Reflections on Age

It’s not a particularly significant birthday in the decimal system. Not a big round number or anything. But I do notice that as each decade passes it’s around four years after the big round number that causes me to reflect more on age. As I see the big round number disappearing in the rear-view mirror I am more aware that I am here for a finite span of years and I’d better make the most of them.

It’s been a year of change.

At my last birthday I was still less than two months in to my current job and struggling pretty hard. I was managing a team of mostly new people who were learning to maintain and operate a software system that was extremely complex. Today we have it all well under control, and are working in a new way to simplify and streamline the development process under my guidance, and the company overall is doing good work in retiring technical debt while setting out in new directions.

So that’s a change: I think I can check off the “successful senior executive in an SMB technology company” box on my life list. There is still more to learn, so I’ll be sticking with it for a while.

My personal life had some challenges. I was in a long-term relationship that came to an end, although we have been able to transition into a viable friendship.

I bought a boat. I’ve taken some good trips. Likely one more this year, then some major upgrades over the winter: a composting head, and a rebuilt ice-box are the two big ones. Being on the water changes me, or at least rejuvenates me.

And there was much improv. Joe Bill’s improv intensive just before my birthday last year was life-changing, but not nearly so life-changing as Jennifer Peilak’s musical improv courses. I did really good courses with Instant, Second Storey and VTSL/ICI over the year, and all were valuable. The genre workshops with ICI were particularly good in terms of learning stuff about the way structures work in story. But nothing has come close to the joy, confidence, and pure fun that has come with musical improv, in part because of the amazing people I get to play with.

I don’t hear well, and grew up being told I can’t sing. I’ve been told I can’t do a lot of things, both growing up and as an adult, and while I rebelled against as much of that as possible, some of it slipped through.

When you think you can’t sing and you hate to look clueless, singing in front of people is terrifying. At this time last year it was easily my number one fear. Carrie and I had done a karaoke duet earlier in 2015, and with her support I could get through it, but it was a difficult experience. I was afraid. And I hate that.

So when Jennifer ran her first “Happy Jam” I signed up, and found the doors opening to a supportive, transformative environment that has continued to expand and offer new opportunities. There was a six week course on “Musical Improv Elements” offered after that, which I took. A group of us continued to practice together, and I’m currently taking a more advanced course with many of the same people.

It turns out I can sing somewhat, and while I’m still challenged in certain respects–new hearing aides helped a lot–I took singing lessons over the summer that have made a difference, and am practicing the operation of this odd instrument we all have within us. There’s more to learn, always more to learn, but it’s better to learn awkwardly than to gracefully remain unchanged.

I’m not afraid of singing in front of people any more. I do it at every opportunity. I don’t know where this musical improv journey is going to take me, but every single step has been more than worth the effort.

So that is another change that has occurred over the course of the past year, and continues to percolate through all aspects of my life.

I’ve written less prose than I had hoped, but I’m OK with that for now. I’ve done more writing for short film work than I’d planned, and that has been a learning experience and good fun.

Since I started dating again, I’ve learned that when I describe my life, people sometimes simply assume I am lying. This cracks me up, because it makes perfect sense, and yet it never occurred to me.

One of the fun things about breakups is they force you to look yourself sternly in the eye and say, “What’s wrong with you, dude?” This isn’t the first time I’ve been through this process, having done a lot of work with a cognitive therapist when my marriage broke up, but coming back for another look turned out to be a good idea. I learned a lot about emotional development in infant humans, and can say with some confidence where my almost complete lack of empathy comes from. Some of it is my basic neurochemistry, which falls well short of anything on the Autism spectrum, although you can definitely see it from where I am. But some of it is due to a poorly developed interpersonal self, which is a result of some of the circumstances of my infancy. Knowing that, which has given me a much clearer picture of what I’m not doing well, I have figured out how to exercise the capacities I do have to see if I can improve them. I think it’s helping some. Time will tell.

That’s another change that’s still in progress.

I’ve written some good poetry and some I’m not so sure of, and maybe one of the best poems I’ll ever write, inspired by Hilary’s novel take on the mandala form. I’m working on getting a poetry business up and running–there really are such things, which produce poems for weddings and graduations, speeches and retirement parties and whatnot–and have a long narrative poem that’s a kind of Robert Service/HP Lovecraft mashup coming out in the next edition of the “Mythic Delirium” e-zine. I’m also working on a long poem that’s a take-off on “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”–working title, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Ham”–in Seussian anapestic tetrameter. Beyond that, I have something more Homeric in the wings that might prove interesting.

