Progress Report: But is it fun?

At a recent mastermind meeting, my fellow blogger Mike Uhl asked what I felt about having crossed the halfway point of writing 50 M-F blog posts. Did I feel great about accomplishing that milestone? Was I having fun doing this thing? I’ve always had a tough time with “fun.”

I was once asked years ago what I did for fun, and I really had no answer. I don’t think I’m a drudge or mechanical person, but this was a question I never thought to ask myself. There are many things I enjoy – reading, comics, museums, eating out, sitting on the back porch during a thunderstorm – but “fun” is a different type of word that suggests abandonment of self, losing oneself in an exciting activity. I’ve always thought or believed that people were referring to roller coasters or white-water rafting or some other intensely physical activity when they referred to fun. It was just something I never really noticed in myself.

"Ain't We Got Fun" (sheet music) pag...

(Perhaps my life has been lived minimizing pain rather than maximizing pleasure? Discuss.)

So, let’s overthink about this. I like the idea of breaking “fun” into “fun-fun” and “serious fun.” This paper defines serious fun as “play with a purpose.”

Serious fun goes beyond the apathy of strict order and the over-excitement of chaos to generate an ordered chaos that permits freedom within structure and fun within limits.

Fun-fun has no purpose beyond itself. Which is great. We need this. For me, that can be laughing till I hurt at a Flying Karamazov Brothers show or, from my distant past, performing in a play. The most fun I ever have, I think, is talking to friends, losing myself in conversation and connection with other people. My 50th birthday party last year was one of the peaks of 2011 and I enjoyed every minute of it – the anticipation, the singing, and the remembering it later.

And while I enjoy watching a movie or TV show or most performances, I don’t call that fun-fun. My years as a theater and movie reviewer, and as someone who enjoys thinking about writing fiction, have enforced a habit of judging, balancing, guessing where the narrative or performance is going, and then evaluating its execution. It keeps direct experience at an arm’s length.

When I think about how I spend my time, I lean more toward “serious fun.” I enjoy losing myself in an activity, but I want that activity to have a result. I can happily lose myself in emptying my bookshelves and then putting all the books back in some new ordering scheme. I can rename a folder full of PDFs so they sort just as I want, and time flies. I can also easily lose myself in writing, whether it’s fiction or a blog post, and enjoy seeing what I produced.

I can’t say that I have fun-fun writing these blog posts; there’s no sense of physical abandon to the writing (more like stiffness and eyestrain).

But I have serious fun. I enjoy finding something out and sharing it on my blog. I enjoy taking an inchoate idea and surprising myself by shaping it into something like a mini-essay. I enjoy documenting the Byzantine curlicues of my baroque thought processes, though I am often dismayed at how complicated I make my life. I like documenting my little habits and routines; each post becomes a message in a bottle that I will look at years from now and go, “Huh. I forgot all about that.”

Merlin Mann had this great P.S. to a 43Folders.com blog post:

Has anyone ever figured out that 90% of the posts on this site are actually (notes|pep talks|reminders) to myself? I sometimes think not. The site definitely makes more sense once you get this.

I enjoy losing myself in the activity of writing, in creating this object. The fun at the start of the writing, which is playing with the idea and being surprised at the words it collects around itself, eventually gives way to the more serious business of making this machine work. From the first paragraph, the reader enters a contraption from which the only escape should be the last paragraph.

The crafting of that machine, the polishing and fixing – it takes focus and time. Even for short posts, I think about placement, context, wording, sentence rhythms, etc. What I hope is that, after I hit Publish, I can feel good about the time and energy I spent. The result of my efforts can be several hundred words of adamantine prose and unblockable metaphors, plus a feeling – a satisfied feeling – that my time was well-spent.

When I look at the calendar to the left of the post and see another day in bold italics – signifying a new post – I am pleased with myself for sticking to the plan.

When I peruse the finished object later in my feed reader, I hope to lose myself again in what I created –  this time, as a reader.

