Ben Crowder

Archive: Getting Real

The child within

My wife sent me this 20/20 video earlier today:

Wow. Fascinating and more than a little heartrending. It’s about Carly Fleischmann, an autistic girl who started communicating through typing, revealing that she actually does understand everything that’s going on and that she’s basically a prisoner of her body. Also make sure to check out the FAQ on her website.

Through a glass, darkly

I am a man of the screen. For most of my waking hours each day I’m either at a computer or on my phone, or looking out through a window or a windshield.

Recently I had an epiphany: I spend so much time living life through a screen that I find myself forgetting just how big the world really is. And how vibrant and real and, well, jawdroppingly amazing.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. To draw a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional surface, you have to flatten it, creating the illusion of depth. With all my time spent with screens, I feel kind of like it’s flattening my mental perspective, visually. (While there’s certainly a metaphor here, I really am talking about artistic perspective.)

I look back over my art and the vast majority of it is very flat, very two-dimensional. Part of this is no doubt that flat is easier than solid, and that drawing in perspective (and doing a good job of it) takes a lot of practice, but I’m convinced that a big part of the problem is that most of the time I’m observing life through a screen. The world is pre-flattened before it gets to me. As a result, when I use my imagination, my mind’s eye falls into the habit of imagining it’s looking at a screen, and everything is flat. Flat, flat, flat.

Anyway, the impetus for all of this was when I stepped outside one day and stopped in awe at how big real buildings actually are. They’re huge! In my head they all fit inside a neat 480x960 pixel window, conveniently shrunk to fit the screen. But that’s not how reality is. Reality is huge. Reality is ginormous. And with those huge sizes, tiny finally means something again.

(Sidenote which will no doubt be spun into a longer blog post at a future time: another side effect I’m noticing from all this screen-time is disembodiment. On the computer, I’m basically pure mind, and my body hardly matters. It kind of makes me forget that I have a body in the first place. And that’s bad.)

I’m reminded of A. K. Dewdney’s book The Planiverse, a book I loved reading as a kid. It’s a technological homage to Abbott’s Flatland where, through the computer, the main characters discover a world with only two dimensions. I feel like my head is stuck inside Flatland or the Planiverse, missing out on that glorious third dimension.

My main plan of attack right now is to force myself to take more breaks and go on more walks outside where things aren’t so confined into tidy little windows and screens, where there are massive, sprawling mountains to remind me that even though I can send an IM to the other side of the world instantaneously, the earth is so big I can’t really imagine it. (And that also helps me remember how magnificent God is. The more time I spend outside, the more I’m in awe of his majesty.)

Phonewalkers Anonymous

Not long after I got my first iPhone, I started pulling it out while walking, usually to read or to catch up on my Twitter feed. If I was walking alone, I was looking down at my phone. I never fell into a fountain (ahem), but I did run into the same branch of the same tree four days in a row on my way home from work. Seriously.

Last week I decided to go cold turkey and leave my phone in my pocket. I now walk head up, and man, it feels great.

The problem with phone-walking, other than obstacle collisions, was that it made me feel subhuman, half alive, so immersed in my shell of a glowing screen that I felt like I was the only thing that existed in the world. That’s not healthy. I hid in my phone, basically.

It’s only been a few days now and already I’m feeling the rejuvenating effects of looking outside myself. Each walk is like an injection of vibrant, vivid life. Looking back, I was missing out on a lot — there’s a big beautiful world out there with all sorts of lovely, fascinating people in it, and I don’t want to spend my life relegating all of that to my peripheral vision as I pass by.

Why I closed my LinkedIn account

I mentioned on Twitter today that I had closed my LinkedIn account, and over the last few hours I’ve gotten a flurry of responses asking why.

Noise. That’s why. I’m not in the market for a new job, and when the time does come for me to move on, I’m confident that my networking ability won’t be crippled by my lack of a LinkedIn account. It won’t, I promise. Hanging on to LinkedIn = more noise in my life = more things to take up mental RAM and distract me from actual, real, interesting work. (Work that will help me get jobs in the future, I should add.)

As a footnote to that: LinkedIn wasn’t taking up much mental RAM to begin with, sure — I wasn’t spending time on it other than to approve requests. And I can see how it could be valuable to some. In fact, I applied for my current job because a couple friends forwarded me a LinkedIn listing. I just don’t need it in my life right now.

How I got to this point

A couple of blog posts have been in my thoughts a lot lately. The first is Aaron Mahnke’s post (via Practical Opacity):

I think we’re nearing the end of the honeymoon period with social media. At least I know I am. We’re taking off our rose-colored glasses and seeing things for what they really are. We risk suffocating under a comfortable blanket of feeds and following. And while death isn’t on the line, our sanity just might be.

Call it what you want, but we only have so much air to go around. And I don’t know about you, but it’s time for me to get picky.

The other is Paul Graham’s The Acceleration of Addictiveness (both of these are great reads):

Most people I know have problems with Internet addiction. We’re all trying to figure out our own customs for getting free of it. That’s why I don’t have an iPhone, for example; the last thing I want is for the Internet to follow me out into the world.

A shift in priorities

What I want is mental peace and quiet. Social media and the Internet fill my head with so much noise that it’s hard to get anything done. Yes, there’s an unending supply of links to cool things, and yes, most of them are very interesting. But do I need that? No. I don’t. I’ve been asking myself how I want to spend my life, and clicking on cool links just isn’t on the list. I want to clear my head and spend more of my time making stuff, reading books, being with family, and doing other things that make me feel whole instead of splintering my mind a thousand different ways. On my dying day, I’m not going to look back on my life and wish I’d checked Twitter and Facebook more often.

I’m pulling back, recovering from my Twitter addiction (because let’s face it, that’s exactly what it was). I’ve deleted the Twitter app off my iPhone and have only been checking in on my feed a couple times a day to respond to replies. I’ve also cut down my Google Reader feeds and have started spending my lunch breaks reading novels instead of surfing the web. This feels so much healthier. Am I missing out? Maybe, but I don’t care anymore. I’ve got better things to do.

By the way, announcing that you’re retreating from a social network almost feels like defection, like you’re waving a big “I’m a misanthrope!” sign. Which is stupid. I love people. I love meeting people and making new friends. Luckily there’s this thing called real life where I can still do that any time I want.

I used to look at people who weren’t on Twitter/Facebook/whatever and wonder what was wrong with them. Now I’m seeing the light: life without social media is possible. Ha. Seems ridiculous when you put it that way, doesn’t it. And that, my friends, was the problem.

Quitting the cult of busy

First, go read Scott Berkun’s The Cult of Busy. It’s good.

Being busy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I, for one, spent many years subscribing to the (false) philosophy that busier = better. And I’ve spent the last couple years unlearning that lie.

One of my favorite lines in scripture is from 2 Nephi 9:51, where Jacob is paraphrasing Isaiah. Here’s the first sentence:

Wherefore, do not spend money for that which is of no worth, nor your labor for that which cannot satisfy.

Translation of that last phrase: Don’t waste your time doing stuff that doesn’t matter. Say no to the trivial and unimportant things that try to clog your life. Say no to the not-so-trivial things that sound good but aren’t as central to your goals. (Those are the hardest.) If you want to live a good life, you really, really, really have to learn how to say no and say it often. Live simpler.

It’s not just saying no, though. You have to say yes to the things that do matter. For me, that means spending time with my wife (and, come March, with our baby). It means leaving blocks of empty time in my schedule to think and ponder and meditate. It means going on walks and enjoying nature. It means being creative and reading and learning new things. It means making books. It means serving in my calling at church and generally trying to make the world a better place.

What it doesn’t mean (again, this is for me): taking on lots of external projects, especially big ones. It also doesn’t mean spending hours surfing the web or playing Angry Birds on my iPhone or watching back-to-back TV episodes courtesy of Netflix or Hulu. They’re all very addicting (at least for me) and my time is too precious to waste on things that leave me feeling yucky and dry. I’d rather spend my life doing things that make me feel good (visiting family or reading or doing family history or learning German or what have you).

There’s no award in heaven for having the busiest schedule. Pull back, do less, and spend more time on the things that really matter. Then life is awesome.

Earplugs, revisited

It’s now been a week since I unplugged (or plugged, I guess, depending on how you look at it). What’s the verdict?

Mixed.

I liked having more time for reading and making things. And my mind did feel quieter, less distracted and more focused.

But (and you knew there was a “but” coming because of my use of the past tense in that last paragraph) I missed being social on Twitter. Apparently I need that. I love people and I love talking with people and that’s basically what Twitter is. Also, I get enough time-sensitive emails that checking Gmail only twice a day isn’t going to cut it. (This was news to me.)

So, no more 2x/day limit.

My new goal is where I should have been all along: the middle ground, sane and healthy and ruddy-cheeked. I’ve coaxed my subconscious into monitoring how often I’m checking Gmail et al., and if my middle ground frenzies itself into a frothing every-other-minuteness, I’ll pull back and take a breather for a few. That should do the trick. (If it doesn’t, you’ll be getting another blog post.)

Now to go tweet about this…

Earplugs

My life often feels like a series of endless interruptions snatching at my mind, pulling it like taffy in a dozen different directions. It’s enough to drive a man crazy. In fact, I do feel a little crazy when it’s happening — just a tad insane, out of my mind, if you will. It’s not healthy.

The Internet is a magical place. I love the Internet. Much of my life revolves around it. Because of the Internet I was able to start an online magazine which led to my meeting my wife. My day job is web design, and I applied for it because of a LinkedIn forward I got. I’ve made a lot of friends over the Internet, through mailing lists and blogs and Twitter, and I value them.

But the Internet is almost too much, you know? Too many voices, too many things to do, to watch, to read. A steady patter of pings begging for my attention relentlessly, and if I turn my head every time they come, I spend my life turning my head instead of actually doing things and making things and being a real person.

I like this line from Jack Cheng’s article Habit Fields:

Just because you can have instant access at your fingertips doesn’t mean you should.

More and more, I’m finding myself turning things off, trying to silence the buzz so I can get some actual work done — and regain my sanity. I’ve disabled all incoming email and Growl notifications. And even then, I’m still checking Gmail and Twitter every two minutes hoping I’ll have shiny new emails or tweets waiting for me. I have to exit out of the apps entirely if I want to stand a chance at avoiding distraction.

What I’ve discovered: The longer I go in between checking Gmail/Twitter/Google Reader/whatever, the better I feel. I don’t know how long is ideal (a day? half a day?), but I’ll tell you what, it sure as heck isn’t every five minutes.

It’s not just Gmail and Twitter, of course. It’s the whole idea of multitasking. Peter Bregner’s article on how and why to stop multitasking is beautiful. Also, if you haven’t already read the Nicholas Carr’s Wired article on how the web is rewiring our brains, go read it. Now. I’m not convinced that this rewiring is entirely a bad thing, but I do find that it’s harder and harder to finish reading books (which are so much longer than blog posts). And the more I multitask, the less I get done and the worse I feel. (This is one of the reasons why I like the iPhone and iPad — you’re effectively forced to singletask, and it’s an oh so beautiful thing.)

Big blocks of focused time are delicious. Spurts of attention timesliced every which way, not so much. I want more quiet, less noise.

Unplugging is hard for us Internet junkies. After all, feeling the pulse of the world in your fingertips is heady. No man is an island, and extricating ourselves from the web, even for a short time, can be sticky.

But people have been doing just fine for thousands of years without the Internet, and a few more hours away from my email or Twitter really isn’t going to make anything blow up, much as I’d like to think it would. A couple years ago, I couldn’t for the life of me understand people who didn’t have email or who only checked it once every week or two. Now, though, I envy them.

I want to try something radical, something completely crazy like, oh, checking my email and Twitter only twice a day. ;) Twice a day. Man, it feels almost impossible, but at the same time my heart wants to sing at the thought. I’m giddy thinking how much more I could get done each day with all that extra time — more time reading, more time with my family, more time just thinking. Peaceful time. Mmm.

Okay, I’m going to do it. From now on, I’ll check my email and Twitter once in the morning (around 9:00) and once at night (around 9:00), and that’s it. Period.

Which means I can’t check my email for another four hours. Goodness, this is already getting hard. (Yeah, I’ve got it bad.)

Here we go.

My dream job

I’ve discovered my dream job: illustrating children’s books. It mixes together a ton of the things I love (books, stories, art, kids), and it makes my heart sing with giddiness at the thought of being able to do it as a day job. It’s so me.

But (and isn’t there always a but?) every time I seriously consider changing careers to chase this dream, bam, the anvil of inferiority falls down from hell-in-the-sky, trying to flatten my hopes. I’m not that good at illustration, it says. I didn’t get a degree in the arts. There are so many other better illustrators out there. I’m late to the game. (I’m almost 30. Okay, I’m only 26, but hey, I like to round up.) Blah blah blah. It’s a dang convincing argument.

I don’t care.

Daunting though it may be, illustration really is my thing, and it’s something I’d love to spend forty hours a week at for the rest of my life. I’d do it even if I didn’t get paid for it. Sure, I know it won’t be perfect and that I won’t love every single second of it, but I’ll love most of it, and man, when something calls to you like this, you have to answer.

