Flying Low is a contemporary dance technique, developed by David Zambrano. It focusses on the body as a spiral: A constant exchange of collecting and releasing tension lets the dancer move upwards and downwards, high and low, always rotating. It’s an intense technique – watch it here (but don’t try it at home).
It also describes my past month’s mood fairly well. The idea of gathering and sending, that the technique promotes, actually sounds like a common creative practice: You look at things, absorb them, and then you process them, work with them, and make something new out of them. Pretty straight forward.
But I’ve been struggling with that lately. Last month was quite exhausting: I took time for personal work, but it never really worked. I was discontent, the outcome was never good enough, yada yada, you know how it goes. But I always needed that “fix” of pushing it out to the world. I needed to publish something; to show something. It was almost like everything I made only had a right to be made and exist if it was out there. But showing my work was not the release I was hoping for, it just made the tension bigger. I didn’t know what to do.
~ Brief pause, deep breath, building up tension ~
And I still don’t.
I wish I was able to tell you how I solved the creative block, but I haven’t yet. It’s been about four weeks, and by now, I just focus on passing through it – by simply not doing anything. And actually, as I recently discovered fun activities outside of work for me, it might not be that hard after all.
Here is a jumbled list of things I’ve done, read and learned:
● I learned that the term “Carpe Diem” doesn’t translate to “Seize the day”, but rather to “Pluck the day” (“… evoking the plucking and gathering of ripening fruits or flowers, enjoying a moment that is rooted in the sensory experience of nature”), which is beautiful and reduces the anxiety to getting stuff done. Here’s the article about it.
● I am going to dance classes again, after I stopped for almost two years. Not to practice Flying Low (I have enough spiraling and gathering and sending struggles in my life already), but just to get moving again. It’s fun. If your mind is stuck, moving is a good idea.
● I need a book shelf! If you have recommendations for beautifully designed shelves, I’d be grateful if you shared them with me. Instagram aggressively advertised this Italian shelving system to me, which I love (it has all the good stuff: wood and metal drawers and mustard colors), and of course it’s extraordinarily expensive.
When the weather gets colder, swallows tend to lower their flight level. For September, I might stick to that mode, too; flying low, just passing through it. However high your level for September might be: Please pass through it safely.
I am only allowed to leave my underwear on; no shirt, no socks. It makes sense, because after the doctor asks me to stand still, she points her gun-like mole detector on all the moles that are spread across my body. On the huge iMac, I see the pictures she takes: Red and brown and skin-colored spots, really close; they look more like bruises or the watery ink blots I make when mixing ink. She says it’s all good, but takes some pictures to monitor the mole’s alterations.
So, as a mole-covered person, I went to get a skin cancer screening (apologies for using the word mole for the fifth time now; I really don’t like it either). Which is somehow ironic, because in July I learned that I might not actually be the mole I always thought I was; hidden inside, behind his desk, wearing his huge glasses, avoiding sunlight. I’d like to inform you that I discovered FUN activities for me.
For a very long time in my life, I thought I’d needed to stay away from all things fun—I avoided holidays (too expensive, too time-consuming, I could be working during those two weeks!), I almost never went out for drinks (I don’t really drink, so what’s the point anyway?!), I skipped parties and festivals (too many people). Last weekend though, I went to the Pride parade here in Berlin, and I figured out that I am not scared of big crowds anymore, and that’s really good. It was actually really fun! And I also went out for drinks, during a really nice summer night, and that was enjoyable, too. How did I not know that having fun can be so effortless? Being able to refrain from judging oneself, and letting go of that workaholic’s remorse regarding leisure time—it’s really quite something. 10/10, can recommend.
Which reminds me of a comment I got from my friend Sonja, regarding my last newsletter’s headline (062019: Take Yourself With You). She pointed out that a good way to make uneasy situations more enjoyable is the thought that you always take yourself with you. And if you are cool with who you are, the uneasy situation might actually become manageable, if not even enjoyable—you’ve always got yourself! I liked that thought, and it made it even more appealing to love myself a bit more.
