Clogged Up

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I have other more “pressing” things to do this morning. Perhaps some housework. Definitely some teaching prep and student feedback. Maybe research. But I feel like I needed to write this morning to get rid of a certain clogged feeling. So I’m setting a timer for 30 minutes and writing. Let’s see what happens.

I guess I’ll start looking at the feeling more directly. I’m not quite sure what it is, but it feels a bit like cabin fever for the mind, like I’m stuck doing similar intellectual activities. Or just sort of stuck in a general life way. I was doing a freewrite the other day, and this came out describing the feeling:

I don’t know how I got here. Well, I know in a literal sense, the sense that if a cop were to ask me how I got there, I could tell him. Tell him in pretty solid detail. And I’m not trying to be all abstract, thinking about genetics and geology and all that—how I got here in space time or geologic time. No, it was really more of a feeling, really. Like I was drifting in an aimless current and suddenly beached like a piece of drift wood, with the current flowing further down stream.

I think this sort of mood is pointing to some of the intellectual ambiguity that comes from overthinking existence. To thinking, learning, being, but not necessarily acting because despite all this thinking and learning, sometimes it’s hard to figure out what to do. Or how to do what you want to do. Or what there is to do.

Right now, in terms of my life, I’m on summer break before entering my second year of coursework in a 4-year PhD program in composition and cultural rhetoric. I’m teaching a summer class. I’m vaguely trying to work through an idea about video games, trying to improve my programming literacy, and read for exams next summer. But I am, largely speaking, in coursework.

This brings me back to writing and that clogged feeling. One of my friends and colleagues described that coursework feels like being a sponge loaded up with water, and since you are not doing much non-reflective writing, you don’t have an outlet to squeeze out all this intellectual saturation.

I also think this feeling has a connection to another conversation I had–a few times, actually–about the “selfish” nature of grad school, especially when it is intensive and absorbing. Doing all of this learning feels a bit cut off. A professional writer has an audience, but in coursework, I’m not sure why I’m learning quite yet, what all this knowledge is supposed to lead to, what I’m supposed to do with it.

This seems to be one of the difficult things about knowledge production to me. In the past, I’ve generally looked at intelligence and what I would term intellectual productivity in an emergent, almost playful sense. That ideas come from playing with other ideas, thinking through them, talking through them, etc. I’m having a hard time transitioning to the “production” of knowledge, from learning as work in stead of play. Learning, even when it was difficult, has always been play to me, not “work.”

I suppose I’ve been dwelling on this “work” and “play” distinction lately, which I imagine is inevitable when researching play and games. I’m not sure what keeps sticking me to it, though.

I suppose it’s the question of why work matters. Why we work. Why we work hard, in particular. Many don’t have a choice–it’s work or die–but I think a lot of people do have some choice about work, or at least the illusion of choice, and the existential anguish involved with that (maybe false) choice. This is one issue. That sense of “am I doing what I love?”Or even, “Can I do what I love?”

But that’s not the only question. One has issues like “fullfilling work,” a fairly recent idea, or the odd tyranny of play that may happen when one is expected to know certain media and play becomes work. The difference between productive hobbies and wasting time. Production v. play. What it means to earn a “living” and not just “an earning.” When a passion becomes something else.

My timer is winding down, so I guess I’ll end in this messy set of contradictions. But I think this this particular fixation does point to larger things, or could. I’m just not quite sure yet.

Productivity?

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As the years go on, I see the false idol of long hours. Long hours, when meaningfully deployed are great, but so often quantity takes the place of quality. I worked x hours, instead of getting x done. Or in its more haunting form, I still have time and work to do today, so I can’t rest.

I think of a distinction raised in Sogyal Rinpoche’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying between what I call lazy laziness v. busy laziness. Lazy laziness refers to what we normally consider lazy: the archetypal the couch potato, the binging of Castle reruns, the downing of Atomic-Fire-Lazer-Charged chips. Busy laziness refers to the layering on of hours that ultimately distract us from more meaningful activities, simply exhausting us until we pick back up the next day to do the same thing, ad infinitum. Though I think we rarely fall in either extreme, that spectrum has followed me through the years.

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The Human Condition

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I’ve been carrying these ideas around for a while now and am still thinking through them. With Trump, Brexit, Orlando, anti-trans bathroom laws, and other issues cycling through the media–or at least my media–lately, I keep coming back to Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, written in 1958 as a defense of philosophy’s role in “the active life” and a critique of its preference for “the contemplative life.”

Arendt opens the book discussing Sputnik. Being the first human-made object to leave the Earth, Sputnik represented, in the words of one reporter, the first “step from men’s imprisonment on Earth.” Arendt goes on to argue that science and technology have increasingly tried to make human life “artificial.” Extending lifespans, splitting the atom, in vitro fertilization, etc., for Arendt, “offer a rebellion against human existence as it has been given.”

I’m not as concerned with this “rebellion” and would side with others in the post-human view that technology and artifice have always been part of the human condition. Instead, what interests me more is Arendt’s next critique: “The trouble concerns the fact that the ‘truths’ of the modern scientific worldview, though they can be demonstrated in mathematical formulas and proved technologically, will no longer lend themselves to normal expression in speech and thought.” In other words, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We can do things, like a split an atom or raise an embryo in vitro, but can’t talk about it as a public.

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Bethena, Cracking open a nut

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I’ve been getting into Joplin lately, playing and listening. He’s know for “The Entertainer,” which my mom always calls “The Sting” after the movie of that name, and “The Maple Leaf Rag.” These are fun pieces, but he wrote a lot more. Many are similar, like “Binks Waltz,” as these were his primary money makers, but then one has “Bethena.”

Joplin published “Bethena” in 1905, shortly after his wife Freddie, of two months, died from pneumonia. Between the death and early 1905, we don’t know much about Joplin’s location and actions, but finances were tight. The piece also fell into obscurity for some time, and we don’t know how successful it was when Joplin was around. We also don’t know who Bethena was. Some speculate it was a nickname for Freddie. And the figure on the cover of the original cover is also a mystery, though she is often considered Freddie as well.

The song showed up again in Benjamin Button, with NPR doing a little write up, and it has garnered critical attention on its own. For one, it’s a beautiful piece. Wistful, simple, and ultimately affirming. Joplin uses that initial coda and shifting key changes to weave a powerful emotional journey.  His use of the coda, in particular, reminds me of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata’s first movement, grounding a roving piece in sad reflection. But it doesn’t have the drama of Beethoven, replacing it with lyricism. “Cantible,” say the directions, “like singing.”

It’s also rhythmically complex, mixing a baseline from classical waltz with the subtle syncopation found in cakewalk and rags, itself slightly altered. But the contrast is elegant, gently carrying the piece along, almost invisible.

I say all this for two reasons. One, I love finding these little gems–moving pieces that are not well known. And in this particular case, I find it sad that one of America’s best composers remains a bit obscure. I can easily YouTube Beethoven and Messiaen, finding loads of videos, but Joplin generally yields player pianos, ragtime enthusiasts with poor microphones, or still images with songs in the background. Not professional performances.

Second, I find the (inter)textuality of this music fascinating. For one, there’s the obscurity of the piece’s origins and its possible connection to Freddie’s death. Then, why did it disappear? How did it get rediscovered? Who is Bethena, if anyone? Why did Joplin write this? Was it to make money like most of his work, or was it like his failed opera, something more serious?

And the layering of classical waltz with cakewalk and rag also has a lot to it. The privileged, ritzy connotations of classical waltz rubbing elbows with the folk rhythms of plantation slaves doing cakewalk and player pianos grinding out rags.

And then the piece’s use in Benjamin Button, interlacing and helping to build a film in a completely different context.

Music is much like poetry, presenting a nut that may be beautiful on the surface but gets more beautiful and complex as one cracks it open. One listens to the melody and rhythms, the weaving tonalities and structures, the counterpoint and traditions, the forms and genres, themselves dancing, interlaced with stories and affect, and the piece transforms.

