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Notebook Vs. Legal Pad

I started writing with pen and paper again this year. I bought a nice notebook and a new pack of V5s, the only pen you’ll ever need. I wanted to give myself a space for slow, thoughtful reflection to find some clarity of self and ideology. I wrote almost every day for the first few months of the year, but I eventually fell off the wagon and it’s been sporadic since late April. This is a regular occurence in my hobbies. Even when creating in complete privacy, I get overly critical of myself and become paralyzed at the thought of continuing due to feelings of inadequacy. I feel useless or trite any time I start writing and like I’m not making any valuable point to myself or anyone else by continuing. I even feel like that right this instant! And that feeling is its own topic for another day. From this paralysis, though, I recently found one small piece of reprieve: a legal pad.

The one with the black bar at the top gluing all its pages together and yellow, legal-ruled paper with the double red line on the left. I grabbed it randomly on my way to a meeting one day at work because I couldn’t find my usual notebook and knew I would need to jot some things down. The clarifying moment came when I noticed how casual I was about my scribbling throughout the meeting. Using a notebook, I’ve often assigned some invisible importance to what gets written down in there, but the legal pad felt closer to scrap paper for stray and meandering thoughts. I wrote more in that meeting than I had in several months. Sure, not all of it was perfectly jotted down and maybe won’t be referenced again, but I definitely felt like I was more present and that I took more from the meeting because of it.

When I went to think about writing for myself again, I realized that my “nice notebook” and favorite pen may be making me overly ritualize what needs to feel more casual, so I picked up another legal pad and started writing there this time and I instantly felt more at ease with myself. I was able to quickly fill up several pages with random thoughts and ideas I was considering and swapped between them as I saw fit. I never felt overwhelmed by the idea of needing to follow-through and stay on topic or write War & Peace in one draft. I scratched things out, wrote in the margins, left myself notes, crossed things out, and rearranged whenever I wanted. It made writing more personal and less stressful than it had been in a long time, and I think the casual, “scratch pad” framing of the legal pad helped me reach that point.


Just a List of Some Songs I've Had on Repeat Lately, May 2018

I almost exclusively listen to music in album format, but every now and then a real earworm climbs into my brain and I can’t help but turn on repeat. This column is a list of some of those songs for me right now. Here’s the playlist.

Christine and the Queens - “Tilted” | YouTube

“Tilted”’s delicate vocals and soft synths with a subdued, bouncy beat backing it make this embrace-your-weirdness anthem a perfect candidate for dancing alone to in front of your mirror with just your socks on during a peaceful summer afternoon. It’s a song of quiet confidence where it’s okay to be an oddball wrapped up in a set of hooks that I couldn’t get out of my brain for weeks. I’m pretty certain I listened to this song 20 times in a row one day.

Now, Now - “SGL” | YouTube

Where the appeal of Threads is its brooding, synthy pop-punk riffs and KC Dalager’s breathy voice getting swallowed up by huge drums and synth layers, “SGL” and its follow-up singles have turned Now, Now into a pop powerhouse. The song tangles up its foundational acoustic guitar riff in buzzy synth leads during the verses and leans on a stripped, swelling pre-chorus between them dangling a refrain like a carrot on a stick before twisting itself right back into the second verse. It makes for a fun take on pop structures and keeps the song’s tension high for when the refrain does arrive just over halfway through its playtime. Paired with the hookiness of nearly every melody, it makes for a song worth back-to-back listens each time I turn it on.

Pale Waves - “Television Romance” | YouTube

Pale Waves’ strength lies in their relationship with subversion. It’s an easy sell to compare them to label mates and musical mentors The 1975, but Pales Waves are special because of how their goth-pop aesthetic melds with poppy, ’80s-inspired riffs and slurred hooks about being sad at parties and disinterested in suitors. They’re making a depressive dance party that doesn’t lose itself in a sense of irony or nostalgia, but instead crafts a modern emotional space to work through things not always working out.

Arcade High - “Phone Lines” | Bandcamp

Synthwave is all about overindulgence in the ’80s revival on all fronts. Massive snare/kick beat, video game bleeps and bloops, and neon retro-futuristic covers. It’s 0-60 on sensory overload at every turn. “Phone Lines” takes all of those tropes and turns it into a thumping pop tune that finds its footing in its repetitious structure. The main groove cycles through a refrain that’s only interrupted by several 8(and one 12)-bar patterns of synth leads before closing out with a double refrain where the second drops the beat to let it wash away in a sea of synths. The simplicity lets the song dig its teeth in and rewards repeated listens.

