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Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?

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Right before we moved into our new house here in Tucson, at the end of a difficult few months of moving and readjusting, we took a glorious excursion to Willcox to pick pumpkins. There was a cat there, which Skylar even now calls The Cat From Willcox, that had a great liking for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, much to Skylar and Kim's amusement

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Trying to remember fragments of my dream. We were in San Francisco, but not exactly. It was like San Francisco merged with some steep-hilled European city. Skylar was pushing Smokey in a baby carriage. No, maybe she was on her bike. I remember pink. At one point, she started down an especially steep hill and Kim was concerned. I was running to keep up, telling her to use her breaks the whole way down.

Later, we had gotten down to a flat area near the water and had crossed a large, curvy road, more European than Market St. or the Embarcadero and had sat down on a large grassy area, almost a median. My parents were there too, all of a sudden. I was trying to get Kim to put the harness on Smokey so she'd be safe. Kim was giving me the, "You're too into rules and regulations," argument or somerthink akin to it. It got heated. She was appealing to my parents to support her and they sort of went along with the force of her will. Even Skylar was agreeing with Kim. I started getting really upset.

Eventually, I gave in. And then Smokey ran out into the big street after seeing some cat-attracting movement. I ran out after her. She was in a small concrete median with a big, black rabbit. I scooped her up. When I brought her back to the family, though, Kim was still giving me grief about the harness. I don't recall exactly, but I think Smokey got away a few more times before Kim finally helped me to put on the harness.

Then the dream shifted. There was like a giant movie preview in the sky. It started out with one of those, "From the director of," spiels. The movie was called Raffi. I don't remember much, but the images started with a man and a woman flying in that Chinese Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon way against a pretty obviously artificial cityscape of vaguely Middle Eastern-Mediterranean design. I'm not sure what happened in the rest of the preview, but I recall a lot of globe-trotting. It was definitely in that magic realism vein, a la the new Michel Gondry film with Gabriel Garcia Bernal, The Science of Sleep. I do recall, though, that it was set in the Middle East and therefore was engaging, as I was thinking while watching it in my dream, with the Iraq War etc. in interesting ways.

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It had been quite a while since I wrote anything to be published under my byline, both for the reasons enumerated in my last entry and because many of the "hot-button" topics circulating right now are not ones I feel comfortable making public statements about. But I did finally manage to get a piece done for Souciant and, what is more, one that is pertinent to a subject that I have typically avoided like the plague, thanks to a number of very unpleasant experiences over the years.

I'm not sure whether "People in Glass Houses" ends up doing what I'd hoped, but am pleased that readers have had a number of different takes on it, since I was striving for as much open-endedness as possible. Since I have been torn between the compulsion to write about my mom and the difficulty of tackling such a huge subject right now, I was also glad to have a way to do so indirectly. If nothing else, the finished product does have a certain symmetry, since it manages to deal obliquely with my reflections both on being her son and on Israel.

I want to share a portion of the piece here in order to frame something I just read with interest. This passage comes towards the beginning:
It wasn’t until I was five that I learned how wrong I had been about the idiom. My mother was listening to coverage of the Yom Kippur War on the radio one afternoon — she didn’t watch much television news — when she suddenly blurted out, “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

Since I could barely comprehend what was happening in literal terms — 1973 was a difficult year for five-year-olds, with confusing stories about the Vietnam War and peace process, the Pattie Hearst kidnapping, the OPEC oil embargo etc. — this statement turned my world upside down. Although I immediately realized that the participants in the conflict couldn’t all live in glass houses, I had no idea whom my mother meant to admonish with what I now understood to be an idiom with potentially broad application.

I distinctly remember how disorienting it felt having to revise my conception of the world on the fly. Because I was the sort of child who tended to construct entire worlds from a single discovery, I had a lot invested, by this time, in my literal interpretation of “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” Indeed, it had evolved into an antipathy towards any building with too many windows. No matter how compelling such a structure might be, that didn’t justify putting its occupants at risk.

This prospect of total transparency was both thrilling and scary to me. Although I was not a stone thrower by disposition — compared to most boys, I was easy for my parents to handle — I still liked the idea of being able to take aim at the world from what military strategists deem a secure position. And the alternative, frankly, was alarming. What if someone could see the silly games my friend Mark and I played in the private reaches of our old farmstead, inside the crumbling rooms of the old red barn or out in the strange walled “garden” only accessible through its back door?

