Airhead Work

Here are 576 half-square triangles, each measuring 4.5″ per side.
546 half-square triangles in nine color-coded piles.

That’s 64 each of nine separate colors, all planned off of a 70s-sunset-airbrushed-on-the-side-of-a-van color palette. Each pile started as 8 pairs of 10″ squares (cut from bolts of cloth), stitched twice crosswise:10" squares, poorly lit

Those squares were then cut into 8 triangles:
Fabric squares being cut into triangles

Which were then butterflied and ironed flat, with the seams pressed open:
Half-square triangles being pressed.

Each square was then individually trimmed to 4.5 inches on a side, I had to discard a few for improper measurements or a wandering diagonal:

Half inch square being trimmed to size.

These photos are of varying quality because I use rather indirect lamplight in my workspace.


This entire process took roughly a month of evenings (when I was making these I was quilting about 3 evenings a week). While working on these I spent time reflecting on the nature of this task (or rather, this set of detail oriented subtasks), and I would like to write a mild defense of airhead work, or rather, work that rewards you for empty-headedness.


I first wrote the phrase “I fear not death but boredom” at some point in my teens or early twenties, which should be obvious given the sentiment and pretentious trappings. All I wanted was mental engagement: problem-solving, quicksilver jumps from concept to concept, bridges of ideation and endless novelty.


Some of that came from a genuine enjoyment of mental activity, some from a fear of my conception of adult life as stifling, dull and bureaucratic, some from a realization that habit, rote and repetition were likely one-way paths away from a constantly-considered life. I was also diagnosed with ADHD after graduating law school, when I went to a therapist to figure out why I was having trouble doing a desk job. So that might be part of it too.


While I was perpetually seeking novelty and stimulation, though, many of my hobbies involved long periods of strenuous activity or many hours of absorption in detail–from ironman triathlons, to bicycling across America, to assembling and painting inch-high figurines, to finicky mosaic carpentry.


I first noticed the sublimation of the mind during a half-ironman triathlon for which I was woefully underprepared. At some point during the sixth hour, my brain made sure my body was on auto-pilot and just stopped thinking. Not like, thought about nothing, but just stopped. During a hundred mile bike ride or a marathon, for example, you might be able to tell yourself stories, remember things from the past, add up numbers in your head, make up word games, have imaginary conversations, envision worlds, hallucinate, whatever. Beyond a certain level of exertion, though, your brain gets tired of flying around and is forced to pay attention to what you are currently doing, which frequently involves distress and pain. This is, I think, usually where people drop out of triathlons, bike races or marathons. The vipassana like focus on the source of the discomfort is like a mirrored bowl that gathers all that distress, doubles it back and shoots it forth. It becomes intolerable to the mind.


The other option, however, is to just stop thinking. To turn your brain entirely off. I remember the feeling as a sort of out-of-body experience, where my body and the entire world was on one side of a dark valley, doing its thing, while my brain was slumbering on some distant hill. For someone who was depressed and miserable a lot, it was a welcome relief.


I don’t know if turning your brain off like that is a reflex or muscle type thing, but detail-oriented work now provides the same sort of sublimation for me. To be truly engaged in a repetitive or detail oriented task is freeing and deeply satisfying, and often times if I am upset about something else I am totally unable to do whatever the task is: my brain absolutely rebels. In the spirit of observation and pro-activity I now try to arrange whatever I am doing so that I am doing only that–no multitasking whatsoever, with the goal of not even thinking about the overall nature of the task I am working on, just the immediate task at hand (obviously that requires a lot of planning and thinking about the overall nature of the task ahead of time, something I am laughably bad at).


Two separate things that I think will tie this mess into a slightly more presentable package:


1. I received the phrase “The mind craves distraction” during instruction at a monastery in the ozarks, and deep consideration of the phrase (a summation of many Buddhist suttas regarding the untamed mind) has helped me let go of thinking, or at least recognize thinking and cognition as non-voluntary processes. Certainly it has helped me understand that thoughts can arise without being actively pursued.


2. I realized during the pandemic that quilting in the evenings made me feel much better than activities I traditionally considered as restorative or leisurely–social media, playing video games, getting stoned and writing ideas for blockbuster comedies about a team of baby commandoes, etc.


At first I thought the quilting made me feel good because it was novel, since everything I was doing I had to learn fresh. Then I thought it might be one of those dumb rise-and-grind productivity things and I was letting the dominant culture colonize my recreational hours. I came to realize, though, that the work itself, perhaps the nature of the work itself, lends itself greatly to empty-headedness and that empty-headedness was the actual reward of quilting, not the end product itself.


Empty-headedness is not stillness, nor is it mental oblivion. Empty-headedness is simply the ability to look at what you are doing and do it without any intervening thoughts. In the best versions there is no “I”, there is just the activity itself–sew a nine-foot long quarter-inch seam. Legs at 90RPM for the next two hours. Cut 400 1.5″ rhomboids out of cedar fence pickets. Finish a water-bottle every six miles you run.


Quilting has enabled me to find emptyheadedness in many other tasks. Cleaning. Laundry. Running errands. hand-packing cases of beer. It’s not willpower or discipline or anything, it’s a letting go of what you’re not currently doing in favor of doing what you are currently doing. A physical mindfulness (more on mindfulness, both what it is and the cultural misuses of it, sometime in the future) is maybe the best way to describe it–an observation of what your body is doing and only what your body is doing.


[True Story I stopped writing above this line because Merlin woke up from a nap and came back a week later to finish and no longer remember what my conclusion was.  Real Kublai Khan/Xanadu vibes]


Meditation is the ne plus ultra of airhead work, though the Pali canon translators prefer void-nature or void-ness. The form of meditation I practice involves focusing on a set of specific and increasingly subtle feelings until the mind becomes very still and essentially stops (technically the mind’s attention stops interacting with thoughts as they arise until there are no more thoughts and the mind’s attention, with no object to define itself against, ceases to exist). It’s easy to see how a mental practice that requires focus to generate mental stillness would dovetail nicely with a physical practice that requires mental stillness to generate focus.


Partially from meditation and partially from lots of quiet, detail-oriented labor, I am slowly unlearning my mental thirst for endless novelty. Instead I observe things, and prod at my assumptions about myself and the world. Having a physical practice that helps extend that stillness (and the concomitant clarity of observation) has been one of the most helpful things I have ever done in terms of mental health.


And after enough time, emptyheadedness can yield pretty stunning results: