October 31, 2010

Trick or treat, fear or sweet,

Trick or treat,
fear or sweet,
now you choose:
do you wish to be
ruled by your fears or
your desires? your designs?

Your starting
steppingstone: feel it,
recognize it. Name it.
Atychiphobia (fear of failure),
Atelophobia (fear of imperfection),
Doxophobia (fear of expressing opinions, or of receiving praise),
by whom are you ruled? and to what length
do you measure your worth? and when
did I get to Paris?
but that’s beside the point, and more
on point is maybe you are more aware
of your Arachnephobia (fear of spiders),
your Nyctohylophobia (fear of dark, wooded areas or forests at nighttime),
your Agoraphobia (fear of public places)?

Your deprivatization of these
fears has made them
laughable, hyperbolical, remediable.
Ground on which you are
firmly aware becomes the old
ground, steps descending disappearing,
your first treat: taste the sweetness
of victory over your fears, your so-called
survival instincts, primitive and still
of use. This week
(by standard fashion), we will recognize
and solidify our fears into concrete.

We will write a poem
addressing our
least approachable, least appreciated, most ridiculous
phobias. We will use any form
of verse we wish, but, and since
it’s Halloween, each poem will begin:
“Trick or treat.”

Make your poems hair-raising, harebrained;
are you scared of rabbits or just the children
of your past? Discover
newly uncovered nightmares, terrors
of your mundane behaviour: why didn’t you
start this essay earlier? Procrastination
is a fancier noun than the dread
behind it: of what
are you afraid?

Okay, O fine, I have a fear
of imperfection coupled
with a fear of academic writing, so what
do I do?

I can stand
on this baseline and take
the path up, tearing apart
this essay while tearing
open the candy, the sugary sweet
reward for challenging my instincts.

Monologue your anxiety
on paper. How did it feel
to overcome that hairy jumping spider of death?
Or parasailed over your Acrophobia (fear of heights) to grab the sweetness
from the air? Or taken that first step toward
your next greatest dream,
and cemented the cornerstone
into your freedom? How
did it feel when I recognized my fear,
rose one step higher, and scribed this
essay as a nontraditionally-accepted
(or traditionally non-accepted)
form of standard expository writing?

Sweetbut wait,
you didn't face your fear at all,
you just kind of went around it, to
which I reply: It is an essay
dressed in verses, disguises, now
Happy Halloween, and also: you
don't always have to
kill the spider.

When you recognize
which of the above are yet
to be collected, that is the Moment
you will compose this week. By doing
this, discover your hidden
Papyrophobia (fear of paper) and Scriptophobia (fear of writing in public),
and welcome yourself to your new world,
where the brave are the free, and the daring,

divine. Macabre or comedy,
rhyming verse or free,
your Moment is yours to create,
just begin it: “Trick or treat.”

Now to be fair, here's my Moment:

Construction paper

October 24, 2010

Rethink or Derail: A Rest for the One-Track Mind

Having just finished reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and having just recovered from the existential meltdown it ultimately inflicted to my belief core, I feel that it is my duty to share some of my insights from her work. For those that have yet to read the book, Atlas Shrugged features protagonist Dagny Taggart, millionaire industrialist and Operations Officer of Taggart Transcontinental Railroad. Without addressing the novel’s deep philosophical implications of reason, rationality, and lack thereof (her philosophy is known as objectivism, if you’re interested), the major story arc follows Ms. Taggart through her struggle to keep her railroad operational as the country’s, as well as the world’s, economy crumbles beneath her tracks. What I found interesting, and which is relevant to this week’s essay, is that the harder she tried to save her railroad, and the more one-tracked and singularly focused her plan of action became, the faster her dreams fell and her objective failed.

At times it seems as if the ethic of today’s workforce is open only to the whims of sloth and greed. I assure you, however, that there are many of us still proactive toward success and motivated enough to set our goal so unreasonably high that we continually fall short of our own expectations. We will succeed; we will be great; we will always fail. Why? Because we set our goal, plot our course and plan of action, and then are so driven to attain our dreams, that we pack our days full of meetings and labour and travel and mealtimes and if something unexpected gets in our way, we derail. If we find ourselves stuck in traffic and needing to cancel a meeting, we run the risk of losing ground and even panicking, simply because we overbooked ourselves. Like a freight train, we travel with great momentum. We are efficient machines when everything operates smoothly, but as soon as an obstacle appears on the only path we can follow, we crash, unable (or unwilling) to swerve. So this week, we will see just how much we are limiting ourselves with our steadfast, one-track thinking: we will create one-line drawings for our Moments.