It won’t be easy. I’ll have to pick up all the experience and skills I wish I could have gained years ago. But that isn’t going to stop me. I’m doing this, for real. Even though switching careers like this is scary. Even though my illustration skills need lots of work. Even though that stupid little voice inside my head keeps chanting, “You can’t do it you can’t do it you can’t do it.”

I can do it. And I will. Mark my words: within five years, I’ll be illustrating children’s books regularly, if not full-time. Mmm.

Why art?

Several people have asked me what’s with all the art lately. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that I declared on this blog that I was going to be focusing just on writing and designing, not on art.

Yeah, it didn’t last.

What happened? I kicked off my shackles, giving myself permission to make art and to code. See, I’d been telling myself that I shouldn’t do art because I wasn’t an artist and shouldn’t write code because I wasn’t a coder, blah blah dee blah blah. Hogwash. (Besides, even though I was telling myself this, I was still coding and making art on the sly.)

Trying to fit myself into the mold of what I thought I should be has once again proven a failure. I admire those people who just write or just paint or just whatever. I almost kind of envy them. But that’s not me.

No, I’m a got-to-do-everything kind of guy, rotating between a smorgasbord of hobbies all the time. One day it’s writing and coding, the next it’s illustrating and writing, the next it’s coding and animating and book digitizing. And that’s okay. It’s blissfully okay. Because artificial limits are stupid.

You know where the resistance has been coming from? There’s a little minimalist inside of me who wants to chop chop chop everything out of my life so that I’m only focusing on a few things. He’s only half right. What matters is chucking out the unimportant stuff so that the important stuff is what remains. I thought only writing and design were important. I was wrong. They’re important, yes, but so are coding and art and lots of other things. (And of course God and family and all that come first. I’m just talking about hobbies and interests here.)

This realization has been liberation. Sweet, blessed freedom. I’m making art and oh my goodness, it’s so much fun. (Which is why I’ve been doing so much of it.) I’m also writing code and reveling in being a geek, brushing up on my math skills by reading tutorials on Instapaper on my phone (along with the RenderMan spec and articles on chess strategy), and learning funky programming languages like Erlang and Haskell. And I’m still writing and designing, too.

So yes, there will be more art. Much, much, much more art. There will be more software and geekerie. There will be more stories and novels and plays. There will be more language charts and books (the D&C’s almost done).

Ironically, this is what I’ve been doing all along, just with a little red-with-horns guilt trip attached. “You’re supposed to be a writer, dude. Why are you wasting all your free time doing all this other junk? Go work on your novel.” That guilt trip is now nothing but a wisp of smoke in my memory.

Now to go finish up my next iPhone painting…

On moving hosts and other random stuff

Time for a bit of a potpourri post. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these.

  1. I’ve moved both this blog and the Mormon Artist site over to my new host, and it went surprisingly smoothly. (Well, with a few hiccups like forgetting to enable mod_rewrite, forgetting to add the new domain zone, etc. And when I tried to import the 15mb WordPress XML file, I ended up with 7,000 comments instead of the 5,000 I actually have, so I had to dump the SQL directly and use that instead.)

  2. The advantage of moving hosts like this is that I’ve been forced to decide what’s actually important and what’s not. I used to have around twenty-five domains registered. I’m paring it down to three. And I’ve gotten rid of years’ worth of cruft on the old server.

  3. I love Linode. Everything feels faster and I’m learning tons (like how to use the MySQL command-line client, which I’ve always been meaning to get around to but haven’t yet).

  4. I’ve unlinked my feeds from Buzz. I’m still trying to decide if I should unlink my blog from Facebook, though. Not sure…

  5. Today included paring down my Vim statusline and then adding a wordcount to it (which updates when you save). Oh, and I added line numbers to the terminal version. See my .vimrc for the details.

  6. To keep this post from being all geekspeak: Tonight we went to my brothers’ church basketball game — three of them on a team and they creamed their opponents. It was awesome. At first I kept thinking, “This is just civilized war,” and I still think that’s true of most sports to some extent, but yeah, it’s just a game. I have to remind myself of that. ;)

  7. I know I said I was going to finish my novel Tanglewood, but I’ve decided to put it on hold for now and write some short stories. Also, I’ve got a blog post coming up soon on why I’m spending so much time doing genealogy and art and coding when I said not too long ago on here that I was going to focus solely on writing and design. :)

On doing hard things

So, my last post was about how I’m going to write this genealogy app, right? Beyond, as it turns out, is a fairly difficult project with lots of spiky hurdles and design challenges growling at me. A few days ago I was staring straight into the maw of this slavering beast, my eyes open to how hard it’s going to be to actually pull this off.

And I got scared. Overwhelmed. My next thought: “You know, I’ve abandoned this project before. Like, five times. I can abandon it again.”

But then (and thankfully there is a “but” here) as I was walking home later that day, I was visited by the first of three epiphanies. (Hmm, this is starting to sound a little like Dickens’ Christmas Carol.)

Epiphany #1: Writing Beyond will be hard. Very. Hard.

Corollary #1: It’s still worth it.

As usually happens in these cases, supporting evidence quickly rallied to my side.

Exhibit A: After dinner, I was reading Seth Godin’s book Small Is the New Big and came across an essay on hard work. “It’s hard work to invent a new system, service, or process that’s remarkable,” he said, and it grabbed me by the collar and shook me, because that’s exactly what I’m trying to do with Beyond.

Exhibit B: My friend Janssen told me about an article on the perils of praising your children — if you tell a child they’re smart, it actually inspires them (despires them?) to underachieve, whereas if you tell them they’re a hard worker, they do better. That’s the story of my life, folks. People told me I was smart, and as a result, whenever I ran into something that I couldn’t coast through easily, I gave up almost immediately. I put too much trust in innate talent (which may or may not have been there at all) and almost completely ignored effort. This is a recipe for failure. Edison was right: it’s 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

We now turn to the epiphany of Creativity Present. As a brief bit of backstory, I’m about 15,000 words into the first draft of Tanglewood, my young adult fantasy novel. Last week I decided to put it on hold so I could focus on writing short stories, because they’re shorter and thus easier (in my mind, anyway). Then on Wednesday I was walking home and had yet another epiphanic visit:

Epiphany #2: Writing Tanglewood will be hard.

Corollary #2: It’s still worth it.

I’m sensing a theme here. I decided that yes, writing a novel is something I really want to do, and jumping ship now isn’t going to help my goal. So I’m going to write short stories after I finish the book.

The third epiphany, tall and cloaked, came yesterday — also while I was walking home. (Seriously, my best thinking time is while walking home from work. And in the shower.) As you may have noticed, I’m an artist (with a very, very lowercase ‘a’). I like making art. But I’m not very good at drawing, particularly at drawing anything that remotely resembles a human. And I’ve been stuck at the same level for a very long time.

Epiphany #3: Learning to draw will be hard. Corollary #3: It’s still worth it.

In retrospect this all sounds completely obvious, but dang, I’ve wasted a lot of time avoiding hard work — and I didn’t even realize I was doing it. I’ve been evading the hard stuff by doing easier things, or by telling myself that I wasn’t cut out for art or that I shouldn’t spend my time programming when I really should be spending my time doing x, y, or z.

Bzzt.

Lesson Learned #1: Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it.
Lesson Learned #2: Worthwhile things take effort. Always.
Lesson Learned #3: Recognizing that it’ll be hard somehow makes it easier.
Lesson Learned #4: Doing things that stretch my skills is exhilarating.

So I’m going to forge onward with Beyond, keep writing Tanglewood, and practice drawing humans until they look real and not like hobgoblins with elephantitis.

And yes, I know I’m sort of bending the actual meaning of the word “corollary.” :)

Why the iPad matters

It’s been just over a week now since Apple announced the iPad and I’ve had some time to collect my thoughts.

My initial reaction? Disappointed. The science fiction nerd in me wanted the tablet to be full of the new technologies Apple has patented — haptic feedback, solar-powered battery, individual finger detection, etc. — and I felt disenchanted, disillusioned, all of that dis- stuff. (Ironic, since I said in my initial tablet post that “I do expect some cool, glamorous new technology in the tablet, but the more exciting thing (for me, anyway) will be the re-envisioning of how we use computers.” Sometimes I think I need to read what I write.)

The iPad was more evolutionary than revolutionary, I thought. Wrong. The revolution is more subtle, but it’s definitely there, and it’s exactly what I talked about at the end of that post (duh, Ben). But we’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s look at those speculations.

Speculations

  • Canvas. iPad. The name is awful and I’m sure most of you have heard all of the female hygiene jokes already. It’s also a bit too close to “iPod.” But that’s what it’s called, so whatever.
  • 10” screen. 9.7”. Close enough.
  • New multitouch gestures. Some. At first I didn’t think there was anything new on this front, but watch the Gizmodo video on the new gestures. They’re mostly natural enough that I didn’t even realize they were new.
  • A brilliant new input method. We got a big virtual keyboard instead. I originally thought this was lame, because who wants to type like that standing up? Then I realized that it’s mostly not meant to be typed on while standing. And that’s okay.
  • Amazing battery life. Not solar-powered and not infinite, but ten hours isn’t bad. We’re getting there.
  • New OS. Apparently it is iPhone OS, from what I’ve heard.
  • Both 3G and wifi. I was wrong about no plan being necessary, but there are no contracts, which is cool. As for the 250mb/month thing, I checked my iPhone and found that I’ve been using around 170mb/month on it. Streaming video, though, would need unlimited (or wifi).
  • $1000 price tag. $499–829. I’m happy to have been wrong here, and yes, I’m planning to get one (the $499 model).
  • Books. Yes, indeed. More on this shortly.
  • New section of App Store. Not quite. Letting the iPad run iPhone apps is smart, I’ve realized, for two reasons: new iPad owners can use all of their iPhone apps from the get-go, but it’s also a spur to developers to make their apps iPad-ready. (iPhone apps look kind of lame swallowed up in that vast sea of black. And no, pixel-doubling is not a real answer.)

iBooks

When Steve mentioned that there’d be an iBook Store and that the books would be using the ePub format, I got a little giddy. This could potentially be really, really big for ebooks. (It could also fall flat. We’ll have to wait and see.)

First, the iBooks app. The page-turning animation is nice eye candy, sure, but the typography on the book in the demo was pathetic. Rivers of whitespace running all over the place. Seriously, Apple needs to learn about hyphenation. (And this from the company who first brought beautiful typography to computers. Sigh.)

Brief semi-related tangent: As a ebook designer, I’d prefer users to be able to read books the way I typeset them, but if they really want to change the typeface or the font size or whatever, then I say let them do it. If they make it worse, it’s their own fault. My job is to set sane defaults (since most people don’t change the defaults anyway). Similarly, as a reader, I’m willing to stick with the default settings if they’re beautiful, but if they’re hideous, I want to be able to change things till I get something I can stand. Apple, if you can’t get the justification to look good, at least let us turn it off. Please.

Also, the font choices (Baskerville, Cochin, Palatino, Times, and Verdana) wouldn’t have been at the top of my list, but I’ll reserve judgment there till I see them in use on an actual iPad.

I hope the iBooks app doesn’t mean Apple will be restricting other ebook apps (like Eucalyptus, Stanza, and Classics) on the iPad. Probably not. Will I be able to load my own ePubs into iBooks? Hard to say, but iTunes does let you add your own music and videos to it, so there’s precedent for that. I’m crossing my fingers that the iBooks infrastructure will be available on the iPhone and Mac as well. The iPad might be the ideal way to read iBooks, as far as form factor goes, but it’d be nice to switch devices when I’m away from my iPad (the way you can read Kindle books on your iPhone).

Speaking of the Kindle: Its display is ugly and the slow refresh rates turned me off from the beginning. Yes, I know that e-ink is supposedly easier on the eyes and all that, but I’d rather have a crisp, colorful, fast display, and most people are used to reading off screens anyway. (And if you’re planning on reading for long periods of time, go get a real book. The iPad/iBook isn’t meant to replace paper books — at least not yet.)

iBook Store

This is the more exciting part for me, being a publisher. In the keynote, Steve Jobs said that they’d be opening the floodgates to every publisher in the world, which is great. I’m wondering what their requirements are for who they consider to be a publisher, though. Will it be a yearly fee (like the App Store, where you have to pay at least $99/year) or something else? No clue. I don’t really know what the process is for getting music or videos into the iTunes Store. (Podcasts are relatively easy, though.) Unless Apple’s requirements are unnaturally stiff, I plan to sign up and try it out.

This is great for ePub, I should add. Apple’s backing could help it become the MP3 of books. And ePub is itself a decent ebook standard (it’s HTML/CSS zipped up, basically, with some XML metadata attached — nothing too proprietary).

Will there be DRM? I hope not. Apple is already moving away from DRM for the music on iTunes, but I don’t know if the book publishers would sign on if there weren’t DRM. My guess is that there’ll be Apple-specific DRM, like there was in iTunes, and in a few years when the publishers see how they’re selling way more ebooks through the iBooks Store, Apple will press them to drop the DRM and they’ll comply. ~fingers crossed~

What the naysayers are saying

Two of the biggest complaints I’ve heard so far are about the iPad’s lack of multitasking and Flash — both of which are complete non-issues to me.

