September 21, 2011

live by the calendar, die by the calendar

Apple’s App Store slogan has long been, ‘There’s an app for that.’ And by and large, that has proven true. Even if you weren’t a Mac acolyte, whatever smartphone system you chose would probably feature a similar glut of options: a slew of competing apps for every function, with a few rising above the rest with their sparkling UIs and singularity of purpose. Fine. Good.

Yet if you look at the nature of the apps being produced, specifically productivity apps, you see a certain bias behind the whole idea of them. There are countless list apps of varying complexity that are incredibly powerful, but all focus around the idea of ticking items off a list; items that can be connected to location, dates, or tagged with degrees of importance. There are apps that will let you block out every minute of every day, so you don’t forget anything. I don’t actually believe that any of the motives behind this are malevolent, but I can’t help but feel that there are a few misconceptions, or oversights at least, when it comes to thinking about our productivity and the usefulness of such apps. Or maybe it speaks to how we’ve come to feel about organization and efficiency; perhaps the blame lies not in our apps, but in ourselves.

Many people subscribe to life by the calendar and some variation on David Allen’s GTD – keeping lists and mapping out each day for fear of forgetting important or letting things slip through the cracks. But how many of us actually work this way?

What none of these apps seem to address is the fact that life often happens whether we want it to or not, and things change. Plans get interrupted, something comes up. We have to make a hundred on-the-fly decisions every day in response to the outside world that rarely, if ever, goes along with our plans. The element of unpredictability is wholly ignored by the world of GTD, or so it seems to me. This alone isn’t such a big deal, but there is more to it.

I think the real issue is the backwards way we look at productivity. GTD enables you to completely map out all your obligations, regardless of size; but nowhere in there is a guide for making better decisions about what’s worth doing (it is certainly implied that the ability to make those decisions is essential, but it leaves that up to the user). It perfects the science of organization and efficiency, but can’t tell you what’s important. For what it is, GTD works.

Dan Pink gave an excellent TED Talk about the science of motivation – namely, how we do better when we operate by intrinsic motivation as opposed to external reward.  I think this has everything to do with how productivity is currently viewed: We make lists of things we need to do. Sometimes we even make lists of things we want to do, but these lists are usually so extensive that it becomes a) impossible to do them all and b) stressful to think about. Even the things we want become things would should do, when we have the time. Pink, in his talk, gets at something called Results Only Work Environment – a system where we can do what we want, when we want, as long as certain things get done in a timely manner. No more blocking out our schedules, no more running from one task to the next. We have a list of things that need to get done, and as long as that happens, everything else is up to us (needless to say, companies that have implemented this approach have found it to improve employee morale, productivity, and innovation by a huge margin).

This can easily be translated into the world of personal organization. We make lists of the few things that need to get done each day, while keeping an eye on leaving plenty of wiggle room to allow for our own moods, meanderings, and interactions with the world. Rather than constantly referencing our lists and calendars, we trust that we’ll take care of the important stuff, but when we feel like it. I can only guess at this point, but I imagine that living in this way would make us much happier and, perversely, ultimately more productive. Now where’s my app for that?

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September 1, 2011

I could never get the hang of Thursdays. No, that’s a lie.

On my way towards the elevator I ran into the dentist who works down the hall from me. We talked about the weather and the fact that tomorrow is Friday, and what that meant to each of us. He liked Fridays; I found them to be more stressful as they were full of preparing for the workload of the coming week. He murmured in understanding. We got out on the third floor and went our ways.

Each day of the week means something to someone. It’s felt very natural, working where I do, to slip into a weekly rhythm that assigns each day its own identity and to see each week as a separate animal from the one that preceded it. Mondays are slow and easy, a warm up; given to easing back into the swing of things and maybe plotting out, cup of coffee in hand, the plans and goals for the week ahead. Tuesdays are the build and the push, the most aggressive of days: energy is still high and you’ve built on the strength of a nice beginning, hopefully. Wednesdays you just hold course; being the crest of the week doesn’t mean you’re going downhill. And then there are Thursdays.

