# Trivial vs. Deep

Among mathematicians, if I remember what they’re like sufficiently well from my time in grad school twenty odd years ago, it’s common to describe an idea as “trivial” or “deep.” If a claim is trivial – that’s to say, if it’s nearly obvious and mostly unremarkable – it might be called a proposition if it’s lucky, but if it’s nontrivial or deep it might get to be known as a theorem. But even among theorems, there are those that are trivial and those that are deep. When a claim is sufficiently trivial, you don’t bother proving it, you just mutter that it’s trivial, but if it’s sufficiently deep then its proof attains the status of a holy text.

I don’t blame math for this, but I find that the dichotomy of “trivial” versus “deep” colors my thinking about everyday life. Some things I do are trivial and others are deep. Some tasks I undertake are practical annoyances of no lasting significance, and others are opportunities to do meaningful work that might contribute to “the world” in some substantive way.

To give an example, I had to wait at home the other afternoon for a new fridge to arrive. My old fridge had shown signs of approaching death, and its periodic sputtering and banging sounds had jolted me into a project of finding a suitable replacement. This was not entirely a “trivial” project because the dimensions of my stairway (up through which the new fridge would need to be lugged) were quite narrow.

But the whole issue with the fridge struck me as “trivial,” in that my efforts at fridge replacement had no chance of being memorable to anyone in the long run. No one was ever going to remember me for my prowess at getting a new fridge, nor would the world benefit substantively from my having one. This was not my chance to shine in life, it was just a practical chore that had to be completed.

So I felt a little miffed that the pending arrival of the new fridge kept me in a limbo that prevented me from doing anything “deep.” Expecting the fridge any minute, I couldn’t concentrate well enough to write an essay, which might possibly have a favorable impact on a future reader, or to make a new piece of music which would have a nonzero probability of pleasing some future listener. Making new essays, or pieces of music, or photographs – these are things I characterize as “deep,” even if at the moment, I may be only one who cares that I make them.

So why bother writing an essay about Trivial versus Deep? Because I want to escape the prison that it represents.

Replacing my fridge is not a “trivial” thing if I consider that it’s an appliance I use dozens of times a day and it’s actually the most important object in my life that allows me to eat. To have the option of replacing a fridge when it gets old is a pretty special option that many people don’t have–I’m fortunate. And what is a fridge? The temperature in my kitchen could be eighty degrees but inside the fridge it’s thirty-seven? How is that even possible?

And my efforts to replace the fridge, what about them? No, I don’t expect any award. But I had to do some things to make the replacement happen: taking measurements, researching brands, talking with suppliers, choosing among models, following up with the appliance store, paying, scheduling an installation date, being home on that date – I had to be organized and persistent enough to see it through. But if I think of the task as “trivial” I can’t feel proud about any of that.

It’s like that in math too — a point might be trivial, obvious, unremarkable, but you’re using it in your proof of something deep, and without it, you couldn’t prove that deep thing, so maybe it’s not so trivial after all?

As soon as I think of something as “trivial” I start getting impatient about it. I want to get it over with as soon as possible so I can get to the deep stuff. Since I labeled my new fridge as “trivial” I was annoyed that I had to wait around for it. But if I had thought of the fridge as “deep” my experience would have been totally different. I would have felt lucky, blessed to be receiving it.

As an artist, I should want to make art, right? So it’s natural that I’d want to get through with the trivial things that take me away from art as quickly as possible, right? But there’s a danger in this framing.

Art is deep, but many of the things we have to do to make art might seem to be trivial. No guitarist is going to be remembered for his or her prowess at replacing strings, for example. But if a guitarist is too concerned with deep things to give attention to the practical task of changing strings, then every note will suffer as it’s voiced through those old muffled strings that don’t resonate like newer ones could.

If we’re constantly dividing things into trivial versus deep, then we might be relieved when we finally get to focus on the deep task of creative expression, but then that task will surface practical annoyances, trivial things we have to get through so the expression can proceed. We thought we had escaped into the world of deepness but here comes triviality to rear its ugly head.

Calling something trivial has little benefit but significant downside–it diminishes the satisfaction we can get from completing a “trivial” task, it increases the frustration we feel if a “trivial” effort fails, and it blinds us to the consequences of a “trivial” problem. Deep things can masquerade as trivial but if we call them trivial it’s harder to notice their importance.

It’s really better if we don’t divide things in this way. A trivial thing might compound into a nontrivial thing. Like, the exhaust from one combustion engine is trivial in relation to the vastness of the atmosphere, but if there are enough combustion engines doing their chugging and sputtering long enough, that’s not trivial anymore, right?

Life

# May Update

Friends, readers, anyone who stumbles on my blog, here’s a brief update:

• I have new music that I’d love to share with you. My upcoming album Meteorite is a cornucopia of musical ideas that I’ve been developing for the past five years. Perhaps these ideas could excite, challenge, or please your ear as well? You can hear the first track and preorder the album here. It will release this summer and I will post again here when the date is finalized.
• I’ve started publishing guitar improvisation videos. In March and April I posted improvisations to YouTube on a daily basis. The breakthrough was finding a way to transform the material from the experimentation that I’ve been doing on guitar for as long as I can remember into “short stories” that I can conceive and record in under a day, sharing them as little pieces with a beginning, middle, and end. You can follow my channel here. I hope you find something there that inspires you as a listener, a creator, or both.
• In March and April I participated in an online writing challenge/course called Ship30, where I wrote a 300-word essay each day for 30 days. All my essays were published on Twitter. I’ll be getting that material up here on my blog in due time, but for now the best way to check it out is follow me on Twitter and look at my history there. Here’s a summary of the writing theme I’ve been pursuing:
• Many of us are drawn to music and other arts because they bring us joy. We seek fulfillment through creative expression. But the more serious we get as creators, the more pitfalls we encounter. Greater aspirations bring stress, confusion, blockage, and disillusionment. How can we pursue creativity in a way that actually delivers the fulfillment we seek? If art can help us learn about ourselves, connect with others, and experience the infinite or the divine, how can we realize those possibilities, growing as individuals by making art, building community by making art, connecting with “God” by making art? What ideas, practices, and tools can help us stay on track to growing more whole through our creative endeavors?

# 10 Keys to Finishing

I was asked to restructure my last post on Finishing Stuff as a numbered list:

1. It goes without saying that if you want to finish a project, you should commit to finishing it, and you should make this commitment as early as possible. But it’s easy to promise yourself you’re going to achieve a certain outcome and then find, weeks or months later, that the promise was unrealistic: “Oh well.” Instead of an empty commitment, what you want to make is an actionable commitment. Make a promise about how you’ll behave throughout the project. Promise yourself that you’re going to do something – a little something – towards finishing the project every day: not busywork, but work that specifically moves you closer to the end. For every moment you spend envisioning a brilliant outcome, also spend a moment picturing the daily choices that will help you get there. Imagine yourself struggling with a task that’s boring and tedious, but imagine that you’re feeling good about this task because you know it’ll move the project forward. Think of finishing as a mantra, not as a goal that you set once and forget.

2. Strip away any exceptions that might be attached to finishing. Don’t say “I’ll finish if…” but rather “I’ll finish by any means.” Ask yourself if you’re willing to prize completion more than you prize quality. This can be difficult because often it’s the dream of a high quality result that motivates you to undertake a project in the first place. You figure that if the outcome is going to be mediocre you might as well not produce it at all. Realize that this thinking is a trap: it sets you up to never finish. Try to flip the relationship in your mind: it’s not the achievement of a particular standard that should allow you to finish; rather, it’s your commitment to finishing that will propel you to achieve your standards.

3. Consider it your job as a creator or a doer to get past the obstacles of the mind that stand in your way: your own doubts, anxieties, and self-criticisms. Just as you might step around a boulder in your path, remember that you can step around your doubts, then look back at them from a distance: you don’t have to tackle each one head-on. As for whether you should succumb to any particularly convincing doubt: maybe someone else would do that, but you can call yourself a creator because you’re willing to prioritize creation over fear and indecision. Discovering ways to stay motivated — to tap into available sources of optimism — is part of the duty you accept. The people who focus on worrying about stuff instead of making stuff are the ones who aren’t making stuff, but you’re different.

