Swirling Colors

Franzen: The Discomfort Zone and Farther Away

I’ve been trying to keep up a good amount of reading lately, but it’s been kind of tricky with all the other stuff I’ve got going on right now. I thought it would be fun to write about each book I finish, both as an exercise in remembering and processing. Here is the first.

Jonathan Franzen: The Discomfort Zone, “Farther Away”

The Discomfort Zone is the first Jonathan Franzen book I’ve read, and perhaps it’s not best to start with the memoir. It seems a bit early for him to be writing a memoir in the first place. The Discomfort Zone was published when Franzen was 46, so there is a lot still up in the air about what direction things are going and how recent events are actually shaping his life. That said, the sections on childhood are well developed, and they allow an interesting glimpse into what shaped the author. Perhaps the way to think about this is as Franzen: Part I.

The writing itself was quite good, though, and this is what kept me engaged through the (brief) 200 pages. Franzen comes off as being laid-back and open, but he is also insightful and pleasingly referential. It is refreshing to hear an honest account of the difficult years of coming of age. If you’re already a big Franzen fan, I’d definitely recommend the book as a way to get to know the author. Otherwise, not a great place to start. I suspect his other novels would have drawn me in faster. Freedom and The Corrections have been recommended to me by a number of people (including Oprah).

Since finishing The Discomfort Zone, I read an article by Franzen in the New Yorker titled “Farther Away”.  It’s a piece about solitude, boredom, Robinson Crusoe, and the tragic suicide of David Foster Wallace. (As a disclaimer I should say that DFW is one of my favorite authors, so anything describing his psyche is bound to interest me. But they were good friends, and this is a touching recount of the immense difficulties DFW went through to stay afloat.) It’s a long article, but compelling and incredibly worthwhile if you can throw an hour at it (or and hour and a half if you read at my speed). It still felt like the Franzen I caught a glimpse of in The Discomfort Zone, but was written with a new level of maturity. He’s able to weave together these themes in a profound way, using each to accentuate the others. David Brooks named the piece the best of 2011.

Franzen’s discussion of boredom is particularly strong and is something I’ve been mulling over for the past couple months. Last fall, I read Wallace’s posthumously published, unfinished manuscript, The Pale King. The work explores the life and connections of a character also named David Foster Wallace, and at some points is written as if to be a memoir. I don’t know if any of it is actually true, though I suspect bits and pieces have been drawn from his past. Wallace has such a capacity for imaginative description that it’s nearly impossible to know what could be true and what is 100% fabricated. The story revolves around an IRS processing facility, knitting together fragments from each character’s past with their current struggle to deal with copious amounts of boredom. The result is a series of vignettes, loosely tied together, still lacking some deeper connection or underlying theme. There was a lot left to be done on the novel, and Franzen suggests that Wallace’s discontent with this sprawling work was one of the many things that weighed on him as he chose to take his own life.

It is fascinating to hear a recount of what was going on behind the scenes for an author like Wallace, and also to see how Franzen reacts and responds to it. Their differences shine through not only in the way they write, but also in the way they’re able to talk about their writing processes and personal histories. Where Wallace is closed off and solitary, Franzen is open and honest. He writes frankly in The Discomfort Zone and “Farther Away”, and it seems that the ability to do so has kept him from the dark isolation that Wallace endured.

My hand

Rock Climbing on the Right Side of the Brain

What do rock climbing and drawing have in common? I’ve been spending a good amount of time doing each recently, and I’ve found that they are more similar than I would have guessed.

I’ve done a lot of drawing over the course of my life and filled up a number of sketch books in the process. In the past couple years, though, I’ve shifted more of my creative energy to painting, and drawing has fallen by the wayside. To get back into it, a friend recommended to me Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I’ve started working my way through the book, following the exercises on contour and shape. It turns out I’ve done most of these exercises at some point previously, but I’ve never been consciously aware of the shift to right-brain mode that goes with them.

As for rock climbing, I’ve dabbled for about eight years, but I started getting serious about it three and a half years ago. It has worked out that I’ve had the most free time (between jobs, unemployment) during the winters, which has made me very familiar with the rock climbing gym. I’ve had a number of plateaus in my climbing ability, but I’ve put it some solid effort and training this winter and have progressed to a fairly advanced level.

