When life feels like flames, throw something on it.
I was never a great drummer. Snare, I could tap the snare just fine, but not in conjunction with the bass, or with the symbol or the toms. I was never a great classical pianist. I could play the right-hand treble lines just fine, but not while reading the left-hand bass lines. Dammit, I wanted to focus on one thing at a time.
Multitasking is not a great virtue of mine. And despite many critical voices telling me otherwise, I am not too keen on developing it as a skill. The ability to do and complete multiple tasks simultaneously is a valuable asset when your goal is to complete many tasks in a short amount of time. Wait, that is the goal for almost any modern office environment – more, faster, now.
In this centrifuge of everyday “productivity,” no one bothers to ask, “at what cost.” Day is night, night is day; weekday, weekend, it’s all the same. Life becomes a round of pinball, violently bouncing from wall to wall, not at one’s one volition or will, but by sheer opposite forces.
This traps us in “fast-think.” It’s fast food for thought.
We lose the ability to think strenuously. After one-too-many years of fast-think, we lose interest in simmering our thoughts, and our taste buds have become too immature to appreciate or too senile to care the slow-think process.
Running, writing and reading, and cooking combats the epidemic urge to feed all our thoughts into the processor.
Trails and the mountains present us with both the macro and the micro. The sheer size of nature’s peaks and falls dwarf us, putting us in our place as mere specks in a much larger sphere. Meanwhile, every tree root and rock on the trail must be taken into account – your mind and body is on full alert as you nimbly and efficiently make your way through weaving paths. Your body may be moving swiftly, but your mind is at a calm standstill. Your thoughts dwindle down to the bare essentials; it’s you and your next step, nothing else. Scrambling demands your utmost attention and nothing less, as your fingertips and toes are often the only things keeping one from a devastating or fatal fall. Sounds crazy, but in that void, I get most of my heavy “thinking” done. Thinking less ends up being more. Doing more with less. Things come together at the end of the trail.
Writing, done right, is a painstakingly slow process. The distance from one end of a computer screen to the other is a matter of inches, but sometimes, jotting down that next word feels like a power-hike up a vertical mile. Few other exercises devised by mankind requires you to focus as much as writing. In that moment, you are battling with your self, both past and present, on every word. Then you delete-all and start from scratch again. Reading is similar. Textbooks, Supreme Court opinions, news articles, you can get away with skimming through. You can’t bullshit through a novel. I find novels are hard to read during rush hour subway commutes because they require an extra gear of attentive devotion. The sheer depth and breadth of characters and intertwining of plots are only fully appreciated with your ass on a couch for a good three or four hours at a time.
What more can I say about food. Slow-food is now a popular term, countering fast-food. But apart from that, cooking at its core represents the most raw human behavior. Gathering (or shopping for) ingredients, preparing them, cooking them, and eating around a table is the ultimate symbol of slowing down. Along with brewing freshly ground coffee in the morning, cooking and eating a meal with other human beings is what bonds us to life and why we work to sustain ourselves. You stop, you breathe, you look around. The dinner table is a powerful glue that has steadily lost its adhesive power.
Fast-think, it’s no different from fast food.
A few months ago, when Jodi of Legal Nomads asked me to take part in an interview for her “Thrillable Hours” series, I was excited yet worried at the same time. Unlike many other interviewees for that series, I had not turned my back on the law, I had not packed my bags to travel the world, and I did not have a unique, interview-worthy career. I was (and still am) an associate at a small law firm, living in the repeated patterns of commuting, working, commuting, eating, sleeping. I did not attend a top law school, and I certainly did not finish in the top of my class. Nothing special. What the hell was I going to talk about?
I was telling people that the gist of my interview was this: stop being an asshole and you’ll start having fun. That point still remains true. Upon reading through the interview again, however, I realized that a common thread was much broader and “brighter”: it was creativity. What I didn’t have was the Ivy League diploma, the credentials, the experience, the connections, the ability to travel the world. What I did have, and what I was really struggling to get out through the interview, was to show an average lawyer’s desperate clawing to live a creative life, to lay in bed at night and honestly say I created something today that I am really proud of. What I did have was this blog, started from humble beginnings (still is), but slowly growing to 500 subscribed readers. What I did have was a developing writing gig with an online magazine headed by former editors of world class publications (why the hell would those guys work with me?). What I did have was the urge to think beyond my daily lawyer parameters, to leave something lasting that is more than legal memos and motions. What I did have was a new found ability – and willingness – to stop and to think, not only with the logical left brain, but with the entirety of my being. Creating.
