Mental Checklist Goblin Deathtrap

I want “busy” to die. “Busy” destroys people. “Busy” is the reason I wake up feeling tired. It’s the glorious drug of distraction and the ubiquitous excuse for masochistic scheduling.

I’m not talking about “having a lot of stuff to do” or “working non-stop from morning to night” because I do those things. I love those things. It’s that “busy” feeling that I hate. The one that keeps you from taking a break, eating outside or stopping in for a random chat.

Well friends, I captured a brain demon of “busy” today! I figured out one of it’s evil tricks! Maybe it’s attacked you too? I call it the Mental Checklist Goblin Deathtrap. It goes a little something like this:

I was in the shower this morning, which usually represents a peaceful, creative cocoon wherein I can relive my flying dreams or think I sound good singing Johnny Cash. When all of a sudden pop Oh, I need to send an email to a student about their schedule. pop pop Oh, I have that presentation this Friday and I need to print out some script sides. pop pop pop Shit, I haven’t emailed my group yet, I need to remember to bring that script to class and shit, we’re out of milk! pop What time is it? pop Oh, I need to send an email to a student! pop um…have I washed my hair yet? I don’t remember…

This is what an attack of the Mental Checklist Goblin Deathtrap feels like. Let’s see what we’ve accomplished:

1. Ruining a potentially relaxing moment alone.

2. Getting stressed out about all the projects I need to do.

3. Not actually moving forward on any of said projects.

Basically, I run through my brain, gathering little ounces of stress from all my to-dos – which leaves me no closer to getting anything done – rather it adds an extra pound of unneeded stress to my day. So now, not only do I have a lot to do, I also feel “busy”. Consequences of “busy” include being a little colder to everyone, getting annoyed at unimportant things and a having lower threshold for achieving a truly bad day.

This might not happen to you. If so, awesome! You are either a) smarter than me or b) reveling in the fact that you aren’t in graduate school.

If it does happen to you, you’re in luck! Because I figured out how to avoid the Mental Checklist Goblin Deathtrap! Check it out:

Step 1: Write tasks down.

Step 2: Remember that you wrote tasks down.

Step 3: Tell yourself that you have enough time to get everything done (this isn’t a lie, you really do have enough time, I promise)

Step 4 (optional): Sing Johnny Cash.

You might need to figure out some steps on your own. They might include deep breaths, some sort of tea or a different iconic country singer, but those work pretty well for me.

In the end, “busyness” may be an inextricable part of being close to the fire, but I hope not. “Busy” should not be a way of life. It’s a plague wrought from insatiable distraction and instant communication. The Mental Checklist Goblin Deathtrap is a terrible little minion that we can kill together! It’s not much, but I need to level up before I enter the Bayou of the Impending Apocalypse or the Giant Fortress of Existential Angst.

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Mental Checklist Goblin Deathtrap

“Sounds Amazing!” (I secretly hate you)

When I was a kid, I was not competitive whatsoever. I was ecstatic playing youth soccer not because of the sport, but because it gave me an excuse to run around. For some reason, it isn’t a big deal if you run around with a bunch of other kids on a field, but it is a big deal if you run at top speed down a grocery aisle dodging shopping carts and old ladies. Wednesday evening was soccer evening and my time to run. And run I did.

As time passes, and I’m considering what I want to be when I grow up (after the ubiquitous fireman, astronaut, and paleontologist phase) I ask myself, “what can I do so I never have to compete with anyone ever and can just revel in excitement and awesomeness? Of course! (my naive, prepubescent brain divines) The arts!

I held on to that dream for a long time.

But now, in graduate school for theatre, among so many talented, well-connected, entrepreneurial colleagues, the veneer of idealism has dissolved, leaving me with a…well, rather undesirable quality. I have resentment.

Perhaps it was my naive upbringing or my not-so-subtle inferiority complex (call it little-brother syndrome) that now puts my resentment so harshly into focus. There are times, my worst times, when I am mad that anything cool in the world is happening without me. Even some hypothetical artist who I’ve never met, with their hypothetical good art and their hypothetical praise making some hypothetical money just makes me want to kick their hypothetical ass. Even a slight comment about someone else’s work going well can set me on a full existential tailspin.

