On Reading Deprivation

For years now, approximately 4 at least, I have been trying half and quarter heartedly to work through The Artist’s Way. Just this year, I have tried three times to complete the course, never making it past the third week (which is about the time that all habits, good and bad, die on the vine). But finally after the beach trip and somewhat seriously into a Whole 30 experiment, I have managed, for the first time ever, to make it past week 3 and into week 4. Leaving aside the fact that I skipped week 1 entirely this time, it feels good to charter new territory.

However, that territory comes with the hardest task yet. It’s called Reading Deprivation and like its evil twin cousin Donut Deprivation, it leaves a mark on the soul and the tongue. Reading Deprivation is exactly that: other than the chapter in the book and the tasks for week 4, the initiate on the Artist’s Way is not allowed to read things. Like books or blog posts or Twitter or even watch TV. For a person that has of late been both very active in the book world and the Twitter world, the effect is quite jarring. One quote from the book goes like this:

The nasty bottom line is this: sooner or later, if you are not reading, you will run out of work and be forced to play. You’ll light some incense or put on an old jazz record or paint a shelf turquoise, and then you will feel not just better but actually a little excited. Don’t read. If you can’t think of anything else to do, cha-cha.

The idea obviously being that if you can’t distract yourself with reading (the book, written in 1992, predates the literary addictiveness of Twitter and Facebook but it alludes to our narcissistic self-absorbed world when it talks about the banality of TV), you’ll eventually produce something. I am on day three of this nefarious, likely Russian based, form of torture and it has been somewhat eye opening. Previously, if I gave up social media, I still read books or magazines or whatever. But with this, nothing is easy. Nothing comes to hand to distract. If I had a shelf to paint turquoise, I would have done so. If I was a bachelor, I would have built a table in the garage or would be playing my sax. Part of the problem of having a two year old is having to be somewhat quiet once they go to bed.

On the upside, unlike Donut Deprivation, it’s actually quite pleasurable to replace reading with something productive like coding or writing exercises or pushups. Today on the train, I listened to Dexter Gordon’s Take The A Train. And by listen, I mean really listen, to the tone of the sax, to the bass solos, to everything. I experienced the record as if I was sitting in the Jazzhus Montmarte on that night in 1967 when Gordon took the stage and welcomed the audience as an integral part of the proceedings.

At church on Sunday, Dr. Magruder talked about reading the Scripture from a sense of place, of context, an idea that stems from Wittgenstein and Derrida and the Structuralists in many ways. With Decartes, there was an idea of a single moment being useful and telling. Cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am. As if this single moment could be of use to us in our understanding of ourselves, our reality, our world. But in truth, only in the context of all the other events that lead up to this moment can we really understand the now and its meaning. It’s important to think about these things and examine them, not just as we read Scripture, but in everything else because without that context, we tend to be lost in ego, in selfishness and in pettiness. The context of our history brings, or should bring, humility to our understanding of ourselves and of our present moment. The context of this contingency, the fact that an infinite number of events had to happen in a particular order to allow us to arrive at our present moves our attention from inner to outer. Matthew Crawford’s excellent book The World Beyond Your Head examines this idea in wonderful detail. The answer to happiness comes not in better understanding our jumbled up inner lives, it comes from moving our attention to the intersection with our noumenal inner world and the phenomenal empirical world.

Reading deprivation does something similar in that it causes me to be focused clearly and without distraction on a single thing and with that focus comes the context of the event in my imagination. Reading deprivation allows (forces?) me to explore other avenues of time consumption and does so in a way that the time is spent actively and not passively. In those moments when I would have reached, metaphorically, for Twitter, I now have to either spend it pointlessly thinking about things in my head or doing something productive.

Which is not to say reading doesn’t have its place. I’m already looking forward to next Tuesday when I can continue to read Metaphysics as a Guide To Morals. As much as I enjoyed Gordon’s saxophone today, there is something about reading a difficult book that is pleasurable and challenging. But for now, and the next four days, I’ll have to continue to find other ways to stay entertained. If nothings else, I always have the cha-cha. I should probably pull the drapes closed first though.

On Free Lemon Bundt Cake

First, a little history. The house across the street has sat empty for approximately twelve months, perhaps fifteen. An old man and his second wife built it in the 1960s. Last year in the winter, the old man died after a long illness. Oddly, the woman and her adult daughter who had been living there abruptly moved out. We discovered from the daughter, named Princess, that as it turns out, the old man was something of a scoundrel and had taken out a second mortgage without telling his wife. Further, they had little equity left in it and suddenly the clan of the old man, quite uninterested in his well-being in life, showed back up in death to contest the house.