That’s why I also spent some me-time during July: I read Sally Rooney’s Normal People (as everyone did, apparently, and besides the book, I also enjoyed being part of the hype). I wrote a poem about a deer. I drew a vampire, and I wrote about awkward handshakes. Funnily, I got a lot of feedback on the handshake story from people who I’ve had a lot of awkward-handshake-situations with. Well, we’re all just trapped in our heads I guess.
Anyway: Now that I know that fun is an easily-accessible commodity that I could treat myself with every once in a while, and also now that I know that all my moles (SORRY) are innocuous, I invite you to enjoy this summer to its fullest. It’s August already!
Like every morning, my eyes open at 5:55am. Partly because of my inner clock, but also because my thoughts tumble around and wake me up. I start laying out tasks for the day, and conversations I need to conduct; I push words around like letters on a scrabble board, and while I end up with perfect formulations at 5:55, I usually miss out on using them during the day. I stay in bed until 7:30, sometimes 9:00am. Then I get up.
On the last day of this year (you are probably reading this in 2019 already, so take this as a greeting from the past and send it to the archives), I got up at 8:00am sharp. I went to a supermarket and bought three zucchinis. Then I re-read the newsletter I sent out one year ago. It was titled “You Think You Might Not Get Through It But You Do”. That’s probably what I learned throughout this year: You actually do. I finished a lot of things this year; I got a master’s degree, I worked with a lot of great people, and I worked on a lot of things including myself. I end this year being torn between totally agreeing to Jerry Salz’s statement “Work is the only thing that takes the curse of fear away” (I blogged about his great piece on being an artist), and accepting that not working might sometimes actually be the best cure for my nervous self. I might find out in 2019. Don’t cry—work. If you feel like it.
What follows are the occasional recommendations from around the web. E.g. Austin Kleon’s weblog, in particular this exploration of the metaphor “surfing the web“.
I enjoyed this piece by the California Sunday Magazine about Homes. They photographed and talked to a variety of people where and how they feel at home, and the audio layer of the piece makes it extra-intimate.
A couple of weeks ago, I decided to move my blog’s home from Tumblr to a self-hosted system again. I made tons of posts (dating back to 2006!) private, and kept only the writing I still like public. When Tumblr decided to apply content filters as of Dec. 17, I already left the platform. Malte’s tweet summed up my feelings perfectly: “take this recent tumblr crackdown as a reminder that this is still the web. you can learn to build and own your own platforms.” (12/4/2018)
Drawing the 2018-Finishing-Line: Fear has been, yet again, way to dominant in my year, and I want to continue working on taming it. Besides that, I want to become better at using those formulations I make at 5:55am, I want to become better at taking up space, and more intent at making decisions. I hope you all had a great year and have some (not too many!) plans for 2019. Stay safe and sound, Yours truly—Christoph.
I am strolling through Goethe’s garden (as depicted) as I’m in Weimar, a small German city known for, well, Goethe’s œuvre and the Bauhaus university. It’s mid-September; summer is still in full blossom and makes us all feel like we could get used to this; this does not need to stop, ever. But it will, we all know it, the seasons won’t fool us. But we like the idea of being fooled, even for a couple more weeks.
One and a half months later—October’s in its final hours as I type this—I peel myself out of bed and turn on the radiator; I have my gloves and thermal underwear in place and switched from iced coffees to hot tea. But outside, I still cycle through golden, leave-paved streets on Urbanstraße, which is delightful and makes the thought of the upcoming months more bearable.
I am happy to welcome you to another episode of this little gathering. Quite a few things happened during this summer; however, I wasn’t part of most of them. I was busy writing my Master’s thesis. While passing a couple of miserable moments (”Fuck this; nobody cares about my degree, let’s simply not finish it”, as well as “With this thesis I will go down as the first design student who failed and disappointed his supervisors in an abysmal manner”), I finished the book, I had it printed, I presented it in front of a room of intimidated undergraduates, and I passed. I was actually happy with the result. Lesson learned: Accepting that your own work is enough as it is, and trusting the people who tell you along the way that you are doing fine, could prevent a lot. Of. Stress.