4. Spend more time thinking of what you can do with what you have rather than what you can’t do because of what you don’t have. If you’re not well prepared for the project and the conditions aren’t ideal, then this point is especially important: accept it as your mission to find the hidden potential in your current self, in your existing tools, in your present circumstances. If your shovel’s broken, of course, you’ll need to fix it, or get a new one, but what if you’ve got an ugly shovel that works fine? Use it with pride. You’ve heard of a fancier one that could make you 20% more efficient — should you upgrade? There are no rules, but try to decide as quickly as you can and move on, rather than making a new project of weighing the pros and cons.

5. Identify a consumer or beneficiary of your efforts – whether it’s a large audience, or a single person, or you yourself in the future – and place their interests above your current comfort. Say “It’s more important that they receive the product I’m making than it is for me to feel comfortable right now as I’m making it.” Focus on what you want to do for them and how you want them to feel, rather than on the discomforts you’re experiencing as you work. Think of what they’ll gain if you finish, and what they’ll miss out on if you don’t. Imagine that they crave the thing you’re laboring to offer.

6. Always try to make things easier for yourself. Ask “How can I set myself up for success?” rather than “How can I find obstacles that will provide a good justification for why I didn’t succeed?” When you hit a roadblock, don’t slow down; either keep trying to overcome the roadblock or shift to working on some other part of the project that’s not blocked. Try to get simple things out of the way as early as possible, inching closer to the finish line in any way you can. For example, if you need a title and you can choose it now, choose it now.

7. Try to make the project itself simpler, cutting things out, reducing scope where possible. If it’ll budge, bring the finish line closer to you. For example, if you don’t need a title, don’t worry about choosing one. If you don’t need to write an extra paragraph, don’t worry about what it was going to say. Stay open to the possibility that you’ve already finished. Make a habit of asking whether you can release your work right now, just as it is. If you can’t release it right now, then what can you do right now so that if you had to release it tomorrow, it would be releasable?

8. Be open to executing inelegant hacks that get you to the next step. Take pride in these hacks; don’t feel embarrassed about them. Know that every project requires duct tape somewhere. Your methods of work might be very important to you and to your creation, but don’t let an attachment to any particular method of work stop you from finishing the work.

9. OK, you’re serious about finishing, but see if you can keep a sense of humor and lightheartedness at the same time. Is there anything about your situation that’s a little funny? Is there anything that’s a little fortunate? If you’ve made mistakes earlier in the project, and you’re inclined to lament those mistakes, do the opposite. If you failed at something it means you must have taken a risk, which means you must have had some courage, which you should feel proud about; obviously you survived, so now you have the chance to learn and move on – great!

10. Think of the current project not as your final statement but as part of a sequence of projects that you’ll work on as you manifest your creative vision. If this project isn’t shaping up as wonderfully as you hoped, think of finishing it as a down-payment towards achieving something more wonderful the next time around. Also remember that you won’t actually know how good it is until you finish it and step away from it for a while.

# Finishing Stuff

In thinking about all the projects I’ve started over the years – anything from essays, to musical compositions, to house cleaning efforts, to travel plans – I wonder if there’s a common reason why some of them got done and others didn’t.

The projects I have in mind are my own solo projects – efforts that I undertook by myself – but to understand why these projects succeeded or failed, it’s helpful to consider why a group project might succeed or fail.

When a whole team of people succeeds or fails at achieving a goal and you want to figure out why, you can look at how well they got along, how motivated they were, how clearly they understood their mission, and so on, but perhaps the first question to ask is whether they had a good leader or project manager. Was there someone on the team who took it as their primary responsibility to steer the project to completion? And how skillful was this person in a managerial capacity, whether they called themselves a manager or not?

