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BlowingItUp

blowingitup
Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen: Truth and the Two Soldiers (1891)


"Blowing It Up Better."


I consider it to be perfectly normal to start off in the wrong direction. We are, after all, human, and humans have always excelled at heading off in some wrong direction, often for the very best of reasons. Anyone, at any time, remains perfectly capable of making just such a mistake. The only question might be how long it will take before one notices and takes corrective action. Any of an array of familiar responses might emerge whenever a human finally notices their error. (A different set appears when we notice someone else in error.) Some will attempt corrective action, just as if the fix should not require any major course correction, though if one's headed in the wrong direction, it might well require anything up to and including a one hundred and eighty degree deflection. I usually manage a fix in more like a dozen similarly wrong-headed attempts at correction.

The issue at hand rarely seems to be a question of intent.

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Anticipations

anticipations
Edouard Manet: Le ballon [The Balloon] 1862


"Who's to say my Anticipations don't create my future?"


Success must surely be at least ninety percent Anticipations. We more often see what we believe than believe what we see. We might be incapable of moving cleanly into any future, each future first manifesting in Anticipations of what might be seen. It might be most common for one to anticipate worse rather than better. I know that I usually first feel a foreboding when considering what's coming. That seems to be my default setting. It requires great concentration for me to warmly anticipate any future. I'm more apt to consider its potential shortcomings than in any way expect blessings. I suppose that I might most often manifest something worse than I would have otherwise conjured had I merely anticipated better.

Leading up to a meeting I've been invited to facilitate, I anticipate disaster.

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Gatekeeper

gatekeeper1
Waldemar Franz Herman Titzenthaler:
A soldier of the Prussian guard (1903)


" … one must always serve as their own Gatekeeper first …"


I live in conflict with my beliefs. I suspect that everyone does. Yesterday, I wrote a fine story about how I believe that Gatekeepers surround Success and deny entry to any and all not holding
GoldenTickets. As near as I can tell, I've always believed some variant of this story, even though it has rarely held true. While it's true that I have at times benefitted from some Gatekeeper's intervention, it might be equally true that they probably did not command the sole means for my gaining access. Even when a Gatekeeper intervened, I also needed to have at some point intervened on my own behalf. I was never a passive commodity impassively passed, but an active entity making my own choices.

It might be true that one must always serve as their own Gatekeeper first, however unlikely this role might seem.

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GoldenTicket

gatekeeper
Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen: A Veteran of the Old Guard (1915)


"If I could just manage to hold onto those golden tickets …"


I imagine Success to be securely defended territory guarded 24/7 and then some by experienced and deadly serious Gatekeepers. These defenders of the status quo just seem to know when something different approaches and they have their game plan down pat to prevent each and any encroachment. Anyone wishing to enter those Elysian Fields must carry an invitation engraved with their personal information, issued by some duly designated authority. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, ever gains entrance by accident or solely by their own volition. Each must have gained and been given explicit permission, for entrance remains exclusively and forever By Invitation Only, no stragglers, gawkers, or mere do-gooders allowed. Success has always been and intends to remain an exclusive club.

At least, that's how I imagine Success.

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Rarely

rarely
Willem van Mieris: The Raree-show [’t Fraay Curieus] (1718)


" … the sorriest sort of Success."


Something encourages me to distrust anything that continually occurs, especially Successes. Success seems as though it should appear unreliably, Rarely, lest it forfeit its specialness. The magician who reliably delivers flawless performances must travel because no hometown audience would ever tolerate such consistency. No hitter delivers a homerun every time they take to the plate. No painter produces endless flawless masterpieces. Flawed production might even be necessary to properly frame the extraordinary. Success seems as though it should be at best a rare occurrence.

What of the remaining performances?

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2ndOrderSuccess

2ndordersuccess
Lucas Kilian: Second Vision, from Mirrors of the Microcosm (1613)


" … just seem to take care of themselves."


Back in the sixties—fifty years ago—it seemed that almost every new thing came as a spinoff from President Kennedy's mission to send people to the moon and back by the end of the decade. A raft of space-age products resulted. A powdered orangish juice-like drink, said to be part of the astronaut's diet, emerged on the market and became wildly popular, even though it was clearly inferior to the genuine article. We began living in the future, "tomorrow today," as one multinational corporation labeled the experience. Life then was much more advanced than it seems today, as we basked in the 2ndOrderSuccess emanating from our sacred national undertaking.

2ndOrderSuccess might be best considered as what one gets as a result of achieving a Success.

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Paving

paving
Giovanni Fattori:
Small Street on the Outskirts of Florence with Puppy (1870–75)


" … a perfect portrait of Success."


Some of this town's streets resemble abstract art, with tar rather than paint swirled in curious patterns on the road surfaces to seal cracks and blemishes. Other streets seem to have become nothing but patches, asphalt opened to replace sewer lines over time and never properly resealed delivering bumpy rides. A few streets still feature the odd exposed rails of long-ago streetcar tracks, a feature from a hundred years ago I sure wish would come back complete with rattling cars and a turnaround right beneath my window overlooking the center of the universe. These streets carry more than traffic, for they most prominently carry their history, smooth or bumpy, narrow or wide. I suspect that nobody and nothing ever successfully escapes their history, that it remains terribly present for everybody forever, the past much more than mere prologue but continuing as an inescapable part of the present; perhaps as its personality.

I could watch forever as stone masons work on cobblestone surfaces.

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Sexcess

sexcess
Thomas Couture: The Supper after the Masked Ball (1855)


" … the only option for avoiding the addictions …"


In this culture, my culture, anyone can get addicted to absolutely anything. What was once revered as "the land of the free and the home of the brave," today seems to have increasingly become the land of the spree and the home of the enslaved. Those suffering from Success Addition Disorders (SAD) seem to be among the most troubled class, for they turn their personal colossal successes into abject failures. We see evidence of their influence in the tatters of the present Republican Party, a party once dedicated to promoting equality and now obsessed with just avoiding taxes. As with any negative target, and doubly true with any obsession, focusing upon avoiding anything tends to attract precisely what one seeks to avoid, that, or a deeply engrained paranoia. Today's Success addicted, those suffering from Sexcess, exhibit all the usual symptoms of any full blown addiction, with the added affliction that they're the most conspicuous consumers, almost as if they're proud of themselves. Don't let their gyrations confuse you. They're ill and suffering, stinking rich!

Dissatisfied with simply spending their fortunes, they employ themselves in the more dubious professions, focusing upon wealth defenses, primarily through concocting fresh schemes to avoid taxes but also extending into funding hyper-conservative pseudo-political movements.

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Vortices

vortices
Claude Monet: The Departure of the Boats, Étretat (1885)


"Success emerges from such turbulence."


Time moves irregularly. This fundamental law of the universe might have been lost on physicists, but not once on the rest of us, for we daily struggle to cope with time's inherent variety. Days, even those which measure of equal length, pass differently, with wide variations apparent if not always precisely measurable. Even calendars remain steadfastly unequal, with January days typically at least forty percent longer than June's or July's.

Attempts to rectify this obvious imbalance have so-far resulted in worse, like the French Revolutionary Calendar

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Grasp

grasp
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres:
Studies for "The Martyrdom of Saint Symphorien"
[Saint, Mother, and Proconsul]
(1833)


" … a genuine symbol of that abstract Success."


It seems that us humans easily become attracted to abstract concepts, for they seem to be the brightest, shinest objects distracting our focus. Napoleon insisted that men would only fight to the death for the more abstract concepts if first outfitted with bright sash and flashy uniform. The unscrupulous promote an undefined patriotism and an undefinable faith to attract followers and encourage passionate responses. Only the very highest ideals seem capable of fueling the most degrading engagements. We might claim to want tangible goals, but our behaviors strongly suggest that we really desire the opposite. Running a flag up a flagpole inspires more passion than does any dozen well-reasoned treatises.

These strange attractors carry one thing in common.

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Reach

reach
Alexandre Cabanel: Woman Reaching Over a Wall,
study for The Life of Saint Louis, King of France (1878)


"Reaching for the occasional impossible …"


The Muse and I differ in significant ways. I'm by far the more delicate of the two flowers. She's one tough cookie. She's more likely to dream big. Her grasp often seems to exceed her Reach. She often manages to successfully grasp something seemingly beyond her Reach. I do not know how she does this, but then neither does she. She apprenticed in a world where her grasp reliably fell far short of her aspirations, where even her own bootstraps seemed to lay beyond her Reach, until they just didn't anymore. She ascribes the shift as having had to do with dreaming bigger. I might insist that if you want to reliably Succeed, simply reach for things well within your grasp, while she insists that one must stretch further than that to Successfully achieve an impossible. She should know because she has had the Successes to show this sometimes works. Not every one of even The Muse's dreams fall within her grasp, though.

A class of aspiration exists which stands exclusively beyond any human's Reach or grasp, and these seem poisonous.

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Slippery

slippery
Paul Gauguin: Jean René Gauguin (1881)


"Zealots sure seem to receive the higher quality experience …"


Success seems an especially Slippery substance. It rarely seems to become what it's anticipated to become, but arrives in some different guise, often surprisingly different. We seem to pursue it with naive intensity, capable of dedicating ourselves to the merest shadows of understanding what we're actually pursuing. In the heat of such passion, clarifying questions only very rarely get warmly received. We behave as if further analysis might just spoil the possibility for Success, and our concern might well be well advised. It seems as though we can't afford to simultaneously know and pursue, that the pursuit of success requires some deep ignorance of the true nature, the actual potential for what we might actually achieve. Throughout history, the chroniclers have wondered what they must have been thinking when trying to reconstruct the causal chains of the greatest successes and failures. Mostly they marvel that nobody seemed to be thinking all that deeply. Both Success and failure seem particularly Slippery substances.

In the weeks leading up to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, former Assistant Secretary of the Navy Mitzi Wertheim scoured the Pentagon, asking anyone who would accept her questions what was supposed to happen once the invading force gained Baghdad.

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PlantingFace

PlantingFace
Albrecht Dürer: St. Christopher Facing to the Right (1521)


" … the impossible nature of the questions asked …"


The holy grail of project management has always been the ability to determine whether an effort is on track to Succeed. It's damnedably difficult to determine, so a raft of artificial methods have sprung up to service this essentially insatiable need. When a method fails, that event merely fuels demand for a newer and improved means, even though there's really no way to determine beforehand whether each newer and supposedly improved means will deliver on its promise. I've sometimes speculated that the whole enterprise, project management as a practice, survives on the promise of delivering on its promises, rather than on actually delivering on them, but then that's the price of living in the future. It's never present.

The present's all we have, though, even though it's bound to be different than the future.

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Accshleptance

accshleptance
Jozef Israëls: Children of the Sea (1872)

"I pack 'em. I schlep them, too."


