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It has now been five days since I came down with this illness and I am still not seeing light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. I finally made it to Urgent Care yesterday -- very difficult, given my caregiving and parenting demands -- and found the visit to be almost a total waste of time. I don't mean to denigrate a profession, but every time I get a PA (Physician's Assistant) instead of an actual doctor there, things go badly.

I am very well versed in speaking with doctors. My mother taught me well. And I have done a lot of talking about her in recent years. Most of the time, I know what medication is needed and how to say what will get me a prescription for it. But that skill seems wasted on PAs. Whether it's because they have to be literal-minded or just because they lack the range of knowledge that doctors possess, they don't seem to register my nuanced diagnostic commentary.

That would be annoying in its own right. But frequently the PAs I've dealt with have been maddeningly obtuse or even downright obstructionist. I specfically asked the PA last night for a strep culture, since the back of my throat is displaying the classic symptoms, but she refused! I ended up spending $40 for basically nothing.

Right now I am in the stage where I would jump for joy to feel even a little better. It's painful to eat. It's painful to talk. And the Robitussin I've been taking to deal with a potential worsening of my cough has me feeling very strange indeed. It has a depressive effect, yes, but also tends to distance me from my emotions, so that I have the sense of watching a bleak movie, only I'm in that movie.

It doesn't help that the space in which I'm currently holding my office hours has an inexplicable dyr-yet-musty smell that just won't go away, no matter how long the window is open. Nobody can place the odor. It makes me feel anxious, both because I don't tend to do well with that sort of "environmental" problem anyway and because I spend far too much time trying to figure out what it could be!

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Skylar is sick with the flu, that H1N1 kind that everyone was freaking out about a few years back. But she had the vaccine and, although she has a fever and is periodically irrational as a consequence, the virus isn't flooring her the way it otherwise would have.

It's anxiety-provoking, given that a week of being out with strep throat was started her downward spiral in the fall. Yet there is some comfort in knowing that she has to stay home, given that she is still contagious, since it means we don't have to figure out whether she is well enough to go to school and then potentially struggle to overcome her objections.

And I think the break might be good for her in other ways, assuming she can get back on track in her classes afterwards. She has developed a new cultural fixation, the series Sherlock that is all the rage these days. It was only over Winter Break that she first watched it, but has now seen every episode several times over and read a ton of fan fiction based on the show.

What's nice about this particular interest -- aside from the fact that it gives her something to talk about other than the Tolkien and Harry Potter universes -- is that she has been sharing it with both her parents. In the past, she has typically separated "Mom" content from "Dad" content. Not this time, though. I do think Sherlock is more of a "Mom" thing, given Kim's longstanding love for previous iterations of the Sherlock Holmes stories. That said, Skylar has watched and discussed the show with both of us.

Maybe it's because we all celebrated the New Year by watching the first episode of the first season together. I'd like to think so. Whatever the reason, though, I'm glad that we can all share in the show's many pleasures and that this sharing now seems to be extending to other content as well. It used to be that Game of Thrones was principally "Dad" content, for example, but now Skylar is encouraging Kim both to read the books and watch the HBO series. That seems like a very positive development.

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As I wrote the other day, I had been hoping that the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal semifinal at the Australian Open would be the highlight of the tournament. It wasn't, though, and rather emphatically. Given my admittedly hard-to-justify antipathy towards Nadal, then, the best outcome in the final would have been a victory for Federer's Swiss countryman Stanislas Wawrinka. And that's what we got, improbably, but under circumstances that made the upset hard to enjoy properly.

I woke up -- remember, this is in the middle of the night here -- very surprised to learn that Wawrinka had won the first set fairly easily and excited to watch him attempt to stave off what would surely be a frantic comeback from Nadal. But then, just a few minutes after I'd tuned in, Nadal appeared to injure his back on an otherwise ordinary-looking shot and the whole match plummeted down a sinkhole. After a long injury timeout back in the bowels of the arena, Nadal reemerged looking very unlike himself and played that way.

Some of the fans booed, no doubt remembering the gamesmanship of Victoria Azarenka in the previous year's semifinal. The commentators instead praised Nadal for refusing to quit. Frankly, I didn't know what to think. I'd never seen Nadal like that and never known him to have any back problems. But I had also never known him to be so demonstratively injured during a match.

Wawrinka was clearly confused himself. He seemed afraid to give 100% against a diminished opponent. Although he did go on to win the second set, he rather shockingly lost the third, despite the fact that Nadal was serving at half his normal pace. Or maybe because Nadal was serving at half his normal pace. It looked like Wawrinka was a hitter who had been swinging at 95mph fastballs suddenly forced to make contact with a knuckleball.

When the fourth set began, I was ready for Nadal to continue his comeback. And I was ready to hate him for playing up his injury in order to unnerve an opponent who was clearly outperforming him. But then Wawrinka seemed to get some of his mojo back. Nadal was playing better and seeming less injured, yes, but that actually seemed to help Wawrinka to regain his first-set form. Although the set was very close for a while, the Swiss underdog prevailed.

