Sibling Rivalries

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They are words you give over completely as gifts, handwritten, not stored in some outbox enveloped within of SMTP headers or iMessage read receipts. A few drafts rest in my notes, but otherwise, all of those words were just out there, mostly forgotten.

Once we were both old enough to write clearly, any co-signed birthday cards became a sibling competition of sorts, for who could say more in the inscription. Not that emotional sincerity had to be a competition. But of our sibling rivalries, it produced some of the best results.

I’ve ceded that competition to her husband, who is her worthy opponent and turns thirty today.

 

Gravity and Diffusion

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The ink languished into a register on the folded sheet, an inversion edited by gravity and diffusion.

I’ve been working on this essay/narrative/piece for (oh, boy) half a year, off and on, and I still don’t know quite what to call it, and that’s after approaching the whole experience with ten thousand words. I’m trying for something with it, striving, and still feeling uncertain if I’ve written one word that really expresses what had originally struck me as a secret lesson about the mystery of experience.

Maybe everything that you make along the way, or that gets made accidentally, even if you never get to where you think a thing might be able to go, can be your things. The art that you find along the way.

The Green Room

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Dan called me, and after a long unexpected conversation about his interest in writing publicly and how that was met inside of himself with a stronger force of resistance mired in the competitive nature of social media, his scientific profession, and how everything is fucked, we eventually landed back on the original purpose — an invitation up to Berkeley at the last minute to shoot his band at a good venue. “Brand new venue,” he said, “with great lighting.”

Twenty-four hours later, all of that great lighting collected, I sat on one sofa with a camera pointed across the green room as the two bandmates rehearsed and recorded a half-dozen versions of a message that would announce their remix album release sometime in the fall. There was a freshly-packed glass pipe and lighter next to the lead singer on the sofa, out of frame.  I nearly considered keeping it in the frame — it was a reggae band, after all.

No longer on stage, the lead singer Michael fumbled a bit over the words they were writing into the air. But he kept at it, holding onto his energy between his outstretched hands despite the occasional blank spots and brick walls of recorded speech. He kept wanting November to be October. November was too far away.

The keyboardist, my friend Dan though, dang. It was as if he was November. He’d been sitting very quietly, nodding, in agreement and making comments and suggestions without too much demanding, as he normally seemed to do. But after he clipped the lapel microphone on and slipped the cable underneath his shirt, he spoke one seemingly perfect paragraph of speech into the camera, with a coherence and emotional cadence that I knew he was capable of, but still completely surprised me. He’d managed the whole thing just right there, straight in my direction, with the camera between us rolling, just perfectly on the first take.

The lead singer turned to him, equally impressed, surprised and perhaps more than a little envious. Was it just luck? I had Dan do another take, not because we needed it, just out of curiosity. It was even better than the first.

Maybe this was a bit of selective evidence with some confirmation bias, but yes, I thought, he totally should write.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Margin Count

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Every morning — or on rare occasions, by the afternoon — for the last one hundred and forty-two consecutive days, I’ve written morning pages.

Before a twelve day break in this action in which I attended a silent meditation retreat which also excluded writing, I had also collected another three-hundred and thirty-three pages in my first season, bringing my daily practice to a grand total of two-hundred and fifty-three mornings of writing three pages of often indecipherable, stream of consciousness word meditations. Or word therapy. Or word farts.

Doesn’t really matter what it is, at all. Just that I do the excercise. By the third page, there is almost always something surprising — either in discovery or in feeling — that I would not have thought otherwise.

The biggest trick to all of that consistency came somewhat by accident. Somewhere near the twentieth day of that first season, I began numbering each session in the margin, as a way to keep track and therefore really keep myself accountable. After the first few days of simple counting, I then added a small doodle around the number that I felt was somehow a numerological expression. Nothing fancy, generally something geometric, and then progressively more abstract. The only rule, that I tentatively gave to myself, was no repetition. Something different every day.

If I skipped a day, I’d have to start the count over again. So long as N+1 did not equal 1, I’d be continuing a streak. And that streak now had a visual companion. The number slowly grew with what felt like a compounding interest — each day, flipping back over the three pages, unencumbered by what I’d barely just written, to remember the previous count, and the previous sketch, and something just a little bit different and more interesting. Not always more interesting, but usually.

Incidentally, this also began to track my long adjacent trajectory away in space-time from whence the whole thing started (or in the case of this second season, time since last meditation retreat). I really liked that about it, until I didn’t, for fear of that passage of time from which none escape, none are pardoned, none receive anything but that same gift, daily, incrementally.

But then I found myself on Day 48 of Season 2. It was Saturday, May 12th. I’d started getting a bit more literal with the sketches, encasing the number inside of a shape that related to where I was that day, but this day I really took toward an object in the room, the downstairs cafe of a bar somewhere in Brooklyn; an old glass five-gallon water jug full of Edison bistro bulbs, suspended from the ceiling. I took my time, about five minutes, really looked at it and tried ever so tentatively to translated it into the margin.

