I doodled this checklist after seeing a Goethe quote that pops up from time to time: “one ought every day at least to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.” Sounds good to me!
Funny thing is, Goethe never spoke or wrote it as actual advice — it’s a line of dialogue by Serlo, a theater manager, in his novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship:
[Serlo] was wont to say: “Men are so inclined to content themselves with what is commonest; the spirit and the senses so easily grow dead to the impressions of the beautiful and perfect, that every one should study, by all methods, to nourish in his mind the faculty of feeling these things. For no man can bear to be entirely deprived of such enjoyments: it is only because they are not used to taste of what is excellent, that the generality of people take delight in silly and insipid things, provided they be new. For this reason,” he would add, “one ought every day at least to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.”
Serlo’s advice is about appreciating, not creating, which is one reason why I like it so much — appreciating (input) is the first step towards creating (output), and too often today we emphasize output over input.
Goethe himself doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who would make a checklist for his input, and especially not his output. The entry in Daily Rituals tells us that towards the end of his life he wrote in the morning, “when I am feeling revived and strengthened by sleep and not yet harassed by the absurd trivialities of every day life,” but he felt that he couldn’t get much done if he wasn’t feeling inspired, or was in an unproductive mood: “My advice therefore is that one should not force anything; it is better to fritter away one’s unproductive days and hours, or sleep through them, than to try at such times to write something which will give one no satisfaction later on.”
This is quite different than the common advice you hear from writers today (myself included!) who admonish us to write a little bit every day no matter what, although, there are some wonderful modern writers, like Marilynne Robinson, who are “incapable of discipline”:
I write when something makes a strong claim on me. When I don’t feel like writing, I absolutely don’t feel like writing. I tried that work ethic thing a couple of times—I can’t say I exhausted its possibilities—but if there’s not something on my mind that I really want to write about, I tend to write something that I hate. And that depresses me.
(“That work ethic thing”! She’s so great.)
Productivity and creativity often get confused — anybody who has done creative work knows that good ideas often come when one is least productive. Everybody does it differently: some writers need inspiration before they sit down, and some writers need to sit down for the inspiration.
What seems universally true is that we could all use a little song, a good poem, and a fine picture in our daily routine. (Speaking a few good words seems entirely optional.)
Art Levy heard me on KOOP 91.7’s show Free Samples (thanks, Matt!) and asked me if I’d come in and record an hour-long DJ set for My KUTX. It was so much fun. I love listening and playing music, but rarely get to write or speak about it, and this is the first time I’ve done any DJing except for a short-lived radio show I had in college.
You can stream the set online, or, if you’re in Austin, you can listen live this Saturday (2/11) at 6PM central on 98.9.
Here’s how cartoonist and teacher Paul Karasik ended his lecture “How To Read a Comic” yesterday:
“Here’s the only thing you need to remember from this talk: ‘Study something you love to death’—I mean ‘depth’! [laughter] ‘Study something you love in depth.’ I just gave you an hour, so tonight give me 45 minutes. Spend 45 minutes tonight studying something you love. Watch the first five minutes of your favorite movie 7 times. You will notice new things.”
In this short Life that only lasts an hour
How much – how little – is within our power
Here’s the original, from the fantastic book, The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems:
“Sometimes we are so confused and sad that all we can do is glue one thing to another. Use white glue and paper from the trash, glue paper onto paper, glue scraps and bits of fabric, have a tragic movie playing in the background, have a comforting drink nearby, let the thing you are doing be nothing, you are making nothing at all, you are just keeping your hands in motion, putting one thing down and then the next thing down and sometimes crying in between.”
“I tell my piano the things I used to tell you.”
Wake is such a perfect word for the moment. Wake: a watch, a vigil, after something has died. Wake: a trail of disturbed water left by some unstoppable craft. Wake: the aftermath. Wake: to stir, to be roused from sleep.
In the wake of all of this, I’ve been trying to stay away from Twitter, trying to visit the bliss station, trying to be alone with my thoughts. But my curse is that I can’t seem to have thoughts without speaking them. I need to speak to think and to know what I’m thinking. This can be potentially disastrous in public, and in private, it puts an undue burden on my loved ones, because conversation is like the mood slime in Ghostbusters: to speak thoughts is to transfer thoughts, and the listener, no matter what, always absorbs something. (Why else are shrinks so expensive?) My wife and I try to save our conversation for the open air on our morning walks, the idea being that most of any bad energy we release will be carried away by the wind. But it doesn’t always work out that way. And, for both of us, as much as we want to stay light, to be the light or reflect it, our thoughts have, not inappropriately, gotten darker in the past months.
So I’ve been spending more and more time in the pages of my notebook. Talking in black ink. Letting the pages absorb any poison. Scratching out thoughts if I can’t stand to look at them. Underlining the thoughts I want to save, to share, maybe even, God forbid, tweet.
It’s a simple idea that I said over and over on the journal tour: a notebook is a good place to have bad ideas. It’s also a safe space to share your secrets. To think the unthinkable. To say the unsayable…
If you’re struggling, too, consider getting a paper notebook. (I’m happy to sell you mine, but any cheap drugstore one will do.) Spend some time with it every day. Fill it with your bad thoughts, your bad ideas. Tell it all the things you shouldn’t tell Twitter. It won’t judge you, troll you, or talk back to you. It won’t spy on you, ping you, or notify you. When you’re done with it, you can burn it for heat, or you can save it for your children, so they know what it was like.
(A page from The Steal Like An Artist Journal. Perhaps I should’ve added “jailed” or “deported.”)
A few nights ago, I was looking at the moon and I thought, “I’d like to read a cultural history of the moon.” I googled, and there it was. My friend Matt said, “Ideally, that is exactly how one should find everything they read… and write.”
It’s really that simple. You find the books you want to read… and if you can’t find them, you write them.
I know I’ve said it before, but now I have a flowchart for the rest of my life.
- Mozart’s clarinet quintet in A major.
- Taking a walk every morning because demons hate fresh air.
- Discovering and researching unschooling. Roberto Greco’s fantastic Tumblr and Pinboard archives. The work of John Holt, his books How Children Learn and How Children Fail, his 55-year-old journal entry, his thoughts on the true meaning of intelligence and how babies are scientists. John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down. Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s Teaching As A Subversive Activity. Lori Pickert’s twitter. DH Lawrence on how to educate a child: “Leave him alone.” Manifesto of the idle parent.
- Mulatu Astatke, Ethiopiques, Vol. 4.
- Moving into a new (old) house in the suburbs. Watching the rain from the front porch. Magic in the back yard. Fixing the 40-year-old whole house radio. Taking instruction from our old ovens. Playing hide and seek in the yard. Drawing in chalk on the driveway. Lying in a hammock in the back yard. Looking out the window while doing the dishes.
- Still working in a garage, but an insulated, fully A/C-ed one. Looking through my notebooks. Setting up a bliss station.
- Doing my part to destroy that dumb cliché, “The enemy of art is the pram in the hall.” Trying to copy how my 3-year-old son makes art in the studio. His lettering. The way he copies signs. His art. Making masks out of Trader Joe’s bags. Collaborating. Baudelaire’s quote, “Genius is nothing more or less than childhood recaptured at will.” Toddler color theory. Do A Dot Art Markers. Crayola Slick Stix. Mid-century photos of children making art at the MoMA. Paul Klee’s handmade puppets for his son. Darwin’s children doodling on the back of his manuscripts. A fifth-grader’s cure for writer’s block.
- Practicing piano. Satie. “My Favorite Things.” Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones.” Vince Guaraldi’s “Skating.” Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debbie.” My son finishing the high E in “Fur Elise.” Pulling up Shazam, playing nonsense on the piano, and seeing what it matches. “Pianovision,” Chilly Gonzales’ word for videos of piano players shot from above.
- Filling the house with music. My oldest son requesting the 5th symphony on our walks. (Later, my youngest son singing it. “Duh duh duh duuuuh.”) Drawing musical scores. Reciting the narration from Benjamin Britten’s “A Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra” by heart. Singing all 9 minutes of Van Morrison’s live version of “Caravan.”
- Plain ol’ family life. Doing obsessive dad things like inflating the tires and breaking down boxes for the recycling. Sending my son out to get the Sunday paper. How old toys that disappear for a month become new toys. My wife comparing parenting to being a green screen puppeteer. Coming up with dumb parenting lines like, “Dad is one letter away from dead” and “You can’t spell family without FML.” Complexity. Nailing down what we expect.
- Michael Chabon on taking his son Abe to fashion week in Paris.
- Hearing Delta 5’s “You” on the radio and discovering that every time I play it my youngest son squeals with delight and starts dancing. (The way he stomps to Caspar Babypants’ “Stompy The Bear”!)
- Small victories. Sleeping through the night. Eating dinner. Not hitting your brother. Pooping on the toilet. Indoor voices. Learning to whisper.
- How Ed Emberley clears his mind.
- One-star Amazon reviews.
- Photos of people reading my books and my art in the wild. Seeing blackout poems in the classroom. (So many!)
