Monday, August 31, 2015

Learning, Relearning

It's been almost a year since I've written anything here, and a big year. Like many other things in my life, this blog has been patiently waiting for me, largely neglected since 2011 when I went back to graduate school. Last summer I cast off Facebook for my own mental health, and in hopes that I could find better things to do with my time, but, like Michael Corleone, every time I try to get out they pull me back in. I came to a sort of disappointed peace with the idea this summer that I would never be able to completely extract myself from Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Eventually I'll need to promote something for work and reach out to a list of friends and professional contacts that I maintain primarily on social media, or someone will text or email me in frustration demanding that I log in and view their pictures, articles, or other digital flotsam.

But this summer, the best summer I can remember, I moved away from all of that as far as I plausibly could. I let my Twitter feed, which I never really cared for in the first place, rot, turned off all notifications from my LinkedIn account (one of the worst junk mail offenders) and I deleted the Facebook app from my mobile devices. I logged in to Facebook on my computer whenever I was bored or curious about something specific, rather than habitually every time the little glowing, buzzing apparat in my pocket beckoned me. It made my cellphone a quieter, somewhat less compulsive device to own, which was a relief; More like a Spotify-enabled iPod with the capacity to send emails and text messages instead of a non-stop hub of demanding information. I still do text people a lot, but texting, as I explained to my students last week in their first class of the term, at least has exclusivity and temporality on its side, in terms of replicating the experience of communicating with someone.

But this was a quiet, warm, and connected summer in a different sense; I taught my son to swim. I don't mean doggy-paddling or floating on his back rescue-dog style, I mean I taught him to really swim. When the summer began and we lined up outside of Centennial pool with our one big splurge for the summer (our season passes to the enormous water-park-like pool), John was unable to dive, cannonball, swim without goggles, swim underwater at all, retrieve objects from the pool's bottom, jump off of diving boards, use the bigger grown-up slides, or really do much of anything except dog-paddle, float, and splash people in boredom. At the end of the summer, the week before school started for him, he could do all of these things, and more. Underwater flips, sitting on the pool's bottom, handstands, jumping off of my shoulders, swimming 20-30 feet underwater at a single breath. I went with Beth and John to St. Louis, exploring the surprisingly pleasant and livable city, and making a mental note that if a job opportunity arose when I finished my PhD that took me there, that would be just fine with me. I took John on a father-son road-trip to northern NY to visit my family, including my niece and nephew who I do not often get to spend time with. We spent a week there, and plenty of time on the road, bonding, playing games, listening to rock music, and reading Calvin and Hobbes.

I began the summer determined to make the most of having extensive stretches of free time, something that's sharply reduced the moment I set foot back on campus in the Fall and Spring, and which evaporates almost entirely during the busiest parts of the term. I had some success; I wrote most of a chapter of my ongoing critical book project, and I researched another, not writing it yet, but doing most of the background legwork. Once I'm back to academic speed, this will give me a firm boost toward finishing the companion piece to my dissertation novel. I tried to work on my novel as well, but found that I needed some time and distance to reframe what I thought of it, especially since it will represent the bulk of my work as a doctoral student when it's finished.

I've had a hard time getting this particular novel out and finished. It's not writer's block, exactly; a better way to describe it would be that my newfound PhD-level ability to be critical of things has squashed my ability to enjoy the process of writing. When I'm immersed in heady, postmodern texts that seem to make no sense and then perfect sense in turns, and the mental gymnastics necessary to understand them at all, it becomes very easy to lose sight of what exactly I enjoyed about writing in the first place. I had several points this summer, surrendering to the soft, warm happiness of a poolside lawn chair on a sunny day, where it occurred to me that I couldn't remember why I even liked writing. Creating something fragile, instinctual, reflexive, and intuitive, and then feeding it through the hateful buzzsaw of "critical inquiry" or whatever it's being called at the moment, seemed like the very definition of self-defeating behavior. My critical work tends to admire while it synthesizes, to build while it catabolizes, but mine is far from the only, or most common approach. I was re-reading one of the earlier entries here about how I'd learned to hate Cormack McCarthy's No Country for Old Men simply by virtue of sitting through a three-hour class where everyone else seemed obligated to trash it in the name of '"critical" thinking. Looking back, what I hated wasn't the novel, it was the schooling, the suffocating overly-critical academic atmosphere, that was so off-putting to me. None of the writers in that class had any business turning their noses up at McCarthy's novel, which was, and is, a masterpiece, and I could sense that even during the actual critique some of them felt the contradiction therein. Criticize because it is expected, we are not getting PhD's in order to like things.

