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Activation Energy

I’ve had a post about Activation Energy mulling in my head for a couple weeks. Then I thought, I wonder if I’ve written about Activation Energy before? And guess what?

I have.

In 2008. Six and a half years ago. It’s something like the 20th post on the site—of more than 1200 at this point. I suppose that means the topic bears revisiting?

Activation Energy is a concept I coopted from Chemistry. Coined by Swiss scientist Svante Arrhenius in 1889, it refers to “the minimum energy that must be input to a chemical system with potential reactants to cause a chemical reaction.” In my usage, it refers to the amount of mental energy required to enter the creative state.

For example, how much must I procrastinate before I am filled with fear that I will not be able to meet my deadline? Or, how long does this idea need to gestate before I can execute it properly? Or, what do I need to clear off my plate before I can adequately focus on the task at hand? Creativity is the reactant. Creative work is the chemical reaction. And these efforts are the energy input.

To extend this metaphor further (and forgive me if botch the chemistry a little—I failed that class), chemical reactions produce either an endothermic reaction or an exothermic reaction. That is, reactions that absorb energy (endothermic) or reactions that release energy (exothermic). In Chemistry this is usually expressed as heat. An endothermic reaction is typically a cold reaction, whereas an exothermic reaction is hot.

Sometimes your activation energy is just right and you explode in a wild torrent of output and things are great and everything is amazing. That’s exothermic. Like an explosion.

Other times, it’s not so great. Anyone who has ever struggled on a creative project knows that you can find yourself in the perfect motivated place to do whatever you need to do, but very little comes out of it. It often feels like a failure. That’s endothermic.

Luckily, more times than not, the energy was not wasted. You just gave yourself a little more time to think about what you need to do. It’s all still there, ready to come out the next time in a different way. Sunlight is absorbed by plants allowing them to grow large, which is an endothermic process. Then, the larger plants catch fire and release all that stored up sunlight in a tremendous wildfire. The same is true of our creativity. The only thing that actually gets in its way is not overcoming the activation energy hump.

In my previous post I wrote about myself as a high activation energy sort of person. I don’t think that is totally true. Sometimes getting myself into that perfect state is like pulling teeth and sometimes my activation energy is so high that I will just never get there. But other days, it comes quick and easy.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the better my mood, the higher my activation energy. If I’m feeling super good and in the black on the anger spectrum (more on this in a later post), you’d have to nuke my brain to give me enough activation energy no matter how much I wanted to work. But if I am fuming pissed and stewing and far into the red, well, then all you have to do is get out of my way and I’m cranking through whatever I need to. Go too far, though, and it’s all lost. It’s a delicate balance.

If I’m well rested, nope. If I am too tired, nope. Somewhere in the balance there is a sweet spot where my brain isn’t bouncing around, fresh and rested, or dull and lethargic with exhaustion. Just tired enough not to be a spazz, but not so tired I can’t think.

If I’ve not been working at all, nope. If I’ve been working too much, nope. Again, balance. If I am not working at all, I fall into an inertia hole and I am dull and uncreative, but if I am working too much, all my creative juju is used up by projects at work with little-to-none left for other things.

The real question is, what is the proper life-work-emotional balance to lower your activation energy to a place where getting the reaction going is relatively easy? That balance is, of course, different for each person and for different types of projects.

With work, I need to procrastinate until that moment when not starting means not finishing in time. Up until that point, I’ll dawdle and distract myself, while feeling progressively more guilty and by extension progressively angrier until the equation tips and I blow through whatever work I have to do.

On personal projects, it helps me to be beholden to a partner. Someone expecting something on a deadline will put me into the creativity cycle I referenced in the previous paragraph. If no one is waiting for anything, then I fall into a procrastination spiral that resembles the cycle above but over a much, much longer period of time.

Take this post for example: I started it on the 21st of May. Today is the 10th of June, nearly 3 weeks later. What have I been doing with all that time? Working, mostly, and a bunch of work social stuff, all of which affect the balance. But today I finally reached the place where my activation energy equation worked to my advantage and I’ve written ~750 additional words so far. Not too bad. I can finally stop thinking about this post lingering my drafts, unfinished, and move on to another post I will start and then finish weeks later.

I’ve always been impressed with people who have seemingly low activation energy, the types who can just sit down, get their focus on, and crank through the work. I am definitely not one of those people, but by knowing what affects me and my creative process I can, and to a lesser extent have, learned to manipulate myself into that low activation energy state. In the end, if to lower the barrier to reaction I must do all this additional work and put myself into the perfect life-work-emotional balance, then maybe I am a high activation energy creative person after all. Maybe I was right back in 2008. Funny.

I’m back from Tulum and here’s what I’ve learned.

Sarah and I recently revisited Tulum, Mexico and, as with any good vacation, I learned a few things. In no particular order, here they are.

It’s probably too dang hot by April. Coming off a particularly nasty New York winter, walking straight out of the plane into 95°F weather was a bit of system shock. There’s a reason our Airbnb hosts kept referring to April as the start of the off-season. It’s because the Yucatan turns into an arid, sweltering hell pit. And that was just in April. I cannot even imagine the place in June. To be fair, if I had been acclimated to the heat before going to Mexico, it probably wouldn’t have been that bad. I mean, what’s a 98°F (Real Feel™ 107) day when you’ve already been sweating through your clothes for six months? Most likely not that bad.

Taqueria El Carbonsito. A perception exists that you can walk into any taco joint in Mexico and order the most delicious tacos of your life. That is patently false. You can no more walk into any Mexican taqueria and have your brains blown out than you can walk into any American burger joint and have the sort of burger that makes your reality quiver. Luckily for you (and us), we are adventurous eaters with a nerdy tendency to keep notes on where we’ve eaten. We spent three nights canvasing the various hole-in-the-wall taco places in Tulum centro and can unequivocally state that Taqueria El Carbonsito is the best. Get the al pastor tacos. You’ll probably need 5 of them, but at 7 MXN a pop, or about 45¢ at the time of this writing, you can probably afford them. Plus, the place is jam packed full of locals and you can’t get a better recommendation than that.

A thousand-piece puzzle is really too much for two people over the course of a week when there is no bad weather. Trust me on this one. We were defeated by the dragon. If you stay at Casa Tuluminus, it’s in the Marlin Room. Go nuts.

Most ceviche pescado is really just fish salsa. I am fine with that since, for the most part, it was delicious fish salsa. I mean, imagine a lime-y pico de gallo with chunks of citrus-cured white fish in it. It’s good. We ate a lot of it with a lot of chips. However, there was one ceviche pescado we had that transcended fish salsa status, but more on that later.

All the beers taste the same. Hot places are not good at beer. If you want interesting, powerful, nuanced beer, you need to go to a place that is cold, or, at least, one that has a cold season. Hot places don’t make the sort of sobriety-punching beer that cold places do because who the hell wants to drink a 9.5% ABV double IPA when it’s 98°F (Real Feel™ 107) out? No one! NO ONE. Mexico is no different. All the beer you can get in all the bars and restaurants and hotels tastes exactly the same, especially once you squeeze a lime into it. And you squeeze a lime into every single one. It could be Tecate, Tecate Light, Sol, XX Lager, Modelo Especial, León, Negra Modelo, Corona, or basically anything else. They’re all interchangeable. If I were forced to pick the one that stood out above all others, it would be Montejo. It is just slightly better than everything else, but in no way so superior that it is worth seeking out when the other options present themselves.

I don’t really like being in boats on the ocean. It scares me. I keep imagining the boat capsizing and all of us being swallowed by the waves and eaten by some colossal squid angry that I ate his cousin Marty for lunch the day prior. It is a thoroughly irrational fear, but one I’ve never had to face since a vast majority of my life’s boat-time has been spent on lakes and rivers. I like lakes and rivers. They are relatively known quantities. But who knows what lurks in the ocean dreaming beneath the waves?

The octopus at Hartwood. I was real hesitant about the Hartwood hype. Who needs to stand in line to get a reservation for a place that doesn’t even have a roof? Seems kind of dumb right? Like, maybe this place is just so hyped because it’s the only half-decent place to eat in the whole area. Or maybe it’s because the chef is another highfalutin Brooklyn chef who’s worked at some prestigious NY restaurants or some bullshit. Or maybe it’s because Eater/Gothamist/The Internet/our peers just love to suck Hartwood’s metaphorical dick.

I was wrong. I was very very wrong. Hartwood was amazing and well worth the hassle of dealing with their unorthodox procedure for securing a table. We ate the best, spiciest, most delicate ceviche of the trip there. We had an incredible, tender piece of pork. And we had another appetizer that I can’t even remember right now, but which I am sure was wonderful. But the real star of the dinner was the octopus, grilled and served on a bed of pickled red onions and potatoes. Get the fuck out it was so good. I wanted to flip the table over. Octopus is a difficult type of meat. Undercooked it’s kind of weird, and overcooked it’s like eating rubber, but when you prepare it to that exact perfect sweet spot it is wonderful. Hartwood’s octopus was almost worth the trip to Mexico alone. Seriously, just pack your bags right now and camp out in front of the restaurant until you get some. It’s totally worth it.

Tulum is not a place to go if you want to party. Sarah and I had no interest in late night parties on either of our trips to Mexico together. We were more than happy to get up early with the sun, spend the day outside, retire when the heat of the day became overbearing, take a nap and chill for a bit, head out for dinner just after sunset, and end up back where we were staying to read or watch a thing or whatever early. Rinse. Repeat. If we’d been looking for the late night Ibiza-like party scene, we’d have been disappointed because it just isn’t there that we saw. Sure, there are bound to be isolated pockets of people going balls out with the fiesta, but they’re neither obvious nor plentiful. If you want that, go somewhere else.

