Music Malaise

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.


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.

Fantasy Hair

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."

Deferred Exhaustion

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.

A Man of Simple Satisfactions

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.

We Are All Edward Snowden

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.


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!).


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.