Let Your Mind Wander

I am going to abandon any pretense to scholarship in this particular commentary. Scholarship would defeat the purpose, which is creativity, not that the two never go together, but there are times when we need to rely on intuition first, and figure out the rationale later. That happens a lot with writing, and it explains why some of the world’s best writers and artists are naturals who also happen to be willing to work very hard at their craft. But they know when to let their minds wander.

I read somewhere—this is where the scholarship is abandoned, because I have read this several times and never bothered to note where—that the human mind can actually be more productive and creative when daydreaming than when concentrating on a problem. It seems we need to give our minds a rest from time to time, not because our minds actually rest, but because when freed of a narrow focus on the grindstone, the mind works harder than ever in what appears to be a state of daydreaming. Our synapses work best when they are allowed an opportunity to fire randomly and find associations between ideas we normally would never have connected. Einstein did this a lot, we are told, and so we all learned from him the theory of relativity.

I am currently in the process of revising a major report. I am also trying to hatch an outline for a future book. I am going through the same struggle that usually occurs—a period of uncertainty about how I am going to tackle the assignment, make sense of reams of information, impart a sense of purpose to the manuscript, make the first chapter leap off the page, and so on—knowing all the while that somehow, at some point when I think my brain has ceased to generate any new or usable ideas, I will be standing in the shower or walking down the street, and it will all become clear to me, and I will want to run for the nearest phone booth to don my literary Superman costume and soar into the atmosphere, sure of my solution to a problem that has dogged me for weeks. It is a leap of faith from mental fatigue and a fear of declining creativity to sudden euphoria. It usually happens when I stop worrying about exactly when I will find my solution and let my brain take over at a pace that suits all those neurons that have been waiting to fire without being prodded mercilessly by their anxious owner.

Of course, we all have deadlines. I impose them on writers delivering manuscripts to me for publication, I live with my own deadlines and those imposed by others, and often they serve to spur us to stay focused, so it is also a leap of faith to say I will not worry about a deadline long enough to let my subconscious, creative mind take that leap and to count on it to produce an idea that may have been eluding me for weeks or months. Sometimes it actually works to decide once and for all that you don’t give a damn. Your subconscious mind knows otherwise, and if you have been diligent enough until you decide to cut loose, that subconscious mind goes to work when you least expect it.

If, to the modern, supposedly scientific mind, this all sounds like nonsense, so be it. The world is full of paradoxes, and human creativity is a strange thing. So let your mind wander. If it has focused long enough on a problem, it will probably do something remarkable in your sleep. Even in your dreams.


Jim Schwab

Always Feed the Meter

Those who live in big cities know how unforgiving the parking meters are. Leave your car unattended longer than the time on the meter allows, forget to put that extra money in before time runs out, and here comes a parking ticket, with a hefty fine–$25, $50, or more, depending on the city and the location. In Chicago, we no longer even have the perverse satisfaction of knowing that the money at least helps fill the public coffers and pay for some potential service, perhaps covering police or firefighter wages that might do others some good. Thanks to a quick hustle and a compliant city council, Mayor Richard M. Daley in the waning days of his 22-year tenure managed to lease the parking meters for 75 years to a private company, and then spent our patrimony by filling budget gaps. The meters are now making that company rich while taxpayers are left holding the bag and, even worse, the city has forfeited the ability to use meter pricing strategies as a policy tool to influence urban development. This is the dark side of privatization: poorly considered decisions to squander public assets in the interest of short-term political gains, and sometimes feathering the nests of political allies.

But that is not the real point of this blog essay. I am really writing to say that those who were following this blog closely may have noticed a three-month hiatus since mid-November. The immediate reason for this was that I had simply hit a personal logjam where I allowed the needs of my position at the American Planning Association to chew up so much of my free time that I was unable to develop what I considered satisfactory commentaries, even though I had plenty of ideas and material to draw from. Last year, however, was a very busy year in which I completed 23 trips on APA business, plus two more to Iowa City in connection with teaching for the University of Iowa, and three more for personal reasons. Toward the end of the year, enough pressing tasks had accumulated, with enough pressing deadlines, that I decided I needed to set the blog aside long enough to see them through. This is, after all, a sideline enterprise. And deadlines are deadlines.