I guess the title of this blog is itself a lie – Thursdays are tricky. You start to feel the wear from getting up at 6am every day, the same way you start to feel the burn from a run when you enter the last leg of it. It’s the no-man’s land between here and there, before you tumble into the coda of Friday. I wonder where Arthur Dent would stand on all this.

I find it useful to break up my week in this manner, but I know that’s just my approach. Others have their weekends on Monday, or see Saturdays as something to be feared. But I wonder, however different schedules break up their lives, how other people construct their own narratives about the progression of days, if they do at all. If there is a point to it. For me it  helps to know that you’ve got another one coming up; that if this one didn’t go as well as you hoped, that you’ll have another chance to do better next time.

August 17, 2011

put the internet down. walk away.

it’s time again.

i’ve written elsewhere about the importance of breaking up large chunks of time in order to be productive, and the necessity of divvying up your time between work and play (a la Longstreth). and while there are things that constitute play or relaxation which are actually restful and filling in their own way, being on the internet is not one of them. the freedom that comes with it is staggering, and most of the time we use that freedom to look at gifs, check our facebooks, and refresh the same few websites over and over waiting for new articles to drop.

being online is second nature to most of us. there’s always that moment where you transition from being there for a reason to just being there; you feel your will slide out of you like an IV drip, and you are trapped. just like those mornings where you wake up full of resolve to get up and get going, and then are unable to do anything but roll over for another hour. this should terrify us.

depression, as i understand it, is just this – an interruption, or a freezing. gears grind to a halt, even when there’s nothing wrong per se. your mouth drops open a little bit and then you cannot, for the life of you, move. the world keeps going.

i can envision myself turning into one of those cautionary speakers, all haggard and hunched over with computer back (i am tell you to get off the internet). working at a job where i’m tethered to the computer eight hours a day hasn’t helped, but it’s no excuse for using all that time (when i lack any real work to do) to just sit there staring at the screen. having the luxury of a job that pays me while not requiring my full participation at every moment is a blessing, one that i waste most of the time.

long story short, it’s time again. time to put the internet down for a week or so and see if i can’t get back into the swing of writing fiction. after the high of completing my machine of death story came the inevitable slump. i was all set to start pouring that energy into new stories, and new ideas. and then i just… stopped.

August 1, 2011

a few helpful links

apologies for the long silence. coming out of a move – now over, thankfully – and a bit of a difficult time personally. i’m going to be back on my feet soon, and working on new stories and comics before too long. in the meantime, i wanted to share a few links that have been helping me stay focused.

thank you to everyone who read my machine of death story! (which can be found on the new stories page).

how to steal like an artist

super obvious secrets i wish they’d teach in art school

the sad, beautiful fact that we’re going to miss almost everything

trial, error, and the god complex

less talk, more rock


see you soon.

July 8, 2011

31 today

birthdays are weird. i wonder if this is more a cultural, upper-middle class american thing sometimes (call it Prettiest Princess Syndrome) where the very fact of it being that certain day fills us with a heightened sensitivity to what would normally bounce off us as the thousand little imperfections and unpleasantries of everyday life. the chilly, oppressive wind on your way to work, the residual stink from someone smoking. it all becomes personal. how dare these things be on my special day‽

also inevitable is that old feeling of goddammit i am now 31 and just what in the hell have i done with my life‽ (apparently the interrobang is the universal birthday symbol). you flash on people years your junior who are established in careers, long set into habits you wish you had; imagining them progressing in an intentional, unbroken line to their current stations, while you flailed around from one version of yourself to the next (who was I all those years ago – I literally do not know). with all the changes we go through it seems almost wrong that we should inhabit the same body after all this time; that pictures from years past should bear any resemblance to the people we’ve become.