Someone wiser and even more sardonic than me once concluded that life's a Schlep. We might start out without carry-on, but we quickly accumulate enough of an encumbrance to limit our mobility, then head downhill from there. Some people seem natively capable of accumulating more than their fair share, though I will not mention here The Muse, who sometimes must be physically restrained to prevent her from "just stopping and looking" at every estate and garage sale she happens by. Of course she almost always finds some reason there to add to her burden, and I remain mostly grateful for her discoveries. We try to maintain a strict interpretation of the You Brought It, You Schlep It Rule. We do not consider helping anybody with their baggage to be a form of chivalry.

My study of Success has so far resulted in some additional carry-on.

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Modest

modest
Claude Monet: Bordighera (1884)


"Most Success is more modest than it appears."


I blush when I think of saying, "Modest Success." It seems as if I'm promoting underperforming, for everyone knows that Success was supposed to be more unconditional, as if the universe were surrendering to someone's dominion, as if the usual rules of engagement were suspended for a moment.

This idea that Success doesn't seek limits seems very deeply ingrained in me and I sense that it's not really that healthy of a perspective.

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Phobe

techterror
William Blake: Dante and Virgil Among the Blasphemers (1824-27)


"We swallow hard and continue humiliating ourselves …"


I firmly believe that we remain in the first technology era, the same one that featured both steam power and plug board computing. Our more modern user interfaces only appear more advanced, for they remain enmired within the most primitive possible mindset. We have not yet stumbled into any more advanced orientations even though we daily suffer under the yoke of our backward understanding. No better example exists than what I might call The State Of The App. My iPhone and my laptop purportedly run many different apps, though they each feature essentially the same shortcoming, that being that I, their primary user, does not in any way understand how to properly use them. That's okay, the apologists explain, because nobody understands the first thing about the least them, much less even their designer.

I rest my case there.

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Envy

envy
Matsubara Naoko: Page from Hagoromo [Feathered Robe] (1984-86)


" … the burden of being the wealthiest …"


If I were the richest person in the world, I would be better at it than the present incumbent has been. I would not become a right-wing troll or promote senseless conspiracy theories or be even the least bit stingy. I would gladly give away most of my wealth, freely share my good fortune. I wouldn't own a private jet, but fly coach, asking for the middle seat in the last row and hope to find a new mother with her cranky baby seated next to me. I would live to surprise my fellow human beings, for I would dedicate myself to being a truly human being. I'd be the most benevolent person anyone would ever remember, a saint, a gem.

As it is, I am not now nor am I ever likely to share the challenges the world's richest person faces.

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Heaven

heaven
Matsubara Naoko: Waterfall (1966)


" … it produces its own perpetual Success …"


I embrace a distinctly
Panglossian philosophy. If this isn't the best of all possible worlds, it seems to be the one I have. It seems to me that I only ever inhabit the place I stand. Past has gone and future remains safely out of hand, out of touch. I can pine after what already left or aspire after some state not yet achieved or I can find satisfaction with what I presently possess, with what presently possesses me. I might be becoming but I am also being, and my being seems more powerful, more present, more dominant than any shit ton of whatever I might one day become. Consequently, where I sit this morning might just as well be Heaven, since it probably amounts to the closest I'm ever likely to see of it, anyway.

Believe me, please, I remain hugely aware of the contradictions inherent within my belief system, within any belief system.

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Limiting

limiting
Matsubara Naoko: Chinese Theatre (1959)


" … probably every damned one of us at first."


Projects more often die from indigestion than starvation. Success more often results from Limiting scope than from expanding it. If, as I proposed yesterday, all Success is Limited Success, the fine art of Limiting stands as an essential ability for anyone seeking Success. No whining, now, for we are not ultimately judged by how much crap we can cram into any pillowcase, but by how well one manages to sleep on what was finally crammed in there. The surest ways to fail seem tied to trying to drag altogether too much stuff across any finish lime. It might seem heartless, but it seems essential that we each learn how to abandon so that we might thrive. We might even be best defined by what we managed to leave behind.

I know almost for certain that my first iteration of expectations will prove too rich, altogether too expansive for me to ever make good on.

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Limited

limited
Matsubara Naoko: Winter Forest I (1967-1968)


"After the game show ends, the taxman cometh."


There's no Success like a Limited Success. Without some limiting factor, Success cannot exist. Contrary to the adolescent outlook our cultural myths insist upon, once Success occurs, "all" will not be and never has been resolved. Maybe motivation requires that we inflate the influence Success will wield. Maybe we just speak in abbreviating shorthand, but we seem unwilling or unable to speak of Success as bringing limited and limiting results, for anything achieved likely means something else foregone, not in anything like a zero sum outcome, but featuring both positives and their counterparts. Even great Success usually introduces externalities, unwanted negatives resulting from the otherwise purely positive result.

We might reasonably survey the downside and choose to pursue our outcome anyway, for every decision involves making trade-offs.

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Longuage

longuage
Matsubara Naoko: Quaker Meeting (1967)


" … never the guiding light."


Barely three weeks into writing this series and I still feel like I'm missing language to describe what I'm trying to say. This seems like familiar territory, though, because every time I've tried to introduce a different idea or perspective, I've discovered the same barrier to entry: the language couldn't support the fresh concept. Language contains the commonly understood. It finds no use for anything not yet needing describing, so of course new concepts will be missing from the choices.

Budding communicators tend to rely upon one of three old reliables when their language proves wanting. They:
1- create new words,
2- create new meanings,
3- create new metaphors and allegories, fresh stories.

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SupposedTo

supposedto
Matsubara Naoko: Weeping Beech Tree (1967)


"I was SupposedTo want what that Success offered, but didn't."


I've always struggled with SupposedTo expectations, the ones which insisted upon one specific response. I couldn't always muster such a reaction, but I also noticed that the very injunction tended to nudge most of my motivation to comply right out of me. I'd start plotting how to avoid satisfying the expectation instead. I became a terrified learner, for instance, strapping myself in for another ordeal the first day of every quarter, certain only that I would shortly feel overwhelmed with expectations with which I'd feel unable to comply. I came of age understanding that I should probably be self-employed, if only I possessed a talent.

Oh, I could work for someone else, but it helped if I could concoct a story which reframed the relationship from me depending upon their job to the job more depending upon me.

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Improbability

improbability
Matsubara Naoko: Funaoka [Pine Tree] (1964)


" … see what that gets you."


Someone eventually wonders after the cause of a success, and asks about it, often in the form of, "What were the keys to your success?" just as if success necessarily had keys, whatever those might be. Does it follow, then, that Success originally comes with locks which, absent keys, prevent anyone from achieving it? The usual list of expected suspects emerges highlighting the rational elements usually associated with any achievement, almost always prominently featuring a few exceptional qualities possessed by good old you know who. The net effect should, if properly presented, leave the successful person seeming part wizard and part fortunate, with always a little bit of bloomin' luck wisely attached. The result should be an exceptional story featuring a genuine hero and a happy ending, a pattern which any aspiring might emulate.

Reality, or what generally passes for it here, rarely if ever travels so formally, and often hitchhikes.

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WayStation

waystation
Matsubara Naoko:
Harvard Yard in Spring (Shōwa era, 1926-1989)


"Success seems to end with concerted continuing. …"


We might be trained to parse our lives in Edwardian fashion, as if experiences had discrete beginnings and endings, as if stories came with morals firmly attached. We more likely live in a quantum universe, where experiences can seem either more like waves or like particles, depending upon how we filter them. Certainly my expectations seem most calibrated to anticipate cleaner plot lines than usually emerge. In practice, my life seems in need of a decent copyeditor to insert the boundaries my experiences tend to omit. I believe that I've reached an end to a story, only to find that particular plot line continuing into one additional unwanted chapter after another. Even this writer understands that a story really needs to bring a cleaner ending than living usually provides. The clear hallmark of fiction might just be discrete plot lines.

My experiences must be real because they would never make believable fiction.

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Striving

striving
Matsubara Naoko:
Page from Hagoromo [Feathered Robe] (circa 1984-1986)


"I strive to achieve an innocence forever lost."


I missed a deadline this week. I had been hyperaware of its approach yet felt powerless to meet it as it arrived. Sometimes, a responsibility lands on me to find me unprepared, though I've had decades to prepare myself. I remain then just as inexperienced as I felt when I was just starting out, before I'd imagined who I might end up becoming, back before I'd become anybody. Missing a deadline reminds me just how tenuous the balance remains between Striving and arriving, between aspiring and succeeding. Success does not seem to be greatly improved with practice. A dozen of them does not necessarily render an impending one any less daunting. The pattern of one does not seem to be terribly transferrable onto others. Each instance seems fresh and intimidating.

I accumulate my little failures more readily than I ever collect successes.

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Common

common
Matsubara Naoko:
Boston Common (Shōwa era, 1926-1989)


" … a Common sense and an even commoner wisdom …"


A local group, inspired and funded by outside money, fancies itself the store and font of common sense here. They call themselves Common Sense Republicans, which, by their very title, suggests that they're probably about anything
but common sense, Republicans having long ago adopted the practice of naming anything they promote the opposite of whatever it might actually be. I feel confident that the members swell with associative pride to think that they've ascended to the altitude where they evoke the spirit of Thomas Paine, a revered founder, whenever they congregate. They appear at city council meetings to protest "despotic" mask mandates, school board meetings to lobby hard against freedom of speech, and in the letters to the editor column of our local newspaper to champion the most uncommon ideals, all under the rubric of common sense. Common bullshit, I might suggest.

Still, it's a part of our common mythos to believe in the sense a commoner quite naturally makes.

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WhatPrice

whatprice?
Félix Edouard Vallotton:
Money, plate five from
Intimacies (1898)


"Be careful what you wish for …"


Who among us isn't prone to, in moments of extremity, insist that we'd willingly pay any price, bear any cost, to achieve our desired Success? We're each probably occasionally guilty of employing loose talk rather than free speech. We will beseech while praying that the bill collector never comes calling to collect the desperate debt, especially if our sweaty investment has failed to payoff yet. Some bets never payoff in anything but desperation.

I've been watching with train wreck fascination as Kevin McCarthy, the seemingly life-long wannabe Speaker of the House of Representatives, degrades himself and his prospective office, groveling before his obvious inferiors (a term I used hesitantly, if accurately, presuming for a second that it's not more likely that McCarthy enjoys only betters).

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TulsaTime

tulsatime
Georg Pencz: The Triumph of Time,
plate four from The Triumphs of Petrarch
(c. 1539)


" … a halfway decent Country song …"


The Number One Country song of 1987 was written by accident. A well-known songwriter and studio/backup musician found himself out on tour and snowbound in the Sheraton in Tulsa. Snowbound in Tulsa could have been this Number One Country hit, but wasn't. Our songwriter was toodling around on his guitar, half-bored in his hotel room, the kind of boredom that, songwriters understand, no cable television in the history off this universe ever once thwarted. One toodles around on a guitar in such instances or one goes out of their mind.

