The Power of Less

Go Big or Go Bust: on Steve McQueen. And Me. And The Power of Less.

I have to interrupt this story of making my first 16mm feature (for under $80,000), of traveling with it to the competition at Sundance and to Berlin and thinking that I would then sit back and preside over a bidding war between hot indie distributors.  Please check back for that on Friday.  Today I’m burning to tell you what's going on right this minute.

For the past couple of months, I’ve been practicing a new form of meditation.  Inspired by The Power of Less a book which my friend and collaborator Victoria Trestrail sent (written by the same guy who has the wildly popular blog Zen Habits) I’ve been doing an eating meditation.  Instead of my bad old ways of eating at my desk and chewing as I continue to work, I’ve been sitting at tables with and without other people and keeping the focus on the moment.  I love to eat.  I never make time to meditate.  This is a win win situation.  I’ve been surprised at my ability to stick with this.  It feels like the foundation of a new way of living and I’ve been feeling a calm and a focus and a peace I’ve rarely known … until a few days ago.  Suddenly, I’m eating at my desk again.  I run up and down to the basement throwing in loads of laundry as I chew and then back to the computer.  “I have to!  I’ve got to get this finished!”   And I don’t seem to be able to get my inner bull back into its pen.  

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A few weeks ago, Mr. Green was watching the Saturday night movie on our local PBS station, Channel 13.  He’d missed the opening credits and wasn’t sure what he was watching.  The star looked sort of like Paul Newman, sort of like Steve McQueen but wasn’t as handsome as either of them.  I never sit down to watch television for fear of losing a day but soon found myself sitting next to Mr. Green on the couch.  Even though this star was not all that handsome, he was compellingly, quietly and naturally so intense that I couldn’t take my eyes off him.  

Eventually it became clear that this actor was indeed Steve McQueen.  And later we discovered that it was Steve McQueen in Bullitt.  

I wanted to see the beginning (and it isn’t streaming on Netflix) so headed over to the public library to check out the dvd along with two biographies of Steve McQueen for good measure.  Who was this guy? And how had he learned to channel this intensity, this incredibly rich inner life.  He seems like a genius.  I figured he probably went to Harvard.

Well from the little I read of one of the biographies, I think old Steve was a middle school drop- out.  He may have had the worst childhood of anyone ever.  Abandoned, neglected and abused, he lived with his mother who worked as a prostitute out of the bedroom they shared in Indianapolis, surrounded by the rail yards, open sewers and … hog pens?  The author of the biography was definitely making the case that the source of the rage that powered him and his performances was his childhood.  

Long before fast food, he was known as ‘Big Mac’ because of his larger than life appetite for life and his habit of hoovering down food like an animal.  He’d tear through a meal with a cheeseburger in one hand and a piece of pie in the other.  Shooting a scene with him, Karl Malden (who had famously worked with Brando) was quoted as saying that McQueen scared the daylights out of him, springing at and attacking like an animal.

I think seeing Bullitt and reading about Steve McQueen put me in touch with my own raging, impatient inner animal, an energy which is generally channeled into maniac workaholism.  The frustration of being an artist under the radar makes me mainline work like a crack addict.  NOW

I just wolfed down a bowl of lentil soup as I typed.  More about all this soon.  


Go Big or Go Bust: Day 228 (The Power of Less invades the living room)

It may be a further effect of this ban on multi-tasking that my mind is suddenly a whole lot quieter.  And in a shocking and abrupt shift, I've become physically unable, for even a minute, to accept the clutter of decades.  Pictures are coming down off the walls, furniture is on the block (as in 'executioner's block').  Looking at YOU unpainted wooden bookcase (on the left) that doesn't make it to the ceiling.

Do you have any idea of how long I've wanted to deal with this claustrophobic situation? That it's all happening without much of a plan, effortlessly, like a snake shedding a skin it's outgrown astonishes me.  And it proves to me without a doubt that the physical world is indeed a manifestation of thought and feeling. 

