From the monthly archives:

January 2010

After a search for one last piece to post this month, I’m just not satisfied.

According to Evernote, where I keep my working drafts, I have 83 blog posts in progress.

Some of those are just a few lines or phrases, and will probably never go anywhere.

Other drafts are long and fraught. I just read one for the first time in about six weeks, and realized why I was struggling so much with it: there are three distinct ideas trying to establish themselves in the piece, and by the end, it’s at best a weary draw. All three lay gasping in a heap, not even caring who won anymore. I need to treat my ideas with more respect.

In place of a properly-edited, mostly-polished blog post, I’ve decided to share a peek into my process: lines, quotes and images from works in progress.

I’ve intentionally left a few pieces out. There need to be some surprises.

Is there a sense of coherence across all these different fragments? I’m not sure.

What follows are simply clumps of loose and stray thread that may or may not be woven into something larger:

Downtown Portland

Our streets are a cutting room floor...

If you’re taking all the trouble to go somewhere else, maybe it’s worth pretending that the internet hasn’t gotten there first.

Looking Aft

A sense of connection

One of the ship’s officers, during a safety briefing:

“The bad news is that we do not have Internet aboard. The good news is that our records show that 100% of our passengers have survived this condition.”

Butterflies near Igauzu Falls

Adorning a mineral-rich puddle

To those still expecting you to be a caterpillar, your wings are merely distracting appendages.

The View

The View

If all systems of transmission corrupt, the question becomes: how usefully or beautifully do they corrupt?

Dulce de Dulce

Dulce de Dulce

At a pivotal point in the middle of one draft, I found this:

[see notes not yet typed from Jan 4, in wet blue notebook]

Three Borders, Two Rivers

Two Rivers, Three Borders

From abundant potential, we must narrow our attention to a single, fixed goal. The decision of what to do in any given moment lasts much longer than that moment. It creates its own minor legacy.

Glacier ice on the beach

A beached glacier

The entirety of Anne Carson’s biographical note on the back flap of “If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho”:

Anne Carson lives in Canada.

Emily Dickinson:

“…the Truth must dazzle gradually…”

Emerging Lenticular

A coy lenticular

Offline, the shrunken world: Our social reach retracts to physical proximity. Just when I think I’ve truly escaped it all, there’s a song playing in the bar that is also on the iPhone in my pocket.

Ushuaia — as a city tenuously clinging to the edge of the world? It doesn’t exist.



Whenever I travel, I’m reminded of the distinction between where our body is, and where our mind is. How often are they co-located?

Seasonal Consommé

Seasonal Consommé

Other than the annual stumble through an old standard for my grandmother at Thanksgiving, who politely pretended not to notice the rapid decline of my keyboard skills, I didn’t play any traditional repertoire for more than ten years. I had completely burned myself out, to the point that I didn’t even want to pick through pieces I enjoyed listening to, or had once enjoyed playing.

No Skating


Even when I was still too young to drive a car, my parents were broad-minded enough to let me put a bumpersticker on their car: “Skateboarding is Not a Crime”.

It wasn’t just theoretical: The only time I’ve ever been in the back of a police car was when I was 12 or 13, and was chased down for…well, I don’t know what, and the officer didn’t seem to know, either, but that didn’t stop him from throwing me in the caged part of the car (my skateboard in the trunk) and taking me to the station for a good old-fashioned injection of small-town fear.

Broken Windshield Cone

Broken Windshield Cone

It is an error to assume the inarticulate have no story to tell, or that the middling sketcher has no inspiring vision to share. Maybe they just haven’t found a medium yet in which they are or can become fluent, and in the meantime, they are a musician without an instrument, an actor without a stage, or a sculptor with only paintbrushes.

Too Small To Fail


When you crash in public, keep going, and frame it with an improvisational flourish so it seems like it was part of a larger plan. Carry on, and finish strongly.

In Color

In Color

Momentary dissonances must be considered in a larger context.

Loud is easy. It’s much harder to play softly but powerfully.



A strong wind hitting a bare mast won’t get you anywhere.



By standing silently at the trimming of one twig, we give our assent to the loss of an entire branch of human knowledge.

Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires

We have a notion of Paris or Kyoto or the Baltic Sea, and we use those words to communicate that notion with others. And then we go there, and, on arrival, discover that we were completely wrong, even about some of the broad strokes. We can’t reconcile the ideas we had in our mind with our present experience without completely rebuilding our definition of those particular words and letters.

And then we wonder: what have we been talking about all those years when the topic was Kyoto?  What did the other person have in mind during that conversation? And did we effectively communicate anything at all?

Because winters need more red

by Dusty Weston, a distant cousin

I just felt like ending this one with a bit of red — a color our winters don’t provide in abundance.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Words on a Screen

by Matt Blair on January 18, 2010

in History,Inspirations,Meaning,Quotes,Senses

Each year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I set aside some time to read through one of his speeches.

Yes, read. Not listen or watch, but read.

True, Dr. King was more of a speechmaker than a pamphleteer. The audio and video recordings of his speeches are indeed powerful.