i remember last year, when i turned 30, how keen i was to make a fresh start on life, and how the start of a new decade would usher in all these new things blah blah blah. looking back on the past year, it was mostly a record of experiences that started with full enthusiasm and excitement that mostly didn’t turn out as i expected them to (of course) and whatever grand plans i had were sidetracked by real life (of course) and now here i am, having (technically) completed the 31st year of my existence, and i can’t help but feel reaching for grand resolves to be a little bit silly and unnecessary.

here is where i would usually wax all reflective. i decided, in the spirit of wil wheaton, that sometimes you just gotta write 500 words about a thing, and that it doesn’t mean there has to be any big meaning. i want to write more things that are small in scope – i’ve been working on and off on a story for the second volume of machine of death, and found that my tendency is towards making big, wide-angle observations instead of getting into specifics and telling small, real stories. with the deadline looming i’ve come to face this tendency a bit more directly – to practice getting into the meat of small, human situations rather than floating in the ether of cultural observations and faux-wisdom. there are parallels here, but i don’t really want to make them.

i do want to enjoy this day, and enjoy other days when they happen, and get better at just being in the small, specific places.

a year from today we’ll see how well that went. same time same place?

June 17, 2011

In Which Phil Collins Is Defended

The sun fell heavy on everything in the late afternoon and I had walked a mile along the tracks of the lightrail MAX, reading from Kraken and taking pictures of industrial buildings across the river. When I finally caught they yellow line and was dropped off near home, I clicked on the Buffy musical score on my iPod and walked, everything coated by the music.
I began my day with an old episode of This American Life. I was feeling a little tired and emotionally shaky, and was in a particularly receptive place to hear them delve into stories of the relationship between music and heartbreak; how often the cheesiest, most overblown pop songs ring the most true when the mood is right (they chose this song to highlight the point, a masterstroke).
This led into a brilliant segment where the narrator of that act, a woman deep in the throes of cheesy pop heartbreak, decides to take it upon herself to write a pop song about her own experience, and is even able to interview Phil Collins himself about the process. She wrote lyric after lyric, and when some veteran musicians were tapped to help her turn some of her emotive scribbling into a proper song, surprise: they chose the one she had considered almost a throwaway, almost too cheesy and simple and basic to even be included. All her attempts at clever wordplay and prosy torch songs didn’t matter in world of pop music. It’s true: all those old songs look flat and trite on paper, but that has everything to do with why they’re so powerful.
Collins wrote ‘Against All Odds’ about his first divorce, and yet now the song is completely ubiquitous in its influence. Anyone who hears it cannot help but feel the truth in it, filling it with their own details like a vase made for them alone. And yet it was just one man in the beginning, one emotion, expressed in a powerfully simple song.
This stayed with me throughout the day and, as I walked home enjoying the BtVS show tunes, I couldn’t help but wish that we, as humans, didn’t make similar efforts to once in awhile translate our feelings into bold, over-the-top songs. Songs big and unabashed and with nothing even resembling subtlety. Like in a musical. But, as Sweet warned in the episode: the cost is high when all you do is sing. I fired up Tweetbot on my phone and proposed that, while it was unrealistic that life be like a musical all the time, would once a month be okay? What if, as a matter of habit, we began setting aside one day a month where we wrapped up everything we had been afraid to say, and put it out into the world?

June 16, 2011

quick analysis

i have settled into the new job. the first few weeks at a new place are terrifying no matter where you go, but coming into the legal world, and more specifically the subsection of oregon juvenile dependency law – well, that’s a whole new language/mindset/what have you. the first few weeks are terrifying because you get an immediate sense of the scope of things and just how little grasp you have on them. you long for a month from now, when familiarity has dulled the terror a bit.

cut to now. the pieces are known to me, and while i’m a ways from seeing how it all works together, i am already to that point where i can walk into the office, and, after getting the coffee going and the printer warmed up and humming, take one quick look at the filing on my desk and the days’ agenda and see the entire day laid out before me.  there is something simple and delightful about being able to map out the day in a glance, and then to set about doing it. and it suits me well to be in a place where i can act as the calm anchor for a handful of perpetually disorganized bosses. work as project.