His celebration was incredibly muted, though, especially for someone winning his first major after so many tries. Nadal had managed to direct so much of the attention onto his own condition that the victor's exultation seemed out of place. It felt like a classic passive-aggressive move. Yet when the trophy presentation commenced, Nadal was the picture of graciousness. Was the crowd being manipulated? Was I? Or were we instead witnessing a true champion who tried his hardest to give Wawrinka a match despite being too injured to have any hope of winning? Needless to say, though these questions were interesting to ponder, I was kind of annoyed to have sacrificed two hours of my middle-of-the-night sleep to be so disappointed, particularly after the great men's finals in the two previous Australian Opens.

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For several years now, most Friday nights have been father-daughter time for me and Skylar. We don't always do much of anything, but that's part of the fun. She puts a lot of pressure on herself at school. And I feel that pressure myself, to an extent, in addition to the other burdens of the week, which have become more pressing since I started taking care of my mom the majority of the time. When I bring her home from school on Friday afternoon, then, we both breathe a sigh of relief.

At least, that's how we'd grown accustomed to doing things. But as last semester unraveled for Skylar in the wake of first illness, then her grandfather's death and finally a series of mishaps with the medication she was taking to stay even-keeled, our "traditional" Fridays became an endangered species. Kim understandably didn't want to go out much with her daughter doing so poorly and even when she did manage to get away, Skylar and I felt pressure trying to recreate our pressure-releasing Fridays of yore.

That's why yesterday was so important. I brought her home from school to relax, then took her out to Chef Alisah's, the Bosnian restaurant that has become our special place since we first tried it out in early 2011, and then for a hot fudge sundae at Sullivan's Creamery, the local place that managed to stay in business after Swensen's withdrew their franchise. The whole time we talked about her favorite subjects. Well, she talked, for the most part, while I listened. But it felt great to have such a normal night out.

As it turned out, things got more stressful once I returned home from getting my parents to bed. Skylar wanted me to look at dresses with her on one of her favorite clothing websites. We did that for an hour -- which was a real honor for me, I must say, being such a fashion-challenged guy -- but then she started to fade. By the time she was supposed to be getting ready for bed, she was acting really sick. Now that's not uncommon on a school night, but has pretty much never happened on a Friday night. So I knew the malady was not being exaggerated for effect.

Skylar went on to sleep very poorly, even by her slumber-phobic standards, which has me hoping that she can make up for the deficit by waking up later than usual this morning. I suspect that she will, though one never knows with that sort of thing. Regardless, though, I am grateful for having had one of our "classic" Fridays -- to invoke one of Skylar's elementary school formulations -- and hope that we can string together a bunch more before the next school year commences. Because I am well aware that once she starts driving, which could be as early as October, the likelihood of her indulging in that much family time will diminish sharply.

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As a longtime fan of Roger Federer, I was delighted to see him make the semifinals of the Australian Open. Knowing his opponent would be Rafael Nadal, however, prevented me from hoping too hard for a late-career championship. I have seen him lose to Rafa too many times, on too many surfaces, after convincing myself that he had a real chance "this time", to be fooled again into even the most guarded optimism.

Nevertheless, I set my alarm to wake up in the middle of this night to watch what I feared would feel like the inevitable. And, although the first set was very close, that feeling of the inevitable was what I ended up with after sacrificing my sleep. To be sure, Roger didn't play his best match. He was much sharper against Tsonga and, to a less obvious extent, Murray in this tournament. But even if he had been at his best, I'm not sure he could have prevailed.

Nadal is a great player, one of the all-time best. No one has ever been more dogged in his pursuit of point-to-point excellence. Even though his serve has never been that impressive, he still manages to win the vast majority of his service games. And he plays defense with unparalleled intensity. For all that, though, I've never been a big fan of his game. I can appreciate its quality, yet am always left a little cold by the way it manifests itself.

What makes me root against him, however, isn't just the way he plays, but the facial expressions he makes during his matches. I realize that's a superficial reason to be turned off by someone, but I can't help it. What I call his "pirate sneer" drives me absolutely batty. Some dislike Federer's air of superiority; some Djokovic's way of smiling to himself; some Murray's inward-directed petulance. For me, though, those quirks of personality all win out over Nadal's.

Although I root against Nadal pretty much all the time, it's when he's playing Federer that my animus is strongest. That has been true ever since that remarkable Wimbledon final that ended in near darkness, when Nadal demonstrated that even grass was no impediment to his dominance. I've long had a soft spot for athletes on the decline who somehow manage to prevail in spite of their diminishment. While it's true that Federer's decline has been very gradual -- it was almost imperceptible at first -- I think his followers must now concede that it had definitely begun by that Wimbledon final, at least in relation to his closest competitors. So that's when I became a big Federer fan.

