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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Bethena, Cracking open a nut

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

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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Back to the Backyard

Hey all, it’s been a while. I have finally decided that I am far enough on work and settled enough in my life to find my blogging rhythm again, and after a long departure–Oct. of last year–I am back to posting regularly.

I don’t have a particular theme for today. Mostly, I just wanted to check in, since a few changes have taken place since October.

First of all, my thesis is “done,” and by done I mean that I have given a copy to my readers for my defense next week. By “done” I also mean that I can’t stand looking at it for some time. Though I guess I should glance it over before the defense. *cringe*

It ended up being about ecological theory and fanfiction. So a brief explanation about both of those things.

Ecological theory, as its name suggests, has environment roots, but has more recently been used to complicate our expand our view of writing. While many people still look at writing as a solitary process–i.e., the lone writer at a desk “inventing” or “discovering” some text–ecological theory takes the opposite view.

In a “writing ecology,” the writer is just one participant in the writing process, which can also include other people, historical and cultural influences, and nonhuman elements, like the environment or technology.

For example, right now, I’m using my old MacBook, sipping water, listening to Hello Saferide, and sitting alone in a (somewhat) cold kitchen near a broad window. Moreover, I’m writing through an interface called WordPress, designed by a bunch of programers. This interface has certain ideologies and capabilities, like the ability to just grab something from online to make a point, like this:

 A different writing environment–a different ecology–would affect my writing, and that’s not even considering you, the reader, and your own access and influence.

So that’s ecology. Fanfiction, at its most basic level, is fiction written by “fans” of a particular source text. It is typically about popular culture texts and is typically done by amateur writers without compensation. Moreover, it is often a social endeavor.

Fanfiction has historical roots, like Gulliver’s Travels fanfiction in the 18th century, but has surged in prominence in recent decades through digital technology. These technologies have also changed how we look at fanfiction, affecting the ecology that gives rise to fanfiction texts.

Essentially, my thesis tries to explore fanfiction ecologies, showing how looking at fanfiction like this changes what fanfiction “resistance” and “literacy” means.

In other news, I’ve also been accepted into some great PhD programs for rhetoric and composition, with full funding, so that’s worth celebrating. Overall, it is a bit nerve-wracking, but ultimately affirmative and exciting, especially after the alienating application process of the past few months. I made it through the first few gates. Now I get some difficult choices for my next one.

With these changes in mind, I imagine my usual posts will also change. While I can’t foresee what that means, I predict that posts may center more on my current research, allowing me to think through things–and share these thoughts–in a less stifling setting. But I still hope to retain some of the feel from past posts, like their connection to daily questions. I can’t say this will always be the case, but it is my temperament, and something that I enjoyed doing.

With that in mind, I’ll end this here. I’ll be sure to keep up writing and apologize for the long (but deeply necessary) hiatus. I hope all is well.

Cheers.

Simplicity

I apologize for not posting lately. I’ve been moving into school and prepping for the semester. I have a post in mind that I hope to write soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to post a video that I come to now and then: Alain de Botton’s take on Epicurus.

Epicurus and the “Epicurean” way of life has taken an odd turn through the ages, earning the connotation that it’s easy, hedonistic, and pleasure-focused. We have Epicurean.com, for example, which is all about food. It often contrasts Stoicism’s emphasis on endurance and austerity with a fat, easy life of comfort and self-gratification.

Oh, the decadence! [Image from Epicurean Life]
Oh, the decadence! [Image from Epicurean Life]

But, as you can probably expect, the original Epicurus and his followers were not nearly so “epicurean” and had much in common with their rival school, the Stoics, in ways of general beliefs and lifestyles. Both wanted the good life and both emphasized that one’s behavior required a certain logic and virtue in order to find it. Moreover, both emphasized simplicity.

For Epicurus and his philosophy, one of the key means to this happiness was simplicity. Simply your life, he might say, and you have less to fret over. A bit like Thoreau’s philosophy with Walden: strip life to its must fundamental points, and you can live it with fewer distractions, getting more out of it. Or as he famously put it:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

"Live deliberately" in this replica of Thoreau's cabin
“Live deliberately” in this replica of Thoreau’s cabin [Image from Wikipedia]

Epicurus also wanted to “reduce [life] to its lowest terms,” emphasizing fundamentals like friendship, freedom, meaningful tasks, and time to reflect. He ate simply, preferring water, bread, and vegetables over wine and and banquets. He also worked hard. But he kept those fundamental “pleasures,” like friendship, nearby.

Epicurus and Thoreau are not alone in this perspective. It’s common to many religions and many self-help guides–from the mundane to the truly helpful. The Buddha, for example, has a famous story in which a farmer interrupts his teaching to ask if they have seen his cows. The farmer is fretting and saying he might kill himself if he can’t find them. The Buddha cannot help. When the man walks away, the Buddha tells his followers how lucky they are that they do not have to worry over such things. For him, the greatest possession is freedom.

