How’s your seasonal moss grooming going? (Above: Gardeners removing undesirable moss at Kenrokuen in Kanazawa.)
As usual, my long ramble (this time on workshops, retreats, and residencies) is back-loaded into the newsletter. Skip as needed. Up front is podcasts, attention, and cameras.
A seasonal note on light (photons): I’m often asked when to visit Japan. Now, I say. Now is the best time. (Oct, Nov, Dec, Jan) For photographers, fall and winter light in Japan is hard to beat. The skies are wide open, a deep blue, clouds scattered, and the sun never rises high enough to burden. Instead, it sits low, elongates the so-called magic hour into hours, fills the city with new volumes, recasts gardens. Because the air isn’t laden with warm-weather particulate, you might even catch Mt. Fuji floating over the city. The Kanto region (Tokyo and environs) never gets too cold, so day-long walks — 20km — following trolley tracks on a clear winter day are some of the best city walks to be had. And fewer tourists. What’s not to love? Highly recommended.
Hurry Up and Focus
I was recently a guest on Jocelyn Glei’s Hurry Slowly podcast talking about attention, maintaining control of it, and learning how to deploy it effectively.
The conversation was an extension of my “How I Got My Attention Back” (Wired) essay from earlier this year, and further discussion of the Vipassana retreat (Roden) back in June. It was a lot of fun (Jocelyn is a fabulous interviewer), I’m happy with how it turned out (unusual), and I’ve been surprised by just how much positive feedback I’ve gotten from listeners (delightful). If any of those essays resonated, or you’re curious about the psychological and physiological unfurling of an intense meditation retreat, this conversation is worth a listen.
Speaking of Focus …
The creative projects / side projects retreat I co-ran with Jan Chipchase — Focus — happened at the end of October. Fifteen attendees from around the world, an old wooden Japanese home (entrance pictured above), big hearts, lots of kerosene to warm the drafty place … I’ll have more to write about this later, but for now, let’s just say: It went better than we could have imagined and we’re presently scheming Focus 2 for next year. Will announce once plans are in place.
Speaking of Side Projects …
Episode 003 of my podcast about books — On Margins — is now live. Wired co-founder (and all around upstanding homo sapien) Kevin Kelly and I discuss traveling through and photographing Asia in the 1970s (can you spot him in the photo up above?), and then turning those tens of thousands of images into his book, Asia Grace, a side project that took about twenty years to complete. As always with On Margins, a full text transcript lives on the episode page.
The Humble Request: If you don’t find my voice repulsive, my words horrific, the world suddenly glum while listening to On Margins, and want to help the podcast out, a review goes a long way: Submit an iTunes review here. Many thanks.
I’m on the road for the next two months, so episode 004 should land sometime early 2018.
I ordered an X (set to be delivered in December) mainly for the camera (and, you know: addiction). But also because iOS 11 has rendered my beloved SE choppy, laggy, has generally scrubbed all usability joy from the little wonder. I already know the X is too big (I had a 6 for a year and then happily side-graded to an SE), but I’m curious about FaceID, and the new gestures and, of course, the cameras. I used a friend’s for a hot second and … I think the thing is a bit too sexy for our own good; I want my smartphones less seductive over time, not more. Plain, boring, invisible, quiet, homely. Which the X is decidedly not. Its whole aura commands gingerly executed finger glides. So it goes.
If you follow along on Instagram you’ve noticed that these days I mainly shoot a Leica M10 paired with a 35mm or 50mm Summilux. Will write up thoughts on how the X slots into my patterns of photography once I have one.
And now for the long bit:
Residencies and work
My years tend to be divided into some ratio of workshops, retreats, and residencies (or “fellowships” as you are a fellow of a residency). I find a lot of my friends and family are baffled by them — how they differ, what happens at each — so I figured others may be baffled, too. Let me explain.
A workshop is where you verbalize, deconstruct, place your heart on a table and see what others think of it.
A retreat is where you disappear from the “real” world, a place of quietude, and in the case of Vipassana retreats, one of total silence.
A residency is a place for you to work like the world is burning, like every second counts, surrounded by others working on equally audacious, often equally non-commercial projects that span years (if not decades).
You abdicate the self and bring work to a workshop in order to gain insight about that work that is impossible for you to see on your own.
You bring yourself to a retreat in order to better understand what may be inside of you.
And you bring a pile of experiences and ideas to a residency in the hopes of transmuting them into text or image or object or melody.