Oneohtrix Point Never - “Sticky Drama” | YouTube

Not exactly an earworm in the same way most of my other picks are, but “Sticky Drama” has ended up on repeat a lot for me because of its glitchy whiplash, angular synth work, and heavily warped vocals. The song finds its way from arpeggiated keys to a screeching breakdown and back around again without losing the thread along the way. If you find a sense of Zen in chaos, “Sticky Drama” is the song for you.

Drake - “Nice For What” | YouTube

Song of the summer and I am here for it.


Every Single Minute

Twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week, I have a timer running that describes what I am doing. I have found this helps keep myself accountable for what I spend my time on because any time I start or stop doing something, I have to consciously mark it down. That moment forces me to confront what I am doing and ask myself if I will look back on that activity and the amount of time I spent on it and feel good about myself.

Hopefully that moment encourages me to engage in more productive activities. That’s the plan, at least. I’m not trying to conquer the world or even start a business or something grandiose. I would just like to spend more time reading, writing, working out, cooking, etc. instead of sinking into my couch for eight hours of Fortnite or mindlessly scrolling across the internet. At the same time, I don’t want to become my own personal productivity tyrant. If I want to play some video games or binge a new show, that’s totally fine – click the button and go. I’m allowed to enjoy myself! Eight hours later, though, I will have to reckon with clicking stop on that timer.

The plan doesn’t always work out. There definitely have been more than one or two eight-or-more hour video game or television timers that I’ve shrugged at and accepted as who I am that day. But having the data is still useful for looking back at what exactly I have been doing with myself. As long as I keep myself honest with the timers, the reports won’t lie. It can be easy for life to feel like it’s just passing by without feeling like I know what I’ve been doing, but time tracking has alleviated a lot of that because I know exactly what I’ve been doing and for how long I did it. Having that data laid out clearly has made it a lot easier for me to have an honest conversation with myself about what is consuming my time vs. what I wish was consuming it.

So, for me, there’s a two-fold benefit I find in tracking my life:

  1. The quick, in-the-moment “Hey dude, do you really want to start playing video games right now?” reflection that forces me to own up to my actions right then and there.

  2. The big picture view the reports give to evaluate what I’ve been doing lately, which then feeds back into the first benefit if I know I’ve been telling myself I should be focusing on other activities but go to start something else instead.

I take care of all of this in one application: Toggl. In it, there’s a four-level hierarchy for organizing: Workspaces, Projects,Time Entries, and Tags. Each of these is nested in the previous, so a Workspace contains Projects, a Project contains Time Entires, and Time Entries contain Tags. There is also a Client functionality which is structurally adjacent to projects, but I do not use it.

As I’m not tracking business the way the app is classically built for, I keep my setup pretty straightforward. I only use one workspace (“Life”) and from there I have six high-level projects and around 20 or so Time Entries. I’ve spent the last six months or so tweaking the exact language I’m using, but I think I’ve built a solid foundation for what I’m trying to track while giving myself room to grow from here. My structure looks like this:

Entertainment

Fitness

Infrastructure

Personal Projects

Sleep

Work

A couple of details:

Getting started can be easy from a mechanical perspective: make an account, create some projects, and you’re off to the races. The harder part is keeping with it. There’s definitely a mental overhead to remember to switch timers and create your own standards for what to track. I still forgets sometimes! There’s no trick to it, but slowly building up what you track and when is a nice way to ease your way into it. I also have learned to lean on other things to retrace my steps to when I change activities like my last “I’m here” text message to someone if I accidentally left my “Driving” timer on after arrivign at a social event. Going whole hog from zero to 24 hours is a quick way to feel overwhelmed. I have also found that tracking every moment of my life can feel…clinical. It’s at odds with my softer side that wants the human experience to feel less rigid. Quantifying everything doesn’t always feel good, so pick a level of detail that makes you feel comfortable with your own humanity.

I set off all my timers through the iOS app. At one point I used some Workflow actions inspired by CGP Grey and Federicco Vitti’s writing and podcasting about time tracking, but I found it more burdensome than just flipping open the app, clicking the start button, and typing into an auto-complete field. If you’re just starting, I recommend not overcomplicating things at the get-go by trying to overengineer your solution or structure. Make some projects and tasks, start collecting data, and go from there. Feeling it out week by week was the only way I was able to stay consistent. I’ve had to go back and purge or change entries a few times to standardize everything, but it helped me wrap my head around what I wanted and how detailed to be about my project and entry names. Being consistent in that language is really helpful and figuring out what works is unique to everyone.