More than half a decade later, as that decline proceeds at a greater pitch, I find myself pulling for Roger all the harder, but also getting depressed at how often he now disappoints. Watching him play so well over the past two weeks in Melbourne gave me a real boost. But somehow that made his semifinal loss against Nadal today even more difficult to take. It seems silly to wish for Nadal to be drummed out by someone else, so Roger can have one more chance at winning a major, but that is probably the only way that it's going to happen.

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As you may have gathered from seeing some of the photos I've been posting lately, I am sorting through files for material that I had set aside or forgotten about. Maybe I'm searching for the place where I lost the thread that will lead my out of the labyrinth. Maybe I'm just trying to impose a sense of order on my "archives", which have truly gotten out of hand in the past half decade of emotional and, to some extent, emotional paralysis. Either way, I hope to get inspiration to resume projects that have been lying dormant, such as the idea of keeping regular notes on the reading I do, whether for pleasure or work (which are really the same thing for me, since I do love what I work on).

I found this entry about a book that profoundly affected me during my second year in Tucson. It's difficult -- and rather painful -- to put myself back in the mental space of that summer, before I had the semester from hell in the fall, which set my professional life on a downward course, and the disillusionment that beset me the following spring. But I remember the novel well enough to know that I can still stand by my words. It has actually been a while since I approached the analysis of literature in this way, since I teach mostly new media these days, so it's good to be reminded that I undertook this task on my own back then, without any pedagogical or professional reason. Anyway, here it is:
Vladimir Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941)

(New York: Vintage, 1992)


Thursday, July 25, 2002

This was Nabokov’s first book in English. I began reading it last summer as preparation for teaching Pale Fire in my undergrad postmodernism class, but only this week mustered the energy to read the last fifty or so pages.

But I liked it a lot. It’s another one of those faux author books (not unlike Pale Fire, of course) in which the narrator relates his search for information about his recently deceased half-brother, the novelist Sebastian Knight, who was, like the narrator, born and raised in Russia, but emigrated to England and became a writer of beautiful prose in a second language. . . just like Nabokov.

The writing is really beautiful, particularly in the lyrical passages (including those tour de force bits where Nabokov has his narrator “quote” from Knight’s novels). Here’s a nice sentence from early in the novel, picked mostly at random:
“I could perhaps describe the way he walked, or laughed or sneezed, but all that would be no more than sundry bits of cinema-film cut away by scissors and having nothing in common with the essential drama (16).”
These details, in other words, are, if not for the birds, then at least for the cutting-room floor, as the trope goes.

When the narrator looks through the possessions Knight has left behind, he gets a glimpse into his half-brother’s attitude towards language:
Between some legal documents I found a slip of paper on which he had begun to write a story -- there was only one sentence, stopping short but it gave me the opportunity of observing the queer way Sebastian had -- in the process of writing -- of not striking the words which he had replaced by others, so that, for instance, the phrase I encountered ran thus: “As he a heavy A heavy sleeper, Roger Rogerson, old Rogerson bought old Rogers bought, so afraid Being a heavy sleeper, old Rogers was so afraid of missing to-morrows. He was a heavy sleeper. . . ” (37)
The “found” sentence reads almost like Beckett. I really like the way it gives us both insight into Knight’s character and a sense of distance between him and our narrator.

The end of the novel is, of course, much fresher in my mind. I know from reading Nabokov’s later comments that he took a dim view of psychoanalysis. Yet the passage in which the narrator describes the dream he had right before Knight’s death shows a lot of overlap with Freud, though with a pretty sharp turn away from the idea that every part of a dream is laden with massy portent:
I was sitting on a crate or something, and my mother was also in the room, and there were two more persons drinking tea at the table round which we were seated -- a man from my office and his wife, both of whom Sebastian had never known, and who had been placed there by the dream-manager -- just because anybody would do to fill the stage (185)
For Freud, of course, the “dream-manager” would be understood in relation to the unconscious. It’s not clear that we’re dealing with a person or a thing here, but it’s certainly possible to conjecture the latter. The dream, incidentally, goes on for several pages, giving a really good feel for the sudden shifts in narrative and character that occur in dream life.

The conclusion of the book turns on a “reading” of Knight’s last novel, The Doubtful Asphodel, itself about a dying man. The narrator’s dream, coming on the heels of a discussion of the novel, reprises the theme of a last word that promises to reveal everything. The feeling is very similar to the one you get reading the description of being on the verge of revelation in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, particularly the scene with the dying sailor. And, since Pynchon took at least one course with Nabokov at Cornell I believe, it wouldn’t be remiss to read that scene in Pynchon’s novel as a reference to Nabokov.

At any rate, the description of the end of the dream, which parallels the end of Knight’s last novel, has a truly wonderful sentence that captures the essence of the problem:
I know that the common pebble you find in your fist after having thrust your arm shoulder deep into water, where a jewel seemed to gleam on pale sand, is really the coveted gem, though it looks like a pebble as it dries in the sun of the everyday (188)
Water here seems to stand in for the artistic medium in two senses. It changes the color and appearance of the pebble. But the pebble wouldn’t look the same in a plastic cup of water, either. It’s what the water does to the light hitting the pebble, the distance it puts between us and what we desire, that makes the pebble really shine. The abstract implications of the metaphor aside, I just love the way it captures something we’ve all experienced as disappointment and then turns it back into delight.