Am I that self-centered? Am I that thin-skinned? Do I not annoying preach to anyone who will listen that self-confidence, daring and enthusiasm are the life-blood of creation? So when I get angry about others’ success, I get angry at myself too. At my hypocrisy and egotism.

Now, this anger is not who I am. I’m not an angry person. I’m a terribly happy person. So why does this happen?

Um, I really don’t know. That’s too hard to answer.

But I can imagine my ideal:

Ideally, I genuinely celebrate every artist’s success. Art is a really, really hard field to get paid in. It’s fraught with pitfalls, tension, depression and self-doubt. The creation of art is a celebration of human achievement and connection – an act of impossible communication – a desperate shout into the abyss of the human condition and a thin echo reverberating back through the void.

So why does it have to come with jealousy and resentment? Has my craft been commodified? Am I a business competing with other businesses? Is this what being an artist is really about?

Asking that feels like a kid asking his parents about death.

For every ten critiques, we only remember one compliment. For every ten beautiful pieces of art we create, it only takes someone else’s better one to make us forget them.

I don’t want to live in that narrative.

I want to be running on the soccer field. Kids score goals, teams win and lose…but all that’s grown-up stuff. I just want to grab all my friends, look across the field and run headlong into the wind.

“Sounds Amazing!” (I secretly hate you)

Getting close to the fire

I live with approximately one thousand paradoxes in my brain. I want to do more, I want to do less. I want everyone to like me, I want no one to know me. I want to be good at music, I want to stay bad at music so I’m not obliged to ever do anything of good musical quality, ever.

But there is this one paradox that defines me. A paradox that trumps the rest: I want to be close to the fire, I want to run away from the fire.

Let me explain.

Symptoms of being close to the fire (in chronological order):

First, there’s awkwardness. You march into situations you know nothing about, not sure what you’re ready for or what will happen. This includes: being in a place where you don’t speak the language, agreeing to do something you don’t know how to do, breaking the rules for a reason that’s apparent to only you, creating any type of art. The fire can get awkward really quick and it’s usually terrible.

Then suddenly, euphoria! This usually happens if you live in the awkwardness long enough to be fulfilled. Don’t ask me how it works, but if you run toward awkward situations, you usually discover something vital. Don’t ask me what. How should I know? The euphoria is the best part of being close to the fire.

After euphoria you get good old depression. That big discovery you made has faded, or you figured out that it wasn’t real (or for us artists, it was “cliche” or “not your best work”) or you just need to do the dishes again. What the hell? I thought this big euphoric moment would mean I wouldn’t ever need to do the dishes again! Oh I do need to do the dishes? Now? Okay…

Then it starts all over again.

Boldly go toward awkwardness, find total euphoria, loose total euphoria. That’s the fire cycle. It’s a total roller coaster of mood swings, existential crises, enlightenment and lots of awkward failure.

I want that. I LOVE that. I’m in theatre because it’s the art form that, to me, emphasizes the roller coaster. You work on a project, it gets awkward and unintelligible, there’s a euphoric breakthrough, then the show closes and you curl up with Netflix and whiskey, feeling like you’re a worthless human being.

(There are plenty of theatre artists, I’m sure, that have figured out how to make work without going through all this. I sure haven’t.)

So…the thing is…there’s this other thing I want too. I want to be far away from the fire. Which looks like:

Having peace of mind. So you need to do the dishes? No big deal. Just feel the warm water, breathe, maybe listen to some amazing music or awesome podcasts. Take a long walk without music, just thinking about, well I don’t know what you think about, but I tend to think about space, robots and trees. Peace of mind is where you can really figure out how to be a good human being. Or not even that, maybe just a human being. It’s nice.

But then there’s the sense of uselessness. I don’t know if you suffer from this same blessing/curse but if I just sit around being at peace with myself, I don’t feel like I’m doing anything. It gets a little cold when you’re away from the fire. The dishes get done, but in the grand course of humanity, that really isn’t enough, right?