When you undertake a solo project, of course, you play many roles at once: you’re the person who comes up with the ideas, you’re the person who edits and refines the ideas, you’re the person who executes the ideas, and you’re the person who makes sure that all of these things happen within the time and resource constraints at hand. But you might not put the same effort into each of these roles.

What I realize in considering the history of my solo projects is that there have been some where I accepted the responsibility of “project manager” from the get-go and others where I avoided it. Some projects literally started with my thinking “I’ve got to get this done – how can I get it done?” and others started with my thinking “Let’s explore some possibilities and see how it all turns out.” I’m going to venture to say that the projects where I took on the responsibility of “project manager” are the ones that succeeded, and the ones where I avoided that responsibility… you guessed it. But all of this can be phrased in a way that doesn’t use the term “project manager” at all.

The projects that got finished are the ones where I made finishing a priority from the outset. They’re the ones where I started thinking about how to finish from the very moment I began work. They’re the ones where I constantly returned to the goal of finishing at each step, weighing any choice I might make according to whether it would move me closer to finishing, or further away.

The projects that got abandoned are the ones where I didn’t make an early commitment to finishing. They’re the ones where I started out with a goal like exploring or experimenting or testing the waters, but not necessarily finishing. They’re the ones where I assumed that if I just spent enough time and put in enough effort and gathered enough material, finishing would happen naturally. They’re the ones where I didn’t become concerned with finishing until late in the game, and even then, my commitment was conditional, not absolute: “I’ll finish this if…”

The difference boils down to an active versus a passive view of finishing.

The active view is that you’ve got to work at finishing all the time. Finishing is part of the project, it’s one of the things you grapple with, just like you grapple with the project’s content – the sentences in the essay, the notes in the musical composition. If you’re making art, then finishing is part of the art. A way to finish is part of what you’re creating.

The passive view is that finishing comes about naturally once you’ve put in sufficient time and effort. Finishing isn’t something that you consider or worry about per se; rather, it’s the end state that you reach as a matter of course. If you simply work hard enough on the content of the project, eventually you’ll finish.

Here are some thought patterns and behaviors that typically arise when you take an active view of finishing:

You remain open to the possibility that you’ve already finished. You periodically ask “Can I release this right now, just as it is?” If you can’t release it right now, then what can you do right now so that if you had to release it tomorrow, it would be releasable?

You try to get simple things out of the way as early as possible. For example, if you need a title and you can choose it now, you choose it now.

When you hit a roadblock, you don’t stop or use this as an excuse to slow down; either you keep trying to overcome the roadblock or you shift to working on some other part of the project that’s not blocked.

You always try to make things easier for yourself. You constantly ask “How can I set myself up for success?” rather than asking “How can I identify obstacles that will provide a good justification for why I couldn’t succeed?”

You make the most of the tools you have at hand, rather than wishing you had a fancier shovel. If your shovel’s broken, of course, you fix it, or get a new one, but what if your shovel works fine? You’ve heard of another one that could make you 20% more efficient — do you upgrade? When finishing is a priority, you find a way to decide quickly and move on, with a bias to keeping what already works; when finishing is not a priority, then weighing the pros and cons of any potential upgrade becomes a new project of its own.

When you experience doubt or anxiety, you take it as your job as a creator or a doer to move past the anxiety. If you’re worried about your abilities or about the project’s worthiness, you realize that this worry is an obstacle to finishing, just like any other obstacle, and it’s your mission to get past whatever obstacles come up, including those of the mind. Finding ways to diffuse or defang your anxieties, rather than giving them more airtime and a chance to grow, is part of what you signed up for when you signed up to finish. Finding ways to stay motivated — to tap into available sources of optimism — is part of the duty you assumed.

It can seem mystifying how the same person can be so effective in completing one project but so ineffective in completing another. But the mystery recedes if you look at the strength of that person’s commitment to finishing. If they were committed to finishing from the very beginning, then they probably spent time throughout the project managing themselves: taking stock of their progress and re-calibrating their efforts to give themselves the best chance of reaching the goal. If they weren’t really committed to finishing from the very beginning, then they probably didn’t do any of that until the project had already gone on for a while, maybe spiraling out of control. In both cases, they may have worked very, very hard — it might have felt to them that they were doing their absolute best, working as hard they possibly could. It’s just that in one case, the work was aimed at finishing and in the other case, it wasn’t.