There isn’t enough time in the day, and I’ve had some pretty intense periods of activity over the year, with just enough downtime to stay healthy. I’ve lost some weight and plan to lose more. It’s going slowly. I’ve been running again recently after a six month hiatus. My legs hate me.

After a year that has had more than it’s share of bumps, my life is more filled with joy than it has ever been. And there is more to come.

So here is my reflection on age: live well, be true to yourself, surround yourself with people who appreciate who you are and who want you to feel good about being who you are, and keep creating whatever it is you are moved to create. Keep learning. Embrace change. Do that, and getting older can be ridiculously joyful. There are sad and difficult bits, and you die in the end, but that doesn’t preclude joy. It’s right there. It’s all around us. It’s in us and of us. Embrace it, and grow old in it. That’s my plan.

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Not Dead Yet

Beneath the dark and cloudy sky
there comes a time to do or die
so screw the grave and give the lie
to the fear that lives in the hills.
This be the curse that is laid on me:
to be in the place that I need to be
to loose my hold and go falling free
like the wild wolf after its will.

[With apologies to Robert Louis Stevenson: http://bartleby.com/103/15.html]

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Surreality

Some surreal certainty suffices
to turn turgid temerity toward
ponderous political pronouncements
exhorting exceptional extremes.

Another asshole assessing America
finding fearful followers
groking gargantuan goals:
crime, corruption, Clinton.

Lying liars laying legerdemain
on odious obligers
who wishfully, whitely, wander
behind bellicose belligerence.

Trumpets trace tearful transcendence
down dreadful dialectic drifts
quite queer quislings
upend unending unities.

Nowhere nations naturally name
itinerate idiots idolizing
joking jesters jettisoning junk,
metastasizing miracles:
ludicrous, lazy, loquacious, lugubrious.

Killers keep
ridiculous riots repeating,
vile vicious victories
which would wreck

xenophobes
young, yearning yobs,
zealots, zeroes.

Why yes, this is a political poem, because the “conservative” movement is completely off the rails and flirting with fascism worldwide, and in the US is stripping off its clothes and getting ready to get into bed with it. Also: I like alliteration.

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The Speed of Light

[Hilary quite correctly pointed out there was something rong with this poem in it’s original version. This is the revised version, which I’m still not entirely happy with but which is better. The problem is the first quatrain came to be entire while greeting the sun from my balcony one morning last week. I noticed how different each day was as we progress toward the equinox, now less than a moon’s turning away. The rest of the poem, though, remains obscure to me. The original version can be found below.]

Each day the morning sun slips down the sky
changing light of seasons moving fast
shadows lengthen like a lover’s sigh
future sliding softly into past.
Each day beneath the sky so clear and blue
above the dew-dropped Earth that smells of autumn
winds of change are blowing straight and true
scrubbing down the world from top to bottom.
Each day the trees are turning brighter shades
of red and yellow, oranges like fire
lit by morning sunlight, burning glades,
unconsumed, growing each year higher.
Each day the changing light greets morning new
Each day there’s time and still much work to do.

Autumn is a season of renewal for me, and yet at this point in my life I’m aware–very aware–that there are quite likely more days behind than there are ahead. But there is still a lot I plan to do in the late summer and early autumn of my life, and I am in fact busily engaged in doing much of it, with more to come.

Original version:

Each day the morning sun slips down the sky
changing light of seasons moving fast
shadows lengthen like a lover’s sigh
future sliding softly into past
day by day. The speed of changing light
announces Autumn, parabolic curves
blow silent fanfare, welcoming cool Night
through the gates of evening to preserves
once ruled by Day alone. And yet there’s time
before cold Winter blusters through the gates
and freezes out the last remaining rays
of Summer sunshine with a glance of hate
making final end of all our days.
The changing light greets each morning new
And promises there’s time and much to do.

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Riverrun

Deep clear cold running water
down from shadowed upper bend
distance dancing with time’s daughter,
no beginning, without end.

