Monthly Archives: August 2013

Sofa Searching

I have two couches in my living room that have taught me much about the process of discovering want I want and how to achieve it.  A bold statement to be sure, but I find myself returning over and over again to the lessons I’ve learned from them.  Allow me to introduce the fiendish duo.

There is the futon:


It has a spring mattress, a sturdy wooden frame, and a hideous pair of throw pillows I found at Big Lots.

Then there is the purple monstrosity:

purple sofa

It is pretty massive, deep, and both scratched (from my cat) and stained (not from my cat).  Backpack sold separately.

So how have these sofas started me on the journey to finding the things in life that I want?  Well, it’s simple.

They’re terrible sofas.

Both are so large and tall that anyone not me-sized sits with their legs dangling over the edge as if they were a small child.  As mentioned before, they’re also a bit beat up, and old purpley here was never especially pretty in the first place (quick shoutout to Samantha for providing this freebie for me; please don’t take my dramatic license as a lack of gratitude).  But the single most heinous crime defies the very tenants of sofasity and is punishable by couch banishment: they aren’t really comfortable.  And if your sofa isn’t comfortable, what is it really doing besides acting as a scratching post for the cat and a backpack shelf?

A while back I finally got up the momentum to start looking for replacements.  The first lesson I learned: couches are expensive.  If you’re looking for something beyond IKEA furniture, you need to be prepared to have some savings stashed away.

And for Swedish furniture aficionados out there, look deep into your souls and answer me this: have you ever sat on a luxuriously comfortable IKEA sofa you build yourself?  I didn’t think so.

So suddenly I found myself on a budget for a purchase with a slew of variables: color, size, hardness, support, material, texture.  It was time to start looking into the alternative providers of comfortable living room furniture.

Only, that wasn’t the tack I took.  Instead of poring through the bargain basements, perusing the thrift stores, and aiming for the Targets, I instead went and found the most expensive furniture store I could find.  My idea was that until I had a clear idea of what the top of the line was, I wouldn’t have a frame of reference for my options.

If I tried the best, highest end sofa, I would know just how comfortable I could be, or at least the options of comfort I would have.  With all the variables at my fingertips, I could then isolate the features of a good sofa.  At that point, I wouldn’t even necessarily have to buy that expensive sofa that met all my needs.  I could experiment with lesser models and see if there was a tipping point between quality and price.

I don’t mean to get dramatic here (Dan, look deep into your soul… you know that’s a lie).  However, I was suddenly reminded of a pithy homily:  “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail” (shoutout to Andrea who has that on the wall of her office).

Yes, I tend to stretch far in my analogies, but the heart of the message is actually quite similar to my quest for the ideal couch: If you knew the infinite possibilities available at your fingertips, what would you do to make what you desire a reality?  In my case, I just replaced the soul search with a sofa search.

Let’s just split the difference and call it a soulfa search.  I’ve been dying to type that this entire time.

I was thinking of how I looked for a new sofa when a friend of mine called last week to discuss relationship issues she was having.  In that situation, most times it’s not acceptable to go out and test the best available models for some comparison shopping.  Instead, it’s more a matter of taking a step back and considering what an ideal relationship would look like.  How would your partner treat you, and how would you treat your partner?  What would you be getting out of the relationship?

Once you have that mental picture in your head, you need to do some analysis of whether the envisioned relationship is both realistic and sustainable. If the answer is no, you have to step back into your desires and find why it is you want something that is unsustainable.  If the answer is yes, you have to ask yourself why you’re accepting something different from what you want.  That’s not a leading question either; there are plenty of reasons one might stay when they have envisioned a reality that more directly addresses their desires.  It could be a dread of dating, the malleability of our satisfaction, or the idiosyncrasies of the situation.  Regardless of the reason, it’s important that you know it.

I came across another sofa-searching moment when I recently left my full-time job.  I knew I was dissatisfied with what I was doing, but I wasn’t sure of what type of full-time job would satisfy me.  I needed to explore my options and expand my palate.  So rather than hopping into another full-time job out of fear of the inability to sustain myself without one, I rented a rather expensive “couch” in the hopes that I’d find it both comfortable and affordable.  Without the empirical experience of the huge amount of options available, I wouldn’t be able to know for sure whether this was the type of life I wanted to lead.

There’s an epilogue to the sofa search that may seem to disprove my entire point: I ended up hating all the really expensive sofas.  They were uncomfortable, over-stuffed, rather hideous-looking, and homogenized.  None of them approached what my ideal sofa would be, and I still have ol’ purple and the futon today.  However, all this said to me was that I might be looking in the wrong places.  I’ve begun to expand my quest for the ideal to other places, such as thrift stores with huge varieties and friends’ sofas.  I know that the key to finding comfort is first finding what it is I actually want, and the key to finding what I want is to tear down to barriers of shoulds, coulds, and preconceived notions.  Once they are out of the way, I can focus in on what I’m desiring and why.  Only then will I have a clear picture of whether the effort to incorporate it into my life is a worthwhile endeavor.

Maybe it’s for the best that I haven’t replaced my pariah sofas.  Haven’t they done enough for me to warrant the slightest consideration for clemency?