The only picture I could find of the living room which shows the piano (partially obscured but highlighted) is from the shoot of Season 3.  (L to R Danusia Trevino, Everett Quinton, Jennifer Sklias-Gahan, Kira Cecilia, me, The Piano, Chris Leone)    Photo by Karen Sanderson

The only picture I could find of the living room which shows the piano (partially obscured but highlighted) is from the shoot of Season 3.  (L to R Danusia Trevino, Everett Quinton, Jennifer Sklias-Gahan, Kira Cecilia, me, The Piano, Chris Leone)    Photo by Karen Sanderson

The living room tonight on its way to a new zen state it hasn't known for decades.  I'll keep you posted.  

The living room tonight on its way to a new zen state it hasn't known for decades.  I'll keep you posted.  

Go Big or Go Bust: Day 227 (The life and death stakes of moving our piano, efficiency mania, The Power of Less, living with an open heart and the meaning of Going Big)

So, finally getting back to finishing the story about the monster truck that creamed our car ... and just so you have all the facts, it was not a five-inch scratch as reported but a good ten-inch crease.  I measured it this morning. 

But I want to sidetrack for just a minute in order to give the truck story its full due.

We have a friend who prides himself on being able to cram three 30 gallon cans of garbage into one 30 gallon garbage bag (lotta jumping).  With my efficiency obsession, this is a practice I heartily admire but it's a bit of a painful reminder of my own attitude toward time. 

I know how to cram at least 36 hours into 24: cut back on sleep, cut out all pleasure and non-essentials and multi-task like a maniac.  A guy once asked me if I was doing something else while we were on the phone.  "Of course." I told him, unabashed.  "I'm doing the dishes.  I'm a mother!  I'm always doing at least two things at once.  Though I draw the line at vacuuming and talking on the phone."  (He never called again.)

So everybody's heard of 'eating lunch at your desk'.  I assumed that that meant that you chewed while you kept on working.  Apparently, that's not necessarily the case.  I used to eat breakfast and lunch at my desk work work working right through.  Only shame and guilt (and lack of an impending deadline) crow-barred me away from the office to cook and sit at the dinner table with Mr. Green.  

But for the past month, because of The Power of Less (thank you Victoria Trestrail!), except for a handful of reversions to my bad old ways, I've taken to eating in company or eating as a meditation.  There's no reading, no radio, no working - just chewing and enjoying the food.  And this is having a radical effect on my life.  I have a sense of ease and a sense of peace that there's enough time.  I even think I have a growing sense of confidence and joy, all from this incredibly simple change.

So to get back to the Confrontation While Alternate Side Parking story, it's in large part because of my new zen-ed out state (my awareness that I will go as 'big' as I'm supposed to while doing only one thing at a time) that I had an extraordinary experience that day.  It also involves a piano. 

Remember Ava throwing herself on the piano? 

Well once upon a time, children around this house practiced on that piano and it got a lot of use.  Now that they've grown up and are off living far away, this massive, dark piece of furniture is parked right in the middle of the apartment sort of blocking the door, totally crowding the place and looking to me like a huge Black Widow Spider -- and why?  I threatened Mr. Green that I was going to find someone to move the piano and shopped for a good bargain.  And then on one of those 93º humid days, three guys came to do the herculean job of getting this massive thing down to the floor below.

In former times, I think I would have been in my office working away, busy as a bee, while they moved the piano.  I would have figured, hey, they're professionals, why would I be there?  But because of breaking this habit of trying to cram 48 hours into 24, it was clear to me that I should be there.  And as it turned out, I'm so glad I was. 

The piano couldn't make it down the narrow turn at the head of the stairs so the only alternative was 'the long way'.  The long and perilous way.  It had to go out the kitchen door and down the steps of a wooden deck.  But until they got the piano out on it, I hadn't realized that this deck had not been built to withstand the weight of three big guys and a massively built, fifty-one inch tall piano. 

Neither had I realized how much communication and negotiation goes into moving a piano. The stakes are very high for every lift so they were constantly bargaining with each other on what the next move would be. 

And meanwhile, the deck and the stairs down to the garden were acting like they were chopsticks or toothpicks, not two-by-fours.  There were cracking and splintering sounds, the deck was shuddering, wobbling like a hammock and seemed to pull away from the building.  To counteract visions of the whole platform separating from the house and throwing them and the piano into the garden, I used my 'white light' technique (which is no technique at all ... seeing circles of white) ... and praying.  They were hard-working guys.  They wanted to get the job done.   More than once, back in the kitchen, they had asked, "You really sure you want this piano downstairs?"  They wanted to please me.  They also definitely wanted the money for the job.  Did they realize how dangerous it all was?  They could feel the deck shuddering, hear the wood splintering.  I stepped back into the kitchen figuring I could at least avoid being the 'straw' that broke the camel's back.  Mostly I prayed. 