Technically, the term is blind continuous-line contour drawing. An essential first step for any art trainee, this method is indispensable for developing hand-eye coordination. The procedure is simple: without looking at your paper, draw what you see before you without lifting your pen off the paper. It will be ugly. It will be abstract. It will be fun.

Do this when you are at a meeting, drifting off, but expected to pay attention. Do this while you are at lunch to give your hands something to do while your mouth is busy consuming. Do this at the bus stop, on the train, or when you just plain don’t feel like working. Do this in the moment. Do this at least once daily.

You don’t have to devote too much time to this in order to realize that after you’re finished, when you pan out for your first viewing, your Moment is a veritable train wreck. It may have the basic form and position of what you were focused on, but it is nowhere near the drawing you first visualized. That is okay; you’ve not only been incredibly creative, you’ve hopefully learned something about the value of periodically slowing down, stepping back from your plan, reevaluating and re-plotting your course.

Most importantly, remember that your Moments do not have to be good, they just have to be.

At some point during your day, if you wish, you may give your one-line drawing some colour, or add details, in an attempt to bring it closer to the scene first envisioned. Be meticulous, and include some of the nuances that you missed. After reassessing the situation, you may find that what your Moment captured is, while not your intention, even more beautiful than your imagined design. Afterward, leave your Moment wherever you created it, because it does not belong to you, but to all the conscious conductors aboard speeding thought trains of their own.

I will not divulge the fate of Dagny Taggart, or her railroad; it wouldn’t be fair to those who haven’t yet read the novel. What is important to remember is that if she did, in fact, lose her railroad and everything she’d ever worked for, she is still not a failure as a human being. Neither are we. We must accept our failures and learn from them. Instead of being unidirectional travelers, we must discover that our tracks may diverge into incalculable directions. If we take time, now and then, to give ourselves a moment and reevaluate the pathways to our goals, our achievements will be more fulfilling, more effortless, more often. Schedule some purposefully empty time throughout the day, either for reflection or for a margin of schedular safety. If several paths are open to us, we can take them simultaneously, if nothing more than to see where they might lead. We must give ourselves options. We must give ourselves a break.

Give yourself this moment.

To be fair, here’s my Moment:

Markers on sticky pad.
(Dog on blanket)


October 17, 2010

Don't break it; reshape the circle of your routine.

Photo by Matthew Fang under Creative Commons License

Go to work. Go home. Pick up the kids. Cook dinner. Shower. Rinse, and repeat. Does this seem like a typical day to you? Well, it’s my day, too, an endless loop, reenacting scenes from Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day. At times, I appreciate this predictability; it allows me to schedule meetings with certainty and maintain my almost impeccable punctuality. For the most part, however, it drives me loopy.

It can be difficult to become creatively inspired when driving below the same pushy billboards every morning. It can be challenging to feel original after mouthing the same banal conversations with the same coworkers that are living their own same routines every day. Each one of us is living through our own cycle of behaviour, and until we can recognize this, any hope to change this pattern will only be met with resistance.

Now this raises the question: Should we change it? After all, change is stressful. Change is scary. Change is disruptive.

On the other hand, on any given day, we’d be willing to admit that nothing fun happened to us, nothing particularly stimulating out of our unbroken routine. So, should we just keep on living this comfortably bland existence? Should we keep driving ourselves down the same circles that, through all our sweat and perseverance, invariably lead to exactly where we started?

You bet. We are creatures of habit, and a routine helps to keep our bodies in motion without overwhelming our minds with anxiety. Driving ourselves off the rotary will only lead us into a ditch, and that’s just not healthy at all. Instead, what we want to do is to pan out and discover new routes that lead us to where we need to be. Step off the worn trail for a moment, and let the area rest, let the wildlife burgeon again. Before we can do that, however, we need to recognize the roundabouts on which we drive, and notice all the imprisoning circles that surround us. This week, these circles will be our Moments.