Taking the Captain’s Chair

It’s been a little over a month since I’ve left my full time job.  I’m slowly discovering how to live a life that is sustainable both financially and for my well-being.  For the record, I am still not where I want to be yet, there are days when I get overwhelmed with how much I need to do, and there are days when it’s just not fun at all.  There are not, however, days in which I regret leaving my job.  More about that later.

Capdan Picard

Capdan Picard makes it so… frightening.

One of the interesting shifts in my life has been the new role of leadership I’ve taken on.  I no longer have the “luxury” of sitting back and letting someone else choose the direction I should be going.  I now have to choose my own path and make it so, or else nothing gets accomplished.

Back in 1999 I was working over the summer at Sesame Place.  The previous two summers, I had played in the park band, the Sesame Brass, and this year I was hired back as the band captain.  This was mostly more of the same stuff I had done the last two years, with a few new responsibilities thrown in.  Without going into too much detail, it was one of the most traumatic summers of my life.  I was unable to balance my role in what was essentially middle management with the relationships I had with my coworkers from the previous summer.  Add to it teenagers, drama, and clashing egos, and I vowed never again to work in a place where people above me told me how to treat people below me.

From that point forward, I avoided leadership roles in the jobs I took, instead choosing jobs in which I had a specialized skill-set that often translated to a moderate level of autonomy.  Looking back… wow, that was almost 15 years.  Thanks Sesame Place!

I even avoided leadership roles in music.  I played in a series of different groups in which someone else wrote the music (for the most part) and someone else booked the shows.  Certainly I added my own flair and intuition to whatever I played, but I was a far cry from directing any of the ensembles or bands I was playing with.  Whoever happened to book the show determined the time, location, and pay.

When I started performing my own music about 5 years ago, it’s true I was leading the band… but it was a band of one.  And man was I a taskmaster to that one lazy band member!

In more recent times, though, that has had to change.  While I was still taking orders at my old job, I began doing a lot more booking for the different groups I played in.  As I was playing mostly as a side project to my full-time employment, I wasn’t so worried about money; rather, I wanted to just get out and play with as many different groups as possible.  So for my songwriting project Neon and Shy, I would call the venues, book the shows, and (often) become intimate with the cold gaze of rejection.  I began to make connections to book events for  Four Lads Insane (Bowie tribute), Three Men and Three Women in Black (Johnny Cash tribute), and Late Night Double Feature (Rocky Horror meets Rocky Balboa tribute).

PolkadelphiaProbably the biggest change for me came when I formed the modern polka band Polkadelphia back in March.  For the first time, I was leading a band that involved other full-time musicians. Just like my time at Sesame Place, I found being squeezed between two groups of people: this time it was between the musicians in the band and the venues that want us to play.  The squeeze comes when I have to choose between pushing a venue to pay us what we’re worth, or turning around and asking my colleagues to play a show for a wage that is an insult to their talents.

The big difference for me is how much control I have in this situation as opposed to as a 21 year-old at Sesame Place.  I get to choose the venues to play at, I get to choose what we should earn, and I get to decide whether to stand my ground or find some leeway.  Half of it is dizzyingly scary.  I can’t tell you how many times I have paused before emailing a quote for the band, steeled myself, held my breath, and tapped the send button.  However, I am equally elated when the client or venue comes back to me with respect for the number that I believe we should earn.  Because not only does it tell me that I’m on the right track, but it gives me the opportunity to tell these people that I play with how much I respect what they’re doing.

Around the time I left my job, I also started getting more freelance computer gigs.  A client would ask me the process for going about distributing video online, and with this kind of stuff there isn’t a manual or a standardized best practice to reference.  I’d have to decide the best plan of action to accomplish what they wanted to do, then help the client to follow that plan of action.  Once again, it was scary to have to put it all on the line, but ultimately rewarding when it worked the way I anticipated.

This became especially magnified when working with my first web design client.  This time it wasn’t just a singular component I had to plan.  I had to solicit my client’s vision for what he wanted his site to be, and temper it with my own design sensibilities and the limitations of the medium.  There was a lot of back and forth about certain web components that I was convinced would look better one way versus another.  I was able to present my image of how his website could look its best, and we found common ground in the few places we disagreed.  There were scary moments in which I didn’t know if I would ever finish the project or even overcome a simple obstacle like lining up all the text in one area.  However, my previously acquired computer skills, my eye for the aesthetically pleasing, and my understanding of organizing content all came together to make our vision a reality.  In fact, today we just launched the new site over here.

So back to why I don’t regret leaving my job.  There are plenty of reasons I feel this way, but probably the biggest has to do with how I’ve revisited the role of leadership in my life.  I’ve taken everything I’ve learned since 1999 and beyond, and crafted it into a way to direct the projects in my life.  This time around I’m making sure that I have both control over the types of projects I lead and mutual respect within the projects I’m leading.  The most exciting part is finding that I don’t have to just be in charge.  I can also, dare I say, enjoy it.