A headache created by the left brain is often cured by igniting the right brain. We were born to create, and therefore, we experience the purest quality of satisfaction and happiness when we are creating. Sadly, some occupations were not created to create, consuming even our non-working hours with work-related thoughts and worries, a never-ending noose slowly suffocating our creative capacities without any tangible alarm system to trigger our senses. Take lawyers for example. By nature, lawyers are destructive. To be successful, we must be (particularly litigators). Whether you practice before county judges or federal agencies, lawyering is warfare; if you don’t strike first, if you don’t strike accurately and with force, if you don’t contemplate your opponent’s every move two, three, four steps in advanced, you die. There is partial truth in that even we lawyers create. Yes, we come up with legal arguments, draft pieces of writing, practice the art of persuasion before judges and juries. But the ultimate goal of such creation is, ironically, to destroy. Someone must lose for you to win that verdict, that settlement, that zero percent dumping margin. The tool of our craft, our weapon, is principally the left brain and the logic it supplies. We strain the brain for every ounce. This is the prime culprit behind lawyers’ unhappiness and destruction. With every successful memo, with every persuasive brief, with every jaw-dropping argument, we may win motions, we may win cases, we may achieve acclaim, money and success. But as most lawyers would agree, behind those wins lurks emptiness. Uncontrollable emptiness. Human beings (yes, lawyers are people too) were meant to create lasting value for the enjoyment of the entire flock, and when we fail to do so, we are miserable.
This is why I write. Commuting on the metro, walking the sidewalks of DC, I take notes of every morsel of thought that jabs my thought. Every time I scribble something in my Moleskin, every time I sit in front of that keyboard to pound at something, that is when I feel like I am truly creating lasting value, something worth pouring time into, something that will live on long after the breath at the tip of my nostrils ceases. That is when I feel alive. That is when my right brain, and for that matter, my entire being, is moving. No, I am not a professional writer. No, I was not a journalism major. No, I am not actively seeking to become a professional writer or a journalist. Regardless of one’s profession, we are all writers on many levels. Historians say humanity, and culture, was born when people started drawing and scribbling things inside caves. Writing need not be so technical; simply put, it is a form of expression. Every breathing being yearns to express itself, though some are more talented at doing so than others. I am a human being who expresses himself through writing – this is a natural, very average, phenomenon everyone should strive for. The form of expression varies. Some write music and perform, some paint, some act. Though different in form, all methods have this in common: they make you stop and “think.”
To live creatively, one should practice two principles.
First, be observant. Two people see the same object, experience the same environment and observe the same happenings. The non-creative person easily walks by, nonchalantly, thinking “this is the same lilac from yesterday, this is the same street, the same protests.” In other words, the non-creative person does not give a shit. On the other hand, the creative person, having taken in the same things, “cares” and does give a shit. He stops, observes, and more importantly, asks “why” or “how come.” I once read somewhere of a training technique for fiction writers. They would sit around in a cafe, facing the street and looking through the window. Taking turns, they pick out a random person, and knowing absolutely nothing about that person, they would devise her life story – where is she from, where is she going, why is she going there, who is she meeting, and on and on. This exercise is perfect for fiction writers who need to develop characters and prose. It’s also a great example of what daily creativity requires. It requires observant storytelling. It requires you to look at something, someone, and think beyond the mere given, beyond the facts. What you see with your eyes is the bare minimum; you have to imagine beyond that to tell the hidden story. Creativity is storytelling, and all stories are built upon patient observance.
Second, become a generalist. Study and absorb as many areas of knowledge as you can. Throughout the industrial era, and even as recently as the 1990s, many “successful” people were highly specialized professionals, the cream of the crop in their fields, sharp as a sushi chef’s knife. They drilled a singular well, and they drilled deep, not wavering, not looking to their left or right. So what you end up with are physicists, lawyers, doctors and PhDs of all kinds. For drilling that one well, for drilling it deep and sturdy, you were compensated. People paid you for your professional knowledge and experience. In other words, people receiving your services could care less about whether you played in a garage band on Sundays or whether you secretly baked macaroons as a hobby. You’re a doctor, I’m paying you to remove my appendix, do your damn job and remove my appendix, no more, no less. To be clear, if you’re a general surgeon, and if your job is to remove the patient’s appendix, you better be qualified to do the job, and you better do a damn good job. In terms of living a creative life, however, just doing your job is no longer good enough. Rather than becoming a specialist – studying one thing, doing one thing, and living completely immersed in only one thing – become a generalist. Be the doctor who can discuss economic policy with other economists. Be the mad physicist who can discuss Manet with the art student. Be the lawyer who can discuss the ancient art of Edo-style sushi with the chef from Japan. Creativity in this century will come from a wide net of individuals, all contributing (and deeply understanding) one’s intellectual gifts. All areas are interrelated. Sorry, but you can no longer give the science guys the finger. The web of knowledge is what creates true value that lead to lasting change in people’s lives. To join this web, one must meet others dwelling in other professions, widen one’s reading capacity and crack open one’s intellectual curiosity.