And so it sat, a small house, around 1700 square feet all summer and fall and winter again until spring. Still it sits there actually, in the name of the estate of Mr so and so. However, I now have a mobile near two year old who I once took across the street to race cars in the drive way and who then assumed we would go over there every day to do the same as well as climb on the higher steps and bang on the door that no one ever answers.

Today, we wandered across the street, me holding Wobbles hand according to our rules and our custom. She immediately ran up the steps and I noticed there amongst the flyers that fall off the door and accumulate on the porch, a red package. Odd, I thought, a package on the door step of an empty house left weatherized and sullen through a Dallas summer and a Dallas winter. Wobbles ran up and down the steps a few times before noticing the package which she then picked up. Curiosity got the best of me and I mounted the steps to find out what misguided company had placed a package on a porch that had seen no steps in over twelve months. I thought perhaps that it was wrongly delivered and being somewhat human, I assumed I could find its rightful owner.

The package was from The Swiss Colony which is not some pacifist terrorist organization as one might expect but instead a company in Wisconsin that sells a variety of baked goods, meats and cheeses, nuts and snacks, all through the convenience of mail order catalogs. It’s like Schwann’s but without the trucks driving around the neighborhoods. Three of my four readers have no idea what I’m talking about when I say Schwann’s. That’s ok.

Anyway, so here is this red package from The Swiss Colony which I hold in my hands. The addressee is the very woman that was mistreated by the dead scoundrel which is somewhat surprising given her non-existence at this residence of over twelve months. The package has a big sticker on it saying PERISHABLE – REFRIGERATE AT ONCE 23 OZ LEMON BUNDT CAKE. Enquiring minds want to know who sends a perishable item to a house no one has lived in for over twelve months. Then I notice that on the label, the gifter is listed: We love you Mom, Anne and Kirk. We don’t apparently love you enough to remember twelve months later that you no longer live at this address but still. I made that last part up.

So immediately the imagination begins to run amok. I try to think of simple reasons why something so crazy might happen. Perhaps they have an account with The Swiss Colony, this loving daughter and son-in-law or son and daughter-in-law and they just forgot to update the fact that their mother no longer lives at this particular address before they sent the yearly birthday gift from The Swiss Colony. But seriously, who in this day has an account with The Swiss Colony besides landlocked and bored Midwesterners? Perhaps these people are exactly that.

Or maybe it’s a son and daughter-in-law and it’s always the son who doesn’t remember these things because he’s busy doing man things and can’t be bothered to remember even call much less remember where his mom lives. Just last week, she probably called him to nag that “you never call me” and he felt momentarily guilty and sent her a cake unironically to the wrong address.

Perhaps they are estranged and just got news through the telegram service that their father-in-law is dead and they are trying to snuggle up to the estate. Pardon the telegram service thing, been reading a lot of mid twentieth century Southern Lit lately. Probably not the answer.

Then things get darker. Maybe they’ve got some reason for sending a cake twelve months after their mom moved out of the house she never really owned. Maybe they have a beef with the sister who has constant access to Mom and they are trying to poison her. Or worse, give her diabetes. Maybe no one told them she had moved because the daughter, Princess, wants to cut them out of the will, leaving aside the fact there can’t be much will since the house was reverse mortgaged and they left when they didn’t have any equity in it. The nefarious possibilities seem endless.

In the end, I have no idea. But my thoughts then turn to the fact that I have a lemon bundt cake in my hands that, based on Wobbles and my trips across the street, has sat outside for up to two days. Still, I’m a human being and go inside to ask the wife if she has the contact information of Princess. She does and texts her asking if she wants this waylaid cake or even knows that it exists. A reply text says that they realized their mistake and sent another. Convenient cover story but my interests are now with the cake

So what exactly is the statute of limitations on a lemon bundt cake, one of my favorites, that has possibly sat on a forlorn porch for up to two days in the late spring heat of Dallas Texas? I put in the fridge and upon putting Wobbles to bed and eating left over Buca di Beppo, decide that the statue of limitations for something with as many preservatives as this cake must have in it is probably a week at least. I open the package and cut a generous slice. It is moist and tasty, exactly what I would expect from a mail order bundt cake. My aunt Jan Cook makes a far superior cake but then it would be surprising if she did not. Still, free cake makes the trip across the street with Wobbles completely justified.

The cake has gone back into the freezer, questions largely unanswered about Anne and Kirk. I wonder if they sit in their quiet Midwestern home tonight, believing they have delivered a fitting Mother’s Day gift to their wonderful mom. Or perhaps, they are in their car at the bottom of some lake and the murderer has sent the gift as an alibi, not realizing that by delivering it to an address no longer in use, he has doomed himself to discovery by the intrepid hero of this story, the detective who recovers from alcoholism to solve the case.

