Structured procrastination

In college it used to be that I’d go on cleaning frenzies during finals week. Not because I actually had to clean (although I probably did, and badly), but because it was a stress relief and a way to put off worrying about or even studying for finals. Does that make sense? I didn’t think it did either until I read the magnificent essay “Structured Procrastination” by John Perry, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Stanford. Mostly the essay just cracks me up—it spins what’s usually perceived as a negative character trait into a constructive one.

According to Perry, structured procrastination is “an amazing strategy I have discovered that converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time.”

Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.”

In fact, says Perry, the tendency for procrastinators to try to clear out their To Do list just a few essentials in hopes of having more time to get things done often backfires.

“[Minimizing commitments] goes contrary to the basic nature of the procrastinator and destroys his most important source of motivation. The few tasks on his list will be by definition the most important, and the only way to avoid doing them will be to do nothing. This is a way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being.”

Maybe that’s why I’m happiest when I have lots to do! That, and I feed off deadline pressure, which is possibly a remnant of having worked at a daily newspaper (also in college). Perhaps this is not a coincidence.

Read more on “Structured Procrastination” here.

(Periodic-table procrastination pillow by Yellow Bug Boutique)

Update: Perry just published a book based on this essay, entitled The Art of Procrastination. Here’s an excerpt.

“The Hill” by Rupert Brooke

The bravado of this poem makes the last line all the more poignant.

Breathless, we flung us on the windy hill,
Laughed in the sun, and kissed the lovely grass.
You said, “Through glory and ecstasy we pass;
Wind, sun, and earth remain, the birds sing still,
When we are old, are old … ” “And when we die
All’s over that is ours; and life burns on
Through other lovers, other lips,” said I,
“Heart of my heart, our heaven is now, is won!”

“We are Earth’s best, that learnt her lesson here.
Life is our cry. We have kept the faith!” we said;
“We shall go down with unreluctant tread
Rose-crowned into the darkness!” … Proud we were,
And laughed, that had such brave true things to say.
And then you suddenly cried, and turned away.

(Photo: Michelle Summers Photography)

The Rape of Europa

I had never heard of the 2008 documentary The Rape of Europa until one of my supervisors stopped by my desk one day, handed me the DVD, and said simply, “I think you’ll like this.” (He knows I’m writing my thesis on Schiele.) So I said, “Sure!”—not realizing then just how harrowing and dramatic and riveting the story is, and how well these filmmakers tell it. It’s based on the book by Lynn H. Nicholas.

One tale that makes me shudder tells of how the French had to evacuate The Winged Victory (Nike) of Samothrace from the Louvre in 1939.

The Winged Victory, which looks so solid, is really made of hundreds of pieces,” says Frédérique Hébrard, a French novelist and the daughter of two Louvre curators. “Bringing her down the stairs that she reigns over was a terrifying job because she could shatter into a thousand pieces.”

An eyewitness later recalled, “The statue rocked onto an inclined wooden ramp. We were all terrified, and the silence was total as the Victory rolled slowly forward, her stone wings trembling slightly. The curator of sculpture sank down on the steps, murmuring, ‘I will not see her return.'”

Picturing those wings trembling amid the hush as the Victory is eased down those steps still leaves my heart in my throat. A marvel of Greek sculpture from the 2nd century B.C. just shattering all over the Daru staircase!

As for other Louvre masterpieces, those were evacuated to castles and abbeys in southern France and, according to the film, periodically moved throughout the war. Curators lived in these castles and abbeys safeguarding the artworks. Hébrard recalls how her parents were entrusted with the Mona Lisa, which was kept in a wooden case: “We would open it, and there, in red satin, she was smiling.” Can you imagine tiptoeing up to that room and peeling back the satin to peer at the great lady?

The thefts, heroism, continuing legal disputes over looted art, and unknown fate of still-missing pieces pack more emotional wallop than the recent announcement that George Clooney is set to direct and star in a new big-budget movie about the Monuments Men, members of an Allied task force who helped save the great art and cultural heritage of Europe from the Nazis, and who figure in the documentary as well.

(Original photo credited to Noel de Boyer)

Update: The BBC series Fake or Fortune? may pique your interest if investigating the mysteries of paintings intrigues you. And Anne-Marie O’Connor’s book The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer takes a fascinating story touched on in The Rape of Europa and expands the back story behind the single image of “Austria’s Mona Lisa.”