One of my poetry teachers once wrote that good prose is like good beer and good poetry is like good gin, more distilled and compact. Exceptions exist–Joyce and Wolfe have pretty ginny prose, I think–but the distinction has stuck with me. Only now, I’m not sure where music falls. Maybe wine. Taking the time to let the flavors waft over you, with little recognitions gathered in new ways. Each playing a slightly different experience, a slightly different piece of ephemeral craft.

Whatever the case, I’m glad I found this piece a few years ago and that it comes along still, at least now and then.

 

 

Life, Database, and Narrative

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Days are pretty packed affairs. Like over-stuffed omelets. Seemingly compact and straightforward  on the outside–24 hours, dawn to dusk, 9-5, breakfast to dinner–but within the structured folds of our narrating scheme a lot can take place.

Today, in a mundane sense, I didn’t do much. I prepped for teaching, which involved me reading a lot of articles and book chapters. I talked a bit with a friend, dropping him off while navigating construction-marred streets further thinned with parked cars. I drove home in an oddly bristling, bustling early bird rush hour. I discovered that my car may need a new tire, is overdo for inspection, and has a wonky door. Stressed and a little sickened by the world–like Trump’s remarks this afternoon on the shooting–and the layered little anxieties of my own life, I meditated. Now, I am writing.

I don’t know why I list this little litany. I don’t suspect it makes for good reading, much like those old journals of daily meals or routines that historians–and few others–go bonkers over. But I feel like I just wanted to put some of the basic things I did, leaving out even more granular things like meals or a nap I took.

It may be an odd connection, but doing this reminds me of Lev Manovich’s distinction between the non-narrative, collective pool of data that comprise databases compared to the more narrative, often linear data in a novel. A novel has a beginning, middle, and end with well-orchestrated plot points punctuating the read, making “arcs” or “movement.” And essays do the same thing, for the most part.

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Return (for now)

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Hey all, it’s been a while. Though I’ve kept blogging on a school-based site, the nature of the blogging has been more academic, mostly reaction to readings or conferences. It wasn’t the sort of writing I was doing here.

But I think I’ve come to miss this space. Primarily for three reasons. First, it’s a chance to voice my thoughts in a public setting that is a more involved than most social media. It’s uncanny, for example, that my last post before the hiatus was about gun control, since the news of the Orlando shooting has left me blank and sort of shell shocked without a space to vocalize anything. The echo of the news is sort of reverberating in my body and thoughts but not really going anywhere. I’m not ready to talk about it, but I need a space to just sort of say that. That I am literally sickened and dazed at the news and can’t seem to figure out next steps or previous steps or any steps at all. This blog used to be that space, and I guess it is today.

Second, while I’ve been doing a lot of writing, I’ve been writing in a vacuum. True, I’ve been writing to peers and professors, occasional strangers, and fellow academics at conferences, but I miss a public place interface with an audience on a semi-regular basis outside of academia. Not a big one. Or a constant one, likely. But someone. Because I miss the sense that now and then my writing was doing something. It was a small something, but the occasional thank you message or thought was more nourishing than I gave it credit.

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Thinking through gun control

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Mostly, I’ve just been trying to think through a few gun control-related things. I see opinions all over. Memes. Tweets. Enraged Facebook statuses. This may be part and parcel to that storm, but I wanted to take the whole thing slowly.

I really have nothing major to gain or lose in this debate personally. While I live in a violent city (Syracuse), I’m rarely in harms way directly. Perhaps now and then, but gun violence is not a daily reality in my physical proximity. I don’t own guns, but I also don’t have anything against gun ownership. I’m friends with hunters and gun enthusiasts, and consider them fine people. I also recognize that gun ownership is a constitutional right. More than that, it is part of the Bill of Rights, alongside things like freedom of speech and no double jeopardy.

But as Colbert said, when things like mass shootings keep happening, we should look at changing. I suppose the alternative would be to not change and take things how they are, which is an option. Moreover, I don’t think the idea of “change” needs to be threatening or draconian. Middle ground exists. Places for dialogue. Places for compromise. So mostly I want to point to conversations that I don’t see much in the mainstream media or on social media, including the stakes and confines of the debate itself.