When I scan my ideas and drafts for the next post, I start feeling that little tingle of excitement – what will I write next? What do I want to share? How long do I want it to be? What’s interesting to me today? What idea has been ripening for a while and is ready to fall?

That moment just before I decide – like the moment the curtain goes up just before the show begins – is probably the most fun moment of all.

 

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52 Killer Tricks for Your Kindle

Of the 52 Killer Tricks for Your Kindle, some are useful only for the first 3 series (#’s 2, 3, 5, 6), others for Fire only (#8), others are so arcane and specialized as to be almost nonsensical (#’s 9, 15), some are DIY and may require more nerve than even I have (#’s 1, 14, 26, 42), some are only tangentially related to the Kindle (#’s 16, 30, 36) and on and on. So right away, you can simply skim this list and reduce it to something more manageable. Is it possible that your humble correspondent may have a few tricks that didn’t make it to the list? Verily, I saith unto you: Yes.

As I’m using a Kindle Touch, some of the “killer tricks” (which I daresay would reveal themselves with a skim of the manual) don’t apply. Some of the tricks reveal themselves with a simple read of the manual: keep the wi-fi turned off to save your battery, email PDFs to yourself, play MP3s, and so on. And I have, of course, already thoroughly documented my screensaver workflow.

There were a few things the original article missed, so allow me to add to the conversation.

For web pages

I would add Readability to #11 (Readability can include images and photos, Instapaper can’t – or didn’t the last time I looked).

For ebooks

For public domain books in Kindle format (#3), I’d also recommend Project Gutenberg, which offer Kindle versions of its texts in .mobi format. You can download the Magic Catalog (.mobi file) and get a list of all the books and texts they offer. Click on a book title and it’s downloaded to your Kindle in the background.

Even better: use your Kindle’s browser to navigate to m.gutenberg.org, where you can have a more interactive experience searching for and downloading ebooks.

Another neat way to get Kindle-formatted public domain books is to navigate to this page on the MobileRead forums site and search the page for “MobileRead’s Download Guide.” Download that file and transfer it to your Kindle (or download it directly from the MobileRead page), wait a bit while the Kindle indexes it, and then you have a file containing a list and descriptions of 11,000+ books formatted by MobileRead members; click on a link to download the book in the background (wi-fi has to be on, of course). The file is updated daily. There’s overlap between the MobileRead and Gutenberg lists, sure, but it’s fun to compare them and see what they offer. I use both and sometimes just have fun browsing the lists.

I also like the Delphi Classics site, mainly for just knowing that it’s possible to download the complete works of most any “classics” author.

Keep your Kindle software up to date

Bookmark the software update page and set yourself a reminder to check it monthly or whenever is convenient. You won’t get any notice from Amazon that updates are waiting for you.

See what other Kindle owners are highlighting

One of Kindle’s features is that you can highlight passages from any book or article you’re reading and it’s saved in a file called clippings.txt. Findings lets you upload your clippings.txt file so others can read what you’ve highlighted, and you can read what other Kindle owners found worth noting. It started as a Kindle-only hangout, but they’ve since rolled out bookmarklets and such so that you can highlight anything you see on the web and have it posted.

Convert clippings.txt to more readable formats

The clippings.txt file contains the contents of all the highlighted passages from everything I’ve read on the Kindle. So it includes tips and tricks, quotes I want to remember, procedures, beautifully written passages, etc.

You can open and browse the file from the Kindle home screen and it’s easy enough to copy the file to my MacBook and open it up in a text editor, but it looks ugly and there is no easy way to browse the collection. So a lot of what I’ve highlighted is trapped in a file that is difficult to navigate, read, and use.

The amazing and free Clippings Converter site will transform the clippings.txt file into more attractively formatted Word, PDF, or (my favorite) Excel files. It provides a much better and easier method to process and re-use this text in other ways.

