“An Interesting Tension of the Unknown”

I’ve recently found myself in love with little human noises–the kind of omnipresent sound that necessarily accompanies people especially when there’re a lot about. Like, for example, sneezes. About a month ago, when Spring finally started setting in and the weather cleared up some and the wind started dusting up the place, I found out I have allergies this year. I’ve never had trouble with them before, but for whatever reason, a switch flipped sometime over the winter and now, I do. And mostly that means I have been sneezing more and more, which, because I tend to have big explosive sneezes, has been somewhat disruptive. But I find that I like it. Not just sneezing, which does kind of feel good in a way, but hearing other people sneeze. 

I couldn’t really articulate what it was I liked about it, though, until the other day, when I was sitting at work listening to a baseball game on the radio on the other side of the room which I could barely hear. I happened to catch a snippet from the announcer or whomever, who, talking about the relative wind during the day’s game as opposed to the prior day’s, said, “It’s not like yesterday when there were these…these…these… gusts of wind.”  And with that, I realized exactly what I love about sneezing: it has the exact same building and building and bursting quality of somebody trying to think of a word. 

Because I’d mentioned my recent obsession with human noise and sneezing specifically already, I told my friend Anna about this realization. She came back with, “I like your comparison! Both involve an interesting tension of the unknown for the observer/listener,” which is both more accurate and concise than any explanation I could’ve come up with, and this morning, I was struck by how apt that explanation is for why I’ve been so into the other human noises I’ve been thinking about.  

A few weeks ago, on the first really sunny day (as in t-shirts and no shoes and half-blindness all but guaranteed) this year, my roommate and I sat out on the porch in chairs that snap open and drank margaritas and ate McDonalds. The porch, by the way, is very yellow and surrounded by tall bright green bushes that have finally regained leaves, and the back of the house faces (and somewhat intrudes upon) a cul-de-sac, and it is, even on a regular day, very Spring-y and idyllic back there. But on that day, as if to punctuate the whole sense, all we could hear from the cul-de-sac was children screaming and laughing and making the kind of noises that when you’re old and grouchy you’re supposed to hate but I kind of dread ever being bothered by. 

And, you know, that’s the noise I’m talking about. Sometimes I can’t even be bothered to get up and eat when I know I need to, but these kids can summon the energy to run around just for the sake of running around, playing. So, that’s obviously nice to hear. But I like Anna’s “tension of the unknown” in this case even more, because I don’t have a goddamn clue what’s going on with these kids. They could be running around, screaming and playing and enjoying life on this day, because they’ve been trapped inside by ruthless totalitarian parents who are absolutely certain that these kids’ future success or failure will be determined by the number of 4s they get on their ridiculously lenient Elementary school report cards that still have comments from the teachers about what they (the kids) are like and where they excel to give the dictator-parents a sense of their personality which they don’t get at home, because they send them to bed at seven and don’t like talking at the dinner table, which the kids typically set and prepare for dinner. This might be the one day of the year they get to play. 

But I don’t know any of that nonsense–for me, they’re just making noise that reminds me of being louder and more energetic. Even assuming they have a relatively normal life, I don’t know anything about the kids. In the same way, I don’t know anything about all the masses of people in Seattle who I entertain myself listening to when I get to the Amtrak station an hour early and have to wander around without music because my iPod is broken. Chances are, the lives of strangers are in many ways tragic, and the conversations they have are banal and exhausting to them. But the noise they make is amusing and enjoyable to listen to even if that noise is shouts into cell phones. At least it is to me. 


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Lenses, or Recommended Reading

Although I’ve been planning on writing a list of books I intend to read in 2012 (in the order I intend to read them), it occurred to me this morning that that is never going to happen, and I will continue to read whatever book is at hand or on-deck at any particular moment like I always have.

However, it also occurred to me in the process of recommending a video to my brother and linking Ry to a speech that I referenced to him a couple nights ago that I might put my time to better use if I looked into an idea that has permeated the way I think about just about everything.

