Thoughts on Attention

In my current season of life, having a family, working, taking care of our home, and any other number of weekly tasks fills most of my time. So I’ve naturally been thinking more about what I’m doing with the time that's left over. And not necessarily how “productive” I make it, but in what I allow space for. Admittedly this can be exhausting. To constantly be “curating” my intake, or to continually “budget” my personal time can come with its own set of burdens. To have landed some free time, and then to spend it trying to choose what I’ll do can be a daunting task.

Looking back at what I’ve read over this past summer, I am catching a theme of what it means to be actively present and attentive in my daily life.

In listening to music, musicians typically differentiate between passively listening and “actively” listening. To listen to music as most of us know it now is to start a playlist while we cook in the kitchen, focus on work, or drive our morning commute. To actively listen is to sit with the music more directly—to try to understand how it was made, to distinguish between what we do and do not like, or to understand the structures of the lyrics or melodies we hear—and then to draw on these as creative inspiration.

In actively listening to music, we focus our attention in a creative way by engaging on a more critical level with something we think we know. To focus on something in particular means not focusing on anything else, to actively tune out other things. This might be one of my favorite parts of being a designer. In Designing Design, Kenya Hara opens the book with this thought:

“To understand something is not to be able to define it or describe it. Instead, taking something that we think we already know and making it unknown thrills us afresh with its reality and deepens our understanding of it. […] For instance, suppose there’s a glass here. You might know about a glass. But what if you need to design one? The moment a glass is proposed as an object to be designed, you start thinking about what kind of glass you want to design, and you lose a little bit of your understanding of “glass.” Arrayed in order before you are dozens of glass vessels of gradually varying depths, from “glass” to “dish.” What if you are asked to clarify the exact boundary point between one and the other? Faced with the objects, you’re at a loss. And again you become a little less sure of your knowledge of a glass. However, this doesn’t mean that your knowledge has been overturned. Indeed, it’s just the opposite. You’ve become more keenly conscious of glasses than before, when you understood them by simply unconsciously calling them all by the term “glass.” Now you actually understand glasses more realistically.”

Anytime I begin a design project, it’s implicit that I’ll have to focus my attention on the small details which I thought I knew, but hadn’t really looked **at before. Through the act of design, we are forced to make distinctions between what we like and what we don’t, and what will work best for a particular person or group of people, in a specific place, and in a specific time.

If we’re taking queues from design, the main takeaway here is that attention is by design—and design is really just creating a set of conditions within which to actively focus on something. Paying attention requires us to create conditions within which to pay attention. I think the idea here is intent.

Over the course of her life, Mary Oliver embodied this notion of paying attention. Earlier this summer I read her collection of essays in Upstream.

“Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream. May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect […] Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

How do we begin to describe our own process of becoming, of our movement through time and place? As if on the same wavelength, Jenny Odell, in How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, writes:

“My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind—without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos.

For Oliver, to be alive is to be attentive—to our own hearts, to the places we inhabit, to eternity. Similarly for Odell, our attention is ours alone, and often we find that it is more and more at risk of being taken from us unknowingly, with serious consequence:

“In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, many of us find our every last minute captured, optimized, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily […] “It is with acts of attention that we decide who to hear, who to see, and who in our world has agency. In this way, attention forms the ground not just for love, but for ethics.”

Odell’s book is important on so many levels, one reason being that she rightly identifies that fully owning and claiming our attention as an opportunity for us to re-engage on a deeper level with things that are important to us.

“We experience the externalities of the attention economy in little drips, so we tend to describe them with words of mild bemusement like “annoying” or “distracting.” But this is a grave misreading of their nature. In the short term, distractions can keep us from doing the things we want to do. In the longer term, however, they can accumulate and keep us from living the lives we want to live, or, even worse, undermine our capacities for reflection and self-regulation, making it harder, in the words of Harry Frankfurt, to “want what we want to want.” Thus there are deep ethical implications lurking here for freedom, wellbeing, and even the integrity of the self.

For Odell, owning our attention can be seen as an act of resistance against a social and cultural system which makes piecemeal of our time, and continually prods us to be productive, innovative, fresh, and new. Especially in the world of design, this terminology has become second nature. But what I love is that this act of resistance towards “moving forward” can lead us towards stewardship of things which already are:

“Our very idea of productivity is premised on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and care as productive in the same way.

Odell continually touches on the concept of bioregionalism, arguing that paying attention to our surroundings, to the place we presently are, will drive us towards a greater understanding of the natural world:

“…beyond its practical emphasis on local networks, there’s something about bioregionalism that seems to satisfy the age-old human longing to be a member of a community, to be both in and of a place. (OPEN SPACE)

As she discussed this concept throughout her book, I felt that it connected deeply with many of Wendell Berry’s writings about food, local community, land, and place.

“My own experience has shown me that it is possible to live in and attentively study the same small place decade after decade, and find that it ceaselessly evades and exceeds comprehension. There is nothing that it can be reduced to, because "it" is always, and not predictably, changing. It is never the same two days running, and the better one pays attention the more aware one becomes of these differences. Living and working in the place day by day, one is continuously revising one's knowledge of it, continuously being surprised by it and in error about it. And even if the place stayed the same, one would be getting older and growing in memory and experience, and would need for that reason alone to work from revision to revision. One knows one's place, that is to say, only within limits, and the limits are in one's mind, not in the place. This is a description of life in time in the world. A place, apart from our now always possible destruction of it, is inexhaustible. It cannot be altogether known, seen, understood, or appreciated.”

In many ways, this echoes Oliver’s attentiveness to her time spent walking on Provincetown, continuously observing flora and fauna, land and sea.

The first book I read this summer was Life is a Miracle, in which Berry critiques E.O. Wilson’s Consilience. Throughout the book, Berry defies the concepts of materialism and reductionism, arguing instead for us to pay attention to the mysteries and complexities of life in the places we inhabit. Here are a few of my favorite passages:

“I think that the poet and scholar Kathleen Raine was correct in reminding us that life, like holiness, can be known only by being experienced. To experience it is not to "figure it out" or even to understand it, but to suffer it and rejoice in it as it is. In suffering it and rejoicing it as it is, we know that we do not and cannot understand it completely. We know, moreover, that we do not wish to have it appropriated by somebody's claim to have understood it. Though we have life, it is beyond us. We do not know how we have it, or why. We do not know what is going to happen to it, or to us. It is not predictable; though we can destroy it, we cannot make it. It cannot, except by reduction and the grave risk of damage, be controlled. It is, as Blake said, holy. To think otherwise is to enslave life, and to make, not humanity, but a few humans its predictably inept masters.”

“I see that the life of this place is always emerging beyond expectation or prediction or typicality, that it is unique, given to the world minute by minute, only once, never to be repeated. And this is when I see that this life is a miracle, absolutely worth having, absolutely worth saving. We are alive within mystery, by miracle.

And maybe this is the most wonderful part of paying attention: that it awakens us to being alive in the world.

2021 Listening

At the end of last year I posted a list of books and music I had listened to over the course of the year. Even though we’ve still got a month left in 2021, I had time last week to go through our collection and note down all of the records we bought this year.

We’ve been consistently buying about $30 worth of records each month for the past year, and I love that we’re getting to support artists we like and also building a physical collection. I feel like I’ve noted this many times on here before, but it’s been a lot of fun listening to music with our kids and having tangible pieces of art and music in our home. I’ve also been tracking everything on Discogs—it has been an amazing resource for liner notes, release dates, and nerding out on the details. It's like McMaster-Carr for records. I still marvel at the technology of the record as an art medium—its ability to be such a (mostly) affordable and (mostly) accessible form. The experience of sitting down to listen to a record alone or with friends and family is such a blessing in our hurried culture.

