Day 24: People

The biggest challenge in creating art is getting started, and doing it every day. I find myself liking the idea of doing things every day — to build upon the day before — but after a long day of work and nearly an hour driving home, I’m emotionally and physically drained. This lack of energy makes me angry. It stirs up my insides, because not only am I unsatisfied; I don’t even have the energy to satisfy myself with whatever little projects I could take on at the end of the day.

The last month has exhausted me, because I feel like I’m squeezing out every little ounce of energy to write, to practice, to learn — and, of course, to work. The balance doesn’t seem right. When we talk about balance, it’s often about time. But what we never really talk about is where we spend our emotions and where we have our frustrations — and where we put our thought.

But I ground myself often, because I know I’m about as lucky as they get. I have a job that requires some technicaly skill, but also a significiant amount of creativity — and the result of my work isn’t inconsequential. Even so, I often think about what other jobs would make me happy. I talk to other journalists often about what kind of jobs they would take if they left the industry, and most of us are stumped. But even so, most of us aren’t fully satisfied. There’s a lot of frustration.

Thinking about the occupations in this world, I realize that people are often treated as expendable. When you’re not, it’s called “leverage.” So that means the default is that, if someone else can do the job for about as much as you, then you can be let go. Of course, that’s why unions exist. And that’s why some people particularly value loyalty. But even so, I can’t imagine what it feels like to be a cashier at Walmart, because even if you’re a wonderful person who makes the workplace an awesome place, you can be replaced. Maybe it wasn’t like that in the old days, when the reach of a job advertisement stopped at the local newspaper. But now, if you want to find someone to work for $11 an hour, you can find that person without much trouble. The value of people we place on individual people seems to be decreasing as we’re able to see more people in our purview. I hear stories from older people about how they saw a girl and knew they were “the one” — and they pursued that person until they agreed to spend the rest of their life with them. But when you can download an app and merely swipe across the screen to see another person you might want to love, then basic economics says people aren’t a scarce asset anymore.

So as I think about this, I realize how important it is to tell people that they are important. There’s a Mr. Rogers song called “It’s you I like” that I never really understood until recently. But it goes like this:

It’s you I like,
It’s not the things you wear,
It’s not the way you do your hair–
But it’s you I like.
The way you are right now,
The way down deep inside you–
Not the things that hide you,
Not your toys–
They’re just beside you.

But it’s you I like–
Every part of you,
Your skin, your eyes, your feelings
Whether old or new.
I hope that you’ll remember
Even when you’re feeling blue
That it’s you I like,
It’s you yourself,
It’s you, it’s you I like.

I can’t say for sure that people were valued more in the past, but I can say that I like the world this song paints. I think if I lived in that world, then I would be less exhausted. It makes me want to create that world.

Day 23: Pride

One of my favorite stories in the Bible is that of the Tower of Babel. As the story goes, humanity — all speaking the same language — gathered after Noah’s flood and embarked on building a tower to heaven. God, angry at their hubris, spread them across the earth and varied their language.

I love it because it’s so visual. The imagery of ancients building a tower to the heavens, rickety and unstable, is riveting.

But I often had trouble understanding the lesson in this story. As I understood it, we are to be conservative in our dreams. Yet no one thinks it’s a sin to shoot for the stars. So I didn’t get it.

Pride is the last of the Seven Deadly Sins, which is listed in the Book of Proverbs. I don’t think these sins carry any special powers, but rather they seem to broadly list virtually every error humans can make in our journey. Things like lust, gluttony and greed can easily be diagnosed as bad things. There are plenty of nursery rhymes and fables that illustrate how these things can lead us astray. But other than the Tower of Babel, pride is not illustrated too often. In fact, pride is a characteristic of the hero.

But as an adult — as a self-conscious, chip-on-his-shoulder adult — I’ve seen how pride can be destructive. It’s often hard to see in myself, but I see it in others — I see unfounded confidence, lies about competence and phrases that subtly promote one’s reputation one hair at a time. At best, it is unproductive, but at worst pride tells everyone around us that they aren’t good enough. And then pride begets pride.

As kids, it’s OK to not be good at something. Because you can believe you are good at other things. But as adults, we build much of our identity based on what we can and can’t do — what we have and haven’t done. And when we walk around destroying every else’s sense of self while trying to boost one’s ego, it is unpleasant and destructive.

