Fractal Actions

When I decided to leave my full-time job to pursue a freelance career, I was under no illusion that I would be taking it easy.  Fortunately, my mental preparedness for this fact has helped me though my first incredibly busy week.  I had multiple shows across the week, I had a schedule in place for my day-to-day tasks, and I woke up earlier than I did while I was at my previous job.  I also found the time to exercise, entertain people at a party, and be with the important people in my life.  One definite goal is to find the balance between assigning too few tasks to get anything done, and assigning more tasks than I can possibly complete.  I have a feeling it will take some time, but I’m up for the challenge.  Overall, this week was exhilarating and exhausting.

I could go on and on about the exhilaration (and believe me, I will another time), but I want to focus on the exhaustion for a bit.  This wasn’t the sort of exhaustion I’m accustomed to where I would wake up at 6:30am, and get back to my house around midnight.  That is unpleasant, but I know how to push through it and replenish the energy I need in the spaces I can find it.  This one caught me off-guard.

While I wouldn’t say I’m the most active individual, I do have a daily and weekly yoga practice.  Despite this, I’ve been increasingly having issues with pain in my back and my shoulders.  I feel like it comes with the territory of playing instruments that are heavy to carry and have to be worn around your shoulders, but I also thought that perhaps I was not maintaining my strength enough to carry and play them.  So Wednesday, after I played a delightful morning set at the Market East SEPTA station, I went with the lovely Katie (aka Gertie McShmiggles) to lift weights at her gym.  Having learned all the details of weightlifting 20 years ago in high school, I figured I’d have no problem jumping right back in.

This plan seemed to be going beautifully until late Thursday night when I could no longer use my arms.  My biceps were burning at anything other than a 100 degree angle.  I decided to cancel my busking the next morning for fear that I’d do more damage to myself by carrying and playing any of the unwieldy instruments I am blessed to play.  I spent most of the weekend icing my arms, and fortunately the pain subsided by the end of the weekend.  I’m no scientitian, but it seems pretty clear to me that I had overused muscles that had been less accustomed to activity, and I was now paying the price.  The price was pain on the surface level, and debilitation on a much more frightening sub-level; I can’t afford to be out of commission in the most productive phase of my life.

Vishnuba Dan

Vishnuba Dan has the correct number of arms.

It wasn’t just arm muscles, though.  While performing at the train station last week, each day I had brought a different instrument.  On Tuesday, I brought my tuba, and played a series of solo tuba improvisations without a break from 7-9am.  That evening I had a rehearsal from 8-10pm on the sousaphone.  On Wednesday I played a house party on the sousaphone, and on Thursday, I played an Independence Day Parade.  I felt fine playing-wise at both of those shows   On Saturday night, I had a show from 9pm-1am, and from the very start I could tell something was off.  I was having trouble centering my sound, which resulted in many chipped notes.  I also had difficulty moving smoothly through my range, and my tone was somewhat brittle.

I had to reach far back to remember the last time I had experienced this, and I realized it was when I was overpracticing.  It turns out that my arm muscles aren’t the only ones that can get fatigued.  My lip and face muscles were over-stressed from playing too much (and probably too loud) across the week.  I had to tell myself to back off and practice low quiet notes for a while.

All this comes back to the balance I mentioned earlier: the balance between assigning too few tasks to get anything done, and assigning more tasks than I can possibly complete.  In addition to this being important on the macro level of creating my schedule, each individual component of my schedule is subject to the same need for balance.  The big difference is that instead of just not accomplishing what I’m trying to do by scheduling too much, I can actually go through with it and really hurt myself.

When I experimented with not having a full-time job back in December, I made sure to incorporate rest and recreation into my schedule:

A couple of important things in here.  First of all, note that I’m planning “rest” in here.  This is partially because I am on vacation, and I do need to rest and recuperate from work, but also because I know that resting is an important part of my life, and something I at least need permission to do and at most need to plan into my day.  There will be plenty of times when rest is not an option; while it is, I need to make it happen, as I believe firmly it is vital to focused productivity.

Once again, I need to take this approach not only with the process of scheduling itself, but with the activities and projects that I’m actually scheduling.  If I’m going to try weightlifting again, I need to find contentment with smaller weights and more rest in between.  I need to find the time to practice relaxation on the instruments I play.  I need to find the space in each of my activities and goals that will allow me to improve without limiting myself.

I’ve got a handle on pacing myself on the macro level of scheduling, but I need to take it several levels further.  A fractal is a recursive structure in which each component is a smaller version of the same initial seed.  I need to take my patient and self-aware approach and recreate it in each of my other activities.  Vishnu may have enough arms to play the tuba and accordion, lift weights, and design a web site, but I’m no deity.  It’s time I stopped holding myself to godlike standards and started allowing myself to proceed at a pace that works for me.


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