Yet, for all my snark…

The 52 tricks site convinced me to download Calibre (#16) and give it a try, and I’d not heard of the KIF project (#40) that lets you play old Infocom games on the Kindle, nor did I know of the justification hack (#44). Off now to do some minor-league hacking…

 

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Temptatious articles to read

This is why the potential is always there for me to get nothing done. Here are some of the top links that caught my eye from today's Arts & Letters Daily and Marginal Revolution sites. I could have spent a happy hour reading all of them, but I decided to confine them to my Readability queue instead. I may actually get around to reading these items in the next few months. We'll see if they're as interesting  to me then as they are today.

 

Sad necessities and the comfort zone

For many years, I’ve taken shameful (or shameless) advantage of Top Shelf’s annual $3 web sale of comics and graphic novels from their catalog. Not everything is $3, of course – but a large number of selected items from their catalog are remarkably discounted, with some inventory they’ve never been able to shift cut down to $1. Graphic novels on display for sale in a specia...

I scanned the list yesterday and started filling out my mental list of stuff I wanted: Eddie Campbell’s omnibus volume of the Alec stories and a Jeffrey Brown collection, and a few others.

But I caught myself. I didn’t feel that little thrizzle I used to feel when anticipating the comics I wanted to buy. Sad to say, I felt a little hollow in there. I also felt a little sad knowing I didn’t really need any of them.

Beyond the financial calculation, I’d also computed the space, time, and interest calculations. Space: I’m already maxed out on my bookshelf space and have dozens of great comics and graphic novels I haven’t processed yet. Time: I’ve had some of those books for literally years, yet I haven’t read them. So what makes me think that I would treat new books brought into the fold any differently? Interest: I’m certainly curious about these books, but the visceral interest just isn’t there. I’m simply more interested in other things now.

I think the time for profligate reading is behind me. At least for now. I feel more drive and interest in solidifying my career (as a contractor, I always work on shaky ground), spending more time with family and friends, and generally being more active. In some ways, I’m reading as much as ever, but the time I can devote to reading is shrinking and I am finding it easier to shrug off some items that I previously considered necessities.

Getting out of one’s comfort zone by trying some new behavior or activity is the modern panacea for self-improvement. I’ve certainly adopted it in the last few years by taking on leadership roles, trying new activities, and taking on bigger responsibilities – all while feeling anxious and ill-prepared. Moving out of my comfort zone by doing these new things stretched me and expanded my sense of what I could do. I’m glad I did them.

A slightly different aspect of expanding the comfort zone is not doing things that previously brought pleasure. Addicts of all stripes know that abstaining is an active struggle; it’s the struggle that moves you out of the comfort zone.

My struggle this year in deciding what comics to buy at the Top Shelf sale turned into a non-struggle. I found it sad, necessary, and surprisingly easy to set aside my desire for a yearly jolt of color and novelty. I wondered what I would replace that activity with. Which is when I started writing this post.

 

 

 

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Mara Gibson: Map of Rain Hitting Water

  • Those big dogs!
  • Chatting about art, the art instinct, the artist's life, etc.
  • I found that when I practiced every day, even if just for 15 minutes, my playing got better. Weird.

Mara held an annual recital for her students at the back of Boyce Piano Emporium on 15-501. I didn't realize up till then that she mostly taught elementary- up to high school-age kids, who sat at the front of the room, with about 7 or 8 of her adult students sitting behind them (along with all the parents). After the last little person played his song, Mara called my name and I could hear the titters and amused murmurs from the audience as I lumbered up to the piano to announce my recital piece.

"Hi," I said, "my name is Mike Brown and I started taking lessons with Mara about eight months ago. I'll be playing three short pieces by Dmitry Kabalevsky. And," I paused, looking around the room at the kids and parents, "I believe I'm the first person playing today who is over 6 feet tall." That got a nice laugh and Liz said later it definitely broke the tension.

Many parents came up afterward to congratulate me and expressed their wonder and admiration at my performing a recital piece in front of a room full of people. I thanked them and then waved my hand at the kids -- who had just done the same thing that I did. The parents seemed to think that performing was something children naturally did, whereas putting oneself in a position where one could fail (or succeed!) publicly was something they couldn't conceive of an adult doing.