Whether it’s literature, music, economics or engineering, regardless of professional area, the creative being – the satisfied and happy being – is one that constantly seeks new ground, sees what others do not see or simply pass by, and stops to create something that adds value to humanity. The artsy people do not own the copyright to the word “creativity.” This transcends occupations or personality. We are all wired to live creatively. Not creating will inevitably lead to bitter depression and hatred. Live according to your wiring. Stop and observe something, and think. Meet new people and read about the last think you thought you’d ever read about. Ignite your being in its entirety, and live happily ever after.
It doesn’t mean anything. Just another tick on the second hand on a watch, another minute in a day full of minutes, another Wednesday like the ones before. Just another speck in an endless spectrum we call time.
But it does mean something, for this tick, this minute, this Wednesday, shall not return. That tick of the hand is forever engrained, immortalized somewhere in our distant memories as a speck in a finite spectrum we call time.
I once had two hamsters. When we bought them, my mom and I were told that one was male and the other was female, and that they would start reproducing mini-hamsters within weeks. Turns out the bastard lied to us; both were male, and instead of making hamster love, they ended up biting the life out of each other. Tragic story, really, but my point rests elsewhere: the hamsters’ plastic turn wheel. Turning turning turning, that constant, annoying squeak and rattle, day and night. Their beady little eyes either darting side to side or staring into infinity, as their twig-like legs peddled with no purpose or methodology to speak of.
Working life, a lawyer’s life, seems no different than two male hamsters trotting away on a plastic turn wheel. We are lost in the constant churn, deprived of all alertness as to what truly ignites our true purpose. Objectivity is lost, and subjective amusements paint our palette, defined as the willing ability to justify whatever the hell we’re doing. The abnormal becomes the new norm. Questions cease to be asked, as justification becomes acceptance, the lame way of comforting oneself from one’s inability to break the mold.
In some respect, this is truly a #firstworldproblem. Monotonous labor, be it physical or mental, pays the bills, and hoards of individuals would be more than ecstatic to have such paying jobs. Hamster wheel or no hamster wheel.
But dammit, let us not give up our given rights to question what we do, that endless stream of consciousness, poking and prying at the very purpose of life, what we are meant to do, what we were born to accomplish. This tick, this 1212121212 tick, has already passed into the past. History it is. 1111111111 ticked away last year, and in no speck of my mind do I recall what the hell I was doing at that moment in time. We assume the next tick will always be there, unfaltering, guaranteed. We live as if each tick is nothing more than the one before. We live as if time regenerates itself; immortality is ordained upon our own time.
I once read an essay comparing writing to a woman spreading her legs at the OB/GYN, or a man getting a prostate exam (I’m sure it was stated much more elegantly by the author). In short, she defined good writing as bare, open, uncloaked. Embarrassing and exposed, yes, but true. Genuine. No hiding, no holding back. Just you, just as you are.
Life should be no different.
As this one special tick approaches, I will remember the moment as the time when I mused about time. That moment my mind perused through fields and dreams of shattering the earthen pot grasping my very existence. There will be no 1313131313.
Simple is better. For food.
Shorter is better. For writing.
But deceptively, simple and shorter is hard. Very hard. Both in food and in writing.
Can’t go wrong with fat-laced beef ribs, boiled for hours on end, succulent, tender, moist. My wife – Chef de Cuisine and Saucier of our household – literally spent an entire day with those ribs. First draining excess blood in ice cold water, boiling the ribs once to rid of “some” of the fat, marinating the ribs in a masterful blend of soy sauce, garlic, green onions and black pepper, re-boiling the ribs until the delicate meat is ready to fall off the bones.
In the end, this is what it “boils” down to.
A bowl of hot broth that will send your favorite pho joint scurrying away. Chunks of tender ribs, melt-in-your-mouth like Land-O-Lakes butter. Radish, oh that radish, so flavorful after soaking up the beef juices and fat for hours. And a lot of fresh, chopped scallions.
Simple yet a product of one painstaking process.
