Life

2020 Resolution: Coin Flips

I’ve got plenty of dreams and goals for 2020 but I’m coming around to the idea that New Year’s resolutions are most effective when you only have one of them, and when it’s something achievably specific that you very much want to do but still wouldn’t do in the absence of a commitment. I succeeded in leaving Facebook in 2019 and that’s due, in large part, to it being my only New Year’s resolution, one that I publicly committed to here on this blog, on Facebook itself, in real-world gatherings of friends, and even in a podcast.

So here’s my resolution for 2020. Every time I’m about to browse the internet with no specific objective, every time I’m about to check email or news or Twitter “just to see what’s going on,” I’m going to flip a coin. If it comes up heads, I’ll continue. If it comes up tails, I’ll log off and spend an equivalent amount of time reading a printed book or magazine. Any session of aimless internet browsing usually lasts longer than five minutes (often way more), so when the coin comes up tails I’ll commit to reading printed material for at least five minutes.

Why am I doing this? Two reasons. One is to get better control of my time. Aimless internet browsing sucks up a lot of time. A lot. At the beginning of 2019 I wrote about my habit of checking news. Through the year I managed to stop checking news on my phone, and I decided to keep my phone out of my bed, meaning that my phone is no longer the first thing I interact with when I wake up or the last when I go to sleep. So that’s great. But I still work in front of a computer and check news a lot.

The second reason is that I’ve got a lot of paper books that I want to read. Maybe I’ll get that reading done if I reallocate half of my “random internet browsing” time to the task? I have a good friend who runs a decluttering business and I hired her to help me with my own decluttering needs in 2019. I gave away hundreds of books that I had been carrying around for twenty years. I was forced to admit that I just wasn’t going to read them. But there were fifty or so that I couldn’t let go of, and now they’re stacked in piles in my hallway. If something doesn’t change in my life, if I something doesn’t direct my attention to these books in waiting, I know they’ll either sit around for another twenty years or I’ll get fed up and “declutter” them as well. So maybe this coin-flipping resolution will be the change that helps.

If you ask me what I’m really looking forward to in 2020, I’d say I want to write a lot of songs, perform them at open mics, compose more canons, sing with friends, keep up my exercise routine, visit family, reconnect with poetry, write more essays, take more photographs and display them, go to more comedy shows and maybe even take an improv class, travel to a few interesting places, get more involved in climate activism…

But getting better control of my browsing habits is something I both want to do and need the help of a resolution to do. So, 2020 will be a year of coin flips.

The resolution starts now, Jan 8 at 4:45pm as I’m about to publish this post. Usually after “getting something done” like a blog post, I’ll reward myself with a break, and that break might likely be… random internet browsing. This time, I’ll flip a coin first… doing it now… and it came up tails!

Songwriting

Writing Songs Backwards

The most daunting obstacles we face in beginning any creative project are often the ones we place in our own way. In working on songwriting in the past few months, I’ve found myself getting tripped up by own my ideas about how a song “should” come into being. Like many people, I have a stereotype of songwriting as a kind of emotional outpouring. Someone’s passionately in love, but they can’t express the feeling in ordinary words, so they sit down and write a love song. Someone’s outraged by an injustice, but they can’t fix the injustice on their own, so they channel their outrage into a protest song. The writing starts with a powerful emotion or a deep-seated conviction, and everything flows from there. Words are written that express the songwriter’s inner thoughts, a melody is formed that captures the songwriter’s mood. I’ll call this a “forward process” because everything moves forward from the songwriter’s initial inspiration, be it a feeling of love, despair, joy, or rebellion.

In a few special moments, I’ve experienced the “forward process” working as described. I knew what I wanted to express. I felt so deeply in touch with my feelings that when I put my pen to paper, the lyrics seemed to flow effortlessly, and when I touched my guitar and started to sing, I could quickly find notes that matched. The problem is that most of the time, this doesn’t happen. I’ll have worked at my day job all day and managed to carve out an hour or two in the evening for songwriting. When that time comes, I’m not feeling a sense of communion with my emotional self. I know I want to write a song, but there’s no upwelling of sentiment that would propel me along. I’m not sure what I’m feeling at all, aside from tired. What I know is that I’ve got a block of time to make some progress on songwriting. I could give up and try again the next day, but the next day might bring the same situation. If songwriting is about expression, how can you work on it when you’re not presently haunted by a feeling that you need to express?