A two chord lick emerged, as two chord licks are wont to emerge under such circumstances, and our songwriter, experienced as he was, recognized that he'd almost created something.

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CountingChickens

countingchickens
Odilon Redon: The Egg (1885)


" … already become well-introduced to the feeling …"


Much of the Success experience occurs before the Success actually arrives, in anticipation of the bless
éd event. Once the finish line's crossed, the real Success experience begins, but leading up to finishing the race, much might depend upon how the runner believes he's doing. Whether he's ahead or behind, does he still feel as though he has a chance of succeeding? Any hint of impending doom might materially influence his remaining performance. If he senses certain defeat, it follows that he might not find his feet responding nearly as fluidly as they otherwise might. The story he conjures to describe and explain his present state affects how or even whether he ever finishes this race.

Our lonely long distance runner probably has no idea about the pattern of his progress or, indeed, of the pattern of a winning trajectory.

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Syccess

syccess
Seaver W. Leslie: Thinking of Other Things (1972)


" … depending upon what I choose."


I might have already established that Success probably doesn't quite qualify as a
thing, but more likely exists as feeling, though we might best recognize it as a set of criteria, what we used to call in project work "success factors." Success Factors held the criteria upon which, ideally, any objective observer might determine whether the project had delivered upon its promises. These were not precisely the promises themselves, but more the outward signs of inward conditions. These criteria often contradicted themselves, if only slightly, such that some might practically become mutually exclusive with others. In those cases, it became a matter of judgement and perhaps even politics as to whether intentions had been satisfied. Success would often, perhaps even always, come down to a generous judgement that "good enough" had resulted. Sometimes, Success would come as an acknowledgement that no amount of continuing effort would likely improve the result enough to prove worth that additional effort. Then, Success might come as acquiescence, however different from original intentions; a divorce with ramifications.

In addition to the feeling aspect of Success assessment, there's often also a systems aspect.

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HollowingOut

hollowingout
Winslow Homer:
A Winter Morning Shoveling Out (published January 14, 1871)


" … reward for my latest Success and precursor to the next."


After New Year's, this world enters into the HollowingOut Season, one destined to continue until Spring. With winter not yet a fortnight old, I feel unaccustomed it its rhythm. I continue cruising on the cadence I adopted toward the end of Autumn, one which helped propel me into a great and glorious Success. That past, the horizon fills with emptiness, at least on those days when the freezing fog lifts enough for some semblance of a horizon to appear. Those days seem rare. I experience Success's common companion, the HollowingOut feeling designating the recent absence of something. The question always becomes, following even modest successes: What next? What now? Somehow, achievement's reward always includes a healthy dose of bereavement. The familiar pursuit's sudden absence leaves a disquieting silence.

I never know better.

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Completition

completition
Jack Gould: Untitled [man standing behind small
boxing ring where two cats are pretending to fight] (1946)


" … nothing we might do in competition would produce anything more than a failure."


It wasn't until I entered Junior High School, seventh grade, that I encountered any serious experience with Completition, the erosive side of the much-touted competition some say our civilization's founded upon. Survival of the Fittest seems to be a deeply engrained notion, so firmly and widely held that we feel no compunction when we apply it to contexts within which it might not naturally hold. Darwin proposed it for physical evolution, but it's now routinely applied to social situations just as if relations should quite naturally follow the same forward paths as physical development. Social Darwinists hold the most fantastical beliefs, prominent among them the notion that competition quite naturally improves those who engage in it, when it might at best improve the winner, but only if he manages not to become a sore winner, a long shot bet in many instances.

I believe competition to be at root an evil and at best an addiction.

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TheCurse

thecurse
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes:
Be Careful with that Step! (1816/1820)


" … just beneath the end of every rainbow."


New Year's Day brings the usual flurry of best wishes to drown out the flood of remembrances old years leave behind. We do not send good enough wishes, but only the very best. We do not wish ordinary times upon each other, but exclusively extraordinary ones, as if it wouldn't be good enough to wish anybody mere adequacy, only excellence. Whenever we project into the future, we seem to command or demand the exceptional. Back when I worked with projects, it was almost never the case that the founding vision of any effort proposed producing a good enough result. They insisted instead that they, unlike every other project in the history of this universe before them, would produce the greatest product. It was usually not as though the organization really needed an exemplary outcome to survive. They just proposed utopian outcomes, though none ever delivered even one.

This difference between proposed and delivered reliably sparked some controversy.

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Retrospecting

retrospecting
Joseph Keppler: Looking Backward, from Puck (1893)


" ... more infinite and much more significant."


It being New Year's Eve, the last day of this year, I asked myself an innocent question: Have I been successful this year? Innocent or not, this question got me to Retrospecting, reviewing what I'd accomplished and dreading discovering what I had failed to finish. I could not even remember the names of the four series I'd written through the year, not off the top of my head I couldn't. I had to look back through the transcripts, the 364 individual installments, to determine what I'd been so focused upon. I figure that I spent roughly fifteen hundred hours nurturing my writing habit through the year and yet I could not, near the end of the period, even remember the names of the titles of the four series I'd completed. Have I accomplished anything more than successfully forgetting what I'd created?

I read the first and last installments of each series to get a feeling for what I had been intending and how I'd judged my effort in the moment I completed each.

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Career

career
Cornelis van Poelenburch: The Expulsion from Paradise (after c. 1646)



At nineteen, I was certain who I wanted to be when I grew up. By the time I hit twenty-five, that certainty had abandoned me as surely as I had abandoned my first and only Career. Thereafter, I wandered this world careerless, without a defined profession, a professional without explicit portfolio. Had I gone on to pursue a Master's Degree, I might have finally come to adopt a professional identity. Because I hadn't, I became a generalist, a B-school graduate without a specialty. Unsurprisingly, I gravitated into the sort of work reserved for people like me. I found myself not so much attracted to, but conscripted into the ranks of project workers, matrixed into various roles depending upon the situation, a utility player without a formal position. I later gravitated into project leadership, then project management, but that's no career. It's more of an adjunct association with an organization, existing only for a duration and not forever like a regular role. I became management with a tenaciously small 'm'.

I searched for an association of project people, but when I found it, I refused to join because it didn't seem to be true to any principle.

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SuccessThink

successthink
Alexander Voet: The Old Fool and His Cat (17th Century)


"Successful might be the very last thing I ever wanted to become."


Just about the time I graduated from business school, I became interested in how I might become successful. I started frequenting the Self Help section of Powell's Books and accumulated quite the collection of self-proclaimed helpful titles, among them perhaps the most influential Self Help title ever published, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. T&GR was originally published in the late thirties, and it came with an enviably attractive backstory. It seems, according to the author, that he'd interviewed Andrew Carnegie, who had confided the secrets behind his success. Hill characterized himself as merely the messenger, a link in a chain stretching back into ancient eternity, for he contended that all rich people subscribed to more or less the same guiding philosophy. The difference between me and them was, according to Hill, just a difference in outlook. Adopt the philosophy and practices his book outlined, and wealth would find me. I was skeptical. (Carnegie's estate found no evidence that Hill ever visited.)

I never quite managed to get clear to the end of that book, though it still stands on my shelf.

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ExplanatoryStory

explanatorystory
Anonymous Germany (Augsburg): The Rich Man
- Scene from the
Story of Jehosophat and Barlaam (1476)


"Sometimes it seems like something entirely different."


Martin E. P. Seligmann was a graduate student when he stumbled upon his Success. He was performing experiments with dogs when he noticed that under certain conditions, the dogs seemed to become pessimists and started refusing reinforcement. He hypothesized that dogs could learn pessimism. He wondered, if dogs can learn to become pessimists could they also be taught to be optimistic, and could humans? Thus began his life's work, which so far, at age eighty, has taken him to the top of the Self Help (a genre he almost personally invented) bestseller lists and to the head of The American Psychological Society. His book, Learned Helplessness, became the basis for the now burgeoning field of Positive Psychology, and spawned a cool half dozen follow-on books which built upon that original base. Learned Helplessness includes a very clever and attractive chart which lists various tactics for countering Learned Helplessness. We've probably all been subjected to some form of these tactics.

When I was a kid, my mother's go-to tactic for countering sadness was to advise her suffering child to, "Turn that frown upside down."

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FeelingsOf

FeelingsOf
Jacob Hoolaart, after Adriaen Brouwer:
Man met een geldzak [Man Holding Moneybag] (1723-89)


"I am not at this moment feeling all that successful."


I feel as though I have been dancing around my subject with these first Success Stories. This might be a reasonable if inconvenient time to confess a misgiving I've carried with me since I started writing this series. I admitted then, in my introduction, that I didn't feel as though I knew very much about Success, given that it had been a rare presence in my life. I speak even now of success as if it were a thing, ascribing the infamous 'it' to it, as if it was ever an 'it.' The thing about 'its' is that they are, by international agreement or something, supposed to at least vaguely refer to some person, place, or thing, an entity. Success seems awfully disembodied to qualify for 'itness,' and fitness for itness might matter. Of what do I speak when I attempt to speak of Success?

As near as my beleaguered brain can ascertain, Success might at best (or worst) qualify as a feeling.

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TheGames

thegames
Charles Samuel Keene: A Game of Cards (1870/91)


"Success comes in many colors …"


What are the success games? There seem to be many. Some long, others shorter, some seemingly competitive, others more solitary. Must one master a wide array of games to become consistently successful, or does a niche strategy more likely succeed? Some seem to inhabit a dog-eat-dog world while others seem to live in almost blissful ignorance of even a hint of competition. Some become team players while others, definite solos. I think it unfortunate that in our culture, we imagine so many different kinds of engagements to be at root competitions, ones which by definition spawn winners and losers. Many still subscribe to zero-sum perspectives whereby one's success by definition dictates another's failure. Some envision a roiling marketplace of Roman gladiator games where it's kill or be killed, without apologies, just the way the game's played, thank you.

Success might involve personal choice more than might seem obvious.

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TalkingInto

TalkingInto
Jack Gould: Untitled [door to door salesman talking to woman] (1950)


"Success follows many paths home."


My writing work falls into two basic categories: Flow and TalkingInto. The Flow pieces pretty much take care of themselves. I start them off and the writing commences, continuing until they're done. I remain remarkably absent from the process of creating these. They come to me. The TalkingInto pieces remain the rarer of the pair. They come when I'm more self-conscious, often when I feel I have some significant stake in the outcome. They might appear when I feel self important, or when I feel as though I should feel self important, as if I had something important to say. My TalkingInto state might be a form of writer's block, an affliction with which I fortunately have little personal experience. The TalkingInto pieces become real work before they're finished.

I usually try to flee when discovering that I'm engaging with a TalkingInto story.

