus on what is, but to be a participant in the exploration of change. The what that is in motion. To be present through transformation.

Imperfection is a constant. Look and listen for it, as it usually means you’re getting close to perfect.

This thought was first published by The Pastry Box Project

Material miles

It was a glass box. A house in deep woods. It was remote. It was designerly on the interior, animaled on the exterior. It was mine—for a summer. It was two summers ago, and it was intended for critical project studies. “I’m spending the summer upstate,” I would say, as some New Yorkers do. “To write. To play music.” “Where, again?” they would repeat, not being familiar with this particular breed of remote. They’d tick off train stations as I shook my head. No, this was not those. No, this was a remote summer alone from the city, designed to “Make Projects.”

And off I went, trailing instruments and sewing devices and writing material and dog. Yet sixty days later, I was back in the city. And just like that, it was over.

The remote remote

What people who make things know is that ideas fold you in a remote space–inside a cabin, at a writer’s corral, inside your head, at a coffee shop–then ideas press you back out into the world, rubbing your eyes on your behalf. To have an idea is, at some point, to retreat into quietude. With you is the material of the world, the people, their exchanges, the sound of footsteps, the thing people do when they get together, their life sounds. You fold those into your pocket as you fold yourself into your space. And the making begins.

The road leading to the summer house was windy, punctuated with weathered signs. “National Scenic Bypass,” you could make out, barely, on the days it wasn’t raining. The signs, proud proclamations once, were threadbare from weather, as this particular bypass of beautiful that I had chosen to live on was cursed with weather. The deep-mountain woods kind.

Expansive river views, long motorcycle roads, sunsets and rises, farmers’ markets, endless woods—these quickly lose their charm when it rains. Particularly for weeks at a time. Satellite internet, too, loses its certain magical property once rain and storms come. And power goes down. So many days, I would sit, “making projects,” with neither power nor internet.

Making projects

Within a week, the project became just surviving. “Light!” That was a project. “Survived my first tornado…” “Rattlesnake!” These “challenges,” though, as challenging as they were, may not have stood between my creative project-making so distinctly if I had been listening.

Rebecca Solnit:

To hear is to let the sound wander all the way through the labyrinth of your ear; to listen is to travel the other way to meet it. It’s not passive but active, this listening. It’s as though you retell each story, translate it into the language particular to you, fit it into your cosmology so you can understand and respond, and thereby it becomes part of you. The word empathy originally meant feeling into, and to empathize is to reach out to meet the data that comes through the labyrinths of the senses. To enter into, we say, as though another person’s life was also a place you could travel to.”

Rather than listening to the city, I left it. I didn’t meet the urban data halfway, making it part of me, but packed it up and moved its shells upstate. As it turns out, my material is urban. It’s loud, and it’s messy. It has feet and wheels and voices and opinions. It’s anti-pastoral. And without it, I have nothing to create against.

Ideas need material to draw upon first, and a place to draw them out second. And to take hold, ideas, like people, need a home.

This thought was first published by The Pastry Box Project

Mid-century modern music

Mid-century modern music

What is the musical equivalent of mid-century modern design? Spinning on Air host, David Garland, explores the question in today’s “Spinning on Air:”

In the mid-20th Century there were unprecedented modernist influences on the fields of architecture, furniture, graphic, and industrial design. Designers such as Eero Saarinen, Alvin Lustig, and Charles and Ray Eames created chairs, films, and homes that combined innovation, practicality, and beauty.

And:

[He] finds it in the jazz compositions of George Russell, a “Third Stream” piece for electric guitar and strings by Jim Hall, John Cage’s serene “In a Landscape,” Miles Davis’ collaborations with arranger Gil Evans, Elmer Bernstein’s music for the films of Charles and Ray Eames, and more.

Head over to listen or, perhaps, do nothing.

How to be a person/novelist

How to be a person/novelist

Murakami on how being obsessed with music helped him be a novelist (emphasis mine):

Whether in music or in fiction, the most basic thing is rhythm. Your style needs to have good, natural, steady rhythm, or people won’t keep reading your work. I learned the importance of rhythm from music — and mainly from jazz.

Next comes melody — which, in literature, means the appropriate arrangement of the words to match the rhythm. If the way the words fit the rhythm is smooth and beautiful, you can’t ask for anything more.

Next is harmony — the internal mental sounds that support the words.

Then comes the part I like best: free improvisation. Through some special channel, the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow.

Finally comes what may be the most important thing: that high you experience upon completing a work.

These are just as important a set of guidelines for music and writing as they are for how to be a person.

  1. Have predictability or rhythm
  2. Find a melody or a narrative
  3. Create harmony to support the narrative
  4. Improvise
  5. Make it public/ship it

[via rgreco]

Risk as feelings thesis

Risk as feelings thesis

Stanford economist George Loewenstein on how the brain makes decisions and something called the Risk as Feelings thesis:

He argued we overreact emotionally to new risks (which are often low-probability events), and underreact to those risks that are familiar (although these events are more likely to occur). So, as Loewenstein explains, “this is why people seemed to initially overreact to the risk of terrorism in the years immediately following 9/11 [and the Bali bombings], but tend to underreact to the much more familiar and more likely risks of talking on the mobile phone while driving, and wearing seatbelts”.

And:

But when thinking about difficult, exciting, interesting activities, such as investing in a new business, or perhaps buying a $10 million lottery ticket, the brain areas associated with emotion — such as the midbrain dopamine system — become more active.

Images, colours, music, even social discussion means that the midbrain emotional area becomes dominant, and the rational part of the brain finds it hard to resist the temptation. The emotional centres of the brain simply tell the rational part to shape up or ship out.

And then a funny thing happens:

The rational part of the brain agrees, and starts to look for evidence that supports the emotional brain — it becomes an ally in the search for reasons why the emotional choice is a good one.

The value of optimism.

A system of irreconcilable regularities

A system of irreconcilable regularities

German pre-Romantic philosopher, Johann Georg Hamman, held that music was given to man to make it possible to measure time:

We do not measure time regularly, like clocks do, but with many differing rates of speed. In the complexity of today’s experience, it often seems as if simultaneous events were unfolding with different measures. These different measures coexist and often blend but are not always rationalized in experience under one central system. We might call this a system of irreconcilable regularities.

Sort of like the strange but extremely valuable science of how pedestrians behave. Differing rates of speed, moving together in the main – or not – toward the same purpose, differently, together together, or together alone. A system of irreconcilable regularities and irreconcilably regular.