Sunlight dappled river bed
cedar overhearing
what the roaring thunder said
down rapids, water rearing

over rocks and into pools
where currents softly twist
plaits of shadow, catching jewels,
like fireflies in the mist.

Down around the lower curve
still the rushing river leaps
past the rocks in graceful swerves
water running cold clear deep.

From notes taken on the path to Brandywine Falls.

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Putting the “Shake” in “Shakedown”

I took Murrelet out for a shakedown cruise this weekend, to Plumper Cove, a local marine park on Keat’s Island on the Northwest side of the entrance to Howe Sound. It’s an easy day sail from here, about five hours in typical conditions.

spring evening at anchor a family of river otters sculls silently toward shore their small heads poking above the water's surface

spring evening at anchor
a family of river otters
sculls silently toward shore
their small heads poking
above the water’s surface

There was a strong wind warning up Saturday. Out in the Strait, there were winds gusting up to force 7 on the Beaufort scale, which looked a lot like this: the long streaks of foam are what really distinguish it from 5-6 in my mind.

But before getting to that, I had to get out of the north arm of the Fraser.

As the Fraser approaches the sea it splits in three: the south arm contains most of the river, but the middle and north arms have plenty of traffic, both industrial and recreational. The north arm is protected by a breakwater on the south side, and runs along the coast toward Point Gray, exiting into the ocean at Wreck Beach.

One of the fun things about sailing in Canada is some of our most popular sailing grounds have some of the nastiest water. I know a guy who has sailed all over the world, including off South Africa, and he says for his money the water between the mouth of the Fraser and Howe Sound is the worst in the world. I tend to agree: the confluence of waves, winds and currents mean that there are multiple patches of disorganized waves, or steep, short waves that make for a very rough ride. I got the latter exiting the Fraser, the former as I crossed over toward Howe Sound.

Murrelet is a 29 foot sailboat, with a nicely sized Yanmar diesel that never seems to do much work but moves the boat pretty well in all conditions. I was grateful for it Saturday morning as she dug her nose deep into wave after wave while I bulled through the transition from river to ocean. I’m a reasonably fit, strong, man who knows how to ride a boat well, but even hanging on to the steering stanchion and doing my best bobbing and weaving rather than fighting the motion, it was work. There was lots of crashing from below as things I hadn’t stowed quite well enough came out of their assigned places.

The tenders were a bit loose on the foredeck, despite my having tied them down earlier. I hadn’t anticipated quite so much bouncing. They did stay in place, more-or-less, although it looked like I might lose one overboard at one point. I simply ignored them while conning Murrelet through the mess. A sailor’s priorities are very simple: keeping the ship matters; nothing else does.

I saw a number of boaters turn back at the transition zone, and reasonably so. And I talked to a guy on the docks today who did the same. Knowing your boat and your own capabilities are critical to safety.

After what seemed like a long time, but was probably only five or ten minutes, I was through the worst and got the jib up, which hardened the boat up a lot. Sailboats want to sail. The wind being what it was, I cut across to Point Atkinson through more dirty, conflicted water. Unlike the stuff at the river mouth, this was just disorganized, with large waves moving in several directions at once. We take this stuff for granted on the West Coast, but it really is something that most places don’t have to deal with. Lucky them.

Heading toward Howe Sound. The state of the main is explained below.

Heading toward Howe Sound. The state of the main is explained below.

On the good side of the ledger: Murrelet came through with flying colours. She handled easily and took as good care of me as was possible under the circumstances. She bucks and screws pretty hard under the right circumstances, but she’s predictable, which is really important.

I did learn some things about her:

1) The autopilot motor should be mounted pointing forward. If you put it on backward it not only gets in the way, the poor electronic brain thinks port is starboard and vice versa, resulting in uh… sub-optimal performance.

2) It is surprisingly easy to lose the manual bilge pump handle overboard when you do not properly seat it in the pump bellows, which results in it flipping out of your hands on the up-stroke and spinning through the steps of the pulled-up swim-ladder, to be lost to the ocean somewhere off Bowen Island. The shear elegance of this event is not to be under-estimated: if it hadn’t been spinning end-over-end in just the right way it wouldn’t have made it through the ladder steps. It was really quite entrancing. Although it does mean I have to buy a new pump handle.