Multitasking: First, it’s detrimental to productivity. Seriously. Not only that, but you can switch between apps on the iPad (and iPhone) fast enough that it doesn’t really matter, and the apps remember what state they were in before so it’s almost like you never even quit the app. Not allowing multitasking also really does result in more stability and better battery life. People who keep begging for multitasking are missing the boat. For more on multitasking and the iPad, read Milind Alvares’s article.

Flash: Honestly, who cares? I’ve never, ever missed having Flash on my iPhone. Ever. And believe me, it won’t be long before content creators whose stuff only works on Flash (Hulu, I’m looking at you) make iPhone/iPad apps using H.264 instead. Flash is dying. Let it die.

For more on Flash and the iPad, read John Gruber’s post. Also read Zeldman’s piece on how “lack of Flash in the iPad is a win for accessible, standards-based design.” (And HTML5 video is coming along nicely: check out the new SublimeVideo player. Only works in Chrome and Safari right now, but Firefox support is coming soon.)

My brother-in-law brought up a point that I hadn’t really considered so far: if someone emails me a document, I can’t easily save it to my iPad, edit it, and then email it back. A central Document Library (ala the Photos Library, which apps like CameraBag and Brushes can access and save to) would be nice.

The revolution

It began with the iPhone. Millions of iPhones sold, millions of customers saying that yes, they really do want a more human computing experience. They don’t want to tweak. They don’t want to fiddle. They don’t care about open v. closed. They just want something that works.

And you know what? They’re right. This is what most people need: a computer that’s easy to work with, that abstracts away all the details that don’t matter, that’s as stable as, say, a car. And on that note, check out Gruber’s comparison:

Used to be that to drive a car, you, the driver, needed to operate a clutch pedal and gear shifter and manually change gears for the transmission as you accelerated and decelerated. Then came the automatic transmission. With an automatic, the transmission is entirely abstracted away. The clutch is gone. To go faster, you just press harder on the gas pedal.

That’s where Apple is taking computing. A car with an automatic transmission still shifts gears; the driver just doesn’t need to know about it. A computer running iPhone OS still has a hierarchical file system; the user just never sees it.

Why the iPad matters: people who aren’t “good with computers” will be able to use the iPad without having to call their tech-savvy nephew or granddaughter for help. It’s computing for the masses.

Don’t believe me? Read On iPads, Grandmas, and Game-changing, Old World and New World Computing, The iPad is the iPrius, and Future Shock.

Sure, techies who like tinkering will still be able to get old world computers. You can still buy cars with manual transmissions. But within, I don’t know, five to ten years, most computers will become like the iPad. And yes, there will be more open solutions as well (running Linux or what have you). Give it time.

This is huge. It’s perhaps one of the biggest steps we’ve ever taken towards making computers more human-friendly (and not just geek-friendly). Until the iPhone, computers were the province of magic and wizardry, or so it seemed to everyone else. No longer. And again, the iPhone has shown that this is what people want, and the iPad is going to give it to them.

To do or not to do

I used to want to do everything. (Except skydiving. I’ve never really want to do that.) (Oh, or be a doctor.) (Or a lawyer.) (Uh-oh, my list of exceptions is getting too long. I need a new first sentence. ;))

So, I have lots of interests, and for the longest time I’ve been trying to figure out what I should focus on — what my life’s work would be. I’ve been crawling closer, but it wasn’t until recently that I narrowed it down to something doable.

In reading Jim Collins’ article Best New Year’s Resolution? A ‘Stop Doing’ List, this paragraph dinged my mind and set it abuzz:

Suppose you woke up tomorrow and received two phone calls. The first phone call tells you that you have inherited $20 million, no strings attached. The second tells you that you have an incurable and terminal disease, and you have no more than 10 years to live. What would you do differently, and, in particular, what would you stop doing?

Right after that, he lists three questions with some follow-up kick:

  1. What are you deeply passionate about?
  2. What are you are genetically encoded for? What activities do you feel just “made to do”?
  3. What makes economic sense? What can you make a living at?

And that was the beginning of the epiphany. I started going through the things I do, examining each in turn.

Writing? I’m passionate about it, I seem to be made for it, and if I work hard enough at it, yes, I could make a living at it. Plus, I’ve been doing it all my life. I’m a man of books. I love reading. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little boy. I love sculpting words into sentences. Writing just fits me.

Design? I’m also passionate about it, I seem to be made for it, and I’m already making a living at it, both full-time (web design) and occasionally on the side (book design and graphic design). I love iterating through drafts until I get to a design that clicks and shines with beauty. Design is what I’ve spent most of my free time doing for the past five years, actually.

Art? I’m passionate about it, yes, but I don’t think I’m made for it. If I were, I’d have been drawing my heart out all these years, burning to make art. I get flickers of interest every once in a while, but it’s not consistent enough to make a career at it. (And I almost typed that as “flickrs”. Dang, Web 2.0, you’re getting to me.)

Music? I’m also passionate about it, but again, I’m not made for it. I play the piano from time to time for fun, and I’ve composed a number of pieces, but the even then, the last time I composed anything was around ten years ago. I’m not drawn to it enough to do it seriously.

Coding? I’m not as passionate about it, and I’m only partly made for it. I realized a while ago that most of the coding I’ll be doing in my life will be to make tools to assist the other parts of my life’s work. I don’t love it enough to make it the alpha dog.

There were other things I’d contemplated doing, but these were the main ones that had repeatedly risen to the surface.

And there it was: writing and design. It makes sense. It’s what I love. It’s what I spend my free time doing. It’s me. (And I realized that I’ve been calling myself “a writer and a designer” for the past few years. Apparently I’m nearsighted in more than one way. ;))

So, I’m going to stop worrying about getting great at art or music or coding. I’ll still do them, sure, but just for fun and relaxation. That’s the difference. Dabbling is now enough. This way I can focus on becoming a great writer and a great designer, without other things distracting me and pulling me away from my goal.

I’ve already felt like a burden has lifted, like I’m finally free to do what I was born to do, unfettered and focused. And it’s awesome.

What matters now

If you haven’t already seen it, check out What Matters Now, a free 82-page ebook by Seth Godin. It’s a collection of short essays by people answering the question “what matters now,” and there are several gems in there. Here are my favorites:

Chris Anderson

The tools of factory production, from electronics assembly to 3D printing, are now available to individuals, in batches as small as a single unit. Anybody with an idea and little bit of self-taught expertise can set assembly lines in China into motion with nothing more than some keystrokes on their laptop. A few days later, a prototype will be at their door, and if it all checks out, they can push a few more buttons and be in full production. They are a virtual microfactory, able to design and sell goods without any infrastructure or even inventory; everything is assembled and drop-shipped by the contractors, who can serve hundreds of such small customers simultaneously….

Peer production, open source, crowdsourcing, DIY and UGC — all these digital phenomena are starting to play out in the world of atoms, too. The Web was just the proof of concept. Now the revolution gets real.

This makes me giddy. He’s right — this is going to change the world in a huge way. Most of the stuff I make is purely digital, unless it’s a book or a magazine or a chart I get printed, and while that’s not a bad thing, it gets a little ethereal at times, just a bunch of bits floating in cyberspace. I’m excited to make it real and start creating some hold-it-in-your-hands bona fide objects. (Objects that weren’t previously possible, that is — tools and gadgets and the like.)

William C. Taylor

Imagine any and every field possible. There are so many brands, so many choices, so many claims, so much clutter, that the central challenge is for an organization or an individual is to rise above the fray. It’s not good enough anymore to be “pretty good” at everything. You have to be the most of something: the most elegant, the most colorful, the most responsive, the most accessible.

I’ll save my thoughts on this for the blog post I’ve got in the oven, but let me just say that I agree completely: quality is better than quantity.

Daniel Pink

Management is great if you want people to comply — to do specific things a certain way. But it stinks if you want people to engage — to think big or give the world something it didn’t know it was missing. For creative, complex, conceptual challenges — i.e, what most of us now do for a living — 40 years of research in behavioral science and human motivation says that self-direction works better. And that requires autonomy. Lots of it.

If we want engagement, and the mediocrity-busting results it produces, we have to make sure people have autonomy over the four most important aspects of their work:

  • Task – What they do
  • Time – When they do it
  • Technique – How they do it
  • Team – Whom they do it with

Hallelujah! This is music to my ears, and it rings so, so, so true. In my line of work, autonomy trumps management, period. If only there were more of it…

John Moore

A winning business understands that to gain a customer it must first be willing to lose a customer….

Costco wins customers by losing customers. Its membership model shuns consumers not willing to pay the yearly membership fee. Its broad but shallow merchandise mix turns off consumers wanting more choices. Costco makes deliberate sacrifices because its customers will also make deliberate sacrifices in exchange for lower prices.

Winning businesses have a common trait, an obvious and divisive point of view. Losing businesses also have a common trait, a boring personality alienating no one and thus, sparking passion from no one.

This goes along nicely with William Taylor’s essay. You can’t do everything, and if you try, you’ll be mediocre at best. Also, take risks. It’s the only way to succeed.

J.C. Hutchins

Most of us settle in, and settle for what we have. Rather than pursue, we accept. Our lives become unwitting celebrations of passivity: we undervalue our work and perceive ourselves as wage slaves (and so we phone it in at the day gig), we consume compulsively (but not create), we pine for better lives (but live vicariously through our televisions).

These corners we paint ourselves into, it’s no way to live. There’s no adventure here, no passion, no hunger for change. Remember that relentless optimism you once had? The goals you wished to achieve, before settling in? They’re still there. You need a nudge to find them; a little gumption.

You can start that business. You can lose that weight. You can quit smoking, and learn to garden, and write that book, and be a better parent, and be all the things you want to be…the thing this world needs you to be. It requires courage and faith, both of which you can muster. It requires effort — but this effortless life isn’t as satisfying as it seems, is it?

Declare war on passivity. Hush the inner voice that insists you’re over the hill, past your prime, unworthy of attaining those dreams. Disbelief is now the enemy, as is the notion of settling. Get hungry — hyena hungry. Get fired up. Find your backbone, and your wings.

Flap ’em. It’s the only way you’ll be able to fly.

Love it. Grab some gumption and go do cool, beautiful, wonderful things.

On doubts and fears

I’ve learned something today: when doubts and fears start hailing on you, don’t open the window. Plug your ears and go curl up next to some cozy fire in your soul, but whatever you do, don’t lift the latch and let the window swing open. Not unless you want the fury of hell raging through your mind and heart. Doubt not, fear not. It’s that simple.

Besides, the Lord doesn’t speak to us through doubts or fears. That’s just not how he does it. If the Lord wants to tell us something, it’s going to be through the peaceful, calm touch of the Spirit, not through a panicky sense of despair. But if you let those doubts and fears in, you’ll forget that. If you listen to your fears, a shroud of darkness will cover you, and dreadful things that aren’t real will seem tangible and inevitable. And then it’s hard to tell what’s true and what’s not. It’s really hard.

Doubts will grip you and shake you till you can’t tell up from down. Don’t listen to them. Don’t let them get to you. Cast not away therefore thy confidence, but instead live by faith and by every word that proceedeth forth out of the mouth of God.

If you do accidentally open the door and let in the storm of doubts and fears, get ready to go through hell. And remember Winston Churchill’s words: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Focus on Christ, because he’s the only way to burn away the deceptions so you can get through to what’s real.

And yes, I know all of this from (very) recent personal experience. Sigh. (That’s a sigh for having opened the window in the first place. I’m grateful now that I’ve found peace again. Whew.)

Learning, ever learning

If curiosity killed the cat, I’d better start writing my will. See, there’s this ginormous world out there to explore, with a bazillion lifetimes’ worth of things to see and learn and know — fascinating things, bizarre things, beautiful things, you name it. I think a waterfall of goosebumps just cascaded down my spine. (I, um, never get bored. Tired, yes, but not bored.)

For example, I want to learn Turkish. And how to make my own fishing line. And the history of mountaineering in Nepal. And how the heck string theory works. And what’s involved in designing a toaster. And what it’s like to live in Cornwall. And how to play the violin.

Not to mention the questions. To list just a few: how did they manufacture the chair I’m sitting in? When was the fast food drive-through invented? Why did the guy in front of me decide not to wear a belt today? Do architects get nervous that their buildings will fall down? What are the names of the types of trees on my walk to work? Are road workers satisfied with their work or is it “just a job”? What kind of a morning did the person in front of me in line have? How did we end up with the suit and tie as the dress code of corporate America?

This is why I’m a writer. We’re curious folk, and everything — everything! — is fodder for our writing. (More goosebumps.) There’s so much to learn, both from books and from real life. I’ve got an insatiable itch to clear away the cobwebs of unknowledge in my mind and get to know the world. Yeah, I totally have the explorer gene — to me, life is an adventure where I get to find all of the “here, there be dragons” on the map and discover what’s actually there.