Mara eventually left Duke with her husband, the artist Brett Reif, to finish her PhD. Since 2004, she has been on the faculty of the  Conservatory of Music and Dance, University of Missouri-Kansas City. She leads the life of a busy artist, academic, and mother and I'm so happy to see her making so many big contributions to her art and her community.

Mara has also started selling some of her compositions digitally: Canopy and the hypnotic Map of Rain Hitting Water (embedded below). You can listen to the full pieces and then purchase and download them to your computer. It is so cool to have a Mara Gibson playlist on my iPod!

[O Fortune, changing and unstable, your tribunal and judges are also unstable.
You prepare huge gifts for him who you would tickle with favors as he arrives at the top of your wheel.
But your gifts are unsure, and finally everything is reversed:
you raise up a poor man from his filth and the insufferable bullshitter then becomes a consul.]”

(via Chamber Music Today: medieval)

Progress Report: Content and Themes

I start a post with the intent to keep it brief, but I too often fall in love with the sound of my writing voice, and – as if I were having a conversation with myself – think about this or that idea which simply must be mentioned. I need to curb that tendency though; in technical writing, the worst thing you can do is to dump every thing you know into the documentation. It shows a lack of discrimination in understanding what to include and what to leave out. This makes the reader’s experience less pleasant and their job even harder.

For the longform essays, I try to follow the advice of academic writing coaches and start a post by writing a key sentence for each paragraph. When I see the thread of the argument, I can thicken the blessay with more detail and supporting evidence. Having decided what I will include, I am more likely to stay on track and let go of ideas or witticisms that don’t fit.

I try to. More often, I simply start typing and ramble away, generating huge rafts of text that need to be considered, pruned, tossed out, refined, etc. Whichever method I use depends on my mood, time, energy, and so on. I am consistent in my inconstancy.

I find that writing about my personal systems for organization or productivity or techie stuff are usually fun and easy to write. They can be long, though. When I write about things that are a little more personal and ruminative — such as my information packrat nature or what I find inspiring and why — I touch more chords with my reader(s). In the end, I write about whatever I want to spend time thinking about and playing with. I find that I’m not reading as much as I used to , but I’m writing more, and I think that’s a fair tradeoff.

One of my goals for the blog reboot was to burn through a lot of ideas that had piled up during the years when I was not blogging regularly. Then, after I’d gone through those, my plan was to see what was left for me to write about. But as I predicted in my first post, the more I write, the more I find to write about. I do sometimes raid the old list, but I as often pluck new ideas to think about as well.

Of course, the real topic of a personal blog is me, my life, my interests, and my exploration of my thoughts. And journaling the process of “learning as I go.” These posts are cups drawn from a well that, so far, thankfully, seems bottomless.

Progress Report: Routines

I seem to have two speeds when it comes to posting: the quick hit-and-run post with a link to something interesting, or a more in-depth musing that benefits from my walking around it every couple of days and judging how it looks from all angles.

What is also happening is that I find myself thinking about writing posts all the time. When something crosses my path, I wonder if it will make good blog fodder (blodder?). Newspaper columnists face the same situation; the column becomes a hungry beast that demands incessant feeding and attention.

My tools adapt themselves to the kind of writing I'm doing that day or week. I discovered I'm fine composing my quicker posts with the WordPress editor. Longer posts tend to start out in nvALT and may move to Microsoft Word, if I want to use the tools there. (I also keep a long list of ideas in nvALT and add to it all the time.)

I thought at one time I'd buy MarsEdit or some other desktop app to write my posts off-line, but I find that it's not really necessary. I build my posts up in layers, so the tool I use is independent of the writing/gestation process. I work on the words in several passes, move the text to WordPress, layer in the links in another, and then use the Zemanta plugin to suggest images or to spur my quest to find better ones. I don't always use the same tool for the initial drafts.

Before I publish, I preview the post and read it again in the browser; I regularly find formatting, typo, and phrasing problems that way.

This process is not bulletproof, of course. I would like a more scheduled, routine time to write and edit my posts, rather than the pockets of time I spend on it throughout the week. My drafting process feels too haphazard and too subject to disruption.