When they were about half way through this torturous job, off the deck and stairs but approaching the steep narrow stone steps down to the house, they took a break and I became aware of a loud chorus of horns filling the air.  One of the guys asked me (my hands were free) to go check and see if their truck was blocking traffic.

Running to the front windows, I saw trouble and called for one of them to move their truck.  The truck that had creamed our car the day before was, ironically, stuck right behind the piano truck and the rest of the block was paralyzed.  Angry drivers were out of their cars and a traffic cop was writing a ticket.  I had my Wonder Woman moment with the driver (see blog, Day 225) and thanked the cop for not giving the piano truck a ticket.  "Oh I gave him a ticket."  I asked for how much ($65) and when I told the piano guy, he almost broke down.  "Oh GOD!  This city!  It'll kill you!  You try to make a buck, there's no where to park!  Sixty-five dollars??"

Here this guy, not a young man, had been putting every ounce of himself, possibly risking his life, into the brutal job of moving our piano.  I'd noticed when he'd first arrived that he walked with a very heavy step, that his body seemed to be carrying a huge weight even when he carried nothing at all.  And because I'd been right with him during the move, living through every inch of the piano's journey, I was with him with my heart wide open: "I'll pay the ticket."  I didn't look at him but felt his mood shift instantly.  We walked and found a spot, checked it out with the traffic cop and went back to finish the job.  

I'm wondering if this experience of feeling the physical courage and vulnerability and then the financial difficulties and finally love for these piano movers was equally if not even more powerful than my Wonder Woman moment. 

As far as 'going big', is it possible that this is the definition (actually) of what it means to 'go big'?  Daring to live with your heart open, vulnerable, daring to feel with your fellow man - taking your eye off your particular prize.  And here if I'd been at my desk, I would have missed this whole experience, this extraordinary joy.


Go Big or Go Bust: Day 179 (How To Be More Confident and Serene with Built-in Meditation from Leo Babauta's "The Power of Less")

For decades I've known that it'd be a really good idea for me to meditate.  It would probably help with focusing.  It might even help with feeling good enough in my own skin that I'd stop looking 'out there' for everything...  answers, affirmation and that elusive *self-confidence*.  For something so potentially powerful, of course I wanted to get it right. 

And so I read books and even took a course at East West.  The most help came from talking with my friend Bernadette who had meditated daily for seventeen years while she lived in an ashram in India.  She told me that meditation is more than anything like slipping into an old t-shirt.  She also suggested that I read Meditate by Swami Muktananda, a very thin and simple book which I loved

And so, with this guidance and encouragement, I've actually had some success with meditating.  Occasionally.  The problem is keeping at it.  I forget how beneficial  it is and let complacency and real world pressures eventually push it to the back burner and then out the back door.  The idea of setting aside ten or fifteen or even five minutes to just, what, sit there??  This has been the hardest part.  Who has time for that?  Not me.  Not usually.  Not unless I'm out of my head frantic or otherwise in trouble do I risk just sitting there.

And then the other day, listening to The Power of Less  (in audiobook) by our old friend Leo Babauta, I heard and decided to try the suggestion to cool it with the multi-tasking.  "Don't read when you're eating.  Don't watch television or even listen to the radio when you're eating.  Just eat.  Pay attention to the act of eating."  (quote is approximate) 

My efficiency maniac within had a hard time with the first five minutes of this, but to my surprise, I've very quickly come to love 'just eating'.  The peace of it seems to expand out beyond the length of a meal.  I feel LUXURIOUS.  It even makes me feel important. And here's the most amazing thing: it's actually a form of meditation to just focus on tasting and chewing.  For someone who loves to eat, this almost feels like cheating.  And best of all, it's built into the day!  Yes I know you're supposed to Never Eat Alone.  But how about one meal a day? 

It's easy to overlook powerful simple things all around if you don't have that stillness that comes from meditating.   

Special Thanks to Victoria Trestrail for my copy of the audiobook "The Power of Less".