3) The windlass for the anchor has a separate switch under the chart table, outboard. I knew there was such a thing but could not for the life of me remember where it was, all while drifting in Plumper Cove in the hope of anchoring. Anchoring theater is something sailors live for, and I’ve seen people spend twenty minutes trying to catch bottom, to the quiet amusement of all around. I didn’t want to be one of those people, so I did what any confident, capable sailor would do: I called the previous owner, and said, “Hi Lillian, it’s Tom. I’m trying to anchor Murrelet. Where’s the breaker for the windlass?” Fortunately she was home. Note to new boat-owners: always keep the previous owner on speed-dial. My last boat I got a call about six weeks after she sold, adrift off Sidney, wondering if there was some trick to getting the engine started (there wasn’t, although I hope the advice I gave him about checking the electric fuel pump was useful.)

4) The anchor rode is marked every 25 feet with red paint and yellow zip-ties. It’s all chain, so you can’t tell when the anchor is on the bottom because the chain always hangs vertically under its own weight instead of going slack like nylon does. Every boat I’ve had with all chain rode has 25-foot markings. Maybe it’s some kind of ISO standard I don’t know about. If it is, it’s the only thing about sailing that is standardized.

5) I cleverly double-reefed the main before leaving port, as I knew the wind was high, but I’ve literally never reefed a sail before (other than roller reefing a jib, which doesn’t count) except to practice. It turns out you want to make sure the out-haul is taunt before you tie the reef-points, or you wind up with something pretty creased and ugly (see picture, above.)

Overall, it was a really good first trip. Despite heavy use of sunscreen I got way too much sun on my face, but there are much worse problems to have.

Complete with tacky Hawaiian shirt.

Complete with tacky Hawaiian shirt.

I think Murrelet and I are going to do well together.

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Notes on Genre and Wants

Notes from Graeme Duffy’s Soap Opera genre workshop at VTSL, which was run with their new intensive gym format of two weekend afternoons followed by a performance:

These are general notes, not specific to the form, although the observation that the soap opera form provides a template for relationship drama that can be transplanted into different contexts–medical, legal, whatever–really helped focus on how the stories are always about relationships.

1) Things gel. Our first run-throughs were rough and awkward. We were trying stuff out and sometimes it felt not so good. We trusted in ourselves as individuals and a group and it all came together nicely. This has become a common enough experience for me that by the time we were on our second run-through on the first day I was confident in our ability to get it amazing in the end, even though I didn’t see how w we could get there from here. This is similar to the process in technical problem solving where you reach a point that you know you will find a solution to a problem even though you do not yet know what that solution is.

2) The inner life of characters. Graeme commented on the life-history of his hunchback character, to the effect that, “That guy as has been in thousands and thousands of scenes. All of that informs who he is.” This was a really lovely way of identifying the value of characters who recur in your own work, because you are discovering how that character reacts in a wide range of situations, which is especially useful because…

3) Play the scene, not the narrative. Let your character do what they would do in the scene, with only local, in-scene concerns as the focus. The narrative will (mostly) take care of itself. Stories want to be told. Carrie later mentioned a thing by TJ and Dave where they talk about how all the stories we tell are going on before we tell our part of them, and they go on after we have stopped telling our part of them. Terry Pratchett talked a lot about this too, as have others. Narrative causality will take care of the big picture. All we have to do is be that character in that scene.

4) Wants. We only started playing wants heavily the second day, and it both made everything easier and made manifest how wants affect the story.

It made everything easier because every story became the story of various people pursuing their wants and either failing or succeeding in fulfilling them. It’s that simple. That is what a story is: someone with a want either fulfills it or does not. If there is more than one person in the story there are multiple wants and they can come into conflict, but that conflict is not what drives the story. The wants drive the story.

Given that, it’s no surprise that when the wants changed, the stories changed. We did a couple of run-throughs where characters had different wants, and it was like a little controlled experiment on how wants change the story. It might be interesting to do a “Wants Workshop” where we focus on a few characters, and simply do repeated scenes with different wants and see how that results in different stories.

It was also interesting to see how individual characters’ wants sometimes diffused out of their own storyline and into the broader narrative–Joe Jone’s desire to do down Tate Powers ended up as a pretty general conspiracy against the poor guy.