So what’s the deal, how are the physicality of rock climbing and the creativity of drawing connected?

In essence, they are different ways of interacting with the same things: space, dimensionality, and texture. In drawing, you use your eye to follow an object, to perceive the way light reflects off the grooves, indentations, bulges, and flats. In rock climbing, you use your hands and body to do the same thing. You perceive the physical properties of the rock through your sense of touch. In both endeavors, it took me quite a while to realize the importance of utilizing this perception.

Rock climbing is very difficult as a beginner. It engages a whole new set of muscles, so even someone who has gotten incredibly strong through weight lifting will probably have a lot of trouble (and there’s something cathartic about watching beefy guys struggle to get up a wall). You spend a long time grasping for something to hold on to before building up the finger and core strength and awareness to move through routes smoothly.

My hand

Drawing of a hand familiar with rock climbing.

As the fingers strengthen, though, one gains awareness of subtleties in the body and the rock. I especially notice this in the climbing gym where the same hand holds get reused over and over again. As I improve (over months, to give a sense of scale), my sensation of a particular hold changes. This evolution happens slowly, maybe I find there is a certain angle and finger position that feels a little bit more stable than I remember. A groove feels slightly deeper, a ridge sharper. At some point, holds which I couldn’t imagine clinging to before are suddenly accessible, even easy to hold on to.

New awareness in the fingers leads to new awareness of the whole. The space between the hand holds becomes more concrete. With additional core strength, the body can navigate this space smoothly and efficiently. This becomes ingrained in the body’s movement; the brain quiets and lets the perception of shape take over.

This may be beginning to sound a little bit more like drawing. Although I’ve been engaging in a shift to my right-brain while doing art for years, I wasn’t conscious of what that really meant until I started working through Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. The main focus of the book is teaching the reader to see. Not just to recognize an image or object as something it already knows, but to explore the edges with the eye, see the negative shapes between objects, experience the subject as it really is. It turns out the right side of the brain is really good at this, and the left side of the brain is really bad at it. Unfortunately, the left side usually wins out for our attention and suppresses this deep right-brain perception with logic and symbols.

Now that I have an idea of what to look for, I’ve noticed some changes that occur when I’m able to reach that right-brain mode. The most obvious shift is to extreme focus. Time drops away, external stimuli become difficult to process, distractions lose their appeal. I am able to look closely and carefully, and to slowly trace an object with my eye. My hands are well trained enough to respond to this perception by copying it. I can quickly tell if there is a discrepancy between the object and my interpretation of it and make an appropriate change. The deeper into the zone I get, the clearer the textures, contours and shapes become, and the easier they are to translate onto the page. It is a blissful feeling of awareness.

I’ve improved my level of perception of shape through sight and touch, and I am curious how perception through the other senses evolves when well trained. I imagine there must be corollaries for smell, taste, and hearing. Although I’ve played music my whole life, I can’t say that I feel a deep connection to hearing. Perhaps the creation of sound is distinct in the brain from the perception? I’ll have to look into that. I think my music could use a good dose of right-brain focus.

Doing yoga!

What I Think About When I Do Yoga

It seems like everyone is doing yoga right now, and there are probably just about as many ways to think about yoga practice as there are people doing it. I think it’s great that it’s become a big thing, and it has certainly had a major positive influence on my life. I’ve read a number of pieces on what is going on when you do yoga, and particularly like this one. The NY Times also just presented some reasons not to do yoga, which I thought was a little extreme. I don’t know much about the history or tradition of yoga, but I like doing it and I like thinking about it.

The first time I tried yoga was when I was in kindergarten. I don’t remember much about the year other than that. It was really fun, and my teacher was great. After that I didn’t touch it again until the end of high school, and I didn’t practice regularly until college. From there I took classes occasionally, and mostly did that when I could find a good deal or take it through school. About a year ago I started to listen to podcasts and practice in my room. Now I try to do this about three times a week, and it has been by far the most committed and enjoyable my yoga experience has been.

