Upshot mid-February. Maybe Valentine’s Day or the day after, but before the 16th. Snowdrops or snowbells or crocus. Is the plural for crocus, crocuses? Doesn’t matter if they’re snowdrops. I’m sure they’re snowdrops. Well, almost sure. Surer is that Michigan’s regreening is mistimed this time. The snowdrops keep to themselves, don’t express a whole lot, or not anything I can hear where I stand when I pass by them front door in-going and out-going. But then this one photo jogs a memory about how last season’s tomatoes wilded into an unmanageable mess yielding more on vine rot than wedges of lightly salted gushes tomatoseed and sunshine. It’s something. Cannot say yet whether it’s the snowdrops or their photo or the tomatoes long since turned over in the side yard that share the quiet wisdrom, not quite lesson and not quite imperative, do better with gardening this year.
Monarchs are “tough and powerful, as butterflies go.” They fly over Lake Superior without resting; in fact, observers there have discovered a curious thing. Instead of flying directly south, the monarchs crossing high over the water take an inexplicable turn towards the east. Then when they reach an invisible point, they all veer south again. Each successive swarm repeats this mysterious dogleg movement, year after year. Entomologists actually think that the butterflies might be “remembering” the position of a long-gone, looming glacier. In another book I read that geologists think that Lake Superior marks the site of the highest mountain that ever existed on this continent. I don’t know. I’d like to see it. Or I’d like to be it, to feel when to turn. At night on land migrating monarchs slumber on certain trees, hung in festoons with wings folded together, thick on the trees and shaggy as bearskin. (Dillard, p. 258, 1974)
Before shelving Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, one of the small handful of books (at focus’s edge) I finished on this research leave, I flipped back to a couple of dog-ears to see if there were passages I wanted to keep, post, circulate, remember later. Remember when a blog was a good location to stash miscellaneous passages? In this one, mostly about monarchs and their migration, I must have taken as wonderful (i.e., wonderful enough to warrant folding the corner of the paper) the swarm’s seasonal navigation as it maybe? does it? draws on some faint memoria, a directional inheritance, passed along grid cells from every butterfly mother and every next one before her. Fascinating and strange to think of a group veer, much less over the open expanse of a great lake in summertime.
But of course reading the passage again–no same two ways through it twice–its emphasis on the veer, on turning, stand out. This, the sort of turn spotting that is more akin to following the turns taken by ancestors, those redirects inherited, a quietly encoded rule for monarchs next. So it’s a curious aside that extends turns–more than the multimodal turn, the archival turn, the digital turn, and so on–to that which is only remembered, ancient monuments, a mountain or a glacier. Turning, bending around figments; the butterflies know, but how would we regard such knowing? How would we judge it if we, too, were prone to such predictable and long-established path-following as this?
How do you think Dr. Everything Will B Alright signed his prescriptions?
It’s not a serious question. No. Just an aside to what I’ve been thinking and feeling since we learned that pop icon Prince died four days ago, April 21. Much too much has been said about Prince online in the immediate aftermath. “Too much,” well, by that I sound a little bit judgmental, I suppose, but I really only mean it as too much for me. Had to look away from you, Facebook, umbrella my eyes from a Purple Fucking Downpour. Too much for me. So chose instead some quiet and solitude, a quieter reflection, a few chosen tracks, and some deliberation about what are still-vibrating sound experiences.
There are only a few slivers of sound, words and phrases and riffs, that come readily, earworming quicker than any other parasites. It’s 1984. I’m ten. I have a fancy Walkman. Purple Rain soundtrack, though I hadn’t seen the movie. Sitting on a big boulder at the south edge of the lawn behind the M-20 house, a boulder big enough to require climbing but invisible from the house, curtained from view by two rows of hearty pines. White pines? And that soundtrack was a portal, a getaway to some kind of elsewhere. The doves cry lyric, “why do they scream at each other,” of course it resonated and expressed not normalcy, exactly, but a variation of whatever adolescent frustrations and messes, whatever family tangles–other people are dealing with some shit, too.
That’s the gist of Prince’s influence and the measure of his loss, for me, personally. Prince’s (as distinct from David Bowie) filled with a spiritual-sexual-everyday searching the ambient surrounds of my most private and interior adolescence. Purple Rain was in my ears, looping the same way through highs and lows, yearnings and letdowns, more. What more than what’s playing through the sponge-covered earphones wired plugged into a Walkman, what more than those sounds accompanies you through such an intensely transformative phase as ages10-13? Prince’s music was there for it, often and reliably. And so it is with his death that the world seems farther away, somehow, from that fading moment, thinner, too, in its comparable supports, although maybe that’s not quite right, either, considering the persistent artifact, tracks that play on and on and on and on and on, associative and memorial, as poignant today as they were 32 years ago. With the death of a pop icon, through the leveled too high volume of everyone expressing attachments and sadness, there’s strange refreshing of something awkward and obvious but also easy to forget, neglect: the searching, uncertain, and intensive adolescence is still in this world. In me, possibly in you, probably in everyone who still has some growing up to do.
