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Living Creatively

In Slice of Life,Travel on January 19, 2011 by ryepdx Tagged: , , , ,

I’ve been listening to the CD I got at the Kimya Dawson concert last weekend, so I’m still in Kimya fanboy mode. As I write this, her song called Fire is playing. It’s relevant to what I’m about to talk about, so I’ll post part of the lyrics here:

It’s okay to be scared; you don’t have to act tough.
Take all that pain and turn it into love.
Take all that pain and turn it into love.
And let your emotions be fuel to your flame;
Being on fire will keep you awake.
If somebody yells out, “Hey, stop, drop, and roll!”
Say, “That might save my skin, but it won’t save my soul.
That might save my skin, but it won’t save my soul.”

I went through the usual emotional travails in high school, though you probably wouldn’t have ever guessed it then. By the time I entered college I was a mess. It took me about a year before I recovered and managed to become the master of my emotions. The terms of my depression’s surrender, however, were rather draconian: it would be two years before I let myself feel sad again.

Tonight I had coffee with a friend of mine who is going through some difficult times. I’ll call her Storme, since I don’t know if she wants all this public. Right now she’s looking for a job, the family she has been staying with is about to move out of Portland, and a bit of bad bureaucratic planning on the part of her university has left her in a catch-22 where she can’t re-enroll because of money owed, she can’t pay the money owed until her academic aid gets disbursed, and she can’t get her academic aid until she re-enrolls. (This leaves her in the bad position of being responsible for over $30k in student loans in a couple of months.)

We hadn’t talked since August of last year, so we had a lot of catching up to do. As I listened to her talk about her situation, I realized that all the trouble she’s running into has to do with pursuing her dream. Most of her troubles could go away if she gives up her dream of working in the music industry. To her eternal credit, she does not even consider that an option. However…

“The Universe hates me!” She said as we sat at a table next to the wall-sized window in the Starbucks near Music Millenium.

“The Universe doesn’t hate you. It’s just making things hard right now.” I replied. It wasn’t the most comforting thing I could have said, sure, but it was all I had just then. I sipped awkwardly from my 12oz mocha.

Just down the road, at the aforementioned Music Millenium, the Decemberists were holding an album signing for their new release, The King Is Dead. We wandered down there at around 7pm. It was packed, as I expected it would be, and it took about ten minutes to get into the store. I bought a copy of The King Is Dead once we were in, while Storme wandered off. When I found her, she was back in the $2 section, leafing through the used CDs.

“Hey look, Semisonic,” I said.

“Oh cool!” She said, plucking the CD from the bin.

“It’s been a while since I heard them.”

“My friend is actually friends with their drummer.”

She leafed through the bins a bit more, all the while talking about the musicians she had been following online and the bands she was personally friends with. She mentioned enough bands (most of which I had never heard of, being as uncultured as I am) that I’m sure most people’s heads would have turned green and exploded with jealousy. Her passion for music was undeniable, as was her propensity to befriend famous musicians and keep abreast of their emotional states. As she put it, “I love going to concerts because for me it usually means I get to see a bunch of old friends again.” At only 20 years of age, she is already well on the way to being an A&R force to be reckoned with.

Hearing her talk about her passion was like hearing Kimya telling everyone in the audience at Backspace last Saturday night to follow the things they feel passionate about. It was a reminder of what can be done when passion meets drive.

In my first year of college I learned to regulate my emotions, to consciously control them. While this allowed me to undo the damage I had done to myself in high school, it has also left me somewhat confused as to what my passions are. I have drive; I’m always pushing and trying. But toward what?

To follow one’s passions: that’s what it means to live creatively, I think. If you weren’t around in the beginning of this blog, “a period of living creatively” was the subtitle back then. That was my reason for choosing the name Cyan Years: I started this blog to document my life after I quit my job and started trying to live outside the box.

But it seems to me now that living creatively isn’t a goal or an end in itself. Now I think that perhaps living creatively is what happens naturally when we try to follow our dreams and our passions. It means that we get pushed to our limits and challenged time and time again; far more than if we let someone else make our decisions for us. Creative living, then, becomes a necessity, a way of surviving and (hopefully) flourishing.

Because the fact is that the Universe is neither kind nor malicious. It’s a combination of forces acting on each other, pushing things to and fro. In order to follow that internal compass we call our passion, or our dreams, or our conscience, or whatever else that spark which gives us joy and brings meaning to our lives might be called, we must sometimes work against those forces. Sometimes that means doing your strongest breast-stroke just to keep from being swept off-course until the currents start flowing your way again. This is, I think, where creative living enters in.