Because I’ve tended to think that songwriting should start with a strong emotion or conviction, I’ve spent a lot of unproductive songwriting time waiting for such an emotion or conviction to spontaneously overtake me. But what I’ve come to realize is that a “backwards” songwriting process can work just as well as a “forwards” process. In the backwards process, you don’t start with emotion, you just start with the technical nuts and bolts. You begin assembling the song without knowing what it’s going be about. If you’re not feeling a surge of inspiration, you allow yourself to proceed mechanically. A song needs some chords, so you pick some chords. A song needs a tune, so you choose a few notes that work over the chords. A song needs some words, so you create some nonsense lyrics – total gibberish is fine – that seem to go with your tune. Now what you’ve got is a little something. It’s more than nothing. You sing it to yourself a few times. You notice a way to make the tune a little more interesting. You notice a way to make the chord progression a little more fluid. As you sing through the temporary lyrics, perhaps you get an idea for a meaningful phrase that could replace some of the gibberish.

You still don’t know what the song is going to be about, but now you’re in motion. The trick is to stay in motion, to keep making these little adjustments until a direction for the song becomes clear. If you persist with this mechanical tinkering, you’ll reach a point where you know what kind of song it’s probably going to be – maybe it’s starting to sound like a love song – but perhaps the details – who’s in love with who – aren’t known yet. There’s still no wave of inspiration to propel you forward, so you force yourself to make an arbitrary choice: you’re going to be singing to your high-school sweetheart. (While I hesitate to suggest forcing anything, sometimes force is indeed necessary to overcome inertia.) Perhaps, at this moment, you’re not feeling a great sense of affection or longing for your high-school sweetheart, but you’ve made the choice to write about him or her, so you go ahead and construct some lyrics about the relationship that the two of you had. A few hours later, perhaps this direction still feels like a struggle, but now you’ve got some material to reflect on. Instead of staring at a blank page, you’re now looking at a page with scribbles. Maybe you realize that the whole thing can be restructured, not as a song about your high-school sweetheart, but as the memory of a home or other place that you left and were never able to return to. So now you begin draft two, completely new lyrics, the high-school sweetheart goes away, a few more modifications to the tune, a different strumming pattern, and you keep going.

What’s remarkable about the backwards process is that if you persist, all this mechanical experimentation can result in something that you begin connecting with, even though that connection was not present at the outset. The first stages of the process may feel soulless, as if you’re just pushing words and notes around without any guiding force, but eventually you land on something that surprises you. The words, melody, and chords start taking effect, like the ingredients of a magic potion. You had been coldly assembling a love song, and you had thought that no good song could come from such a passionless process, but at some point you sing it and notice that it does something. You think, “Wow, that’s a pretty good love song. Where did it come from?” Or, “Wow, that’s a horrible love song but there’s one phrase that really speaks to me.” Your initial challenge had been that you weren’t feeling an emotional thrust to guide you forward, but now, this thing you’ve created starts to arouse your feelings in unexpected ways. The song begins to wake you up as it wakes up. And now that this waking is underway, you can try to tune into the components of the song that speak to you most powerfully, expand upon them, and use them to set the direction for your next revision. With your feelings aroused, you can now follow more of a forward process to bring the song to completion. A process that began mechanically can be carried onward by the heart.

In summary, if inspiration isn’t there to guide you at first, forget about inspiration. Force yourself to make something, anything, not knowing what it’s going to be about. Then notice your reaction to what you’ve made. Perhaps, even though you constructed the thing mechanically, an aspect of it happens to move you. (If nothing about it moves you, keep tinkering with it until something does.) Now tune into this aspect that moves you, and proceed from there.