Feedlied across this snapshot of John Feathers’ vast collection of maps, city guides (mostly from Los Angeles), and pamphlets–an innocuous archive or impressive case of cartographic hoarding, I don’t know. The archive, its unusual ordinariness, its scale, its discovery, all of this is interesting, or passingly so for map enthusiasts, the sharpest thumbtack of this piece for my thinking is from the video, the note near the end about the memorial function of maps, their capacity for temporal-affective relocation, their dormant-until-brightly-lit teleportation function: when-where, an interlacing of spacetime. After the pragmatic, what do maps want more than this?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know the YouTube embeds are ephemeral. Iframe evaporati. Fleeting, all the new things. I’m posting it anyway, in spite of (possibly because of) its impermanence.
Somewhere along the way, even though I did not mean to, I lost track of how many Mother’s Days have piled up too-many-one, too-many-two, too-many-thirteen since June 1997, the month and year my mom died. I could run the numbers wicked-quickly through the tenth year or so, not that anyone ever asked, “So how many years has it been for you, without your mom?” There are years when reminiscences (reminen-siezes?) laced with grief dulls the which-year math and other years when the exact count blazes brightplain again. This time the year-count is a Mother’s Day whatever. Someone abacus-else can bother with it.
Ruth Margalit’s “The Unmothered” made its deserved rounds yesterday. I grabbed the link and dropped it into Pocket, retrieved it this morning and read on my phone through no-really-my-eyes-are-tearing-from-allergies while the morning’s water heated toward boiling. The article offers a reflection on Mother’s Days for the unmothered, those whose mothers have died, those who experience faint and sometimes gripping pangs of absence through this tribute-holiday’s memory work. Read the article if you want to. Or put it in Pocket for later. Either way.
These are among the gem passages–a small bouquet of excerpts I want to press into the blog the way my grandmother used to press violets into the binding-folds of thick books for preserving. They’ll save here, so I (or you and I, anyone) can re-read them around this time next year or the year after that:
Trust me, I’m too aware of the fact that my mother is gone to wish her here in any serious way on Mother’s Day. But does the holiday have to be in May, when the lilacs are in full bloom? When a gentle breeze stirs–the kind of breeze that reminds me of days when she would recline on a deck chair on our Jerusalem porch, head tilted back, urging me to “sit a while”?
They say time heals. It’s true that the pain wears off, slightly, around the edge, like a knife in need of whetting. But here’s what they’re missing: It gets harder to explain to myself why I haven’t seen her. A month can make sense. (I took a trip; she was busy with work.) Even six months is excusable. (I moved; she’s on sabbatical.) But how to make sense of more than three years worth of distance? How to comprehend that time will only drive my mother and me farther and farther apart?
Yes, I remember thinking. Yes, yes, yes. This wasn’t delayed grief, after all. It was simply this: grief keeps odd hours, the most painful moment at the most abstract moment. Strangely, I began to think of Barthes (whose relationship with his mother famously bordered on the Oedipal) as my grief buddy. Largely preferring books to people around that time, I discovered that he wasn’t the only one.
I started to italicize, add emphases-mine, and then ended up italicizing the mother-loaded hell out of these few lines, so back-tracked and thought better of it. An almost of italicizing, done and reversed back to nothing special. All of it equally special.
And this is all just to say–as if I have anything left, much less grand-culminating and insightful to say about this Mother’s Day or “The Unmothered,” that these sentiments operate with unpredictable, potent acuity over a life. I suppose I might have been dreaming just such an idea when this photo from April 1975, me not quite a year old and lost in The Big Nap, when this photo of her–so impressively alive, happy, and mothering as to make it unthinkable that it would ever be otherwise–was click! taken.
A cardboard box in the basement hailed me last night to check its contents swiftly for a bulky album of news clippings from when I was in high school–a senior year now two full decades ago. Inside the box, a scrapbook; inside the scrapbook, an article; and through (or just beyond) the article, a faint memory one degree removed from this Morning Sun write-up of a humbling basketball loss: Dec. 4, 1990.
I don’t remember much about the game itself. I do recall the standing-room-only butt-kicking we took and that many of the blows were dealt solidly and consistently by the player opposite me–my defensive assignment. I doubt whether I realized at the time any relationship between losing (mistakes, failure) and development (dev. in basketball, humility, maturity…any of it).
After pulling an album from basement storage (a grand act of egotism), I’m already tentative–or on guard, assuming a defensive stance twenty years after I really needed one–about why this account should spark any particular train of thought for me now. Why should it? One mildly unexpected reminder has been that nobody was at that game–none of my family, anyway. It was a season opener. I came home that night around 11 p.m., and at her request woke my mom up to tell her how the game went. This is the flicker I remember most of all–I could not say what had happened. But what can I write now about a basis for this strange, childish-seeming encounter–an oddly wordless understanding? What was it?–anything other than a first memory of gestalt intensivity excising any expressive way forward.
Writing this mundane scene so dramatically seems silly now. I am tempted to turn it into an Oulipo exercise and retell it 99 ways, you know? Like this:
I came home after a crappy basketball game and could not explain it to my mother who hadn’t attended. Twenty years later, this silent-failed attempt to describe the game is what I remember more than the game itself.
