After doing some observation works, my energy changes and I am drawn to further and further abstraction.
In late June I started writing songs after a dry spell of many years. The melodies and the lyrics are just popping up and I am letting them, giving them a space to be alive and change and grow. I am tending to them as I would a poem or any writing, but the process is different—a fluid exchange between set ideas and improvisation. It often starts with a melody and a couplet or two, and then expands as the music takes shape, because the written words on the page don’t tell the whole story.
The Roller Coaster is the third “finished” song this month, the first recording I want to share. It all started out with four lines that didn’t make it to the finished work. Those (ultimately discarded) lines formed the framework of the melody, which gave birth to the first lines of the finished song (and the concept as a whole). It was written over the course of a week, and this recording (the third in the process) was made on July 31st.
Musically, I’m in a strange place. My ear is better than it’s ever been, and my vision for what I want to do is clear. But i’m out of practice, and it takes real work to get what I hear in my brain out onto the tape. When it happens successfully, It’s a true and absolute joy. One thing I’ve been surprised by is how much the skills i’ve learned over the past several years doing non-music projects have made me a better songwriter. Things like: working incrementally and iteratively, taking breaks when things aren’t working, putting time in when it feels right AND when it doesn’t, practicing, accepting where I’m at, Taking risks.
My goal is to release a record before the year is through, but right now I’m focused on shepherding these songs into the world. I have faith that they will all come together in a way that makes sense to me, and hope that I can form them into a work that resonates with others, too.
The Roller Coaster
I’ve been getting high again
just to come back down.
All the turns you took me in
turned me inside out.
As we fall, that’s all there is—
I can’t even see.
At the top I’m losing it,
I can barely breathe.
Feels like I am going to die
as I strap on in
to face the fear and feel what’s here,
not what might have been.
Most evenings I walk from my office through downtown Chicago to catch a Metra train home. The walk is 1.1 miles, heading South and West from State and Hubbard to Union Station’s Madison Street entrance. The direction I’m heading cuts diagonally across downtown, which creates a lot of flexibility when it comes to route choice. Regardless of which streets are taken, there are at least eleven intersections to pass through and upwards of 20 navigation decisions to be made along the way.
There are essentially three factors that impact how fast the entire journey will be.
1. How fast I’m walking
3. How much time I must wait at intersections
The real opportunity here is in defining a routing methodology that minimizes time not walking. I’m in direct control of my walking speed, and the weather bows to no man.
Over time, I’ve developed the following guidelines for route taking to minimize time not walking per trip to an average of 18 seconds.
Never wait by choice*
Every intersection choice point has two valid directional options—South or West. In most cases, waiting is not necessary because if one direction is blocked, the other is open. *This guideline must sometimes be overruled in order to stay away from the perimeter of the route.
Hop to it!
If I can run a few paces to make the tail end of a “walk” sign, I’ll do it. The extra benefit is that when crossing near the end of light, I can immediately turn and cross again when I get to the other side.
Maximize choice points
Every intersection that is not on the perimeter of the route contains 1-2 choice points, each with two valid directional options. For example, let’s say I’m coming south on the east side of Dearborn and I arrive at Wacker Drive. My first choice point is to either continue South on Dearborn (crossing Wacker), or to turn right on Wacker, (crossing Dearborn). Once either of these moves are made, I cross the street and immediately encounter my next choice point, continue or turn.
In most cases, choice should be made entirely by the “Never Wait” guideline, but there is another principle at play that makes it advantageous to wait for short times (if necessary) in order to stay away from the perimeter. The perimeter of route is where waiting happens, because there are no longer any choice points and directional options that don’t increase the overall distance of the trip. If the light is red, I’ve gotta wait. The guideline I use is to avoid the outside perimeter and the next block in from it until I’ve reached the Lyric Opera at Washington and Wacker. I may wait 8 seconds or less at an early intersection to ensure that I avoid perimeter woes.
