Live an examined life

If your brain operated like a digital video camera, the playback video would take 300 years to watch. Think about that for a moment. The capacity of the human brain to store data would take almost four lifetimes to view if it were a film. With all that data, how does anyone organize it?

Note-taking is a practice. Maybe an art form. Possibly a lost art form. Here are some handwritten scrawls I found in my notebooks:

  • abiding by one’s principles is getting more important
  • a marketers job is to manufacture consent
  • to be a successful business guru: use faux scientific terms, command attention and speak with confidence
  • “Your head is a crappy office. . .”

Some of these are quotes, paraphrases and scribblings in the fashion, or after the manner, of a commonplace book.

Notes.

From time to time I review these notes and weigh their merit. How does the old expression go? Eat the meat and spit out the bone and gristle. Or, as I suggested earlier, thistles and wild flowers. Some ideas are rubbish. A couple of these notes I have considered off and on during the last couple years. One of these big ideas is productivity and time management. Another concept that captivates my thoughts is guiding principles.

Many business books explore the topics of productivity, time management and purpose. A lot of business books seem full of great ideas. Some are useful. But after a few critical passes a lot of these business and marketing books melt away like cotton candy. Nothing left but a stale after taste.

Weeds & thistles.

One such business book offers the thesis that leaders should ask why their company does what they do. This starts out well. Purpose is offered. But not principles. Is a purpose-driven company wrong? No. Everything has a purpose. But what about a plan? Is it Benjamin Franklin who wrote: If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail? Many business leaders implement ideas suggested in books without considering the consequences. Is purpose and plan interchangeable? What about a triumvirate of purpose, plan and principles? Plans change. Marketplace adaptation and other factors. Purpose is shifted due to internal and external needs. Principles. Principles are value statements. They are core business doctrines.

Wild flowers.

Many years ago, possibly fifteen years, I read that an international news magazine avoided presenting their news on their web site because the editorial leadership found no reason for it. (Keep in mind this was before the disruption of mobile phones and social media.) The subscriber-based magazine found no need to compete with itself on two platforms: print and digital. When the global market crashed in 2008, a lot of magazines and newspapers ended publication. Permanently. But this international news magazine increased its circulation during that time period. Their guiding principles were not compromised in spite of competition rushing to publish content online free of charge. To paraphrase their mission: you’ve seen the news, now read the story. The editors did not ask, why aren’t we on the internet like everyone else? When the time was right, when the method fit their mission, then they provided content online, in audio and video, on a mobile app as well as their legacy product — a weekly printed magazine.

One of those handwritten notes mentioned earlier was a quote from David Allen. He pioneered a system called getting things done (or GTD). The method offers a plan of how to get stuff out of your head and in to action. The goal is productivity. Each task should have three general responses: do, delegate or defer. Decisions are based on variables like time, energy, resource and others. While listening to one of his GTD audio podcasts I noted: “Your head is a crappy office. . .” A cluttered mind is a cluttered life. One of the practices of the GTD system is to unclutter your mind by capturing data outside the head. Whether you write notes or lists on paper with pencil or pen or email or text message yourself, the goal is to clear the mind. A clear mind provides space for planning, examining purpose and establishing principles.

Closing thoughts.

In the first draft of this piece (which was crafted nearly two months ago), I wrote: “A clear mind provides space for meaningful purposeful actions.” In the margin I noted: “What does this mean? Define the term meaningful. Define purposeful. Rewrite this line. Be clear, direct and to the point. No room for squishy platitudes.”

This is an example of why it is essential to re-examine the notes and ideas presented. A noble task is to live an examined life. The amount of data in a human brain is expansive. If your brain operated like a digital video camera, the playback video would take 300 years to view. Ultimately, how does an individual bring order to the chaos from the stream of cerebral activity?

An acquaintance, many years ago, mentioned that keeping a diary or journal was useless if you did not review it periodically. In other words, it is a good discipline to glance at the rearview mirror of commonplace books, diaries and journals before returning your focus to the front windshield and the task at hand.

Gathering flowers, my mountain flowers


What are the names of the flowers and blossoms that edge the late August roadsides of rural Wisconsin? Cornflower? Goldenrod? Queen Anne’s lace? Or wild carrot? Maybe this is botanical contrafact.[1] Same road progression along corn and soybean fields, but new melodies and arrangements of purple, white and yellow. Weeds and wild flowers remixed along country roads.

The expression “gathering the flowers” originated from a Latin phrase, florilegium.[2] The idea and practice of gathering flowers was to record quotations, excerpts and selections of literature, sketches and observations. Often religious and/or philosophical. These thoughts and ideas collected in a common place[3] provided a field of potential cross pollination. Hence the term commonplace books from the Latin “loci communes.”[4]

But tonight the poetry of Li Po, commonplace books and conversation at the dinner table collided. It is a practice in my home to share dinner together with the entire family. Good food and lively conversation abound. Tonight the topics included rhetoric definitions, friendship, loyalty, virtue, astronomy, Taoism, Christianity, providence of God, Li Po, coffee, heavy metal music, hairless rabbits and so on. Weeds and wild flowers distinguished throughout the animated discussion.