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Coming “Home” to a New Place

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[A work in progress, a freewrite of sorts]

To work on my PhD, I’ve come back “home” to my birthplace in Syracuse. I’ve even come “home” to my parent’s house, where I grew up. I suppose I’ve always been hyper-sensitive to ideas of home. What it is. What it means. And now I’m experiencing a certain renaissance of that sensitivity.

I suppose I awoke one day from a more unquestioning view of home when I traveled abroad alone for the first time. Something about traveling alone–the hotel rooms, the airports, the isolation–brings on such thoughts. Particularly because I had to spend the night sleeping in Newark Airport, shivering from the air-conditioned cold and woken up every view minutes by an automated message.

Before that, though, it began by looking at the workers as the airport drifted into evening hours. With fewer people there, the isolated workers stood behind empty lines. In the gray and metal guts of this whale, we stood, all of us just there by chance, all strangers.

New walls are like strangers. They are alien and unfamiliar. Unwelcoming. Distant. People try to make a place homey by painting it certain colors. By getting comfortable chairs. By getting paintings by Mary Cassatt or Monet, maybe.

But what is it about that chair we sit in at our favorite cafe, that parking place we always park in, that bench we always sit at in the park? Why are we so attached to bits of wood or blacktop? So pissed off when someone robs us from our place? And feel so alienated by new walls, even if they have nice, warm paint?

Places have memories, like people, and like people’s, they fade. Trees with hearts carved by pocket knives get blown over by summer storms. New growth fills once-empty hiding spots. Buildings get weather-stained and worn. The “regulars” we knew in a place shift. Drawn to different places without goodbyes.

I once wrote in a journal that home is a geography. It is a concrete place. At the time, I was traveling a lot. And it is, I think. It is a place. Like a parking space or a bench. But like Heraclitus’ river, it’s always changing. It’s always becoming something that isn’t home. Like entropy. Shifting away from us, as we grapple and try to impose home on the world, onto the raw, living geography of a place.

My dad is a child psychologist, and one of the tests he gives is having a child draw a house and a family. The kids scrawl doors with heavy padlocks, families missing fathers, a grave for a dead dog, terrifyingly tall mothers, fences “for keeping bad guys out,” monstrous siblings, smiling stick-figures holding hands. He interprets the image using certain criteria.

It reminds me of a short story by Varlam Shalamov called “A Child’s Drawings.” The narrator finds a child’s drawing book. At first, he thumbs through the pictures of the countryside. Bright, crayoned-on sunsets. Then barbed-wire fences, guard towers, and planes start to cover the pages.

In the end, another guard comes and throws out the notebook because they can’t burn it, where it gathers frost on trash heap.

The iconography of a child’s drawing. It’s hues and stick-figure people. It’s trapezoid houses. It’s fences and locked doors. It’s smiles. Permeated by “home,” whether that home is a mansion on a hill or an apartment in a war zone. Whether it is filled with trauma or love.

New blog, New Post

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Hey all, I hope things are going well. I’m adjusting as I move back into school, starting my PhD in Composition and Cultural Rhetoric. As part of orientation, we had to make a new blog and blog post for our next meeting. So in place of a post here, I figured I would send you a link to my new blog over there.

At this point, the blog is still pretty basic and unfinished. Like an apartment that you might move into as the workers are still finishing up some walls, wiring, and plumbing. Or, like my current life-in-transition. But it is what it is.

I will likely continue to use this blog, but it’ll be more of a personal blog, I’m thinking, and I may use the other for more professional development and class-related content. We shall see.

But in the meantime, here is the link, and I hope you have a nice day.

-Brett

5 YouTube Accounts for a Brain Snack

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These days, YouTube is still a great place to find videos of cats or middle school students acting out the Scarlet Letter, equipped with shaky camera shots and wind-buried dialogue. But it’s also a fascinating place to find some videos for a quick brain snack, a short (3-15 minute) video about an “educational” topic, often released weekly. Not only are such videos great background noise for morning routines, they can add some pep and multimedia to a lesson.

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