Twitter is the same way. The 140-character limit for each tweet forces you to extract everything of your writer’s brain, down to the last nibble. Writing ten-thousand word blahs are relatively easy, filled with fluffy fillers and endless jargon. But expressing the essence of what you want to say, in a way that intrigues followers, is damn hard.
As the great Thomas Jefferson once said, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”
For me personally, editing is dreadfully tougher than writing. Editing – mainly, making shit shorter – takes a surgeon’s meticulous yet crude skills, cutting away of all unnecessary excess, one morsel at a time. Blood spurts, nerves are shocked, but in the end, that one masterful tweet, is one of purity.
So before we curse Twitter’s word limit, let us choose our words carefully.
It has been days and days since my last posting. My intellectual gas tank – never close to full to begin with, possibly leaking profusely – has run dry. Taking longer and longer to even finish books, and the news has been so depressing that my guts refused to exacerbate the global tendencies by writing about them here. I’m still stuffed with ample dark meat from a fifteen-pound turkey (and the best parts, the skin and the fat gristle). Honey-basted ham, four different casseroles, corn bread, pie, more gristle, more pie, more corn bread.
So my girth is revived, my brained amply moistened with fat, my taste buds flattered, nourished, and spoiled for days to come.
I wake up and head straight for the couch with hot coffee. And the following exchange with my brother personifies the ultimate state of turkey day hangover. Fat-shocked mental
* * *
Bro: Fo sho.
Bro: U know it.
Bro: Whachu up to.
Me: Listening to bagpipes.
Me: On the couch.
Bro: That’s cool.
* * *
The dichotomy is pristine clear.
My brother, the ever so studious, meticulous, up-at-four-in-the-morning med student who takes joy in spending his nights in the ER drilling holes into skulls.
Me, the lackluster lawyer, drained of all academic curiosity, proud cynic and coffee-at-one-in-the-morning guy.
But bagpipes on the couch with rich Honduran coffee, now that is soothing. That is soul food. We discover our muses on different grounds, in different circumstances, on different couches. Music helps. Music as your muse? Maybe. Bagpipes, though, have an odd medicinal quality. Any motivation-depleted, call-seeking dreamer can tune into holistic medleys of grand bagpipes on an iPhone and be instantly transformed to the green hills of Scotland. Haggis on the side? No more.
What calm, what joy, what hope.
Turkey day plus two.
Once traveled a bard, to distant shores and simmering cities,
Once a bard traveled, to distant shores and simmering cities,
A bard once traveled, to distant shores and simmering cities,
Traveled a bard once, to distant shores and simmering cities.
Back in the day, I loved the Food Network (FN). I watched two channels: ESPN and FN. Emeril Lagasse, Jamie Oliver, Mario Batali, Iron Chef (the original Japanese version) – all were fair game.
For whatever reason, cooking intrigued me. The food itself – its preparation, knife work, sauces, marinades, heating process, the presentation – grabbed my attention. In hindsight, my insatiable appetite fueled the interest, thus legitimizing the moments spent watching whole roasted chicken coming out of the oven and bread pudding being doused with vanilla ice cream.
I cannot say I appreciate FN any longer. Yes, I guess Anthony Bourdain’s literature was part of my enlightenment. My reason is simple: food isn’t just food. FN, regardless of its efforts to do otherwise, treats food as food, nothing more, nothing less.
No, this isn’t hatred. Some portray FN as the “evil empire”, and maybe it is, on many levels. But my decline in appreciation is primarily due to an increased appreciation for higher goods. Food media that does not treat food as just food. Food media that enraptures the ambiance, the mood, the people, the culture, the city, the nation.
Even food porn in written form. Limited are the words and phrases in describing food. I once wrote about Annapolis blue crabs (damn good crabs for sure – read it here). When one’s vision is narrowly constricted to the crabs themselves – yes, the steaming aroma of crab meat infused with Old Bay seasoning, married with green crab innards is, indeed, heavenly – there is only so much one can elaborate. That’s Version 1.0.
Luckily, there has been a rise in media dedicated to spreading Food Porn Version 2.0. One such outlet is roadsandkingdoms.com (you must check this out, also follow R&K on Twitter, @RoadsKingdoms).
More folks are opening their eyes to the stories behind the dishes. No sauce is richer than the stories. No dish is richer than the local culture that gave birth to it. These folks take on an entirely refreshing view, a horizontal approach to cuisine. If FN’s food porn 1.0 is “vertical”, as in cook food, show food, and eat food, version 2.0’s “horizontal” approach links food with culture, politics, travel and stories. It links food with – people.