Saturday, July 27, 2002

When he learns that his brother is near death, the narrator boards an overnight train for Paris. His description of the limbo between sleep and wakefulness is great. I especially liked this part:

The train moved on again. My spine ached, my bones were leaden. I tried to shut my eyes and to doze, but my eyelids were lined with floating designs -- and a tiny bundle of light, rather like an infusoria, swam across, starting again from the same corner. I seemed to recognize in it the shape of the station lamp which had passed by long ago (192)
The part about seeing those designs with eyes closed reminds me of being a little kid, shutting my eyes tightly and looking towards the light in order to see those patterns. The last bit does a great job of capturing the sensation of detecting the passage of lights in series out the train window, while trying to sleep.

The last paragraph of the novel provides some resolution, though I found it a little unsatisfying. But the conclusion definitely typifies Nabokov’s game-playing with the notion of authorship:
I am Sebastian Knight. I feel as if I were impersonating him on a light stage, with the people he knew coming and going… And then the masquerade draws to a close. The bald little prompter shuts his book, as the light fades gently. The end, the end. They all go back to their everyday life (and Clare goes back to her grave) -- but the hero remains, for, try as I may, I cannot get out of my part: Sebastian’s mask clings to my face, the likeness will not be washed off. I am Sebastian, or Sebastian is I, or perhaps we both are someone whom neither of us knows (203).
It might be a good idea to revisit this novel sometime soon, since I often mention it in conversation and also have a suspicion that it could provide insight into the way I used to view the construction of identity and, to some extent, continue to do so. And it would be nice to rekindle the sense of awe I had when first encountering the book, realizing that it was Nabokov's first novel in English.

I should also note, rereading these reading notes, that the way I read the book, with most of it finished during the summer of 2001 and the rest in the summer of 2002, suggests that, as in other areas of my life, I felt the need to bridge the vast chasm that September 11th, 2001 opened up in my psyche. I was the same person, a year later, but entirely different.

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I am a night person. Ever since I was in elementary school, when my mom would let me stay up later than usual while my father was away on his many business trips, I have realized that I feel and think better once the sun has gone down. If I manage to get up early with decent rest, early mornings can be good. But I can rarely meet both of those conditions. Afternoons, however, roughly from 3pm until after dinner time, have been my least productive time for as long as I can remember. Honestly, unless I'm able to have some alone time at night, I have a hard time not thinking the day was a waste.

That's why I am a big fan of late screenings in movie theaters. It's why I was delighted beyond measure, as a teenager, when Tower Records was briefly a twenty-four-hour enterprise. And it's why I was first drawn to sporting events that take place on some other part of the world's "normal" time, such as most Olympics and World Cups. Right now, it's the Australian Open that has my attention, because the matches there, at least until the last few days, run from the early evening Tucson time until somewhere in the middle of our night.

We are just now entering the phase of the tournament when I care most about watching, from the quarterfinals to the conclusion. But even during the first week, I found it comforting to wake up in the middle of the night -- whether because I was coughing, using the bathroom, or figuring out what Luthien was making such a racket about -- and know that I could turn on the television for a bit and see whether there was a match currently in progress deserving of my attention.

Is this healthy, given the extreme pressures of my schedule this semester? Almost certainly not, since I have to get up early most days whether I like it or not. Without the distraction, though, I would definitely be less happy, which is also not good for you. That's why I have been trying to strike a balance, tuning in for brief windows before heading back to sleep. But starting around 1am tonight -- tomorrow, to be precise -- when Novak Djokovic takes on Stanislas Wawrinka, I am going to find it much harder to be disciplined in my viewing. I won't be setting my alarm yet -- that will wait until the final or, potentially, a semifinal featuring Roger Federer, whom I adore -- but will have a hard time switching off the set if I wake up and discover that a contest is close.

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It's funny what makes a difference at stressful times. I haven't recorded much television, really, since we lived in California. Somehow we managed to resist getting a DVR for over a decade. And that meant that I ended up not watching much television except for those few shows I would watch belatedly on DVD.

Part of the reason was that Kim's dad had a DVR and was always eager to record things for us. But many of the shows he saved for us went unwatched because of logistical problems. I was rarely free until he was ready for bed and felt strange seeing things by myself, aside from the odd Cal game.

I had Comcast come in and August and redo our set-up in August, because we were paying full-package prices for barebones functionality. It wasn't until Winter Break, though, that I finally got around to taking much advantage of the On-Demand and My-DVR features. But I'm totally hooked already. And now Kim is getting excited about them as well. It's a real stress reliever to be able to watch programs when we're able to relax.

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I am becoming increasingly desperate to rediscover my desire to discover new music. I still listen, when I'm able, such as when I'm riding my bike, cleaning, or -- too infrequently -- at the gym. But I find myself falling into that long-dreaded rut in which I only want to hear what I already know.