of course it’s happened after a few weeks of struggling to dig myself out of the backlogged piles of work left by the month-long absence of a full-time receptionist, combined with the steep learning curve, that i find myself often with less to do than i would like. hence the internet, hence the blogging, hence the back-and-forth emails of YouTube videos sent between legal assistants (while i’m on the subject, a pro tip: nothing good comes from befriending your co-workers on Facebook). but despite these occasional reprieves into mindless entertainment, i have work to do, and i can see it in an instant. i have to take a moment to appreciate this. i appreciate having the breathing room to get my work done at my own pace, and having the luxury of doing work  i can perform and enjoy, and then leave it at the office come 5 o’clock. when the real work begins.

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May 22, 2011

weeding, and a return to writing

hello friends. been a while.
i could say, very briefly, that i’ve been busy with legitimate articles of business in the last month, what with being on the brink of leaving a job i’ve held for almost five years and preparing to head into new territory, career-wise, but that’s not really what i want to write about right now.
right now i want to talk about something that happened the other day, and see if i can get my old rusty blog engines up and running again in the process.
for the last few months i’ve been working a volunteer shift at the north portland branch of the multnomah county library. i putter about straightening spines, scanning dewey decimal codes for out-of-place books, and quietly wishing violence upon the occasional unknowing patron oblivious enough to leave their ringer on. i also get to indulge my fantasy of pretending to be giles a couple of hours a week; but i digress.
for the last few weeks my job has been to weed out books that haven’t been checked out in over a year (‘weeding’ is in fact the library term for this). these books are shipped off to title wave, the library’s affiliated bookseller; where, it is hoped, someone will finally take them home.
reading a list of books that no one has checked out in 12 months is like looking at graves so worn by time you can’t make out the names anymore. some of these books are obvious contenders for the pile; books on fly fishing and dick cheney’s vice presidency and so forth. but for every time-specific, disposable book there were at least five books that looked like they bore a wealth of history and secrets and stories about people long buried and events long forgotten (i took a few pictures of some piles to illustrate this).

the whole thing made me really sad. it had never occurred to me before that books might disappear from a library; it never occurred to me that what i saw was not what had always been there. i asked my coworkers about it, and it was pointed out that libraries (mine at least) do not exist for purely archival purposes; they are there to move books and get people reading, and that goal is driven by the taste of the public. somewhere in me the great fear welled: didn’t this logically mean that if public tastes tended to the rubbish and trash side of the literary spectrum, that the quality of books would inevitably decline? would there ever come a time when Twilight went a year without being read?
after a bit of discussion and reflection, i went from a feeling of simple sadness over the book-purging to a more scientific perspective: this was a process of selection without any malice or mind behind it. old books being cleared out to make way for the (probably inconceivably huge) amount of new material being produced on a daily basis. it’s not pleasant to think about, but there’s only so much space in our little corner of the world.
the reason i wanted to write about all this is that i hope knowing how multnomah county library’s system works (i assume all library’s have some sort of system akin to this one) will incline them, next time they’re out at their local library, to pause a moment before passing on that book that caught their interest and consider the power that this system puts in the hands of the patron. any book that you check out is basically guaranteed to endure for a whole year. and while it is certainly true that many books are perhaps rightly ignored and subject to library evolution, it is within the power of any one person to save a book from my list.
if they want to.

April 23, 2011

hello again

coming out of the dark ages. more soon.

