Author Archives: kirk.kittell

Sometimes it doesn't come together

I send out this newsletter every Monday. Usually it comes together. It's a sort of performance. I have some links to things I read and watch and so on that I like to pass on for others to read and watch and so on—that's the easy part, it just accumulates during the week. The performance happens in the few paragraphs before that.

I don't mind speaking in front of groups. Prepared, semi-prepared, unprepared, extemporaneous—it doesn't matter. Something always bubbles to the surface when I need it to. It's not always the best something, but I only need something something. The note that comes out flat can be the step up to the right note, and in that step sometimes a completely new pathway has revealed itself and we're off on a journey. Which is to say that I can talk about nothing forever once I get that something out.

The first few paragraphs of the newsletter are like that. I don't know what's going to come out. I stare at this infernal screen for a few minutes hoping something will arise—some distant noise, some distant memory, some minor irritation, something I saw but didn't see until I saw it in memory and now I'm ready to investigate its hazy impression from the periphery of my eye and mind. I sit and I fidget. I apply 80 proof directly to the frontal lobe with a brick. I glance at the clock and see midnight coming and step up to the line and jump. The words are going to come out—but which ones? Doesn't matter. Gather them all in a basket and then put them together in a way that works.

Sometimes it doesn't come together. It's not that it's bad. Some bad art is OK if you were really leaning into it, trying to make it work, trying to explore some new territory, trying to grab some idea out of the ether. The real problem is when it's nothing. Some words. Some thoughts. But no direction. No real attempt. Not enough speed to leave the ground—the blocks not even removed from the wheels, but I sit there in the cockpit mumbling VROOM VROOM to give the impression to nobody that things are moving, that we're going somewhere.

The delete button is my friend. We've undone a lot of bad work together. Tomorrow is also my friend because it ain't never said nothin' bad about nothin'.

Missing obvious problems

A storm rolled through the area on Thursday. There never seems to be a nice, easy rain here, just a wall of water that has tipped over somewhere and arced ungracefully to the ground. There are two rain scenarios in the garden: drought; and cleaning up after the deluge.

Fewer than half of the corn stalks in the Country Gentleman and Golden Bantam plots are standing now. Every storm takes one, but now that they're taller, this storm took down more than its quota. Never mind that all of the corn stalks are weird and thin from being transplanted anyway, and just waiting for some pressure to bend and then break.

The Black Aztec plot had even more problems—the transplantation problem plus my thorough misunderstanding of how much light that area gets, or maybe it was the gazebo we put on the deck taking away an hour of light. Those corn stalks are weird and thin and not very stiff—prone to bending over on a good day, especially those stalks that had pole beans growing on them.

I've been looking out of the second floor window for three days after the storm, annoyed at the state of the Black Aztec plot. None of the good ones were standing anymore, only two or three dwarf plants (out of a starting plot of sixteen). I would check it out from the window, see the sad and bent plants, brood over the lost effort. But I couldn't be bothered to go down there.

Today I went down there to check things out and do maintenance.

There was a branch from the oak tree above laying on several of the stalks.


So maybe if I had checked that out on Friday the corn might have picked itself back up again, at least a little.

Sometimes it's the mundane details that get you. Sometimes it's the big thing that gets you, but you don't notice because you're too busy considering the theory of forests instead of the tree that has fallen on you.

Stress building

I was going to start off here by saying, "When I get stressed, I like to go build something as a way of handling the stress." That sounds like a healthy, well-adjusted way of doing things. Create something good while burning off something bad. Win. Win.

Here on this site I can start however I want, but that was a little too rich.

Perhaps it would be more accurately stated as: in the absolutely best cases, when I'm feeling stressed, I go out and use my hands—maybe build a bit of a wall or shelf, maybe dig a hole (for a project, not just... dig a hole somewhere), paint something, tend the garden, etc. Most of the time the response is: pace around the house for as long as it takes—hours, days. This is an undersold benefit of working from home. If I did that in the office, I'd look like a madman. (Actually, I do it in the office, I just walk around different floors of the building, or to other connected buildings.) In the office the best case is working on some little software scripts, which doesn't really remove the stress because I'm always about one line of code away from getting stuck and frustrated, but at least the stress is directed in a useful direction.

I've never tried using a squeezeball. It seems useless.

I'm not feeling stressed now, so it's funny to look back at those times—like looking at a different person. (Like looking at an animal in a zoo.) Being able to pick apart the healthy and unhealthy responses so easily is the kind of gift you only get when you're not in that kind of situation. Now, if only there were a way to springload the healthy, useful response so that it was right there, ready to go, at the right time.

Meetings or work

I started to collect some links and references, etc., about the conflict at the intersection of having meetings and getting work done. I'm sort of just sitting here with a crooked smile and one should drooping a little lower than the other. It seems that perhaps I'm not the first person who has thought of this particular problem. I do have a pile of links that are either work sharing or not, I haven't decided. It's a lot of common sense—but how relevant is common sense if it doesn't seem to jump the fence from sense to action? Yes we all know that setting ourselves on fire is bad common sense, but in these here parts we're all given a lighter and a can of kerosene and we know what we're expected to do with them.

