It’s been a bit of a dry month and yet here I sit writing the third post in a day. I don’t exactly even know what I plan to write. I’ve written the title before I begin sort of intuitively, and now find myself wondering whether the post can live up to the promise.
I suppose there’s nothing to do but press on.
— § —
I still read The Chronicle of Higher Education, but whereas I once read it quite enthusiastically and identified with it greatly, having some distance from the academy for the first time in many years has given me a different perspective.
At times when I read now, I feel a distinct sense of pity mixed with distaste for everything that is going on in the academy. The reasons for this are quite mixed. I wonder if I can make a list:
First off, in a very real way most of these people and topics are people and topics that simply don’t matter. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t matter, but in fact in the actual world they don’t. They play a role in the idiosyncratic stageplay of youth, but beyond this, their work is read by few and used by even fewer. This isn’t true across all the disciplines, but it’s true enough across enough of them to make the generalization worthwhile. And yet they believe that they matter. Or rather, they wish to convince themselves that they matter. They work hard at it. So hard. Drearily and painfully so. It is, ultimately, pitiful.
It’s also pitiful that they’re paid a fraction of what they ought, in a better world, to have been worth given the quality of their minds and the experience and determination that they bring to bear. They’ve spent many, many years and sacrificed virtually their entire personhood and life narrative to be a part of this club, only to be paid very little in exchange, to not matter, and to find themselves imprisoned in a system and culture in which there is very little diversity, freedom, or excitement.
Institutionally, the place is a mess. And the fights are intense. The whole place reeks of disaster and emergency management; it’s not like reading about the cultural vanguard and conservatorship of a society ought to be. It’s much more like reading political blogs, only without the national implications. There’s a truism that people fight so intensely because the stakes are so low, and in a way, I think this applies very well.
The sad odor of wasted potential hangs over everything. Here is a set of institutions, and an institutional system, that are so deeply embedded in society, so full of bright minds, and that reach people at such a critical age, and that are so systemically privileged (even if their members aren’t necessarily financially privileged) that they ought to be a sort of shining beacon of what is possible across any number of dimensions. Instead, together they amount to a kind of cultural sideshow. The bearded lady of American life.
I’ll stop now before it gets out of control. And at the same time, I am conflicted because I still feel as though there’s something to aspire to in that life, and I also feel as though I’d love to have been a part of it, despite everything. And that sense also makes me pity and feel some measure of distaste for my own self and preferences. Humf.
— § —
The problem with writing as a vocation is that it’s not a skill per se. You actually have to have something to write about, a story to tell, and the courage and self-awareness to be able to tell it.
Very good “writers” that don’t actually have stories (say, yours truly) don’t get to be called writers. They get called marketers, advertisers, managers, directors, and so on, but the writing in the vocation of writing is really not at all about turns of phrase, sound rather than ostentatious use of vocabulary, a well-disciplined and well-selected voice, or other similar things.
It’s about one’s ability to close eyes, hold breath, grind teeth, and jump from well-chosen narrative cliffs.
To date I lack the courage or discipline to make this work for myself, though I’ve tried at various times and continue to accumulate interrupted projects of various lengths.
— § —
Given that I am about to pass forty, I suspect it’s time that I begin to tell myself that the future is here. There’s far less future, in fact, than there is past in my life, and I’m rapidly running out of whatever future is left.
I am one of those people that stockpiles cherished plans and dusts them off every now and then to revel in and review them. I invariably make progress toward them, but the progress is slow and meticulous and punctuated by the pauses that come with project-switching.
There are too many goals and not enough time. This is an insight that may seem obvious, but it hasn’t been obvious to me until now. I need to pick one or two and go with them. Probably just one, as much as it pains me to say it. The time for “bucket lists” and “sets of goals” is over. If I have more than one or two, none of them will be accomplished before I pop off into whatever afterlife awaits me.
So the project needs to be to take a deep breath and allow myself to experience the pain while I cross things off of my list not for having completed them, but for having vetoed them in favor of the one or two things I plan to do in the time that I have left.
Focus needs to be the watchword, and focus has never been something I’m particularly good at. I’ve always cast a wildly wide net, and made my mark by eventually always returning to everything in it—by keeping plates spinning forever and ever. The result has been reasonably good—books published, trades learned, degrees earned, accomplishments immortalized on the resumé and so on—but now it’s time to pick the one or two plates that I plan to adopt, take the rest down, stack them up, and write them into a letter to the kids about “other stuff that I always wanted to do but had to decide against as a matter of pragmatism.”
— § —
Not so long ago, we (wife and kids and I—yes, we’re separated, but in that odd way in which you are living together, only apart) went to a local Japanese joint called Shoga. The food was good, the atmosphere and service were even better, and I didn’t order the ramen that night. I vowed to return and do so.
Now at 11:10 pm on a Friday night, alone in the house with sleeping kids, I am suddenly wishing that I was sitting at Shoga over a bowl of noodles.
— § —
I’d purchased a Citizen Nighthawk A-T watch at an incredible price thinking that I’d sell off my “regular” Nighthawk in favor of the slightly higher-end watch with the sapphire crystal.
It seemed like a good idea, but when I got it, I found that I actually couldn’t live with the fact that it set its time automatically by radio using the NIST feed in Colorado. This is supposed to be a feature, but to me it was a step too far toward gadgetry.
I’ve hinted at this before, but wearing this watch cemented the self-knowledge for me: what I value so much about watches in a way is that I and a wristwatch are traveling together, two little autonomous universes of complex information processing, in our own bubble. The time on the watch is my time, mine and the watch’s, in my universe. It’s very hard to explain, but phenomenologically, it feels empowering, validating, and reassuring.
Wearing a watch that set itself automatically from a radio broadcast that millions of other clocks and watches use to also set their time was like using Facebook or checking the time on my mobile phone. It subject me to social forces. It was totalitarian in nature; I was disempowered, invalidated, undermined, and interpellated.
I can appreciate the totalitarian in large-scale social systems that need to get things done in the interest of the public good, but on a tiny machine worn on my wrist for which a couple seconds’ variance on way or another ought not to matter, it was a bridge too far.
I sold it on eBay, happily at a decent profit.
— § —
My sister is getting married and may move to China. I insert this fact here apropos of nothing in particular. I’m very happy for her. On a more selfish note, the complexities of my own life are vexing in relation to the event, which I’d like to be able to celebrate more freely.
— § —
And meanwhile, springtime is here, I believe.
Another spring. Given my age, I’m going to try to appreciate this one. To stop, even if it’s terribly trite, and smell the roses. Literally.
It’s time to put a bit more effort into appreciating things again.