Exactly one month ago I learned that the Towson Barnes and Noble store was closing. This is a store that is close to my heart as I spent countless hours there over the last 14 years. I’m sitting in the cafe today writing this, and I thought about how many pages I’ve read and written here over the years. For whatever reason, I always worked better sitting in a public space. The ambient background noise and familiar distraction honed my focus. My relationship and original sadness inspired me to launch my weekly learning journal project. The original post can be found here: First Post of Learning Log Series!. The short version of that post is that I was inspired by thinking about how incredible it would be to actually have a journal of all of the learning experiences that I connected with occurring in the Barnes and Noble cafe. I’ve been somewhat dodgy about keeping up with the weekly aspect of the learning log, but it’s a work in progress!
I’ll keep this post (relatively) short, so I’ll cut to one of the core points: the evolution of my learning through the years and the role that physical space plays.
Evolution of Learning and Space
Ever since I was old enough to drive, I preferred to spend time in bookstores and cafes reading new books and (eventually) writing. The act of being physically present in a busy cafe drinking tea and (eventually) coffee was always grounding for me. No matter how intense or complex the work I was either reading or writing, my preference for working in a bookstore cafe has been a constant throughout the years.
I first moved to Baltimore in 2003. Many of my earliest recollections of time spent working on things in this cafe was when David Gregory (side note: check out his page, he is an incredible artist and friend!) and I would come during the Fall semester
and crank out some schoolwork and then go to the local Record and Tape Traders to score some (predominantly) metal albums. This was a pattern we’d repeat for several years while we lived together in the area. Sometimes we’d go write and play music at our local practice space after a schoolwork session in the cafe, or we’d grab some food ($5 burgers!) at (what was the) Recher Theater.
As I began taking much more demanding classes in my junior/senior year, working at the cafe became nearly a nightly ritual. I’d sit and work through several long assignments, taking pause to make small conversation or listen to the ambient noise. Upon reflection now, and after reading several books and listening to many podcasts about productivity, these comforting distractions helped me fall into a sort of Pomodoro groove. The cycles of intense work plus mild distraction were extremely fruitful, and I truly believe that many of the skills I attribute with my love of learning were honed in these sessions. If I were to estimate, I’d probably say that I wrote upwards of 200 pages in this setting during those two years.
Over the years my focus shifted and I began bringing my laptop to write and edit my music. Prior to about 2009 I always had a strict split – the bookstore/cafe were for analog pursuits and the home studio/practice space was for music and digital exploration. However, it seemed that around this time I began to blur that distinction and did an increasing amount of audio production and composition in this space. This may seem like a massive contradiction/cognitively dissonant – after all, who would prefer to work on audio in a loud space? I always made sure to have high quality studio headphones, so the background noise was negligible (note that it took me 3 tries to spell that word…) I found that I was able to enter a state of extreme productivity, likely due to positive associations with the physical space and also due to employing a Pomodoro cycle of intense focus paired with minor break. Plus, I always believed that the physical space where music is composed is a silent collaborator and inspiration. I know that when I wrote lots of music, I’d create pieces with vastly different emotion and mood based on my location. Looking back, I think that this is a core contributing factor for why I believe so strongly that physical space contributes heavily in the creative process.
One of the last compositions I worked on was largely edited (and written!) in this cafe. Last summer, Squarepusher announced the Midi Sans Frontières project where anyone across the world could remix and collaborate in a showing of unity and commonality through music as a reaction to Brexit. I loved the concept, and so I created a contribution using several of the provided audio stems. For those interested, here is my version: Jonathan Prozzi – Midi Sans Frontières. There isn’t currently anything else on the Bandcamp page except that track. It’s the last composition I worked on with any depth, and I did the bulk of it in this cafe. I created the majority of the music over the course of two days at the end of July 2016.
Anyway, without getting too deep into a rabbit hole about how much music I’ve written in this space over the years, I want to address one other core point. Even though I haven’t worked in music as much over the last year, I still associate this space with personal learning and creativity. Over the last year or so, I’ve spent much time developing my programming skills here. I wrote several youth and educator resources, as well as personal projects, while relaxing and drinking coffee in this space. This is probably also why I associate programming with consumption of coffee, particularly iced or cold brew coffee.
One core realization I’ve had is how deeply I love learning and creativity, and the role that both have played in my life over the years. Even though the nostalgia stings a bit, it’s wonderful to reflect on the evolution of my self-learning over the years. While the form and medium of learning/expression has changed, the guiding principle and thirst has never changed. As I sit and write this concluding section to what is arguably a giant wall of text, I realize how much the threads that I once viewed as separate are far more interwoven and are connected by my drive to always learn and share knowledge.
I took a picture of the store exterior earlier and I was reminded of a quote from (the fantastic!) Guild Wars 1: “As a boy I spent much time in these lands…” I appreciate the nostalgic tone of the quote, and given my love of that game, I think it’s appropriately fitting that I select something else I associate with a large chunk of my life to wrap up my thoughts about the importance of physical space.
The next line in the quote is “Look at them now.” The original context is sad, as the Prince is comparing the current state of his homeland with the verdant pastures of his youth. While I often immediately jump to that quote when expressing/summarizing nostalgia, I want to be clear that I’m looking at these lands within the lens of positive reflection. I’m thrilled to have spent so much time exploring and building my knowledge in this space.
Thanks for the memories!