But it’s kind of like that moment when you think of a song you’ve loved for years, and realize you have no idea what it’s about, or maybe just an incomplete understanding.

The non-verbal elements that inspire and attract us to a well-delivered speech can distract us from the actual message.

Strip away the soaring tone, the cheer of the crowd, the scratchy black-and-white sense of historical import, the measured breath and gleam in the eyes, the hands resting on each side of the podium as the voice rises and falls, and what’s left?

The words.

Quietly reading the text of a speech removes many of those sensual elements that allow us to get swept away in the moment.

It also fills out the frame in a way that all the short clips and soundbites we hear so often never do: not just the heights at the end, but the slow, steady climb through the rhetorical switchbacks before we glimpse the summit.

Here’s an excerpt of an excerpt that I posted last year:

Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood — it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.”

Hard not to think of pre-earthquake Haiti when reading a quote like that.

This year, I chose “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution“, from which this line also reminded me of Haiti — and North Korea and Zimbabwe and Detroit and so many other places:

“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”

And this is the passage that’s stuck with me throughout the day:

One day a newsman came to me and said, “Dr. King, don’t you think you’re going to have to stop, now, opposing the war and move more in line with the administration’s policy? As I understand it, it has hurt the budget of your organization, and people who once respected you have lost respect for you. Don’t you feel that you’ve really got to change your position?” I looked at him and I had to say, “Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I’ve not taken a sort of Gallup Poll of the majority opinion.” Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.

On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?

There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.


Cowardice, Expediency, Politics and Vanity as the four horseman of Inaction, with Conscience as the savior?

I could sign on to that worldview.

The King Institute has a list of Dr. King’s speeches, with transcriptions of most.

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At the end of each year, the calendar often seems to have just the kind of dip in deadlines and workload that invites a contemplative wallow. Especially so for me this year, since I was traveling the first half of December.

I knew I’d want to spend some time over the winter holidays processing my thoughts and sensations from that trip: writing about the places, cataloging the sounds I recorded, sending follow-up emails to those I’d met, and organizing photos like this one:

Sunrise in Torres del Paine

Sunrise in Torres del Paine

But I also wanted to devote some time to thinking through my plans for 2010, to set out some specific and concrete goals, and decide how to achieve them.

I had a basic structure in mind, using questions and exercises I had accumulated over the last few months, some of my own creation, others pulled from books like Carol Lloyd’s fantastic “Creating a Life Worth Living“.

At the end of two weeks, I imagined I’d have some combination of “outputs” like:

  • a writing schedule for the blog and podcast
  • a tidy page full of measurable goals
  • practical achievable quarterly reading lists
  • answers to all the deep questions
  • maybe even a Gantt chart or two

All the kinds of artifacts you’re supposed to have to switch into the past tense with confidence, and say: “I planned.”

Well, enlightenment didn’t arrive in a neat bundle. Despite all the planning for the planning, my brain has been wiggling and writhing away from most of the tools I’d selected.

Sitting at the table, I kept reaching past the activities I’d assembled to pick up Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt or Anne Carson’s translations of the Sappho fragments, or Borges or Chatwin or Emily Dickinson or Marcus Aurelius — or even Mark Bittman.  All delightful, and all worth reading, put not necessarily frameworks for long-term planning or establishing those measurable goals.

Or maybe they are, indirectly: I found that each changed the contours of the course of my thoughts throughout the rest of a day.

I’ve read in those repositories of modern American myth known as business magazines that there are people who put “30,000 feet” projects on their schedule at a given time, for example “Plan future from 10:00 to 10:30″, and it works for them. They must be under some spell that I haven’t encountered. I sometimes envy creatures with such clockwork minds — but only sometimes.

When the mind wanders, why not let the body follow? Or at least try, if it can keep up.

Rather than confining myself to my desk, as though I was back in middle-school detention, I went walking — in rain, sun and even snow.

Amidst what seemed more like a muddle than work – walking on a whim, whenever the mood struck — I found myself engaged in a different approach to planning: I wandered with a pen and a pocket full of index cards, stopping as needed to scribble thoughts as they came to me.

Now, looking back at it, I don’t have all the fastidious “deliverables” I had expected, but I do have some clues:

So...who's going to type all this up?

So...who's going to type all this up?

Each card is like a ballot. Sorting and counting and typing and editing them has become a kind of informal, non-binding straw poll of where my mind is headed.

As I tally the votes, look for ballot-stuffing and other irregularities that might signify unwanted interference, and make note of all the write-in candidates and ad-hoc ballot initiatives with scarcely any support, I’ve discovered several patterns amidst those scribbles.

I’ve achieved much more than I originally thought.

And I’ve also been reminded: not only do we often find answers in unexpected places, but the path to those places is often unexpected, too.

So what do I have in the works for this year? I hope you’ll keep reading as it unfolds.

What’s your 2010 looking like? Did you do any year-end planning? How did it go? What methods worked for you? Please add a comment or send an email and let me know. And Happy New Year.