Friday, December 14, 2018

Indoor Plumbing

Writing has been gushing out lately. Not just the stuff that shows up in my blog posts. Or even in my various book manuscripts and legal filings. Nowadays, every text or Facebook status has the potential to become a glittering bon mot.

Last week I wrote on this blog about my experiences crossing the border into Canada. Later that day, I sent a separate post to the Vancouver Men’s Chorus listserv describing a subsequent encounter with Canada Customs. It began with this elegantly carved sentence:

Yesterday I drove up together with Kyle, our cute college student usher who volunteered last night so Tyler and Matthew would know what it feels like to look old.

Everyone in the chorus knew exactly who I was talking about. Kyle’s fellow ushers Tyler and Matthew are charming and handsome on-leave Second Tenors. They joined VMC at the same time as me, so we’ve been part of the same loving cohort for three years now. They’re both 30something, but they look ageless, dahling. I’m the old one. 

Nevertheless, I recognize the shiniest gems have sharp edges. I heard the “gasp” emojis. It’s time to dial things back a notch. As I’ve warned my daughter Eleanor about both gymnastics and humor, you shouldn’t limit your routine solely to high or low difficulty moves. And you definitely want to nail all the really dangerous combinations.

On the other hand, I was touched by the response of one chorus friend who writes for a living. He gave that particular sentence its own heart emoji and a “savage lmao,” whatever that is. A writer knows a gem when he sees it.

Before anyone else starts ’shipping me with my occasional carpool buddy Kyle, let me tell you how he and I met. It was last winter, at Pumpjack, a gay bar in Vancouver’s Davie Village. Our mutual friend Basil introduced us. Basil is a baritone who knows absolutely everyone. He’s the only uber-extrovert I know who attempts to compete with Yogi. (Yogi is a First Tenor, so it’s not really a fair competition.)

Basil met Kyle at Whistler Gay Ski Week. I’m an introvert, so I don’t go to Gay Ski Week. Or Gay Anything Week, other than chorus festivals. Kyle is an introvert who can’t sing, but he works out and knows how to ski. 

Later that month, Basil invited Kyle to visit Vancouver. At Pumpjack after rehearsal, Basil introduced him to the Men of Vancouver Men’s Chorus. In our brief conversation at the bar, I discovered Kyle is from the Seattle area, but he goes to college in Bellingham. It turns out Kyle lives on the same street as me. On the next block.

Obviously, however, Kyle and I never run into each other in Bellingham. I’m a Townie.

Besides, as my parents are quick to point out, Kyle is too young for me. 

Here’s an actual social media conversation this week with another gay Millennial. As usual, witty banter is wasted on the youth:

Horny Stressed College Student:   Sup
Roger:        Shouldn’t you be studying for finals?
HSCS:         Yeah, but I don’t wanna.
Roger:        It’s not just you. The Internets are hopping.
HSCS:         Lol true. 
Roger:        Horny stressed college students.
HSCS:         That’s me
Roger:        I’ve given them up for Lent. And Advent. Year-round, actually.
HSCS:         Oh really now
Roger:        It turns out they’re too stressed for good sex. Er, I’ve heard.
HSCS:         I don’t think that’s true lol
Roger:        How do you know?
HSCS:         Based on me lol
Roger:        Exactly. Other than yourself, and masturbation shouldn’t count, how many horny stressed college students have you had sex with during finals week?
HSCS:         Zero lol
Roger:       Let’s just say I have access to more data. But nothing recent. I learned my lesson long ago.

Mental health has numerous unexpected benefits. 

For example, it can make you more resilient in the face of disaster. A couple of weeks ago, Yogi posted some bad news to Facebook:  XY, the Vancouver gay club that hosts a weekly sing-along piano bar on Wednesday nights after chorus rehearsal, is losing its lease at the end of the month. Don’t get me wrong, this is terrible news. But I’m handling it surprisingly well.

On Wednesday after the Vancouver Men’s Chorus concert, a raucous crowd walked down the street to sing showtunes on our penultimate evening together at XY. It was a bittersweet occasion. Yes, we’ll miss our little community. But it was good to see old friends. And everyone was in particularly fine voice (except the piano, which was inconveniently missing the C two octaves below middle C). 

Despite this handicap, the two pianists were on fire, each competitively working the crowd like a Wurlitzer. Frankly the balance was a little heavy on male voices, which made for a rich Russian chorus sound. At times it seemed like our favorite soprano Trish was belting out duets with forty attractive but unavailable men.