Then, as of December 20, which happens to be my birthday, I took a vacation. That Friday evening, my wife and I did what I had long wanted to do on my holiday season birthday. We attended the “Do-It-Yourself” Messiah, conducted by Stephen Sperber at the Harris Theater in Chicago’s Millennium Park. If you have never done this (and have no religious objections to the composition), I urge you to try it. The entire audience accompanies four professional singers and a small orchestra to perform the vast bulk of Handel’s magnificent, sometimes manic, composition over a three-hour span broken by one very welcome intermission. To the extent that people were willing, voices were separated throughout this wonderful underground theater—the altos and sopranos nearer the top, basses and tenors nearer the stage—although my wife and I stayed together in the alto section. You bring your own score, and you follow the music, and you join this magnificent ad hoc choir for the chorus parts, and then take a break during the various solos, performed by the professionals. It is an exhilarating holiday season experience. It was a great start to a holiday season, followed by a visit to relatives in Ohio, and then  . . .

I was planning to post, and had composed one essay for later editing, and was working on all this the morning of December 31 in the café at a Barnes & Noble while my wife entertained two grandsons elsewhere in the store, and was too careless in slinging my laptop bag onto my shoulder when it came time to go, and . . .

I spent New Year’s Eve in some pain with a pinched nerve on my left side, which I spent more than a month remedying with physical therapy and massage in order to get back to my fitness routine. Ironically, the day before, I had switched my fitness club membership to one I thought more convenient, closer to home, in order to turn over a new leaf for the new year. Then I found myself putting that on hold until I could recover well enough to get a medical release.

But that’s not the whole story, either. The rest of the story goes back to feeding the meter. I had gotten a notice in November that the version of WordPress on my blog would not be supported after a certain date, but that was before the hiatus, and I paid it little mind as I had more urgent business to attend to. Bluehost was going to do the update anyway. Then, by the end of December, I found that my WordPress admin site was devoid of content or any means of uploading content, and I was not sure what to do next because, frankly, I am not much of a techie. I learn what I need to know but not always a whole lot more. My niece, who studied graphic design in college, designed this website, but withdrew from the business some time ago in favor of motherhood. I went searching for a web designer in Chicago to assume those tasks. But by then, my luck had run out. I was having difficulty for a few days just sitting at a desk long enough to read my e-mail. I had little energy left for a blog by the time I finished a normal work day, and those therapy appointments ate up time as well. Then my new web designer seemed to disappear as fast as I had found him.

It turned out he had complications from surgery on a broken forearm, a plenty good reason to have gone incommunicado in the short term. But then he got back in touch, and I am happy to welcome Christopher Merrill as the professional who can keep this website and blog in good shape from now on.  And I am once again feeding the meter.

But I have yet to feed another meter. Another notice–from Quicken– that the download function on my Quicken 2011 would no longer be supported as of a date certain if I did not update to Quicken 2014, has taken on new urgency. These guys mean business. They don’t support old software forever.

Feed the meter.

I say this with a newfound humility, even as I have no apologies for understanding professional priorities, and know that I balance more of them better than many people, but not all of them perfectly all of the time. But the software barons are not shy about applying the virtual Denver Boot. I’d best take care of Quicken, but at least the blog is back in operation.

Like our public thoroughfares, the Internet is free only to a point. I have fed the meter.


Jim Schwab

Get Your Drought Planning Training Here

I recently had the honor of serving as the guest presenter in a webinar series hosted by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska. The February 12 presentation highlighted a research report, Planning and Drought, which we produced at the American Planning Association under an agreement with the Center. As the presentation, and the introduction to it on APA’s Recovery News blog, pretty much speak for themselves, let me here merely link you to it if the problem of preparing communities adequately for the sort of drought recently facing California is of any interest: http://blogs.planning.org/postdisaster/2014/02/19/planning-and-drought-an-integrated-approach-free-webinar/.

Jim Schwab