And haven’t stopped that, either. Each day now, after all nine hundred or so of the words, I spend another five or ten minutes and sketch an object I can find in the room, and find a way to place that increasingly long count inside of the object — this weird little still life remixing game and moment of zen. I’m by no means a gifted artist, but I have found that the more patient I am, generally the better the sketch comes out. It’s increased, slightly, my visual observations of things, which is a nice surprising side effect beyond all this internal stenography. There are days I really curse myself for the objects that I’ve chosen, but other days increasingly pleased with my choices and selections in the margins.

Today I drew that orange penguin logo from Penguin Books, the one four and two in a line of the white extra long cummerbund of his tuxedo now three buttons.

And for tomorrow? No idea, except for the one, the four, and the three.

Word Window

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Having traveled two weeks and a day into the four week trip, this morning feels like a good time to confer against what I thought my three intentions were for this trip1:


1. to revaluate myself in the context of and relationship to the east coast; to see what has changed for me (and for DC) in those eleven months

At first I thought not much had changed in DC; but given time to unfurl, I found there were few things left untouched by my former life and work in those eleven months2. There was a relief — I don’t know what else to call it, perhaps joy? — in recognizing that things carry on without you.  As if I were cosplaying as a time-traveler. I was the pin holding some things back. I was holding myself back. I sat in my old office on that first full evening, writing out a blog post, looking out over the twilight window of brick and green I thought I might be always looking out over.


2. to challenge my disciplines against the distractions of travel (of which there are many)

Your discipline is freedom.

Your days of transit require lowered expectations for what can be seen and accomplished, and the work itself and the journey can be appreciated rather than rushed against. Because where are you ever really going, anyways? You just are where you are.

It never gets any easier than doing the thing right now, and you never regret doing a thing earlier.

Which is how you find yourself in the Portsmouth New Hampshire Public Library five minutes after it opens for the day, on the second floor looking out at another window of brick and green.


3. to not have expectations, to not fret (ever), and to keep experimenting with the order and priority of things

He enjoyed each day but for different reasons; excited to write, excited to see friends, excited when a thing went well, went better, went unexpectedly. Initially the opportunities of social obligation felt like challenges, but they soon just became equal forces to balance against. He was, surprisingly rarely alone.

And the loneliness, when it met him in the empty bedrooms or apartments, revealed itself as a choice rather than a condition. His introversion felt like just one thing rather than The Thing, no longer a fusebox culling amperage beyond its heat capacity. He kept the priorities fresh and interesting and saw now how his list of things was a recipe against which the distractions of the day would improvise and perhaps improve the very things he was looking for.

Whatever it was he was looking for, he seemed to already know. The words were a window of brick and white.


  1. Or it just felt like the more attainable topic against the other more complicated thoughts and emotions on my mind and body, that I would write if I had more than an hour: how to structure myself into a DIY MFA; memories of growing up in a computer lab; my gratitude and anticipation about mentorship; and an unspoken and half written elegy for a friend that needs to be finished and shared.
  2. The phone system in the office still breaks down with the same precision of difficulty and obscurity as it ever did when I was there.

The Quality of Ink

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By the early twenty-teens, I’d gone through a few penned love affairs.

The Pilot G2 — like a mid-nineties Honda Accord — well proportioned, approaching a platonic ideal.

The Sarasa Series — with nail salon varietals including Fuschia, Mahogany, and Etcetera.

And yet in any of these gel-based pens — despite the smoothness of the actually pen on paper and supposed magical quick-drying polish — one bled too much, or smudged a bit more between pages. So eventually after a few flirtatious periods, I’d settle back to a standard Bic, returning to the appreciation of a ballpoint and its coca-cola ubiquity.

But then one day a very sturdy version of a uni-ball Jestream appeared in the office, into my hand. As mysteriously as that time a paperclip just fell into my ear — when no one was around — some metaphysical Douglas Adams improbability masquerading as an office prank1.

I could write at length about its hybridization and tension between ballpoint and gel, its surgically precise .38mm version, or how pleased I was to learn that The Wirecutter agrees about the value instilled by certain specific qualities:

It dries quickly, which makes it good for left-handers, too, as it won’t smudge under their hands. This is thanks to uni-ball’s special pigment-based ink, which is designed to sink into the paper, which has the added bonus of making it much more difficult to wash away, preventing check fraud.

But I’ll just link you to their full view of “the best pen”, instead.


  1. If you don’t see a mark, you are probably the mark.

A Hundred Thousand

For the thirty days of April, I wrote consistently — with discipline — in three contexts.