… that turned quickly sermon-like.

I bring this up because I’m realizing that I hate being around people who are prideful. I’m learning how to choose the right people to be around. This is a note for next time.

Day 22: List

It’s been difficult to get excited about doing anything these days. It’s been so difficult, in fact, that I now have a checklist of things I need to accomplish every day. They are things in which I’ve recently found little enjoyment. But the hope is that out of the monotony of practicing piano and learning a programming language and writing — which has largely become a checklist item — will come serendipity.

I admire people who have activities they enjoy. My favorite athletes are the ones who laugh on the field; my favorite musicians are the ones who smile on stage. I’ve always tried to be joyful in what I do, but I’ve been finding myself in front of a blinking cursor without any real words I want to write. I have many complaints, and many things on my mind. But unlike inspiration, which is like strands of pigment popping into water, these things are like marbles. They do not want to leave infect others with their contents. They are sterile and still, and it is likely better that way.

I know inside there somewhere, there might be something worth sharing — something I can do with a smile on my face. But for now, I don’t know what it is. So that’s why I have my list.

This idea comes from something I was forced to do as a kid. I didn’t like to practice the piano, so my teacher wrote a list on a notepad — I had to practice each song five times. I’d sit on my piano bench and play until each circle was checked off, even though I had no real motivation to do this. I hated playing piano. But several years later, after years of practicing, it became a gift. It was a languages more expressive than word.

It took something like 14 years for me to get to that mindset. But it’s the only things I know to do when there is an utter lack of joy. Just do it, my piano teacher would say. You will be so thankful for it she would say.

So I’m just doing it. I’m writing, I’m practicing, I’m learning. I’m finding small moments of transcendence, like the bridge of Deux Arabesque my Debussy. And I’m planting seeds here and there, hoping to harvest them with joy one day.

Day 21: New York morning

It’s been so long since I’ve woken up in New York on a weekend. Out here in the suburbs, the weekends feel like a time to run errands and relax. But in New York, the weekends feel like a celebration. It’s as if the entire city says, “Yes, we made it through another week in this difficult place we call home.” It seems virtually everyone sleeps in, which means early mornings are quiet in the same way Disneyland is quiet before it opens.

Out here, weekends are for going to Target or getting groceries or maybe going to the park. In New York, weekends were for seeing people, for exploring places, for working on that project with friends that you always wanted to do. Nothing feel ridiculous. Everything feels possible.

New York feels fresh on weekend mornings, almost as if a custodian went through the streets and made it smell good. The breakfast carts aren’t out, and the chicken and rice trucks are hidden away after a late night of serving inebriated people who want to taste the most beautiful food in the world.

The city is magical in the same way Disneyland is magical. Except the stories are real and the admission is exorbitant rent. So a weekend morning in New York is the adult equivalent going into Disney World and seeing Princess Jasmine and Mickey Mouse at the gat.

I’ve thought a lot about what I would do if I ever move back to New York. And a lot of it has to do with Saturday morning. I would wake up and go to breakfast at Veselka, or maybe Cafe Mogador. Then I would go to a park and sit around for a bit, until it was time to meet friends for a nice early drink at a sports bar where they’re showing a college football game. Maybe in Murray Hill. Maybe in Greenwich Village. Then I’d go home and eat a big lunch, which would help me doze off into a wonderful kid-like slumber that only a morning like that could provide. I would walk by thousands of people. I wouldn’t get lost in my own head.

I want that so badly, but only after being here. Only after waking up and not wanting to get out of bed. Only after waking up and not feeling any excitement to start a day that should belong to me. I’ve found morsels of that here, but I want it all. I can smell the city right now. I can feel the crisp air on the East River as jogger try to beat the oncoming heat wave and children run around on the play set. I hear those kids, laughing and yelling, and I hear the crescendo of traffic in the background, creating the backdrop for a place I still think of as home — but a place that is, day after day, becoming less a place that I deserve to call home.

It’s these weekend mornings that really get to me. They really get to me.

Day 20: Dear world, you win

Dear world,

You win today. I’m defeated.

So for the rest of the day, I will stay hidden and out of the way.

Alvin

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