That’s about it for now. I think that is probably plenty. Tulum is nice. You should go there.

Physical goals and stuff, April 2015

In October 2013ish, I was at the gym and we were doing heavy deadlifts. As a lark, I was all, “Fuck it, let’s throw 305 on this thing and give it a go.” I pulled the shit out of that bar and got it off the floor. I remember thinking, Whoa. That was crazy heavy.

Yesterday I pulled 405 lbs.

And today I back squatted 305 lbs for 2.

I am pretty proud of that.

Of course there’s a ton of stuff I have plenty of room to improve on. I can’t run to save my life. My overhead movements are still pretty bad (but getting better). My handstands are pretty wobbly. I can barely chain together a few double-unders at a time. I get pretty psyched out when I see high volume wods. I’m not super great at pushups. My shoulders are tight and inflexible. And there’s probably a bunch more stuff I’m missing right now, but you get the point.

And of course, I can still improve on my deadlift and back squat. Of course!

But that is part of the fun of this whole “reconnecting with the potential of my body” thing I’ve been working on the last few years: seeing how far I can improve. There is no end game, there is only continued learning. And I like that a lot.

Fuck Cancer

A couple months ago, I made this video with Sarah and our friend Heather Cahill to promote a benefit called “Fuck Cancer” which was to raise money for the charity Stupid Cancer. They describe themselves thus:

Stupid Cancer, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, is the largest charity that comprehensively addresses young adult cancer through advocacy, research, support, outreach, awareness, mobile health and social media. Our innovative, award-winning and evidence-based programs and services serve as a global bullhorn to propel the young adult cancer movement forward.

Young adult cancer (age 15-39) is largely unknown in the war on cancer with 72,000 new diagnoses each year. That’s one every eight minutes. This is not OK! This neglected group—now millions strong—has limited resources, inadequate support, and, more importantly, a lack of awareness and understanding from the community around them.

Pretty damn good cause. We’ve all known and lost people to cancer, and anything we can all do to turn the tides of the war to our favor is a good thing. Fuck cancer. It sucks ass.

A belated theme for 2015 – Reset

Every year for something like 10 years (with the exception of 2014), I’ve picked a theme to describe my goals for the coming year. It has been a way to approach what I wanted to improve with broad-ish concepts and goals, rather than a set of limited, narrowly focused resolutions. I’ve written about it extensively. Feel free to go back and read some of the old posts for greater clarification on the idea. It’s all there.

With the revamp of the site, I’ve been thinking about what a good theme would be for 2015. Though I’ve missed my usual December announcement by 4 months at this point, it’s my life and I’ll make whatever choices I like. If I think it’s time to declare a theme for 2015 in April of 2015, I will. And you’ll just be fine with that.

A few days ago, a friend of mine wrote something on his Facebook that really clicked with me.

I firmly believe that some of the best writing and creative ideas I’ve ever had have come to me in the late hours of the night, when I’m the closest that I can actually get to being relaxed. Having said that, it’s equally amazing how much simpler the editorial process is in the light of day. Build up at night, rearrange during the day.

He’s totally right. Those wee hours of the night before bed, but after all the day’s chores are done, have always been my most focused, productive hours. The buzz of the day is gone and I am finally tired enough to focus, but not yet so sleepy I can’t think. The world is quiet, even here in New York City, and I can usually get something out in the little bit of time when my brain can actually produce.

In the last few years I haven’t been using those hours the way I used to, mostly, I think, because I got out of the habit of using them. Life changed. Schedules changed. Those nighttime hours became unavailable or filled with other activity. Then when I did have them, I squandered them. I have no regrets, but in retrospect I wonder why when I had a lot of hours to use, I didn’t use them. Of course, it’s very likely I needed to get to the point where it bothered me to see that I could have been using them more productively, instead of barreling forward, mindless of time’s passing, letting them slip away.

I realize that I miss using that time for my personal projects because those hours were the only way I got anything done that kept me feeling sane. And sane is important. Sane makes all the other stress and bullshit of life more easily digestible. For the moments I am pissed off about work, at least I can feel satisfied that I am making things for myself when I can. For all the time I am laden with personal and familial obligations, getting just that little bit of something done for myself is critical. And, even if nothing ever comes of all of this extra I do (and feel I should be doing), keeping me feeling balanced is a very important, very valuable, very real outcome.