After the conversation subsided, the table cleared and dished washed, I reflected on a poem by Li Po. In the poem he referred to himself and a hermit friend as “mountain flowers.” Remixing gathering flowers and mountain flowers intrigued me. One of the children placed John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Art Tatum records on the stereo.

John Coltrane’s “26 2.” Charlie Parker’s chord progression from “Confirmation” reimagined with Coltrane’s melody and arrangement. Later, I borrowed Li Po’s four-line structure and motif and added my own melody, images and theme. Gathering flowers and blossoms. Poetic contrafact.

NOTES:
[1] Discovering Jazz, Episode 46, Stolen Chord Sequences (Jazz Contrafacts), accessed September 7, 2019. https://player.fm/series/discovering-jazz-2150622/archives-episode-46-stolen-chord-sequences-jazz-contrafacts
[2] “Florilegium – gathering literary flowers,” August 27, 2019. https://coffeehousejunkie.net/2019/08/27/florilegium-gathering-literary-flowers/
[3] Loci communes: Not an easy Google search, but an example of its usage is here: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Loci-communes-rerum-theologicarum. Additionally, here are some Latin root words that make up Loci communes.


[4] Commonplace books is a subject explored here. “Best reads of 2014 (or what I found in my notebook),” December 31, 2014. https://coffeehousejunkie.net/2014/12/31/best-reads-of-2014-or-what-i-found-in-my-notebook/

Florilegium – gathering literary flowers

Ever have one of those moments when you realize you are not what you claimed or thought you were? Where an illusion of yourself, either self-imagined or externally imposed, dissipates.

Well, an interesting thing happened to me on the way to the Intermodal Station. While I had thirty minutes to spend, I lost my way through the labyrinthian shelves of Downtown Books in search of a Latin dictionary. Instead, I found a used English dictionary.

Knowing that half of the English language is built on the foundation of Latin, I found a delicious word: florilegium. Culling flowers is the literal definition. But “a volume of writings” reminded me of something else. The idea of gathering literary flowers or collecting the flowers of one’s reading. Somewhere between the Middle Ages and Renaissance the practice of writing quotes and excerpts from other texts began. Later it manifested itself in European culture as commonplace books.

For years I considered myself a modernist of sorts. Writing down quotes, excerpts and notes on or from influential artists like Jackson Pollock, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Jack Kerouac, and Ezra Pound. But there I was, standing in Downtown Books searching a dictionary for English words with the Latin root word “loci.”

When did this happen? When did I begin act and resemble a classicalist? Maybe this is part of the great conversation. Connecting the dots. Reading the ancient writers. Comparing them to modern literature. Maybe this is part of gathering literary flowers. Legacy informing legacy.

I boarded the train. Found a seat. Opened a copy of Gary Snyder’s Left Out in the Rain. And gazed out the window at the setting sun.

Analog desk, mostly


This is a story about fighting for something that is worthwhile. It starts with attention fragmentation due to disruptive media. Data explodes across small and large screens. Time confetti. Tools designed to build stuff now maximizes a user’s attention. Algorithms exploit weakness.

A CEO of an internet technology company once told me that the best way to prevent a data/security breach is to unplug from the internet — air-gap. Does that work for your brain?

Last year I built a desk from salvaged materials. The idea was to create a retreat by the east window. Books, Boston ferns, dwarf palms, pens, paper and a manual typewriter populate the desktop. Mostly. A smart phone routinely finds its way to the desk. And a laptop computer. Vigilantly I try to maintain low-tech/no-tech policy with the desk by the window.

The space has allowed for a renewed energy for illustration projects, writing efforts, and — most importantly — reading and thinking about books. The discipline of maintaining this sanctuary is more difficult than initially perceived.

NOTES:
“Air-gap” According to a Wired magazine’s article: “An air-gapped computer is one that is neither connected to the internet nor connected to other systems that are connected to the internet.” https://www.wired.com/2014/12/hacker-lexicon-air-gap/

Confessions, or to repeat old habits

During the last month I reflected on things I wrote a decade ago. The original idea I had was to simply repost material as a Throwback Thursday blog post. But when I reviewed the writings from those halcyon days before the disruption of iPhones, social media, tweets and posts — I noticed something. The meaning was illusive. I am still pondering it.

The first blog post was about photography. The second was about a poetry reading. The third was about a published essay. The fourth blog post was to be about confessions. Each week I wanted to add nuance and/or context to the original piece. Or at least a different facet of the original. To see it from a different angle. But that week I wrote four different takes on a post time stamped August 23, 2007.

One draft continued after the manner of the previous confessions series. The second draft crafted a meditation on the form and function of the confessions. Another explored the definition. What does the word “confession” mean? And finally, there was a brief homage to the blogger who inspired the confessional series. Ten years ago, there were at least a dozen bloggers (writers, thinkers and artists) I read daily.