Even better: the more you learn, the more avenues of possibility open up. One thing leads to another, kind of like those bubble mind maps, and before long you’ve spun away on a neverending journey of delight, with no fear of ever running out of things to learn.

And not only is there the whole world to explore, both present and past, but then you’ve also got all of the people living on it — all of the wonderful, beautiful, glorious people, each with their own complex and fascinating life, their own history, their own quirks and habits, their own hopes and dreams and passions.

Mmm. I love life. :)

On retooling

The best thing that ever happened to me as a writer was learning to revise. Back in my younger days as a writer, I didn’t revise. I mistakenly (and romantically) thought that the muses would shine upon me and turn my words to gold as I spun them out behind me — prose already perfect from the beginning.

Ha.

My turning point came when I started writing and workshopping plays. Suddenly this illusion I’d concocted — that my first drafts were pristine towers of unalterable perfection — burned away and I could see through the glass clearly: my first drafts were actually just big hunks of clay waiting to be molded and massaged into later perfection. They were the first step, not the last.

Lately I’ve noticed that this process of revision isn’t just for writing. Time after time in my design work, I’ve seen the magic of a fourth or fifth iteration turn a blah design into something awesome. Brett Helquist was talking at a symposium a month ago and showed some of the drafts for his illustrations for the Lemony Snicket covers, and bam, it hit me that visual artists revise just as much as writers. Ditto for composers and dancers and everyone else.

Sure, there are people who can turn out genius work on the first try, but they’re exceptions. The rest of us have to tackle the work over and over again, trying to see its true form and get rid of everything else, willing to scrap the whole thing and start from scratch if necessary.

I’m not dissing first drafts, by the way. There’s a passion and an excitement in seeing the first embryonic stages of a work come to life — making something new, something the world has never seen before. That’s heady stuff. You just have to mix passion and polish, that’s all.

As for me, I’m excited to take this process of revision and apply it to my music. Back in 2000 and 2001 I wrote several piano pieces, but they’re all (noticeably cough) first drafts. I could tell that they weren’t all that great, either. But now, knowing how to revise, I can start getting better. (That’s the other thing: revision makes you a better artist. It really does.)

Not that I have a one-track mind or anything ;), but revision is essential in relationships, too. Things don’t automatically work out perfectly unless you’re in a romantic comedy; in real life, you have to fix things as you go along, retooling the relationship as both of you grow and learn (both about each other and about yourselves). You can’t just turn on autopilot and expect everything to work out all hunky-dory.

You know what? I just realized that revision isn’t just for art or for relationships — it’s a way of life. Period. The whole thing. Think about it.

A farewell to one-click shopping

A few days ago I unplugged my credit card info from iTunes and Amazon. After realizing (thanks to Mint.com) that I’ve spent a surprisingly large amount of money on both over the past year (seriously, it’s embarrassing), I made up my mind to be more responsible: no more impulse purchases.

Both stores are über-convenient, of course. Too convenient. But if I need music, I can go to the library or use Pandora. (Besides, I have enough music already.) And if I need books, I can also go to the library. (I also have plenty of books.)

Sure, I’ve made this kind of a decision before, but this is the first time I’ve gone ahead and done something about it.

What it comes down to, really, is a shift in attitude: instead of “I want it, therefore I will buy it,” I’m moving to a healthier “I want it, but in all honesty I can do without” mentality. Rabid consumption and materialism is bad for the soul. And I’d rather have money in the bank than stuff in my apartment.

I’m also going to stop carrying my credit card around and instead use my debit card or cash. I hate spending money I don’t actually have, but with a credit line, my subconscious thinks I really do have that money. This is bad.

I’ve already felt myself itching to buy something on both iTunes and Amazon, but it feels so so so good to sit back and say, “Wait, I don’t need it.” And then the itch goes away.

Ah, freedom. :)

What matters most

In this storm-tossed sea of life, I like to remind myself every once in a while what matters most to me, so I don’t end up landing at the wrong destination with the wrong stuff in my boat. Here goes.

Becoming like Christ easily tops the list. As one of his disciples, I’ve found over and over and over again that the only real happiness in life comes from the gospel. That’s where peace and calm dwell, a solace that I crave as I battle my way through the obstacles of life. Oh, I often forget and try to make it on my own, but that never works. Ever. Christ really is the only way.

What matters to me, then, is not only doing the things he taught but really making them who I am — injecting the gospel into my bloodstream, so to speak. I want to be selfless, because I know that when I’m focused on myself, I’m not happy. I want love to be the guiding principle of my life in everything I do. I want to trust the Lord so completely that there’s no room for doubt or fear to breathe. I want to live by every word that proceeds forth out of the mouth of God, living by the Spirit with every step I take. I want to be unflaggingly dedicated to building the kingdom. I’ve chosen sides, and I’m solidly with Christ.

Marriage and family come immediately after God. (What I blogged three and a half years ago still holds, by the way.) I almost hesitate to say just how much this matters to me — wouldn’t want to appear “marriage-hungry,” now, would we? :P — but it’s not exactly something I can pretend isn’t there. So, yes, my deepest and most important dream in life is to be a husband and father. A great one. This is what I cherish most, and it’s for me it’s so tightly woven into being like Christ and Heavenly Father that it’s almost the same thing.

Anyone who knows me knows I do lots of things and have had lots of projects all over the board, but I can say unequivocally that if I had to choose between all of that and a family, I would drop every single project and hobby. (Luckily that’s not a choice I’ll have to make. :))

As part of that, what matters most to me is being there for my future wife and kids, loving them more than myself, focusing on their needs first and foremost, and being willing to make any sacrifice to help them be happier and bring them closer to God. I want love to be the reigning currency in my household. I can’t wait to spend gobs of time playing with my kids, talking with my wife, learning and growing together. Everything else in life is fluff.

If the list had to stop here, I’d be a happy man. But, well, the list doesn’t stop. :) Here’s more of what matters most to me, in no particular order:

  • Being human
  • Living the simple life
  • Not being afraid to care — erring on the side of caring too much and getting hurt rather than holding back
  • Taking risks (it’s the only way to grow)
  • Appreciating beauty and simplicity
  • Good books! :)
  • Enjoying every moment of life, both good and bad
  • Being a good listener
  • Getting to know people, and not just on the surface
  • Being grateful
  • Passion
  • Frugality and self-restraint
  • Weathering challenges with faith and hope
  • Always keeping the love of learning alive
  • Making stuff and being creative
  • Not wasting money on things of no worth or time on that which does not satisfy
  • Being there for people when they need me
  • Sacrifice
  • Music that stretches my soul
  • Avoiding materialism (not getting too attached to things) (including my books :))
  • Being friendly
  • Openness and honesty
  • Doing what I know is right regardless of what other people think

I’m sure I could come up with more, but I need to get to bed. :)

Me, the writer

I went to the BYU Writing & Illustrating for Young Readers Workshop last week — five full days of writing awesomeness. Each morning we gathered in writing groups (I had around thirteen great people in mine, with Lael Littke as our fearless leader), then had a plenary session for everyone together (with editors and agents as the speakers). The rest of the afternoon split us up into breakout sessions on topics like dialogue and making time for writing. Almost every single class I went to was über-useful. Basically writers’ heaven for a week. I’m definitely returning next year…and the next…and the next. It’s totally worth it.

The best part, though, is what happened afterward.

I woke up.

You see, I have lots of hobbies. Lots of projects. That was how I defined myself, really: by being a many-project person. A Renaissance man.

But my real dream is to be a writer. Being one of those people like Jefferson who absolutely cannot live without books, I knew when I was younger that I wanted to be a writer. Then real life stepped in and I surrendered and made plans to do something practical with my life. Sayonara to the writing dream…or so I thought.

A couple years ago, however, I realized I really liked this blogging thing. A lot. I started writing plays, too, and before long I remembered (how could I have forgotten?) that writing was what I loved most. That feeling has grown stronger and stronger until now where I know it’s my life’s work and it’s what I want to spend the rest of my life doing. Even if it’s so dang hard sometimes. :)

But even then I was still only spending a sliver of my free time writing. Sure, I wrote twenty short plays and a 50,000-word NaNoWriMo novel, but time after time I’d get distracted by zillions of other little side projects. I thought I didn’t have time to write. And I didn’t, since I was filling up my time with lots and lots of other stuff.

After this last week of full-on writing focus — within five minutes of getting home after the conference, actually — I woke from my reverie and saw that all of those little side projects were pulling my energy away from what I want most and shunting it off in too many other directions.

Not any more.

Starting now, I’m axing all of my side projects, with the sole exception of the magazine. No more new projects (I’m finally learning how to say no), no more freelance work (which means Quillfire Studios is going to be hibernating), no more anything that isn’t reading, writing, or the magazine.

This feels right, more right than almost anything else I’ve done in a while. It feels so, so good. Like I’m coming home after a really long time away. This is what I was made for.

I can’t wait to see what happens when I take all of that energy and time I was pouring into my design work and fuel it into my writing instead. Watch for the explosions, folks. ;) It’s going to be hard — design was easy, but writing was and still is hard — but man oh man is it going to be worth it.

It’s only been five days and I’m already seeing the fruits of this new shift in focus. (Monday night I finished the first draft of my first full-length play, for example. And my Tanglewood novel is humming right along.) I still have some loose ends to tie up, but it’s like my mind is clearing up, like I’ve been lugging around a full hard drive in my head for the past five years and I’ve finally cleaned it all out.

I do have to say that it’s kind of scary, shutting down major parts of my life (especially since those were a huge part of who I thought I was), but it’s going to be okay. In fact, it’s going to be awesome.

And you know what? Within five years I’m going to be a full-time author. Maybe even within four. ;)

Disclaimer, because I’m a disclaimery kind of person: I’m not bashing on design. I’m still a designer and will always be a designer. I love design. It’s just that for me, right now, writing is more important. I expect that down the road I’ll start picking up design projects again; I just have to take a break right now and focus on what matters most. That’s all.

Long letters

As I’ve been slowing getting back to inbox zero, a remembrance of things past has shimmered up to the surface: I love long letters. When I was younger — in my heyday, if I can call it that :P — I had tons of pen pals and would write long emails and letters all the time, and get them in return, and it was great. There’s nothing wrong with short emails, of course, but long ones give you so much more space to roam, and it’s like a little Christmas every time a lengthy email shows up in your inbox.

The one downside is that it takes a lot longer to reply to long letters, but am I really in such a rush that I can’t slow down to savor things like this? Maybe I need to shift my priorities around again.

Ode to modesty

I just wanted to thank all the girls out there who dress modestly. This is of course dangerous territory to be treading in, and I’m fully expecting to get roasted by somebody for it :P, but I feel like I need to express my appreciation for girls who do conscientiously wear modest clothing — it’s more beautiful, more sane, more whole. I see girls who dress modestly and it feels like coming home, in a way. It’s wonderful. And it means the world to me. Thank you.

Earth’s rebirth

I love spring. While the outdoors always has an allure to it, spring seems to offer the most intoxicating attraction. It is so hard to stay inside. Fluorescent lights feel like death, while just out the door life is blossoming all over. It’s not the flowers, either — in fact, I really don’t care so much for the bright and gaudy array of colors, preferring more muted tones instead. But flowers usually aren’t muted. They’re loud and brash. But at least they’re alive.

Spring makes me want to roll down a grassy hill, lie on my back and watch clouds sail by, sit on the bank of a river while a fresh breeze dances around me. It’s times like these when I regret the modernization of man; why on earth did we have to become inside-dwellers? Sure, there are a few problems with living out of doors — skin cancer, the elements, etc. — but you can work around them.

I’ve got an odd mix of longing for both the country and the city, I’ve found. I love the busyness of the city, people walking around like ants, shops on every corner, so much to see, so much story potential. And this is admittedly a little weird, but I’m in love with the smell of exhaust fumes as I walk down University Avenue — reminds me of my mission in Bangkok.

But at the same time there’s a very pastoral part of me, absolutely in love with the country. And the quiet. And nature — far, far away from all of man’s industrial creations, out there with wide open spaces and green green grass and apple trees and brooklets and hills and valleys. Mmm. Spring reminds me that there’s a wonderful world out there that isn’t man-made. It’s God-made, and it’s good.

Learning to fly

Today at lunch I was reading President Monson’s “Guideposts for Life’s Journey” talk in BYU Magazine, and one section particular stood out to me:

Some of you may be familiar with Thornton Wilder’s classic drama Our Town. If you are, you will remember the town of Grover’s Corners. In the play, Emily Webb dies in childbirth, and we read of the lonely grief of her husband, George, left with their 4-year-old son. Emily does not wish to rest in peace; she wants to experience again the joys of her life. She is granted the privilege to return to earth and to relive her 12th birthday. At first it is exciting to be young again, but the excitement wears off quickly. The day holds no joy, now that Emily knows what is in store for the future. It is unbearably painful to realize how unaware she had been of the meaning and wonder of life while she was alive. Before returning to her resting place, Emily laments, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?”

Here’s to life! And to living it as fully and deeply as we can, drinking each moment down as if it’s our last, casting aside fear and doubt and everything else that cheapens our experience. You only live once, after all — may as well make it absolutely amazing. It’s time to stop worrying what other people think of us and start stretching our wings so we can learn to fly.