Mule time, 3

Previous: Mule time, 2

There's a downside to the mulish grind through work. (There are many, but there is only room for one thought at a time in mule mind.) Pulling and pulling and pulling on a plow, one row at a time, one row at a time, one row at a time, pulling, onward, repeating, repeating, pulling, row, row, row—there isn't much space for introspection. Some activities, boring and repetitive as they are, offer some space to expand—simple work that doesn't last long. Mule time is different. Mule time is the longest month you've had this week. Sun down to sun up. Pulling, rows, etc.

Where does the mind go?

For that weird, brief interlude when I was running long distances, well-meaning jokers would ask: what do you think about for that long?

I'll tell you:


If you're lucky, nothing. The brain—fantastic piece of evolved machinery that it is—only gets in the way if you're going to go run all day and part of the night. As soon as that thing starts thinking about the situation that it's gotten itself into, it's going to figure out that it's a situation it wants to get itself out of.

Row. Row. Row. (In a field, not in a boat.) Put the brain in a cradle and rock it to sleep. Row. Row. Row. (Gently down the field.) The fuzzy, swaddled brain has no thoughts to think. Row. Row. Row. The sleeping brain might work out some ideas while it dreams, but the mulesleep brain is on standby.

During the mule times I look at this screen, and I shake my head, and there is nothing but the sound of a few loose pebbles clinking around the inside of the skull. Eventually the thoughts come back, but it's tiring to think about it. Pulling the plow is one kind of tired. Pulling thoughts out of the ether is another kind.

Two-way monologues

Don’t apologize, and don’t pay any attention to what we’re talking about… Every good conversation should be a two-way monologue… We should ultimately be unable to tell whether we really talked with someone or simply imagined the conversation…

—Fernando Pessoa. The Book of Disquiet.

I'm still winding through The Book of Disquiet—and perhaps always will be—and it's hard to categorize it, hard to say what it is. Talk of dreams. Talk of doing nothing. Interminable logics, painstakingly built up. And occasionally these cutting insights like the one above about the brief feelings we feel in the briefest passing-by moments of life. On its face, sure, it is nonsensical, but taken ironically it's like so many interactions that we have—which I suppose means it's not ironic at all.

A Secret Love

This evening we watched A Secret Love on Netflix. It was a bit of a random pick—a movie we had never heard of, and we accidentally hit the play button while reading the description. Might as well go with it, etc.

How are you going to think of gay people as terrible deviants when you listen to two grannies talk about 70 years together—nearly all of those years unknown explicitly to family back in Canada, although surely known in whatever community they found in Chicago. Seeing the 1940s and 1950s pictures of them together was almost like a strange alternative history—all of the props and poses and styles and cars and so on that I've seen before in vintage mid-century photos, but with two women occupying the focus of the shot. Effortless subversion of an archetype, but also a half-sad look at what could have been for so many other people.

“I used to see little kids struggling with their identity at school, and not all kids are lucky enough to have a family that says, ‘That’s OK, that doesn’t matter,’” she said. “So maybe this will help those people understand it a little bit more. I really hope this documentary shows that love is love. I can hear Auntie Terry in heaven chuckling, just being so happy that she’s helping people.”

—Amy Kaufman. "Love is love: How do you go on without your ‘little darling’?" The Los Angeles Times (2020-05-08).

Try again

The small plot of corn and soybeans at the bottom of the slope in the yard started off with a few hitches. Like the rest of the garden plots, the plot didn't exist when it was time to plant things, so the corn and beans got started in peat pots on the deck until I had space for them in the under-construction yard.

That's right: I transplanted corn and beans. I don't know if I'd say that you shouldn't do that, but it's a weird way to do it—just putting the seeds directly into the ground is the better way. (Someone else's experience with it: Corn Failure A.K.A. Starting Over). But, hey, do what you can.

The corn went in the ground first because it had gotten up to 20-30 cm tall in the peat pots. The beans had to wait a little longer—there wasn't much free time to work a plot for them with school and work and yard construction going on. So the beans just grew and twisted in their little peat pots in a plastic tray, sitting near where I was going to plant them.

As it turns out, something—the local groundhog, I suspect—discovered what was essentially a plastic salad bowl filled with young soybean leaves and left me with nothing but stems. Disappointing, but an obvious problem that was bound to happen.

Some tiny leaves would eventually start sprouting again before I put them into the ground. Once planted, they started to grow more confidently. But I didn't have a fence around the corn and bean plots yet, and though he had to work a little harder going plant-to-plant this time, the groundhog still managed to get his salad.

This happened three or four times, and by the time I got the chicken wire around the plot, only 18 of the ~32 or so original plants had survived—twisted and gnarly, not too many leaves, but still putting out a few bean pods.

So, learn and try again.

I'm saving the first rounds of beans as planting stock for next year—seeds that will be planted after the fence is up, and directly into the ground. And the open space in the bean plot recently got some late season additions of carrots, daikon, cabbage, and cauliflower—no way was I going to waste all that effort from turning over the local dirt (clay) with a spade.

I don't mind making stupid mistakes like this, to some extent. There was never enough free time this year to do it right, and the free time that existed wasn't at the right time for planting. So I improvised. Some things failed utterly—did any of the okra even stick their head out—but some things took off. Learn something and move on. Next year I'll have less space—I've been reminded that we don't live on a farm—so I'll have to succeed at a higher rate to use the space I'll get well.