First, Morning Pages. The long-hand, Julia-Cameron, pen-on-paper, three-acts of stream-of-conscious critic-free word-meditations. Per my pen and yellow letter sized sheets, the practice averages to about 900 words per day. At three pages per day, I fill up a pad in sixteen days, and run out of ink so frequently I now buy cartridge inserts in bulk and replace them five at a time. Prior to this, I’d just lose the pen before it ever ran out of ink.

Second, 1KW. One thousand words per day. The concept originated, I don’t know, probably with g–d trying to get a rough draft of the universe just, you know, out. I first encountered the concept in a meaningful way as “two crappy pages per day.” I wasn’t so keen on the “crappy” part, but the mechanical and habitual process made sense. If someone wrote 1,000 words per day — without specific regard to the quality — in the course of a lifetime (like Jack London, c/o Lauren), some one is going to write some things of substance.

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What I’ve come to find easier in pacing at word count instead of pages (those two, big, massive slates of ever-thin marble one must chisel away at), one word at a time is moving one pebble or grain of sand at a time. Simple effort, small effort, easy effort in the moment. Like biking uphill and eyeing — and glancing, and huffing, and winking at — the next telephone pole or tree trunk or a weed next to a broken reflector as smaller and smaller goal posts, through which slowly, you’ve just… biked up the hill instead of a mountain.

Third, Chapter Titles. Which is my unique process of daily journal entries. I write as much as I can, and then when I re-read — a day or month or a year later — I find the phrase for what I would title this chapter of my life, if it were something beyond private thoughts. Somehow, in practicing those first two contexts and methods of writing consistently, the effort needed to create the third just got … easier. Which sounds dumb, honestly, but it’s likely some form of a humanistic truth about effort and creative endeavors.

The harder you work at the thing, whatever it is, the easier it gets the next time you begin. I sit down at 10pm — or 6am — and twenty-five minutes later, all of a sudden, there they are, fifteen-hundred-plus words about the last twelve-to-twenty-four hours. (For the record — I’m currently approximately four-and-half months behind in the actual Chapter Titling aspect of the craft — which is like a small portion of how long I never understood why it was called “Law & Order” because I never watched it until the courtroom-half of an episode.)

And that — I think—  is why every writer, artist, comedian, meditator, or physical therapist seems to give some version of the same advice: do the thing — every day.

To put that month of April into larger personal timeline, I’ve been Chapter Titling for the last 15 years, of which the last two years have been nearly every day. A few hundred words at at time, usually, until last month. Morning Pages started about 150 days ago (I know this because I count up each day of the unbroken sequence of days in a row), and Kilowriting for just the last 40.

Even within that leap of faith and surrender to a simple action (“really, that’s it? I don’t need to think this through harder and just think about it totally perfectly and then I’ll be writing?”) there are times when, in the course of keeping (really, making) a daily journal, it feels to me still like a foolishly narcissistic pursuit. To just write, and keep writing, and sometimes never really get to the point or the obviously clever chapter title, and sometimes get to so many points that I don’t know which moment or revelation was important, and likely may never even get around to re-reading, nor certainly filling in the gaps. The purpose or the outcome is sometimes very clouded inside of the process.

But, when I actually or accidentally take a look back, the instructions and value become obviously clear in reflection.

Last night, I was told a story about a past life and it felt oddly familiar, so I was curious if it lined up with another — about World War 2 fighter pilots and a fear of flying. So I opened my previous journal in search of a date sometime in early September, but in glancing at the top entry first, for Sunday, December 31st, 2017, I re-discover a bulleted list of good things, in no particular order:

  • “Generally every day from April 29th, onward. Baltimore trip with…”

It being April 30th, this was a year and a day since that trip. Which was unexpectedly significant, to just stumble upon, serendipitously, as if I had nearly forgotten my own anniversary of liberation. And since that armistice, I often waffle when describing to people how long I’ve been on sabbatical, “Well, it kind of started in June when I got back to Santa Cruz, but then I didn’t really stop working until August, and then there was my sister’s wedding in September, and then officiating in Mexico, so my obligations to anyone or anything else weren’t really complete until the end of October. So, yea, it started on Halloween.”

So in one perspective, technically, all of a sudden it had been a year since April 29th, and a year of Sabbatical.

And what can happen in a year?

In my search through entries, I could not find another mention of a fighter pilot in a past life. But there had been an airport ride, and discussion of a past life and death in Paris during World War Two. Close enough.

Before closing the journal, I was curious about this time frame of a year. I pulled up the word count for “Chapter Titles 2017.”

In January through December of 2017, the one substantive piece of writing I produced clocked in at: 

104,627 words.

In April of 2018, across these three substantive contexts of writing:

100,691 words

Just April.

And so — therefore — here are the first 1042 words for May in a fourth context.