The idea, amusingly enough, is simply that I have encountered a handful of ideas in my life that have  changed the way I think about just about everything. To me, these ideas are the lenses that color my perception of the world, especially with regards to social interactions, which, at the moment, seems to be the central element of my–or any–life (despite the projects that coincided with the beginning of this blog,it didn’t occur to me for a long time that the “lens” metaphor could apply to photography; instead, they’ve always been essentially John-Lennon-esque circular sunglasses).

So, in the order, that I encountered them, here’s a a short (and inevitably incomplete) list of lenses (maybe unnecessarily I highly recommend reading/listening to/watching the sources–they’re not that long, I promise).

1. The Inner Ring by C.S. Lewis

I can’t remember exactly how I encountered this speech, but I know I did so when I was fifteen or sixteen and absolutely needed to. As with the advice of any moralist (for being which I have a lot more respect for Lewis than the incompatibility of our beliefs might suggest), being aware of and following or living by the suggestions of this speech are often miles a part. However, just the simple fact that I’ve never forgotten to keep an eye on the possibility of the malevolent form of Inner Rings has, I think, kept me from being a shittier person than I may well be.

2. This is Water* by David Foster Wallace

It is unlikely that I’ve ever opened my mouth around you (or written anything you’ve read) without you knowing that I am, for all intents and purposes, obsessed with Wallace, so I have to acknowledge a certain amount of bias here. Completely outside of that, however, I think that what he says here about Default Settings and being aware of the way we are creating meaning for ourselves is one of the most important ideas I’ve ever encountered. Perhaps it relates to my obsession with Intention as the highest qualifier of good writing (and art, generally), but I think not letting ourselves be guided by our first impulses without some sort of acknowledgement or awareness is one of the few essential virtues left.

3. Language as  Window Into Human Nature (from The Stuff of Thought) by Steven Pinker

The most recent and least morally/ideologically grounded of the lenses that influence my mental landscape (mixed metaphor!), I’m more drawn to this video, because when I first saw it, it blew my mind. The distinction between individual and mutual knowledge and the ways in which the differences effect how we talk to one another has been something I’ve not gone a day without finding relevant. The real unfortunate part about this video is that Knowing the distinction (and by extension why we use language to maintain comfortable illusions) has not made it any easier to speak directly; in fact, it’s made it more difficult, because now I feel like a hack when I use less than direct language. Oh well.

Now you know.

A Strange Experience, or “I’m Not Superstitious but Come On!”

About an hour and a half ago (’round ten thirty), I tried to think of anything I needed to do before going to sleep, having had a long slow day at work and having still not quite recovered from my trip to Ellensburg, and, when I couldn’t think of anything pressing, I went outside, smoked a cigarette on the porch, came back in, brushed my teeth and laid down. Before I got down to the business of actually trying to fall asleep, I putzed around online for a while and tried to find some music that might give me weird dreams if I listened to it on repeat all night (because I’ve noticed that when it happens once it’s more likely to happen again). 

An hour or so later, I was still awake and trying not to keep constantly checking for updates I knew would not be present. As the album I’d chosen to listen to (Philosophy of Velocity by Brazil) ended and I noticed some familiar signs of on-setting anxiety, I decided I’d go back outside and smoke with the vague hope of nipping whatever (mostly) unnecessary anxiety I was feeling in the bud. Unfortunately, in the interim between my laying down and getting up, rain had begun tapping with increasing speed on the sunroof* in my room (next to which a poster of the above-mentioned-album’s cover happens to reside, which has nothing to do with this story), so I decided that when I went outside I wouldn’t pace the deck like I normally would, I wouldn’t even turn on the energy efficient porch-light that turns the plants an unusually vibrant shade of green; instead, I’d just stand in the doorway, smoke my cigarette and come back inside.

And that’s what I was doing–not even standing entirely on the deck, my heels were resting on the metal base of the doorway, and only moving as much as is necessary to smoke (which is not a lot)–when a quick rustling sound started below me and a black cat shot out from underneath the deck. Stopping only momentarily to turn over its shoulder and look at me (as if I might not know it was my fault it could no longer hide from the rain), the cat ran to the back of the yard, jumped onto and over the fence (I assume it jumped off on the other side and didn’t fall but the thud I heard was slightly ambiguous). 