Although it seems strange to me now that I was troubled by such concerns, they were fully in keeping with the times. I was in pre-school from 1971 through 1973, when the anti-establishment paranoia of the late 1960s was matched step for step by the reactionary paranoia that fueled the backlash against counter-cultural excess. When you think back on that era, it’s a wonder that anyone was surprised by Watergate. Everybody had something to hide and everyone else was desperate to reveal it.
Forgive me for quoting at such length, but it's necessary in this case.

Anyway, I was taking a break from helping Skylar with her Spanish -- or, to be more precise, from trying to revive my Spanish enough so that I can help her -- when I picked up a recent issue of Monocle magazine, which has long both disturbed and fascinated me, for reasons I explained in a Souciant piece from a couple years ago. In one of the publication's reports, titled "Model Factories", I came across this intriguing passage:
It wouldn't do to have any secrets at Snow Peak, the Japanese outdoor brand. To describe the company's rural HQ and factory as transparent would be an understatement. Apart from the bathrooms, every room in the award-winning building is glazed for maximum visibility: the open-plan office, the meeting rooms, the shop, the factory floor and even the president's office. The conference "room" doesn't have any walls at all and has a clear view of what everyone in the company is up to. Everywhere there are views of the mountains that surround this unique set-up, which was designed by Taisei Construction. "We wanted a headquarters that really connected to nature, that related to what we do as a company," says president Tohru Yamai, whose father, a mountaineer, started the business back in 1958.

When Yamai moved the Niigata-based company from urban quarters in nearby Sanjo city to 165,000 sq m of open space in the hills two years ago, it sparked a revolution in the way the company was organised: no more individual offices, no more closed doors and no more colonising of desk space. Yamai is an admirably laid-back leader, whose one rule is that nobody sits in the same place two days running. Accountants, product designers and sales managers are all mixed in together in one workroom and the factory is just along the corridor. "This office not only looks different," says Yamai. "It has changed the way we operate too." Departments didn't always see eye-to-eye in the more conventional set-up but this way, "we're all in it together."
My first response to this description was very much like it would have been as the five-year-old I describe in my Souciant piece from yesterday, simultaneously excited and disturbed. Even if the bathrooms are exempt from the mandate to be as transparent as possible, the idea that secrets have been shunted aside by architecture still sits uneasily with me.

Part of this has to do with the anxieties perpetually in circulation about social media these days. And a large part, to get more specific, has to do with the fact that I've taught Dave Eggers' novel The Circle to my Critical Thinking About New Media course the past two semesters, pairing it with the "Panopticism" chapter from Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish and other academic articles about surveillance and privacy in the modern and now increasingly digital world. Routed through a revisiting of the discussions we held earlier in the semester about Immanuel Kant's essay "What Is Enlightenment?", these classes on The Circle were favorites of mine from a pedagogical standpoint, but also quite alarming.

I can't tease out everything that came to mind when reading about the Snow Peak HQ and factory's extreme transparency right now -- I need to get back to Spanish, for one thing -- but do want to flag some of the issues it brings up. Obviously, the idea that making what had been secreted away as visible possible is not a new one. It was part and parcel of the Enlightenment, conceptually, and in also seamlessly interwoven with the logic of Modernist architecture I touch on in yesterday's Souciant piece. So the initial thrill I felt reading about this place and what is was constructed to achieve feels a little misplaced, somehow, since it is only innovative relative to the backsliding that has left the project of Enlightenment unfinished. And yet, the ideal of transparency still has great power to compel us, as the opening pages of The Circle deftly attest.

Although I am willing to believe that Snow Peak president Tohru Yamai believes what he is saying in the Monocle article, I can't help but wonder how hierarchy fits into his "daring" business model. Everybody can see what everybody else is doing, yes, but not from a position of equality. The factory worker who is under constant observation from his fellow workers and his supervisors presumably has a different response to this enforced transparency than the managers who, despite having two-way glass walls to contend with, still have the authority to manage. But I should probably do some research on Snow Peak -- this is their American website -- before speculating further. For now, I just want to register how perfectly this account of the company's approach dovetails with what I was thinking about as I reflected on the idiom "people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones."