On mission reunions

I went to my mission reunion tonight. Bittersweet. The sweetness came from seeing all my old friends, of course, most of whom I hardly ever see. Serving a mission forges bonds of friendship like no other. Even the missionaries I hardly knew feel like friends — it’s all about the shared experience. And it’s great. I love my mission, along with everyone who served there.

And that’s where the bitter comes in. I love it so much that it hurts to resurrect the memories, impaling my heart with pangs of nostalgia. Forgetting numbs the pain. (It’s a good sort of pain, though, because it’s got all that sweetness mixed in. So I don’t really mind it, but it still hurts.) It’s easier to just move on with life and leave the memories for heaven when I can actually do something about them.

But for now there’s nothing I can do. Sure, I could try to relive my mission, but the past has passed, and trying to pull it into the present just isn’t going to work. I’m not a missionary any more. All my blissful memories of riding my bike around Bangkok and eating muu ping (meat on a stick, eaten with sticky rice) and putting candles in the water for Loi Krathong and teaching discussions and stopping people on the streets to talk about the gospel and eating so much khaaw niaw mamuang that I felt like I was going to throw up — it’s all pretty solidly in the past. I can’t bring it back.

So going to mission reunions is hard, in a way, because it reminds me what I can’t have. All I can do is focus on the present and do my best to make sure that these memories I’m making now are good ones. I’ll forge my way on through life, leaving a trail of memories behind me. If only I could go back and relive the good ones. That’d be heaven.

Finding the real me

When I dropped out of grad school a month ago, the plan was to go into publishing (specifically typesetting/book design) and write on the side, eventually doing more writing than publishing.

Well, over the past week or two, that plan has shifted its weight, and in doing so it uncovered my real dream: to become a full-time writer. I suppose I knew this all along deep down inside, but it seemed so infeasible that I never thought I’d actually do it. Writing would just be an on-the-side activity for me, I had decided.

And that is how it will be for the near future, but the goal now is to go full-time with writing as soon as I can. It may take five years, it may take 20 or 30, I don’t know. But that’s the goal. It’s what I love most, my dream job, more than anything else I can possibly think of. It’s my passion. I get goosebumps and butterflies every time I think about it. It’s me.

I do realize that it’s a heck of a lot of work to get there and stay there, yes. I don’t expect it to come easy. But it’s my dream, so I’m going to make it work, so help me. Nothing can stop me. :)

In the meantime, I’m still planning to do typesetting and publishing, of course. I love designing books, so it’ll be the perfect day job for me until I’m making enough off royalties to support my family. It’s also my dream, just not quite as deep as the writing dream.

In contemplating both the writing and (to a lesser degree) the typesetting, the exhilarating feeling tickling my soul is freedom. As a writer I’ll be able to work wherever I want — in a library carrel, on a bench at the park, on a bus, on a plane, wherever. And whenever I want — early morning, late at night, whenever. Being an employee is swiftly starting to feel like the bonds of slavery. ;)

Brief semi-related tangent: Over the weekend I came across Paul Graham’s new essay, “You Weren’t Meant to Have a Boss”, in which he has this great quote: “In an artificial world, only extremists live naturally.” Lots of food for thought there. I recommend it.

Anyway, as a writer I feel drawn toward what the publishers are calling YA fantasy, so that’s probably what I’ll be writing most of the time, though my interests are wide enough that I won’t be able to stick to just that — I want to write everything. :)

The next step for now is to just write a lot and start sending stuff in to publishers, because it’s kind of hard to make a living off writing if you don’t ever try to get published. ;) Here begins what’ll be a long and very adventurous journey…

Alphabetic insanity

My little brother was in the regional spelling bee this morning. Sitting there during the first round, I watched each kid get up to the mike and wait for their word to hit them. Some words were easy. Some, though, were hard, and most of the time their not-so-lucky recipients missed them. Out on the first round. What a way to be. And I realized that spelling bees are, in a way, a mild form of child abuse.

I’m mostly joking. But really, why do we put our kids through this stressful insanity? What on earth does it prove? Childhood is a time to be carefree, to enjoy life, to play. Not to get caught up in our adult games of competition and comparison. If we have spelling bees at all (and I’m sure most of you realize that English is one of the very few languages where they’re even possible), they should be for adults, of their own free will and choice. But kids get pushed into them by their parents, directly or indirectly, and it hurts me to watch them get up there on stage only to get shattered.

Perhaps I’m a bit oversensitive to this, since I myself was in a handful of spelling bees back when I was a kid. My first year I went to state and took fifth place, falling out on “differentiation.” My second year, though, I somehow managed to win, and Deseret News sent me and my parents to D.C. for a week to compete in the national spelling bee.

The experience was worth it, certainly — it was my first time on an airplane (I was twelve), the first time I was old enough to enjoy the East Coast, and they put us up in the Grand Hyatt which was by far the biggest hotel I’d ever been in. :) But in the second round the stage fright got to me, and when the pronouncer said “collards,” my brain shut down. I asked for a definition; where collards are actually leafy green vegetables, somehow I thought that the pronouncer had said they had something to do with stacking crates in a warehouse. Panic struck and I brainlessly spelled them “colards,” which made no sense to me then or now.

That horrible bell dinged its fateful tone and I shuffled off stage to the cry room, where a lady sat with boxes of animal crackers. Not interested in consolation, I brushed past her, slipped out the back door, and went up to my hotel room where I sobbed for a good while. Eventually I got hold of myself and went back down to the bee room, where I slipped into the chair next to my parents and tried not to think about all my dreams of winning that had just popped out of existence. Life went on, as it always does.

While I don’t really regret all the time I put into studying and spelling, I’m still wondering what purpose the spelling bee serves. To add stress to the lives of parents and children around the country? To prove that my kid is smarter than your kid? If it’s to appreciate the joys and beauties of language, well, heck, you can do that from the comfort of your own home.

Granted, I’ve completely lost my competitive drive over the past few years, so that surely has something to do with how I feel about this, but I really don’t want to put my kids through any spelling bees. Or other activities of a competitive nature, wherever I can avoid it. The only real use I can come up with for them, anyway, is in preparation for war, and I don’t know if I really need to be preparing my kids for that. :) What ever happened to “love one another”? I don’t want my kids comparing themselves to other kids and getting superiority or inferiority complexes.

But I suspect that there probably are advantages to competition (compatible with the gospel, of course). Since I don’t know what they are, please enlighten me, dear readers. :)

Decluttering a life

If you haven’t noticed, I have a tendency to collect irons and stash them in the fire. :) (Why are golf clubs coming to mind? Wrong image. :P) I love having projects, love filling my to-do lists to the brim and beyond, love being busy.

But at the same time I don’t. I love having free time, love the peace of mind that comes when there aren’t any Damoclean deadlines hanging over my head, love being able to rest and recharge my batteries. (Oh no, the truth slipped out! I’m an android!)

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this (busyness, not being an android), and while I certainly think it’s good to stay busy, I’m realizing that my priorities need some shifting around. I’ve been saying yes to almost everything that comes my way, like a dog drooling at the sight of a bone. This is not a good habit.

You see, I have some long-term goals in life — become a good (and prolific) writer and become a world-class typographer, to name just two — and in my desire to do good, I’m somewhat missing the mark and losing my opportunities to prepare for the best. I spend so much time doing peripheral stuff that I rarely get around to the core of why I’m here and what I was born to do.

It’s time to simplify. I need room to breathe. (It’s nobody else’s fault but my own that I’ve claustrophobized myself with tons of projects, mind you.) From now on, my default response to taking on new projects is going to be no, unless prolonged thought on the matter convinces me otherwise. I’m doing a 180. It’ll give me more time for things that really matter to me — writing, reading, typesetting, family history, family, and so on.

This is easy to say, but I don’t know how long it’ll take for me to retrain myself. :) What I do know is that saying yes to everything will burn me out someday. I want to get rid of that habit now so that when I have a wife and kids, I can actually spend time with them.

I suppose my fear with doing this is that I’ll be missing out on opportunities to serve — that it’s selfish of me to say no. But in all reality, I can’t do it all. I can’t even come close. And from now on, I’m going to stop trying. :)

iSolated

This morning while scrambling my eggs for breakfast and listening to Aida on my iPod, one of my roommates came into the kitchen and started cleaning some stuff off the table and doing something with cottage cheese (I wasn’t paying close enough attention to see what). And I kept listening to my music, oblivious to the outside world from the look of it.

That bothers me.

I’m not one of those people who really cares if people walk around campus with their iPods on. Sure, it’s harder to say hi to them, and you hope they turn the volume down when they cross streets so they don’t get run over, but it doesn’t bother me. Let ’em listen.

What does bother me is actually what I did. Or didn’t do. You see, I love people. I love talking with people, watching them, seeing what makes them tick, watching the interactions and connections when you get more than one of them together. (This is why I’m a writer.)

While I was listening to my iPod, though, I was cut off from this other human in the room — my roommate — and it was awkward. (Maybe not for him, but it was for me.) Awkward in the sense that the humanity in me was crying out to connect with this other person, but the earbuds separated us, and so we didn’t talk. At all.

Again, I don’t feel like I have to talk with my roommates (or anyone else) every single time we’re in the same room. That’s not what I’m talking about. It just felt somehow inhuman to isolate myself when we were right there, doing things that would ordinarily lend themselves to conversation. (If he’d been doing homework, I probably wouldn’t have felt quite the same way.)

New rule for Ben: when someone enters the room, off with the earbuds. Music’s important, but people are more important.

(For those of who you remember my iPod going on vacation back in October, by the way, my younger brother ended up giving me his for Christmas. Sweet kid.)

Early bird

For a while my alarm clock has gone off at five o’clock every morning, because that’s when I’m at my prime. Sure, it’s slightly less sleep (I try to go to bed around 10 or 10:30), but I’m very much more a morning person than a night owl.

And yet for the last five weeks I’ve slept in till seven or seven-thirty each day, trying to get rid of this niggling cold that refuses to go away. (I think it’s on its way out, though. ~fingers crossed.~) Sleeping in has allowed me the luxury of staying up later, too, getting to sleep around midnight or 12:30. (Which is insanely late for me. :))

Having tried the latter for over a month now, it’s cool, yes, but I really miss waking up at 5. That’s when I’m most productive, when I feel like I’m really using my time well. It’s the real me.

Well, last night at 9:30 I was working on the programs for stake conference, and as I finished them up and sent them out I realized that what I wanted most was to wake up at five today. (Lately, what I’ve wanted most has been to get everything done.) That desire was strong enough that I went to bed at 10:30 and did in fact wake up at five (and have loved it).

It was interesting to note how the catalyst in this was simply what I wanted most. I could have woken up at five for the last couple of weeks, yes. But the desire wasn’t there, and so I slept. And in a twinkling of an eye that desire blossomed last night, and it became easy to go to bed early, and easy to rise before the sun. (Not that everything becomes easy with desire. :))

Finding time

Yesterday I came across a great post by Leo Babauta of Zen Habits on ten ways to find time for your family — no matter how busy you are.

Even though I don’t have a wife or kids yet, almost all of Leo’s tips are equally applicable to me. Prioritizing commitments, doing less, focusing on the biggest impact, cutting out distractions, etc. — I can use all of these as I am right now. And I’m giddy just thinking about it.

You know, in reading blogs and books about productivity — I just started David Allen’s Getting Things Done again this week, after only getting halfway through it the first time — I occasionally catch myself considering tips like these to be too much system and not enough result. Like…I don’t know, like multi-level marketing or something. But a lot of this productivity obsession really does produce results.

Yes, I’m obsessed. Not to an unhealthy point, I don’t think, but I’m certainly riveted by discussions on how to do more, or do it better. And even those on how to do less. :) For me it feels like a journey toward reality, towards the way life really ought to be. It’s about “getting real.”

Most of us go about life in an ordinary way most of the time, and that’s good. But we’ve got so much more potential than we realize, and it’s that idea that drives me to seek out the better way. Or better ways, rather, because they vary for everyone, and even for ourselves as time crawls and sprints its way toward eternity. The point isn’t that we’re not doing enough; the point is that we could be doing so much more.

Except, as I mentioned earlier, “so much more” doesn’t necessarily mean more. It may mean simplification. Paring down. Stripping off the crufty peel and getting straight to the core — the stuff that really matters.

The idea is to live life better. To really live it, rather than letting it live us. And that’s worth our attention — and our effort.

Bigger or better

Yesterday afternoon I went up to my family’s for a few hours (I’m still woefully sick, by the way, but more on that in a later post), and while I was there some neighborhood teens came by playing “Bigger or Better.” For those who haven’t seen this in the wild, you split into teams, each with an initial object (something small). You then go around knocking on doors, asking for something “bigger or better” and offering to exchange it for the object you’ve got in hand. After an hour or so, whoever has the biggest and/or best object wins. (Ideally you then donate the stuff to charity or the needy or something.)

So anyway, I’d just been reading about the globalization of Bhutan in March’s National Geographic, and it struck me that a game like “Bigger or Better” is the sole domain of the rich (globally speaking). You don’t play games like that in third-world villages. You just don’t.