To write and post one (but not all) of these different perspectives seemed to me limited in scope and context. To post all seemed unfair to the reader — not to mention indulgent and esoteric. And so, I scrapped the plan. Missed the Thursday deadline. And reflected on a path forward.

And then, during that weekend, I discovered an old spiral notebook from. . . well. . . a long time ago. In those days, my small Southern rental house had no internet, television or air conditioning. The only computer technology I owned at the time was a Brother electric typewriter. The notebook exposed a habit, a pattern, of mine that I have not altered from in years.

The red spiral notebook contained three drafts of a letter to a family member. Each draft was a variance of the previous letter. Each draft removed or altered items regarding hopes, fears and dreams. And the final draft was never mailed. More than one writing teacher and mentor told me that I tend to censor my writing. To hide details. Hide intimacy. This may be the nature of men. It may be my upbringing in a religious household. A home that taught everyone will be accountable to God for every word spoken and written. But failed to offer that if God is sovereign, then he already knows every word and deed I will ever do in my life. And he chose to love me anyway. But I digress.

To post or not to post. To repeat old habits, or to start new ones.

Reflections in a puddle

20130701-123531.jpgIt is an early summer morning. It rained the night before as I walk a mile or so before I climb into the car for the morning’s mega commute. The parking lot near my home is dappled with puddles slowly evaporating. It reminds me of when I first started taking black and white photographs in high school. One of my favorite subjects was reflections of the sky in puddles.

I do not remember what initially attracted me to the subject matter, but I remember loading a 35mm SLR manual camera–either an Olympus or a Pentex–with a spool of film, pulling the leader and lining the sprocket holes with the sprockets, securing the leader to the spindle, closing the back door and advancing the film a couple frames. I would sling the camera over my shoulder and head outdoors to capture a surreal glimpse of the heavens from the perspective of puddles on asphalt. Or pools of water on gravel roads or a grassy field.

After collecting images captured and hidden on a roll of exposed black and white film, I returned to the darkroom at the high school and processed the film. First developing the amber film strips and then placing it in the enlarger to make prints. The way the image emerged from the paper as it floated in the developer solution was no end of amazement for me–like watching an unseen ghost suddenly materialize. The image of a lamp post in a puddle near the grainery, the water tower with clouds dancing from the pavement, the side of the building of the Coal Miner’s bar on Main Street or a self-portrait reflecting in a pool of water in an alley.

Something about a reflection seen from a different perspective captivated me. How can I look at a subject differently? How can I view it from a different angle–another perspective? I guess that is how I approach a lot of things today–asking myself, What is the wider context? Some days I just need to take a long walk on an early summer morning and look for those puddles, search for a different angle of the sky, watch the fog on the mountain tops from a mud puddle. Maybe a distorted, impressionistic reflection will inform me of something I did not see before.

NOTES:
From the archives. Consider this a Throwback-Thursday-what-did-I-write-five-years-ago entry. #TBT, #ThrowbackThursday: https://coffeehousejunkie.net/2013/07/
Six years ago I wrote this: A bookless American library: https://coffeehousejunkie.net/2012/08/02/a-bookless-american-library/
Eight years ago: Making its own app adds revenue for beleaguered newspaper: https://coffeehousejunkie.net/2010/08/02/making-its-own-app-adds-revenue-for-beleaguered-newspaper/
Ten years ago: https://coffeehousejunkie.net/2008/08/01/998/
25 years from now I want to: https://coffeehousejunkie.net/2009/08/04/scumblr-microwalrus-gumnos-mediatinker-com/

No cell phone, no computer, no camera

Excerpt from a poem read months ago.

Christmas Eve by John Everett Millais, 1887

Since it’s 6°F outside, thought I’d share this wonderful painting.

A Small Press Life: Books. Art. Writing. Life. Tea.

Christmas Eve by John Everett Millais, 1887:

Christmas Eve by John Everett Millais, 1887

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Find four more hours in a day


Personal archeology.
Discovered these old sketch books in September. Looked at them. Placed them on a shelf. Lost them again.

Rediscovered the sketch books again this weekend. Marveled at how much time was invested. Considered how these books were populated with sketches of classmates,  drawings of roommates and other ephemera in a place and time were smart phones, tablets and laptops were not ubiquitous.

Question:
What would you be able to create if you were not glued to your smart phone for more than four hours[1] a day?

NOTES:


[1] How Much Time Do People Spend on Their Mobile Phones in 2017?, Hacker Noon, May 9, 2017, accessed December 11, 2017 https://hackernoon.com/how-much-time-do-people-spend-on-their-mobile-phones-in-2017-e5f90a0b10a6

Quit social media

This goes against conventional and digital age wisdom, but Cal Newport[1] has a very good point. It is worth considering and implementing.

NOTES:

[1] Cal Newport, “Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It.” New York Times, Nov. 19, 2016 accessed December 1, 2017.
https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/20/jobs/quit-social-media-your-career-may-depend-on-it.html