I’ve been struggling a lot recently to find a mental/emotional place where I can feel some sort of magical equilibrium, where all the things are more or less balanced and I don’t feel like I am going to explode. The more off-balance I feel, the more I get angry, the more I get resentful, the more I shut off from those around me, and that takes its toll on the rest of my life and relationships. I don’t like harboring those feelings. They make everything a lot worse. I don’t enjoy anything. I don’t sleep. My fuse becomes dangerously short at all times. They make me god damned unpleasant to be around. Yet, those feelings come out in full force when I am out of whack and the only way I’ve ever found to address them is to try and reassert some semblance of order in my life.

That said, 2015 will be…

The Year of Reset.

What’s best is that I’ve already begun. Fantastic.

I intend to get back into the habit of making my personal creative goals a priority. I want to get back to creating things for myself regularly. It doesn’t matter what I make. What matters is that the work I do is for me. I can cut all the extra short films and friends’ projects in the world, but those aren’t mine. I can do all the creative work at my job, but that really isn’t mine. My ideas, my projects, my execution. Simple. Bringing back The Black Laser as both a forum for my work and a work in itself (double dipping, yeah) is a big first step. It’s also a bit of what Sarah would call a commitment device. I feel guilty when the activity here dies down. Avoiding that guilt is often plentiful motivation for me. I won’t always post the things I do, but when I want to post, I’ve got a place that is all my own.

I am not going to make any concrete creative goals for this year, though. In years past, I’ve stated an intended quota of production. 2015 is not for quotas. 2015 is for habit rebuilding. We can discuss quotas for 2016.

I’ve been collecting ideas and scribbles and half-finished thoughts for ages, and I want to see what I can turn them into. There are seeds for a wealth of projects and larger works buried here over the six and a half years of The Black Laser, I just have to nurture them. That means sticking to it. That means sitting down even when I am tired or don’t want to. That means doing the god damned work and not letting anything get in the way, even if my output is minimal. There will be nights when I can’t and many more nights where I feel like I can’t. The former cannot be changed, but the latter can. No excuses. No bullshit.

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Join me and this sleepy little butthead for many more nights of cranking out words and thoughts, and, hopefully, we’ll make something beautiful. Or awesome. Or beautifully awesome.

Dead Water Trailer

Above is the trailer for the short film I recently finished with my friends Jesse Allen and Andy Gilchrist. Check it out.

Dead Water is a follow up to Sea Pig, the short we did a few years ago.

The film premieres this Friday at 9 at the 2015 Kansas City Film Festival. If you live in the area, get your butt over there and watch our film (and whatever the hell else is showing). If not, keep your eyes tuned to this site. I’ll be posting it once festival season is over.

City of Golden Shadow… or, Why Am I Still Reading This Book?

After reading the second and third Expanse books back to back, I turned my attention to Tad Williams’ Otherland: City of Golden Shadow. The book had been in my mental queue for a long time, but for this reason or that I never actually read it. As much as I just wanted to read the next Expanse book, I felt like it was probably prudent to give the series a rest for a moment. Enter City of Golden Shadow.

Now, I am about three quarters of the way through it and I have no idea why I am still reading.

The book isn’t bad, exactly, but something about it isn’t grabbing me. Weighing in at about 800 pages, the commitment to reading is no little thing. But there’s something off and I can’t put my finger on it.

I feel like I’m just continuing on with it out of some sense of stubbornness. Like, maybe at some point the book will pick up and start being interesting? I’ve gotten this far, so I should probably just keep going? It has everything is should have to grab my attention: international intrigue! Nefarious plots! Parallel worlds! Science fictiony stuff! Egyptian gods! Murders! Explosions! Little girls who have weird friendships with elderly burn victims! Everything!

But, when it comes time to pull it out of my pocket on the train or get in bed and read, I’m overwhelmed with a feeling “meh”ness, you know? It’s weird.

Life is too short to read bad books. I know that much. There have been plenty of books I’ve gotten into and put down forever after a hundred pages. I’ve tried to read Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow like three times, and just put it down each time because it’s so full of itself trying to impress readers with its cleverness that it fills me with rage. Screw that book. Seriously.

City of Golden Shadow just isn’t bad enough to put down, though. I don’t actively hate it. It’s just not exciting enough, either, that I am ripping through it. It’s stuck in this mental/emotional neutral place for me where I can’t build up the required spite to put it down, but I also don’t give enough of a damn to want to see how it ends up. It’s the kind of book that I could get stuck “reading” for years because I just never spent any time with it. Or, at least, it could be that kind of book if I was the kind of person who could do that sort of thing.

I am also totally willing to posit that my feelings about the book might have absolutely nothing to do with the book itself, but possibly have everything to do with my mental state these days which we’ll diplomatically describe as “rough”. City of Golden Shadow, it might not be you; it might be me. It might still be you, though. I don’t know. Probably not.

At this point, I’m just going to finish the damn thing since I am getting pretty close to the end now, but the chances I read the following three books are pretty low. And that quickly, I’m in the market for something to read after this. Any suggestions?