Some of my malaise has to do with changes in the musix business. And a good deal of it can surely be attributed to my dearth of alone time in which reasonably awake. I worry, though, that these are excuses masking a hardening of my heart. I don't want to retreat into the comfort consumption of nostalgia just yet.

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I still have one day of teaching to go this week and I am already worn out, despite the fact that I only started Wednesday. It's not the teaching that's hard -- I really look forward to it -- but the rearranging of my schedule it necessitated. I'm sure I'll settle into a decent routine where I can pace myself. But right now, the prospect of attending to my parental duties tomorrow morning, then attending to my parents and then rushing down to campus to teach is daunting.

When I explained how my Friday was going to look to my therapist this morning, she decided to spend some time having me ponder what I would do with a real break. "Sleep!", I replied, ruefully recalling that my last few days off from caregiving in October were largely spent driving back and forth between Tucson and Los Angeles, barely sleeping at all. It was a fun trip, despite the "commuting", but I need to make sure that my next break is less draining.

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One byproduct of the past nine months of extreme family stress on multiple fronts is that I never managed to get my hair trimmed. I don't have a lot of it left. And what is there doesn't grow very fast. But nine months is a long time no matter what, which meant that I was starting to look the way I did back in grad school before I got rid of my locks and shaved my goatee for the academic job market back in 1999.

Since tomorrow is the first day of the new semester, I figured I'd better make an effort to be somewhat presentable. Although she was exhausted, Kim consented to give me a trim. She is very good at cutting hair, a task that maximizes her artistic talents, and has been doing a wonderful job with Skylar's of late, so I knew I'd be better off in her hands than some random Supercuts-style place. Plus, why pay for such a simple cut?

Kim asked me what I wanted, which was hard to articulate. Eventually, I settled on an all-around trim of my mostly split ends, with a little more taken off the sides than the back. And she quickly satisfied my request, leaving me with a -- I hesitate to call it a "do" -- look that is considerably less mad scientist-esque than before. Still, there's not a lot that can be done, ultimately, to make my hair look good. It's just a question of making it look less bad.

The highlight of the haircutting experience was the lively conversation that Skylar struck up with me and her mother about my hair. At first she demanded that Kim take a lot off. To her credit -- and the benefit of her need to get too bed ASAP, no doubt -- Kim defended my right to have my hair look the way I wanted. However that didn't stop her from joining Skylar in the ribald mockery to which discussions of dad's appearance almost inevitably lead.

Finally, Skylar confronted me. "What kind of haircut is that, Dad?" But I had a response ready. "I'm trying for East German intellectual circa 1977," I explained. Skylar scoffed at that absurd explanation, so I continued. "I read those fashion magazines you have lying around the house. They say that your hairdo should reflect a total vision of your life, a fantasy of your better, brighter selfhood. And my fantasy is set in East Germany in the Seventies."

At first, she wanted to dismiss this notion. When she asked me to say what her hair fantasy was, however, I was able to pin it down precisely. "An English girl emulating Brigitte Bardot, circa 1964." Then Skylar asked what her mom's hair fantasy was. I sidestepped the question with "neo-punk," before Kim leapt into the breach. "I want to look like an aging Italian movie actress, from the late 1960s.

Further debate about the merits of my idea followed. I decided to spin out my hair fantasy further, adding a biography for the character I'd envisioned. "Not a Party member, but too weak-willed to speak out against the government. A lackluster dissident."

Then it was over. Looking down at the locks around me on the floor, Kim urged me to dispense with them as quickly as possible. Skylar was still rolling her eyes at my ridiculous conceit. I couldn't resist giving it one more twist. "That's 1975 on the floor; now I'm leaner and less counter-cultural: 1977."

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I've been trying to write here regularly to see whether it helps me get back on track in other ways. I can't say that I've been neglectful, exactly, but my sheer lack of time in which to attend to matters of importance lately has me feeling neglectful. And I don't like that feeling. If I can remember to post simple updates here, I reason, I will feel like I'm getting some measure of control over other aspects of my life.

The problem, though, is that I'm just so damned tired. I have a tendency -- a strong one -- to defer stress for later processing and a concomitant conviction that I can do the same with my need for sleep. The latter isn't true, of course. Probably the former isn't either. But the stories I tell about myself, which therapy is attuning me to perceive more directly, are often how I will set aside something I don't believe I have the resources to deal with now for a later date.

What I'm realizing now, though, as my life settles back into a somewhat normal routine after the holidays -- or at least promises to do so -- is that I've reached the point in those stories about myself when I have to "catch up" on all that sleep and stress-processing that I've deferred. Again, that's probably not possible in a literal sense. But I have exhausted the narrative possibilities for deferring exhaustion and now must pay the proverbial piper.

I'm hoping that I can make headway on a fitness regimen -- I want to begin jogging again -- that will make me more viscerally tired at night so that I don't find myself up past a reasonable bedtime staying awake out of habit. That approach has worked for me in the past. Finding time in which to do this won't be easy, I know, yet it will be worth the schedule juggling required.

