A week-long road trip with the kiddos means this is the first minute I’ve taken all week to write in my diary. My wife’s at the wheel and I could be sleeping or gazing out the window, but here I am, writing, and blogging about writing. (On my phone, no less.) It never ends… but soon this tour will.
This week my family visited the studio of artist John T. Unger in Hudson, New York. John is an old friend of mine, and he makes an appearance in my past three books. (The acknowledgements in Steal, and quoted in Show and Keep Going.) This was the first time I got to visit him since he moved upstate about half a decade ago.
John is probably best known for his firebowls, which are featured in fancy places all over the world. Here’s a pile of negative steel scraps from his cuts. (John’s so good even his by-products are works of art.)
But most exciting and illuminating for me was seeing his newest project — his anatomical mosaics — in person. (Featured recently in The Smithsonian and Atlas Obscura.) John told me about his plan to recreate Eustachi’s drawings in stone years ago, and I must admit, I thought it sounded like a quixotic task. These things simply must be seen to believed.
I love a lot of John’s work, but I can’t say enough good things about the mosaics. You can tell that John is firing on all cylinders with this work, pushing his sharp mind and skills to the edge. What was really cool is spending the afternoon in John’s house, looking at his previous work, and realizing that a lot of the DNA of the project is contained in earlier work. For example, take another look at the firebowl scraps and then look closely at the ear in the mosaic above — a very Unger-esque shape!
Another stunning thing about the works is their scale — these suckers are big! They’re almost overwhelming in person, and I can’t wait to see a whole room full of them.
John likes to say, like a lot of artists, he never really grew up. We had lots of fun together: playing his detuned honky-tonk piano, chasing his cats, and visiting his favorite quarry near the house. (He even threw together a mosaic starter kit for my six-year-old.) Here he is, dreaming of trespassing:
If you are a museum curator or gallery owner, trust me: you are going to want to get involved with this work. More here.
At the Chicago Public Library stop of the Keep Going tour, Eddie Shleyner asked me, “Do you ever feel like no matter how much work you do, you can or should be doing more?”
He recorded my answer:
“Yeah, always. If you get into that productivity trap, there’s always going to be more work to do, you know?
“Like, you can always make more. I think that’s why I’m a time-based worker. I try to go at my work like a banker. I just have hours. I show up to the office and whatever gets done gets done.
“And I’ve always been a time-based worker. You know, like, ‘did I sit here for 3 hours and try?’ I don’t have a word count when I sit down to write. It’s all about sitting down and trying to make something happen in that time period — and letting those hours stack up.
Filed under: time
Sometimes the retirement of my pocket notebook is more bittersweet than finishing one of my diaries, because I carry my pocket notebook with me constantly and I fill fewer pages every day, so it’s with me a lot longer. (More about my notebook turducken.) This one had a particularly good guardian spirit:
I swapped hot pink for electric blue. The new one starts with a clipping of the 4-H pledge:
Every time I start a new notebook there’s that little ping of excitement: What will I fill this with?
This weekend we took the boys to Severance Hall to see Saint-Saëns’ “The Carnival of the Animals.” Even with the crying babies and restless children, Charles Bernard’s cello solo during “The Swan” was so beautiful one of the Labèque sisters even re-gifted her bouquet of flowers to him after the performance.
I love the story behind the music:
In 1886, the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, licking his wounds after an unhappy concert tour and balking at completing his majestic Third Symphony, retreated to an Austrian village to write “Carnival of the Animals.” The suite of instrumental miniatures playfully evokes a menagerie of creatures, while also poking wry fun at the music of its day. The piece delighted the small circle of friends who heard it, but Saint-Saëns, fearing for his serious reputation, forbade its publication until after his death.
The one piece from the suite he did okay for publication during his life, in 1887, was “The Swan,” in an arrangement for piano and cello. Here’s a performance by Yo-Yo Ma & Kathryn Scott:
I may make this a thing.
“Everything is within walking distance if you have the time.”
I’m skeptical of nagging technology and tracking technology, but my Fitbit has kept me from turning into a gigantic lump on book tour. Here’s David Sedaris in his essay, “Stepping Out,” collected in Calypso:
I was travelling myself when I got my Fitbit, and because the tingle feels so good, not just as a sensation but also as a mark of accomplishment, I began pacing the airport rather than doing what I normally do, which is sit in the waiting area, wondering which of the many people around me will die first, and of what. I also started taking the stairs instead of the escalator, and avoiding the moving sidewalk.
The other morning I hit 10,000 steps before 10AM. I took a walk along Lake Michigan and decided to walk to my train at Union Station.
You hit 10,000 at 10AM and you can feel smug for the rest of the day!
“We do not know today whether we are busy or idle. In times when we thought ourselves indolent, we have afterwards discovered, that much was accomplished, and much was begun in us.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience”
During several interviews on this tour, I have joked about how enormously lazy I really am. During a phone interview yesterday, Daniel Boscaljon lightly pushed back. As an article in Psychology Today put it, “Laziness should not be confounded with procrastination or idleness.”
I’m a big fan of productive procrastination: a kind of promiscuous working in which I procrastinate on one project by working on another, sometimes switching between two or more projects until all the projects are done.
I’m also a practitioner of intentional idleness: blocking off time in which I can do absolutely nothing. (Like Terry Gilliam, I would like to be known as an “Arch Idler.”) “Creative people need time to just sit around and do nothing,” I wrote in Steal Like An Artist. (See Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing, Robert Louis Stevenson’s An Apology for Idlers, Tom Hodgkinson’s “The Idle Parent,” Tim Kreider’s “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” etc. )
Finally, I’m a huge believer in the benefits of boredom.