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Brutalist Bookends

Idiot Boxing

The Great Flattening continues. Even when the city was burning, even with protests to attend and petitions to sign and causes to donate to, it’s still all blending together a bit. (I’ve come to appreciate the #WhatDayIsIt tweets from Steve Portigal.)

I moved during the initial lockdown period in Minneapolis, and I’m in a larger space now with a dedicated living room separate from the rest of the space. That, plus the general weirdness of the days themselves, has changed my relationship to the TV screen. I find myself seeking out more soothing, intellectual, independent, and vaguely artistic things to watch (especially compared to my usual TV diet of sci-fi . Broadly, you might categorize them as “quieter” things. It feels like the … intensity? … of daily life has been turned down quite a bit. The blaring, chaotic energy of slickly-produced TV shows and Hollywood movies feels incongruous against this quietness.

The broad genre of street life gets a lot of screen time now, especially videos exploring creative street foods at various markets. I miss the feeling of being alone in a crowd and of wandering around a new city. And honestly, at this point, it feels downright alien to watch people just … existing together! Being together, chatting, sitting on curbs, eating over crowded picnic tables. Eavesdropping! God, remember eavesdropping?

I found a furniture restoration channel I like. Lots of quiet scraping, sanding, painting, and highly-satisfying little woodworking magic tricks.

We got the Kanopy app installed, which lets you stream things from your local library system, and have been choosing some indie and art films and documentaries at random. A three-hour documentary about life in the New York Public Library system made for two nights of viewing. It’s deliberately slow-paced, with long uninterrupted shots of people talking at various public meetings and book clubs and such. Which sounds boring, and it kind of is, but in a way that was delightful and soothing and scratched an itch I didn’t know this pandemic had caused.

Our most recent choice was the excellent and new-to-me play Small Islands, streaming through an initiative from National Theatre Live. You wouldn’t think a recording of a play would be engaging, and maybe it would seem less so if we could, you know, go to actual plays, but I was fairly enthralled watching this.

Games are still in the mix, but less so. Lately I’ve been enjoying the relative gentleness of the SNES version of Yoshi’s Island through the Nintendo Online service. It’s nice to finally play this game in sequence, instead of one random half-level at a time in the electronics section of Super Target while Mom shopped for groceries.

Categories
Brutalist Bookends

The Great Flattening

Things aren’t so bad in Minnesota as in other places, for which I’m grateful. I’m home, mostly, unless I’m going to the store or my girlfriend’s apartment, by foot or by bike, playing Frogger all the way trying to dodge other humans. Our respective offices went work-from-home only a week or so before the orders came down in Minnesota that everyone should do that. Feels like we’ve been at this a while now. Maybe we have? Time is hard now. It’s all in service of “flattening the curve”, they say. Happy to help. Flattening, flattening. It feels like The Great Flattening, doesn’t it? Hours all flattened together, days, weeks. Long walks to nowhere. Every meal made or a leftover from a pantry you suddenly know all-too-well. It’s not all bad, of course, but it is indeed very flat.

In addition to the general strangeness of the world it’s a strange time personally. While any given day feels like an echo, two of the biggest aspects of my life — where I live and where I work — are now, or soon to be, different. The pandemic economy made my previous job at a consultancy non-viable right quick. It felt like it just happened but it’s also been a couple of weeks now? My days are a blur of messages received and sent, calls scheduled, great chatting with you, looking forward to hearing more. Meanwhile, I just an hour ago signed into my utility company’s website to schedule billing to stop on this place (of four years) and start at my new place in a few weeks. I’m living in a double-quarantine state of myself being at home and many of my things already packed away in boxes. Flat-packed.

My Instagram ads are all for pants now? I’ve never had less need of them.

There’s a shock and a grief to all this, which flattens, too. I am anxious at times, or angry, or sad, or scared. But not too much, not so noticeably. Mostly, I’m just here. Just being.

It is a miracle of this present moment that I am writing anything at all, as it’s seemed like there’s so little to say when so much is all the same. But the sun was out today, and I drank some coffee on my deck, and I am forcing myself to move these fingers over this keyboard because I am rather very tired of the flatness and I fear it overtaking me.

… and then some time passes, between what I wrote before and what I write next …

I had a therapy appointment a few hours ago. I’m grateful to still be able to afford it, to afford home internet to access it, and to have a therapist who’s technical enough to use a non-Zoom platform for virtual appointments. I usually have to block out my morning or afternoon, or sometimes a whole day, around therapy. I take it seriously, and I try to take some time to chew on the conversation and outcomes. That’s not what happened just now. No one’s fault. But a video call is a video call, and it felt like all the others. Is this therapy or consulting? Catching up with a friend? Job interview? Watching a celebrity on a livestream? It’s me and a screen, disembodied voices, flat, flat, flattening.