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The Or Deal

the_or_deal
Master of the Die:
Venus Ordering Psyche to Sort a Heap of Grain (1530/40)


"My annual ritual amounts to a fool's mission …"


Near the end of each of her weekly examinations as The Muse went through her cancer treatment, Erin, the designated keeper of records for the clinical trial, would ask the same question: "Do you want to continue the trial?" To which The Muse would respond with an enthusiastic, "Absolutely!" This ritual reminded me of one common feature of successful engagements, The Or Deal. The option always exists to bail out of most any activity, though in the middle of the typical fray, one might not necessarily consider this option. One gets set into a trajectory, and changing it becomes kind of unthinkable over time, though the latitude to turn off the engagement almost always exists, and remains at least worth considering. At some level, every engagement serves as a kind of dedication test, a check to determine if you retain the stomach not only for the success, but also for the often previously hidden cost of that success, the ordeal. Either you do retain the stomach to continue or you don't, that's The Or Deal in a nutshell.

Looking back on my now long life, I easily recall a few of the more prominent choice points.

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Suckcess

suckcess
Elly Verstijnen: Jongen met pop [Boy With Doll] (c. 1900-1930)


"No one is ever apathetic except when in pursuit of another's objective."
-Folk Wisdom


"I feel unlikely to ever outgrow my worse bad habits."


The most troubling successes of my life so far have uniformly been the kind I was supposed to want but didn't. These were often promoted as somehow being for my own good and uniformly seemed more for my certain detriment instead. I'd drag my feet because I just could not seem to muster sufficient motivation to manage any other response. In this way, I laid myself open to various criticisms. If only I could exhibit more discipline. If Onlies then seemed to utterly dominate my foreground. I always thought these sorts of experiences exemplified the pursuit of mammon, and were trying to tell me to shift my focus from chasing something destined only to do me in. This sort of wisdom almost always came later in the game, after I'd already invested more than I felt I could afford to lose. Veering off onto another, healthier trajectory always proved difficult to impossible.

It might be true that nobody ever knew what they were supposed to do.

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SuccessStory

SuccessStory
Thérèse Schwartze: Portrait of Lizzy Ansingh (1902)


" … reframing what success might mean …"


This story marks the first installment of a new series focused upon Success. I feel distinctly unqualified to write this series. This sense alone might qualify me to at least attempt to write it because I hold a growing belief that those who've been held up as examples of success serve as at best poor examples of it. Certainly the richest, often presumed the default most successful, have well proven just how unqualified for emulation they tend to be. Nobody wants to grow up to be Henry Ford or Elon Musk anymore. We pity them their public frailties. Likewise those examples from most any field one cares to name. Each seemed to be poor exemplars on some level. I might well conclude that one of the better ways to elude Success might arise from attempting to emulate anyone touted as successful. This world hardly needs one Elon Musk. Heaven forbid that it had to suffer through two, even if that second one just happened to be you.

I poke at Mr. Musk since he's widely recognized as the world's richest man.

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Impossibles

impossibles
Paul Gauguin: Soyez amoureuses, vous serez heureuses
[Love, and You Will Be Happy]
, (1899)


"I will not be telling anyone what I didn't intend to tell them again."


By long tradition, the final installment of any story series should at least attempt to summarize, to digest whatever it might have attempted to impart in its prior pieces, to, in the crude vernacular of the professional trainer, "tell them what you told them." There almost always came a time, in my career as a teacher of professional people, when the organizer would start speaking of Training The Trainer. This point signified the impending end of my relationship with that organization and the doom of our inevitably short-lived initiative. Corporations seem to need to frequently change their imperatives, as if to keep fresh whatever impossible they pursue, and they might well be wise to insist upon such shifts, because when dealing with Impossibles, freshness might remain the most important consideration. While it might well be absolutely true that most corporate imperatives represent some sort of impossible intention, one cannot continue perpetually holding the unrequited. It must be "achieved" or abandoned, left without fanfare in favor of some fresh and more enlivening initiative, also inevitably another impossible, eventually facing the same fate.

The Train The Trainer speech gave notice that the client intended to transform their present impossible into standard curriculum, a process which dumbs down its content.

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PerfectEnding

perfectending
Paul Gauguin: Manao tupapau:
(She Thinks of the Ghost or The Ghost Thinks of Her),
from
the Noa Noa Suite (1893/94)


"I'm not quite finished yet."


To speak of a PerfectEnding might be to speak heresy, for the orthodoxy does not usually believe in such things. For them, endings bring opportunities for analysis, for determining what went wrong, to identify root causes, and to inflict judgement, all for the purpose of pursuing the ultimate unachievable objective: continuous improvement. Without such operations, orthodoxies would very quickly go out of business, for without the need for imposing salvation, it's whole operation seems simply fraudulent. If improvement isn't warranted, what's a higher power supposed to do? Could it thrive living in parity with its laity?

In SetTheory, such traditional hierarchies do not hold sway, for they become just another basis for conducting analysis intended to make sense of their presence.

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AfterMath

aftermath
Winslow Homer: After the Hurricane, Bahamas (1899)


"Even happily ever after suggests the storytelling will continue."


After the HouseConcert, what then? What's next? My attention had been so intensely focused through these SetTheory stories that I gave scant concern over what might happen if my dream came true and I somehow, against great odds, managed to perform a set of my songs. Well, the dream came true. The Muse and I stayed up late after the HouseConcert, doing dishes and relishing the receding warmth the evening produced. By the time The Muse went to bed, piles of clean dishes on the kitchen table and my guitar standing in the front window were the only remaining evidence that a gathering had even happened. The following morning, I woke late, feeling deeply satisfied. I had accomplished something.

I had not started studying my curious SetTheory to change the world, for I've always considered notions of changing this world to be sins of self importance.

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HouseConcert

HouseConcert
Adriaen van Ostade: The Concert (1644)


" … another storybook ending."


As unlikely as it seemed for much of the journey there, the long-touted HouseConcert actually happened. It even arrived a little ahead of the schedule requirement, which I'd imagined to be before I'd reached the end of the current seasonal quarter, before the upcoming Solstice. The right people showed up, too, precisely the proper cast which could not have been improved by the concerted efforts of even an army of over-experienced talent scouts. The light supper was very well received. It just seemed such a freedom to invite folks into The Villa, whatever the pretext. Delivering this SetList of songs seemed an embellishment atop what would have qualified as a very decent holiday gathering regardless.

I'd set the stage, such as it was, along the recently refurbished front window seat, directly in front of the massive front window, which The Muse had decorated with multicolored Christmas lights.

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FinishingTouched

finishingtouched
Gaston La Touche: Pardon in Brittany (1896)
A "Pardon" is a Breton form of penitential pilgrimage
conducted at twilight with candles.


"What's inevitably started in innocence
must perhaps necessarily end in gratitude."


Those of us instructed to 'start with the end in mind,' eventually find ourselves going out of our minds since the end always shows up differently than originally imagined. These projections must always originate hopelessly out of that future context, which carries subtleties impossible to imagine beforehand. I suppose this injunction's real intention was never to enable anyone to envision any future, but to serve instead as motivation or inspiration, just to get the imaginer moving toward something, however unlikely that something might be to ever actually manifest. As a result, people often experience endings as bait and switch operations, where what was promised never seems to have been delivered. Success sometimes feels more like a failure.

My almost three month preparation for my house concert carries all the usual vestiges, for it was an initiative no more than normally blessed.

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Patter

patter
Albrecht Dürer: The Monstrous Sow of Landser (1496)


"The breathtaking's almost always worth taking the risk."


If my years as a performer taught me anything, they taught me the necessity of Patter and also of the absurdity of preparing Patter beforehand. Proper Patter, my experience taught me, should be impromptu, off the cuff, unscripted. The Patter of which I speak comes before and between the songs, the introductions and reflections that serve as a sort of stage punctuation in the performance conversation. I know that the old vaudeville performers scripted every second of their stage time. Us veterans of coffeehouse stages and small college venues did not, or learned not to. We sought a more authentic presence on stage and did not seriously consider ourselves to be performing, certainly not acting a part, or so we would have insisted at the time. We all were, of course, trying hard to successfully channel whomever we wished to be like, so that we would be liked. Many were bad Dylans. I, myself, leaned more toward the awful Donovan persona, though I was serious about aspiring for authenticity.

What does the term Authentic Performer even mean?

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Winnowing

winnowings
Willem Witsen: Man die aan het wannen is
[Man Winnowing] (c. 1888)


"Winnowing serves as the final embellishment."


Any efficiency expert—probably even any efficiency apprentice—would tell you that this amounts to perhaps the least efficient means to accomplish anything: Over prepare to under deliver, yet this phrase precisely describes the proper method for producing a set of songs. One defers the LifeboatDrill decisions until very nearly the ending, thereby ensuring that more than twice the number of songs actually performed get rehearsed, and not half-assed rehearsed, either. Each must have been considered a genuine contender and even the more difficult ones should have been painstakingly practiced, even unto and beyond great frustration. The list, too, should have properly been re-ordered several times as if the set might last almost ninety minutes, just as if our earnest performer could last a full ninety minutes, which he probably can't.

But performer capability probably sits beside this point.

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SittingOnTop

sittingontop
Jacob de Wit, after Peter Paul Rubens:
Oude vrouw met kind en vuurtest
[Old woman with Child and Fire Test] (1734)


"There might not be any better feeling …"


I wrote most of my songs in the Key of D, both because chords in D seemed easier to play and also because its notes fell comfortably within my singing voice's range. I've noticed that many songwriter/performers write exclusively within a single key. Our recently departed and dearly beloved Nanci Griffith also wrote and performed everything in D, so I must be in good company. This choice can produce similar songs, ones only narrowly differentiated from each other, as if every one was the same one all over again, producing a Groundhog Day catalogue like Bruce Springsteen or Tommy James and the Shondells. Fans don't care that they're fed the same supper every night. They are rarely gourmets and, like my cats, tend to reject any supper that's not instantly familiar. Still, the performer might notice and try to stage songs so as to minimize this same-old effect; vary a bit.

The venerable old Key of D no longer proves one my singing range can easily reach.

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Convergering

convergering
Artist unknown [Japan], Fukusa [Gift Cover] (circa 1801–1900)


" … The Muse departs those premises for good …"


As we pulled The Schooner into the Cancer Center parking lot, the radio started playing Leroy Anderson's arraignment of Sleigh Ride, the only absolutely essential holiday song, complete with wood block hoof pounding, slapstick, and full orchestration. The Muse commenced to shake and jiggle in the seat beside me. I asked what was happening and she replied that she was channeling when she played percussion with the Groton, SD high school band. "I'm shaking sleigh bells," she said, "and whipping the slapstick." Our reverie resolved into tears, and we held hands there while weeping in recognition that this infusion would be the final one in The Muse's months-long sleigh ride through CancerLand.

The oncologist had little more to offer.