One of the most cited reasons to do yoga, and one of my biggest drivers, is the confluence of mind, body, and spirit. It’s great to have an activity that covers several different needs simultaneously. It loosens and limbers the body, calms the mind, and engages the spirit. I like the focus on energy and the mindfulness that comes along with it. I also like that it is not actually about the stretching. Going to the gym is a one-purpose activity. There’s not much you can do there beyond strengthening the body. With yoga, the strain on your body is a tool for actively strengthening your mind and expanding your spirit. Putting your body in a stressful position while keeping your mind calm and focused is practice for dealing with real-life stress.

Now that I’ve practiced a good deal on my own, I’ve found that I generally prefer that to a class. Maybe I’m just antisocial, but I like moving at my own pace and being able to focus on how my body and mind feel without the distraction of the people around me. I also like the repetition of doing pretty much the same movements over and over again. It makes it feel more like practice. I do occasionally miss the social atmostphere of a class and the variety and presence a live teacher brings, but usually I prefer to be alone.

And how do I actually feel when I do yoga? It’s hard to describe. The body leads the way for me, bringing my mind to a calmer state, and eventually generating a swell of warmth and contentment. I usually begin slightly stiff and tense from sitting at a desk and looking at a screen for most of the day. As I go through some gentle downward dogs and warrior poses, my muscles slowly start to give. Muscle fibers stretch, and strength and awareness begin to assert themselves in my body.

I find the physical discipline of keeping myself steady and at my edge is what initiates and grows my mental discipline. Through supporting my body’s effort to stay strong and steady, my mind releases its points of tension and pain, smoothes and steadies itself in the process. I find I’m more able to stay buoyant despite difficulties or sluggishness of the day. Some days I’m not able to get there, with my mind so crowded that I have trouble even staying focused through 20 minutes of yoga, let alone an hour and a half.

When I’m having a focused and strong session, though, my sense of body shifts slightly. As I go through more poses, I shed deeper layers of tension. My heels drop closer to the ground and my hips open a bit. I begin to be aware of subtler movement and tension in my joints and tissue. The warmth and energy from these sensations lay the foundation for the spiritual aspect of my practice. Rather than feel like I am straining a muscle, I feel like the muscle is engaging just to the minimum level of effort require to hold a pose steadily. Balance comes from exploring this boundary of effort. Shifting slowly from barely too much to barely too little in decreasing oscillations. Just at the limit, there is a feeling of engagement with one muscle, like the quad, and total relaxation of the opposing muscle, the hamstring.

This is where I begin to feel my breath. I try to maintain the “ugai” breath, but I’ve always had trouble aligning it to my movements. This is something I definitely want to keep working on, as I think it will bring fluidity to the practice. When I’m still, however, I use the breath to deepen a pose, release the tension in my brain, and to invite energy to flow throughout my body. I feel my lungs filling with air to their corners, expanding from my chest to where my body is tight or restricted. Energy draws from limbs, fingers, and toes, and eddies throughout my body. In prayer pose, there is a warmth between my hands which further calms my nervous system and deepens the spiritual aspect of the practice.

As I’ve gained body awareness over time, I’ve found that attention to certain details helps immensely. Slightly adjusting, or even just being aware of the angle and rotation of a bone or limb adds depth to a pose. Especially in the angle of the hipbone, the rotation of thigh bones, and articulation of the shoulders, I find that this can make a routine pose activate fully. Also, engaging a muscle while it’s being stretched and keeping a firm core throughout both build a warmth which spreads through the body. Gaining core strength through rock climbing has definitely improved my awareness and granted access to new levels of sensation and precision in these movements.

I’ve always been glad to have yoga with me through the various places my life has taken me, and I look forward to bringing it with me where I go from here. It is a solid, calming force, and I think it lays a good foundation for my emotional and intellectual well-being. I’m not sure if I’ll ever have the opportunity to do yoga more often than I am now, but it’s definitely something I’m curious about. I think something like a month-long focused practice would help expand my consciousness and mindfulness in a big way.

How do you feel about yoga? I’d love to hear your stories and observations!