In hindsight (as much hindsight as can be gained by the forty minutes its been since I came back inside), this experience is not all that strange, but I was at the very least struck by the fact that I’ve been living here for five months and out back relatively regularly since I moved in and I’ve never seen any cats hanging around. I’ve seen my fair share of squirrels (and I’m pretty sure I’ve heard a raccoon or two walking around on the roof) but no cats.

When it comes down to it, I think the reason I felt compelled to write about this at all** is the possibility that there have always been mad cat-parties happening while I’m not looking and I just accidentally interrupted one which I wouldn’t have even known if I hadn’t been standing still instead of pacing. It reminds me of Toy Story. What else have I not noticed?



*It occurs to me that a sunroof in the Pacific Northwest is more of a “rain-detector” for three quarters of the year.

**Assuming the reason isn’t that I didn’t just want to relegate the story to another Facebook post and I also didn’t want to just try going back to sleep as if a) nothing had happened or b) I actually thought smoking a cigarette was going miraculously make me able  to drift easily to sleep. 

Non-Writing Things Which Nonetheless Help Me Write: Lawn Work.

Over at the Ploughshares Blog, guest blogger James Scott has been writing a series of blogs from which I’ve “borrowed” the title for this blog, because the idea which Scott is running with is one that has been on the back of my mind a lot for the last few months, as I’ve been outside of the academic environment (of both school and writer’s group) that unbeknownst to me was largely responsible for my relative productivity over the last year. Having stepped into a (near) void of poetic/literary thinking/discussion, I’ve been on a constant hunt for the last few months for ways to get into the writing head-space within which I lived unappreciative since the new year.

So, long-winded introduction aside, let’s talk about lawn work. When I finished with school in June I dragged myself (kicking and screaming) back to my lonely suburban hometown to live with my uncle who needed a roommate and was willing to give me a break on rent until I established myself. Within a couple weeks of unemployment and the feelings-of-total-uselessness that accompany it, I became an apprentice to the unending battles of regular home maintenance.  From pulling weeds to picking up squishy rotten apples to sanding down and re-staining the deck, I began spending significant portions of time with my knees in the dirt and my head in the clouds with words and ideas drifting by like migratory birds making an unseasonable return.

Three months later, the summer’s finally ended, I’ve had a job for a few weeks, and my outdoors work has been largely diminished. However, the leaves have begun falling with total abandon, and this afternoon, with a few hours to spare before work, I went out to deal with them a little bit. Within ten minutes, I had the bare-bones of a poem worked out, a new beginning for one that’s been brewing and the idea for this post fully formed. By the time the work was (as) done (as it can ever be), I’d developed some semblance of an idea why lawn work and writing seem to go so well together for me:

1. First off, both writing and the lawn work I’ve been doing are almost entirely aesthetic activities to me. Although there’re pragmatic/utilitarian benefits to both things, I don’t do them for those reasons. True, if you leave a deck unstained it can increase the chances of water-damage and rot and unpleasant fungal growth, but that’s not why you stain it. You stain it because it looks good. You don’t rid the grass of leaves, because they’re hurting anybody there, it just looks better. And despite the socio-political benefits we all optimistically attribute to writing and writers, I don’t expect my poetry to change lives or the world, but I’d feel remiss if it didn’t capture some sense of beauty.

2. Similarly, lawn work (and cleaning generally, actually, now that I think about it) and writing are some of the very very few parts of my life wherein I am prone to perfectionism. With writing, this makes sense to me intuitively: I take great pride in the (self-perceived) quality of my writing, which keeps my self-esteem out of the red, so inevitably I put a lot of effort into maintaining that quality. I don’t take any pride in my ability to clean/rake/paint, but I have an unprecedented tendency towards uncalled-for thoroughness, which may (now that I think of it again) have a circular relationship with regards to the lawn-work/writing connection.