Creative living is a response to the hardships which threaten our passions. It is a way of keeping that spark alive, of feeding it until it grows into a wildfire. It is the reason Storme is living with another family. It is the reason I am freelancing as a programmer instead of taking a steady job.

But what am I passionate about? Well, that’s a very good question. Give me some time and one day I might be able to give you an answer. I have some ideas, but it’s in the living of life that all becomes clear. I won’t worry too much about it for now; I’ll just “let [my] emotions be fuel to [my] flame” and head in whatever direction the fire points.

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Back in Newberg

In Slice of Life,Travel on January 10, 2011 by ryepdx

This weekend was crazy. It was the weekend all my undergraduate friends were supposed to go back to school. I was looking forward to this somewhat, as I wanted to have an excuse to go back into hermit mode and bang out that freelance job. (Yes, the same freelance job I mentioned in the last few posts. I really, really underbid on that one.)

Well, they all went back except one. I’ll call him Mike, to keep his identity safe. Mike happens to be my best friend. Unfortunately it also seems he’s struggling with depression right now. This was news to me. I had no idea until I called him up to hang out with him on the last day he was going to be in town.

That was a somewhat surreal conversation.

I had band practice yesterday. I was late again, which pissed my bandmate off pretty badly. Not really the best follow-up to our last meeting, in which we aired grievances and made up in classic sitcom fashion.

On top of that, my girlfriend has been unemployed for a long time. I, of course, feel the need to fix this problem for her, but that’s far easier said than done. Then there’s the freelance job, which is hanging over my head like an ACME anvil, and the other freelance jobs, and the eternal question: “what the hell am I doing with my life?”

I started wondering if it might’ve been better to just sell my soul, so to speak.

Of course, these are all first-world problems, which makes me somewhat self-conscious.

Perspective, right? But if you want to get right down to it, whether or not I’m starving and naked in Africa is hardly the measure I want to use to measure my success. Yes, I am glad to be in the first world, and yes there are worse things going on, but life starts to get awfully dull for us first-worlders without our little first-world problems. This blog would be quite empty without those first-world problems. Most blogs would be quite empty without those first-world problems.

So regardless of the kids in Africa, I was stressed out.

I went to coffee in Newberg with a friend from college. It was weird being back in my alma mater’s hometown, even though I’d been there just the week before. Mentally I had already checked out, said goodbye. I didn’t expect to be back in the coffee houses there again for a long time.

Newberg has a high concentration of coffee houses around the edge of the college campus. Only counting the places where a person can come in and sit for a while, there are four. Add in the stalls and the number doubles. But there’s only one combination coffee shop and used bookstore serving Stumptown coffee.

We met at Chapters.

There’s something about being in the town where I did so much growing up and learning that really helps the stress fall away. It’s like being there puts me back in that optimistic, excited mindset I cultivated during my college years. Being back felt like putting on a comfortable, well-worn coat, formed to your own particular shape through years of use.

It’s thoughts like that which make me feel a bit more like a hobbit than anything else.

So we talked. Well, I talked for the most part, it felt like. Stress does that to me. She was good-natured and let me go on about how I felt like I needed to solve everyone’s problems, then told me the obvious thing I needed to hear:

“You need to prioritize. Take care of your own problems first.”

Well yes. Of course. How silly of me.

After that I went wandering around campus a bit.

For all the griping I do with students and former students about the university’s various idiosyncrasies, there really was something good there. It was a time before the wisdom of the present, before the future got written and called the past. It was a place of bright-eyed idealism and Quakerly concern about the world. It was also a crucible for my ideas and my dreams, a place where I was melted and formed and re-formed.

Was it unique? Sure, but everything is unique when rightly seen. Was it for everyone? Hell no, not by a long shot. But it is my alma mater, and I find it comforting.

I left Newberg and got ready to face the week.

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Weekend in Richland

In Travel on December 20, 2010 by ryepdx

(Note: As always, names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

At the end of the first week of being unemployed, I took a road trip with a friend from my Freshman year in college, Jane, and a friend of hers from the college she now goes to, John. We drove to Richland, Washington to meet with a mutual friend of ours.

His name was Bartimaeus, or Bart for short, and he was blind. Well, legally blind. He could see things well enough to pretend he wasn’t blind, but his glaucoma had left him unable to read anything in 12 point font at a distance of more than three inches away. This, of course, did not stop him from riding a bicycle to work every day, nor from running cross-country on a regular basis. He had never really bought into, as he put it, the “blind cult.” He had the scars to prove it, too, the most impressive one having come from impaling his leg on a bit of re-bar left sticking out of the sidewalk his Junior year in college.