Leaving Facebook

Exodus Almost Complete

Imagine I told you that I could flat-out solve the problem of staying in touch with the people you care about? I know that you know hundreds of people from different times in your life, and I know that you can’t keep track of their contact information, let alone find time to check in with them periodically. Well I’m going to make it easy for you; I’ll take all the work out of it. I’ll apply my secret powers to serve you as your one and only social information broker. I’ll make information about your friends’ lives flow to you, and I’ll make information about your life flow to them. It’ll be great. You’ll know what they’re up to, all the time, and they’ll know what you’re up to, all the time. But there’s a catch. Without explicitly requiring it, I’m going to encourage you to check in with me a few dozen times a day. Without explicitly demanding it, I’m going to persuade you to dedicate hours and hours of your week to me. And while you’re coming to me for information about your friends, I’m going to show you a few advertisements and notifications. Yes, I’ll let you know how your college classmate’s cancer treatment is going (second round of chemo for Stage IV cancer) but before I tell you that, I’m going to ask you if you want to buy a wristwatch, and after I tell you that I’m going to see if you’re interested in taking a trip to the Bahamas. I’m going to tell you about the death of a beloved former co-worker (tragic heart attack while on vacation) and give you a chance to say something about it, but while you’re grieving, I’m going to flash some notifications in your face (a few people are sending you messages right now, someone else “likes” a joke you made earlier, and I’m still wondering if you want to buy that wristwatch or go to the Bahamas). I’m going to give you a chance to read a friend’s review of a fascinating book about the future of democracy, but while you’re reading that thoughtful and lengthy review, I’m going to give you the opportunity to watch a video of a boxing match, if you prefer; or a video of some models on a catwalk, if you prefer; or a video of cats being silly, if you prefer. I’m going to show you a photo of a beautiful cake that your loving grandmother just baked, but before and after I do that, I’m going to show you some hateful and false things a few of your friends are saying (meanwhile, I hope you’ll consider that wristwatch). And as all this is happening, I’m going to keep careful notes about everything you do and say in my presence. Every time you ask me for more information about something, I’ll make a note of it. Every time you react to something I showed you, I’ll make a note of it. Every time you say something to a friend through me as your broker, I’ll make a note of it. I’m going to take all those notes about you and sell them to some friends of my own who are very curious about you, but don’t worry about them, I assure you they have your best interests at heart. Are you interested in that wristwatch, by any chance?

That’s why I left Facebook. I closed my account on Dec 13, 2019, two days after my Farewell, Facebook post. I was going to keep it open for a few more days but a friend posted a playful comment questioning whether I was really going to leave. I took this as a challenge. Of course, Facebook tries its best to lure users back and doesn’t make an account deletion permanent for thirty days. So I’m still in purgatory as I type this. That’ll end on Jan 12, 2020.

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Addendum: the reason why I chose to use a wristwatch ad as an example in this post is because I recently learned the tongue-twister “I wish to wash my Irish wristwatch” and challenged a friend to say it. Shortly after he said it aloud, he started seeing Facebook mobile ads for wristwatches, for the very first time. This suggests a new tongue-twister:

I wish to wish to wash my Irish wristwatch, risking not my wishing’s watched.

 

Leaving Facebook

Farewell, Facebook

Dear Friends,

If we were connected on Facebook, I will miss our connection there.

Some of you might remember that my New Year’s resolution for 2019 was to permanently end the exploitative relationship that I’ve had with Mark Zuckerberg since 2009 (hint: I’m not the one who’s been doing the exploiting). I gave myself until December 31, 2019 to close my Facebook account, and that date is rapidly approaching.

I will honor the resolution in the coming days. I will do so with great relief, but also with a sense of loss. I’ll be losing a way to stay in touch with many of the people I care about most, and a way to connect with many of those I’d like to know better. Perhaps I will be losing more than I gain, and certainly it would be easier to cop out and keep my account open, but that’s where resolutions come in handy, and I know I made this one for good reasons.

I’ve been preparing for a while. I’ve seen a lot of people get fed up with Facebook and abruptly close their accounts, an action that I fully understand and support. But I wanted to be more deliberate about my own departure. I wanted to take some time to review my decade of Facebook history, clear it out post by post, and try to preserve a bit of it here on this blog. You can find much of my old Facebook material by clicking here (all of it all has the #facebook tag). I’ve also written a bunch of posts about my departure process. These posts can be found in the Leaving Facebook category on this blog.

How to stay in touch? Since you’re reading this blog, you can of course message or follow me here on WordPress. I have a gmail account and my address follows the format first.last@gmail.com — send me a note. I’ve created an account on MeWe. I’m not sure how much I’ll use it, but it’s there. I’m @rudiseitz on twitter. My music is up on my Bandcamp page and there are a few other tracks on my soundcloud. I’ve got some random photos up on my flickr and a few videos on my youtube. I contribute limericks to OEDILF under the username Rudi, and I once founded a wordplay website called Quadrivial Quandary that’s now somewhat dormant and awaiting a revival. That’s my online presence in a nutshell. I live in East Boston, MA, USA overlooking Boston Harbor and listening to planes take off and land at Logan Airport. If you don’t know me: I’m a self-employed software developer and musician.

