Hello, 2017

“And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” -Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

I’ve never been a big New Year person. It’s position seems too arbitrary. Sometimes it fits, but often, like a poorly timed joke, it feels too late or too early, punctuating the calendar whether we want to celebrate it or not.

I think about other forms of time, like the slow waltz of geologic cycles or the Mayan Long Calendar’s b’ak’tun–the approximate equivalent of 144,000 years per cycle. I don’t mean to go full Rent, but the sense of days adding up to a pre-determined, arbitrarily assigned date feels a little bloodless to me. Abstract, even if its celestial and mathematical elegance has its own beauty. I appreciate the bringing-together mentality that each New Year offers, even though many countries don’t celebrate this crux between December 31st and January, but as an individual, I wonder if more valuable measurements exist.

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Update

Hey all,

Sorry for the long hiatus. I don’t know if you noticed, but I’ve made some significant changes to the site, both aesthetically and in terms of content. I’ve finally compressed my for-school blog into this site–including all of the past posts I did this semester–and will likely be doing both types of writing here from now on. I think the major changes are done, but I may be doing further tweaks, as I’m not quite sure how I feel about this aesthetic quite yet.

I hope to do my first post tomorrow, as a way to start the new year, but in the meantime, I hope everyone has a positive final day of the tumultuous 2016.

-Brett

Clogged Up

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?

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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Life, Database, and Narrative

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)

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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New blog, New Post

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

Beaches and sheet music

I went to the beach with my family this past Sunday, along the Great Lake Ontario. Leaving just as dawn was young and “gold” as Frost my say, my parents and I wound our way up through yawning, rolling fields of wheat, small towns, and scrubby forest. A sleepy fog crept among the trees. Thin clouds filmed the still-blue sky.

Lighting our fire, the lake rolled in and out with a quickened breath that surged beneath the quiet landscape.

By the time my nephews, sister-in-law, and brother came by in frames of car-bundled excitement, the fire was roaring, fed by driftwood and briquettes. Oakley, the middle child, chased the gulls, while Henry, the oldest, joined Charlie, the youngest, at the lake.

“Is this salt water?” one asked.

“No, fresh,” said my brother.

I sort through a box of old sheet music–show-tunes, vaudeville, Chopin, folk–that my great uncle Harry left. Getting his piano, I got the music as well. The piano is a beautiful Steinway & Sons, which Harry picked from a line of pianos over 50 (or is it 60?) years ago. It’s getting old, but the touch is light, fluid, and responsive. And it holds its tonality well. Especially for its age.

Sometimes I play chords, stretching or shrinking them, like one might crinkle or stretch a canvas, listening to the echo, listening to the piano speak. It has a good voice. Mellow. Old. Lingering. I listen to hang in the air like a space of sky.

I wonder what it sounded like as he played. If the resonance changes, like singers who age.

As the day went on, the beach got busy. I love the way beaches are a wash of humanity, all jumbled together. No parking spaces. Just chairs and towels and blue plastic shovels strewn about. Just broad sandy expanse, water, and the dunes that mark the division, laced and piled with fragile plants.

Families form pockets, some an inward-turned island of chairs, others lined up with the ocean like a proscenium in a theater, others forming thin crescents. Others simply stuck and piled like spilled tops.

Helped by their father, my nephews build a castle, relentlessly scratched and dragged at by the water as they fight back with ditches and walls. The current doesn’t roll in or out today. It laps the edge of the walls, seeping now and then into the bailey, like an infiltrating army.

I build levees alongside to help defend the structure.

As we rest, other children use the structures as parking spaces before jetting out into the lake, racing in a flurry of splash and foam.

I sort through the old sheet music, the acid-laced paper frail now. Brittle and old, with the musty mark of attics and old boxes. I don’t need most of it, though I’ve grabbed a few. But still, to hold the sheets, feeling their age and the connection they have to my great uncle, I feel something. Perhaps nostalgia. Perhaps happiness. Perhaps sadness.

I’m not sure if it’s me, or the papers, or the two of us opening up this moment. But something, someone is.

Meanwhile, my father helps “Kevin the Junk Guy” load up Kevin’s rickety, paint-peeling truck with “scrap and crap,” as Kevin once called it. Kevin is mustachioed, with a frizzy wave of gray hair and surprisingly thin legs. He talks in a husky voice, but is excited. He likes metal. And he likes to discuss the odds and ends that pass through his hands, passing though.

My three nephews continue to alternate between lake and sand. Between constructing castles and joining the water in their deconstruction. My brother is a good father. He takes them out, and they toss a Frisbee in wayward angles over the surf.

On the shore, I read Kenneth Burke and people watch. But sometimes, when Oakley wants to, I show him how to build a strong wall. I show him how to get the right texture for the sand–not goopy slop, but not too dry either. We pile, mound, pack, and–now and then–destroy our work.

Stepping back, we look at it.

“It looks like a nose!” yells Oakley.

He makes sneezing sounds and jumps off, into the water. Slowly, the walls crumble with his footwork. But he is happy. And the lake rolls on, breath by breath.