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LifeboatDrill

lifeboatdrill
Stefano della Bella:
Mannen in een reddingsboot [Men In Lifeboat]
(Undated- circa 1620-64)


" … nobody intended or wanted to do anyone any damage …"


As consultants, The Muse and I often employed experiential exercises to help our clients gain insights. These amounted to what appeared to be silly little games, though they usually managed to help the client gain traction against some difficulty. We were extremely careful with our game design, though, as we came to understand that these silly little games could leave lasting, even damaging impressions. We always avoided introducing any game which might resemble what we called LifeBoatDrills, those games where a group was forced to choose to vote one or more of its members "off the island," for these can spark real trauma and produce permanent ill feelings, more harm than good. Curiously, this design seems the most common one employed by what has been strangely labeled "reality television," since reality only very rarely if ever actually delivers these sorts of dilemmas. Those who practice LifeBoatDrills probably practice for conditions they will never encounter in the real world or they produce the sorts of experiences nobody ever really wants, probably both. A master of the LifeBoatDrill seems the sorriest master of all.

My long-anticipated house concert, though, seems to have morphed into somewhat of a LifeBoatDrill.

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Newing

newing
Paul Gauguin: Jean René Gauguin (1881)


"Not a slave to precedent nor an idiot to improvement."


For me, nothing seems sadder than a tribute band, one dedicated to reliving some heyday on stage. I respect original work, but seeing a late middle-aged troubadour replay their pubescent angst on a stage seems just as sad as Lawrence Welk's orchestra seemed in their later days: dated and then some, unappreciable. Their easy mastery no longer resembles talent or skill, but clearly came as the result of ad nauseam repetition. It was always a wonder that those band members could stay awake through the chorus of most of their tunes because they knew their parts too well to produce a credible performance, which must seem like discovery to really work. They seemed to most need some strategy to just let bygones become bygones. Their performances most reminded their audiences of the absolute the necessity of retirement.

I carry vestiges of these feelings about performing my own compositions, though I have not been vainly repeating the same old songs for generations.

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UndressedRehearsals

undressedrehearsals
Unknown Artist, Italian, 17th century:
Juno Commanding Aeolus to Release the Winds (Not dated)


" … all about believing self-deception …"


Practicing slowly morphs into rehearsals as the performance date nears. Practice focused upon bare mechanics while rehearsals include some stagecraft. A performer might scrutinize camera angles, hoping to expose their best profile and, of course, cloak the more unflattering perspectives. Beginnings and endings become more deliberate and the performer actively projects into the ever nearer future. Knowing the performance allows no do-overs, he pushes each tune to conclusion, no longer so quick to stop and repeat a flubbed phrase. He might even gain time consciousness, a terrible addition. What once was timeless becomes time bound as what was once lost slowly gets found again.

The neck of the guitar becomes less restrictive as recent familiarity increases, the product of repetition as well as rediscovery.

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SoundCheck

soundcheck
Jacob van der Heyden:
Sound, plate two from The Five Senses
(Not Dated: Artist's working dates 1593–1645)


" … success finally seemed within reasonable reach!"


Sound became the most difficult element of my effort to prepare for my house concert. I'd managed to dredge up lyrics and mostly even found the voice to sing them, transposing one song into a more workable range, but getting the sound through my microphone and guitar pick-up bedeviled me, increasingly frustrating my efforts. The slow realization that the house concert would need to be in part broadcast only increased processed sound's importance. If it wasn't my microphone troubling me, it was my studio headphones. I swear that I will never grow entirely accustomed to trailing cables behind me. They leave me feeling like a prisoner, restricted to only a scant few feet of movement whenever I'm plugged in.

I was on a Zoom® call with my old friend Franklin yesterday and had decided to plug into my sound board to give it a test with a knowledgable listener on the other end.

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Sequence

sequence
Stuart Davis:
Art Theory Text with Color Sequence Diagram (1951)


"Who's on first? …"


I hold the utterly irrational belief that natural orders exist in both nature and in the works of man, even mine. For instance, I imagine myself ordering the songs in my SetList in such a way as to maximize their impact. I imagine this without for a second having access to what might constitute impact from my perspective or from anyone else's. I might know after I've performed a set, but can only imagine after that natural order beforehand, and even if a song order works, I will have no way of verifying that the order constitutes the natural one or was in any way superior to any other. I must, it seems, create and then manage to believe in a layered fiction which might somehow reinforce itself, bringing resolution. I am today attempting to properly order my SetList songs, a provably impossible undertaking.

Sequence seems like one of those meta conditions not obvious at first glance.

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Invitation

christmasnoise
Antique Christmas Card
from The New York City Public Library's digital collection


" … who would even agree to attend … ?"


This week, I need to send out the invitations for my SetList performance. I've long planned to deliver this performance in The Villa, with me seated before the grand front window with bookshelves on either side. I've imagined my audience arrayed back into the living room, with perhaps a couple of dozen easily fitting into that space with furniture rearranged and extra chairs. A few might choose to stand. I'd keep the SetList short enough so that nobody would get too fidgety before I finished. We'd drink some wine before and more after as well as enjoy a light mobile supper. It would be a celebration as well as the conclusion of this series, my appreciation for the attention I've received through the lengthy preparation. It would also serve as an introduction of sorts, a first exposure for most present to my semi-secret songwriter background, who I once was as well as who I always was beneath my facade, and who I'll also always thereafter be. I planned it as a curious kind of coming out party.

In the two years and nine months since This Damned Pandemic locked us down, we've rarely hosted any of our usual gatherings.

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Seconds

seconds
Edward Penfield:
Will You Help the Women of France? (1917)
Printed by W. F. Powers Company Lithographers
published by United States Food Administration


"We're still praying and waiting …"


Ten days after Thanksgiving, Tetrazzini season settles in for a short visit. The turkey's tailpiece remains, the so-called Bishop's Nose, along with an odd wing and a piece of that greasy meat that once covered ribs; little else besides bone. These pieces, proven poor sandwich material, ache to become stock, their last chance to become anything useful on their way out of this world. Half the leftover meat disappeared over Thanksgiving night at the hands of what I suspect to have been a raccoon sauntering through our walk-out refrigerator, also known as the back deck. I'd used Zip-lock® bags to secure the goodies and the raccoon apparently carried a switchblade—we all know they all do— which made short work of my weak defense. The remaining bag contained the more marginal pieces, greasy and barely edible even when amply disguised with The Muse's housemade cranberry sauce, mayonnaise, and thick slices of Swiss cheese. I, too, was aching to render that meat into stock.

The Muse continues recovering from her radiation treatments.

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Justifying

Justifying
Friedrich Amerling: The Young Eastern Woman (1838)


"The cost/benefit analysis of every artistic endeavor,
SetTheory concludes, produces only The Null Set …"


In my apparent insistence to at least attempt to overthink every damned thing I engage in, I stumbled upon the poisonous question: Why? Why seems naked standing alone. It seems to need a question mark attached to its backside, as if to conceal something, and why(?) probably has much to conceal. Its unceasing attempts to justify come as close to original sin as anything anyone could possibly engage in, primarily because it asks a fundamentally unanswerable question. Nothing anyone might muster in response could possibly satisfy it. It sparks excuses, sure, and often long-winded explanations which ultimately fail to explain to anyone's full satisfaction. It amounts to distraction, focusing attention away from essence and toward insistence, like any "good" advertisement attempts. Its likely purpose seems to be to sidetrack focus, to undermine true inevitably unspeakable purpose, and to encourage a commercial mediocrity upon activities which hardly deserve this. As I said above, Why(?) almost always proves poisonous.

In business school I learned how to concoct cost/benefit analysis, this to guide what was labeled decision-making.

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ClawingForward

clawingforward
Félix Vallotton: The Protest (1893)


"I try to not make a habit of such behavior."


Each setback provides a fresh premise for ClawingForward, a new dedication test trying to determine the depth of commitment behind the pursuit. I can always forfeit whatever I've already invested and walk away, hoping nobody will notice that I surrendered. Honor, or some emotion very much like it, encourages me to continue anyway, to perhaps even courageously overcome whatever barrier I've encountered. My response more often comes from embarrassment than bravery. I cannot quite face what it might mean if I cannot overcome this encumbrance, so I continue the struggle. I sometimes even succeed, even though trying in no way guarantees any outcome. I fancy myself tenacious when I'm probably just stubborn, but hitting a wall usually incites me into action, and often into investigating some new direction, anything to maintain accustomed momentum.

I read the freaking owner's manual, though the submission was, indeed, painful.

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ReSettingBackwards

ReSettingBackwards
Claude Monet: Stack of Wheat (1890/91)


"Wrong-footed, I sprint for the finish line."


After a week of reporting solid progress, my SetTheory efforts finally hit their wall (again.) The first principle of all forward momentum mentions this wall as a certainty, an inevitability, not a possible encounter but an unavoidable one. This wall generally appears early in an effort, as the usual notional initiation notices that its context differs from what was earlier imagined and planned upon. The experience always feel deflating, as if some cruel mistake had been made against the proceedings. Most efforts manage to recover, albeit almost always on different terms than originally imagined. The possible takes over from the original imaginal intentions and the effort resumes, and often in a different direction. Initial notions of end results almost always amount to fantasies. The quality of leadership usually devolves into the acceptance of some closer semblance of reality over the originally motivating fantasy. The Wall reigns eternal, though. One can choose to go over, around, or through it, but ignoring it never works for long.

Ignoring it almost always seems the preferable alternative when it first appears.

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Fining

fining
Hans Weiditz (II) (anonymous:)
Mannen bij een proeverij [Men at a Tasting] (1514-32)


"I paint my face with well-practiced authenticity."


The mirror image of the project-initiating Milling Around Period appears nearer the end of the effort. It amounts to much dusting and polishing, sequencing and clarifying, none of it strictly necessary but all of it nonetheless useful. It might even qualify as meaningless work, but since ninety percent of all work apparently qualifies as meaningless, this classification alone provides no excuse for avoiding engaging in it. Besides, it feels so danged satisfying. Most of the earlier stress and anxiety have by then been leached out. What deadlines remain carry little threat. I feel prepared if not quite prepared enough. I am Fining.

Once a wine or a beer has finished fermenting, it's done for most intents and purposes, save one.

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EmotionalSupportAnimal

emotionalsupportanimal
John Edward Gray:
Dr. Hamilton's Paradoxurus, Paradoxurus Hamiltonii.
From The Living Animal in the
Surry Zoological Gardens
(circa 1830-34)


"I find my redemption lurking in the far back corner of my original intention."


The Muse complains when I refer to myself as her Emotional Support Animal. When I asked after her protest, she said that she didn't think of me as an animal. "Am I vegetable, then, or mineral?" She noted that my rock head strongly suggests mineral. My purpose in declaring myself her Emotional Support Animal had more to do with keeping the most serious possible business just as light as possible. My intentions were serious but also bordered upon unspeakable. I wanted to declare that I would be there for her as she went through her cancer treatment, no babying intended. Emotional Support Animals have become troublesome, as many have seized the opportunity to declare their pet as such and thereby gain the privilege of hauling them onto airplanes without paying fares. And it's not just been dogs and cats, but every manner of critter to the point where airlines and the FAA have had to make rules ever stricter. I think it was the alligator or perhaps the ostrich that nudged the practice into untenable territory. Now, one needs evidence that the animal serves as essential emotional support, a level of proof that I suspect should border the impossible to show. Emotional support rarely seems critical.