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Sometimes the burden of explaining what has been happening feels too big to shoulder. And sometimes I'm too tired to even worry about that burden. Frequently, in fact.

I have managed to maintain what they call a "social media presence" on Facebook, thanks, in large measure, to its phone-friendliness. But what one shares there is rarely what one really needs to share. Or, even if it is what one needs to share, one rarely shares enough of it.

Still, that sort of interaction has its uses. When my invalid mother suddenly declined in April, knowing that I could turn to Facebook for words of support, however superficial, lifted my spirits. Besides, what else can one do hour after hour in a hospital or hospice besides distract oneself with technology? Having that window on an outside world made the waiting a lot easier to bear.

That said, for all of the solace I took in this semi-illusory "community", getting a condolence card in the mail from people like quuf felt a lot more meaningful than electronic "hugs". It reminded me of what I liked best about Live Journal, the fact that the connections it facilitated were deeper and stranger than the streamlined sort that Facebook, Twitter and Instagram promote.

But I stayed away from here, at least publicly -- sometimes I would compose private entries to order my thoughts -- because I realized that I didn't have the emotional and physical resources to cope with another front in my technologically mediated social engagement. I didn't want to make the same mistake as Napoleon and Hitler, if you get my drift.

Also, it's hard to report on one's doings when so many of them involve unpleasant or difficult circumstances. Simply put, the past eighteen months have been brutal for me and my family. Those of you who are friends with Kim will know what I'm talking about. Come to think of it, very few of the people who still participate semi-regularly on Live Journal are not "dual-friended".

Anyway, the point is, I just haven't had much time to do anything other than patching holes in a ship that seems perpetually on the verge of sinking. Some things are better now. Our daughter is definitely more together than she was six months ago. At the same time, the number of traumatic experiences we've dealt with since the beginning of 2013 has me always wondering what can go wrong next.

Right now, I'm wondering where the summer I was supposed to use to recover has gone. High school here resumes, perversely, on August 7th, so I only have two more weeks before the madness commences full force. And I have literally accomplished none of the goals I had set for myself in May.

Much of the blame for that, however, has to do with the fact that the aforementioned daughter has been completing ninth grade online, a pursuit that has required a lot of attentiveness from Kim and I. I was "point parent" for the second semester of Honors English, which was extremely time-consuming and enormously frustrating and am now playing that role for Spanish, which is not inspiring a great deal of enthusiasm on the part of the student in question.

She actually just called me, advising me to stay at Starbucks a while longer so that she can continue jumping on her trampoline to favorite songs -- an activity for which her parents are no longer permitted to be within earshot -- and delightedly sharing the news that Benedict Cumberbatch is slated to play Brian Epstein in a biopic. Considering that her two biggest obsessions in 2014 have been the BBC Sherlock series and The Beatles, this qualifies as earth-shattering information.

What else? I have been trying to keep my dad company, knowing how difficult the transition into widower-hood can be. I either make or bring him dinner almost every night and usually eat with him as well. Luckily, he married late and had already developed interests -- baseball and opera, principally -- that were independent of anyone else and to which he has returned with increased vigor now that the emotionally grueling aspects of caring for and about my mom are no longer draining him.

The week before last, I made the long drive with him from Tucson to Mendocino to meet up with my sister and her family in order to scatter some of my mother's ashes at one of her favorite places on earth. He didn't want to fly, since he is largely confined to a wheelchair now and was anxious about airplane restrooms. So I volunteered to take him by car, a decision, as I wrote on Facebook, that I will one day be glad for having made but which I often regretted in the moment.

I will try to write about the trip at greater length. For now, it will suffice to say that the actual "ceremony" felt meaningful to me, but was strangely anti-climatic, given how little energy everyone else invested in making it seem ceremonial. The family time we had was really nice, though. And I was able to steal away for a couple hours to drive up my favorite stretch of Highway 1 and take photographs, an activity that did a lot to restore my sanity at the time and which is continuing to sustain me in retrospect as I contemplate the vastness of my to-do list.

Although I am sure that some of the exhaustion I've been dealing with constitutes a form of depression -- it's hard to imagine not being depressed, under the circumstances -- more of it derives from the fact that I haven't been getting enough sleep for quite a while. When your teenager takes advantage of her not having to go to regular school to indulge her night-owl tendencies and her other parent turns into something frightening past midnight, you may find yourself getting to bed at 3 or 4 in the morning.