I never met uncle Harry, but I’ve always looked up to him. He graduated from Syracuse University in 1912 and worked as a chemist. But he was also a piano player. Played vaudeville and for the local ice rink, a portrait of Shakespeare and Company atop his piano, or so my dad remembers, pausing on the edge of a room, listening to him practice.

He was a quiet man. Intellectual. A little gawky and lean with glasses and a high forehead. He never married, but didn’t die a bachelor, having finally met someone. The house he lived in was large and stable, yet quiet and practical.

Playing his piano and going to Syracuse University for my PhD this fall, starting orientation tomorrow, I feel the poignant connection holding that paper. A sense of being home. Or at least having a sense of history and the sort of stability that brings.

I brought in a book of sheet music, while Kevin took the rest for his mother.

Oakley decides to destroy our castle, “like the water!” he says. Layering buckets, I (sadly) watch our handiwork dissolve back into the pulp and etchings of an active shore.

I consider St. Augustine and the Trinity. Walking along the beach, contemplating of three beings as one being, he sees a boy trying to fill a hole with nothing but a small pail. That’s absurd, says Augustine, you can’t move the ocean with at bucket! The boy replies, If I can’t do that, then how can you understand God?

Meanwhile, Oakley layers the last bucketful of murky lake water on our crumbled “castle.” Our work finished, we step back.

“Thanks uncle Bretty, I like making castles with you.”

“A wild joy”: Finding meaning

Boredom

Somewhere I read (Schopenhauer, I think) that boredom occurs when you feel time pass while doing fruitless activity. Unlike pain, which invades our sensations, forcing our response, boredom seeps in from contrasting our current action from a better alternative.

Existential boredom, then, is a sense that life more generally is not fulfilling. It might be “pleasurable” at a daily level, but when one steps away, it lacks something. Life–like a story–needs a certain cohesion, a “meaning” or significance.

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Humdrum aesthetics, ambiance, and everyday affect

I’ve been off lately. Like a typist with baseball mitts on or a table with uneven legs. Finishing up coursework, graduating, moving back to my parents to prep for the next phase of life, I’ve been recalibrating my humdrum “average everydayness,” to use Heidegger’s term.

Doing so has left me lurching, back peddling, and out of sorts. Fortunately, I’ve been riding it out well, even thinking about my daily driftings, dustings, and feelings as they fit the humdrum aesthetics of everyday life.

I like looking at life aesthetically, as this view implies the ever messy, artful, and personal position we have. While we often talk about “building” a life or going on “journeys,” I’ve always pictured life like a canvas, gradually accruing layers of paint as we rub away and redraw our life into becoming. Talking in terms of poetry, Nietzsche puts it well in The Gay Science: “we want to be the poets of our life–first of all in the smallest, most everyday matters” (240).

So we paint our lives through “daily fidelity,” as Camus puts it, through little etches and big thoughts, baby steps and bounds, each day passing as we glide, slip, and work within our daily world.

But we aren’t alone in this process. We also have other people in our lives, immediate and present or steering from a distance. But other things, like weather, geography, and the objects that allow our habits, compose our canvas as well. To use a term I’ve been thinking about lately, our lives have “ambiance,” situated, embedded, and present in a broader cradle of being. I tend to side with Thomas Rickert on this perspective: that traditional self/world or subject/object dichotomies are flimsy and over simplifying, even wrong in a way. We are worldly and bodily, not simply a self in a body in a world.

Moreover, many of these things recede from our immediate perspective, but still exert an influence. For example, I ran out of tea recently. Normally an everyday object taken for granted, its absence skewed my routine, affecting my whole day. And through the move, my placement of everyday objects has changed, from my wallet and keys to my pants and socks. All these little differences from things long-since receded change my humdrum aesthetics. They change my life.

In Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects, she maps and probes many of these “ordinary affects” and the largely diffuse and unconscious effect they exert. As she writes, worth quoting at length:

Ordinary affects are public feelings that begin and end in broad circulation but they’re also the stuff that seemingly intimate lives are made of. They give circuits and flows the forms of a life. They can be experienced as a pleasure and a shock, as an empty pause or a dragging undertow, as a sensibility that snaps into place or a profound disorientation. They can be funny, perturbing, or traumatic. Rooted not in fixed conditions of possibility but in the actual lines of potential that a something coming together calls to mind and sets in motion, they can be seen as both the pressure points of events or banalities suffered and the trajectories that forces might take if they were to go unchecked. (5)

Difficult to pin down, analyze, articulate, or even notice, these ordinary affects steer our lives. Stuff happens that we can’t fully articulate or trace, but we know that something is happening. Something is throwing itself together. Assembling. Doing. Changing. Being. And, often, this something catches us up in its folds. We resonate in mutual ambiance, distilled into becoming.

As Stewart describes, a biker couple enters a restaurant and mentions an accident, creating a conversation, creating a “we.” The greenery of a city increases well being. A collection of affect leaves me waking up at noon instead of 6:15, blinking at my clock, in a sprawl of blankets, dazed thoughts grasping at the wakefulness that gradually pools into a day, gathered up into a life.

“Grain upon grain, one by one,” writes Beckett, “and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.”