Draw a circle; draw many circles. Colour them in or give them some texture. Let them meet, like a Venn diagram, or keep them apart, like stars in the sky. Make them abstract, like a field of reflected doe eyes in the dark, or make them concrete, like the graphical representation of a sine wave in motion. Draw many circles, or just one.

Write a poem in a cyclical format. Fill your pages with repetitive words in circumlocution. Gird your virtues with your verses and your vices with your stanzas. Shout the boredom of your routine through arousing metaphors. Show, don’t tell (we’ve all heard it before), where you’ve been, time and time again.

Circles are everywhere, if you look.
Photo by Kelly McCarthy, All Rights Reserved
Photograph the circles you see: A dish of doughnuts. Coffee stains on napkins. The sun. The moon. The clocks and the cargo train crossings. Manhole covers and ladies’ room mirrors. Anything you see that mimics the circumference of your eyes. Help yourself to snapshots of the circles that surround us everyday, and realize that you’re not the only one.

Every day this week, drive a new route home. Stop at a restaurant to which you’ve never been. Turn the radio dial to a different channel, to an AM channel, or better yet, turn it to off. Do something different during your day that does not disrupt your routine, but leads you through an unusual sensory environment. Stop at a different coffee shop, and post your Moment on the advertisement board. This Moment does not belong to you, but to the people that surround you, and that travel in their own circles.

Photo by Ben Hirsch under
Creative Commons License
Once we recognize exactly where our circles lie, we can find ways to try something new without upsetting our routines, lives, and peace of mind. By discovering new paths to our destinations, we open up unknown doorways of inspiration that lead us to entire worlds of untapped creativity. Be mindful, however, that the anxiety that we feel by going nowhere may only be amplified by changing our direction dramatically, and that is certainly not what we are after. From circuits of electrical current to the annual revolution of the earth, the universe is saturated with circles and cycles. Know that it is okay for us to be part of it.

Of course to be fair, here's my circle Moment:

Pencil on index card

October 10, 2010

Take life too seriously, and it ceases to be fun(ny)

As a child, I became so engaged in the funny pages that I would forget the progression of the world around me. Bill Watterson’s brainchildren Calvin & Hobbes kept me entertained for hours on end as I leafed through page after cutout page of collected newspaper comics. I didn’t understand Watterson’s deeply social and existential morals, but Calvin and Hobbes’ perpetually disastrous shenanigans were enough to keep me howling. When finished, the print stains on my hands became trophies of a day well spent in somebody else’s moment.

Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson
Recently, I flipped through my son’s spine-bent, and therefore well-loved, copy of a Calvin & Hobbes anthology, and realized how strongly that comic series shaped my outlook on life. First, the missed social messages became concrete beliefs in system failure as an adult. Second, the existential musings led to a belief that while universal truth can never be found, it should still be sought. Third, a kid and his stuffed tiger fighting to rid the world of slimy girls will always be funny.

What’s the point of all this?

The point of all this is that while we sometimes believe that we must live in a system of unjust social policies, unfair marketing practices, unknowable truths, and unlivable working conditions, if we can’t take a moment to laugh at life’s little absurdities, then we’re going to have a stroke. So this week, among all the “serious” business of deadlines and due dates, fueled by our favourite caffeinated accelerant, we are going to sketch some seriously creative comics.

The types of comics that you create are entirely up to you. Perhaps story-driven, graphic novel-style frames are your forte. Maybe single-panel Family Circus-like scenes set your story. Take a look at today’s comic page in the local newspaper; you’ll find that simple, three-panel storyboards continue to be a go-to.

The mood of your comic is your choice as well. Humorous has always played well in the comical arena (and is, you know, kind of the point of this week’s exercise), but you may also choose to create a comic that is sad, cynical, serious, or sensually inspiring. Draw your panels detailed, colourful, lightly sketched, or childlike. The approach you take will be limited only by your imagination*.

*Note: The imagination may atrophy after prolonged periods of disuse. Please exercise your imagination frequently.