This year with a budget of about $30 per month (except in June when we bought a bunch of stuff on Record Store Day…), we ended up buying about 35 albums. Some of those were cheaper flea market finds, like Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, Glen Campbell’s By the Time I get to Phoenix, or Paul Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years. I picked up a few great jazz records like Jimmy Smith’s Greatest Hits, Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert, Jeff Parker’s Suite for Max Brown, Miles Davis’s Miles in the Sky, and Spencer Zahn’s Sunday Painter. A couple other favorites we picked up were a reissue of Beach Boys Pet Sounds and the new 2xLP set Feel Flows, Felbm’s Tape 1/Tape 2, Fleet Foxes Shore, Real Estate’s The Main Thing, and Leon Bridges Coming Home. There are quite a few more we purchased, sometimes for a few bucks and sometimes for $30. Probably my favorite record that was released this year and which we own is Promises by Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra, and released on David Byrne’s label Luaka Bop.

I read a book earlier this year called Vinyl Age: A Guide to Record Collecting Now by Max Brzezinski, and he describes multiple ways of thinking about record collecting. For example, you might be interested in collecting whole discographies of an artist, finding a specific sub-genre you collect within, or trying to hone in a curated collection of your favorite albums. I think that’s where our collection tends to fall. Genre-wise, we have a pretty wide range, from some classic Laurel Canyon records by Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Mamas & Papas, The Byrds, or CSN&Y, to indie folk/rock stuff like Real Estate, Julia Holter, Kacey Johansing, Dirty Projectors, Vetiver, or Devendra Banhart. I’ve been hoping to add in more jazz records over the next couple of years, so I’ll report back on that.

Lastly, there were a bunch of records I listened to and loved this year, but haven’t purchased yet. These weren’t all necessarily released in 2021, but were albums I heard for the first time and found myself replaying over and over (in no particular order):

In a Silent Way, 1969, Miles Davis
Miles in the Sky, 1968, Miles Davis
Amethyst: New Sounds from Moon Glyph Records, 2021
Scissortail EP, 2021, James McAlister
Tape 1/Tape 2, 2018, Felbm
Promises, 2021, Pharoah Sanders, Floating Points, and London Symphony Orchestra
Kite Symphony, 2020, Roberto Carlos Lange
Far In, 2021, Helado Negro
Paul Simon, 1972, Paul Simon
Conflict, 2020, John Carroll Kirby
Space 1.8, 2021, Nala Sinephro
Memory Streams, 2019, Portico Quartet
The Elements, 1973, Joe Henderson & Alice Coltrane
When the World Was One, Matthew Halsall & The Gondwana Orchestra

An Object Removed

This past weekend, I was fortunate to be a part of a workshop at Temple University in Philadelphia as a part of a project we’re working on at Each+Every. As a part of our orientation and to get to know one another better, we began by bringing an important object and explaining it to our partner—they would then listen and share with the group what our object meant to us.

I brought a 45rpm record, Open Book / With the Ink of Ghost, released in 2016 by José Gonzalez. For me, this record holds memories of listening to records with my son Arlo and our family in our living room on Saturday mornings; it holds memories of listening to and making music with my own Dad as a kid; it holds my original love of album art as a way of entering into graphic design when I was in high school. While these things are not my whole story, they’re meaningful parts of it, and this act was repeated as our group shared their objects around the room: a necklace, a drawing from a daughter, a stone from Lake Superior, a camera from a grandfather.

Throughout my life, I have been drawn to the power of an object to hold people’s stories: Jeffery Miller’s handwritten playlist on a 45rpm; found shells from a beach trip; photographs of my grandmother; a recording of my dad playing guitar on a Concord Automatic 994. When I was in college I ran a blog called “Beautiful Things from Home” where I photographed family objects I would dig up in our basement. I could spend a lot of time talking about what lies behind each of these. There’s a sense in which an object can hold truths about who we are and where we came from. Maybe this is obvious though, and the reason why objects fight for space in natural history museums, historical societies, and peoples’ attics.

In Statement and Counter-Statement, design studio Experimental Jetset discusses the ways in which some objects, like a poster, act as both an object as an image. If an image of a perfume bottle is printed on a poster, it’s often taken for granted by the viewer that they’re not looking at the actual perfume bottle, but a reproduction. In this way, designed objects can act as illusory objects. At the same time, the designer then has power to bring awareness to the viewer of the object itself, to cut off the illusion that the image on the poster is the real thing (for example, by folding the poster and then hanging it up). In short, I think they’re really asking how much distance exists between an object and a viewer in a designed object.