Life

# Thank You, 2020!

There is no question that 2020 was a wretched year for so many people who fell ill with COVID, or lost a loved one to the disease, or lost their livelihood because of it, or suffered from the isolation and loneliness brought on by physical distancing. It was a plague year, and there are many reasons to wish it good riddance. In solidarity with all those who suffered so greatly in 2020, I feel reluctant to say anything good about the year. But when I reflect on all the fears that overtook me in March, I see that none of them came to pass, so I’ve come to think of 2020 as a merciful year.

Back in March I expected that I’d get COVID sooner or later, and so would many of my friends and family members, and in the coming months I’d witness some of them die. I know that these fears of illness and death came true for many people in 2020, but for me they didn’t. As I listened to the news each morning with continuing alarm, hearing that cases were rising, rising, rising everywhere, such an explosion was not mirrored in my own social circle: I know one person who caught the disease and recovered; everyone else in my network stayed healthy in 2020. It’s not fair that some people have the resources to protect themselves from this disease while others do not. But while we should be upset at the social inequities that lead to disparate health outcomes, we can also feel a bit of gratitude that COVID turned out to be more preventable than we initially feared. Back in March it seemed that COVID was an inscrutable and invincible monster. Of course, there are people who took all possible precautions in 2020 and still caught COVID – and there are many whose living situation or occupation or economic circumstances made those precautions impossible. But on the whole, COVID turned out to be a disease that we can avoid by wearing masks and staying apart. That’s better than it seemed in the early days, when we were told that masks couldn’t protect us, and when there were fears that COVID could come in the mail, that we had to disinfect every item that came into our house, that we should shower after going outside, that maybe a neighbor could pass the disease to us through a crack in a shared wall, and so on.

Back in March it wasn’t clear that a vaccine for COVID could ever be developed, and if it could, the experts told us, we might have years to wait. But by the end of the year, several vaccine candidates had been proven effective. Remarkable!

Back in March there was talk of the medical system collapsing, and how care might need to be rationed. If you got sick, they said on the news, there might be no bed for you in the hospital, or no ventilator, or no expert to operate it. Though I didn’t need to see a doctor in those early months, I worried about what might happen if I lost a dental filling that had given me trouble before. Would the dentist see me? And if so, would I be risking my life by going to the office? A few months later, the situation looked very different: with the proper precautions in place, it seemed that routine medical and dental care could be practiced safely. In September, I went in for a regular cleaning without incident, awestruck by normality having my teeth cleaned just like in pre-COVID times. There’s no doubt that healthcare workers were stressed to the breaking point in 2020 and the system struggled with unprecedented challenges — it almost fell down — but the sort of catastrophic collapse that some predicted back in March did not come to pass.

Back in March, it was hard to find toilet paper anywhere in physical stores or online. I tried to order rice and it was sold out everywhere. Rice! I feared that this was just the beginning of what would be a widespread breakdown of global supply chains. In the coming months, I expected I’d have to adapt to a totally different life, one without all of the products and services I had come to take for granted. I’d get a taste of the scarcity that is the norm for so many around the globe. And I’m sure there were many “preppers” who thought their time in the sun had finally come. But while shortages of toilet paper and rice were reminders of our dependency on intricate, precarious, and arguably destructive economic systems, these shortages did not persist or expand in 2020. Toilet paper returned to the shelves in due time. Supermarkets remained open throughout. The status quo resumed.

Back in March, the stock market crashed. There were days when trading was halted on the New York Stock Exchange because prices were dropping too fast. Some of us who fear that the global economy is a house of cards jumped to the conclusion that perhaps it was finally crumbling down. Despite said fear, I had invested my life savings in the market and now I thought I’d see those savings evaporate. But several months later, the market came roaring back, proving either that it is totally disconnected from reality, or that in reality, people were still buying and selling things just as they always had.