Avoid multiple Wacker drive intersections
All intersections are not created equally. Waiting, if necessary, takes longer on intersections where at least one of the streets are two-way. I try to head quickly to cross the River, then if I’m not lucky enough to cross Wacker right away, I’ll walk west until I get to an intersection where I can cross without any waiting.
If I am optimizing for speed, this is how I do it. I may make another post some time about optimizing the same walk for beauty, which I have thoughts about too. Enjoy walking!
I’ve had the Sayre Park painting hanging in the living room to observe for the past few weeks. It’s been a great reminder of the kind of work i don’t want to do. Through talking about this with Zion and Josiah last weekend, we decided it looked more interesting turned on its side. Once I did that, the painting was crying out to become an underpainting for something new.
A couple of days later, an artist named Katie Vernon posted a painting to her instagram that inspired me to start my new painting in a particular way. Here is her painting:
Last night I found just the right photo source for the new painting and got to work. I starting blocking white, then gray, then blue and brown and greenish grays. I made a few passes over it and really got into a flow and had a lot of fun. I’m absolutely loving the direction this took and I’m looking forward to digging back in to it.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a problem with anger.
Once, as a grade-schooler, I was walking home from school and got roughed up by a couple of neighborhood bullies. During this episode, I landed zero meaningful physical punches but delivered a few insults that ultimately saved me and sent the other kids packing. I walked home marveling in my new found super-power: hurting people with words. I made the kind of mental note that was significant enough that i remember it today. “I can protect myself this way, with words that hurt.”
I made the kind of mental note that was significant enough that i remember it today. “I can protect myself this way, with words that hurt.”
Skimming through the innumerable explosions of my teens and twenties, you’d encounter young Benjamin dressing down a variety of characters with foul mouthed rage. Family, friends, lovers, passersby, authority figures, coworkers, bosses. Nobody was safe from me, including me. I was no longer ignorant about my childhood coping mechanism turned against me, but I felt helpless about finding lasting change.
Fortunately, in my late twenties a few good things happened. (1) My boss at the time told me in no uncertain terms, “You’ve got what it takes to lead this team, but I can’t promote you to leadership if you don’t get a handle on your anger.” Providing for my family and advancing professionally were really important to me, so this was a huge motivation. (2) My (now ex) wife found a book about “rageaholics” that helped me. Essentially, it framed my challenge as “addiction to rage,” and expained how, for folks like me, a lot of the conventional advice about dealing with anger was counterproductive. I started learning about my “point of no return” (once a rage-prone person passes this, self-control is often practically unavailable) and finding ways to avoid getting there. (3) With the help of therapists and a men’s group, i started coming to terms with what was driving my generalized anger (and depression) and managing myself better. I was making progress. I managed to do the difficult personal work that took me from having 2 or more outbursts a week to having 1 or maybe 2 a month. I felt like I had arrived. Turns out I hadn’t. I felt like a new person. Turns out I wasn’t.
Now, fast forward with me past the shit-storm that was marital separation, dislocation from my children, loss of friendships, and divorce. Fast forward past new love and new marriage. Fast forward to that new love and marriage hitting the rocks amidst the backdrop of new children, job stress and my own depression. I was slipping fast back into anger as a coping mechanism, driving myself further into shame and depression and away from love, kindness, acceptance and patience.
I was sad, angry, depressed, and having suicidal thoughts pretty regularly. In that space, I was doing more than my part to ruin the marriage and limit my other relationships. After years of looking outside myself for answers, I decided to look back in and I didn’t like a lot of what I was seeing. Turns out 1 or 2 angry outbursts a month was more than enough to make me miserable and the people around me afraid. So I got to work again.
With a focus on dealing with my depression (and the role that disappointment and anger play in it), I started back into therapy, and headed down the track of what I can now identify as mindfulness training. Observing and noting what I’m thinking and feeling. Observing and noting patterns, and doing little things to change them for the better. Not “owning” my thoughts, etc.