An informational packet that is handed out at the beginning of every term suggests that the winter and summer breaks of a PhD program should be spent reading and writing as much as possible. This is a cruel, quasi-impossible exhortation; an extension of the already-unreasonable level of academic "rigor" expected by the program during the school months, where my colleagues and I digest a novel's worth of written material approximately every 72-hours for four straight months. Reading and  writing become nauseating by the end of the term, the written word on a white page can literally make me feel queasy, my head will throb and my eyes will blur. Last summer I read Dracula, most of which I actually listened to as an audiobook rather than drag my tired eyes across, and that was the extent of my reading and writing for the entire summer. I felt incredibly guilty about that for most of this year. Hadn't I just shot myself in the foot? My colleagues were probably locking themselves away in some writing-retreat and crafting the latest paper to submit, to present, to publish, while I, who could barely stand to even look at a book, played stay-at-home dad during the day, and World of Warcraft at night.

This summer was different. There were still plenty of video games, to be sure: I played through The Last of Us for what must have been the fourth or fifth time, Knights of the Old Republic I and II, and Hitman: Absolution, but I tackled some more serious texts as well. I read critical work on Spike Jonze's Her, and I read Peter Paik's From Utopia to Apocalypse. I wrote a critical chapter and made notes for more chapters and revisions to chapters. I revised chunks of Passbook and came to some new ideas of how to proceed with the book in a way that could salvage my problematic protagonist. It wasn't as much work as I'd have liked to get done, but it was something rather than last summer's nothing.

But this is misleading. Saying I accomplished "nothing" or "very little" is selling myself very short. What I accomplished is marshaling the will to continue this grueling graduate program, a program that has so far done little to change the way I write, but has permanently damaged my net worth, my physical health, and my relationship to my social circles. These are all things, mind you, that I signed up for, and realized were part of the deal when I enrolled; I wasn't despairing about this feeling, but I recognized approximately halfway through this summer that a revision of my expectations was in order. I had taught my son to swim this summer. That wasn't nothing. I had lost almost 30 pounds, and improved my health largely through reducing my stress level. When the term is in full swing, I can almost predict my own blood pressure from minute to minute, so sensitive am I to changes in day-to-day stressors. This summer I remembered how to do an (admittedly less graceful) swan dive, and returned to the world of immediacy, physicality, and dynamic interaction with he world, rather than the world of scholarly interactions in an imaginary inner-space of academic prestige, largely accomplished through reading, writing, and sometimes teaching. The division between who I am during the school year and who I am when left to my own devices had perhaps never been so stark.

But I was still disappointed when, after going to the library and borrowing Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and Kim Stanley Robinson's Pacific Edge, I discovered that I just couldn't bring myself to read them. I got 50-100 pages into each and just abandoned them. This was bad, my critical self insisted, these are important texts that I'll need to read, understand, and be able to write about for my degree, and in my field. If I can't read them when there's very little other stress in my life, how's it going to work when I'm trying to read them, say, during the term I prepare for my prelim exam? Fine, I thought, don't panic, I'll just switch gears and leave that for later, and work on my novel instead.

Except that didn't work, because I also discovered that I didn't much relish the act of writing fiction, either. Was it that I had just burned out and needed rest from writing to get back to a place where I could do it? Had I lost the train of thought or the internal drive to finish the novel because I had created a plot that no longer inspired me? Did I even like writing anymore at all? This was even more troublesome as recurring thoughts go, paired with my mounting educational debt. Would I come through this program, in the end, having paradoxically lost the ability to enjoy something I've loved since I was 12 years old? The idea was frightening, to say the least.