During the thesis research as well as the writing as well as the miserable phases, I had two mantras pinned to my wall, hoping to find peace with both of them. One said “You are not special, work harder!”, the other one said “You are valid”. To cut a long, philosophical exploration short: I still haven’t found peace with neither of them. I don’t think I am special, but working harder isn’t always an option (sometimes, yes, but I carry a slight disbelief in the hard-work-can-get-you-anywhere-philosophy). Being valid, however, is a though one: Am I? Is that all enough? Is a book and it’s presentation in front of intimidated undergraduates and a good grade and a finished degree enough? I know that I myself am the person who can decide what’s enough, but how on earth am I supposed to know?!
[A lot of italics, this time. I am sorry. Maybe I should make this newsletter a podcast. (No.)]
The thesis was the main reason I didn’t get to jump into Berlin’s lakes during this summer’s heatwave. Very possibly, after nine years in Berlin, it was the first time I envied my friends and actually wished to refresh my media-theory-twined brain with a jump into cold water. But it’s okay. Maybe next year, or maybe never; maybe I really am not the person for lakes (that’s at least what I learned about myself every time someone convinced me to join them for a trip to Berlin’s outskirts).
I am trying to re-structure this monthly (or rather quarterly?) piece of writing little bit. You’ve already made it through the biggest part; the self-absorbed ramblings and updates on life and existence. What follows is a shorter part, where technology, design, culture and feelings are taking turns.
To keep it brief this time, I’d like to hand out two recommendations to add to your digital digest:
1) Spencer Tweedy restructured his newsletter as well and now sends out very brief and snackable observations. Subscribe here or delve through his online collection of words.
2) Perfect for quick lunch or dinner breaks home alone: The New Yorker’s Cartoon Lounge YouTube series. Everything is fun and witty and entertaining about it: The animated intro, the cartoons themselves, but especially the charming hosts Emma Allen and Colin Stokes. Watch the playlist here.
I hope you all had a great summer, got one or two chances to jump into a lake (or any other refreshing surrounding), and are in peace with how much you need to be to be content with yourself. If you have any tips or other, more rewarding mantras, please let me know.
I am at a conference about the internet and mental health. It’s a one-day event and I only bought a ticket because I wanted to hear Katrin Passig and Felix Stalder share their ideas on how the digital transformation influences our brain, our behavior, and how our society handles the “New”.
As the speakers discuss the meaning of digital endorsements and interaction (such as “likes”, “favs”, comments, etc), an older man in the row in front of me leans in to his neighbor: “I’ve never liked anything in my entire life”.
That sentence stuck with me more than any of the talks or discussions. As an active participant in social media, of course I cannot imagine that someone never “liked” anything. What’s not to like! But out of context, the sentence is deeply saddening. Imagine this elderly person, sitting in a darkened conference room on a sunny day, leaning in to his seat mate, with a cold coffee in his hands, confessing: “I’ve never liked anything in my entire life”. I’m glad that the internet preserved me from this nightmare.
I have liked and still do like quite a bunch of things in my life. Recently, these albums and playlists, for example:
1) Baio – The Names (Spotify link). Chris Baio, known as the bassist from Vampire Weekend, makes cheerful indie pop music, and I especially like his album covers and this remix album (Spotify link).
2) Young Fathers – Cocoa Sugar (Spotify link). I know, I’m late to the party, but after their track Shame has been my workout soundtrack for MONTHS, I was looking forward to a new album—and it’s great!
It’s intense how Berlin transforms from Europes ugliest/greyest/saddest/dirtiest city into the most wonderful place on earth during spring: I cycle through the streets and have exactly the same thought as every year around that time: There possibly is no better city for me to exist in than here. I hope you enjoy spring as much as I do! Have a good one, and talk to you soon.
As we’re jumping into the moving van, Felix asks me to hold a bag of medical supplies he brought from the hospital. Tubes, syringes, needles, disinfectant spray, all packaged separately in thin plastic bags. What’s that for, I ask. Felix’ friend—a doctor, too—was going to start his first job next week, and Felix promised to help him practice injections and blood sampling.