I'm at that point on the mastery curve where I've plateaued. The big a-HA! discoveries of technique and content came in the first 2 or 3 weeks, and I'm now trying to establish a regular writing routine, an assembly line that can crank out widgets in the shape of blog posts. The a-has are rather slower in coming and I need to be content waiting for the idea or insight that kicks me up to the next level.

Until then: make lots of pots.

Progress report: Epic or epigrammatic?

I started the Monday-Friday blogging cycle on July 30 and am surprised to find myself still here and churning out posts. My goal was to do 50 posts – 10 weeks of posting – and I passed the 5-week mark on August 31. So – to echo this blog’s subtitle – what have I been learning as I go? The next series of blog posts explores my typically blathering answers.

Epic or epigrammatic?

Andy Ihnatko said on a recent Ihnatko Almanac podcast that he yearns to do brief blog posts, a la John Gruber’s Daring Fireball blog (my own model would be Michael Leddy’s Orange Crate Art). But whenever he starts writing, the post grows to 800 words and it’s not a brief 2-sentence comment that concisely distills his feelings on an issue – no, it’s a full-out deepdish essay that could be a chapter in a book. For Andy, Twitter is the microblog he prefers because it enforces a length restriction.

The desire for concision vs completeness is true for me. My gambit of setting a timer to write for 15 minutes worked for a week, and then not at all. When it alarms, I simply shut it off, continue writing, and maybe take a break later, if I think about it. I’m a natural longform blogger, I suppose. My posts on Doctor Who and being an information packrat were intended to be single posts with only a few sentences on my opinions. But the opinions quickly got out of hand.

I have, therefore, gotten a bit better at noticing when I will need to break a post into parts and adjusting the writing accordingly. If the goal is to post 5 days/week, then I break the long ones into multiple parts, artfully round off each part so it stands as a whole (I hope), and so meet my self-imposed quota.

This post, for example, started as a bulleted list of random sentences and ideas, which I shaped into four organized thematic sections, added links and more contextual “thickener,” as it were, and the draft mysteriously embiggened itself to 1200+ words. I was about to hit the Publish button on this monster when I thought, “Wait a second – I could get four days of posts out of this!”

And on such expedient decisions are great works of art made.

Soft animal

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
~ Mary Oliver

Assorted links

Claude Shannon, father of information theory, separated information from meaning. His central dogma, “meaning is irrelevant” declared that information could be handled as a mathematical abstraction independent of meaning. The consequence of this freedom is the flood of information in which we are drowning. The immense size of modern databases gives us a feeling of meaninglessness…It is our task as humans to bring meaning back into this wasteland. As finite creatures who think and feel, we can create islands of meaning in the sea of information.

Freeman Dyson, in his review of James Gleick’s book on information, in NYRB

Inspire yourself

I submitted the following YouTube videos of two artists performing immaculate work. Watch them now, and I'll talk about what I found -- and still find -- inspiring about them.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Tm5Ikl1AXw&feature=BFa&list=PL1B723A83ACB43835

[vimeo.com/31922652](http://vimeo.com/31922652)

Good golly, where do I start??

Let's start with the fact that I picked two performing artists -- not sports figures (don't like sports) nor writers (though I fancy myself of the writerly persuasion). I have always loved performers of all stripes -- dancers, jugglers, musicians, magicians, etc. These are people who have the courage to think they can entertain us, to show us something we've not seen before. You could call it hubris, or you can call it confidence. I would call it a belief and faith in their own skills and abilities.

Inspiration #1: If you believe you can, you can.

These are examples of the power of mastery. These are guys whose skills have been crafted, honed, protected, nurtured and sharpened over many years of deliberate practice and creating and performing songs and dances so that they can do what you saw over and over again, flawlessly. (There are other recordings of Jorgensen playing "Ghost Dance" and all of them are played at that fast tempo and sound pristine.) I'd call this the "iceberg principle" of success, except that I'm sure someone's already called it that. How many hundreds of hours of work did it take to conceive and execute those 3-4 minutes of diamond-sharp perfection?