So instead of Gravity's Rainbow I threw my copy of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash in my pool bag, and happily re-read it. Then I re-read Mario Puzo's The Sicilian, discovering that my memory of really liking Puzo's work before I went back to grad school hadn't been just the uncritical eye of an unschooled fanboy. It really is a delightful, readable novel that makes a modest promise to entertain, and then transports me. I rented the original Mad Max trilogy and then saw Mad Max: Fury Road in a crazily-equipped high-definition theater with speakers so loud that they shook the floor when the Doof Wagon's drummers hammered out their tune. It was something I hadn't felt in a long time: wonder, bliss even. I fired up the video game Fallout 3 and played through it again, while re-watching the entire series of David Chase's The Sopranos, re-experiencing these "texts" as something I'd enjoyed once, before all of the demands and quality strictures of graduate school took over. I built dozens of sets of LEGOs with my son, Star Wars spacecraft and medieval castles, ninja temples and space shuttles, even robot mecha reminiscent of the old BattleTech tabletop board game. I re-read Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, delighted that it was every bit as good as I remembered, and then some, delving into the more obscure geek ephemera that he touched on in the novel, and discovering, among other things, Rush's epic sci-fi rock song "2112" from the album of the same name, which I've been listening to obsessively for days. I bought my first Blu-Ray disc: the classic dystopian anime film Akira, and I remembered some of the imaginative glory of 1970's and 1980's sci-fi that fueled my drive to write to begin with. I finally watched The Plague Dogs which Amazon Prime helpfully offered this season, a very obscure, Ralph-Bakshi-like grown-up cartoon from the 80's about a pair of partially vivisected dogs who escape from a research center and go on the run in a remote rocky wasteland. My best friend Jeramy Gee, himself a recent doctoral graduate, visited for four days and we spent almost the entire time in my apartment sharing stories and showing each other all of the fun, interesting crap we'd run across in the three plus years since we'd seen each other.

And so that's what brought be back, finally, from this weird place of writerly anomie: I had to reach into the past, a place I'd long since learned to mistrust after reading about the existential dangers of nostalgia in some of the more brilliant critical theory I'd encountered, and some particularly unkind revisionist criticism of the work itself in some cases. After reading and re-reading these old and new texts, I remembered what it was that I liked about writing: that I could experience, through texts, delight, cleverness, even awe. The part that was missing for me, across years and genres, in the academic consumption of hundreds of texts, was the ability to enjoy the connection between myself and the author that can only show its modest face when I'm willing to let myself be awed or even just simply touched by something, instead of immediately jamming it into an emotionless, cosmically-complex and unforgiving wood-chipper of critical inquiry. When I took Gravity's Rainbow back to the library, unfinished, and with a sense of unshakable disappointment, I tried to remind myself on a conspiratorially non-scholarly level that anyone who would write something so insufferably dull and impenetrable was mostly doing so to bait the sort of academic inquiry that I was trying to apply to it, and not to connect or communicate with me in a writerly way. Have it your way, Thomas Pynchon, I thought to myself, and gratefully fed the book into the steel return slot.

And so once more, the Fall term begins with a syllabus that demands I write every day; a worthy goal, if a somewhat needlessly compulsive one. Last year, the demand came in the form of social media, which I neither enjoyed nor particularly wanted to return to. This year, I get my pick of how to accomplish it, with the caveat that each week I need to devote some time to reflecting on my writing, and I think I may just go ahead and leave those thoughts here, starting now. What I realized, at some point during this blissful summer, is that even though it felt cleansing and right to be rid of Facebook, what I missed was an older version of the internet; one not so tied to instantaneous, always-on communication. I missed an earlier, earthier internet that you could access when and if you had time; an internet where the "content" (God, I hate that term) you read would occasionally have some sort of beginning or ending, ideally both. An internet for writers instead of talkers, and for thinkers rather than disinterested or compulsive grazers. I longed, in a sense, for the internet of message boards and blogs, for community instead of "reach" and "data" and "stats."

I'm as much to blame as anyone, really, for this. I don't read blogs anymore, either. I check half a dozen sites regularly for updates, but even these are largely subsumed by the big FB these days. So what chance does this little blog have, I wonder, to garner attention from anyone? I'm starting to feel like maybe I don't care who reads it, and that just writing it is, as James Tadd Adcox puts it, "a good in itself."

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