Back in March, I feared that the 2020 presidential election in the US would solidify the country’s descent into kleptocracy, autocracy, science-rejection, climate-change-denial, nepotism, insanity, or however you want characterize it, but what happened instead is that we got a bit of a reprieve from that descent.

So when I think of it this way: COVID turned out to be more preventable than we thought, a vaccine came much more quickly than we thought, the medical system and economy turned out to be more resilient than we thought, and the US political system didn’t veer into outright autocracy, I have to conclude that most everything about 2020 came out much better than I expected it to.

So, thank you, 2020! While you were a challenging year for all, and a miserable year for many, you were also a merciful year, considering how much worse you might have been. You made us fear the worst on all fronts but you left us with hope.

# Practicing Optimism

Earlier in my life, in those occasional moments when I’ve felt really dejected for one reason or another, and a friend, listening to the litany of my troubles, has suggested I simply need to have a better attitude, that I should look on the bright side, I’ve usually muttered something to the effect of “You don’t understand.” When I need commiseration or catharsis, it may feel like an insult to be told that I should be more optimistic. Such advice overlooks the details of what’s troubling me and implies that I bear the responsibility for my condition: my real problem isn’t out there in the world, but rather in my mind. If I would just think differently, I would feel differently, and if I refuse to do that, then my suffering is in some sense my own fault.

It’s easy to chafe at such advice, and to reject it, particularly when you feel that the person giving the advice doesn’t really “get” what you’re going through: the confluence of factors outside your control, the unreasonableness of other people, the inescapable thorniness of happenstance.

But whenever I’ve bristled at the idea of looking on the bright side, there’s been a tinge of epistemic hubris in my position: I’m absolutely convinced I’m seeing the truth. The truth is ugly and that’s why I’m sad. To be cheerful at such a bad time would require willful ignorance. Being sad, in this view, is almost virtuous in that it involves a refusal to look away from reality, however grim, and an unwillingness to be duped by happy fantasies. Being sad is being honest.

My stance regarding “positive thinking” has changed in recent years. I’m more open to it, less likely to resist it as I’ve just described. That’s not to say I’m able to transform my perspective from gloomy to hopeful at will, but that I respect those who can pull off such a feat and I believe there’s something for me to learn here.

Here’s an argument I accept: if you walk into a room, you may think you’re seeing the full truth of the room, but of course you’re only seeing the few parts of the room you’re looking at. You could take a photograph that shows light coming in through the windows, and someone viewing this image would sense an airy, welcoming place. Or you could take a photograph that shows dust and cobwebs in an abandoned corner, and someone viewing this image would think the place is cramped and dirty. Is one photograph more honest than the other? No, they are both honest but partial depictions of a complex reality. It’s like this with any situation: where you point the lens makes all the difference. When we feel dejected it’s often because we are pointing the lens at those things that are most troubling to us, ignoring or discounting the possibility that we could point the lens in other directions too.

Photography requires skill that can be developed through practice, and likewise we can practice and improve at finding perspectives that emphasize the hope and promise in difficult situations as opposed to emphasizing only the pain. We can be kinder “photographers” of our circumstances. We can be more receptive to what might be beautiful or inspiring, and less obsessed with showcasing what’s ugly or upsetting. We can do this not by denying reality and embracing fantasy, but simply by changing what aspects of reality we concentrate on.

From those last paragraphs, you might conclude that I have consumed the Kool-Aid of positive thinking, and maybe I have. What made me do it?

I’ll mention one of the moments that brought about a shift in my attitude. It was when a critical care nurse who had just taken my blood pressure, reviewed my medical chart, and interviewed me about my various concerns told me that I needed to be more optimistic to be more healthy. I was not in an ICU; rather, I had signed up for a course in stress management and mindfulness at my local hospital, and I was having an intake session with this nurse, who would be teaching the class. So perhaps it was predictable that she would have said something about positivity. Nevertheless, it was shocking, in a helpful way, for me to receive optimism as a prescription, written by someone I viewed as a medical authority, the same kind of person who would tell you to take an antibiotic twice a day for the next two weeks, and you’d do it without question because you trust her to know what’s best for your physical health.