Why? Because the whole premise is that you have more than you need, and not just small things, but bigger and better things. And for most of America, that’s true. For the rest of the world, it isn’t. Not by a long shot.

It doesn’t feel right.

It’s not the poverty of the third world that bothers me so much, though. I mean, yes, we need to do what we can to lift them up to decent standards of living and try to exterminate disease and other things that poison quality of life. But there’s nothing wrong about working as a farmer in the rice paddies, if you enjoy it. (I think we of the middle and upper classes have convinced ourselves that luxury is the only path to happiness.)

What does bother me is the gap between us and them. More particularly, how far above our needs we live, while so much of the world lives under theirs. And how we’ve managed to delude ourselves into believing that we need what we really only want.

Affluence isn’t bad. But it takes an active effort to keep it from twisting our vision until we can’t see straight.

And now I’ll get off my anti-materialism hobbyhorse. :P

Of stopwatches and unicycles

So, I have a small paper due tomorrow. Until this evening, I hadn’t done anything about it — I figured I’d just put it off until there was no longer any more off to put. That’s what I usually do.

But somehow, miraculously, the planets aligned and tonight I ended up getting the paper done. A full day early. (Yes, this means the end of the world is nigh, so tie up whatever loose ends you’ve got in your life. I’m giving us a few weeks at most. :P)

The most interesting part is how darn good it feels to get stuff done — especially early. Why don’t I do this more often? (With schoolwork, that is.) What kind of benefit do I get from procrastination? None, really. Or at least none that I can think of at the moment. All I get is yet another “undone” tag stuffed into my head, taking up precious brain RAM, and a dollop of stress that grows as each deadline nears. It’s not worth it.

This will be the semester where I try an experiment: doing work early, all term long. I’ve “tried” this before but it’s never lasted very long. I always have a plethora of beautiful excuses — my art, my writing, other projects, you name it — and those are good things, but I feel so much more at one with myself and the universe (which puts me in a better position to do those good things) when I put first things first.

Yes, that’s it: it’s all about balance and doing the important things before the not-so-important things. Something inside me can tell when I’m off-kilter. That same something can also tell when I get back in line, and boy does it feel good.

I’m starting to write a mission statement for myself — more as a constant reminder than anything else, to help me avoid slacking off — and I can already tell that balance is going to be a biggie. It matters.

The office

Today I came across Shaun Body’s article, My Publicly Funded Office (Thanks to Scott for the link):

Whenever I want to get serious work done, I take a 5-minute drive to my office. Once I’m there, I immediately shift into “working mode” — I knuckle down and accomplish whatever needs to get done quickly, often in under half the time it would take to accomplish the same task at home. Although this may be the primary reason I take advantage of my office, it’s certainly not the only reason. Other luxuries of my office include: free access to books, free access to newspaper and magazine collections, free computer and internet access, and free movie rentals. Furthermore, my office is filled with an entire staff of personal assistants — all of whom will try to help answer any question I need answered, or assist me with any problem I need resolved. Best of all, I don’t pay huge operating costs for my office — it costs less than one dollar a day to run it year round. If you’re jealous of my office, don’t be. You already have access to your own publicly funded office exactly like mine. This is because “my office” is my local public library.

That’s what I’m talking about. :) And as I’ve mentioned before, I’m becoming more and more enamored of the idea of forging my own career the way I want it to be — unshackled, doing what I love, living a fulfilled life instead of running around like a lab rat. I still waver back and forth between the solid security of having an employer (oh, wait, is it solid? :P) and the blessed freedom of doing things my way.

And what is my way? None of this is set in stone yet, of course, but I think my dream basically is this: to make books. I want to write books — lots of them. I want to design books — both classics and work from new authors. I want to illustrate books. I want to spend my days talking about books, breathing books, living the book life.

Common sense tries to stop me, but it’s losing its strength. Besides, I can’t describe in words how giddy and excited I get when I think about doing books for a living. It’s what I was born for.

How do libraries fit into that? I don’t know — like I said, I still have no idea how this is all going to pan out, so for now I’m content to stay with my job and finish my master’s. I might end up doing both libraries and my own thing. Or maybe I’ll stay in the library for a few years and then go off on my own. I don’t know. And it’s kind of exciting not to know. (Whoa, did I really just say that? :P)

A time for introspection

This morning I was reading in the Joseph Smith manual (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church), and it just struck me that Joseph was only 23 years old when he started translating the Book of Mormon. Twenty-three! Somehow I always forget that, and in my mind I superimpose the 38-year-old Joseph onto those events. After all, it’s easier to imagine a grown man translating something like that. But that’s not what happened.

Beyond that, Joseph was only 24 when he organized the Church. Heck, I’m twenty-four. What have I done with my life?

Which reminds me of something Dean Hughes said at a reading yesterday on campus. Rather than butcher what he said by attempting a paraphrase, I’ll just recast it like this: When we get to the next life, the Savior isn’t going to care whether we were a writer or a doctor or whatever. He’s going to ask if we were kind, if we were meek, if we were selfless. It’s not so much what we did — it’s more about who we became.

With this bubbling around at the back of my mind, I was sitting in the temple earlier this morning, and I realized that somewhere along the last couple of years, my priorities have gotten a little skewed. Some of the more important things have had to step down and take a seat a few rows back while on the front row I’ve entertained what I in my foolishness thought took precedence.

This isn’t to say that those things were bad. They’re good, worthwhile things. But not when they swell to fill space that ought to have been dedicated and consecrated for better things.

You’d think I would have realized this while listening to Elder Oaks’ good/better/best talk in general conference. Alas, epiphanies seem to work on their own timetable, and it’s taken this long for mine to come together. But I’m glad it came.

On the walk home, I continued thinking about all of this, of course, and the burning question was how I actually go about changing myself. I can use up a lot of air saying I want to be a better person, but there’s a huge gap between just talking about it and actually doing something. Lots of somethings, even.

While I can’t say I have a definite answer yet, what I’ve come up with so far is this: action items and daily reviews. Yes, it’s a process. Yes, it’s mechanical and artificial. I’d prefer something more organic, frankly, but I’m finding that it often takes something mechanical to get to that point.

For the action items I’m thinking along the lines of David Allen’s “next actions” in GTD — the next step I need to take to make progress in that area. It has to be a verb, something I can actually do — not just vague, fluffy, abstract concepts and ideals. Being more kind is not a concrete action; washing the dishes for my roommates is.

When I get inspiration on how I can become a better person, I always write those things down in my journal, since I know I’ll forget them if I don’t. But I’m finding that I never do go back and review what I’ve written, which makes the exercise pointless except as a matter of historical note. And while I do care about my history, I’m more interested in my future.

To get there, I’m thinking I’ll start a new “improvement notebook.” In it I’ll record all of these things I know I need to work on. But that’s not enough. And so each morning I’ll review it (along with those New Year’s resolutions :)) so that I remember. It’s all about remembering. If you’ve got a perfect memory, great. I don’t. I’ll probably also start a weekly review — an hour or so, maybe on Sundays — where I can take a deep breath and look at how I did that past week.

Reviews and notebooks do give the impression of trappings, of things we do to do what we really want. But since without them I’m not making the progress I want to make, I’m willing to use them. After all, I don’t want to show up in the next life only to find that I totally missed the boat to heaven and instead get myself dumped onto Charon’s ferry. :P

Library of Congress on Flickr

The Library of Congress is now on Flickr. (Thanks to NorthTemple.com for the heads-up.)

Library of Congress on Flickr

Not the whole thing, of course, but they have uploaded around 3,000 public domain images. Why? They explain:

We invite you to tag and comment on the photos, and we also welcome identifying information—many of these old photos came to us with scanty descriptions! We are offering two sets of digitized photos: the 1,600 color images from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information and about 1,500 images from the George Grantham Bain News Service. Why these photos? They have long been popular with visitors to the Library; they have no known restrictions on publication or distribution, and they have high resolution scans. We look forward to learning what kinds of tags and comments these images inspire.

Very, very cool. This is the kind of thing libraries and archives need to start doing — crowdsourcing. Sure, it’s not as sure-fire as doing it in-house, but let’s face it: most libraries and archives are low on budget and high on backlog. Why not open description up to the public? I don’t really see any conflict, even from the accuracy/authority viewpoint, because all you have to do is make it clear what’s “official” and what’s user-generated. Simple.

Yes, user-generated data will probably not be perfect, but that doesn’t take away from the rest of its usefulness. And yet I think librarians and archivists have often looked down their noses at ideas like this, mainly because job security starts to flicker and — in their minds — vanish. But to me, this is where it really begins. It’s exciting.

Now if I can just get my library on Flickr…

In danger of falling apart

I’m reading Lewis Thomas’s The Medusa and the Snail, and the other day I came across his brilliant essay entitled “The Health-Care System”:

As a people, we have become obsessed with Health. There is something fundamentally, radically unhealthy about all this. We do not seem to be seeking more exuberance in living as much as staving off failure, putting off dying. We have lost all confidence in the human body. The new consensus is that we are badly designed, intrinsically fallible, vulnerable to a host of hostile influences inside and around us, and only precariously alive. We live in danger of falling apart at any moment, and are therefore always in need of surveillance and propping up. Without the professional attention of a health-care system, we would fall in our tracks. This is a new way of looking at things, and perhaps it can only be accounted for as a manifestation of spontaneous, undirected, societal propaganda. We keep telling each other this sort of thing, and back it comes on television or in the weekly newsmagazines, confirming all the fears, instructing us, as in the usual final paragraph of the personal-advice columns in the daily paper, to “seek professional help.” Get a checkup. Go on a diet. Meditate. Jog. Have some surgery. Take two tablets, with water. Spring water. If pain persists, if anomie persists, if boredom persists, see your doctor…. We are, in real life, a reasonably healthy people. Far from being ineptly put together, we are amazingly tough, durable organisms, full of health, ready for most contingencies. The new danger to our well-being, if we continue to listen to all the talk, is in becoming a nation of healthy hypochondriacs, living gingerly, worrying ourselves half to death.

Amen!

(On a side note, I’m here in Vegas and just finished the first day of classes. It’s…well…boring. Probably mainly because I didn’t get much sleep last night. And sitting at a table for eight hours a day is just slightly conducive to daydreaming. But I’m a quarter of the way done! And I came up with an idea for my class project (a database) that I’m rather excited about, but more on that later. And I’d better stop this parenthetical barnacle because it’s already out of balance to this completely unrelated post. So far I haven’t had much time at all for the Internet, but I’ll try to keep up with e-mails and comments as best I can.)

Discovering downtown

I love downtowns. There’s something about them — something alive, something spine-tingling, something mysterious — that’s got me hooked. So many interesting things. So many intertwined lives and histories. And so many stories. You know, I think that in a way it’s the stories that giddify me. And cities, particularly downtown areas, are pregnant with ’em. Every alleyway has something to say.

Beyond that, though, there’s the feeling of exploration and discovery. Of course, it only lasts as long as there still remains an unknown, but even just a small bit of it is vastly satisfying. For example, I haven’t spent much time in downtown Provo, and so it’s mostly unknown and therefore mysterious and therefore even just the thought of Center Street gives me goosebumps. I’m a man of simple pleasures. :)

Anyway, I’ve got a master’s degree seminar in Vegas this weekend (I leave tomorrow and get back Monday night), and while Vegas isn’t exactly my favorite city in the world (why couldn’t this seminar be in London? ~wistful sigh~), the exploration factor has me excited. (No, no, not that kind of exploration. That’s why I detest the place. I’m talking about innocent venues.)

I think I’ll still have occasional Internet access, but my guess is that y’all will get lucky as this torrential deluge of blog posts from the top of the mountains slows down to a trickle for the weekend. Let the rejoicing begin. ;)

Leave the bulbs alone

I’ve been reading C.S. Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer lately, and I came across this passage which really spoke to me:

It seems to me that we often, almost sulkily, reject the good that God offers us because, at that moment, we expected some other good. Do you know what I mean? On every level of our life…we are always harking back to some occasion which seemed to us to reach perfection, setting that up as a norm, and depreciating all other occasions by comparison. But these other occasions, I now suspect, are often full of their own new blessing, if only we would lay ourselves open to it. God shows us a new facet of the glory, and we refuse to look at it because we’re still looking for the old one. And of course we don’t get that. You can’t, at the twentieth reading, get again the experience of reading Lycidas for the first time. But what you do get can be in its own way as good…. It would be rash to say that there is any prayer which God never grants. But the strongest candidate is the prayer we might express in the single word encore…. And the joke, or tragedy, of it all is that these golden moments in the past, which are so tormenting if we erect them into a norm, are entirely nourishing, wholesome, and enchanting if we are content to accept them for what they are, for memories. Properly bedded down in a past which we do not miserably try to conjure back, they will send up exquisite growths. Leave the bulbs alone, and the new flowers will come up. Grub them up and hope, by fondling and sniffing, to get last year’s blooms, and you will get nothing. “Unless a seed die…”

Thoughts? (I agree with Lewis, by the way. :))

The pursuit of happiness

The other day I came across a quote about happiness that I can’t get out of my head:

It has given me much of trouble, and a great amount of perseverance, to be happy under all circumstances. I have learned not to fret myself. It has taken me a great while to arrive at this point … I want the Saints to live in a way that they can feel happy all the time, and then we shall enjoy the Holy Spirit. (Jedediah M. Grant, Journal of Discourses, 3:11-12.)