Inspiration #2: Even Fred Astaire had to put in the hours to become Fred Astaire. Getting good doesn't happen overnight. It takes work. To echo Cal Newport's motto: Be so good they can't ignore you.

My banjo teacher has me say the syllables "e-ven" with every pluck of the string, and I am to keep saying it even if my fingers fumble through a particular passage. The goal is to keep the rhythm until I can collect myself and jump back into the song. As he puts it, "The other musicians aren't going to stop if you lose your place and start the song over. They're just going to keep playing."

Lookit how fast Jorgensen is moving those fingers! The pace doesn't stop and the rhythm doesn't slow down if he's having an off night. No matter how fast and frantic the music gets, he's calm, relaxed, poised. Jorgensen and Astaire are not just in the flow, they're controlling the flow. And they make it look easy because they've put in the work that makes the hard look easy.

In life, we don't have a band behind us pushing to keep the beat. But we have calendars and commitments to others and the seasons, among other pacesetters. Life doesn't pause until you have time to catch your breath. You have to breathe while playing like mad.

Inspiration #3: Work hard, keep practicing, and you can set the tempo (and look cool doing it). Eventually, it'll all look easy to anyone who hasn't done the work.

I have these two videos in a YouTube playlist called ENERGY! I return to these videos periodically when I'm flagging or in the doldrums. No matter how many times I see the videos in that playlist, I never tire of them. They always seem fresh. Many books and movies that were touchstones in my youth have not survived with me into adulthood, but these videos (and all the other books and music and DVDs that stock my shelves) have stayed with me for years.

Inspiration #4: Truly inspiring things stay evergreen; you can grow old with them and they will always have lessons to teach.

Finally, looking at these inspiring videos makes me feel like I want to create something as fun, as beautiful, as energetic, and as inspiring. And that, for me, may be the commonality among all inspiring things I hold close. I won't be able to play the guitar or tap dance like these guys, but I can attack what I want to do -- a short story, a blog post, a business, a PowerPoint presentation -- with energy, spirit, discipline, and (I hope) humor. These inspiring things teach me that that the audience or the customer will never see all the hours I put into the work. But if what I create connects, I want it to be a show-stopper.

My first year in graduate school, I took a course in structural mechanics taught by Bob Eubanks, a remarkable man who combined highly theoretical research with a very down-to-earth personality. He was powerfully built, bald with a little moustache, and had a habit of making noises as he breathed that combined humming, growling, and snorting. The impression he gave was that of a bull.

During the final exam, he sat at a desk at the front of the class, reading the newspaper and occasionally looking out at us. About an hour into the test, he must have seen something in our faces or our frantic scribbling that bothered him, because he got up and walked around the room, stopping behind each of us and giving a little grunt as he looked at our test papers. This was not a confidence-builder.

When his tour was complete, he returned to the front desk. “Gentlemen,” he said, “if I might make a crude suggestion… If sex is a pain in the ass, you’re doing something wrong.”

He went back to his newspaper. We all looked at each other and then at our test papers. Most of us decided to put our pencils down and rethink whatever problem we were doing. Thirty years later, when I find myself struggling with a problem of any sort, I remember Bob Eubanks’ advice, put my metaphorical pencil down, and try to rethink the problem.

Try this meditation: Imagine that you are the wood and the fire that consumes the wood. First, focus your awareness on the part of you that is the wood. You may tremble or gasp, feeling the jolt of your solidity disintegrating, your form changing. As you shift your attention to the part of you that is the fire, you may exult in the wild joy of power and liberation. It may be tempting to favor the fire over the wood, to love the burning more than the being burned. But if you’d like to understand pronoia in its fullness, you’ve got to appreciate them equally. Can you imagine yourself being the fire and wood simultaneously? Is it possible for you to experience the deep pleasure of their collaboration? * The preceding oracle comes from my book, PRONOIA Is the Antidote for Paranoia: How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings.