Productivity Porn Pays Off Sometimes


I made the mistake of listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast this morning.

I say mistake because, as is often the case when I read or listen to something by Tim it tends to take over my brain, the way the moon drifting in front of the sun turns day into night for a few minutes. The difference is instead of lasting for minutes, the effect tends to last for days or weeks.

The problem with listening to Mr. Ferriss, or with any so-called “productivity porn”, is that it tends to create a feedback loop, a sort-of hyped up fugue state. You read this thing and you think “HELL YES, this thing is going to change my life” and your brain drowns in the dopamine flood caused by the visions of success, and while you’re high on that you notice that the thing you just read references this other thing and hey, you’ve got a few minutes before you have to get back to real life, so why not check that out while you’re at it, and wouldn’t you know it the new thing hits you with the “HELL YES” effect again and the cycle repeats. (Full disclosure: when I started writing this post I visited Tim’s site — for the first time in months, I might add, because I know what happens when I do it — and fell victim to the same cycle. I also signed up for his new newsletter. And may or may not have copy/pasted some material onto my desktop. Stop judging me.) Point is, you have to be judicious with this sort of thing, which is why I’m probably not going to dip my toes into Tim Ferriss land for several months again. Still, this morning, I think, was beneficial.

The material in question was a recent episode called Tea Time with Tim, which covers a lot of ground but left me with a couple of things clanking around in the ol’ noggin: something he calls “fear-setting” and a few quotes from ancient Greece.

First, fear-setting. You’ve heard of goal-setting, where you set down your goals, enumerate the steps to the achievement of said goals, and more or less plan your vision for success. Well and good, but for us anxious types, who dwell on fears perhaps more than we should, there’s a tendency to let those fears paralyze us to the point of inaction. (See for example my writing productivity over the past several months.) Fear-setting is designed to take the positive visualization of goal-setting and turn the full artillery of that framework on the anti-action fear center of the brain. In a (woefully inadequate) nutshell, fear-setting entails writing down all the things that could go wrong and enumerating the opportunity cost if all those things did go wrong, then weighing those costs against a (harshly conservative) estimation of the possible benefits if the things don’t go wrong. For the anxious sort like me, it seems like a good way to short-circuit the “thing is scary so maybe just pretend it doesn’t exist and it’ll go away” paralysis I tend to fall into over stuff.

Then, quotes from Greek guys. First, this one:

Which is one I’m going to share with my classes today, because my students tend to be sick with the germ of “well I want this thing really badly, and things tend to work out for me, so on performance day it’ll all just come together”. You and I, of course, know that kind of thinking is what makes starving artists waiting tables for their whole lives, or worse, a phalanx of creatives who never took up the dream at all because a single performance didn’t live up to the hype in their head. So I’m going to remind them, today, that their training, today, matters for the performance a month down the road, and, well, for most of ’em it’ll bounce right off but at least I’ll have done my part for the day.

It applies for me personally, too, of course. Suffice it to say I’m not particularly well trained-up at the moment in a number of domains, and, well, that needs some attention.

Then, this:

And, yeah, Seneca was Roman, not Greek, but the Romans were basically Greeks with better tech, so let’s not get too hung up on the details. I’ve actually seen the quote more often with the first clause as “we are often more frightened than hurt,” but I prefer this one with fears and dangers. The important part, at any rate, is the second part. The thing we’re afraid of is always worse in our minds and the reality is almost never as bad as we build it up to be. For evidence I offer the example from Louis C.K. (and yeah, quoting Louis C.K. is problematic these days but his personal faults don’t change the poignancy of his words) of the average description of a trip by airplane. The person is likely to complain about the length of delays or the slowness of service or the lack of wi-fi and less likely to dwell on the fact that they literally FLEW THROUGH THE AIR and crossed the country in a matter of hours. We make things out, in other words, a bit worse than they really are in the scheme of things.

So, yeah, my brain is basically on fire this morning.

I hope it doesn’t burn out.

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Don’t Forget to Wash Up


This is the kind of thing that you find all over your previously perfectly boring, perfectly un-terrifying house when you become a parent.

Kids don’t give a hot handful how a toy is meant to be played with. They’re going to play with it in the way that makes the most sense to them at the time, dammit, and if that means dumping six 300-piece puzzles out on the floor and mixing the pieces together so that those puzzles will never be completed in this life or the next, that’s what they’re going to do. If it means running Hot Wheels tracks all over the house and the couch and the cat sleeping on the couch, that’s what they’re bloody well going to do. And if it means decapitating their action figures and not so much tossing but posing the disembodied heads in the sink drains so that it looks like little blue gremlins are slithering out of the unseen depths to haunt my nightmares, then that’s what they’re absolutely going to do, thank you very much.