Facebook has given me a lot. Thinking only of my musical life, there’s so much. It was through Facebook that I met the collaborator who would perform my canons on harpsichord and clavichord. It was through Facebook that I learned about a Dhrupad retreat with Pandit Nirmalya Dey that I attended in India, leading later to the maestro’s performance in Boston. It was through Facebook that I learned about a workshop on composing with Indian percussion that led me to write a concerto for tabla. And it was through Facebook that I heard of the New England Songwriter’s Retreat with Ellis Paul, the event that made me realize I want to be a songwriter.

Facebook is where I’ve connected with friends and classmates from my distant past and in some cases, where I’ve received in disbelief the first announcement that someone I cared about had passed away. Facebook is where I’ve gotten to witness my friends brainstorming, quipping, sharing intimate thoughts, details of their recent meals, travel adventures, reactions to world events, advice on life and where to get a good drink. Facebook is where I’ve come across the best articles, the best music clips, the best local events. Facebook is where I’ve followed some great and inspiring activism like Warren Senders’ Man With A Sign project to raise awareness about climate change.

But I became paralyzed on Facebook. I couldn’t post anymore without thinking about how my data was being collected, packaged, monetized in ways not transparent. I couldn’t click the “like” button without thinking about how my likes were helping Facebook build a better profile of me, not for my own benefit but for that of third parties unknown to me. I couldn’t scroll around without remembering that Facebook tracks my mouse movements. I couldn’t give myself to Facebook without thinking about how the platform has become a conduit for misinformation and hate. I stopped posting, but I kept reading. And yet it didn’t feel right to see my friends pour their hearts out there while I remained silent, too suspicious of the platform to engage with even their most impassioned posts. It was time for me to leave. It is time for me to leave. I’ve written about this here and I spoke about it in an episode of the Soonish podcast with journalist Wade Roush, who left Facebook earlier this year and inspired my own departure.

There’s got to be a better way for humans to experience connection and community in the digital age. A better way than the one Mark Zuckerberg has sold us. Here’s to finding it.

Rudi

 

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I started photographing trail blazes a while back. As I looked for an image to accompany this post, the one above struck me as right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life

Old Beer Labels

I was sorting through old boxes yesterday — part of recent decluttering kick — and I came across a folder of beer labels: Tucher, Paulaner, Chimay, Affligem, Kirin, Pete’s Wicked Ale. They’re from a time in my teens when I was discovering the world of beer, a world that seemed so new and exciting to me that I would soak each empty bottle overnight, peel the label off, dry it on a paper towel, and then transfer it to a scrapbook so that I would have a record of my journey. After a year of doing this, I stopped. The collection never became the comprehensive journal that I imagined it might be, but still I felt attached to it, so I saved it. It stayed with me through many apartments, many jobs, many phases of life, in storage, entering my awareness once every five or ten years during a move, accompanying me all the way into my forties.

Yesterday I managed to throw it out. Finally. Here’s why it took so long:

Over the years, whenever I thought about throwing the labels away, I would remember my former self, the person who decided to start the collection. I’d remember his optimism about the future, his faith that these mementos he was saving would be wanted and appreciated indefinitely, that they would stay useful as triggers for recollection. I’d think of that kid who diligently preserved each label as if to assemble a gift for the person he was going to become. I’d imagine how disappointed he would be to learn that his older self would have no use for the gift. I’d imagine how crushed he would be to know that the romantic image of his older self fondly flipping through the collection and experiencing a surge of delightful memories would never, in fact, materialize.

I’d feel so mortified at the thought of letting my younger self down that I’d play a game of sorts, pretending that I still wanted the labels as he would have wanted me to. I’d reason that it wouldn’t hurt me to humor him, to put the labels back in a storage box, put the box in my attic, keep it a while longer.