She suggested I write it all out, all my projects and worries and concerns and next steps, on a big sheet of paper. And then make a little plan each day about what to do. Which is basically what I recommend to people, too, in a different context. But I don’t have any big paper here, just little notebooks. Or maybe I do, but it’s packed away.

My plants seem to be wilting. Maybe I’m just noticing them more, being here.

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Brutalist Bookends

Zero Minus Plus

Lotta information to process these days. I’ve read more bits of scientific papers in the past few weeks than ever before. Doesn’t mean I know anything, though. I’ve stopped sharing what I think I’ve learned even with people close to me, at least until I hear it from multiple real experts. At least twice now I’ve had to say, “Hey, sorry, turns out that thing I shared yesterday is bullshit.” That’s no good.

I’m reminded of a framework I learned from Chris Hadfield in An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.

In any new situation, whether it involves an elevator or a rocket ship, you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. Or as a zero: your impact is neutral and doesn’t tip the balance one way or the other. Or you’ll be seen as a plus one: someone who actively adds value.

Chris Hadfield

I refer to it as Zero Minus Plus (ZMP), as that seems to roll off the tongue the easiest. You’d think you’d always want to be the plus one, but he goes on to explain that trying to be the plus one, or worse, thinking you’re a plus one when you’re not, tends to make you into a minus.

In this particular new environment we find ourselves in, with a new pandemic sweeping a modern world, I’m aiming to be a zero. My time on Twitter leads me to believe a lot of other folks could benefit from this approach.

When you have some skills but don’t fully understand your environment, there is no way you can be plus one. At best, you can be a zero. But a zero isn’t a bad thing to be. You’re competent enough not to create problems or make more work for everyone else. And you have to be competent, and prove to others that you are, before you can be extraordinary. There are no short-cuts, unfortunately.

Chris Hadfield
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Brutalist Bookends

I am absolutely certain I did the thing I did not do

Went out to an event a few weekends ago, but did not actually get to attend the event, because I did not purchase tickets to the event and it was sold out when we got there.

I was absolutely certain I had purchased the tickets. I remember looking at the site, I remember filling out the form, I remember where I was when I filled it out, I remember talking to someone about it while I did it.

Except, I did not do this. I did not fill out the form. I did not have the conversation. Checked the receipts, got a second opinion. The timeline of my memory doesn’t match reality.

What a jarring sensation! It feels on a spectrum with deja vu, of being gaslit by reality. Like when you discover it’s the Berenstain Bears, or that Shazaam is not in fact a movie. (I’m sorry for the experience you’re about to have if you just learned these things from me.)

Makes a guy wonder how much of what’s rattling around in that old trunk of memories actually happened, or happened to you and not the person who told it to you, or happened in the time and place you remember it happening. Probably not much.

Categories
Brutalist Bookends

Nothing unfamiliar (Tools I used to write a book)

My book advises designers to be intentional about the tools they choose and use to do the writing on their projects. For writing a book, a thing I’d never done before, I ran a few experiments to see if there was any good and smart tool I hadn’t tried before that would make it easier. I quickly learned that I didn’t want to use anything new. The book was not an experiment in tools. It was a job. I had work to do, so I went with what I was familiar with.

That’s now also the advice I give to people planning their own book projects:

  • Write wherever you can write quickly.
  • Keep notes however you’re used to keeping notes.

You’ve got a book to write; you don’t need a new part-time job as librarian or software developer or project manager, too.

It’s been a minute since I wrote the book, but I’ll run down everything I can remember using.

MindNode

MindNode has been my outlining and braindumping tool of choice for over a decade. It has a limited featureset and good keyboard control and lets me work quickly. I worked up various versions of the initial outline in MindNode, and would open it up here and there throughout the process to think through something or generate a detailed outline for a section or concept before trying to write it.

Byword

Byword on MacOS was my typewriter. It was the primary tool I used to produce the first complete draft of the manuscript. Byword is a plain text writing environment with Markdown support, which means that you are mostly just typing while you write (and not fiddling with margins and fonts and formatting and such).

I organized my draft as six plain text files: four chapters, the introduction, and resources. I also had a scratchpad file.