- Finding these huge decades-long books of Peanuts daily strips at Costco and reading them at breakfast. This website on the the use of Beethoven in Peanuts strips.
- Schumann’s “Ghost Variations.”
- The martian landscape of Odessa from a plane.
- Strawberry rhubarb pie.
- Watching Road Runner cartoons with my sons and then seeing real roadrunners out on our walks. Suburban Texas wildlife. Cicada shells everywhere. Squirrels judging me. Deer looking at me like I’m an asshole. The Texas Mountain Laurel blooming in March. Junebugs kamikaze-ing into the windows. Fireflies! The neighborhood guy with huge parrots and a COME AND TAKE IT flag. My son literally having ants in his pants. Biggie Smalls on why he wouldn’t move to the suburbs.
- Rooting for escaped animal stories.
- Getting a projector, making an A/V cart, and watching movies huge on our bedroom wall. Awesome old movies, like Ball Of Fire, Laura, and The Palm Beach Story. New-to-us stuff. What We Do In The Shadows. Chef. Ex Machina. Enough Said. Iris. Love & Mercy. Weiner. Spotlight. The Big Short. Vernon, Florida. Old favorites, even better than we remembered. Chinatown. Stop Making Sense. Grosse Point Blank.
- Seeing movies at the Alamo Drafthouse, solo, or with a friend. Hell or High Water.
- @NitrateDiva on Twitter.
- Finally taking the Black Friday bait and getting the Seinfeld box set.
- Reading comics when nothing else feels right. Chester Brown, Mary Wept Over The Feet Of Jesus. Daniel Clowes, Patience.
- Finding books that my kids love that I love to read, too. Jon Klassen’s Hat Trilogy. Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad.
- When my wife says, incredulously, “You’ve never seen [X]?” and then watching X and loving it. (This year: You’ve Got Mail.)
- Beethoven’s late string quartets and sick burns.
- Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlists.
- Taking things apart to see how they work. Showing my son the piano’s guts.
- Walking the riverwalk from the San Antonio public library to the art museum and all the way up to the zoo.
- The Bill Murray method of drinking champagne.
- Chance operations. Throwing dice. Turning the dictionary to random pages. John Cage, Silence. Tossing coins and consulting the I Ching. Getting a Rider tarot deck and pulling cards. Jessa Crispin’s The Creative Tarot and her tarot newsletter.
- Collecting envelopes with security patterns.
- Reminding Siri to take revenge on my sons in 30 years.
- Standing in the Costco produce fridge in August.
- Accepting that creativity has seasons. How somebody asked Marcel Duchamp what he was working on and he said “just breathing.” George Carlin on taking time to figure out what’s next. Figuring out what I’m really working on.
- Robert Irwin’s hat: “High mileage, low maintenance.”
- The brief return of @JennyHolzerMom.
- Stress relief. Getting overwhelmed and watching a live-stream of the “bear cam” in Katmai National Park, Alaska. Replacing the doorknobs in my old house, one at a time, as needed, whenever I was losing it.
- Long-neck ’ritas.
- Calvin Trillin’s question, “Did you clean your plate?” The chicken-fried steak at Jim’s Restaurant on 71. The sides and fried chicken from the Golden Chick next door. No line at Rudy’s BBQ. Chinese delivery.
- Desire lines.
- Saying “it wasn’t for me” and moving on.
- Discovering the work of William Steig, especially his book, Shrek.
- A terrific story about typewriters.
- Wasting time, even though you know there’s not a lot of it. Joe Brainard’s “People Of The World: Relax!” World of Tomorrow: “Do not lose time on daily trivialities.” Hagakure: “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily.” Jim Harrison: “‘The danger of civilization, of course, is that you will piss away your life on nonsense.”
- Putting on an art show at Mule Design in San Francisco. Lunch at House of Nanking. Staying at Wendy and Caroline’s place, warming up by the firebowl. Walking around Potrero Hill. Talking to a fellow dad from Texas in Christopher’s Books. Lunch by the ocean with Ted. Lying on a couch in Wendy’s studio overlooking the bay, reading David Hockney’s Cameraworks.
- The word “nitwit.”
- Reading about con artists. Steering clear of the exact recipe for remaining a horrible person forever. Finding lessons about dealing with Nazis in books as different as Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes and Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe.
- Turning to poems. Maggie Smith, “Good Bones.” Philip Larkin, “The Mower.” Allen Ginsberg’s “America.” Emily Dickinson’s “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark.”
- The work of Ursula Franklin. The Real World of Technology. The Ursula Franklin Reader: Pacifism as A Map. Her idea of society as a potluck supper—we all bring our best dish.
- Garry Shandling saying, before he died, that America needs to hit rock bottom. Morris Berman’s bleak trilogy about the crumbling of the American empire: The Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America, and Why America Failed. The future politician at the playground shouting “This is my territory!” but it sounded like “This is my terror tree!”
- Taylor Swift summing it all up: “I would very much like to be excluded from this narrative, one that I have never asked to be a part of.”
- Turning your eyes into a sewage treatment plant. Finding inspiration in mundane retail spaces. Pee-Wee Herman on his favorite Walgreens. Andrew Bird on finding inspiration in Costco. Zan McQuade on how to learn to love the mall. Fast food joints as third spaces.
- Good albums. Finally getting that Frank Ocean record. Solange’s A Seat At The Table. Lambchop, FLOTUS. Frank Sinatra, In The Wee Small Hours. Brian Eno, Before and After Science. Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker. Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book on a flight to Chicago.
- The Ohio Players.
- Ali Wong: “I don’t want to lean in, I want to lie down.”
- Chappell Ellison’s weekly twitter roundups, her Cartoon GIFs twitter, and epic thread of her favorite Vine videos.
- Being completely sucked into the voice of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. Her interview with the president.
- Good TV. Atlanta. The Americans. Mozart in the Jungle. Fleabag. Silicon Valley. Soundbreaking. Fargo. Catastrophe. Better Call Saul. OJ Simpson: Made in America. The Night Manager. Chef’s Table France. The Great British Baking Show.
- The Longform podcast.
- Moonlight. Getting out of bed to take a leak and seeing the moon out the bathroom window. The moon through binoculars. Can, “Moonshake.” Looking up at the stars as often as possible. Watching meteor showers in the courtyard. Looking for the moon, and my son saying, “The moon isn’t awake yet.” My son seeing the supermoon and saying, “Papa, the moon looks like the sun is shining!”
- All the other beautiful, grumpy, wacky things my son said. The musical threats. “I’m gonna put a bow on you and string you like a violin.” “I am going to beat you like a percussion instrument.” The insults. “You got a big ole butt!” The exclamations. “Electricity is coming out of my penis!” “I used that rock as a toilet!” The complaints. “I can’t walk. I’m out of walking steps.” “I don’t like sunscreen. I don’t like anything.” “I want to fight this drawing.” “We’re not going anywhere today all the places are closed.” “No tub time! I’m working on my book.” “Get out of here! Leave me alone! No talking during the symphony!” “I want to go back in the house. My music is killing me.” The observations. “The toilet in the lunch store was not so loud.” “This place smells delicious!” “I don’t like the grocery, but I like Papa’s studio.” “Mama, I have an idea in my head!” “Harmonicas are in the woodwind section, papa.” “Thunder sounds like kettle drums.” Seeing his first remote-controlled car: “You move it without your hands!” Seeing an old movie: “The pictures are black and white and silver—not colored in.” Training him to say, when he sees an ad on TV, “They’re trying to sell us something.” The time he said, “I want to disappear!” and my wife said, “Join the club!” The time I played him “777-9311” and he said, “Is this jazz music?” The time I asked him if he thought Beethoven drove a pickup truck, and he said, “No, he just played the piano.” The time I asked him if he wanted to go to the fire station and the candy store and the bookstore and he said, “No, papa, there is work to do.” The time I asked him if he had a good morning and he said, “The morning is still going.”
The way he, a native Texan, says words like “hair” with two syllables. The questions. “What music is mama going to listen to on her way to the grocery?” “How did you make this lovely dinner?” “Can you tell me what I want?”
- The meatloaf dinner at 24 Diner.
- Hong Kong french toast.
- Avoiding human vantablack.
- Recording on my old Tascam 424 four-track cassette recorder.
- Carving pumpkins.
- Shrimp and grits.
- Walking through the airport with Miles Davis’s “Solea” on my headphones and feeling like the baddest ass alive.
- The soundtrack of Stranger Things. Discovering the Austin synth scene. Visiting the store Switched On. SURVIVE. Xander Harris.
- Fred Rogers on why you’ve already won in this world.
- Nathaniel Russell’s fake fliers.
- Cartoonist Liana Finck’s instagram.
- Mourning Prince with these amazing mixes of deep cuts. Mourning Bowie with all the guest DJ sets, like Iggy Pop’s.
- Great songs, old and new. Leonard Cohen’s “Is This What You Wanted?” Wilco, “Impossible Germany.” Grimes, “Realti (Demo).” That vaporwave classic. Sonny & The Sunsets’ “Green Blood.” Jackie Shane’s monologue at the end of “Any Other Way.” Otis Clay, “Trying To Live My Life Without You.”
