The Need for Nooks

I’m in Silicon Valley for work again, putting the finishing touches on a year-long museum interactive with my buddies at Inquirium. This is the 10th trip I’ve made out here for the project, and the monthly disruption of my routine has given me some insight into what I need to maintain my own peculiar sense of work-life balance.

First, there’s focus. When I’m traveling I’m generally more focused on getting things done; the same applies when I’m away from home. The three aspects I’ve noticed on this trip have been:

1. REDUCTION IN OPPORTUNITY TO GOOF OFF

One reason I’m remarkably focused is that there’s not that much to do. I didn’t rent a car, and this time I haven’t made an effort to contact other people in the area. The first few times I was out here I was meeting new people and getting acquainted with the San Jose / Campbell area, but by the 10th visit even the novelty of Fry’s Electronics has worn off. I’m not feeling the same pull to get away that I do at home.

I found this very curious because once the novelty of a place has worn off, you’d think that I’d be looking for more opportunities to create something interesting. However, one critical difference is that I’m away from my local squad of friends, disconnected from the people that make my ocial context meaningful. Here in California, the readily-available context is work and hanging out with my cousin. Since I’m also working with my cousin, the context is entirely self-contained. We get along well and have similar but differently-grounded foundations in creativity, so it’s a satisfying context to be part of. However, it’s a context that I’m not in control of to the same extent that I am back home.

2. SELF-LIMITING SENSE OF ADVENTURE

Of course, If I were more adventurous I’d be getting on the BART and exploring the Bay Area. However, I’ve found that I really don’t like exploring places by myself just to see what’s there. Instead, I like knowing there’s a clue or puzzle piece waiting out there for me; in other words, I tend to emphasize doing fieldwork over pure exploration. I want to solve mysteries and collect evidence first hand, connected the dots in ways that are non-obvious. I’m thinking I have to come back to California and spend a month here to do it right.

I think the reason that I feel on-hold out here is because I know I shouldn’t be starting new mysteries. It’s way too easy, way too fun, and way too distracting. I need to maintain the bleak programming mindset necessary for the type of work I’m doing, piling brick after logical brick on top of each other in a methodical and robustly-architected manner. So the limitations I’m putting on myself are not a sign of lameness, but are due to my need to limit new distractions. This is easier to do because I am also lacking the seasoned co-adventurers with whom I’d go exploring. If I were settling in the area the latter would be a priority, but I’m here for work. When I come back for that month of exploration, it will be an entirely different story.

3. BREAK IN CONTINUITY

Back home, I have several ongoing projects that all are based, in one way or another, on interests shared with my friends. Because friends are usually nearby–and I naturally like to spend time with them–I’m pulled toward shared adventures nearly every day. These are all going somewhere, and being able to tend to these projects is one of the great advantage of freelancing. When I’m on the road, however, these opportunities are no longer available, so there isn’t as much of a reason for me to want to switch out of work mode. Work is, after all, rather interesting and represents its own continuity. So, when I’m on the road, work becomes the most accessible continuity train to develop. Admittedly, I spend a lot of time emailing people back home the first few days I’m on a trip, but they tend to dwindle off after the 3rd or 4th day as I readjust my focus to what’s nearby, away from what I left at home.

Everything I’ve listed up to this point can be grouped under shared context and continuity of purpose and community. This is my number one priority. However, the number two priority is building up my resources so I can afford to spend more time creating that sense of purpose and community. In sundry terms, that means working on my website, clarifying and reorganizing what I’ve already written into more useful forms, and producing objects of utility for a market that shares my values.

Strictly speaking, this kind of work is largely independent production and doesn’t require interaction with other people. In fact, it’s work that is best done by myself, so I can adopt the “editor’s mindset”, the “designer mindset”, and so on. There should be nothing stopping me from doing that, and yet I’ve found that being out here in California is very hard on me when it comes to following through with these activities. Instead, I sit and feel unsettled, not sure what to do. It just hit me that what I was missing was just a good place to sit, some corner where I can gather my thoughts and draw the right energies:

4. FINDING A CONVENIENT NOOK

A QUIET NOOK affords me the right blend of solitude and energy for whatever task I have at hand. This was not a problem for the programming work, as interaction with my cousin is the nook; he and I can talk face-to-face about what we’re trying to do and it creates the necessary environment to be productive. For blogging, however, I realized that there just wasn’t anywhere to sit in the house that wasn’t subject to the whirlwind energies of his young children, with comfortable seating and lighting and spaces to put things. I had subconsciously been compensating for this by spending time at nearby coffee shops, an environment that provides abstract people energy with a measure of solitude. However, it just isn’t quite the same as being truly comfortable; the quality of the thoughts I have at coffee shops tend to be more social than productive in the way I need. There is probably a special nook for every kind of activity I do, and I’m looking forward to finding those secret places that are lurking in plain sight.

Having identified this desire to have a nook, I have now escaped to a wooden bench in the front of the house, which is comfortingly close to humans I care about but still away from everyone. It is the right nook for writing this blog post. I can see the cars on the street outside drive by and feel that I’m part of the world, but I’m in a place that kind of feels like my own, just for an hour or so. I’m feeling more comfortable than I have in quite a few days, being able to sit here and type into my laptop.