Since you’re trying to liven moments of “serious” business, find a point within the day during which you are at your peak of frustration, and consciously notice your anxiety. Immediately stop, and breathe. Step away from the situation for a few minutes. These are the minutes during which you will create your comical Moments.

Think about this: why are you so worked up? What are the real, universal consequences of not attaining your wants/needs at this moment? You need to realize that whatever the problem is, it’s probably not going to kill you. An aneurysm will.

Photo by T Hart under Creative Commons License
Now, find the absurdity in the anxiety. If you continue down this path, will you physically burst like a balloon? Is a giraffe licking your boss’s shiny, bald head while he (the boss, or the giraffe) continues berating you for a job well done? What if you actually are delegating your authority to a bunch of rhesus monkeys? Answer these questions through your comic, then return, a little more composed and at peace, to your job. Let this creative creature be a relaxation tool, a vent; it’s the artistic equivalent of counting to ten before unwittingly punching someone that you shouldn’t.

When you are finished, post your comic somewhere prominent. The announcement board at the office or warehouse is a great place. Whatever you are struggling with, I assure you, others are struggling with as well. Let your Moment give them a laugh, too. They need it; they deserve it; they are entitled to it, because this Moment does not belong to you, but to the world of rational beings trying to survive in an irrational universe.

If we take life too seriously, it ceases to be fun. Otherwise, if we take life too seriously, it ceases, to be fun. Like that seemingly innocuous comma, an avoidable, work-related heart attack can disrupt the entire sentence of your life, because life is funny like that.

Now to be fair, here’s mine:

Acrylic and ink on a 3x5" index card

October 3, 2010

Notice Your Natural Humanity

When was the last time you went camping? How about hiking? Took a walk through the park? For many of us, our only brush with nature is during the walk to and from our cars. Does this bother you? It certainly bothers me.

Just asking for herbicide, right?
Photo by Kate Mereand under
Creative Commons License
In every city, the pursuit of urban development pushes the natural world not only farther from our homes, but also further from our minds. Every animal becomes a nuisance, every plant a weed. As humans, we have locked ourselves in self-assembled cages, in rigidly square city blocks of our own human zoo.

Okay, you’re right. I’m preaching.

But this week, we’re going to do something to address this conflict between [wo]man and our inherent nature: we’re going to write haiku.

Haiku, loved by serious poets and third-grade schoolchildren (though nowhere in between), is a poetry form with seventeen syllables and a natural theme. As you may remember, haikus are composed in a 3-line, 5-7-5 syllable format. We will stick strictly to this form. The theme, however, will be deviated from a tad.

Instead of writing about nature and the seasons, as haikus are traditionally composed, we will place humanity squarely within the natural ring. Where do we fit, exactly? How do the products of [wo]men, ourselves natural beasts, mingle with the natural world? Where does nature find herself within our cityscapes? Where do the two conflict/embrace? These are some of the questions I want us to ask ourselves this week as we practice this exercise, and create our Moments.

Hawk has dominion over street sign
Every time you walk to your car, I want you to consciously slow your gait, breathe slower, and notice the things around you. Notice the grass reaching through the sidewalk gaps. Notice the ants stealing crumbs from the smoker's lounge floor. Notice the Lost Dog poster nailed to a tree. When you get inspired, jot some ideas down in your pocket notepad. It only takes seconds to do this on your trek to your vehicle, so there won’t be any loss of productivity.

During a break, take a look through your notes. Give yourself the perspective of the things you saw. Are those ants excited to be fed? How happy is the sidewalk grass now that it can reach the sun? Now, reconsider your own perspective. Where do the two perspectives meet, and on what terms? Use this harmony/disharmony to form your Moment. I know your break is only a few minutes, but remember that a haiku is only seventeen (17) syllables. You can do this.

When you are finished writing, go back to work. At this point, the hard part has passed. If you are able, type your haiku on a computer. Use a fancy font if you wish. Print it out on business card stock, and leave them around the office. If you are unable to do that, then wait until you get home, and post your haiku to the social networking profile of your choice. Remember, these Moments do not belong to you, but to the world, including the natural one, of which you are a part. Do this once a day this week.

And to be fair, here’s mine: