i’ve had a fair number of jobs in my life, and most of them have been strange in one way or another. my job now though is undoubtedly the oddest thing i’ve ever been paid to do. on paper, i’m a “research assistant,” which is a job title that sounds neat and well-defined, and probably involves a pocket protector. in reality, my job now and for the next nine-ish months is basically to write a dissertation. again, seems somewhat straightforward, but what is missing from that picture is what most jobs seem to have embedded in them: a workplace. sure, i’ve got an office on campus, and i do occasionally have to go there to print out thousands of dead trees worth of research papers, but i don’t generally work there on a daily basis. i’ve discovered that i am physiologically inclined to operate like one of those people that the old media has defined as digital nomads. allow me to quote:

Gruber and Consalvo are digital nomads. They work — clad in shorts, T-shirts and sandals — wherever they find a wireless Web connection to reach their colleagues via instant messaging, Twitter, Facebook, e-mail and occasionally by voice on their iPhones or Skype.

now, except for the fact that i hate instant messaging, twitter, facebook and skype, and the fact that i don’t have an iPhone, this is a spookily accurate description of my actual work day. when i’m writing and researching, it’s really easy for me to get into a mental rut. not quite writer’s block as such, but more of a brain block. i can’t concentrate, every little thing distracts me, and i end up reading and re-reading the same paragraph over and over and over. this happened so often when i was working in my office that i thought something was wrong with me. then one day some morons broke the glass in my office window and i had to evacuate for two days while they “cleaned” up the glass and repaired the window. i felt lost that first day, and ended up just sort of wandering around campus trying to find a place that looked comfortable and didn’t already have three people sitting in it and 4 more waiting to take their places. the next day i gave it all up as a bad job and decided to just go sit at a CC’s coffee shop and read.

can you guess the punchline? after a few minutes blissful and effortless concentration which i spent on reading my book, it suddenly occurred to me that i could be reading some of the millions of research papers that i needed to slog through for my dissertation’s literature review and my general exams. thus began my life as a digital nomad. i spent about 3 months at that particular CC’s, and i honestly don’t think i would have passed my general exams without it. i wrote a thank you note to the staff there, and if i didn’t know that every sane human hates graduations, i would invite them to mine.

so of course what i wanted to find out next was what does that cc’s offer that my office doesn’t, and is it exclusive to that location? naturally i saved this question for AFTER my generals were taken and passed, because i’ve read the fable of the goose who laid the golden eggs. afterwards though, i did think about it and i did experiment. i don’t have any answers really, but here’s what i’ve found.

  1. open spaces are good, but nature doesn’t have air-conditioning
  2. i like to see people, but not hear them
  3. my laptop’s battery only lasts about 3 hours, so if i’m going to be typing i need an outlet
  4. i can’t write on my lap very well, so if i’m going to be writing on paper i need a table
  5. i can read just about anywhere, just so long as it’s not too quiet
  6. loud chaotic noises are good
  7. white noise of any sort is good
  8. regular, predictable noises are bad
  9. background music is fine, as long as it doesn’t have any words that i can recognize
  10. my own music is fine, as long as it’s either instrumental or has words that are so old i don’t even hear them
  11. wooden chairs are the devil

so what do you get from all that?  well for one, coffee houses make a great deal of sense when viewed in context.  ”My” cc’s is nice and open, with an entire wall of windows (the one i’m camped at today has TWO walls made of windows. woot.) and since it’s right off campus it is generally full of students.  for the most part, these people are either doing some sort of homework or playing around on their computers, and so don’t do much talking.  there are plenty of outlets, free wifi, and tables where i can spread out.  there are always fascinatingly random sounds going on in a coffee shop, and generally some sort of innocuous and utterly unidentifiable background music.  of course there is one place that CC’s fails with a capital FAIL:  the vast majority of the seating consists of, naturally, backbreakingly awful wooden chairs.  it makes me sad.

i can deal with the horrible chairs for a few hours, and when my general exams seemed to depend on my being able to tolerate the chairs, i was able to go for a solid three months on them.  but now, i can’t manage more than maybe every other day spent in a cc’s wooden maiden.  so assuming i spend two or three weekdays at a cc’s (and that’s pretty consistent, even today) the question becomes: where do i go the rest of the time?  the answer to this really is the heart of my brand of digital nomadism: i have absolutely no idea.

and i don’t just mean that on each non-cc’s day i wake up with no real clue of where i’m going to land for the day, i mean i don’t even remember where i was on my last few off-days, and i sometimes don’t even know where i am when i’m actually there.  i mean i generally know where i am when i walk in, because i see the sign and whatnot.  but as soon as i hit my groove for the day, i am completely lost.  for instance, one of my occasional haunts is a sort of tex-mex joint called Qdoba.  they’ve got an excellent chicken taco salad and free wifi.  when i know i’ve got other things to take care of in the morning, i will often head to qdoba around lunch time and just stay there for the day.  when i first sit down i’ve got a taco salad in front of me which is a pretty vivid reminder of where i am, but as soon as that’s gone, i’m lost.  i will sometimes come out of my typing trance reaching for a coffee that isn’t there, or i’ll hit the print button and be shocked when my computer claims i am not in fact on campus near a printer.  then i’ll look up and be completely disoriented for minute, recognize my surroundings, and go order some guacamole.