So you distract yourself by watching other people who are living close to the fire. People living close to the fire are super interesting! They make art, they try stupid things that fail, their lives are full of drama. From the child cooks competing on TV to the esoteric playwright who produces shows in his living room – I could be entertained my entire life by these people. I could do the dishes, cook my food and watch the people close to the fire.

So there’s the other cycle. Peace of mind, followed by a sense of boredom/uselessness which is cured by art and entertainment. That’s what it’s like away from the fire.

Me? I want both. If I live in one cycle too long, I crave the other. I’ve tried to solve this couple different ways, all of which fail.

I try to live close to the fire, while pretending I’m not. This usually means creating art, but not listening to what other people think about it. I reject critique – positive and negative alike – because critique reminds me that I’m close to the fire! This pretense takes a lot of mental acrobatics and usually ends with me walking away from the fire.

I’ve also tried to live far away from the fire, but pretending I’m warm. This means I start projects, but never finish them. Excitedly email people about setting up meetings, but dreading them when they come. I pretend I’m on a big adventure, when really I just want to do the dishes and listen to Ira Glass.

That’s my ugliest and most wonderful paradox. Running back and forth, getting cold and getting burned, trying to pick up everything I drop along the way.

Getting close to the fire

15 feet or 15 minutes?

This is my first post.

Okay that’s enough of that, let’s get to it.

What do you value more, your time or your space? As we barrel through the information age, it feels like we’ve lost our sense of space, while our sense of time has been exhaustively sharpened. Efficacy and has been traded for efficiency. It doesn’t matter what we do, just that we do a lot of it very quickly. Our bodies cannot keep up with our brains and our brains cannot keep up with our computers.

I am a terribly impatient person. The internet has blurred the line between virtual information and my physical experience. If I have an idea, I get frustrated that I can’t manifest it instantly. I have no time for meat space, I want only the techno-core, the matrix, the infinity of the screen. Neurons click and fire with silicon transistors and I want to sing the singularity symphony.

But what is this body I am in? What is this space I am in? Haven’t we transcended this yet? This input/output device that houses my brain seems terribly inefficient and smelly. Can’t I upgrade to a different model? Maybe one that can interface a bit more efficiently than these ten flailing meat stumps and this complex tracheal wind factory.

We are creatures of space and object, not just screen and byte. But there are those things that live on the edge. My phone is no longer an object – it is a conduit of information. I keep it in my pocket, I touch it more than I touch anything else, I caress it, I gaze into it, I put it on my nightstand as I fall asleep and it sings me awake in the morning. But as soon as I get a new phone, this thing I’ve carried with me for 2 years is immediately forgotten. No ceremony, no decorative wooden box or detailed urn. I have my new conduit, my new “phone.” It is no longer the object ‘phone’, but the concept “phone.” It feels like I’ve always had my “phone”, even though I’ve had 5 ‘phones’.

How do I see myself? Do I still have a ‘self’ or have I become the concept “self”? I’ve uploaded my experience into the Google oversoul, to mix and mingle with all the other uploaded “selves.” If I spend all my waking time plugged in to the “self” what of myself is left? Pooping and eating, to be sure. Walking sometimes. Talking sometimes. Sex and tomatoes. Coffee and naps.

Suddenly, to me, the most simple art has become the most necessary.

Put a rock on a pedestal. Holy shit, I’m hooked.

Stand onstage – curtain up, curtain down. Whoa, that was deep.

I don’t want to explore the world we’re in, I want to reject it. I want to smash the hard drives, crack the screens and go live on a farm somewhere. The last bastion of necessary space. Grow lettuce in a server rack. Butcher a copy machine. Set a campfire of silicon and fiber-optic.

So for me, I like “15 feet.” My world runs on “15 minutes” but I’m trying to remember what space feels like. Just sitting and taking up space – I need that kind of profound simplicity more often.

15 feet or 15 minutes?