The nurse gave me an explanation of how thoughts can trigger a stress response or a relaxation response, and how those bodily responses in turn affect our fitness, immunity, and overall well-being. I’d heard such stuff before, but I was ready to be reminded. When a friend blithely tells you to be more positive you can be miffed that they’re not really commiserating with your pain, but when a healthcare practitioner tells you the same, quoting research and invoking the weight of a lifelong medical career, the advice carries a different weight. Where I had always viewed the tension between optimism and pessimism as private matter, a question of personal philosophy, something an individual could reasonably ponder throughout their life, this was the first time anyone suggested to me that one of those stances was an essential component of health, and the other was not.

Another thing that’s affected my outlook is that I’ve gathered enough years to look back on now, more than forty of them, and I can see that my bad moods never got me anywhere, even though in each case it seemed like being sullen was an act of protest, a way of sending a message to reality that I did not approve of its course. The message was never received, not once. I can only conclude that sullenness is not a great way to effect change.

During the nurse’s class, I wrote down my own summaries of points that were made. I’m reviewing them now as I look for wisdom to apply in the time of COVID. On one piece of notepaper, I wrote this:

Contentment comes from believing there is meaning in life and always working to find that meaning. The ability to find meaning is something that can be practiced: you get better at it the more you try. When you’re down, it’s because you’re overemphasizing negatives and ignoring positives – you’re turning away from sources of meaning – it’s that simple.

Is it really that simple? I’m not sure, but I do recognize that the times when my life has seemed the most suffused with meaning are the times when I’ve felt the happiest. I’m intrigued by the idea that a sense of purpose is not a static quality that a person might have or lack but that it is something we can cultivate as an ongoing practice.

I’m tempted to think that “looking on the bright side” is advice that applies to normal times, when you’re basically OK; in times of extreme stress, it might not be practical or reasonable to be optimistic. But I remember that the nurse who taught the class also works with cancer patients, some of whom are at late stages of disease: with only a few months to live, she would say, it’s still not too late to embrace a more optimistic outlook, and doing so could help you make the most of what time you’ve got left. Even if your day was spent struggling with the side effects of chemo, there might have been a moment when you laughed at something or appreciated a kind gesture from a friend. Focus on that moment, and savor it. Give the good things more airtime than the bad things. Doing that can only help you.

As COVID rages, there is a lot to practice. We are cut off from so many of our most natural and familiar sources of meaning. Where we find meaning in physical togetherness, gathering with friends, camaraderie, public celebration, we must now stay home. Where we find meaning in travel, adventure, novelty, we must now stay home. Where we find meaning in live performances, plays, concerts, sporting events, we must now stay home. Where we find meaning in shared meals, we must now eat alone. We can move some of these activities online, but it’s not quite the same. As we lose the social rituals that keep us feeling connected, we may also be losing whatever economic security we have worked to achieve, fearing for our own health and those of our loved ones, and hearing daily reports of illness, death, and systemic dysfunction.

The idea is not to ignore this or pretend it isn’t happening. The idea is not to artificially think cheery thoughts. Rather, it’s to experiment with “photographing” this situation in different ways, holding the camera at angles we might not often think to use. What beauty is still transpiring in the world even as the pandemic expands? What lessons can we learn from the experience before us? What opportunities for growth and change does it present? What meaning can we find in it? Take the time to list possible answers to these questions. Even if you’re not persuaded by those answers, see how many you can come up with.

And now I come to the challenge of practicing what I preach. I will try to list a few things that have been making me feel good or giving me hope in the past few days, and I’ll try to crank the list out in ten minutes, so it’s going to be unpolished:

I’ve had some really good phone conversations with friends and family, especially my mom, over the past two weeks.

I’m glad I developed an exercise routine before the pandemic because it’s serving me well now.

I’m getting reacquainted with my music collection, listening to some albums that I haven’t heard in years.

I’m cooking every meal at home. This is the first time in my life when I’ve sustained a practice of 100% home cooking. Now that some ingredients are hard to get, I’m appreciating each meal more than I otherwise might.