Overall this was one of the best improv workshops I’ve done, easily in the top three. Graeme did a fabulous job as always, and I couldn’t have been with a better group of people. Thanks, guys.

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Firelight

In the firelight stories grow
between the shadows, with the glow
of ember’s heat and flame’s soft light
while the darkness of the night
presses in and all around
the shadows dance across the ground.

Here within the circle’s magic
legends rise: comedic, tragic,
strange, compelling, sad, uplifting,
while the smoke is softly drifting
toward the stars where heroes dwell…
of their lives the stories tell:

Andromeda strains on her rock;
Heaven’s Shepherd guards his flock;
Crooked Running Water flows;
Great Fisher plants the summer rose;
Rahu and Ketu eat the Moon;
Haft-owrang’s seven sisters loom. [*]

Beneath the ever-changing sky
As the dawn is drawing nigh
When the fire is down to coals
Bodies curl for warmth, and souls
Entangle in the dark
Warmed by stories’ living spark.

[*] Greek/Sumerian/Chinese/Native American/Indian/Persian

I’ve been doing a lot of musical improv lately, thanks to the brilliant and wonderful Jennifer Pielak, whose work as a teacher and performer I cannot recommend enough. It has got me thinking a lot about music, and the human voice. Poetry in my world is speech before it is anything else, and music in some primordial sense is the sounds we make with our bodies. Instruments are great, but the vibration of the vocal chords, the clap of hands, the slap of flesh on flesh… these are the core of music. Without them, we would never have gotten to the piano or violin or whatever.

All of which reminds me of an idea that Matt Bernardo told me about once, that music, not mathematics, is the fundamental thing unifying all intelligence in the universe (it sounds way flakier than I intend when I say it that way, but so what?)

So I found myself thinking about hominds in the circle of firelight. The use of fire predates modern humans by at least half a million years. The smoke of burning woods smells pleasant to us, whereas other animals are generally not so keen on it. Fire, and the love of fire, is in our genes: we are descended from and evolve from fire-loving creatures. Who gathered in the darkness around the light, who made music. Not words, but sounds, rhythmical, melodic… together.

This poem doesn’t reach that far back in time, but it grew from the idea that gathering in the firelight to make music together is a primordial experience, uniting all human cultures everywhere.

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Improv and Elaboration

This is a simply brilliant article by Lloyd Alexander on the challenges of story construction in a fantasy world, which is pretty much every world there ever was.

The creation of a fantasy that starts from the ground up is something else again. Melancholy men, they say, are the most incisive humorists; by the same token, writers of fantasy must be, within their own frame of work, hardheaded realists. What appears gossamer is, underneath, solid as prestressed concrete. What seems so free in fantasy is often inventiveness of detail rather than complicated substructure. Elaboration — not improvisation.

Reading that, I find myself thinking, “Isn’t improv mostly elaboration?”

That’s what “Yes, and…” means: we elaborate on the offers that have come before. The trick with improv is that we mostly build the foundation we are elaborating on as we go. So there is that difference. But one of the basic tricks of improv is that it is more elaboration than improvisation, and that’s what makes it amazing to audiences: they think we are improvising when we are mostly elaborating.

After Spoiler Alert!‘s recent Twilight Zone show a student said to me, “You must have rehearsed parts of that, right?” This is the greatest compliment an improvisor can get, and it happens because people assume we are improvising rather than elaborating.

Improv is impossible. Unless, rather than “make it all up” we instead elaborate on some commonly understood, agreed-upon story structures in the context of the offers that have gone before.

180 Improv, a troupe I co-founded (shameless plug) has the goal of “Performing Amazing Human Stories”, and we do it by elaborating. We do the simplest thing in the world (which is hard as hell, because “simple” and “easy” aren’t the same at all): we take a character on a meaningful journey.

There are plenty of other improvisors out there doing the same thing. Sin Peaks, Vancouver’s improvise soap opera, is a great example of this: a long story told over time, engaging audiences via continuous elaboration on well-established characters. Improv.

We don’t have to make it all up, even though we make it all up. The Hero With a Thousand Faces is already in everyone’s mind, in everyone’s soul. We don’t have to make that up: it’s just given to us. What we have to do–what the secret is, what the magic is–is to use that knowledge effectively.

