8 May 2020
"It's never too late to do nothing at all."
|Jen Myers||May 8|
Quick note: my apologies for the interruption in newsletter service last week. Something happened with my scheduling and I didn’t catch on to it until early this week. So I folded some new links, and notes like this one, into last week’s edition and sent it for this week.
In case you hadn’t yet noticed, it is now May. Amazing.
Lately I’ve realized that I am in something of a unique position when it comes to enduring an extended stay-at-home situation. It turns out that spending most of your adult life as a single parent prepares you well for this sort of thing. I’m used to defaulting to staying at home when going out requires a level of increased organization, cash and/or energy that is not always available. I’m also used to finding ways to keep myself going, physically and mentally, while necessarily staying at home. In the past couple years, I’ve honestly struggled with the opposite: even though my kid has grown old enough for me to get out more, it’s difficult to make new friends and establish a real social life when you haven’t done it in years. But that experience comes in handy when the situation is flipped upside down.
All of which is to say that I’m reactivating the habits I cultivated in my own relative isolation and I thought I would share some of the tricks I’ve learned in the process of doing so, in case they’re useful to anyone else figuring it all out now for the first time.
Most of my advice centers around one principle: keeping track. I’ve written often about my tendency to keep track of everything, including books I read, movies I watch, words I write and days I exercise. I mark down every task and appointment, no matter how miniscule. I keep a journal. Keeping track of what I do helps keep myself discrete. My awareness doesn’t blur past the edges of the present and blend into everything else. I can keep boundaries between days, between times, between focuses. Between outside and inside and between myself and others.
The primary trick is essentially providing a framework for yourself when you have no external framework on which to rely. I might have learned this from many years of working remotely, where you don’t have your job and task boundaries drawn for you and so you have to create your own system. You have to learn how to manage yourself. If you don’t, well, you might be all right. But I know that I tend to let a lot of things drop if I don’t have a good system in place. I know that I require a lot of self-management. So I do it, no matter how silly or unnecessary it might appear to be at first.
Keeping track of what I do on a daily basis also helps me work towards larger goals one tiny step at a time. It took me a really long time to learn this one. I have always wanted to do big things in one big flourish, and if I couldn’t do that, I usually thought it was a thing I couldn’t do at all. In this way, I am both overambitious and underaccomplished. The circumstances of my life, however, made it clear to me that when big changes aren’t possible, you can only do small things. And if you want those small things to build up, they have to be coordinated correctly. For me, this translates into keeping track of what I do, how much and how often. In that way, I can see patterns and progress over time in what would otherwise be a scattered pile of actions, amounting to nothing larger.
A few months ago, I started tracking the daily habits I wanted to cultivate in Airtable, which is a kind of superpowered spreadsheet that incorporates database capabilities. I use it to organize all my personal projects, including myself. I track everything from yoga practice to water intake to language lessons, plus the goals I took on a couple of years ago as a way to educate myself about storytelling and filmmaking: daily reading of screenplays and books, watching of films and video courses. When I finish books, films or courses, I make note of them all. So I can go back and see now that, in the past two years, I’ve read more than fifty screenplays and creative work-focused books. I can also see that last month I finished writing my own first short screenplay, and I can draw a direct line between those. Over time, it all adds up.
A key piece of wisdom here is to not attach too much importance to hitting certain goals every single day. It is much harder to establish new habits than it is to break old ones. Routines are less about perfect consistency from step to step than they are about average consistency over periods of time. They are not flat lines but rolling rhythms. They go up and down. Let them. It’s okay if you decide to foster a new habit and miss days here and there. It’s like exercising: if you exercise the same muscles without allowing them time to recover and strengthen, you will do damage and set yourself back. If I mark a task as undone for one day, it’s not a failure. It’s just part of the rhythm. And the rhythm itself will change as time goes on. Frameworks should not to be rigid and unforgiving. They should be flexible and supportive. They’re there to serve you, not the reverse.
If you want to try out a habit tracker, I have a habit tracker template available on Airtable that you are free to use.
If this line of thought interests you, I wrote an essay about self-reflection and self-management in situations of relative isolation that just went out to paid newsletter subscribers.
If it doesn’t interest you, godspeed. You are luckier and more unencumbered than I.
More quick notes: still sending postcards. Still open for a new job. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to talk about either or both or maybe something else altogether.
I hope you are all doing as well as you can be.
“I didn’t get shot and nobody in my group got shot because they were firing over our heads. It’s just the luck of the draw. But that’s it. Nine wounded. One paralyzed for life. Four dead.” Devo’s Jerry Casale looks back on the Kent State massacre fifty years later.
The Tiger King of the Midwest. Roy Boy Cooper is still very well-remembered in tattoo circles and I believe there’s a book about him forthcoming.
French Library of the Modern Period, 1930s. c. 1937. Mrs. James Ward Thorne.
You can virtually tour one of my favorite things: the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago.
“My favorite things”: Chicagoans share the objects that make their homes good places to be. I have been increasingly appreciative of the fact I like my home and the things in it lately, so I found this piece sweet and resonant.
From digital detox to digital moderation. A helpful guide if you’re trying to cut down on your screen time.
I didn’t jump on Selah and the Spades when I first heard of it, and I think that was because I wasn’t sure how to understand what it was. I don’t need to categorize a film before watching it, but it does tend to play a part in prioritization. Then I listened to the Switchblade Sisters episode with the film’s director, Tayarisha Poe, and in their discussion of one of her inspirations—Rian Johnson’s Brick, a film I have always liked very much—I got a better handle on Selah. I say all this to convince you not to hesitate as I did and to jump into it. On the surface, it’s a stylized take on a high school drama; but there are a lot of layers underneath and ultimately it emerges with a touching sincerity about complex girls finding their ways. On Amazon Prime.
After my recommendations of bleak British mystery shows last week, how about a recommendation of a bright British mystery show: Queens of Mystery (Acorn). It’s quirky and funny and has lots of great ladies in it.
On a whim, I watched Absentia (Amazon Prime) and it turned out to be a very good call. A tremendously effective horror film that does a lot with a small budget, simple emotional components and a strong dose of existential terror. It’s an early film of the director, Mike Flanagan, who recently made The Haunting of Hill House, which similarly fuses trauma and horror with similarly successful results.
I’ve been watching a lot of short films lately. Some highlights, all horror-flavored: Conventional, written, directed by and starring Karen Gillian, Reverse, directed by Josh Tanner and Stucco, directed and written by Janina Gavankar and Russo Schelling.
New Lucinda, y’all.
Find your own rhythm for right now. Remember: rhythms include downbeats.
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This week’s quote is from Allen Ginsberg.