I’ve still got a job. A home. A partner. A life.

I’ve watched some good movies this past week. For whatever reason, I never developed a movie streaming habit; maybe now’s the time to partake (even though, alas, streaming has a hidden environmental cost).

I’m sleeping well again.

My musical collaborator just sent me some fantastic clavichord recordings of some of my new canons. I’m eager to keep working with him and write more canons. Also, to record some of my songs. And start some new musical experiments.

Listening to those few leaders who project competence, composure, and respect for science.

I remember that by staying home, the average person is not only protecting their own health, but the health of all of us. Our isolation is a social gesture, an act of solidarity. We’re saying inside for each other.

My ten minutes is up.

# Stalling Coronavirus

Coronavirus has thrown lives, governments, and markets into a state of uncertainty, but our moral obligation in this time is certain.

It’s natural that many people are evaluating their personal risk, asking the question “Will I die?” In an attempt to calm the public, authorities keep saying that anyone who’s young and healthy will, for the most part, experience mild symptoms. This reassurance steps over the fact that almost everyone who’s “young and healthy” has a dozen friends and loved ones who are not young and not healthy, and if the “young and healthy” people catch the virus they can transmit it to those who aren’t. To put it bluntly, if you get the virus as a young and healthy person, you might not die, but you might contribute to someone else’s death. Therefore, everyone should see it as their moral obligation to avoid catching the virus for as long as possible, not only to protect their own personal health, but to protect the health of those who might inadvertently catch it from them.

There has been a lot of talk about the death rate. It’s important to understand that the death rate depends on the availability of care. If the virus is allowed to spread quickly, hospitals will run out of beds, health care workers will run out of protective gear, and critically ill patients will die because they could not be treated. But if we manage to slow transmission down and “flatten the curve,” we can buy time for hospitals to ramp up capacity, aiming for a scenario where even as the number of cases grows, everyone is able to receive the care they need.

Once you see the connection between the death rate and the availability of care, it follows that each of us has some agency over the death rate. We can help to reduce the death rate by not catching the virus ourselves, or at least by delaying for as long as possible that unfortunate time when we do catch it, keeping those emergency rooms available for the people who most desperately need them.

In life, there are so many gray areas, so many debatable points, so many requests made of us which we might accept or reject according to our own value scheme. But I feel that what the current situation demands of each person is crystal clear. If each one of us can save lives – maybe one, maybe a hundred, maybe a thousand — by not becoming a carrier of this virus, then the only moral course of action is to do everything we possibly can to avoid becoming a carrier, starting now.

Of course, we can’t see the virus and can’t fully control whether we’re exposed or whether we expose others. But there are things we can do. The easier ones are washing our hands, keeping our hands off our faces, covering our coughs, disinfecting surfaces, and avoiding large crowds. Experts say we’ll need to do harder things too — we’ll need to practice extreme social distancing – we’ll need to stay home whenever possible, despite all the hardships it might entail. If we’re employers or event organizers, we’ll need to enable others to stay home. And if we’re the neighbor or friend of someone who doesn’t have the resources to stay home we must look for ways to help them out.

Should we stay home even if our own town hasn’t been placed on lockdown? As I write this on March 11, 2020, the entire nation of Italy is on lockdown but in the US it’s still business as usual in many places. We are starting to see cancellations of major conferences, cultural events, and political rallies; we are starting to see school closures; and the first containment zone has been established in the town of New Rochelle in New York. But elsewhere you might look around and never know that a pandemic is underway. Should those of us who haven’t been told to stay home do so anyway?

I’m not an epidemiologist or an expert in public health. But there are experts who say we should be as proactive as possible, shutting things down and staying home before the first cases are discovered in our area. (See this interview with Nicholas Christakis, for example, or this Atlantic piece titled Cancel Everything.)

In two weeks we will have a better sense of how many transmissions are occurring in the country right now; in two weeks we will probably wish we had done more, two weeks ago, to stop those transmissions. So let’s start doing everything we can now — before our government gives us the order — to protect each other.

# 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!

# 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.