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Exposure to chimney smoke last night -- the worst source of particulate matter for my sort of respiratory issues -- had me up off and on coughing for most of the night. As unpleasant as that experience is, though, and as exhausted as it leaves me the next day, it did come with a compensation last night.

I had recorded the Cal basketball game for future viewing, but worried, as I always do in such cases, that I would find out the result inadvertently before I actually had time to sit down and watch it. Since I needed to spent time with my chest in a vertical position last night to permit my lungs to regain their composure, I was able to watch the game. It was an important one, since the Bears were on the road at a fine Oregon team and, what is more, one that was ranked.

I didn't hold out much hope beforehand, given that Cal would be missing two key players to injuries and wasn't that deep to begin with. Somehow, though, thanks to the extremely savvy play of senior Justin Cobbs, the fine interior play that has characterized their whole season, and a very surprising 32 points by freshman Jordan Matthews, they prevailed in a fast-paced contest. Matthews' performance was especially exciting to me because his father Phil was the coach at USF when Kim used to do workshops with disadvantaged youth there. She and I attended a game at the Dons tiny home court up on the hill in San Francisco, which is a great place to see a game. And she had good stories to tell about Phil's intimidating gruffness.

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It's not easy to win any recognition for an independent publication these days, particularly one that is internet-only. Souciant has slowly managed to build up a steady readership, despite a lack of corporate or organizational ties, primarily through self-promotion in social media. Because many of our regular contributors' professional and personal connections work in the media themselves, this readership sometimes expands temporarily to include those attracted to the posting of a link to our content.

I was pleased this week to find out that one of my pieces for Souciant's Randomizer feature, which offers commentary on politically charged photographs from Europe, was singled out for attention by someone over at the Huffington Post. Since this is also a piece that I ended up assigning to my new media class in the fall -- I'm finally over the false modesty that led me to keep my writing completely separate from my pedagogy -- I was momentarily chagrined that I hadn't chosen to publish it under my own byline.

But the more I thought about it, the more I reconciled myself to the fact that what matters most is that Souciant's name be in productive circulation. After all, it is my thing in a way that nothing since Bad Subjects had been. And my name does appear at the end of the piece, so anyone who wants to know who wrote it can see. Better, in the end, that readers identify me with Souciant.

Here's a taste of the piece:
If the commodity form is founded on equivalence, teaching us that every item can be converted into a value suited to exchange, experience is its bête noire, as any parent who has tried to replace a small child’s lost huggy will tell you. Simply put, the one thing that cannot be reproduced, whether in an original work of art or a throwaway consumer good, is what happens after it comes into the world.

The same holds for humans, though to a far greater extent. Whatever our genetic programming, we are indubitably the product of the environment in which we were born and raised. Nutrition, sanitation, education and opportunities for advancement — or the lack of same — all shape our personal development. That’s why the mix of bravery, recklessness and self-regard that made Edward Snowden possible is so rare. What does it mean, then, to propose that we are all Edward Snowden?
Although I would have made this argument even without the visual stimulus of my Co-Editor-in-Chief Joel Schalit's photograph, actually having Snowden's face superimposed on top of Walter Benjamin's makes it much more powerful.

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I'm not a very superstitious person. Aside from insisting that the Cal basketball at the free-throw line is bound to miss, I don't do much to placate the gods. But sometimes I find myself brought up short by an experience that forces me to rethink my agnostic worldview. Yesterday offered an especially powerful example.

I was sitting with a colleague, discussing the difficulty of the past few months. Although my primary focus was my daughter's struggles to deal with the difficulty of being fifteen, I was also reflecting on the ways in which those struggles were brought to a head by the death of Kim's dad. I was about to talk about how I was trying to deal with my own feelings for him, writing about him here over the past week, when my phone rang.

When I looked down to see who was calling and whether I could send that person to voicemail -- I hate interrupting in-person conversations to talk on the phone -- I was surprised to see that my usual screen for incoming calls was absent. Indeed, there was no indication whatsoever that a call was coming in at all. Yet, the phone was definitely ringing.

Thinking that my phone might have locked up, which has been happening more frequently since the latest Android update, I tried everything I could to get control of the phone back so that I could hang up. But nothing worked. Strangely, though, instead of the call going to voicemail, the phone seemed to answer itself, as if it were possessed of a mind of its own.

And then I heard Carl's voice, clear as a bell, informing me of the time and channel for a game we were supposed to watch together. Even more oddly, though this call had to be a recording from before last April, when he first went into the hospital, the time and channel -- ESPN at 6pm -- matched up with the college football BCS National Championship game later that day, one he and I watched together every year during our years in Tucson except for 2007, when he was in the ICU with MRSA pneumonia.

I had been thinking all morning that I would be sad not watching the game with him and wondering whether it would be excessive to write about that feeling right after having written about the 49ers-Packers game the previous day. I couldn't help but think that he was calling, not only to say that he would be watching with me in spirit, but that I needed to acknowledge that our relationship had changed into something that can't be explained by science alone.