I once promised myself that I’d do something new every day, even if it were as small as trying a different menu item or a new route to work, just so that each day of my life could have a little adventure in it. And if I put all I can into today—this one day I have—eventually I can look back at my whole life and (hopefully!) find it fully lived, day by day.

Living this way means I try not to put off bucket-list items or even “I should go check out that new museum exhibition this weekend…” types of outings ’til later. Workouts, however, can be another matter! But if I just focus on today, that makes the getting-it-done easier. After a while, getting today done will add up to a habit.

(via FitSugar)

“I Will Not Die An Unlived Life” by Dawna Markova

Joy and exuberance personified.

I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible;
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance,
to live
so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom,
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.

(Photo: Anna Bryukhanova for iStockphoto)

Egon Schiele and David Bowie

One of the most exciting things about writing my master’s thesis on the contemporary relevance of fin-de-siècle Viennese artist Egon Schiele’s portraits is scouting the works of artists, photographers, performers, and fashion designers today whose aesthetic reflects his influence. I love making those tangible connections between past and present.

In the nascent stages of my research, I came across Renée Price’s essay “Unsung Heroes: Schiele as Inspiration and Influence” in Egon Schiele: The Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky Collections (which has become one of my favorite books on the artist). In it Price discusses how Bowie’s relocation to Berlin in the mid-1970s led him to become better acquainted with and admire Schiele’s work in art museums around the city. Evidence that Bowie found Schiele’s portraits inspiring shows up in Bowie’s late ’70s cover art and Berlin Trilogy performance style on tour.

Take the gaunt lankiness, the bold lines, the incredible contortions of limbs and fingers, and the themes of identity and sexuality that characterize many of Schiele’s self-portraits. For instance:

Self-Portrait as Saint Sebastian, 1914.

Then compare that to, say, Bowie’s 1979 Lodger cover.

There’s a sense of feeling like a martyr, or a mime, or even a marionette at someone else’s (society’s?) command. There’s vulnerability too, and I think a sense of loss and isolation in both images. In Nicholas Pegg’s biography The Complete David Bowie, the man himself is quoted as saying,

“A lot of what is perceived as mannered performance or writing is a distancing from the subject matter to allow an audience to have their own association with what I’m writing about.”

In “As the Artist Said to the Rock Star…,” a July 2001 interview between Bowie and British artist Tracey Emin that appeared in The Guardian, the subject of Schiele popped up. Bowie asked Emin whether she had become more versed in art history since her artistic career began to rise. Emin answered,

“I got into Egon Schiele when I was 14 because your LP cover for Lodger was inspired by Schiele. … But I don’t think anyone is going to be a successful artist by parodying something that has gone before.”

To that, Bowie replied,

“I would have to disagree with you. I think so much well-known work over the last 10 years or so has been a restatement of earlier stuff. … On the shoulders of giants, etc. Although what’s been just as fascinating is the reluctance of many observers to credit the original pieces where it might have been appropriate or illuminating.”

Given all this talk about Schiele, I’d hoped against hope to snag an interview with Bowie as evidence of Schiele’s contemporary influence for my concluding thesis chapter. Through some work connections I got as far as Bowie’s PR firm in L.A., who forwarded my request for an interview to “his office.” However, there I was felled; they were “not arranging any interviews for him at this time, even if not for the press.” Nuts.

I think my best chance for an interview—however brief—would be to bump into him at an art museum and just bravely start asking away. Hey, it could happen.

“Excuse me, Mr. Bowie, but could I ask you…”

(bottom photo via The Church of Man-Love)

Update: London’s Victoria & Albert Museum is hosting the first-ever retrospective of Bowie’s career in its exhibition David Bowie is (March 23, 2013–July 28, 2013), featuring objects from the David Bowie Archive.

Update II (3.19.13): I’ve since come to realize that perhaps one of the reasons Bowie was not doing interviews a year or so ago was that he was working top secret on his new album! In an interview with the London Evening Standard, his wife, Iman, is quoted as saying, “Everyone asks, ‘How did he keep it so quiet?’ But they were loyal to his vision and he asked, could they just keep it under wraps til it was released?” Wow.