Walter Benjamin, a German philosopher, argues in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that reproductions of an object devalue its original “aura,” or uniqueness as an object. In other words, to look at a reproduction of the Mona Lisa in an art book is not to really see the Mona Lisa, as one would in the Louvre Museum. Experimental Jetset explores this concept themselves in Statement and Counter-Statement as they photocopy their work at actual scale and reprint it in the book at 100% of its actual size. Folded and die-cut posters bleed off the edges of the paper, buttons sit alongside wristbands and t-shirts on the scanning bed, graphic identities intermingle with cd’s and large-scale posters.

There are a few books I’ve been enjoying lately that play with this idea of aura and object: Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings, and Touchable sound : A Collection of 7-inch Records from the USA. Both books explore this idea of reproduction and original, sometimes painstakingly created artworks or poems. It’s sometimes overwhelming to know that for the many artists whose work is in Touchable Sound or for Dickinson herself, that each piece holds a story.

Maybe in another life I would be an archivist, but to look at, see, touch, and hold original artworks (or any crafted object) has become evermore important and special. Our culture has become increasingly digital, and the old adage that “print is dead” could not be more false than ever. Whether or not you agree with Benjamin’s feelings about an object’s aura, I have this feeling that even objects which are one of many still hold value for each individual who engages with it—whether it’s one of a kind or not. In the world of graphic design, we often deal with editions: sets of hundreds or thousands of reproductions. This is the reality that Benjamin foresaw. Yet I think he missed this attachment to objects that people hold on to. The José Gonzalez record I shared about is one of 1,000 that was released, but it’s still a special piece which represents the time spent listening to it with my family. If that was the only copy in existence, I would definitely feel closer to the artist and their work. But my own experience of the record itself and what it holds as an object is not dependent on how many reproductions of the object exist. Within the age of mechanical reproduction, I think I’d like to call this an “aura of memory.”

Thoughts on Being a Dad

“The nature of impending fatherhood is that you are doing something that you’re unqualified to do, and then you become qualified while doing it.”
—John Green

Writing about what it means to be a father is a difficult task. Holding Arlo and Mae as newborn children was nothing short of terrifying and awe-inspiring at the same time. There were these intensely contrasting feelings of awe, wonder, excitement, and hope, pitted against fear, fragility, pain, and doubt.

Thinking back on having Arlo just three years ago, I realize just how wholly unprepared I was to be a father. And yet this seems to be the paradox of becoming a dad. I’m the type of person who likes to feel like I know what I’m doing. Most of my life, though, is realizing that I don’t know what I’m doing, and instead being humbled in the process of becoming. I think that this is the way God intended things—for us to look to him in all that we do, and to have a Father to walk with us in all that is life. In this way, being a father is not much unlike being a child.

When I became a dad, I suddenly had the realization that I would be a father for the rest of my life. Questions raced through my mind: Will I inevitably wound my children? What wounds am I carrying from my own childhood? Will I be a good parent? Will I fail? And what does that even mean? What if I don’t have what my kids need from me? With the birth of our daughter Mae this past winter, the same questions inevitably rose to the surface again, but with a new sort of shape. With Arlo they were baked into fear. With Mae I’ve realized that these fears are real, and that they’re simply the realities of being human in the world. I am a broken human-being. Yes, I will wound my kids, and I do not have everything that they need. And yet at the same time I am continually being shaped into a new creation.

“No man can possibly know what life means, what the world means, what anything means, until he has a child and loves it.”
—Lafcadio Hearn

Being a father (so far) has been nothing short of a daily process of giving oneself; of sacrifice, apologizing, asking forgiveness, and receiving grace. And yet in this there is deep joy. To be made new over the course of a lifetime in the presence of my kids is God-glorifying; it is to taste and see that the Lord is good; that he favors love and change over stale pride and hardness of heart.