It was deeply unnerving, but also miraculous. Later, when I tried to tell Kim about it, she told me that it was more than she could handle. I understand that response. It was very hard for me to maintain my composure in front of my colleague during the experience. But I am very glad it happened.

I recognize, mind you, that from a Mythbusters-type perspective, this uncanny moment can be explained as a by-product of all the ways in which our lives are recorded these days without our ever having to undertake the task in a conscious manner. My phone had clearly been set up, at least for a while, to direct voicemail, which normally expires after a short time, to some sort of archive, though it no longer does so. Carl's call from the beyond was a semi-random glitch, just like when I pull my phone out of my pocket and find it open to an app I haven't selected, even though its touchscreen was supposedly locked.

And yet, despite the plausibility of this explanation, how can I not feel that some higher power, even if it was generated in my own mind, was at work in this experience. It left me feeling shaken, but not in the sense that something bad does. I liken it to what being picked up by a giant might like (or what it's like for our cats to be picked up by us!).

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Back in August, when my father-in-law Carl was getting ready to be discharged from his rehab facility, he talked over and over about his goal of making it back home to his easy chair and large-screen television in time for the start of the NFL season.

And that's exactly what he managed to do. My brother-in-law Kim -- no, that is not a misprint -- came down from the Bay Area to help with the transition and Carl was sitting happily in his chair to watch Peyton Manning's remarkable Thursday night performance for the Broncos against the Ravens.

When I brought Skylar over to talk with him about her first month of high school -- it was crucial for her to have "normal" time with him -- the following night, he was still in good spirits and talked about the game with me. By Sunday, though, Kim had returned to California and Carl had experienced a series of mishaps which, along with my mother-in-law's near-constant haranguing of him for both doing too much and doing too little, left him too exhausted to watch the first Sunday of the NFL season in his chair.

Because I knew how important it was for him to watch his 49ers at home, I went over in the afternoon, dragged a chair into his bedroom, and watched their game against the Packers while he rested in bed. It was disturbing to see how much his body and spirit had flagged in just a few days time.

I was pretty certain that he wouldn't be at home for very long, particularly the way his wife was behaving, so the time I spent with him felt very melancholy. Still, he did get to see the 49ers win more time in his home, to listen to the broadcast crew talk about how this would be the last season for Candlestick Park, and to reminisce about the wonderful playoff game -- for San Francisco fans, anyway -- between the same teams back in January. I felt a need to document the experience:

Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers on September 8th, 2013 in Carl Gruenwald"s bedroom

That's the kangaroo watch and change holder on the right that Kim -- not her brother -- was so keen to have as a memento of her dad after he passed away in October. He had owned it as long as she could remember, so it reminds her of him like nothing else. It makes me sad to see it sitting there on his dresser now, but I'm also glad that it's part of the picture.

Today has been especially hard, emotionally, because this is the 49ers first playoff game and they are once again playing Green Bay. I've been watching the game in our house, on the flat-screen television I got at a steep discount in November because I realized, finally, that I wouldn't be able to go over and watch with Carl on his much-larger unit, not because it's gone -- it still sits in the middle of the living room -- but because it would feel wrong to be there watching without him.

But I am watching it wearing the wireless headphones he used to aid his hearing of the game -- and also stop his wife from complaining about the noise of his football games -- and am otherwise doing my best to conjure his memory to accompany me. It's not hard. I watched so many games with him over the thirteen years we lived next door to him in Tucson that I can hear his voice in my head complaining about the things he always complained about and telling the "war" stories of his youth that he would invariably trot out during breaks in the action:

The San Francisco 49ers playing at the Green Bay Packers at frigid Lambeau field in the playofs on January 5th 2014

It's a tense game so far, the sort he always enjoyed watching most. Some fans just want their favorite team to win. But Carl liked good football more than a good result. And he also enjoyed watching Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whom he and I had followed during his time as a Cal Bear, one of the few players about whom he almost never had anything negative to say. Right now the score is tied at 20 late in the fourth quarter and I can feel his presence stronger than ever.

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I have always looked forward to Christmas and New Year's, no matter how stressful the holiday season can turn out in practice. But this anticipation has been powerfully enhanced in the past decade, because this is also the time when the former students I most like to see are likely to be in Tucson.

Even before Facebook came on the scene, I would stay in touch with them over e-mail or, in a few cases, Live Journal. A few of them would let me know they were coming each year and we would arrange to meet for coffee or drinks. And since I started actively participating on Facebook, the number of these former students I am in fairly regular contact with has increased significantly.

Quite a few of them have moved back to Arizona. Some are teaching middle school or high school now. Curiously, though, the ones I meet in person are usually the ones who live far away. Maybe it's the fact that the possibility of meeting any time makes it less of a priority to make arrangements. Or maybe it's just that seeing someone every other year or so and, what is more, someone who lives in a different place, makes such encounters more rewarding.

