The Amazing Soda Pop Stretcher

Dec 18, 2020

Jerome Beatty's work is curiously out of print, which is a shame, because his book Bob Fulton's Amazing Soda Pop Stretcher, with illustrations by the professionally weird Gahan Wilson, was a childhood favorite of mine. Young Fulton is a self-styled inventor who comes up with a moneymaking scheme for stretching a single bottle of soda into enough fizzy to serve the whole neighborhood. It's a classic kid's economic model: make something with ingredients your parents paid to put in the pantry, then pocket the proceeds for yourself.

Only in Bob's case things go blooey, quickly and literally: his machine explodes mid-stretch, leaving everything in the garage coated in a residual cocktail of cola and sugar water. But that's just the opening act. Turns out, the process of stretching and exploding these ingredients has imbued the resulting goo with the capacity to eliminate friction. Three-speed bikes rocket down the street, wristwatches go for days without winding, and soon the industrial implications have attracted government bigwigs and Cold War villains alike, while prompting an inflationary run on the global sugar market.

I suppose if I reread it now, I'd discover all kinds of sly politico-economic commentary at work, but at the time, I just thought " friction!" I won't be rereading Bob Fulton anytime soon, if used copies on Amazon continue to list at over $700 a pop, but I have been thinking about friction nonetheless. In particular, I've been noticing the relationship between friction and practicing.

Let me preface this by mentioning that I've been in a bit of a productivity nosedive since the week of Thanksgiving, so this is neither bulletproof advice nor the perspective of someone who is necessarily, as the jazz cats say, killing it per se. Disclaimers dispensed with, what I find works, when it does work, is removing the friction associated with practicing – or other stuff I want to get done, like writing or recording new lessons. The friction comes in at least two forms: material circumstances, and cerebral congestion. In plainer terms: how hard or easy is it to find yourself sitting in your chair, ready to go, and once you're sitting there, how clear is it what you're there to do?

If you have a dedicated practice space, with the stuff you need laid out, and you don't have to shift a pile of books, a stack of papers, the laundry or the cat to get down to it, you're off to a good start. And it doesn't have to be a scale model of Electric Ladyland studios; just having a chair you usually sit down in, with the guitar on a nearby stand, sporting all six strings and reasonably in tune, removes a lot of friction right there. When I was recording every day, I put the best all-around microphone I owned on one of those radio station-style boom stands you can clip to the edge of a desk. I left it plugged into my gear, and had a few templates ready to go in my recording software. The instruments were in one of those guitar racks nearby, so in theory, I could just swing the mic into place, grab the right instrument, click the proper track in the software and hit record. I didn't super-duper agonize about mic placement or even which mic to use; I focused on capturing ideas and keeping things moving.

The other part can be trickier to negotiate: what are you there to do? It's the big-picture things that are motivating, at least at first: "Man, in a year, maybe I'll be able to do X." But that's immediately overwhelming, unless you can break it down into some pretty granular bits. In fact, once I've worked my way backwards from the big mission to the more granular "What are we doing this week?" I almost need to forget about the big picture, or I won't sit down at all. That's the second kind of friction: call it "magnitude despair." I have to know that the minute I plunk down in the chair, I'm doing x. Not X – just x. The one thing for today. And when I get it done, I've won practicing for the day.

Of course, before any of that, there's the preliminary friction of life itself. There's gonna be things that need doing, and things you're busy thinking about, and gawd help us, the ever-present internet doing its 24-7, serpent-in-Eden routine. So sometimes even if you know where your chair is and you know what to work on, the hardest thing is sitting down and actually starting. I do all kinds of dumb rituals to make this happen, which work when I do them, but if I let them slide, it takes regrouping and repeating those rituals for a few days (or a few weeks) to get back on the horse again.

In Bob Fulton, it turns out people aren't willing to live in a world without sugar just for the sake of perpetual motion. I can see that – it's taken more than my usual dose of Alter Eco 70% Cacao to make today's Letter happen. But if you're looking to smooth the way to a better practice routine, consider identifying your own material and cerebral friction first.