The way he handed me the bag with supplies was very casual, but I felt weird and—all of a sudden—very useless. When I help my friends and colleagues with work stuff, it’s usually about color choices, or whether the copywriting of an input field is clear enough. It doesn’t have any relevance at all. Whereas Felix, he f-ing helps friends take blood cells out of a body to put them into a laboratory to check them for diseases, and to actually cure them.
The whole tale that “Design can change the world!” has already been demystified a while ago. Another poster won’t save the world, nor will another app, or another chair, or typeface. Design does have the ability to make things better, but looking at our world full of over-designed products and services, it hardly ever is executed in a way that it does so. Design is often used to make bad things look better, and through that, it multiplies its negative impact. To be honest, that sometimes make we want to quit design altogether.
On the other hand, I am very lucky to work with people who are striving to use design for the better. Maybe that’s also because I waved goodbye to the startup world quite some time ago, and I try to work only with people and companies who I find relevant and/or pleasant as human beings (not only as colleagues). No bad vibes are worth the money, especially when you decided to make your passion your job.
2 — Pictures: I created a meme-inspired “starterpack” about my personality. Check it out here and make your own—I’d be curious!
3 — Life Hack: I unfollowed everyone who calls theirself “influencer” on social media and posts tons of ads. It just makes the web a shitty place. Please stop it.
4 — Lesson learned: Negative people are not worth your energy. It’s okay to stay away from them.
So, I helped Felix move last month. I also helped two friends paint their walls, and I re-arranged my furniture (it looks shit, so I’ll have to move it back again tomorrow). I will continue to design stuff, even if it’s worthless compared to the benefit a doctor brings into the world. I simply can’t do anything else; so I might just use it well. Have a great start into spring (Yes! We made it through the winter! Isn’t that something!).
On the other side of the train wagon, a man is sitting alone in a four-seat arrangement, his computer on his lap. He smiles while he types furiously; he seems completely sunken into his task. I imagine him writing a draft for his novel, or a sweet message to a loved one, but maybe also he is just calculating his tax payments, and had a successful year?
While the train rattles through Berlin Grunewald, I see the day turn into night: The blue hour passed by and let the darkness come through. I don’t like darkness, but sitting in a cozy train after a long day, being carried through it safely, feels okay.
Looking back on 2017, my year hasn’t been that great. Lots of uncertainties and bad feelings. The most dominant one was probably fear—fear of all kinds of things. I managed to get rid of some of those fears (I am not scared of terrorism that much anymore, or of the movies “Panic Room” and “Seven”, as I watched them and they were not as horrible as I imagined when I was a child). But new fears developed, without control, and it takes time and hard work to get through them. I’m still on it.
However: As you are probably reading this in 2018 already, I don’t want to write about the past. There are a lot of learnings from 2017 that will carry me through the upcoming year. The most important one is this: Emotions are not rational. Explaining a fear or a feeling doesn’t always work, and it’s still okay to feel it. The only way to cope with it is to be okay with it.
Also: It’s so soothing to make things that make you happy. I struggled a lot with a seminar paper I had to write for university, but I really wanted to succeed. So I made a project out of it; I wanted it to feel like a creative project rather than a task I was forced to do. So I made a website for the paper; made something out of it that’s sharable and that fits my style—as a designer, but also as a person. It reflects me and the stuff I am thinking about, that it feels good to have that represented by some sort of artifact. If you want to know what that is: Read the paper I wrote about Invisible Computers here.
Some other things that might sound really lame but made me surprisingly happy: Living in a tidy apartment. Taking care of houseplants, watching them grow. Looking outside the window, listening to the neighbors singing. Give some money to people who ask kindly on the train. Invite people for coffee instead of going out somewhere.
For the upcoming year, I want to spend less time with people I am not really interested in. I want to say No to things I don’t like. I want more moments that allow me to smile about something I write, draw, make, say, see—the guy on the train, with his laptop, during that blue hour, was a good inspiration.
Have a great start into the new year. As last year: Make it count—but this time: don’t stress. We all should stress much less.