Practicing Balance and Balancing Practice

I’ve been practicing yoga daily for the past 12 or so years.  Granted, most days, it’s limited to a 15 minute routine in the morning, but it’s still a very important part of my life.  Physically, it’s so important that if I skip a day I am in pain by that evening.  More recently I’ve been taking classes at a local studio with some really great teachers (shoutout to Lana at Blue Banyan!).  And yet, despite all the time I’ve spent practicing, there are still some areas that I consistently find difficult.  Probably the biggest is doing balance poses.

I have a very difficult time standing on one foot and not falling over.  Whether that’s due to my flat feet or something else, I’m not sure.  Standing on my left foot is particularly difficult.  It’s very frustrating when I get to that point in the yoga class and see the teacher and students lifting their right foot, wrapping it around their other leg and bending forward; meanwhile, I’m just trying to raise my right foot without colliding into the person next to me.  I’ve spoken to several teachers about this and I’ve always been given the same answer: if you keep practicing it, you’ll improve.

Kangaroo and Dan

The rarely practiced “Kangarasana.”

The problem is that I can’t practice it.  Because I can’t do it.  It would be one thing if I could get to the first stage of the balance pose and stay there, but I start to shake just when I raise my foot up so the thigh is parallel with the ground, let alone wrap it around, swan dive, and hop up and down (ok, that’s not a real yoga pose).  In terms of completing the individual pose of tree pose and its variations, there’s nothing for me to practice.

A few months back, though, I was swapping my Excel skills for a private yoga session (shoutout to Kristin I!), and we discussed balance poses.  She suggested that I don’t try to complete the balance pose at all until I have a more fundamental sense of balance.  Rather than trying to do more than my body is able to, instead I should lift my right foot off the ground about an inch.  She said I should continue to do this for weeks until I was ready to lift it two inches.  Then I could continue the process until I was able to work up to doing the full pose.

As a musician, this approach makes a lot of sense.  When I’m learning a challenging new piece of music, it’s standard practice to whip out my metronome and start playing it at a slower tempo, then slowly tick up the speed on the metronome until it’s playable at its desired tempo.  The crash and burn approach to learning something difficult is common for beginners, but they call it crash and burn for a reason, in that you never really learn how to play the piece.  We need to start at the space where we’re at before we can push ourselves to go further.

And that’s that.  Thanks for joining me on this exploration of the process of…

Whoa there!  That’s only half the picture.

Though it’s very important to work with what you feel comfortable and develop from there, it has the disadvantage of sometimes slowing progress to a painful grindy pace.  Not to mention it can be monumentally boring.

For example, lately I’ve been having tuba issues in that I’ve been, well, missing a lot of notes.  If I were to work on this using the above method, I would stop playing music all together during my practice sessions until I could play each note correctly.  That would involve a ton of long tones, slow scales (slowly sped up), and articulation drills.  And let me tell you, after about an hour of this on day one, I would never want to play the tuba again.

The problem is not that I’m lazy (which I might be) or that this is inefficient (which it sort of is), but that I lose any sense of context.  I will be able to play scales and long tones perfectly in all of my gigs, but when it comes to playing the written or improvised music, I’m not sure I’d be so prepared.  It’s important to be able to tie it all back into what I need to do on the spot on the bandstand.

The bigger issue is that it’s important to be able to stretch myself (yoga pun retroactively intended) to discover where I am and what I can do.  Often I’ll find that something that seemed impossible or too far away was only distant in my mind.

With the tuba, I’m thinking about the time I was in college and learned that my range had increased.  At the time, I was only able to play as high as an E above the bass clef staff.  I would get anxious if the music I was reading would go higher than that.  It wasn’t until I was playing duets with a violinist friend of mine (Shoutout to Sonya!) that I found myself playing high F’s suddenly because it was in the music.  I hadn’t been thinking about fundamentals of performance; I was just surprised by it in the music, and I was ready to go there.  Who knows how long I would have been afraid to make that leap otherwise.

Practicing yoga has a similar need to test one’s boundaries.  Sometimes trying new things, often with a great teacher to guide, results in a fundamental shift of perspective.  When I first tried to get into a shoulderstand, I had no idea how my body would get into it without tipping over.  Once I tried it though, and discovered which muscles needed to be activated, it became a simple process.  Today I can jump into that pose without thinking about it because one day I gave it a try.

So there are two perspectives here:

1.) Make sure you have your fundamentals down before you progress to something more difficult.
2.) Give yourself space to experiment to discover what you might be capable of.

And they’re both very important tools to include in my arsenal.  On the subject of preventing missed notes on the tuba, practicing the fundamentals is very important, but not if done exclusively.  I need to take those scales that I just nailed and try the same approach with a difficult lick in the charts, or on an improvised bassline.  It may need some work along the way, but it both gives a benchmark of where I am, as well as directly transfers to the professional playing I’m doing.

I tend to get very didactic and “either/or” when I approach practicing and performing, and I’m learning that it isn’t helpful either for my morale or  my playing.  I strive to figure out what will be helpful at which point all while being as kind to myself as possible.  The balance that I so desperately want to achieve in my yoga practice is also required in utilizing these two perspectives.  I anticipate creeping forward one inch at a time along the way.  I also anticipate diving in head first some of the time.

In other words, it’s time to start practicing the balance of balancing my practice.

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