An Exercise in Futility?

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.

Reading Notes: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

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.

Down Under

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.

Playing Catch-Up

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.

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.

Weary

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.