At any rate, I greatly look forward to these meetings, both because I am genuinely interested in how my former students are doing -- they matter to me as people -- and because I don't get much opportunity to spend time in stimulating conversations these days. The students I meet up with may not be the best I've ever taught when measured "objectively" in terms of GPA etc., but they are usually the ones that have the most interesting things to say.

Take today, for example. For a variety of reasons, I had only been able to meet up with elizabeg since the winter break began and for a shorter time than usual. But the fact that time was running out for several opportunities made me be more proactive in carving out time for the former students still in town. This afternoon I met with someone who in my class back in 2002, a former rock musician who is now in the first year of an English Ph.D. program, planning to be with a medievalist. And tonight I saw Marina, a woman who came to the United States from Russia with her parents as a teenager and, after entering and finishing college several years early, embarked on both graduate study and a quest to get to know her Georgian heritage -- meaning the sort from the Caucasus -- which has led her to since in a Georgian folk choir.

Both of these former students are wonderful people whose success brings me great joy. But the latter also has great stories to tell about a place that few Americans know anything about. Hearing her talk about everything from hiking to handling sexual harassment in the former Soviet Republic was riveting. And it was great to see how much more comfortable in her own skin she has become over the past five years. I left the pub where we met up with my spirits boosted greatly.

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Since Kim's dad passed away, she has been sorting through very complicated feelings. On the one hand, her childhood was not a happy one; on the other, many of her happy memories from childhood concern the times when he favored her with special attention, like her Fourth-of-July birthday trips to Santa Cruz or the times when he took her to Candlestick to see the Giants. And then there's the fact that he managed to reform, though he almost certainly wouldn't have described the transformation in those terms. But when he stopped drinking alcohol and retired from the ironworking job which, although he was proud of it, left him in pain at the end of every workday, he rid himself of the two main reasons why he would turn into a fearsome parental figure.

Kim and I have often remarked that her dad was the perfect grandfather to Skylar, the only person whom, as she tearily confessed after his passing, she doesn't have single negative memory of. But I was thinking this evening that the same could also be said of my relation to him. He was as good a father-in-law as anyone could every hope to have, affectionate and supportive in every way. I tried to give a sense of how important he was to me in the piece I wrote for Souciant in the week after his death. But what I didn't fully capture then was the extent to which he provided -- and I do think it was deliberate, at least to a degree -- a refuge for me.

He was fully aware that Kim, like her mother, can be a challenging person to live with, if for no other reason than the force of her personality. Simply put, her presence has a way of bending the space around her until she is at the center of things. That's an impressive and in many ways admirable quality, but one that can make the other people in that space feel overwhelmed. While I am by no means a timid person and can similarly dominate a room -- as my sister will readily attest -- I have always found Kim's particular brand of intensity hard to handle, in part because it is grounded in a passionate response to the world that my parents seemed almost entirely to lack.

The challenges that living all these years in close proximity to Kim have posed for me is a subject for another day, as well as one that I will surely be discussing in therapy. But I mention them because her dad was so good at creating an atmosphere that made them melt away for a while. When he would call me to tell me when the next game we were watching would be broadcast; when he would cheerily say, "That better be Charlie, or I'm calling the police", as I opened their front door; when he directed me to the fresh bag of crunchy Cheetos he had made sure to purchase beforehand; and, most of all, when we would talk during the game itself, I felt more at ease than at any other time in my dealings with family.

That's why today was so hard for me. I spent much of it feeling rotten in a way that I couldn't pin down. After I fell asleep in the late afternoon with a splitting headache and a sense of not feeling motivated to do anything, I tossed and turned, practically willing myself not to get up. But then, at 6-something, my internal alarm clock went off and I remembered: not only was it the start of the Pac-12 basketball season, usually one of my favorite times of the year, but Cal was playing at Stanford in the roundball version of the Big Game. Suddenly, my malaise made perfect sense.

Earlier in the afternoon, my father had expressed surprise that I wouldn't be coming over to watch basketball with him, as I often do now. In retrospect, I can see that he had justifiably assumed that the Cal-Stanford game was my highest priority. But I almost forgot about it entirely. And then, when I did remember that it was on, I knew that I could only watch it by myself, because the start of the Pac-12 basketball season had been a special thing for me and Kim's dad ever since we first moved here together in the fall of 2000 and the Cal-Stanford game, whenever it fell in the conference schedule, was an even bigger deal. I had watched at least one of their match-ups with Kim's dad every year since we came to Tucson. To watch with someone else, even my own father, in this, the first season since he passed away, just felt wrong.

The longer I watched, sitting in our front room by myself, wearing his headphones, the better I felt. It helped, of course, that Cal wasn't getting blown out as had so often happened in their games on the Farm. But the sense of well-being that came over me went deeper than that. I'm not a very spiritual or metaphysical person. Yet I definitely felt that he was in the room with me watching. I could even hear his voice in my head making the sort of comments he invariably made, about how the Bears are bizarrely injury prone or the way they struggle to achieve any offensive flow. I was sad, certainly, but happy to be sad, if that makes sense, because it meant that I was mourning him properly.

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