The Muse probably didn't need the support I offered, but I'd felt it important to offer it nonetheless.

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Transcending

transcending
Charles Sheeler: Amaryllis (1924)


"I can see a transparent shadow of myself …"


Practicing seems like a primitive form of what this performer intends when he picks up his instrument. Initially, I struggle to just remember the progressions and to propel myself to the end of each piece, but later, after some considerable time spent immersing myself into these mysteries, my practice shifts. After, it becomes easier if not precisely easy, more expression than re-creation. I often catch myself improvising then, as if I no longer seek to resurrect or recreate, but to manifest a feeling for which the original words and music were always mere indexes, means to access a sense more than the purpose of practicing or an end unto themselves. This after space I enter amounts to Transcending, I guess. It certainly feels like a religious experience, if that description doesn't put too orthodox a spin on it. I leave refreshed and slightly light-headed, eyes clear and voice phlegm-less for a welcomed change. I feel high, as though I'm floating slightly above my former existence, witness to my experience more than mere actor.

I'm seeing that the purpose of this SetTheory experience was less about resurrecting my songbook than about rediscovering Transcending.

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Spectacular

spectacular
Henri-Edmond Cross: The Pink Cloud (c. 1896)


"Her forbearance might well be remembered …"


The Muse's oncologist reported that her "numbers are Spectacular," an uncharacteristic characterization from any practicing physician. They're professionally more restrained, less effusive. On good days, they might allow themselves to express guarded optimism and, always, unshakable support, but they only rarely enter the unconditional superlative realm. I ask a follow-up question and receive a more sobering perspective in return. I note that her tumor had become invisible on the last scan we saw. He cautioned us to take such visual evidence, however seemingly reassuring, with a grain of salt. He explained that this cancer's cells remain unbelievably tiny, that we can only visually verify their presence when they're present in the billions. A few hundred million of them cannot be seen by even the most sophisticated scanning technology. Visual verification's virtually impossible. We're poking sticks into darkness, he explains.

I thanked him for blunting my enthusiasm, and I meant it.

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FinalPrep

finalprep
Jacques Callot: Camping Place of the Gypsies:
The Preparation of the Feast

(Artist's working dates 1612–1635)


"I figure I can finish FinalPrep in the final fifteen minutes before I take the stage."


The National Weather Service predicted snow by early evening and the sky had already started spitting fine ice by the time I returned from an errand across town. I wanted to finish cleaning up the latest leaf fall before this storm hit, since the weather service also predicted a week of very cold temperatures with intermittent snowfall providing no later opportunity to complete the last of the Autumn chores before an early Winter settled in. I faced the choice of working through the icy rain or just accepting that I would fall short of my aspirations this season. I slipped into my overalls and stepped out into the weather. As usual, once imbedded within it, the drizzle seemed less ominous. I focused upon quickly removing those leaves and soon found myself finished. Then came the piddling around time.

The Muse swears that she can complete a month of unfinished business in the final few hours before she leaves on an extended trip.

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MakingPerfect

makingperfect
Vincent van Gogh: Self-Portrait (1887)


"Will we poison ourselves with critical mediocrity or with generous perfection?"


I ordinarily cannot countenance mention of perfection, for as the owner of both an aging home and body, I see little day-to-day evidence of its existence. I'd come to think of perfection as a poisonous notion. As an objective it seemed to guarantee frustration and failure. As a representation, it seemed falsely overbearing, a transparently misleading characterization. Few experiences greater frustrated me than a shopgirl mindlessly parroting everything I'd mention with a "Perfect!" exclamation. She'd ask me if she could help me with anything. I'd decline her offer and she'd declare our encounter somehow "Perfect!" I'd pray that she might somehow pull her faux enthusiasm to the curb and join the rest of us down here on the surface of the planet Earth rather than continue inhabiting her alien-seeming stratosphere above. I found her realm annoying in the extremis.

But I think I might have groused a tad too much.

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PlayForWork

playforwork
Jan Havicksz. Steen:
Children Teaching a Cat to Dance,
Known as ‘The Dancing Lesson’
(1660 - 1679)


"Maybe mastery makes fun of everything."


Early on, I imprinted on the idea that work really should be play. I sensed that the term work mischaracterized its own possibility, creating a false and disastrous dichotomy. Work might not necessarily be the opposite of play, but the very highest example of it. Mischaracterize that high-order play as work, and people might primarily engage in it to earn time away. Folks might day-dream of retirement rather than reveling in the very embodiment of what they might have been dreaming to achieve. In this way, the carrot became the stick and people started consenting to investing their time in productive but meaningless activities. Some even agreed to become professionals and a few of those consented to become responsible, and before anyone knew it, adulthood had gone to Hell without even the comforting benefit of handbaskets.

When work becomes play, it gets easier to get through the day.

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Begetting

begetting
Hans Weiditz (II) (possibly):
Het produceren van wijn en andere medicinale dranken
(Producing wine and other medicinal drinks) (1620)


"… continued Begetting regardless …"


I felt shocked when The GrandOther, sitting at our Thanksgiving table, was the one insisting that we each express our thanks for something. We're no Norman Rockwell image of any holiday family, not even piss poor Presbyterians when it comes to the iconic rituals of any holiday table, yet there was The Other, the youngest at the table, insisting that tradition be acknowledged and performed. Lord (or somebody) knew that we had plenty to feel thankful for, even though this has been a difficult year. I heard myself insist that the hardest years seem to produce the greater volume of gratitude, and not just that they're over. As a blessings generator, hard times just seem better at Begetting blessings, an apparent paradox often lost on those trudging on their knees through the harder of the hardest times. Like with all religious convictions, I guess, the blessings emerge later as reward or punishment, their eventual existence a matter of faith until they manifest.

The question comes, then, how one might reliably induce gratitudes.

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PlagueWinter

plaguewinter
Arthur Wesley Dow: Marsh Creek (c. 1905)


"The future sure seems lonely."


As we enter the third successive PlagueWinter, I find little evidence that I've fully incorporated any learning from the experience. I still pine and plan as if this disease were little more than a passing inconvenience rather than endemic, as it surely has become. I'm just starting to understand that this disease will most likely haunt my remaining days here, even if I live for decades. Gratefully, neither The Muse nor I have yet contracted this bug, though her son has been through three bouts of it and has been wrestling with long Covid symptoms for two years, since he started recovering from his first bout. A friend just finally tested negative after an eight day run with his second infection this season, and he took Paxlovid just as soon as he tested positive both times, and had just the week before received his latest booster. He said it was like having a bad cold. Of the ten people who attended his ukulele group, two apparently came already infected and six of the remaining eight tested positive the next day. Covid-19 remains alarmingly infectious, though apparently not nearly as deadly as it once was for many.

I've been dreaming of a 'normal' Christmas season, similar to the ones I used to know.

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Permitting

permitting
Abraham van Beyeren:
Silver Wine Jug, Ham, and Fruit (c. 1660–66)


"The creative arm wrestles with himself."


The Muse and I decided years ago that we would one day replace the railing that once graced the Villa's front porch roof deck. The old one was destroyed by an enthusiastic—some insist overly-enthusiastic—wisteria, which strangled and ultimately wrestled it to the ground. Our carpenter Joel agreed to perform the deed once we'd resolved the definite tilt the leading edge of that roof had shown over time. The brick pillars supporting that roof were filled with compression fractures, and the roof line's far end had been sinking. The roof supports needed replacing, a massive undertaking involving taking down six tall brick columns and fifty feet of brick foundation wall, repouring foundation, then replacing those columns with concrete, steel, and wood while leveling the roof's leading edge. This work was no superficial paint job, but one which would involve Permitting, that chronically over-worked and misunderstood city department seemingly dedicated to frustrating every intention.

We'd naively presumed that the critical path to completing this transformation would lie along the line of acquiring skilled craftspersons.

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Burnishing

burnishing
Giovanni Battista Piranesi: The Round Tower,
plate 3 from the second edition of Carceri d’invenzione (Imaginary Prisons)

1750, reworked 1761)


" … each day brings us one day closer …"


Entering her sixth week of cancer treatment, The Muse descended into the worst experiences so far. The week following her final radiation treatment brought by far her body's most extreme reactions. Her neck, which had previously shown some minor evidence of tanning, took to Burnishing in the absence of fresh insults, turning a deep mahogany red and leaving her in intermittent agony. Sleep at times became as difficult as swallowing. Sneezing could prove devastating. Coughing became essentially constant. Food either tasted like nothing or like garbage, and she was hard-pressed to decide which was worse. A few suppers went uneaten, but she could choke down most, if much more slowly and in smaller portions. Oatmeal remained the most reliable meal. She made herself the most marvelous flan, which seemed to mirror the color of her neck and the texture of her throat.

Her sister sent her some THC gummy bears which reliably induce sleep and munchies!

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Knotting

Knotting
Albrecht Dürer: The Fifth Knot (c. 1507)

" … to grow more familiar with my knots …"

It might be most common to think of one's self as an untier of knots, but I'm thinking just how complicating that characterization inevitably becomes. Those of us guitar players who scrupulously maintain closely-cropped fingernails find ourselves at a natural disadvantage if we consider ourselves untyers. Many others hold no particular interest in solving puzzles, merely finding them frustrating and so best avoided. No, I'm growing to appreciate that I'm naturally more of a knot tyer. My legacy, if I ever deign to have one, should probably be comprised of knots neatly tied, suitable for untying should anyone feel so moved, but otherwise perfectly fine unresolved.

Preparing my SetList songs for public performance, I almost fell into the terrible trap of believing that I would necessarily need to resolve each mystery I encountered when resurrecting every song. …

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MakingTheBest

makingthebest
Franz Marc: The Bewitched Mill (1913)

" … once existed forever."



Make The Best

"Make The Best of the curious choices
life brings you.
They won't always rhyme
and they won't always leave a reason behind them,
'cause this is a sloppy opera and a stupid ballet
and if it isn't for the best
at least it is forever."


I always use this song to end my performances.

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Innerfacing

innerfacing
Arthur Wesley Dow: The Clam House (circa 1892)


"This so-far mythical future house concert …"


Much of my effort to resurrect my SetList of songs probably qualifies as inner work. Not to go all nineties on anybody, when the publishing world gorged in The Inner Work of pretty nearly everything, the inner work of performing even my simple tunes proves daunting. The inner world, my inner world, refuses to cleanly translate into outer mediums and contexts. Feelings repeatedly fail to pass the explicit test. Meanings steadfastly remain mysterious. Even hearing what I'm singing proves complicated and seems best amended with microphone, headphones, and a confusing array of software filters.