Alas, even the State Department has caught on, as it has recently embarked on a “culinary diplomacy” program with top chefs.
But State and chefs aside, “ordinary” foodies everywhere can take initiative. Broaden your taste buds and taste the nation. There are stories out there. Food is an inherent vehicle for storytelling. Discover those stories and write about them.
Only then will we fully appreciate gastronomy. Upgrade to Food Porn 2.0.
I actually considered becoming a journalist.
Or, more accurately, I considered majoring in journalism in college. Working as an editor for my high school yearbook was a kick-ass job – the endless bagel runs, the pranks, the drama, even the weekend late-nighters. Perhaps that’s what drew me to journalism school. Nevertheless, I chose business management as my major (sigh) and went to law school (sigh). I am not saying I have regrets, for I like to consider myself as forward-thinking, not past-fretting. But after of four years of management courses, three years of law school, and a tiny bit of experience in the real legal world, I guess I have sort of a crush on journalists and writers. I envy the ability and luxury to create free-flowing works with words, with an ever-abundance of topics and themes at their disposal. Words are powerful, and journalists and writers wield those words.
Then I come across something like this: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/20/business/media/journalists-plagiarism-jonah-lehrer-fareed-zakaria.html?_r=1&src=dayp
David Carr states it beautifully. “It may not have made a difference: journalists are tasked as seekers of truth. Fabulists find the truth quotidian and boring, insufficient to convey them to the renown they seek.”
There is a fine line between lying and colorful reporting. Plagiarism and journalism should not be mentioned in the same sentence. Come on! As Carr points out, social media heat and blog traction have been launch pads to journalistic fame and glory. But let journalism be journalism – seek the truth, and when you find it, tell it as is. The so-called “fabulists” would be the end of journalism as we know it. It’s reminiscent of all the celebrity chef havoc that has ballooned the current Food Network empire and has watered down cuisine to delis and barbeque (not that there’s anything wrong with delis and barbeque). And cupcakes (Cup Cake Wars, are you kidding).
Journalists and columnists are the brethren of a beautiful profession. Don’t ruin it for your own fame and glory. And don’t copy and paste.
“So I spoke to myself and I began to write. But no, this was not writing: it was a real war, a merciless hunt, a siege, a spell to bring the monster out of its hiding place. Art is, in fact, a magic incantation. Obscure homicidal forces lurk in our entrails, deadly impulses to kill, destroy, hate, dishonor. Then art appears with its sweet piping and delivers us.”
–Zorba the Greek, by Nikos Kazantzakis-
A massive sheet of canvas, perhaps twice your body length, is sprung out beneath your feet, white and pure as the very best of pearls. Your bare feet lightly tap the cool surface, as you eye the multitude of brushes and buckets of paint on your side.
You reach for your biggest, thickest brush. It’s a brute, with its ends brittle and nearing its life’s end, and bits of dried paint, in rays of shades and colors, permanently etched within the roots. You run your fingers through the brush, then dunk it into the gleaming bucket of rosy red paint. Passion, you say, goes well with brittle ends.
Paint is flung with all directions with the common trajectory being the canvas. You are merciless with some colors, snapping your wrist as streaks of red and black cling to each other. You are much gentler with others, with warm yellows and fresh greens, lightly dabbing the canvas and caressing with due care.
Writing is art, and there are many gears to writing.
At times, you sit down with coffee, pen and pad in hand, and sketch lightly, pondering and re-pondering with ease. You outline, erase, scribble, erase, re-outline. Your goal is to carefully structure your phrases, re-think your words. I dare compare this mode to the likes of Monet. Not because impressionist works are well-organized and structured, but because they are generally calm and soothing. You struggle with your thoughts, but even the struggles are tame and controlled, methodically transcribing themselves onto paper.
On other occasions, writing is war. A thought hits you like a brick, and you must not waste time by pondering sketches. You want to throw what’s in your head onto paper, in its most raw and untamed form. Expressionism, perhaps, best embodies this mode. Anger need not exist. In this mode, provocation is a likely goal in your writing. Emotional angst is often a trigger, often ending in a tirade of lashings with short yet blunt phrases, uncut words. Something is tugging your nerves, and through your pen or keyboard, you hope to tug the nerves of others.
But as stated by Kazantzakis, art is a magic incantation, and writing, and words, are the greatest incantations of them all.
Let the words flow freely from all our senses, all our modes, all our gears. Conquer the canvas, devour the vast emptiness. Paint our way through the jungles of our minds and mountains of our thoughts.