3. On a side note: in conversation and in writing, I never know how to end gracefully.

Some Videos I Personally Can Not Stand to Watch but You Might Find Interesting, Vaguely

I’ve learned today that no matter how much it might seem like it, I will never talk because I enjoy the sound of my own voice. The sound of my own voice makes me literally queasy.

But anyway, I’ve been meaning to post these for a while. They’re pretty self-explanatory (because rambling explanations are as definitive a characteristic of myself as anything) and from a few months ago.




The Pros and Cons of Audiobooks

Since I went to the public library a couple weeks ago and found that the only section where anything interesting^1 hid was the Audiobook section wherein I found some David Sedaris and Lorrie Moore (and a copy of Dracula which I didn’t actually put on my computer for some reason), I’ve been meaning to write a blog about the advantages and disadvantages of the format.

Late last week I spent almost twelve hours over the course of three or four days listening to Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs^2 and when the last word was spoken by some pleasant sounding theater actress, I knew I would need to give the ideas I’d had throughout the book some time to simmer before I could actually state them in a cogent manner.

The actual effect of this “simmering” was me forgetting half of them. Overall, I guess that’s not so much a problem as a matter of life (at least for writers without pens and paper with them in bed when they’re falling asleep, which is when I had most of the aforementioned ideas). But regardless, I still have a few and they are:

1. When listening to a book and not holding a physical (or even digital^3) copy in your hand, you cannot underline or annotate or reread (you can rewind but that’s just a pain in the ass) or even stop and think about what you’re reading unless you’re obnoxious with the pause button and that doesn’t really recreate the seamless transition from reading to thinking to rereading to thinking to reading that is so easy with an actual book you don’t realize you’re doing it until the only time you have to reflect on what you’re reading is when the woman speaking directly into your ears stops to breathe or on less frequent occasions pauses for a few brief seconds to recreate what I imagine (and have no way to prove) is white space on the page.

2. When you walk down the street with a book in your hands (as I’ve recently been forced to do with Infinite Jest), the text looks green when you pass from sunlight into shade, and I’m not sure why that is. When you walk down the street listening to an Audiobook, you just look like you don’t enjoy the music you’re listening to and are thus stone-faced and impassive, rather than moving your head in a semi-regular way that most passerby would consider abnormal if it were not for the headphone cords hanging stupidly from your ears.

3. Similarly, when you drive down that same street reading a book, you get pulled over and potentially arrested, because that’s just fucking reckless.

4. On one of the days during which I was listening to A Gate at the Stairs, I didn’t do anything else. I’d sent out a few job applications by noon and felt justified in not doing anything but read for the rest of the day, which made me realize pretty quickly that you seem kind of lazy and pointless when listening to a book and not traveling. Despite the almost-intravenous injection of book-into-ear, I was just sitting on an incredibly comfortable chair fiddling with every small object that happened to be within reach (or that I happened to pick up on my way too or from the kitchen or bathroom) and staring blankly into space.

5. Your sense of time (both within the novel and without) is completely arbitrary. When you read a review of the book you’re listening to (because you’ve reached that point in the novel where you cannot help but find out if the squeezed-into-breathing-space thoughts you’ve managed are at all similar to the thoughts of anybody else^4) and the reviewer says a certain aspect of the novel does not come to the surface until page 200, you will have no idea what that means. Does that mean three quarters of the way through disk 6? What disk did you stop on? What chapter is that? Why does this book only have a chapter every two hours?

Overall, I think Audiobooks are not bad but could really benefit from being actual books.

^1. Try excluding this word from your vocabulary, I dare you. It quickly becomes a pain in the ass and a consistent source of self-remonstration.

^2. That’s right. MLA says italics for long works and I’m fucking sticking to it.

^3. I’m willing to acknowledge the existence and relative validity of eBooks even if I probably shouldn’t.

^4. I’m also willing to acknowledge the distinct possibility that I’m the only one with this particular compulsion. Also, Ry referred to this as “a need for dialogue,” which makes it sound a lot less insane. And I appreciate all the help not sound crazy I can get.