He worked up at the Pacific Northwest National Lab, doing research for the U.S. Government. Most of the stuff he was working on he only had a partial understanding of; as a recent college graduate, his security clearance was not yet very high. Still, it was obvious that whatever he was working on was very, very cool. Technology research for the U.S. Government is rarely otherwise, I imagine.

Jane, for her part, was doing a paid software engineering internship for Intel, while John was in school to become an industrial engineer. I was among my people, my nerds. Actually, as a nerd I was outclassed in every way. I was a web developer, primarily, and math had never been my strong suit. Bart, on the other hand, had double-majored in computer science and math. Not only that, but on the exit exam all computer science majors are required to take before graduation he had gotten the best score in the history of our school, and had placed in the top 2% nation-wide. The summer we were both on campus working on our respective Richter research projects, I witnessed him devour a book on abstract algebra. Last I had seen him he had been teaching himself quantum physics. Since then he had apparently moved on to tensor theory. He’s the sort of person who gets depressed if he’s not learning something new about mathematics. I’m worried about what will happen if he finally learns it all.

John and Jane were by no means intellectual slouches either, though my grasp on their respective intelligences was a bit vaguer than the one I had on Bart’s. All I knew was that they were able to keep up with Bart when he began talking math, which, to be fair, was not all that often. More often than not the conversation was filled with Brian Regan and Futurama references.

We jammed a bit and I was somewhat impressed with Jane’s guitar skills. She played classical style, whereas I have always been more of a strummer. Bart joined in with his djembe and his electric drum set. He also was quite good, though this was no surprise as I had heard him many times before. After we had been jamming for a while, he gave Jane and I a couple impromptu drumming lessons. Jane picked up paradiddles and flams faster than I managed to, and I was left wondering what I was doing pursuing music full-time when I was so outclassed by these people for whom music was only a hobby.

I began to wonder if I was short-changing myself, or short-changing the world. I realize that there are not many people who can manage working with computers and technology for long periods of time. There’s a reason there’s a labor shortage in the science and technology sector. Am I better suited for that world? I began to wonder. Would I be doing more to affect the world by working to advance science than I could be doing as a musician and writer?

For it seems to me that both practical and aesthetic considerations must be addressed. For the aesthetic is practical, speaking to the emotions and affecting most of the decisions we make. Forgive me, you pure artists, for I do measure the value of a thing by its usefulness. In this respect I am a scientist, or at least an engineer. But I do believe it is a noble and useful pursuit to encode and direct the values of society through art, to engage people in thought that goes beyond the day to day matters of survival. I believe that is a privilege we have as a population that has advanced past the bottom rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy. We can address the higher rungs and look further into the future toward a bright and dazzling horizon, or toward our own doom if we are not careful.

Yet all our flights of fancy and cultural dialogue is for naught if the foundation which we build on is ignored. Without science, without engineering, we would be much more stuck in the mire of our physiological needs, much more concerned with our own hunger than with the hunger of our poorer neighbors. We as a species would be hard-pressed to advance, for peace is hard to come by when life itself is violent. There could be no working middle class as we know it now, only the working poor as there was in the past. There could be no social conscientiousness, no green movement.

There is some irony here, of course, as most of the problems these movements address have been caused by the same scientific advancements I am lionizing, but I do posit that the overall wealth of the human species has been increased by the augmented efficiency of labor resulting from those advancements. This increase in wealth has in turn freed us from having to always worry about ourselves and allowed us to worry more about getting along with others, as well as the direction of our advancement. Thus I would argue that the advance of science has been, on the whole, positive.

And here I come back to art. For without art there would be no dialogue about getting along with others, or about the direction of science’s advance. Art is, for me, the dialogue culture engages in. To be always engaged in that dialogue is, I think, what it means to be an artist. And so which is more important? They are symbiotic. Am I short-changing myself then, by trying to carve a path of my own? Am I short-changing the world by refusing to commit whole-heartedly to either art or science?

By carving my own path I must try to walk a line that straddles both. The point for me, I realize, is not to be entirely an artist or entirely a scientist but something between the two. This is, after all, what it means to be myself. It means I must learn to be comfortable if I don’t fall neatly on one side of things or the other. It means I need to find a way to make that work, sure, but there’s no reason to think that it won’t. It means I must find a way to live creatively.