Never mind that I’m going to stumble on this disturbing tableau first thing in the morning. My sleep-addled brain is going to have to contend with a miniature demon head peeking out of the drain. (It won’t contend well. I’ll first have a lizard-brain fight-or-flight jump accompanied by a quite unmanly yelp, followed by some hyperventilating and finishing off by jumping at shadows for the rest of the day.) Never mind that the petit horror is waiting for me in a safe space within a safe space to thoroughly throw off my sense of routine. (Nobody expects to get their brains scared out first thing in the morning in the bathroom, for goodness’s sake … but if it is going to happen in the bathroom, I expect the terror to come from the shower, as would any red-blooded horror movie fan, so the sink is just out of bounds. I’d at least be gratified if the kids had set a trap for me in the shower.) No, the scare will come, not from the last place I’d expect, but from a place that it wouldn’t even occur to me to ever consider that it might come from.

I’ll table, for now, the question of whether leaving a disembodied head in a sink means my kid is a serial killer in the making, and instead focus my mental efforts on checking the toaster for silly string and my kids’ artwork for surreal nightmare imagery culled from my dreams.


Signs, Signs Everywhere


Who doesn’t love a good terrible sign?

By terrible, of course, I mean a sign that attempts to communicate a certain message but in practice communicates an entirely different or even antithetical message. The internet is full of them, and I’ll leave it to your own ingenuity to find the ones that tickle your fancy, but there’s nothing quite like coming across one in the wild.

And that’s what I did this week!

We took the sprouts on an overnight trip to Chattanooga for a visit to the aquarium and the discovery museum (weather was predicted to be too nasty for outdoor activities and … it wasn’t, but we had already arranged for indoor stuff so that’s life I guess). It was a great time! Not that I’m suddenly turning travel agent or anything, but I can safely say (and I take no pleasure in this) that these facilities have way more to offer the tourist than the comparable facilities in Atlanta.

More to the point, I also came across some delightfully confusing signage.

Exhibit A:

I’ve seen this one before, and maybe even commented on it here. (Which is testament both to how long I’ve had this site and how old I’m getting — there’s a vague sense that this thing may have happened, but the memory is so dim and far away it might as well be somebody else’s.) Anyway — this is a sign posted outside a bathroom advertising that there’s a changing table inside, but for all my efforts I can’t see it as anything other than a dude putting a baby on a grill.

“Keep the baby over the center of the coals,” it seems to say. “Check the heat of the grill often and turn the baby to ensure even cooking.”

Then, this:

This one, I … oi. It’s two days later and I’m still breaking my brain trying to properly understand it. First of all, it’s guilty of that perverse advertising oddity where the animal about to be eaten is serenely happy about the entire arrangement. Much like the cow at Milliways in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, our finny little friend here just can’t wait to be filleted. Then there’s the motto, which — I mean, isn’t that a law enforcement slogan? That being said, it’s a lovely double entendre. “We’re going to serve you some fish, but we’re also going to protect them.”

You know. So you can eat them. Happy fish!

A representative from the aquarium actually tweeted me back when I expressed this sentiment, which surprised and impressed me:

So I guess my attempt at twitter humor came up a bit short. On the subject, I won’t at all get into where my head went when I saw that the handle of the Tennessee Aquarium is @TNAquarium. Nope, won’t go there at all, and if your mind didn’t go there with me, then it’s a testament to your character.

Last but not least, there was also this exhibit plaque:

I don’t know what Julie did, but clearly the Aquarium is not having any of it.


I Finally Get Radiohead


The new Lego movie has a funny moment (I should say, it has dozens if not hundreds of laugh-out-loud funny moments — seriously, if your kids want to go see it, do yourself a favor and take them — but this one in particular has lodged in my grey matter) at the end of the second act. It’s your classic all-is-lost moment, with the heroes (no spoilers) THROWN into a situation that seems ultimately beyond recovery. BOXed in. No way out.

Because it’s the Lego franchise, and the Lego franchise is nothing if not ridiculous and snarky and meta at every possible turn, with fourth-wall breaks and winks-and-nods to the audience on every page, the characters break into song at their plight. They negate the ubiquitous “Everything is Awesome” theme and lament that “Everything’s Not Awesome.” Of course, this is the turning point — “not awesome” is okay, they realize, everything can’t be awesome all the time, etc, etc. But during the song, before that turn, one of the characters claims that “I finally get Radiohead.” My wife, hearing that, turned to me with a chortle: I was, once upon a time, quite a big fan of Radiohead. (Back in the days of mixtapes and mix CDs, I made one for my wife on which half of the tracks were by Radiohead. I don’t remember her exact response — it was over a decade [help!] ago — but it was something along the lines of “I like it, it’s great, but … are you okay??”)