I think the big idea for me with this whole ordeal surrounds self-reflection and accountability. I want to know where I’m focusing and give myself the opportunity to change that and because the data is self-defined and curated, it’s my own little microcosm of truth about who I am. If I tell myself I want to spend more time doing something, but the data doesn’t bear it out over several weeks, then it’s easier to call myself out with the report that shows me what I was doing instead. Toggl won’t force me to make a good decision, but it does force me to reflect on that decision and live with it. That’s a small step in the right direction, so I’ll take it.


Bread Crumbs

Execution isn’t exactly my strong suit. I’m a process person — planning and tracking is where I excel. Setting up all the minutiae of a project’s scope, requirements, etc. really meshes with the way I think. I often find myself more interested in defining & pushing up against the boundaries of how something is meant to function and discussing the plans than actually executing. Creating vision? I’m your guy! Actually doing the work? Well…

This makes me a good project manager, but it cripples me from actually creating. I get too lost in planning to make something that I never end up actually making it. So that brings us to this very page in all its glorious irony: getting to talk about what I want to make in this space and why. It’s the vision — the meta, if you will. Which is probably why it’s been so easy to write so far: I love talking about plans as much as I love planning! I want to give myself a lay of the land on what I want to be worked on in this place and why. I also want to talk a little bit about the technical details of how this blog is set up and why I chose this specific way.

So I’ve got two main points I want to pin down here, mainly for my own reference: the “What?” and “Why?” of the actual content I’d like to publish, and a meandering philosophical diatribe on the technical setup, which could probably be its own post, but I want it here and that’s that. It being for my own reference is maybe the place to start with this and connects to the “why?” of both points I’m trying to get at in this piece.

I want to publish—and specifically publish here—because I want to remember how I think about myself and the world over time in a space that’s all my own. I want to get things wrong and be able to look back at myself and how I’ve changed. I want to remember the things I was interested in during a specific time period, even if they didn’t change my life in a big way. And I want to share those things with the world because I think it’s important to try and translate what’s in your own head for someone else to understand. From head to paper isn’t a trivial step. Sharing is a pivotal step in the process, which is why this isn’t literally a diary.

This space being “my own” brings me to the brief technical diatribe I want to go on about this place. thisisablog is hosted using GitHub Pages and generated using Jekyll, a tool that turns text files into static web pages. I like this because it makes the site lean and its purpose clear. This place is, at its very core, just a folder of markdown text files. That simplicity appeals to me, especially in The Age of Platforms where the words you write and publish are sucked up and partially owned by someone else’s proprietary system with little ease of exporting and barely any sense of ownership. This is distinctly not that and I feel much better for it.

It’s not my philosophical ideal as GitHub does have my folder of text files, but over time this will never complicate, and I do have a local copy of my repository at all times and the drafts all exist in my text editor. I can carry my bundle of text files anywhere I choose with little fuss in tearing my site down and standing it up wherever I please. That sense ownership of the space I publish in is important to me. Maybe some day I will stand up my own server and instance of Jekyll and publish it there, bringing me even closer to my ideal state but, for now, GitHub with Jekyll sucking up a bundle of text files feels like a good start.

With the why out of the way, I suppose it’s time to get to the “What?” of the content I intend to share here, which as I sit here is really just a list of my general interests. I’m not particularly unique in that capacity. I want to share my recommendations and critiques of modern culture — generally just talking about the things I’m liking and not liking in all forms of media. So a lot of it may be of the “check this out” variety of link blogging. But on top of that, I want to be more personal in my exploration of who I am and how I perceive the world and culture I inhabit.

I find myself drawn to language, philosophy, and political science because of my interest in authors like Richard Rorty, Mark Fisher, and George Lakoff. I read a lot of leftist cultural critiques from following publishers like Verso and Zero Books. I enjoy considering technological utopias and dystopias via science fiction media. I listen to several different podcasts that I find always challenging me to think about my relationship with myself and others in ways that help me grow.

It’s those sorts of things I hope to spend the majority of my time here wrestling with and noting down. I want to watch myself grow and be challenged to work out what I actually stand for and square up who I am vs. who I want to be. I’d like to think publishing and sharing those thoughts is an important step in the growth process.

I want to be better than I was yesterday and leave myself some breadcrumbs along the way.


Fresh Sheets

Sometimes I don’t write for a long time. Sometimes that long time is a half decade. But like a set of fresh sheets, may the warm embrace of this blank space engulf me.