Happy under all circumstances? Isn’t that a little too idealistic?

I don’t think that’s what Jedediah meant, though. Sure, there’s a time to mourn. A time to cry. A time for sorrow. He doesn’t mean we have to be bubbly and chipper every moment of every day. There are limits. ;)

But that’s not really the point. I could be wrong, but it seems to me like the happiness he’s talking about is the soul-deep joy that encompasses even our sorrows, infusing us with the strength we need to get through whatever trials come our way. It’s a quiet happiness. It’s soothing. It’s mature. It’s real. And it’s even realistic — it doesn’t ignore the bad things in life, but it shines its light upon them and transforms them from bogeymen into something we can deal with. It’s beautiful and poignant.

Too many of us, however, live far beneath our privileges too much of the time. One of those privileges is happiness. After all, men are, that they might have joy. Why are we settling for anything less? Sometimes I think our “thy will be done” attitude renders us a little too complacent, to the point where we completely deflate ourselves and think that whatever happens to us must be the will of God, of course.

But that’s not the case.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not denying that God is omnipotent. He is. And he wants the best for us, even when that means sending us through the refiner’s fire.

And yet as far as I can tell, the last thing he wants us to do is just slouch back and let life happen to us. Ours is a God of activity, not passivity. Act, not acted upon.

Now, things do happen to us, of course. We can only control external events to a very limited degree; the rest is beyond our sphere of action, and every day of our lives we’ll have things happen that weren’t in our plan.

But just because we can’t control externalities doesn’t mean that the state of our heart and mind has to succumb to outside pressures. Each of us has a will. And that will, that self, is a whole lot more powerful than we realize. And God is okay with that.

That’s the point, after all: to become like him. Gods and goddesses and angels are beings of power and glory who move mountains and shake the heavens. Apathy just isn’t going to get us there, I’m afraid. God doesn’t want to remove our will — he wants to train it into a mighty force for good. He wants us to burn with that same power and glory that cloaks the celestials, because there’s a kingdom of God to build here on earth and a kingdom of heaven to populate when we pass on to better things.

A huge part of the training is, of course, learning to want the things that God wants. And God wants us to be happy. Do we?

Of course we do. We may cover it up with self-deceptions, we may try to bury it in the backyard of our mind, but deep down inside we all want to be happy. It’s part of who we are as humans and as children of God. It’s okay to want to be happy. We don’t need to apologize for it.

And, like Jedediah says, we really can be happy under all circumstances. It’s up to us. We do need the Lord’s help, yes. There’s no way that we can do it without his love and light pouring into us. It’s impossible without him.

But he’s not going to just give it to us. It’s part of that training, where we learn what it really means to be kings and queens, princes and princesses in the palaces of the Most High. If it only took a casual request in passing to get true happiness, we’d all end up brats. :P

No, we have to want it bad. We have to be willing to sweat for it, to sacrifice, to work our tails off until we come off conqueror. Joy comes at a price. In fact, I don’t think it could come any other way — part of the richness of happiness comes from the tears that precede it. The Himalayas of happiness are mere foothills unless you have a Mariana Trench (of misery? I don’t want to stretch this alliterative taffy so far that it breaks :)) to give you a point of comparison. Happiness only has meaning when there’s something out there that isn’t happiness.

Anyway, I know that I for one could stand to be happier. It’s not like I’m moping around the apartment in a cloud of depression all the time, but too often I settle for a pallid middle ground that isn’t bad but it really isn’t all that good, either. Happiness is a choice. Am I choosing?

Reservoirs of life

On page 70 of Stephen Covey’s The 8th Habit, I found a quote from Willam James that I’ve swiftly become a fan of:

Most people live in a very restricted circle of their potential being. We all have reservoirs of energy and genius to draw upon of which we do not dream.

In trying to find the source for this, I found that Covey had abridged the quotation. I also found that hardly anyone knows where the quote is found — one source said The Varieties of Religious Experience (wrong), another said it was from 1899, which would have been Talks to Teachers (also wrong), and finally, through Wikiquote, I discovered that it’s actually in a May 6, 1906 letter to W. Lutoslawski, published as part of the second volume of The Letters of William James, page 253 (with the last sentence coming two pages later). Here’s the full quote:

I have no doubt whatever that most people live, whether physically, intellectually, or morally, in a very restricted circle of their potential being. They make use of a very small portion of their possible consciousness, and of their soul’s resources in general, much like a man who, out of his whole bodily organism, should get into a habit of using only his little finger. Great emergencies and crises show us how much greater our vital resources are than we had supposed…. We all have reservoirs of life to draw upon, of which we do not dream.

Interestingly, Covey alters the last sentence (which is on page 255) to says “reservoirs of energy and genius” instead of “reservoirs of life.”

At any rate, I certainly agree with James, and I’m mainly wondering how to tap into those reservoirs and juice this life for all it’s worth. ;)

The texture of memory

One week down, one and a half to go. This library power outage is tormenting me — almost every day so far I’ve gotten excited to go up to the fifth floor and check out a book I’m interested in. And almost immediately I have to remind myself that I can’t get past the security desks. (No, I’m not going to pull a National Treasure just to check some book out.)

You know how when you lose a hand or a foot, you can usually still feel it there, because of the nerve endings? It’s like that. I wasn’t joking when I said losing access to the rest of the library was like losing an arm. Muscle memory.

And memory is what I wanted to write about, actually, before getting distracted by wistful and nostalgic memories of the library. Last week, before the outage, I was skimming through the Old English aisle. As soon as I saw the titles, memories of my Old English class started washing through me — with delight I recalled the feel of the class, translating old poetry like “The Dream of the Rood” and hacking away at the grammar. It was the same sort of feel I get when reading about Tolkien and, to a lesser degree, C.S. Lewis. It’s the excitement of studying dead languages.

But then I had to wonder, was it really like that? When I was actually in the class, did I feel that way?

I don’t think I did.

Sure, there were brief moments of exhilaration scattered here and there, but for the most part the class just felt…normal. Not at all the magical experience I’d expected.

I think that’s generally how things go.

I’m not saying that joy lives solely in the past, or that disillusionment is the order of the day. But the passage of time gives memory a texture and a flavor that simply wasn’t there when the events themselves happened. Nostalgia sugarcoats the past with a bittersweet icing.

I haven’t been back to Thailand since I got home from my mission three and a half years ago. When I first got back, though, I used to get piercing pangs of memory, I missed it so bad. If I could just scrap together enough money and fly back! I even had dreams where I’d find a wormhole that sent me straight to Bangkok without a plane ticket. Over time, though, I’ve realized that when I do finally go back, it’s not going to be the same. It can’t be. What has passed is past. Not future. My memories of my mission have taken on a rose-colored tint.

Now, not all memories are nostalgic, of course, but it’s surprising how many are. (Or at least for me; does this happen to anyone else?) I look back on my high school years, or my childhood, or even my last year of college, with fond affection. I’m sure that the feelings I’m ladling out on that last semester before I graduated weren’t actually there when I was living it, so they’re not historically accurate, but they are nice. I’m not complaining. :)

Beauties and uglies

Walking home today, with the melting snow puddles exploding into brilliant kaleidoscopic reflections of the sun wherever I looked, I decided I like winter after all. There’s something remote and poignant about it that makes me feel like I’ve just zoomed out the camera (because of course there’s my life camera watching things from above — manned by my guardian angel — not to mention the background soundtrack) and suddenly I’m in some antarctic wilderness with nothing around (not even penguins) for hundreds of miles. Just wind, snow, sun, and me.

It’s times like this that I remember that there’s beauty in pretty much everything, if we only have eyes to see it. (Disclaimer: every normal thing. There are twisted evils that have no beauty in them whatsoever, but we’re not talking about them.)

Getting into photography this past year has taught me that, if nothing else. You really can find beauty in almost anything — in a slab of concrete sidewalk, in a moldy apple barely dangling from its mother branch, in forty yards of magnetic tape strewn over your front lawn (I still don’t know who does it, but it happens every few months), in every creature and every plant on this earth and all the others.

Conversely, you can find ugliness and irritating imperfections in almost anything, too. Life ain’t pretty. Nobody’s perfect. There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

But while some cling to any excuse they can scrape together to focus on the negative, I prefer liking life, thank you very much.

And you know, it’s up to me. True, my perception of reality doesn’t actually alter it (even though I wish I could do telekinesis :P), but it does change me. It’s a choice. Heck, to fall in with modern parlance, it’s a lifestyle.

Now, I don’t think that anyone is 100% polarized at either end of the optimism/pessimism spectrum. We’re all a grab bag with some black marbles and some white. While we can’t get rid of all the black ones, we can decide to paint most of them white. Seeing the beauties in life doesn’t cost anything. It doesn’t distort reality, either, contrary to the opinions of the pessimists. The good is there in just as much force as the bad. And since happiness is a choice, we may as well choose to see the good. It just makes sense.

Besides, when we’ve got our eyes trained, life is so much more fulfilling. Joys follow you around wherever you go. Even your sorrows are tinged with gold and light around the edges. It’s not a way to escape the bad things in life, mind you — it’s a way to deal with them that puts you in control, not the other way round. You go through your trials in this ship of light, so to speak, not away from them. And while the darkness batters you till you feel like you’re almost dead, as soon as you pass through it, the light flies in and surrounds you and then you’re changed, refined, and lifted to a higher level of existence. Those accustomed to see only the darkness, however, find that when they get through their trials, that’s exactly what meets them.

The difference between the two is like that between slumber and wakefulness. Real life is so much sharper and clearer than dreams, which usually start to get fuzzy and blurred as soon as you wake up.

All of this reminds me of a passage in C.S. Lewis’s 1947 essay “On Stories” that I seem to keep coming back to over and over again (the bold is mine):

If some fatal progress of applied science ever enables us in fact to reach the Moon, that real journey will not at all satisfy the impulse which we now seek to gratify by writing such stories. The real Moon, if you could reach it and survive, would in a deep and deadly sense be just like anywhere else. You would find cold, hunger, hardship, and danger; and after the first few hours they would be simply cold, hunger, hardship, and danger as you might have met them on Earth. And death would simply be death among those bleached craters as it is simply death in a nursing home at Sheffield. No man would find an abiding strangeness on the Moon unless he were the sort of man who could find it in his own back garden. ‘He who would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry the wealth of the Indies with him.’

Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.

Through a glass darkly

In a conversation I had the other day, it hit me: pretty much everyone feels inadequate. It’s not just me. :) And yet “I’m the only one” is inadequacy’s ever-present traveling companion, which grabs a handful of salt and shoves it into the wound — after all, knowing you fall short of the standard is ten times worse when you’re isolated from the rest of humanity, off in your own barren and lonely wilderness.

Except these feelings of inadequacy are usually dead wrong. As is the perceived isolation. It’s an emotional illusion.

Not to say inadequacy doesn’t exist — it does — but it’s generally blown way out of proportion. It’s like putting on a pair of glasses that make the world look like a nuke just completely ravaged it. And even if things are that bad, there will always be a rose growing somewhere, buried underneath a fallen slab of concrete or some rusty corrugated metal.

And yet being aware of the folly of these feelings usually isn’t enough to overcome them. Maybe it’s built in to the human condition. Keeps us humble. (But then again it seems like there are people who don’t feel inadequate, who are always über-confident. The exception, perhaps? Or are they the same as the rest of us, they just don’t show it? We’ll never know…)

Two things help. First, forgetting ourselves and focusing outside, not inside. (This is often so hard for an introspect like me.) Lose your life to save it. Since these feelings of inadequacy are parasites living in our perceptions, not our reality, it’s okay to ignore them and do other things. After all, isn’t it kind of pointless to fret about something that doesn’t even exist? It’d be like losing sleep because the Death Star destroyed Alderaan.

Second, kind words make a huge difference. When I feel like I’m absolutely pathetic and will never make the cut (in whatever area of life is under the microscope at the moment), it helps a lot to remember some of the nice things people have said to me. Isn’t it amazing how just a few words can totally make your day? Compliments — sincere ones, of course — ought to be our default mode of discourse. No man is an island, after all, and since we’re all in this together, we really need to be lifting each other up, giving out strength to buoy us up when the storms come. I know that I for one don’t do this the way I should. (Hmm, is this inadequacy creeping in? Live specimen, folks! Just kidding. :))

I’ll add a third thing. We may think we’re pretty lame, but God evidently thinks otherwise. After all, he did give up his only begotten Son for us. You don’t do that for people who aren’t worth anything.

The circle of life

Yesterday at the ward conference I was attending, the elders quorum president read this little story which I rather liked. I spent a couple minutes trying to track down its original source, but so far it seems to be anonymous. If you know who wrote it, please let me know! I’ve also taken a few small liberties in revising it to make it flow more to my liking. (But I’m going to be late for work if I don’t get this posted quickly, so I didn’t spend that much time on the editing. Oh well.)