this might sound vaguely frightening, but it’s actually extremely liberating.  since my actual environment is completely inconsequential (so long as it conforms to most of the above list of rules) my entire notional reality exists only in and around my work.  i can move from place to place in a given week or even within a given day, and never interrupt my trains of thought.  i am so free from mental distraction that i lose all sense of time and place.  it’s marvelous.


so what on earth was the point of this post?  clearly no pictures of caroline are forthcoming, and this stuff was in no way called for by anyone i know of, so why is it here?  and what does the blog title mean?

well, this entire post up to this point was an illustrative experiment.  i had planned to write a very specific sort of argument to prove a point i wanted to make, but instead i decided to just demonstrate precisely what i wanted to prove. see, this post started as a reply to a comment brandon made on the previous blog entry:

Brandon says:
September 1, 2009 at 8:38 pm

You see, your problem is that you have standards.
Once you get past that, it becomes easy.
People have a remarkably low threshold for entertainment value.

and here is what i had initially STARTED to type in reply:

i’m not yet quite able to inflict upon my readers the worst of the inane drivel that plods through my brain every time i stare at a blank page and attempt to write something in english.  i don’t know if you could say i have “standards” as such, but i do seem to have an internal literary critic perched just over my mind’s eye who is very quick with his biting sarcasm.

see? i’m not even sure what that last sentence means, but that’s what i happens when i let my fingers do the thinking. as soon as i go back and read it over, i have no idea who wrote it or why. and i write pages and pages of this every work day.  i know this has been happening for most of my conscious life, but i currently blame grad school and the pressures of writing for a nerd-based audience.

so there you have it.  a fairly straightforward reply to a straightforward comment.  or at least it started that way, and then i blacked out for a second and allowed my fingers to just wander across the keys, and they went off in some obtuse direction that still doesn’t make sense to me.  i recognize that a single sentence isn’t really enough to see and analyze the pattern, and so i conceived of this little plan.  i copied all of that stuff and pasted it into a new post window.  then i typed in a working title that, while trite, seemed to make sense and actually relate to the topic.

and then i turned my brain filters off.

the result is the above 1700 words which are about… i can’t really even remember now that my filters are back on and i’ve taken control again.  regardless, the point i was trying to make is basically this:  if i had to i could post every friday with complete and utter ease.  in fact, i could crank out a couple thousand words every single day without fail.   but the sacrifice…  is it really worth it?  i mean, honestly.

but i don’t think it’s actually a question of standards.  when i write with my brain, i don’t really write to a certain standard or worry overmuch about stylistic and grammatical considerations.  what literary flourishes do occasionally appear in my writing are essentially just coincidental.  when i’m searching for words to express a specific idea, sometimes things pop into my head that sound good, and sometimes i just write, you know… words.  like that.

the issue is more about whether i will write with my brain or with my fingers.  i have no idea if the external reader could tell the difference between the two products, and in fact i don’t even know if i could tell the difference.  i’ve never read any of this stuff with a critical eye, so for all i know they are indistinguishable stylistically.  but then, that’s not really the point.  the point is that i have some degree of control over what my brain writes.  i’m infinitely slower, and i often have to look at the ceiling for a minute to figure out how to start a sentence, but at least i can predict what the product will look like with some degree of accuracy.

when i’m letting the fingers do the talking, i stare at the ceiling too.  but it’s because my brain has blacked out and is busy watching the pretty colors dance on my eyeballs while my fingers type away furiously, free at last.  if only i had never learned touch-typing…

so that’s the deal.  brain-writing takes forever, and i use most of my brain-writing time to try and crank out a dissertation that will be readable by other academics, so getting one blog post out a week is just barely feasible.  finger-typing is fast, but i have precisely no clue what the result will be.  so what’s a harried grad student slash proud daddy to do?

well, generally my primary defense mechanism kicks in and i just upload the most recent photos of caroline and attempt to build some sort of post around them.  it seems to work ok, though i have to add the photo-sorting time to the brain-writing time, which means these posts tend to take upwards of 4-8 human hours to complete.  i know that these posts are generally satisfactory, so i intend to keep them in my blogitory toolbox.  but there’s got to be something more substantial every now and then.  after all, if that’s all the blog is going to be, then i may as well replace the front page with a single link to the flickr account and just start adding witty descriptions to each uploaded picture.  and nobody wants that.  right?  … right?

of course there’s always the cooking posts, but those take even longer to write and require completely conscious writing.  i’ve got two or three in the works, but they can’t be relied on for weekly output.

so what’s the takeaway message here?  well, so long as you all (mom) are content to wait on my brain to write things, and are ok with the occasional paragraph of finger-generated nonsense, i think that we’ll be just fine.  i may never find a magic day on which i can always post something, but hey, variety is the spice of blogs.  that and cinnamon.

and i suppose there’s a bit of a warning implicit in this post.  if in the future you notice my posts start to veer off into bizarre territory, like tributes to glove types and missives on the wonders of having fingernails to protect you from dangerous slicey things, then it’s just possible that my brain is no longer in charge.  don’t be alarmed, just calmly leave a supporting comment and then alert the authorities.  they’ll know what to do.

3 Responses to “the quality/quantity paradox”
  1. mom says:

    you can post pictures of caroline regularly – who says you have to have brilliant writing to go along with the pictures. mom.

  2. Brandon says:

    and to think that a 1,000 word essay was scary earlier in life.

    I wish I could write about actual ideas and interesting things, but I tried one time, and that was enough.

    I’ve accepted being a caption writer. :)

  3. mom says:

    Don’t you at least have some pictures that you could post. Mom