Something changed yesterday. I tried an experiment. The experiment was to imagine my future self, the person I’ll be in ten or twenty years. What is my attitude toward that older person? Would I want him to faithfully preserve all of things he inherits from me? Would I want him to live in my mess? Would I want him to slavishly attend to all of my unfinished projects? Would I expect him to value everything I value now? Or would I want him to be free to seek fulfillment in his own present, unencumbered by the stuff I’m passing on to him?

I realized that my message to my future self, if there were some way I could convey it to him, would be this: “Go for it, guy. Do what you gotta do. Enjoy the time you have. I hope you’ll remember me. I hope you’ll feel connected to me. But don’t overdo it. I give you full permission to throw away every single thing I acquired, and to stop any project I started if it’s not helping you be whole.”

I’m not sure my teenage self would have formulated the same thought, but I’m sure if I could talk with him for a little while and explain some of the things I’ve learned over the years, he’d be on board with the message too. And he’d be happy that I finally got rid of those beer labels.

Photography

Jul 2 Fireworks

After years of photographing Boston harbor fireworks from my vantage point in East Boston with short exposures, I finally decided to work on the long exposure technique. Boston’s July 4th fireworks happen over the Charles River but this year there were also July 2nd fireworks over the harbor as the conclusion of Boston HarborFest’s Parade of Lights.

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Music

Canons 81 and 82

Announcing two new Canons, #81 “Selenite” and #82 “Kyanite.”

These pieces were written as an exploration of the rhythmic pattern of 8 pulses divided as 3+3+2.

One place where I had encountered this pattern before is the bluegrass guitar crosspicking pattern: down-down-up, down-down-up, down-up. Another place it appears is in the final piece of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos which uses the mixed time signature 3/8+3/8+2/8 — and that’s the choice I made here.

As these pieces came together, I noticed I could feel the pulse in two different ways. It’s possible to count in eight notes “ONE-two-three ONE-two-three ONE-two” which matches where the accents actually fall in the music. But since we have a total of eight eighth notes, everything fits into a 4/4 measure. In fact, it’s possible interpret the pieces as being in 4/4 and count quarter notes “ONE-two-three-four”, in which case you’ll perceive a syncopation where the accented third beat of each 4/4 measure comes early. Here’s the rhythmic figure that occurs at the beginning of both pieces, written two ways:

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Selenite and Kyanite are related by more than their rhythmic pattern: they emerged from different versions of the same outline. Selenite is a canon at the second above; Kyanite is a canon at the seventh below. Both pieces have a two-measure delay and are 21 measures long. They are dissonant canons that emphasize minor sevenths, major seconds, and perfect fourths. Instead of aiming for uniform dissonance, however, both pieces have consonances interwoven among the dissonances, aiming for some sense of tension and resolution. In these pieces I was guided by my ear and a certain sound I wanted to achieve, as opposed to any systematic policy for making contrapuntal choices; still, the question of whether something was “admissible” mostly seemed clear to me and I did not feel much uncertainty in deciding whether a particular idea fit into the sound-world I was trying to create. The one point that did cause me some questioning was the treatment of parallel fifths and octaves. Selenite took shape as one of my canons where the sound of parallel fifths is embraced; I assumed Kyanite would be the same but later I found myself editing out the many of the parallels that I had included there. Why did the parallels seem to belong in one piece but not the other that’s so similar? I have no idea.

When I finished writing Selenite I tried to swap the top and bottom lines but the result was not convincing. This surprised me because I had earlier tried inverting the skeleton (the initial outline that I used for the piece) and I liked how it sounded. Sometimes, but not always, when the skeleton for a piece responds well to inversion, the finished piece does too; in this case, it didn’t. I looked for ways to edit the inverted piece to make it work, but didn’t get very far. I felt there was still some material worth exploring, so I decided to write a new piece from the inverted skeleton. I wondered if the new piece might pair well enough with the first piece that they could live together as sections of a larger piece. But the new material turned out to be different enough that I gave it its own name, Kyanite.

I think of these as modal pieces. In Selenite, the leader starts in C Dorian, makes an excursion to C Ionian (with a glimpse of C Lydian) and returns to C Dorian. In Kyanite the leader starts in Bb Dorian, makes an excursion to Bb Lydian to Bb Ionian, and then ends in Bb Mixolydian. In both pieces, the follower uses a different mode that has the same note set as the leader. So in Selenite, for example, while the leader is in C Dorian the follower is in D Phyrgian.