Anyway, here it is, courtesy of the Unknown Author, with my own title attached:

The Circle of Life The American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellow fin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them. “Only a little while,” said the fisherman. The American scratched his chin. “Why don’t you stay out longer? You could catch more fish that way.” “I have enough to feed my family,” said the Mexican. “I don’t need more.” The businessman then asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?” “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, and stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.” The American scoffed. “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats, and eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, both processing and distribution. You would be able to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then L.A., and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.” With raised eyebrows the Mexican fisherman looked down at his boat. “But how long will all this take?” “Fifteen to twenty years,” said the businessman. “But what then?” The American laughed. “That’s the best part,” he said. “When the time is right, you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions.” “Millions,” said the Mexican. “Then what?” “Then you would retire,” said the American. “You would move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your children, take siesta with your wife, and stroll into the village each evening where you would sip wine and play guitar with your amigos.”

Regardless of what the world says, it’s not all about the money. Man, I want to be that Mexican fisherman. :)

Heart to heart

I love talking with people. Whether in person or via blogs or e-mails or phone or any other medium you can think of (smoke signals, anyone?), communication — good communication — is a blessed and glorious thing. I’ve been noticing lately that the good things in life usually leave me feeling full. Not in the stuffed-till-you-drop way, but in some other way. I don’t even know how to describe it, but it feels kind of like a warmth emanating from the center of my heart. Books often do that for me, and physical touch (appropriate touch, of course), and heartstring-pulling arts. And conversation.

The medium doesn’t seem to matter — whether by voice or by pen or by pixel, talking with people fills me up with energy and vitality. I feel connected to this grand web of humanity when I talk to people. It’s so cool.

Last night in our joint CSL Society/Papercuts meeting, someone (I can’t quite remember who, but I think it was Amanda) pointed out that the more you get to know someone, the more you love them. To know is to love. Then Drew said that this is eternal life, to know God and Jesus Christ, and that the greatest commandment is to love God. And inasmuch as we do it unto the least of these our brethren, we do it unto Him.

Could getting to know people — and then loving them as a result — be a way of worshiping God? Whether it is or not, I’ve found the same to be true: when I really get to know people, I almost inevitably love them. In spite of whatever imperfections are there. In spite of their foibles. Even in spite of their spite, sometimes. It could just be that I tend to grow fond of people really quickly, but maybe there’s something more to it. Thoughts?

My lunch break is swiftly coming to a close, so I’m going to paste in something I wrote in a comment the other day: People are so interesting. It’s cliché to say, but everyone has a story. Even the apparently boring people. :) For example, what makes them so boring? Were they always like that? If not, what changed? And what’s it like being on the inside of a “boring” mind? What’s their passion, even if it’s buried so deep down they’ve forgotten it exists?

Maybe, in a way, as we get to know the children of God, we get to know Him as well. Not all of Him, of course, but bits and pieces — glimpses, momentary shafts of light, brief peeks into eternity.

Now I just need to find a job where I get paid to talk with people. :) (But not counseling.)

Let your light so shine

I went to Gary Gillum’s retirement address today (he’s been the ancient studies librarian here at BYU for a while, and he’s done a lot of other things — he and I are working on Truman G. Madsen’s new book together, for example). He read a quote that I’ve heard several times and have loved, and it’s something that we really ought to read regularly:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

(It’s attributed to Nelson Mandela’s 1994 inauguration speech most of the time, but it’s actually Marianne Williamson.)

I could recast this in my own words, but I think Marianne says it well enough as it is. So, let me just say that I want to see lots of light shining out there, okay? :) (Myself included.)

Love over logic

“Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about?” says Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables. “It just makes me feel glad to be alive — it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we know all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?”

These days we seem to live in a world dominated by the realist school of thought, where happily ever afters don’t exist, where dreams pop like tarnished bubbles, where depression and disillusionment swallow up hope and idealism. Cynicism is the default mode of thought for so many people.

It’s easy to see why, of course, since life can get pretty gritty. Lots of bad things happen — not just kind of bad, but despicably bad, nightmarish, the sort straight out of horror stories.

And yet dwelling on that doesn’t really get us anywhere, does it.

No, I prefer Anne’s attitude — a love of life. Light instead of darkness. Love isn’t blind to the bad, but it washes over them with a brilliance that renders them manageable. And it gives such a richer flavor to life that it’s hard to imagine going back to the bland, boring drone of cynicism and bitterness.

The original inspiration for this post was (yet another) passage from A Grief Observed, speaking Lewis’s wife Joy: “Her palate for all the joys of sense and intellect and spirit was fresh and unspoiled. Nothing would have been wasted on her. She liked more things and liked them more than anyone I have known.” That’s the way I want to be. I don’t want to be defined in the negative, by my dislikes. In fact, the fewer dislikes I have, the more content I’ll be. (Yes, there are evil things that oughtn’t be liked. But we’re not talking about those.)

I want to see the world with new eyes each day. I want to be giddy with excitement every morning when I wake up, trembling at the thought of a fresh day pregnant with possibilities. I want to be like a child — “excited over lady bugs and fresh snow” (from A’s blog). Isn’t that the better way to live? Excitement about the world around us, happiness instead of misery? But what about reality, the critics protest. Life just isn’t a bed of roses, so why deceive ourselves by tinting our glasses?

And so we turn to one of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

That’s what’s happening to the world. The hearts of men are waxing cold even as we speak, like a new ice age spreading over the globe.

We can stop it.

Love is power. Not power of the worldly variety, the kind that corrupts and cankers, but power that creates worlds. Donning the rose-tinted glasses empowers us to deal with every bad thing that comes our way. We’re better equipped to survive and conquer if we’re breathlessly, hopelessly in love with life. Love fundamentally alters who we are and how we act and react in the world around us. It broadens our experiences, stretching our souls so that we become greater, grander, nobler people. Love turns us into kings and queens.

But sometimes love doesn’t make sense. In fact, most of the time it doesn’t make sense, if you really lay out it on the operating table, rationally vivisecting it. But then again cutting a body apart tends to extinguish whatever life was in it. The magic of love — love of life, love of people, love of God, love of the earth and every good thing in it — defies reasoning. Like my friend E. said to me in an e-mail the other day: “Love over logic, 99% of the time.” Heart over head. All too often, logic opens the oven and flattens the bread before it has a chance to rise. Overthinking hasn’t gotten me much of anywhere, but following my heart has made me who I am today. (Which may not be saying much, but I can dream, can’t I? :P)

“Make no little plans,” said Daniel Burnham; “they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” It’s the heart that makes us crazy enough to believe in things that never were — it’s love that gives us hope to break out of the head’s crusty old dominion and into the freedom of the mountains and the rivers. Yes, I know, intellectual thought isn’t all bad, but in my experience it’s often dry and lifeless in comparison to living waterfalls of the heart.

Life isn’t always about logic, after all. I think so many times we hold ourselves back from our full potential, living beneath our privileges as Brigham Young said. Sometimes common sense isn’t the right answer. The movers and shakers in this world are more often than not the dreamers, not the realists. Dreaming lifts us up and takes us to new heights of the human experience. “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment,” said Emerson. It is better to dream big and fail than not to have dreamed at all, I think.

I’ve revised this post twice already and I’m still not completely satisfied, nor have I done the subject justice at all, but I’ve caught a cold and need to get some sleep. This’ll have to do. Anyway, let’s not get so caught in the mundane rut of day-to-day living that we forget to open our eyes to the wonders that are lined up waiting for us to catch sight of them. Loving and dreaming will turn the Decembers of our lives into roses.

(As a completely unrelated postscript, when I was looking for that Anne Shirley quote, I came across this gem from Anne of Avonlea: “Perhaps, after all, romance did not come into one’s life with pomp and blare, like a gay knight riding down; perhaps it crept to one’s side like an old friend through quiet ways; perhaps it revealed itself in seeming prose, until some sudden shaft of illumination flung athwart its pages betrayed the rhythm and the music; perhaps…perhaps…love unfolded naturally out of a beautiful friendship, as a golden-hearted rose slipping from its green sheath.” Love doesn’t always happen that way, but wow, isn’t that a beautiful description?)

No beauty worth acquiring

I’ve been reading Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, and in chapter 5 of book 2, I found this gem of a passage:

Are riches truly your possession, or by their nature valuable? Which of them in particular? Gold and money in abundance? But their sheen is more attractive when they are doled out rather than gathered in, for avarice always breeds hatred, whereas generosity brings men fair fame. Now none of us can retain what is passed on to another, so money becomes valuable only when bestowed on others by the practice of giving, thus ceasing to be possessed…. The human voice can fill the ears of many at once without diminution, but men’s riches cannot pass to more than one unless they are fragmented; and when that happens, they must impoverish those who relinquish them. So how restrictive and poverty-stricken are these riches, which cannot be possessed in their entirety by the many, and which do not pass to any single person without leaving the rest in want! Or is it the sparkle of jewels that attracts men’s eyes? Yet if their brilliance is something out of the ordinary, their brightness is the property of the jewels, not of the men who own them. Indeed, I am utterly astonished that men admire them, for can anything justifiably appear beautiful to a rational nature endowed with life, if it lacks the movement and physical frame of a living creature? Admittedly jewels can claim a measure of beauty at the lowest level, as being the work of the Creator with their own distinctive quality, but they rank below human excellence, and should in now way deserve the admiration of men.

I’ve cut out a few other examples Boethius lists here. Moving on, then:

All these examples make it crystal clear that none of the possessions which you count as yours actually belong to you. So if on the one hand they manifest no beauty worth acquiring, why should you grieve at losing them, or be glad at keeping them? And if on the other hand they are naturally beautiful, how is that relevant to you? You might have appreciated them on their own account, without making them part of your possessions…. Have you men no resources within you that you call your own, seeing that you seek your goods in things external and distinct from you? Has the world become so topsy-turvy that a living creature, whom the gift of reason makes divine, believes that his glory lies solely in possession of lifeless goods? Other creatures are content with what they have; but you, who are godlike with your gift of mind, seek to embellish your surpassing nature with the grubbiest of things, and in so doing you fail to appreciate what an insult you inflict on your Creator. He sought to make the race of men superior to all earthly things, but you have subordinated your dignity to the lowliest objects.

Amen, brother.

Share and share alike

A few minutes ago I came across a fascinating letter by Cory Doctorow:

My writing career and Creative Commons are inextricably bound together. My first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, was published by Tor, the largest science fiction publisher in the world, on January 9, 2003, just a few days after CC launched its first licenses. I was the first author to use the licenses, applying them to my book and releasing it for free online on the same day it appeared in stores. Today, the book has been through more printings than I can keep track of, been translated into more languages than I know, and has been downloaded more than 750,000 times from my site alone (I don’t know the total number of downloads, because, of course, anyone is free to redistribute it). I’ve applied Creative Commons licenses to all my books since, including the comics that IDW just adapted from six of my short stories. I use CC for my speeches, for my articles and op-eds, and for articles and stories that I write for “straight” magazines from Forbes to Radar. My co-editors and I use CC licenses for our popular blog, Boing Boing, one of the most widely read blogs in the world. These licenses have allowed my work to spread far and wide, into corners of the world I never could have reached. I hear from sailors on battleships, volunteers working in the developing world, kids in underfunded school-districts, and people who “don’t usually read this sort of thing” but found my work because a friend was able to introduce them to it. My readers have made innumerable technical remixes, fan-fic installments, fan-art drawings, songs, translations and other fun and inspiring creative works from mine, each time humbling and inspiring me (and enriching me!). CC turns my books from nouns into verbs. My books *do stuff*, get passed around and recut and remade to suit the needs of each reader, turned to their hand the way that humans always have adapted their tools and stories to fit their circumstances. As Tim O’Reilly says, my problem is not piracy, it’s obscurity, and CC licenses turn my books into dandelion seeds, able to blow in the wind and find every crack in every sidewalk, sprouting up in unexpected places. Each seed is a possibility, an opportunity for someone out there to buy a physical copy of the book, to commission work from me, to bring me in for a speech. I once sold a reprint of an article of mine to an editor who saw it in a spam message — the spammer had pasted it into the “word salad” at the bottom of his boner-pill pitch to get past the filters. The editor read the piece, liked it, googled me, and sent me a check. CC lets me be financially successful, but it also lets me attain artistic and ethical success. Ethical in the sense that CC licenses give my readers a legal framework to do what readers have always done in meatspace: pass the works they love back and forth, telling each other stories the way humans do. Artistic because we live in the era of copying, the era when restricting copying is a fool’s errand, and by CC gives me an artistic framework to embrace copying rather than damning it. Writers all over the world are adopting CC licenses, creating an artistic movement that treats copying as a feature, not a bug. As a science fiction writer, this is enormously satisfying: here we have artists who are acting as though they live in the future, not the past. CC is changing the world, making it safe for copying, and just in time, too.

This is the way it ought to be, folks. I didn’t know you could actually use CC licenses on writing that you also get published elsewhere, but it makes sense, and now I’ve got goosebumps. It’s seriously the best of both worlds.