I've been failing to learn the software through which I filter my voice for twenty-some years and I feel no closer to figuring it out than when I started.

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SurfacePrep

surfaceprep
Arthur Wesley Dow, Pencil Proof (early 20th century)


"Great inconvenience can be tolerated to ease the prep."


Yesterday's SetTheory story,
SurfaceTension, only introduced a topic key to my navigating through to finally produce my performable SetList. New readers should understand that I'm just shy of two months into an effort to resurrect a set of my own compositions into a performable set of songs such that I might perform a house concert around the upcoming Solstice. I've been introducing here the songs I'm considering including and following my process for preparing, which doesn't always seem very much like a process at all. Yesterday's story reported on the barriers to entry I encounter when I attempt to enter the once-familiar singer/songwriter space. The door does not seem wide open. I bump into encumbrances. I recognize these for what they are, completely normal, but I'm feeling a need to more deeply explain what I'm learning about overcoming these.

Upon closer scrutiny, I perceive some commonality between what I'm experiencing resurrecting my songs and what I came to understand about managing projects, back when I worked as a project management consultant.

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SurfaceTension

surfacetension
Vasily Kandinsky: Improvisation No. 30 (Cannons) (1913)


" … results that I still feel certain anyone can see through."


Each fresh task seems to carry a certain SurfaceTension which I must penetrate before I can fully engage. While the act of penetrating that tension might look like I'm engaging, it seems much more tentative than that, as if whatever effort I expend breaking through that barrier doesn't count. Indeed, that work often seems a distraction, an irrelevance. It seems to prevent me from getting started rather than an integral part of starting. I very often find myself stymied by these initiation rituals in precisely the same way that I often cannot determine how to open a package or penetrate the bullet-proof plastic shell covering a new purchase. I cannot open these things with bare hands. Scissors usually prove useless, too. I most often submit these to The Muse for resolution, since she seems to have developed specialized strategies for opening these. I most often prefer to just set them aside as not having been designed for my use. I'm easily discouraged.

I reflect on my academic career, such as it was.

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Excusing

excusing
Martin Schongauer: Saint Sebastian (c. 1480-1490)


" … everything I accomplished will become roughly equivalent to everything I ever wanted."


Two years and eight months into the Covid-19 pandemic, I've grown expert at Excusing. I understand the limitations that this damned pandemic places upon The Muse and I. I probably understand them too well, for while most of my contemporaries, colleagues, and friends seem to have moved on and back into what now passes for ordinary times, I remain steadfastly tied to wearing my mask, anti-social distancing, and, basically, turning down the opportunity to do much of anything. I'm still not eating out. I find disturbing the prospect of ever flying again. Oh, I also have somehow managed to avoid contracting Covid. In short, I live my life immersed in considerable negative space, informed more by what I refuse to permit myself than in what I grant myself permission to engage.

I some days feel as though I've become a master at Excusing.

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Marathons

marathons
Arthur Wesley Dow: Crater Lake (1919)


"We have only inadequacy to accompany us through."


As wearying as sports metaphors can get, I might best represent cancer treatment as a sequential series of Marathons, any one of which might well prove challenging and the sum total of which certainly overwhelms. No shortcuts exist. No respites, either. From the initial discovery through the diagnosis process took The Muse three full months. Once treatment started, which began with little respite from the exhausting diagnosing effort, the insults prove unrelenting. Radiation subtlety sears. Immunotherapy infusions invade. No places to hide emerge. It's one hundred percent exposed, day and night, through the treatment period, which is scheduled from the outset: five weeks of radiation at six treatments per week and six immunotherapy infusions, one every other week for eleven weeks. Next, an indeterminate period of recovery where The Muse's body will work to rediscover all the facilities wounded in healing. It's all grueling.

If food tasted decent.

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InconviencingMyself

inconveniencingmyself
Arthur Wesley Dow:
The Long Road--Argilla Road, Ipswich (1898)


An Inconvenient Time

"
It's An Inconvenient Time to cross a line,
An Inconvenient Time to be opening any new cans of worms
'cause me and my sanity have just settled into familiar scenery
and love is the last thing on my mind:
An Inconvenient Time."


I find myself very near the bottom of my tentative SetList.

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Rest

rest
Arthur Wesley Dow: Boats at Rest (c. 1895)


" … the tacit component of the effort."


Avant Garde composer John Cage famously insisted that silence comprised the essence of music, that the notes only exist to space the silences. It's easy and seductive to focus solely upon the overt pieces of a composition when preparing to perform it, but its silences significantly contribute to whatever presence it might ultimately induce. Likewise with stories. I once published a story which featured no spaces between the words. Using this technique, I was able to present something on the order of 40% more letters on the page, but while it was certainly possible to read the result, the reading felt tedious and unrewarding. The purpose of writing was never intended to see how efficiently it might employ paper. Hoarders never seem to catch on that much of the satisfaction of owning something comes from the ability to stand a few steps away and admire it. An overstuffed closet might just as well contain nothing.

I sat this morning to begin my daily writing ritual and felt for a fleeting moment as if I'd been there before.

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Noughting

noughting
Juan Gris: Nature morte cubiste à la guitarem (1924)


"I find that tension thrilling …"


I'm not just a songwriter, but also somewhat of a guitarist. Not the kind commonly seen accompanying jazz bands, fretting hand all over the neck, fingers impossibly limber, intimately familiar with a hot half-dozen forms for even the most intimidating chords in every key. I use my guitar rather more defensively. It stands between me and my audience, a wooden fence I hide behind. I do okay but aspire to play no better. I accompany myself and I struggle wherever I attempt to get too fancy. I think of myself as primarily a lyricist, certainly much more than a guitarist. I'm a single acoustical act because I'm really not fit to play with anybody else. I keep my own tempos. I play exclusively my own songs. Consequently, I might be the only one who knows how to play along or when I play one wrong.

I became a curious kind of performer, one who'd always much rather not be the center of anyone's attention.

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Prospector

prospector
Marsden Hartley:
Landscape No. 3, Cash Entry Mines, New Mexico (1920)

"I have been the one creating that world."

Jeremiah
"Jeremiah's just as wiry as the sagebrush.
He built his home out on the desert sand.
Just a toothless old fool with a mangy mule beside him,
and a scrap of worthless parchment in his hand.
But Jeremiah says he doesn't mind his neighbors,
'course he's the only living soul for miles around,
With fifty-five years behind him in the Arizona sun,
searchin' out that old Lost Dutchman's claim."


Most of my songs seem autobiographical in that I serve as the obvious protagonist.

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TheWaitingGame

thewaitinggame
Edgar Degas: Waiting (c. 1880–1882)

"My juggling of the spaces in-between …"

Only one essential game exists: TheWaitingGame. This requisite game comes imbedded within every other game, within every occupation, whether it's considered a game or not. The one element of every engagement certain to appear before it's finished, TheWaitingGame seems anything but integral. It seems more like a waste, far worse than fallow, yet it certainly must be something other than mindless idleness. Why else would it appear universally, regardless of culture, regardless of time, age, or intelligence? The stupid receive their ration right along with the smarties. The handsome as well as the ugly, no exceptions granted. No exclusions.

My efforts to resurrect my songs and create a performable SetList feature much annoying idleness.

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ChanceEncounter

chanceencounter
Martin Lewis: Chance Meeting (1940-41)

" … the good kind of double-damned bind."

Chance Encounter

"Let’s hear it for the Chance Encounter,
Let’s sing the praise of unplanned design;
‘Cause she’s always there keepin’ an eye on,
Unlikely you’ll leave her behind.
More unlikely, she’ll leave you behind …"

I fancy myself a great believer in the ChanceEncounter.

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Twenty-fiveDown

twenty-fivedown
George Stubbs: Hay-Makers (1785)


"We've both come close to exceeding our patience, waiting."


"Twenty-fiveDown and five to go," The Muse whispered as she returned to the impossible puzzle on the side table in the radiation waiting room. She swore that she'd finish that puzzle by the time she'd completed her thirty dose radiation therapy, and she was down to the last week. Reduced to whispering now and without losing even an odd ounce of weight, she was entering what both of her oncologists had predicted would be remembered as her Hell week. Well, this week and the next, since the radiation continues cooking her cancer and her system for at least a week after the final application. Throat raw and increasingly exhausted, she still insists that she's feeling much better than she'd expected, and much better than almost any other cancer patient feels at this point in their treatment.

In that waiting room, there are never any exuberant patients or Emotional Support Animal spouses or children.

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Entropying

entropying
Unknown artist-Central Tibet, mid 15th Century:
Tsong Khapa, Founder of the Geluk Order
(c. 1440–1470)


"May I never learn better."


Each season change brings a fresh disorder into focus as the reigning arrangement suited for the receding season falls out of fashion. What served as orderly then, now only appears disorderly and in need of cleaning up. Which of the infinite choices might suffice for order this time? The possible arrangements hardly approach the infinite, and seem limited by practical factors. I have limited time and perhaps even more limited imagination. The disorder seems powerful, for it disables significant portions of my imagination. I acquire a blindness to certain potentials and affinities for the familiar. I am as a result not so much ordering or even re-ordering, but Entropying: aiding and abetting a continuing disorder, rearranging deck chairs, blithely unaware.

I'm realizing that the disorder I found when I started poking into my songbook probably resulted from an inevitable.

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MellowCat

mellowcat
Cornelis Visscher: The Large Cat (1657)


" … I have no idea from precisely where this one came."


Me and My Mellow Cat

"Winter, my life is moving slow.
My dreams have turned into yesterdays
with no place left to go
and so I find myself
on this dark side of the sun,
just tryin' to find the ones I used to be."


I despise my anticipation of winter more than I've ever actually reviled the season in practice.

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Founding

founding
John William North: The Wood Gatherers (1869)


[Herbert Alexander, the artist’s biographer, described the artist’s interpretation of nature as similar to that of a poet, suggesting rather than describing: "In watercolor and oil an effect of intricate detail is found on examination to be quite illusive—multitudinous form is conjured by finding and losing it in endless hide-and-seek till the eye accepts infinity." from The Cleveland Museum's description of this work.]

" … as if my life might really have a purpose."


My songs seem to experience the most remarkable life cycle, for I've lost each after completing them, then found and resurrected some after they've spent some period essentially wandering in wilderness. Many still remain there. Had I not resurrected them, they would have most certainly been lost to the ages, as if they'd never existed, and they might well yet be lost, for this cycle most likely continues well into the future. My legacy, such as it might be, will probably be more determined by chance than by deliberate intent. I'm uncertain, anyway, what form a legacy might take and how I might set about to form one, if I was disposed to even attempt such a feat. My tunes have faded out then back into fashion. This might just be their nature, and mine.

Through the first part of this series, I noticed myself chewing on myself for losing the songs.

