OTR, Take 30: Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago

Here's the link to For Emma, Forever Ago, and for those of you visiting outside of the email, an embedded playlist:

Blink, and a month has gone by. While I certainly didn't intend to take a full month off from On the Record, life rather demanded it. I've been mostly on the road for the past month, away from my turntable, and busy doing the meatspace thing away from my devices.

It's fitting, really, as one of my overriding concerns recently has been how to dedicate sufficient time to the ever-widening list of projects I have obligated myself to. I wrote a bit yesterday about abandoning projects that no longer serve you, and I must admit that wasn't a purely theoretical exercise. I've been thinking long and hard about the things I have going on in my life and what gives me energy.

I'm afraid I have some difficult choices to make. I'm oversubscribed. Here are the non-negotiable pillars of my work at the moment:

  1. Audra, Clare, and family
  2. Pennhollow
  3. Seed Counsel
  4. Purely Estates Law Group
  5. Shadow companies (someday I'll share)

But that leaves a lot of things that I've been working on kinda...floating: On the Record, my maniacal posting on LinkedIn, two podcasts I'm working to get off the ground (one to support Purely Estates, the other, titled Sonder Union, a more amorphous inquiry into the stories we all bury about ourselves in favor of the polished ones we create), an album I've been half-assed recording...the list goes on and on, as you might expect for someone with a gigantic ego and ADHD.

So, today OTR is going to go on a slight tangent. For the past month or so, Chad Aboud's TEDx talk has been rattling through my brain and has been a constant companion in taking a look at my portfolio of work, trying to figure out how to pare back.

This morning, I threw on an album I know Chad loves, which I felt was fitting, given that, without permission, I'm about to talk a lot about his TEDx talk.

Let the falsetto and open-tuned haunting commence.

Do. Hard. Things. How many times have we heard some variation of that phrase? There is a legion of books written about the valor of doing the hard work, of taking on the big challenges (including ones with titles like The Hard Thing About Hard Things). Our society presents us with the notion of hard work as though the very fact that something is hard makes it worthwhile, and by this inexorable reasoning, that "easy" things are less valuable or worthwhile.

I'm guessing that the folks reading OTR tend to be people adept at doing hard things — I have the benefit of seeing the subscriber list, so I feel pretty comfortable making this assertion. For many of us, we're good at the hard things, or at least good at getting ourselves to do them. We've been patted on the head our entire lives for being the clever boy or girl, and our instincts have been honed to press that button over and over again for praise.

I know that's true of myself, and I don't mean to impugn the rest of you with my own experience. But me? I pride myself on being able to work through things that other people struggle with. This is partially why Chad's TEDx talk hit me so hard. He thought to ask the obvious follow-up question, which I never thought to do: which hard things should I do?

In a world with an endless array of hard things to do, simply doing hard things is Quixotic. How did it never occur to me that it's important to find my windmill to tilt at? Please do yourself a favor and take 15 minutes to watch Chad's talk. I'll be here waiting when you're finished.

Skip to 3:16:07 if the video doesn't automatically take you there.

In a sea of hard things, the countless big problems to solve, the endless sea of difficult challenges, why are we spending our lives in the service of somebody else's hard thing?

Our hard thing demands our attention.

Justin Vernon is now quite famous. He's had four award-winning albums recorded under the name Bon Iver, appeared on Kanye albums (when Kanye was still properly medicated), is friends with The National and Taylor Swift. But in 2006, his band DeYarmond Edison broke up, he split with his girlfriend, and moved home to Wisconsin from North Carolina.

In what is surely a well-worn and partly mythical tale, Vernon retreated to a cabin in the hinterlands of Wisconsin to pull from his tortured genius an album of sparse, spare beauty that captures the depths of his heartache and devastation.

What might have been lost

These tales always make me smirk a little. I almost guarantee that this time at his family's cabin was rejuvenating, the music cathartic, and there's not a little bit of knowing grandiosity in the telling of this tale. Vernon has himself confirmed that his time at the cabin wasn't quite as dire as the story goes. Hell, he kinda gives away the game in "Lump Sum."

Fit it all, fit it in the doldrums
Or so the story goes
Color the era
Film it is historical
Ahh, ahh, ahh

In fact, Vernon has stated that he was discovering how to sound like himself. And as Miles Davis always sez, "Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself."

I first heard For Emma, Forever Ago on a pirated copy pre-release. It was my 2L year and to get away from the insanity of law school, I would frequently grab my ipod, connect obnoxiously large headphones, and go for long walks around Shadyside and the East End. I played For Emma when I got my copy in September 2007 under a turbulent slate sky, with rain threatening but never arriving.

I played it through as I was thinking about a number of things. I had just started dating my ex-wife. I was trying to decide between a summer in chambers or with a big firm after my 2L year. It's so strange going back to that place in my life. I try not to think about it.

Anyway, my mind was occupied through most of the first playthrough, and all I really caught was a vibe. I played it again and intended to listen this time, but my brain kept going other places. As I was walking down Amberson it occurred to me that I was crying. I don't know when I started crying, but I distinctly remember the recognition that I was crying, out in the open, walking down a residential city street, all by myself with comically oversized headphones couched on my head.

Here's one of the things that is problematic about chasing hard things: it sets us on a quest for projects that feel hard to us.

"But that's the whole idea, isn't it?"

Imagine asking Matisse to spend his days struggling through advanced mathematics because it was hard for him. Or asking Marie Curie to get out of the lab and become a playwright (two Nobels? clearly science was too easy for her).

Chad relentlessly hits this point, both in his TEDx talk, but also in his writing and coaching: what seems easy to us does not mean it's "easy." And, shit, if a really hard thing is something that comes naturally to us, shouldn't we zero in our focus on that work?

When I got back to my apartment after listening to For Emma another two or three times, I opened my laptop and looked up who Bon Iver was, to discover it was primarily a nom de plume for Justin Vernon. I recognized the name, but couldn't place it, so let it go. Several weeks later, I remembered that Vernon had been a member of DeYarmond Edison — something I found hard to believe because, if you've ever listened to DeYarmond Edison, Vernon sounded different.

Sitting in a cabin in Wisconsin, Vernon allowed himself to sing the natural notes he heard. Rather than forcing himself to sign in his baritone, as he did in DeYarmond Edison, he let the falsetto come out.

It happened so naturally. It felt right, but he doubted whether it was right. Could you sign an entire album in falsetto? It seemed to be a ridiculous thing to do.

Peek in
Into the peer in
I'm not really like this

This album is what it sounds like to find your hard thing. Something that comes naturally, comes easily, and yet is indelibly unique. He's been trying to do someone else's hard thing with DeYarmond Edison — and he succeeded in making some great music! But it wasn't his music.

Man, sometimes it takes a while to sound like yourself.

So I'm in the process of determining what projects are my hard things, the ones I have to do, which ones are fun distractions, and which are simply doing somebody else's hard thing.

I suspect that one outcome of this recalibration will be slightly more sporadic OTRs (maybe twice a month rather than weekly) and cutting down on my daily LinkedIn posting. Writing comes naturally to me, so I tend to do a lot of it. LinkedIn and OTR offer media for immediate readership and feedback. It's an addiction.

But I've recognized that my hard thing, at least on the writing front, is Pennhollow and the other books in that world. I've found that I haven't been dedicating myself to the novel because I'm vain and I like the interaction and feedback I get from social writing.

It's time to celebrate the hard work of writing a novel, to devote myself to that first. As Vernon writes:

It's enough.

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