Into Dust

56-First-Street

The Viaweb office was on the top floor of this apartment. My desk was at the window on the top left

Back when I worked at Viaweb in the late nineties, I used to stay late to work on personal projects. This is back when only businesses could afford high-speed internet and Adobe Photoshop was cutting-edge. So I would stay in the office long after everyone went home to use these tools.

It was an extremely nice office, occupying the top floor of a walk up apartment in the heart of Harvard Square. If anything, it looked more like a grad student apartment than an official company. My desk faced the window and from it I could look down at all the people walking about.

But I would work late into the night on a weekday, long after the throngs had gone home. It was dark and soothing and, steps away from Harvard, it made me feel like some crazed intellectual or artist. While I worked I listened to the song “Into Dust” by Mazzy Star on repeat on my CD player.

I listened to the lyrics of this song recently and thought, “Jesus, this is morbid.” But at the time it was nice – a pretty girl singing to me with some nameless guitarist playing in the background.

While the lyrics barely registered at the time, I think I subconsciously gravitated to this song for a reason. This dark subject matter forced me to reflect on my own mortality and spurred me to make my mark, to try to beat death, and I did this by being creative.

So late at night I built a demo website for a potential client and spent hours crafting the images. I also attempted to twist the software from it’s original use into a different use entirely. The web was new back then, Netscape had only come out two years earlier, and it was a wide open field. We were all amateurs and I went nuts attempting everything I could.

While reflecting on mortality excessively is bad, doing so from time to time with songs like “Into Dust” helped me see what was important. Knowing my time was going to be up at some point pushed me to engage with life.

That’s why I can’t stand sitting in an office filling out a bunch of forms. I would much rather be writing, building websites, climbing mountains, rowing in open ocean races, drawing, searching for rattlesnakes, playing with my kids, or otherwise interacting with life for the short time I’m going to be here.

In retrospect, I was most happy at companies that encouraged creativity and rewarded innovative thinking. Fortunately after realizing this fact, I’ve taken the plunge and now work for myself. It’s a nice return to the life I lead previously, working on projects that interest me rather than toiling on jobs thrust upon me by some nameless taskmaster in Russia.

Doing Painful Things

The indoor rowing machine - about as much fun as it looks

The indoor rowing machine – about as much fun as it looks

Part of rowing competitively involves logging a lot of meters on the indoor rowing machine, also known as an ergometer, or erg for short. An erg is one of those machines sitting unused in the corner of your local gym. There’s a reason for their lack of popularity and there’s no nice way to say this – erging sucks.

First of all, erging is boring. The same motion over and over with nothing to distract you. You can’t talk, you can’t look at the passing scenery, you can’t do much of anything except stare straight ahead and spend an extended period of time in your own head.

The second thing that makes erging unpleasant is the measurement. Every stroke you take, about 20-30 a minute, is judged by the electronic screen and presented as a score. Imagine if you had a coach who watched and gave feedback on everything you did with all the warmth and support of Hal from 2001.

At no point would one call an erg workout “fun.” The problem is subjecting yourself to this is the only way to get better. The more you erg, the stronger you get.

Some guys go nuts on this as an identity and become what is known as an “erg monster.” That’s one route. What I used to do was fool myself. Before every erg workout, I’d think, “I’m going to take it easy this time out.”

I used to say this with such sincerity that I almost believed it. As with doing anything difficult, the first few strokes were always the hardest and this lie helped me get over the hump. Once my blood started pumping, I started getting competitive and it wasn’t long before I was in the zone – imagining myself as god-like Achilles mowing down Trojans on the battlefield.

Thinking “I’ll take it easy this time out” is much easier to tackle than “I’m going to spend an hour on this boring machine.” When facing something big, think small and proceed in increments.

I use this same mind trick when writing. I was so relieved when I read a screenwriter’s confession that he hated writing, he would do anything to avoid it, because I felt the same way. It’s only by lying to myself, by thinking “I’ll just write the first paragraph”, that I can get anything done, including this 340 word piece.

Compliment Man

Amanda Palmer as the living statue "The Eight Foot Bride" in Harvard Square

Amanda Palmer as the living statue “The Eight Foot Bride” in Harvard Square

When you live in Harvard Square you get acquainted with the regular characters. During my time there I crossed paths with Amanda Palmer early in her career when she was working as a living statue. Another favorite was Walking Man, a short guy who looked vaguely like Lemmy from Motorhead and walked with great intensity to destinations unknown.

There was also Whoop Whoop guy who rode all around town on his trike and cried out “Whoop whoop!” to let pedestrians know of his approach. Another fixture was the chessmaster who has played in the same spot for 20+ years.

But my favorite character was the homeless guy who stood outside the Au Bon Pan patio where they filmed a scene for Good Will Hunting (which I actually saw them filming). I referred to him as “Compliment Man” and he was terrific.

A towering black man, Compliment Man stood in a high traffic spot and would ask everyone for change. But his approach was something you actually welcomed. He always had a huge smile on his face as he addressed everyone who passed – “Young man”, “Sir”, “Young lady”, “Ma’am.” And then he would break out a nice compliment on a random someone – “You look GREAT!”

Watching him work, you might think he was being insincere. You’d think so until the day you got a compliment from him. My day came when he pointed to me and shouted, “That is a great tie!”

I smiled and laughed along with him. But I did think, “This is a nice tie and it’s good of him to notice.”

Once I was watching Compliment Man when he seemed so overwhelmed by all the humanity passing all around that he spun around in a circle with his arms spread wide, smiling up to the sky. This was a man who, despite poverty, was happy to be alive. What a contrast to the rich people you meet who are so unhappy they take expensive drugs to fix themselves.

Now that I live in the suburbs, away from the bustling crowd and where we all look pretty much the same, I miss Compliment Man.

The Drone Debate

In the first Game of Thrones book, the king advises his son, “A ruler who hides behind paid executioners soon forgets what death is.”

Now imagine how much perspective is lost when enacting justice is little more than playing a video game.

While it’s hard to argue against safely taking out would-be terrorists, a conversation on drones is long overdue. Technological innovation has outpaced morality on this issue. Killing should be hard, not something casually debated over lattes.

Staying Focused in the Digital Age

Seth Godin’s recommendations for handling digital communication were so good I’m re-posting them here:

  1. Turn off mail and social media alerts on your phone.
  2. Don’t read the comments. Not on your posts or on the posts of other people. Not the reviews and not the trolls.
  3. De-escalate the anger in every email exchange.
  4. Put your phone in the glove compartment while driving.
  5. Spend the most creative hour of your day creating, not responding.