The beautiful thing is that I have so much still to learn. In all there is to know, learn, and experience about being a dad, I am like a child. My prayer is simply that I would remain as one instead of trying to pretend like I know everything or have it all together.

Kites and Spaces

During the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about how ambient music has the ability create a perceived space, and can make time feel malleable, too. The first ambient song I ever listened to on repeat was “#3” on Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II. In high school I would listen to it while driving or falling asleep—it seemed to stretch on for so long. Whether this was because I had it on repeat, or because the song itself can seemingly hold so much time, I’m not sure. While the idea of sound creating a felt space is not new, it seemed to create an emptiness in my mind as well, a space for my thoughts to fill. Ambient music, by its own root etymology of ambire, means “going round”, and seems to form moods and spaces through repetition of form or sound—but to me it also seems to form a going round of mind and heart; a space for reflection.

In “The 16 Best Ambient Albums of 2020” from Pitchfork, Philip Sherburne says: “in a year in which many of us found ourselves staring at the walls for long periods of time, the notion of “wallpaper music” no longer seemed quite so trivial. More than any other genre, ambient frequently offers a kind of emotional blank slate, and its very featurelessness suits listeners in search of wildly divergent things: solace, transport, or even simple numbness.”

Listening to ambient music this year has felt different than it has previously. As we’ve been confined indoors more often, there is this feeling that I am not able to move around with the same amount of freedom as before. This lack of movement from place to place has made my world much smaller and self-contained. In many ways it’s been a warm turning inwards to be with my wife and son more—but also a time of challenging introspection. Ambient music has created a seemingly endless space within which to think and reflect, even amongst a certain confinement: a time of “staring at walls” if you will. I think there’s a strong connection between the sound we experience and the space we perceive. This isn’t necessarily visual space, as much as felt space, an aural environment of sorts.

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard says that “our house is our corner of the world. As has often been said, it is our first universe, a real cosmos in every sense of the word […] the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamers, the house allows one to dream in peace.” Many of us have felt physically confined during this pandemic. Between global lockdowns, anxiety of being in public spaces, or other reasons for not going out, we have stayed in. And while this can feel like a burden, I think Bachelard might view it as an opportunity. Our home can be seen as a space for daydreaming, a small cosmos within which to consider the larger cosmos. It’s a safe place to return to.

I wish I was
Homeward bound
Home where my thought's escapin'
Home where my music's playin'
—Simon & Garfunkel
“Homeward Bound”

Ambient music has provided a similar type of home base for reflection and daydreaming during this season. It also has this strange ability to mend our perception of time. Keith Whitman, while reviewing the “50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time” stated: “the appeal of ambient is ever apparent; much like a science project, when executed perfectly, the outcome yields the desired results: time becomes elastic, malleable.” While ambient music can create space, it has a dual nature that can certainly remove us from the space or time we inhabit as well.

One of my favorite albums this year is from Roberto Carlos Lange (who often performs as Helado Negro), and Kristi Sword. Kite Symphony, Four Variations is a multimedia project spanning music, performance, and visual art, and was initiated under Ballroom Marfa in Marfa, Texas. “The artists are creating a new, non-linear, and impressionistic style film and live score, as well as a new body of sculptural work that explore the landscape of West Texas through wind, sound, and light.” Marfa Texas is the epitome of a southwestern sky: an expansive, open space filled with light and air. Listening to Four Variations, one can’t help but imagine the Texas sky dappled with clouds. The visuals and performance aspects in this piece are ephemeral, just like the wind itself. At one point, we hear a bee buzzing near the microphone, as if we were laying in the grass watching the clouds.

Maybe it’s just because Ohio is quite gloomy this time of year, but imagining a crisp, blue sky speckled with clouds, and feeling the wind and heat from the sun is refreshing. Either way, this piece from Lange and Sword demonstrates the ability of ambient music to create space, to shelter and foster imagination, and perhaps bring forward a grace-filled, healing moment of reflect. Even if brief, these moments can sometimes carry us forward for a long time.

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