Workshops usually require an application process, cost money, and the acceptance rates can be very low. Some are run by universities (Iowa, famously, for example), others by publishers (Tin House), others by private organizations.
Retreats sometimes require applications, vetting, but not always. They’re mainly constrained by space, and so you may have to wait a while to attend, but can often always attend at some point.
Residencies / fellowships are usually the most selective. The best residencies (Macdowell, Yaddo, UCross, Rome Prize, etc) are either free or pay you money. You are scrutinized by a panel of judges. Acceptance rates are exceedingly low (<10%) across the board. You need letters of recommendation.
The three serve dramatically different purposes. But if I had to choose one and only one, it would be the residencies. A good residency is an amalgamation of the three. Find a trustworthy, kindred soul at a residency and they become a reader, a private workshop participant. Choose to sit at the quiet table during meals, turn off the internet, go dark, and you begin to feel the penumbra of a meditation retreat ease into your studio.
I write this as I prepare to go dark for a month in Chicago during my residency at the Ragdale Foundation. I applied for this residency last year, somehow made it past the gauntlet of judges, and now find myself with time to work spreading out before me.
These are the most important months of the year for me. They are self-care in the form of progress, which for me, is everything — that sense of forward movement on craft and ideas (and from this, one hopes, a betterment (or better understanding, at least) of self, living just one one-thousandth of a degree in a more patient and — heck, why not — more loving direction). I apply to about ten residencies a year and am mostly rejected. Though not always, thankfully. My aim is to have at least one month each year that allows me to go deep in an undistracted way.
The goal of a good residency is to provide “time and permission” to think. I love that framing. Permission to think! What a luxury. What a serious entitlement. Which is why I take these residencies so seriously — not grumpy face seriously, but seriously in that I know my being there is taking away time from someone else (someone more talented, undoubtedly more deserving). So, damn, I see being awarded a fellowship as a tremendous duty to use the time well.
Economist Herbert Simon sums up (with his (in)famous quote) the reasons why I’m so strict about internet use (and general communication) during residencies:
In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.
I’d done a few residencies now and my regimen looks like this:
The internet goes off for the entire residency
If needed, I take notes throughout the day and have Google-only research hours at day’s end
Any tweets that surface in the brain go in a file and — if at the end of the residency they still seem like a good idea — get tweeted in a big batch
I try to run 5-10km a few times a week
Mornings start with breakfast in my studio as opposed to the dining room (I find talking in the morning keeps me from entering “work mode”)
Afternoons are reserved for walks alone or 1:1 walks with other residents to talk about process
Dinners are basically light-touch therapy sessions for us all (in the worst cases they are political boondoggles)
Evenings are sometimes for resident readings (short, usually 15 mins max), or just reading in bed
Ping pong if possible, tremendous amounts of ping pong
Sleep early unless you are on fire and must continue working
I’m probably a bit more monastic than most. And to further compound the asceticism, I’ve had almost no alcohol since May. Yes: I am the most boring human in the world. In part, I’m able to do this because Japan has great non-alcoholic beers (about ten varieties?), assuaging my need to pair a bitter, fizzy drink with certain foods. I’ve found that over the last few years my schedule (involving lots of travel and physical activity) doesn’t allow room for alcohol (my body simply can’t handle the two).
Also, I’m adopted, and don’t know anything of my genetic propensity towards alcoholism. But my empirical life-data shows it’s very difficult for me to have “just” two drinks in a night. So rather than place the onus of not having six beers and three whiskeys a night on myself (a once common amount for me), I just cut the option from the table entirely.
The corollary of the alcohol reduction has been a marked increase in baseline health, and this crazy sense of having approximately 20-30% more life to use. No hangovers, greater focus, more output, more adventures. (This is all obvious to anyone who has stopped drinking, and perhaps just obnoxious to anyone who doesn’t want to stop.)
I do drink during ceremonies — a bit of sake from a shallow sakazuki after early morning prayers at a shrine, a toast at an intimate gathering — and it feels correct, like, yes, this is a good way to use alcohol, the loosening that comes with it while cultivating some (probably overly Puritanical) respect for it. Anyway, I’m a weirdo. YMMV.
Did you make it to the end? Thanks for hanging in there. This might be the last Roden of the year. We’ll see.
For now, I’m going offline. The world may end. My tweets may have saved it, but probably not. (I’m counting on yours to keep evil at bay.)
Instead, I’m off to work on books bigger than a tweet, bigger than a blog post, smaller than a billion dollar company. But books that make me happy and, I hope, when they finally see the light of day, make a few of you happy, too.