Well, it's time to return to the most pressing task at hand. I do still stop in and read your journals now and then, though I haven't felt qualified to comment. It's nice to know that you are out there. I do sincerely hope that I can be more present in the months ahead than I've been able to be recently.

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This photo was taken eight days after Thing Two was killed by an owl and a little less than a month after Punkabella joined our household. Her irrepressible personality comes through loud and clear just in the way she is looking out the window here. And Smokey, a.k.a. Pokes, was the same sofa cat then that she is now

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I am once again sitting in the E Street Cafe in Encinitas, after a two-year hiatus, reflecting on all that has happened since I was last year and the important of rituals, however arbitrary and self-fashioned, in maintaining a sense of continuity and, with it, security

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I find myself, once again, at the crossroads, warding off the hellhounds with a bracing dose of Herb:
The more the autonomous ego becomes superfluous, even retarding and disturbing in the functioning of the administered, technified world, the more does the development of the ego depend on its "power of negation," that is to say, on its ability to build and protect a personal, private realm with its own individual needs and faculties. Yet this ability is impaired on two grounds: the immediate, external socialization of the ego, and the control and management of free time -- the massification of privacy. Deprived of its power of negation, the ego, striving to "find identity" in the heteronomous world, either spends itself in the numerous emotional and mental diseases which come to psychological treatment, or the ego submits quickly to the required modes of thought and behavior, assimilating its self to the others. But the others, in the role of competitors or superiors, evoke instinctual hostility: identification with their ego ideal activates aggressive energy. The externalized ego ideal guides the spending of this energy: it does not drive the conscience as the moral judge of the ego, but rather directs aggression towards the external enemies of the ego ideal. The individuals are thus mentally and instinctually predisposed to accept and to make their own the political and social necessities which demand the permanent mobilization with and against atomic destruction, the organized familiarity with man-made death and disfiguration.
Now all I need is a J.G. Ballard chaser!

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Sometimes the most interesting shots are mostly the product of luck. I saw this flashing sign across the street in San Francisco's Mission District and was trying to get a photograph in which everything but the terminal K was lit up, for Skylar, but when a bus passed by in the middle of this shot I got the reverse effect and a great image to go with it. This was a terribly fraught trip for me, filled with anguish on several fronts, so I am glad to be able to remember the good things that happened now as I look back on it.

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When I went out to Los Angeles for the Pop Conference at UCLA in February of 2011, I left a couple days early with my friend, who had found a great place for us to stay in Hermosa Beach, which calls to mind Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice, among other things

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I finally feel like I've turned a corner with this bug. It took me too long to realize it was strep -- I didn't know I'd been exposed, since neither Skylar nor Kim had it -- and I have been paying the price in a major way. Disturbing as it may sound, I seem to have contracted it not only in my throat but also my esophagus, which meant that even swallowing a small amount of water was torture for much of the past nine days.

I've reached the point now where I can swallow some solid food without regretting it horribly afterwards, but have found, surprisingly, that I just don't have much appetite for it. I'm sure the days of fever had an effect and also the way strep affects one's taste buds, but it seems right now like something bigger is at work. Having to ask myself whether each and every swallow would be worth the pain has made me mindful about the consumption of food in a new way. I can risk a few thoughtless swallows today, but simply don't want to.

I wonder if there's a connection between this lack of appetite and something else I've noticed over the past few months, which is that my passions in general seem unusually muted. I've never been the most earthy person, for example, but find now that I get bored almost instantly when I start down certain trains of thought. And I just can't get excited about music very often, either, as I noted here in January. It's like all the dials that set my engagement with the world have been turned down low. Hell, I sometimes get the sense that I'm one of those guys in a commercial for ED, though I don't have any physiological problems of that nature.

The strange thing is that, as sick as I am, I'm starting to like this new me and am thinking of a plan to keep him around. I'm not going to get all Hippie and shit, but maybe there's virtue in scaling back one's appetites regardless of the circumstances. This malady, if you can call it that, doesn't seem to affect my will to write, which is what should ultimately matter most to me. Nor has it adversely impacted my teaching, though doing so while barely being able to move one's mouth certainly is a challenge. Perhaps I needed this disruption in my routine to figure out, better late than never, how to prioritize the way I've longed to for most of my life.

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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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