Improv is elaboration. It is elaboration both on pre-existing expectations in the audience’s mind, and elaboration on the offers that have gone before. If we can make those two kinds of elaborations work well together, so we figure out how to elaborate on our scene-partner’s offers in such a way that we also elaborate on the audience’s expectations, we will make magic.

And perform amazing human stories.

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Surprised by Joy

I made a list of things I’ve done or that have happened to me in the past 22 days. 2 days were “peaceful” in the sense that nothing requiring exceptional effort happened. One day had four exceptional events, a few had three, many had two, and as the number scaled down the significance scaled up.

And by “exceptional” I mean things like, at minimum, “Your doctor has some not-so-great news” (not anything on the scale of “you have two weeks to live”, and pretty fixable, but definitely “not so great”). Or “Here, do this musical improv thing that will validate your work as a poet in ways that nothing else possibly could, and confirm that your last fifteen years of artistic choices might have been basically OK.” Life changing. Those are among the least exceptional events on my list. Really.

I had planned February to be a busy month, and there was a four day period that was supposed to be “peak busy”. The universe apparently took this to be a sign of “the new normal” and has kept up the pace ever since.

The good news is that unlike the last time I passed through a period like this–which lasted for almost five years, so I’m ready for the long haul–no one is dying (yet, and I will say a prayer to a God I do not believe in to keep it that way). So that’s no bad thing.

I’ll never show my 22 day list to anyone, in part because almost anyone who knows me would be impressed by some things on it and pissed off by others, and one of the immediate outcomes of this period of intense stress is that I’ve ceased to care about explaining or justifying myself. It’s not like it ever did any good back when I did it. I am, as the great stoic philosopher Popeye was wont to say, what I am. I have returned to my beginnings, and come to know the place for the first time.

What I care about is what I make. I have written code that will still be running when I’m gone–which despite my doc’s best efforts is going to be a good long time from now. Some of my poems may survive the test of time. And I’ve still got a few “works of noble note” in store, some of them personal, some of them public.

In the meantime, I live a ridiculous life, full of incident and adventure. I do unto others and god knows others do unto me. Sometimes in ways I enjoy, sometimes not.

I have responded to this ridiculous 22 day period full of completely random events layered on top of planned ones by falling into myself and away from myself at the same time. It feels pretty good.

I have not lived a particularly joyful life. My moments of joy are few enough to count on the fingers of one or two hands: holding my newborn children for the first time and some incidents in their growing up, and then on the other hand a few particularly stunning sexual escapades, some times of deep emotional connection–which is extremely difficult for me–and a few days on the water sailing, canoeing or diving.

Yet I found myself this morning overwhelmed by joy. Despite all the bullshit that has happened in the past 22 days. Despite the challenges I know are still awaiting me.

Partly it was a friend telling me that after talking to me last week she had clarified events in her own mind well enough to take action, which may be a leap in the dark. Falling free. That is a joyous thing. The joyous thing.

Partly it was realizing that the fix I’d put into a poem from long ago was precisely right for all kinds of weird reasons, some of which are still to come.

Partly it was that it was a gorgeous day, and I took a long and vigorous walk in the morning sunshine before another amazing and transformative musical improv class.

Partly it was the cumulative effect of the improv community on me over the past year. Surround yourself with dedicated, genuine people and you’ll learn a lot and grow a lot. This is a good place to be. And as Graeme Duffy says, “If you’re doing art right, it changes you.”

Partly it was knowing I’d be paying a ridiculous amount of money for new hearing aides today. I’m wearing them now and man is the world full of sound! I can hear the rain. My cat’s meow sounds different. I’m slightly worried that maybe I’m a lousy improvisor when I can hear.

But mostly I think it’s the sense of profound autonomy I’ve felt these past 22 days and more. I’ve been doing what I want to do. Some of it has not necessarily been entirely wise, some of it has been so far beyond my control it’s stupid, and some of it has been just plain weird. I have been required to react to events that in any well ordered universe would simply not be events.

But it has all been me, and that’s a good feeling. After far too many years of putting far too many other priorities first, I’m in a position to do nothing but what I care about. Which is making: poetry, code, prose, machinery, improv, connection, love (in every sense of the word).

How joyous is that?

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