March 20, 2011

i believe it was voltaire who said, well, then fuck them

man. lots of things in my head, gonna do my best here.
a lot of my reticence towards writing lately has come from weird standards that set in on this blog almost immediately after it was created; things like no hyperlinks (it was a writing blog, not a place for dissemination), more emphasis on descriptive storytelling and less big-lesson narcissism (hey, it is going to be both! sometimes! i don’t know!) and other such business. i’ve been feeling crazy about having all these rules on what was ostensibly made to be a platform for my own expression.
this is me getting over it.
on a side note: i’ve also created a new tumblr page that will act as a holding ground for my ongoing sketches and more media-oriented interests (read: there will be youtube videos sometimes. i particularly love that ira glass quote near the bottom – it comes from this wonderful series of clips). and i have many, many more drawings to share – lacking a scanner has been a good motivator in that i have an excuse to head down to the iprc once a week to make use of their scanner and get out of the house.
in the past i have lamented being sick of myself, sick of my style and my creative history, and let it build up to the point of acting as a serious point of artistic asphyxiation. more recently i began reading dave sim’s cerebus’ guide to self-publishing, a mostly out-of-print missive on the hard truths about making it in the world of comics, and it crystallized a few points for me. i won’t quote directly here – sim is crotchety and occasionally threatens to blunt his own purpose by being such a hard-assed dick about things – but the merits and frankness of the book far outweigh the rancor and bile. but that is for another day, and another post.
what i have taken from it so far (echoed by the ira glass lesson) is the thing we all already know and never want to think about – the importance of starting something – committing to something – and sticking with it. wisdom holds (at least in sim’s world) that comic-makers, for instance, have 2000 bad pages in them, and the sooner you get them out, the better. it’s an obvious variant/parallel of malcolm gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. but sim touches on something more vital: the sheer irrelevance of knowing where you going or if you’re doing it right from the get-go. he argues that it is impossible to know such things at the beginning, when you are bound to produce work that is substandard compared to what you wish you could produce, and it has to be worked through until you reach a point where you know, through hard knocks experience, what does and doesn’t work for you. ask yourself: if you look at any comic that you love now (comic because of the sequential nature of the medium), how many of them got it right with the very first one? does that one even stand out in your memory?
the other thing sim touches on is the importance of making hard choices. you want to make something? great. most people, and this is a source of much of my frustration with humanity, want to make something, and will probably keep right on wanting to make it (or have made it, somehow jumping to that far shore) until they’re dead. in the meantime, the best way to make something is to start and keep with it. and with that, you set a hard goal and work to maintain it. holding yourself to a schedule is bare-bones, minimum-discipline stuff. i lied earlier and am going to quote sim here, because it is essential:

take two weeks and decide to do a page a day (ed: insert your own goal here) – pencilled, inked and lettered. if you miss a day, look at what you did instead. whatever caused you to miss doing a page that day is an impediment to your career.

look at the impediment.

look at the work.

make a choice.

i recently wrote about chris onstad and his struggle to continue achewood after nine years. after all the uncertainty and silence, onstad finally composed a lengthy and thoughtful letter to his fans (which can be read here). it warmed me with admiration to read it. earlier today i finally sat down to begin writing my first proper comic in awhile, and true to form, the old demons came out almost at once. the script got longer and longer, panels piled high, and i began envisioning which artist i would liberally borrow from to mask my own stylistic limitations. what began as an honest seed for a comic bloomed into a big, contrived mess, like it always did; whereupon i’d push through and make it anyway, usually dissatisfied with the results but reasonably sure that someone would like it. i am well trained in formula, thank you.
and then i read onstad’s post, and it just hit me in the face. fuck that! there is no way i am going to turn out another comic that compromises what i know it could be with a little more work for something passing decent that i can get out by this evening. i’m holding myself to the schedule (for now, two finished pages per week), but i am not about to manufacture something that amounts to little less than hiding behind borrowed words and voices just because it’s hard. i’m only an hour into the preliminary scripting and storyboarding; it is far, far too soon to be worrying about final form yet. and i am done settling for something passable.
i know two things: you don’t compromise on your goals, and you don’t lie to yourself about the so-called efforts you make. i’ve barely begun. page one of 2000.
i was reminded of an old achewood strip – sometimes i like to take a single panel out of its context to serve as a reminder for certain occasions. this is one such occasion. it acts as my current response to people (well, mostly my own internal voice that cries for consistency and control).
now, back to work. i’ve got a long, long way to go.