Over the last few years I have managed to claw my way out of that depression, rebuild my self-confidence, and further reduce my reactivity across the board (including anger). Thanks to the hard work of therapy and especially through mindfulness meditation practice, I am now able to process my thoughts and emotions in a non-reactive fashion, and I can do this in extremely difficult or stressful environments. Anger no longer has a death grip on me. I am able to receive the emotion and let it go. I am able to see what’s beneath the anger and pain and bring healing to those parts of me that I wasn’t able to sit with before. I am in so many ways, a new person.
But I’m not.
This morning I popped off in reactive anger when something went wrong at work. I was harsh and unkind to one of my absolute favorite employees (ugh!). I have apologized sincerely, but there is not much else I can do other than commit myself again to the life I wish to lead. Commit myself again to love above all things.
I will never arrive, and the Work will never be finished until I am.
So it strikes me that, as much as I have changed, and continue to change, I will always make mistakes. I will never arrive, and the Work will never be finished until I am. For now, I will forgive myself and do my best not to pull the hoodie of unworthiness over my head. I will grieve the moment and continue on the path of peace, loving myself and others the best that I can, and always better.
Covered a lot of ground and had a really fun painting session last night. I blocked in more of the hills and mountains in the distance, and put in a couple of washes on the lake itself. I expect the final painting to not look much like this at all, but it’s heading in the right direction. Next passes will focus on sky and some elements in the foreground that haven’t been painted yet.
It feels inevitable that all this diving into observational painting is just taking me the long way back to complete abstraction. I’m not trying to go there, but as I continue to incorporate mindfulness into everything i’m doing, it’s hard to ignore the bursts of excitement and delight that I get when I’m making marks for marks-sake. Who knows!??!!!!
Put in time last night doing an underdrawing and putting some paint down on this 48×36″ panel. Lately i’ve been trying to just work on whatever i’m drawn to in the moment, and last night I was feeling this big one. I lost a little momentum looking for the right source photo. to work from. I landed on a view of The Loch, a lake I hiked past on the way up to Sky Pond in Estes Park.
One thing i realized right away was just how much this change in scale changes the game for the way I’m painting, and really the way i’ll *be able* to paint. This one is going to be a challenge but i’m determined to learn as much as possible.
The main drawback of jumping into this painting is that I won’t be able to iterate as fast, which is going to slow down the overall learning cycle. To this end, i’m going to get one or two smaller works going over the weekend so when i’m not ready to dive into the big one, i’ll still be able to make progress.
Working on freeing myself up a bit more, so I’m going to be making some low-risk, low-stakes landscapes on paper. I have some ideas about what i’ll do with these but I’ll discuss that when I actually do something. I’m thinking this needs one more pass before calling it “done.” This scene is inspired by a photograph I took on my hike to Chasm Lake, just after climbing above the treeline.
Everything about this roughly two hour painting session felt good. It had its ups and downs but more often than not I was experiencing a flow state. I succeeded in not overworking anything, and I now have a clear vision of where this painting will end. I am toying with a tone change in the sky but I want to add the foreground elements before changing anything.
one thing that has been working well when my intention is to paint looser and more intuitively is to put on improvisational jazz music. The last couple of painting sessions were powered by Makaya McCraven. Something about the groove and the open ended improvisation really helps me get out of my head and paint more by feel.
I was finishing up sanding a few freshly primed wood supports when I came across an old project I started about two years ago. I had cut up the solid wood top of an unused drawing table to use part of it for another project and was left with a 22×15 inch panel that seemed to have potential. I decided to use wood carving tools to carve a series of grooves into the wood, then pushed magenta ink into those cracks and wiped the top surface down (kind of like inking an etching). I then filled the cracks and covered the entire surface with about 1/8 inch of resin. This is where i stopped (my original plan was to layer further groove/fills, but I put the panel aside).
Upon seeing that board again, i had an urge to paint over it because i’ve found that starting with an old painting seems to work well for me right now. I took the panel outside and sanded the resin down to a paintable surface with 150 grit, wiped off all the dust, then got busy.
Using a photo I took from above Sky Pond, I started with a pencil sketch. Feeling the momentum, I decided to white out the sky as a base, then make some green marks. I really like where this is headed, it’s got a lot of potential and it feels right.