Currently moved into my townhouse, I have a very simple arrangement–few decorations, the basics in kitchen, clothes, and hygiene. I’m sure I’ll acquire more, especially as my fellow suite-mates move in, but for now I must content myself with these and seek out other, deeper pleasures. We shall see how that goes. But for now, I’ll remember Epicurus:

Why be better?

I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief

-Ecclesiastes 1:16-18

I once acted in a series of one act plays, and when I wasn’t running lines or rehearsing, I watched the other shows. One particular line has stood out from the experience: “Why be better?” I almost missed it, but hearing that line over and over, I finally realized how nihilistic it was. Yet, some days, I ask myself the same thing.

For the most part, it seems to be a modern question. Ennui, hysteria, and melancholy became common, even expected, medical diagnosis for the growing middle class in the 18th and 19th centuries as prosperity and public reform democratized leisure. Prior to that, some historians argue, people didn’t have the resources for ennui.

Couple this with growing cities, rising industry, increased skepticism for religion and morality–Darwin’s work being one cause–and one can see the anxiety and hopelessness that spurs such questions, especially by the start of the 20th Century.

19th Century Middle Class at its finest. [Renoir image from artinthepicture.com]
19th Century middle class at its finest. [Renoir image from artinthepicture.com]
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Schopenhauer, a man for all seasons (especially bad ones)

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), a German philosopher, and a regular in past posts on Backyard Philosophy, stands out for a few reasons–not counting his love of puddles and his obstinant rain-or-shine walking schedule.

[Image from Wikipedia]
[Image from Wikipedia]

He was one of the first major modern thinkers to actively, even aggressively, take an atheistic stance. He was also one of the first to incorporate Eastern Philosophy into his thought, particularly the Hindu Upanishads and Buddhist discourses. He influenced Wagner, Freud, Nietzsche, and Albert Swietzer, among others, and remains a favored philosopher of musicians.

Schopenhauer also coined the word “pessimism,” using the Latinate pessimismus in 1835. This is his main claim to fame, exemplified by the oft-quoted advice, which he may have never said: eat a frog each morning, so that the rest of the day won’t be as bad.

Indeed, Schopenhauer may be one of the most “pessimistic” thinkers in Eastern and Western thought, earning him the dour sobriquet “The Great Pessimist.” And this, not his love of poodles (unfortunately) has stuck.

But despite this pessimism, or maybe because of it, Schopenhauer’s writing has a certain power. While many of his thoughts are “old” and remain warped by egotism, misogyny, and indignation–particularly his spiteful essay On Women–other pieces offer a unique, applicable insight for life, even in the present day.

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Writing in the afternoon

Somewhere a few years ago I read in an anthology that you can’t write in the afternoon. It has to be in the morning or at night, said the author, but the afternoon was a dry landscape without inspiration. Nothing worthwhile grew there. Or if it did, it was weed-choked and gravelly, like a forgotten sidewalk.

I’ve always remembered that piece of advice. But here I am, writing in the afternoon.

What’s it like? Somewhere nearby birds chirp–robins, I think–and a drier rattles with its cargo downstairs. The day is quiet and cloudy, like a teenager not quite ready to face the sun, rolling up a gray ruffled blanket over his eyes as the sounds from the road–the sounds of people awake for the past five or six hours–filter in. Already, I’ve been to a graduation and eaten two meals. I’ve done some cleaning and exercised. I did some work and read. I still have more to do later on today: write a press release, clean more, cook dinner, do some thesis research.

And that’s the odd thing about writing in the afternoon–the part that makes it hard: you are mid-stride in your 24-hour step through life. Stopping to write, you feel adrift. You’re drowsy from a morning of tasks, and a stomach of food, but you know you can’t rest, realistically, after you write. The day must go on.

But despite these difficulties, it has a certain thrill.

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Five books that made me

As the American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote (or so the various quote websites have us believe),“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” So it is with me. books picture

A confirmed bibliophile, I may not be a surprising case, but I’ll never forget one of my co-workers at Lowes. An older man with rough hands, worn blue jeans, and work boots, he rasped contracting stories in a cigaret-stained voice about “idiots who didn’t know shit about construction.” 

But one day, during his break, when I was reading Don Quixote over a turkey sandwich, he sat down and started talking about books. Books he read in school, like Hemingway, Austen, Faulkner, and Dickens. Books his wife read, like Jody Piccoult and John Grisham. Books his father gave him, worn how-to manuals and beat-up hardcovers gathered from outdated encyclopedia sets.

“I miss reading,” he said, leaning back in his metal fold-out chair. “I miss the stories.”

Soon, I went back to the registers, thinking about it. Probably nothing would happen. But a few weeks later, he came in and pulled out a worn copy of the The Old Man and the Sea.

“My favorite,” he said. “I’ve never forgotten this book.”

Since then, I haven’t either.

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