Monday, June 28, 2010

Downsides of Freelancing, or the 1-Day Weekend Experiment

My ass hurts from sitting. I'm shocked that I don't have carpal tunnel like my sister, and that my glasses prescription hasn't changed in a few years, because there are times when the screen flickers and everything goes Gaussian blurry. When I'm profiling grocery store shelves, scrolling the product rows for baker's yeast, my left-hand pinky and index finger swipe the air instinctively. Ctrl+f. Find: Fleischmann's. I self-narrate events in blog post voice. In April, I stowed my computer in a closet for 48 hours to drive around Picos de Europa, and when I got back it was dead. I wasn't surprised.

Freelancing is cool. I can type an hour, read The Golden Spruce the next, then get back to work. I can play geography quizzes and read the NYTimes site during the middle of the day without intoning the phrase "time theft." I can spend a year traveling through five South American countries and still pull in a solid 30k.

What I can't do is stop. I don't work all day, but I do work every day, especially since joining the Matador team. The multi-project fluidity of my freelance lifestyle means there's always something to do. There is no downtime, only different manifestations of work. Research becomes writing becomes uploading becomes editing becomes publishing becomes promoting. And on.

But the part that freaks me out is the new habit I seem to have of turning even potential downtime into work time. When assignments from Korea have ebbed, and my Matador duties are crossed off (for the day), there's still more--planning a next book with Park Kyubyong, zeroing out my Google Reader, blogging here. Each minute, monetize. Not that I do all these things simply to make money, but the mindset is similar. Produce. Progress. Maximize.

On her blog Cuaderno Inedito, Julie Schwietert asks, "What if the Internet crashed today?" She uses the question to imagine pursuing projects in the "real" world, more closely, humanly connected with colleagues and communities than the Internet can ever allow. The prospect excites her. Right now, I'm taking the question in a different direction, but one equally exciting to me. If the Internet crashed today, I would...

I would go outside. Take mate to the park. Ride my bike to McKinney Falls. Fix my bike. Paint the living room "Balmy Seas." Go to a movie. Play frisbee golf at Bartholomew. Volunteer. Take a Spanish class. Work in the yard. Read an entire book. Locate the best draft beer bar in Austin.

Those things sound fun. So I've decided that every Sunday, my Internet will crash. I will shut off my computer Saturday night and won't touch it till Monday morning. It will not die--it will be fine without me. And vice versa.

This will be my 1-day freelancer's weekend. I will look forward to it all week, and then I will spend it frivolously.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Pictures of Some Flowers, and a Fencepost

The Mazda was hot, like it's always hot. Black car in TX June sin A/C, you can't really help that. But once 290 got past Dripping Springs, out toward the turnoff for Pedernales Falls State Park, the Hill Country air was cool enough and the land de-paved enough that the open windows drafted something like A/C. I still sweat.

I didn't know until my tours around Mendoza last year that wine country is best when hot and dry. Everyone in Texas should grow grapes.

"The #2 Wine Destination in America" say the brochures in the dozen or so wineries along 290. A lot of them cluster in Stonewall, better known for its spring peaches. Then there are a handful in Fredericksburg, too.

Becker was nice. It wasn't a hard sell for the sommelier to get me into their "Wine Club"--lots of wine swag and "member privileges" in return for quarterly deliveries. Maybe their Malbec was what did it. A lot different from Mendoza's, better I thought. More earthy.

Torre di Pietra couldn't stack up after that, despite the cool name. Their stock was more "playful," I guess. i.e., weird flavors.

I walked out back after the tasting, through the covered "event space" and up to the cedar fence marking the start of the vines. The case with my Canon A630 over my shoulder. I've been proofing the MatadorU photography course, so pulling out the camera, I thought "f/stop" and "depth of field." I decided to finally start playing with my aperture. One of the major differences I've noticed between DSLR and point-and-shoot image quality is depth of field. Yes, getting a truly shallow DoF with a p&s is kinda impossible, but I dialed down the aperture to its lowest number (3.2 or something), jacked up the shutter speed and some other settings so it wouldn't overexpose too badly, and went for it.

This is the result--notice the blur in the background. Not exactly beautiful, but I got what I was going for.

Later, I found easier-to-shoot subjects at the Lyndon B. Johnson Natl. Historical Park, in a field of wildflowers. Can't go wrong. I played some more with exposure settings and the macro function and came back with the following images.

Flowers appreciate the hot and dry Hill Country as much as the grapes, I guess. I enjoy Texas in the spring, even if it's already pushing 95. Back at home, the crape myrtle in the front yard just exploded pink, another easy shot to make look good.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


The simple habit of keeping a blog has drawn so many connections between me and random points on the Internet fractal that I would never have known existed otherwise.

Like Sweet, a literary journal of poetry and nonfiction with a lust for desserts. "Head chef" Ira Sukrungruang contacted me months ago to ask permission to reprint part of my post How People Live (in Bolivia). I said yes, thank you.

You can find the excerpt in their issue 2.3, announced today.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

3 Years of Work, in My Hand

On my front porch this morning was a slender brown padded envelope containing an advance copy of Korean for Beginners, a book I coauthored with my Korean colleague, Park Kyubyong. It hits shelves (and Amazon trucks) August 10.

That'll make more than three years of on-again, off-again work on this project. We put together the first 10 chapters back in 2007 and sent them off with query letters to several publishers. We heard nothing...for a very long time. It wasn't until the middle of my bicycle tour through Maritime Canada that an editor from Tuttle Publishing got in touch.

After that, getting a contract was comparatively easy, and we were then tasked with actually writing the book--going back and recrafting those 10 nearly forgotten chapters and creating 17 more. Only, it was now December of 2008 and I was a month away from starting a year in South America.

The words in this book have moved around as much as I have. Their inspiration was drawn from my two happy years in Seoul and the struggles I encountered studying the language. The bulk of them were written on my bed in room #1 of the Sustainable Bolivia house in Cochabamba, or in a cafe called Casablanca on Calle España. I can't remember, but revisions probably carried over to Cuzco. And that's where Carey began in earnest on the book's illustrations, work which followed us to a beach hostel in Arica, Barrio Bellavista in Santiago, a chalet-style guesthouse in Pucón, and our volunteer homestay in Esquel, Argentina. I recorded the audio tracks in our tenth-floor Palermo flat in Buenos Aires.

Now it's in my hand in Austin.

It's not a travel book, but it sure feels like one.