Flash back to my college days, when my good friend who introduced me to the band was doing so by explaining, “yeah, Radiohead is that weird kind of band that’s great to listen to when you’re feeling down. Somehow it can really make you feel better, but sometimes it makes you want to slit your wrists.” I mean, just look at this album art.

Yeah, I screenshotted the display on my phone rather than pull the real album art.

I haven’t actually listened to Radiohead in some time, but, of all things, The Lego Movie 2 has me wondering why. I’m cranking it right now as I reminisce a bit, and, damn. The emotions are high, and it ain’t just nostalgia. They’re a weird sound — more so the more recent the recording, it seems — but no matter the era, there’s a sort of delightful melancholy about their music and lyrics. Somehow, it is both uplifting and depressing at the same time. It’s the odd track from them that doesn’t juxtapose mood and tone — either the words are happy and hopeful against a somber melody, or the words are a march to the noose while the tune is jaunty. This is a band, after all, that stopped playing their biggest commercial hit, Creep, precisely because it was too poppy. And it’s a great song! Listen to the melody, and it belongs right there with the mindlessest upbeat pop songs of the 90s, but the lyrics tell another story:

I wish I were special 

but I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo

what the hell am I doing here

I don’t belong here.

Then there’s the flipside, one of my favorites, Pyramid Song, (pictured above!) which sounds as dire and dreadful as anything you could imagine, but centers on the delightful mantra:

There was nothing to fear, nothing dark.

And I used to listen to Radiohead all the time, just constantly. Walking to class, driving to work, while working, falling asleep … Radiohead was the soundtrack of that time in my life. All the same, I never (at the time) thought of the music as particularly depressing. I guess it just reflected what I was feeling at the time, which was the more or less typical disillusionment and disdain for all things of an introverted college kid. Now, of course, I view it differently. Sure, we go through phases in our lives, and our tastes change as we get older — I can’t tell you the last time I listened to Iron Maiden for example, which I’m sure brings my parents no shortage of joy, because that’s ALL I listened to from ages 15-18 — but I think it’s more than tastes. I’m listening to it now and digging it hard. Rather, I think it’s that Radiohead no longer feels like a reflection of me.

I think about the music I listen to these days and … well, basically all of it is devoid of much emotional content. It’s either airy and ethereal (for writing or reading) or intense and repetitive (for exercising) or poppy and vacuous (when I just want to turn my brain off). And I listen to music differently now, too, than I did in my Radiohead days — I focused on the music more, I internalized it, I identified with it. Now, mostly, I want to ignore it; just allowing it to set a mood. It’s a means to an end, setting the mood for something else I’m doing, rather than an end in itself. I usually steer away from lyrics because lyrics demand concentration. I don’t want to focus on my music, I want it in the background. Setting a mood. Not taking up mental real estate.

So, what? I don’t listen to emotionally charged music. What’s the issue?

I can’t help but wonder. It was while listening to that particular soundtrack during that particular part of my life that I had the first creative ideas that really caught fire for me. Radiohead — and other artists less, what, ignorable, like my current fare? — were the background music as I wrote the play that would later become a novel, and dozens of sketches that, okay, are currently collecting dust, but were arguably part of my current trajectory (minus the last couple fallow months, that is).

It seems, then, not unreasonable to think that an infusion of the same kind of soundtrack might turn the creative screws again, in much the same way as it did once upon a time.

The question, though, is one of time. Hours in the day are fixed, and listening to music like Radiohead isn’t quite as mindless as what I like lately. Do I have the time to engage in active listening like that at the expense of other things I could be doing? And/or, by indulging in such music, do I encourage myself to sink into a depression (because that’s what I now recognize that part of my life as, even if I didn’t know it at the time)?

Well, there I go spinning myself in circles again. I’ll end this with another lyric that seems fitting given the spiral Radiohead has put me into:

Hey man, slow down. Idiot, slow down.

I dunno. I think I owe it to myself to give Radiohead and bands like them a chance again, as an experiment in creativity if nothing else.


A Spring Thaw (Okay it’s not Spring yet but it feels like it shut up)


I have devised a method for a budding author to stop himself cold, lose all momentum, and give up the thing he loves over the course of just a few months. To freeze his writer’s soul in ice like a caveman out for his morning wee, caught in a blizzard and entombed until the 90s.