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Fretwork

fretwork
Frans Hals: Jester With A Lute (c. 1620 - 1625)


" … only I could ever punch the ticket I was holding …"


Little suggests that I possess my superpower. No spandex® suit, thank heavens. No special badge. Like anyone, I appear unremarkable, just another face in the crowd. Yet I believe that I possess a real gift, but one so subtle and unobservable that even I often overlook its presence. It's taken this concerted effort to produce a SetList and preparing to perform a house concert to surface this gift. Real guitar players culture their fingernails until their picking fingers become fingerpicks, darned near indestructible. Not I. Every guitar player develops calloused fingertips on their fretting hand, and often, as in my case, that hand grows a mite larger than its counterpart from constant stretching through the decades. Other than those fingertips and the outsized hand, nothing suggests that I'm a songwriter, and those aren't definitive tells, since not every guitar player writes original songs.

Songwriting's a presumed skill, one that's really only present in any verifiable form after the work's done and the purveyor becomes one who has written, but even then, the evidence of that ability won't be in evidence, not even to the scrupulous eye.

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Journaling

journaling
Pierre-Auguste Renoir: The Apple Seller (c. 1890)


" … we're each much more complicated than we appear …"


I find myself feeling extremely grateful for the songs I've written over the years. Rediscovered, they seem to represent a curious form of Journaling, diary entries made without the author intending to catalogue his experiences. Yet, replaying each song seems to reliably resurrect the times and places within which it came into being. I have been revisiting those times and those places as I recover these songs. I realize that my experience has been much more diverse than it formerly seemed as though it had been, for I suppose that nobody ever carries many details of where they've been and who they were before. Our memories summarize, favoring brevity and so-called representative snippets. We might remember an encounter without really recalling how it felt, for instance. My songs seem capable of resurrecting feelings to produce a fully emotional remembering experience.

Earlier in my adulthood, I took to Journaling.

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PaintMeAPicture

paintmeapicture
Thomas Cole: Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830)


" … the performer doesn't quite get it yet."


Paint Me A Picture

"I'm workin' my way through,
only two more sets to go and I'll be gone.
And the spotlight sees right through me,
but I don't think it shows, I mean I'm holding on.
'Cause I've been deceiving myself through the worst of it,
just hopin' to make the best of this someday.
Hey, hey!"

I began anticipating the end of my chosen career as a singer/songwriter several years before its actual demise.

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Exemplary

exemplary
Isack Elyas: Merry Company (1629)


"She has not managed to bust out of any of the human condition on her road to recovery …"


The slow-baked yellowfin tuna in cream sauce featuring lobster mushroom and shallot seemed a decent choice for supper. The Muse had, after all, received two terribly reassuring assessments over the preceding week. We could afford to celebrate her headway. Her radiation oncologist had declared her progress through cancer treatment, "Great!" and her other oncologist had just that morning characterized her condition as she passed into halfway through her immunotherapy treatment regimen as "Exemplary!" Her progress could not have been better, but she found that she could not swallow the tuna entree. She fell back to the baked acorn squash with Bosc pear side dish. Even that, she swallowed reluctantly, the radiation treatments culminating in a rough, raw throat wherein her shrinking tumor still resides.

It's Tuesday, the morning when I deliberately set aside the primary focus of this series to update on The Muse's progress through her present bout with cancer.

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MyWives

mywives
Jean Francois Janinet:
The Three Graces (Not Dated, circa 1770-1814)


"If life's not improving then it must be intruding …"


My Wives

"
My first wife was an angel in disguise,
She taught me how to cry
and I taught her how to fly,
she bore two children.
We moved to Pennsylvania where we tried
to live the compromise familiar to all we lives.
We drank our fill, then …

"Life intruded on our plans, the future took our hands,

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Pipes

pipes
Luc-Olivier Merson:
Head of a Boy Singing [Study for Music] (c. 1898)


"I see much whispering to myself through the near future."


My songs might well be eternal, but only conceptually. Actual eternity requires more resources than might seem obvious. That ditty you heard on the radio probably cost thousands of dollars to produce. The simpler the song, the more its production likely cost, with studio time alone costing beaucoup bucks per hour, not to mention engineers, musicians, and backup singers. My songs, as I've explained before, are more like freeze-dried preserved. They need to be reconstituted each time. This requires not only the words, melody, and chords, but also a fresh performance of those, using my voice and accompanying myself on my guitar. Recovering these tunes touches every aspect of every song. I've struggled just to recover the words for some. The melodies and chords were never transcribed into musical notation, which I never mastered and couldn't read in realtime, anyway, so those need recovering from my ever-faulty memory. It was long my dream to record in a real studio, though I only ever managed that feat once. I recorded five songs in the hour I'd reserved, if you don't count the extra time the studio's owner gave without charging me, so I could finish what I'd intended, because he liked what I was doing. Even those need recovering if I ever intend to actually perform them.

So, when I say I'm recovering a set of songs, I mean that I'm actually recreating those performances, or, more accurately, creating them anew again.

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Fingerlings

fingerlings
Anton Mauve:
Aardappelrooiers [Potato Harvesters]
(1848 - 1888)


"I pursue my best with the least promising resources …"


After a few years of relative inactivity, my fingers seem almost as agile as Fingerling potatoes. They've lost their limberness. They feel stiff and inattentive when attempting to play anything the least bit intricate. They transform my guitar's fretboard into an authentically fretful place. I attempt little and achieve worse, cursing under my breath. I face a long recovery, a bare uphill track featuring few useful landmarks. I some days doubt that I will ever recover my former mindlessness, for proper guitar playing requires little if any thought. It's incarnate muscle memory in action, not in any way thoughtful or strategic. Once mastered, it just happens, freeing up consciousness to remember lyrics or control voice and volume. The guitar should properly accompany, not feature, and in order to properly disappear into the background, it must be transcended. No struggling to remember chord order or, heaven forbid, proper fingering. That must follow as a matter of course, without thought or fuss.

Now, it remains mostly thought and fuss, of course, which reliably produces the absolute opposite of reinforcement to practice, which will provide the only viable escape route back to even the appearance of competence.

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SpecialCrazy

specialcrazy
Vincent van Gogh:
Madame Roulin Rocking the Cradle
[La berceuse]
(1889)

" … this song cemented our sanity."


A Special Kind Of Crazy

"It takes a special sort of Fool to write a song for you.
That Special Kind Of Crazy can't help but just shine through,
Other lives and other places
You with yours and my displacements,
We'll integrate or simply leave behind,
'cause I'm crazy of that very special kind."

And so I started what promised to be a really terrific tune.

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Underpants

underpants
Underpants of Hendrik Casimir I: Anonymous
(1630 - 1640)


"Give me superficiality or give me certain death …"


Those who've followed my FaceBook benediction postings after my Friday PureSchmaltz Zoom Chats already know that I favor what're labeled "Novelty" tunes. I take my music seriously, as the pieces I've already introduced doubtless make clear, but I'm never more delighted than when The Muse slips some smart-assed something into the mix. Like many other songwriters, I've never really been in charge of which songs emerge. I've proven myself capable of following inspirations, but never really facile at creating them. Songs more visit me than I create them. They lead, I dutifully follow, and the responsibility does, indeed, feel like a duty to me. Like anyone, I feel enjoined to make my particular sort of noise in this world. Otherwise, why was I even born?

Amid all my more serious works, my self-described Top Fifty Truly Terrible Traveling Tunes stand eternal.

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InvisibleHusband

InvisibleHusband
William Henry Millais: Steps in a Garden (1860)


"This wholly unlikely story is absolutely true."


The Invisible Husband

"It’s late. I’m going to sleep.
You’re still awake in an airplane seat.
I’m here, holding fort,
the cats are tended and the house is dark.
I’ll see you late Friday night,
too late for supper, I’ll keep the bed warm,
let yourself in if I couldn’t keep my eyes open."

If any of my songs have proven emblematic of an era, this one certainly managed to became that.

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Magick

Magick
Corita Kent (Sister Mary Corita):
m is for magick (1968)


"[Magick] might materially misrepresent its eventual impact."


The wheat and the chessboard problem dates from at least the thirteenth century. In it, a king foolishly agrees to pay a mercenary in grain, a single kernel for the first day's effort, two kernels for the second, doubling the amount each successive day until all sixty-four squares on a chessboard are covered. The amount of grain accumulated after the first thirty-two days of effort seems huge, something on the order of 279 tons, but the thirty-third square calls for twice that amount. By the sixty-fourth square, only more than 1,600 times the world's annual grain production will meet the requirement.

I recall this story to describe how cancer treatment works.

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FoolHead

foolhead
Sebald Beham: The Fool and the Foolish Woman
(circa 1531-50)


"What wiser course could any half-wit devise?"


My mother would have said that I was singing my FoolHead off, but I was actually singing it on. Plugged into my studio headphones and finally satisfied with the filtering, I was suspended in an other world, singing while playing my guitar. Once tuned up and with my eyes closed, I had dulled all extraneous senses so that I could focus upon the few of them important to my mission. I was, in the vernacular, practicing, but I was more like focusing. The focusing's much harder, and a necessary precedent if practicing's to satisfy its purpose. The biggest challenge involves overcoming the distractions, and plugging into my sensory depravation system definitely helps. It seems that I can accomplish nothing as long as my full range of senses remain active. I must dismiss some feelings to make either sense or progress. I must put on my FoolHead, not remove it.

Performing seems a necessarily mindless activity.

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TheVoices

thevoices
Jacob Jordaens:
The Conversion of Saul with Horseman and Banner
(c. 1645–47)


"Better if he focuses exclusively upon making a joyful noise."


Performer Leo Kottke famously described his baritone singing voice as sounding like "Geese farts on a muggy day." I've long agreed with him, yet his singing voice seems perfectly appropriate, the perfect accompaniment to his masterful guitar playing. He plays his guitar so skillfully that any accompanying voice couldn't help but mesh well. A long line of less than perfect voices have passed in and out of notoriety in my short lifetime, so many that I marvel at how few really wonderful voices I've ever heard. Clearly, the quality of a voice and the quality of any given performance remain two very separate experiences, with the twain only rarely converging. The quirky seems to have little problem attracting an adequate crowd, and often, much more than a merely adequate one.

An unheard voice, the voice within, always accompanies the one projected over the accompanying music.

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BornToSee

borntosee
Frederic Edwin Church: Twilight in the Wilderness
(1860)


"Another dichotomy bites some dust."


Many of my song lyrics describe apparent contradictions, where opposites might temporarily take the same side. I was always attracted to seeming paradoxes, relations that make no rational sense, but which could be resolved with a little perspective shifting. I have often been fooled when some opposite turned into something much more similar than I'd earlier expected. I might have been making war on dichotomies, trying to demonstrate just how simplistic and self-destructive classifications can become. Many of my lyrics register surprise at discovering another nature lurking behind the obvious one. I believe that this phenomenon represents real learning. When all the innocent and ignorant others disappear into similar forms, enlightenment will have occurred. Until then, good and evil continuously battle to nobody's obvious benefit.

BornToSee The Light

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