Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What if a human battery takes a nap?

Remember that scene from The Matrix when they show the human batteries in the real world outside of the simulation? I hope you do. If you don't, you're probably starting college right now or are even a little younger--young enough to have perhaps been put off by the bad sequels so that you didn't want to see the first film.

The reason I'm wondering about this is because more and more often that image of human batteries imposes itself on the images I see in advertisements, in which an oddly chirpy voice says something about "new solutions" for increasing my "productivity."

The one that scares me the most is the one for an "energy drink" (ha! see that, human battery--energy!) that is meant to do something to disrupt the natural processes in your body after a meal--to produce an effect that counters the obvious need to slow down your activities as your blood circulation concentrates on digestion and nutrition, your necessary life processes, instead faking wakefulness to your synapses so that you can work, work, work. The chirpy voice tells you that you're getting rid of a bad and disruptive "feeling" rather than that your messing with cycles that you need in order to live. And then I see the drink at the campus store, right by the registers.

In the health center that my students try to avoid unless their cold symptoms begin to appear almost fatal, there are posters touting the importance of healthy sleep of at least 8 hours per night, praising power naps. But it's the elixir against the bad "feeling" that is much more approachable, its chirpy call, much louder.

Then there are those advertisements for new office-work software and the newest phones. A couple on horseback on a dreamy beach check their work email, a woman on a ski-lift follows the stock exchange. All smile, as being at work on your day off buys them a higher level in productivity heaven, a chirpy voice says something about time-saving. This morning I saw a new one: two children eating muffins, chocolate smeared around their mouths; superimposed on their faces, a graph their parent is inserting into his or her presentation. This is happiness, right? The children enjoying dessert with a parent hidden behind a laptop, since kids never do anything groundbreaking, why not just feed them, put them in a place where you can see them, and enjoy a productive day off with your software and data? Quality time and good work, right, human battery?

* * *

A student emails me asking where my office is, right before our scheduled meeting. She's right opposite the secretary's office, where there's always three people she could ask and they would be able to give her an answer. Or she could use her indeed very "smart" phone to find the office number in her email inbox or on the course website.

I get a lot of similar queries at random times of day and night. Queries about information that is usually equally accessible to me and the students. I hear that librarians sometimes get questions via text messages or chat about call numbers and full titles of books--which the student might just as well type into the library catalog instead of asking about them. So much energy wasted by imagining non-existent pitfalls, so much thinking perversely saved by instant access demanded of people you imagine as "keepers of information." And all it takes is a moment to stop, breathe--sometimes take that dreaded nap or relax into your after-meal energy slump--and ask these really very easy questions of yourself.

[End rant.]

Monday, November 15, 2010


A hundred and two degrees in the New York smog. 'Halleluiah' by Leonard Cohen playing on her dime-store record player, that song Howard liked to call 'a hymn deconstructing a hymn'. Long ago Kiki had submitted to this musical part of the memory. But it was surely not true -- 'Halleluiah' had been another time, years later. But it was hard to resist the poetry of the possibility, and so she had allowed 'Halleluiah' to fall into family myth. [...] When, on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Jerome had played his parents an ethereal, far more beautiful version of 'Halleluiah' by a kid called Buckley, Kiki thought yes, that's right, our memories are getting more beautiful and less real every day.

Reading this in bed last night, I thought first about the time a friend of mine played me Jeff Buckley, the first time I heard him and, at first, didn't like him. Then, I thought what a pity it was that this comparison can't make the younger musician feel proud, since Buckley died almost ten years before On Beauty came out. So it can only make Leonard Cohen somewhat annoyed. But he's probably too zen for that.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Looking for Things to Read that Are Not the Things I Have to Read

Yes, I have lots of reading in the months ahead, and lots of writing related to that reading. (I belong to the "Dorothy Parker school" of writing; well, to some extent -- I hate the writing part, but I'm also increasingly ambivalent about "having written." As you can imagine, I find it all a nightmare and I complain throughout the process, finding new kinds of pain every step of the way. It's an important part of my life and its, hm, meaning.)

Because I have a lot of reading to fear, I'm trying to build an imaginary buffer of non-required reading. I don't know how much of it I will actually read, but I find comfort in knowing about books that I could read without a pencil in hand. For me, this means mostly new books, from the last ten years or so. And, usually, books by women.

Now, the latter is not a requirement but rather a flexible rule that has emerged in the course of my reading life. It's not an ideological stance (I don't think), though it has probably partly grown out of my weariness with everybody reading mostly men most of the time. When you check out people's responses to yet another bookish facebook meme, you'll find that, statistically, that tends to be the case. And I do manage to worry some people with my reading preferences -- there are friends and acquaintances who imagine I'm pretending like it's the 1970s and sticking to a "niche." But, hey, if gender is so irrelevant and we're so post-feminist, why should my reading belong to a niche rather than be the result of perfectly random choices -- the very same ones that result in all male book lists, only with slightly different results.

... and I see I've drifted away from what I actually wanted to say.

During a google search for I can't recall what, I stumbled across this piece, by Rachel Cusk. I then looked up Cusk on The Guardian and now I want to find out more about her writing. Anyone?

And in the real world, I'm supposed to be revising an essay and beginning to read some of the many things in my area. Instead, I'm staring at the yet unread copy of Zadie Smith's On Beauty on the table in front of me(I must be the last person who hasn't read it).

Monday, November 8, 2010

Things Are Getting "Serious"

I often think that I'd like to post something here but then end up worrying about giving away who and where I am. While the dangers are not as great as in spy movies, it would still feel like theft--of my private, half-serious notes and conversations. The crumbling wall between the fictional selves people have been creating on the internet and their public selves, signed by the names in their documents, selves who have bosses and "professional goals," cannot mean anything good.

Sure, I don't like idiots spewing hatred on forums and in comments, but I prefer that a moderator quietly cut them out rather than tracking them down. (Though, yes, I do think they should feel responsible for what they are saying, I just don't think such feelings an be simply induced.)

So the "seriousness" I mentioned has to do with my "professional goals." The quotation marks matter. I think we all deserve spaces where we can take ourselves less seriously and the home isn't quite that space anymore, what with professional emails and chats popping up at 2 AM on Saturdays. There is no more rest, there is just procrastination. If I were to pick a word as my nemesis, "procrastination" would be it. The devourer of my private, non-serious thoughts, the ugly imp that censors my time, making every moment that is not spent working seem over-indulgent.

This year things are getting "serious" in my work life--not entirely, not earth-shatteringly, but enough for me to get worried about the boundaries between the private (and, to some extent, imaginary and not so serious) and the rest (too serious, too real). And that sucks. I like what I do, but I also have many ironic (and sometimes vitriolic) things to say about it. And yet I know that my sense of humor would most likely be taken the wrong way if someone connected the dots.

Hopeless. But, hey, at least I finally posted something ;-)