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  • November 16, 2015

Using the distraction

The night began innocently enough. Now it’s two in the morning, and the best I have to go on is a sense of irony that’s settled in my lower back. Distractions on top of distractions. Decorative Illustration

Let me back up.

My days end promptly at five. I relieve the sitter then look after our daughter until my wife gets home at about six-thirty. On nights like these, when one of us still has work to do, the other runs the bedtime ritual solo: a bath, five books, a bottle, then bed.

Our daughter fights sleep like the giant Argus. She’s a talker, too, people say. She gets that from my wife. The two of them, they carry on, and on, and on and on, gleefully, in an upper register, squeals on top of peals. For hours, neither speaking the same language but making perfect sense all the same.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to write.

Will you just be quiet please? I wanted to say. I have a deadline. Don’t you understand? I need to write.

Conversely, I have few problems tuning out background noise and peripheral disturbances while I’m designing. On a train, in the rain, in a tree, in the dark, in a car—agh. Sorry, they were reading that one earlier.

“[Distractions] give you the chance to know whether you’re disciplined.” – John Cage

I suppose this is what you’d say is discipline, though I’ve always regarded discipline as an active, constant reinforcement of some habit you hold dear—an ethic always under constant threat of rolling backwards. For me, in design, this just is—I don’t have to work at it. Writing, on the other hand…

It follows then that I’m a disciplined designer and an undisciplined writer. Which makes perfect sense to me. However, Cage never was a linear thinker. I must be reading him wrong.

Let’s look again.

What’s most interesting about Cage is that he allowed chance events to shape and enliven his work, most notably 4'33", a silent piece orchestrated entirely by the ambient sounds of the moment in which it was played: a cough, a sniffle, hips shifting in their seats, the wind rattling the eaves. Interruptions, he wants to show you, shape the moment. It’s hard to deny the relevance of this idea in an age where recording the moment precludes people from living it.

Ah, there’s that irony settling in my lower back again.

So let’s reframe, because it’s awfully quiet here, except for the distracting, electric hum of this laptop; and I still have three hours before my deadline. And really—I need to stop being an idiot and crawl into bed with my wife before her alarm goes off. The night began innocently enough.

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