Actual image of me

Evidence? Not only have I ground to a halt on the novel(s), but I’ve run out of steam on the blarg too. For that matter, I’ve barely given a thought to myself as a storyteller in that time. And it’s all — probably — or at least partially — well, fine, there may be many reasons, but a not-insignificant one is — that over the last year or so, I went and did a dumb thing.

I learned too much.

It started when I picked up Stephen King’s On Writing and a lovely little tome called Wonderbook. Enjoying those, and thinking I was really doing myself some favors, I added a bunch of other reads about character arcs and storytelling generally and characters and motivations and basically anything else you could think of. Great stuff, really. Hard to over-recommend On Writing and Wonderbook especially.

Add to that a heavy dose of writing podcasts, chock full of helpful tidbits and discussions about all the hidden gems tucked away in the dark crevices of the literary caves. (Writing Excuses is my perennial favorite.)

Sprinkle with a series of savvy, snarky and OTHERWISE youtube channels dedicated to dissecting masterworks of film and literature and illuminating how they get it right and wrong.

Then, top with a really crushing sense of inadequacy.

This step is crucial, and it can’t be overlooked. It helps that I had a natural tendency to doubt myself to begin with, but I imagine it would work for anybody. All you have to do is read a lot of excellent books by excellent authors and allow it to sink in that the odds are you will never be as prolific or successful as them. It’s simple math, really. It can’t work for everybody who tries it — it can’t even work for most people who try it — it probably won’t even work for a quarter of the people who try it. (“Work”, here, is subjective, but let’s be broad and say that it means writing books — or for that matter, creating any sort of art — that’s well received and financially worthwhile.)

This is the feeling, that “how is it even possible” sense one gets from standing at the foot of a gargantuan skyscraper, looking up toward where its apex stretches into the seemingly endless sky. Or the mind-shattering smallness you come by while staring up at the multitude of stars in the heavens on a clear night.

Too much looking up, too much contemplation, too much analysis.

Yoda always knows.

The end result of all this is that I’ve felt like writing — creating — is something I just can’t do, or at least can’t do well. And because I can’t do it, I shouldn’t do it. And because I shouldn’t do it, I don’t do it. (I’m nothing if not a follower of rules, after all, even — if not especially — when the rules in question come from the authorial seat of dubious legitimacy, i.e., my own particular brand of non-expertise.)

Which has meant a creative drought quickly turning to desert. Even the cacti are withering up or folding in the doldrums. (Okay, yes, doldrums are a sea phenomenon while cacti are decidedly not, but whatever, it rhymed.)

And, then, it’s comforting not trying to write everyday. Certainly it’s easy. Leaves more time in the day for other things that aren’t as taxing, aren’t as stressful. Like disappearing down a video game hole for a month or two. Or endlessly hate-watching the news.

But it also feels empty. Like I should be doing something and I’m just stubbornly not doing it, like a kindergartner refusing to eat her vegetables. Except that analogy doesn’t work, because the kid doesn’t innately want to eat vegetables; the kid wants to eat grilled cheese and pizza and french fries at every meal. So it’s more like a kid refusing to eat pizza because she’s not the best pizza eater in the world, as if pizza eating were a thing that could be done well or poorly (the only way to eat pizza wrong, and this is scientific, is to NOT eat it until you’re sick). A dereliction of duty, if only to myself. A failure of the natural order.

I feel better when I write. It cleans out the mental pathways like running a Neti-Pot through your sinuses. It gives that sense of accomplishment, like waking up early and doing the dishes before your wife is awake so she doesn’t have to worry about Tuesday’s lasagna turning to red, craggy concrete in the pan.

And then, also additionally too, I look back at the catalog of this site and the stories I’ve written and the novels I’ve finished and partially finished, and dammit, I did those things. However inexpertly and imperfectly, I did them, and surely I was less expert when I did them than I am now while I’m not doing them because I’ve read and learned so much. And, if I may say so myself, I don’t think it was all that bad. So who am I to tell myself I can’t or shouldn’t spend my time doing these things,that I don’t deserve them, that they are a waste of my time?

I reached for a pen this morning while sitting in my classroom waiting for my students to arrive and all this came pouring out. Like the evil flowing out your other nostril as you inhale the witches’ brew in your Neti-Pot.


(Who’s creepily obsessed with Neti-Pots? Not me. Nope. Thanks for that horrific image, The Onion.)

Which means, at the very least, that there’s still something like a drive to create stowed down in the depths of my whatever, somewhere.

I mean, it’s February after all, and we’re already getting seventy-degree days here outside Atlanta. Maybe a spring thaw is on order.


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