I probably shouldn’t be reading much more Eudora Welty.

Screaming Bloody Murder

This morning when I dropped Wobbles off at daycare, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Wobbles has not been to daycare in over two weeks and in that time, she has received a great deal of very individual attention. So much so that she’s grown quite accustomed to this trove of attention that she alone commands. When it became apparent she was going to spend the day not at home with Grandma or mom or dad, all hell broke loose. When I left, I could hear the tears practically hitting the floor from the hallway.

Yet I know that within five minutes, she was happily playing with toys and her teacher, the momentary discomfort of being away from me completely forgotten. She is at a stage where she is uncomfortable with change or the unknown but within a short time, forgets this discomfort and goes on about doing fun things. As long as you don’t leave her sitting in a Pack-n-Play with nothing to do, she will even find away to entertain herself fairly quickly. The moment of fear is exactly that, momentary, and then life goes on.

Will Smith recently roared through social media with a description of what it is like to impulsively decide to go skydiving. and the resulting fear that consumes you. Constant worry and anxiety. Will I die? Should I back out? This was a ridiculous thing to have done. All words expressed by the internal critic. Then you step out of the plane and fear disappears. The actual event causes no fear, only the expectation of that event and the narrative story built in your head about all the terrible things that could happen along the way. That narrative and the internal critic that writes it, they are the genesis of fear.

It is the same with writing or coding or any number of other creative activities. It is the same with any activity we do that is outside our comfort zone. The fear exists before the event, created by an overactive critic with an unjustifiably loud voice. But the moment the activity starts, or worst case a few moments later, the fear is gone. If focus remains, if concentration can stay stable, there are no thoughts of “what if this doesn’t work out?” or “What if this is terrible?” The only thing that remains is text and the characters and where they lead us.

Often I am overwhelmed by the thought of the scope of a project. But in the moment of writing or coding or digging a flower bed, there is no thought of the scope. The current moment is all that matters. Through a continual parade of those current moments, the scope is harnessed and contained. Even creating for five minutes is worth more than worrying for those five minutes about how much work is left.

There is a picture on the wall of my kitchen of what looks like a Dust Bowl farm. There are buildings, a road, a barn, little else. It is the picture of my grandparents farm shortly after they moved in, an empty, barren landscape, shot from a helicopter, of their chunk of the Oklahoma Panhandle. It is a symbol of a beginning, of what a blank page looks like. It shows hope and possibility. It also shows fear and emptiness. Once upon a time, there was a corresponding photo, taken 17 years later of a lush, green vista with large trees, an overflowing garden. The work and effort of two human beings, not young and full of energy but old and retired, shows the effects of daily work over a long period of time. Growth does not happen without the combination of time and effort contrary to the desires of our overstimulated attention monster. But something great can be created with small amounts of work, applied regularly to a single problem over the course of time. The important part is not to think of the end goal. You don’t even know the end goal. My grandparents had no idea what that farm would look like in 1998 after 17 years of living and working there. They only knew that each day gave them the opportunity to create something. What it was became emergent through their efforts and dedication. Creativity is no different.

A way that my generation’s lives have changed from our that of our grandparents is in the amount of choice we have on a daily basis of how we spend our time. We are overwhelmed by opportunity of activity, most of which is meaningless and even disquieting. Our attention is divided among too many things, even on the best days and with the best intentions. My grandparents never went and picked up their phone to see if someone was on it. They were too busy doing actual work. A 2014 study added fuel to the fire that the mere presence of our cell phones during a complicated task led to decreased performance. Even if the cell phone is turned over or out of reach, our monkey brains wonder if something important has happened on it. This distracts us from our task at hand. Distraction is easier to come by in our ever connected world and distraction will always necessarily be easier than concentration. Yet it is concentration and focus that results in the creation of things that are important to us whether it’s a work of art, a coding project or a relationship. Often that ease of distraction prevents us from even beginning something.

The hardest part of creating is the actual part about starting. Worry and fear can keep you from ever beginning, not only IN the beginning, but at every moment along the path. Fear keeps you from producing by telling stories about “30 minutes isn’t enough time to bother” or “There’s always tomorrow.” These stories become self-fulfilling as you allow them to become the narrative of your creative life. If every time that Wobbles screamed bloody murder when I walked away, I turned around and comforted her, neither one of us would ever grow. So it is with creating. The critic screams bloody murder every time you try to drop him off at daycare. He doesn’t want to be left alone. He doesn’t want to play by himself. Yet, when you refuse to listen to him and begin to create, he will slowly become more silent over time. He my never become completely silent. But he will be a more mature, supportive being that encourages your creativity. You just have to ignore the screaming part for a little while. It’s too important not to.