- Peanut butter shake season at P. Terry’s.
- Good pre-dream reading. Grimm’s Fairy tales. Tove Jansson, Moominland Midwinter. Joy Williams, Ninety-Five Stories of God.
- Seeing the Leap Before You Look show about Black Mountain College at the Wexner. Reading the beautiful catalog. Seeing the Pond Farm exhibit at SFO.
- Finding out the delightful link between two of my favorite books: Studs Terkel’s classic Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do was conceived when his editor read Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? and thought there needed to be a version for adults.
- Watching the World Series with my Cleveland-born wife.
- Meeting people for lunch.
- Losing the afternoon to a long phone conversation.
- Going out once in a while. Beers with old friends in Cleveland. Third row seats at Elvis Costello at the Moody Theater. Mark Mothersbaugh at the Contemporary Austin.
- Talking to strangers. Discussing the Ramones with a panhandler.
- Interviewing Box Brown at Bookpeople. Interviewing a bunch of great illustrators at the Texas Book Festival. Another interview with Chase Jarvis.
- Dismissing the knuckleheads in the Oasis: Supersonic documentary and then listening to What’s The Story, Morning Glory? for 3 days straight.
- The difference between libraries and schools. Visiting the main branch of the Richland Library in Columbia, SC, their amazing children’s room, their new Steal-inspired maker spaces, and revisiting my time as a librarian when speaking at their staff day. Identifying the public library as the American institution I most want to protect and support.
- Scanning my library card barcode and putting it into a Dropbox folder so I’m never without it at the self-checkout machine.
- Sound on Sound Fest weekend. Eating at Curra’s with The Dead Milkmen. Eating so much BBQ with my friend Christy that I popped a button on my jeans and had to go next door to the Elgin Wal-Mart and buy a belt. Visiting my first Buc-ees’.
- My first-come-first-serve barbershop putting up a whiteboard so you can sign in and not worry about who got there before you or after you.
- Re-learning cursive.
- Long emails from retired English professsors.
- Christmas Eve feast of the seven fishes.
- Staying married for 10 years.
10 books I loved this year, in no particular order:
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
I loved this novel, which runs on the voice of the main character, an old preacher named John Ames, who is writing a letter to his seven-year-old son about his life and struggles with his faith. Beautiful book.
Ursula Franklin, The Real World of Technology
A series of radio lectures given in 1989, and yet, 100% relevant to today, as we face the rise of techno-fascism. A book and a thinker I wish more people knew about.
Olivia Laing, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone
A terrific hybrid of memoir and art writing — I particularly loved the sections on David Wojnarowicz and the AIDS crisis.
Steve Silberman, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity
A fascinating history that includes everything from Nazis to Tesla to Rain Man. A ton here relevant to education and parenting kids who think differently.
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America
Some people question how much of this travelogue is true, but who the hell really cares when the writing is so delicious? Steinbeck himself wrote about the impossibility of capturing a nation based on one trip.
Tom Hart, Rosalie Lightning
A devastating comics memoir about losing a toddler, using art to sort through your life, and the struggle of being an artist with a family in America. Amazing feat.
John Holt, How Children Learn
Holt’s work, first published in 1967, had more of an impact on how I parent and how I think about education than any other book I read this year. His message is simple: children are learning animals, and the best way to teach them is to trust them and get out of their way. Still feels radical.
Chris Offutt, My Father, The Pornographer
Offutt’s memoir about his upbringing and his dad’s writing career also functions as a kind of cautionary tale of working from home and making a living from your art. Really great writing.
Jon Klassen, The Hat Trilogy
It’s tough to hit that sweet spot in the venn diagram of books kids love that adults love to read, and it’s just as to tough to wrap up a beloved trilogy. I spent a lot of bedtimes reading these books.
Joy Williams, Ninety-Nine Stories of God
A weird, wonderful batch of super-short stories. Perfect pre-dream reading.
Here are 15 more books I liked, all of which could’ve easily made my top 10:
- Helen Molesworth, Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College, 1933-1957
- Jessa Crispin, The Creative Tarot
- Chester Brown, Mary Wept Over The Feet of Jesus
- Lee Lorenz, The World of William Steig
- John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings
- Witold Rybczynski, Waiting For The Weekend
- Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp: A Biography
- Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Cafe
- Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
- Ursula K. Le Guin, Left Hand of Darkness
- Lynda Barry, The Greatest of Marlys
- Ben Shahn, The Shape of Content
- John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling
- Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity
- Daniel Clowes, Patience