I ran ByWord fullscreen on a 13” MacBook Air I was carrying at the. Fullscreen enables multiple tabs of ByWord on one screen, like tabs in a web browser. I opened the scratchpad document as my first tab, and then each chapter in order. This way, I could have my entire manuscript open at once without having to do too much scrolling. I mostly worked in a non-chronological order on the book, and would often find myself needing to move things from one chapter to another as the structure evolved.

Google Drive

I used Google Drive to draft the bullet-pointed, Table of Contents-style outlines that were part of pitching the book and refining the initial concept. I also used it whenever I needed to share something with someone, often copying as rich-text from Byword, pasting it in, and cleaning up as needed.

Google Drive was also how I coordinated marketing for the book, with a variety of spreadsheets and documents, and some light email automation in Gmail.

Dropbox

Dropbox was my safety net for the drafts and revisions. I kept all my text files in a Dropbox folder, which to this day are still inside a folder called “Digital Writing Book”. I didn’t have to think about Dropbox and that’s what I like about it.

Microsoft Word

I would prefer, personally, to never use Microsoft Word. I just don’t want it. But it was part of the revision and publishing process, and I used it as needed. The publisher provided a Word document with all of their styles and formatting conventions built into a template.

When my first draft was finished, I copied each chapter into Word as plain text from the text files. I then went through paragraph-by-paragraph to clean it up, apply styles, add bolding and do some light copyediting here and there. This sounds tedious but it really didn’t take long at all, maybe two hours for the whole book, and I found this vastly preferable to using Word during the initial writing process.

My editor and I collaborated on drafts in Word with comments and track changes.

Field Notes steno notebook

On one of my early writing sprints at Open Book I felt constrained by only being able to type my thoughts. I didn’t have a notebook with me so I popped into the gift shop and got a steno-style Field Notes that they had in stock. There were only a few options, so I decided to suffer Gregg-ruled paper (ugh) in exchange for the lay-flat top binding (yay!).

The notebook stayed with me throughout the rest of the writing process, and I only put things about the book in the notebook.

When I ran out of steam typing I would noodle a bit with pen and paper until I got unstuck, and then resume typing. It helped ideas flow more easily; whatever I was writing on paper wasn’t something I was committed to, which I think help relieved some pressure and helped ideas flow more easily.

I kept to-dos in the notebook, and would often make notes to myself about what I’d done on a certain date and what I wanted to do the next time I sat down to write. It helped to keep a conversation with myself about the book without those thoughts cluttering the actual draft.

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Brutalist Bookends

Expert Ding-Dong

I keep seeing LinkedIn profile headlines with the word “expert” in them. Good grief. The surface-level reaction is: “Haha, look at that try-hard.” But that’s a defensive coating on the deeper response: “Oh shit, should I be doing that? I’m more of an expert on [Topic] than that guy!”

I’ve built my share of expertise in a few areas. That could be me! I could pop “expert” right up in there. But I … don’t want to? It feels squicky. To describe oneself as an expert seems akin to talking about how kind and humble you are.

In contract law, experts are sometimes called to make binding determinations. I like this phrase I found from a quick Google search: “Expert determination is consensual.” They’re using it in a contractual sense but boy doesn’t that ring true? Call yourself an expert all you like but it takes two to tango.

The more I learn and the more writing I do the less comfortable I am with authoritative posturing. The fuck do I know, you know? Trying to sound smart works as well as trying to be cool — which is to say, not at all. Call me an Expert Ding-Dong. Pre-eminent Thought Forgetter. Chief Idiot Officer. Come on, one more … oh oh! Director of Donkey Brains.

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Brutalist Bookends

I acknowledge the absence of the sun

Ah, that beautiful morning light of January in Minneapolis.
Ah, that beautiful morning light of January in Minneapolis.

Just heard on the radio that it’s the cloudiest January on record here. I believe it.

It’s required attention, that’s for sure. I take my Vitamin D supplement (a gummy, of course — treat yourself). I have a clinical-looking daylight lamp that kicks on automatically when sunrise is supposed to be. I try to stick to a morning routine. It’s hard to know how much anything helps, or at least the mechanism by which it’s helping. Some mornings the ritual is the main comfort. A wordless mantra, if translated:

I acknowledge the absence of the sun, as I have acknowledged it the five days prior. Today, my life will continue without the sun. I look forward to the sun’s return.

It’s all you can do, really. If it gets real cold you find a fire or put on more layers. If you’re sliding on the snow and ice you get better boots. But if the sun’s gone? Man. Keep that coffee on, say a little prayer, and keep on trucking.