One of my favourite musical numbers has always been “Suddenly, Seymour,” from Little Shop of Horrors. I used to identify with nebbishy Seymour, played by my Canadian doppelganger Rick Moranis. Then three years ago my insightful physician Dr. Heuristic diagnosed me as suffering from serious codependency

I now recognized the many ways codependency infected my personal and professional relationships over the years. As Audrey sings to Seymour, 

Nobody ever treated me kindly
Daddy left early, Mama was poor
I'd meet a man and I'd follow him blindly
He'd snap his fingers, and me I'd say, "Sure." [Ed. Note: The word is pronounced “Shuah.”]

Among other things, mental health means learning to ignore men of all ages when they snap their fingers.

Last summer, when the Muse took a few weeks off, I observed that my favorite author Jane Duncan used a planting-and-harvesting metaphor for the writing process. 

Agricultural models don't work for me. Maybe it’s the fact that after four billion years of evolution, I’m the first Leishman not born on a farm. Instead, I’ve settled on hydraulic flow as my primary metaphor for how writing works.

Lately my mental health has improved so much that for the first time in my life I’m approaching something like “writing on tap.” (I’m knocking on wood as I type those words.)

The flow of writing still is not completely under control, of course.

For example, I know some of my essays are running a little long, including this one. I’ll try to post a few more cute kid pictures and brief anecdotes on Facebook, for all of you with attention-deficit disorder.

Nevertheless, I like the rhythm and structure of posting two blog essays each week. It’s a pace that leaves time and creativity for the rest of life, particularly when the kids are in my hair, or if Vancouver Men’s Chorus is performing. I may be an unemployed disabled single dad, but I feel like a New York Times op-ed writer.  

However, this week I opened the sluice and quietly flooded the market with some extra blog posts. It turns out I can’t leave essays in the final pre-publish vat for too long. I can’t resist obsessively tinkering. And eventually they begin to ferment.

The other reason I like hydraulic metaphors for the writing process is they resonate with the psychological concept of flow.

In the 1970s, psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi became fascinated as he observed artists who got lost in their work. He coined the term “flow,” which refers to a mental state of “complete immersion in an activity.” Csíkszentmihályi and his colleagues have identified ten indications you are in a flow state. One in particular leapt out at me:  

Timelessness; a distorted sense of time; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing.

According to Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahnemen, the intensely productive flow state is possible because “Flow neatly separates two forms of attention: concentration on the task and the deliberate control of attention.” Our brain doesn't need to waste any of its precious fuel on keeping itself on task:

Riding a motorcycle at 150 miles an hour and playing a competitive game of chess are certainly very effortful. In a state of flow, however, maintaining focused attention on these very absorbing activities requires no exertion of self-control, thereby freeing resources to be directed to the task at hand.

As I wrote this fall, reading takes virtually all your brain capacity. But when you’re lost in a good book, you quickly achieve a pleasurable flow state. You lose track of time. And of everything else – like everyone in my extended family, while reading I’ve been known to conduct entire conversations that I have no recollection of afterwards.

I’ve reached a similar point with my writing. It’s not just the familiar “all-nighter” coping mechanism that kicks in whenever I absolutely must finish a particular project before the final deadline. Instead, now flow is happening at every stage of my writing, from brainstorming to copy editing. I can even bounce from project to project without losing momentum.

It’s like the arrival of indoor plumbing.

The problem with “flow” is that it messes with your sense of time.

Yes, I’ve been amazingly productive. For example, I wrote the entire 1,500 word essay “Backing Up” from scratch in the four hours between my final Geek Squad house call to my parents and my kids’ arrival home from school.  

On the other hand, I keep smugly thinking I’ve had an efficient little early morning writing session, only to realize that it’s already 3 pm and I still haven’t eaten or showered yet. 

The other day I tried an experiment. After emerging from flow, I estimated I’d written 2,500 words. According to Microsoft Word, the actual count was 4,735. I also guessed it had been three hours, but the clock said it was more like seven. Is that good or bad?  

I can’t tell. Math is hard. Much harder than writing these days.

Earlier this evening I wrote the following in my notebook:

Too much flow?  Keep burning my Trader Joe’s flatbread, feel like the timer goes off early.

Somewhere between 5 and 25 minutes later, the kitchen timer went off on my Brie en Croûte. I remember being vaguely aware of the buzzer. However, I so was busy tweaking the paragraph about Little Shop of Horrors, I can’t tell you exactly how long ago it was. 

Now I’m staring at the box and peeking in the oven as I try to figure out what the words “golden brown” really mean. Fortunately, I’m a writer. I’ve got this.

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