Only ninety-seven to go.
A couple of months have lapsed since I read Alex Halavais’s Search Engine Society; in fact, I read it in June while flying to Santa Fe and back. I need to return my copy to the library, and I wanted to post a few brief notes. Search Engine Society is a terrific introduction to search engines. Halavais achieves a nice (and what I would describe as a successful) balance between accessible prose and theoretical rigor. That is, I found the book exceedingly readable, but I could at the same time see frequently enough the theoretical surroundings Halavais brought to bear. Certainly it left me with the impression this book could have been more forwardly theoretical in its examination of search engines, but that it seamlessly achieves both is one reason I will be assigning a chapter for undergraduates this semester and I will likely include the full book this winter in ENGL516: Computers and Writing: Theory and Practice.
At just more than 200 pages, the book includes an introduction and eight chapters: 1. The Engines, 2. Searching (which I will ask students to read in ENGL326: Research Writing), 3. Attention, 4. Knowledge and Democracy, 5. Censorship, 6. Privacy, 7. Sociable Search, and 8. Future Finding. Among Halavais’s opening acknowledgments are that data on searching practices is hard to come by. Public search engines capture a certain amount of data about queries and the IP addresses from which they are made, but we still have much to learn about how search is deployed privately, as when computer users look for files on their hard drives. The coverage of early chapters includes how search engines work, the history of searching the web, the known limitations of presumably whole-web search engines, the web-cultural importance of specialized search engines, crawlers, currency, the rise of social search, and much more. Again, what’s here might seem–to one with an advanced technical understanding of search engines–like a broad survey, but I would add as a counterpoint that there’s plenty here in terms of references and context to prime beginners to these–what I regard as an increasingly important set of issues.
I have adopted Ch. 2 for ENGL326 because it gets into issues of superficial or complacent (i.e., self-satisfied) search. Drawing on work by Hargittai and others, Halavais establishes how willing searchers are to scratch the surface. So, we will seek to extend questions Halavais poses, such as “How can you know which terms, or combination of terms, best targets the information you are after?” into our own work with Search Alerts and RSS. The chapter also gets into the value of serendipity for invention, the limitations of semantic search for different file types, re-finding, the invisible/deep web, “berrypicking” (Bates), and adaptive search: much, in other words, that will be of some use to students concerned with research writing.
Halavais’s last two chapters bear on my research interests, as well. His discussion of sociable search touches upon collaborative filtering and tracing associations and challenges conventional sensibilities about the search engine as an algorithmic mechanism (that subdues agency or that disguises and promotes a malevolent corporate agenda). I appreciated that the book confronts–though perhaps not with especially clear cut solutions–questions of cultural production intrinsic to search engines, e.g., “Who will know?” (190). The “who will know?” question echoed for me with Foster’s “I will not know,” with disciplinary assumptions about the adequacy of search and databases. Halavais concludes the book with the “who will know?” question, noting that “[t]he term ‘search engine’ is far too prosaic for the role that search plays” (190).
“Search personalization represents one of the most active areas of research, but, as with search generally, by privileging certain sources over others there is the danger that a searcher can become trapped by her own search history” (52).
“The internet and the web likewise have been disruptive to the way attention is aggregated and distributed, and so it is worth asking whether there is a similar ‘tyranny of the web'” (58).” Or, for that matter, whether attention fatigue is to blame for the “Death of the Web.” Interesting to think that a preference for a locatable web (via search, via attention-corralled, if gated, networks) yields, if not the death of the web, a catatonic (kata- -tonos), or toned-down, web.
Steven Johnson’s “The Glass Box And The Commonplace Book” renews questions about what happens when e-readers unexpectedly suffocate text behind no-copy/no-paste barriers. Safe-guarding text against circulation is not new, of course, but Johnson offers a timely reminder of the ways this glass box logic is noxious, lying dormant, going unnoticed until it is revived in this or that text-walling application. There’s much to think through in his entry (which is a transcript of a talk Johnson offered at Columbia University), much in the way of commonplace books, motivated filtering, and how it is homophily bias takes hold differently online than in “real-world civic space.”
§ § §
Each rereading of the commonplace book becomes a new kind of revelation. You see the evolutionary paths of all your past hunches: the ones that turned out to be red herrings; the ones that turned out to be too obvious to write; even the ones that turned into entire books. But each encounter holds the promise that some long-forgotten hunch will connect in a new way with some emerging obsession. The beauty of Locke’s scheme was that it provided just enough order to find snippets when you were looking for them, but at the same time it allowed the main body of the commonplace book to have its own unruly, unplanned meanderings. (para. 5)
“But each encounter holds the promise that some long-forgotten hunch will connect in a new way with some emerging obsession.” Here is a line that succinctly captures for me how blogging has always functioned a little bit differently than the kind of “being digital” I experience in Facebook or Twitter. Long-forgotten hunches and emerging obsessions are not so much a function of friendship, sociality, or phatic affirmation as they are a distributed, often faint, read-write memory–a recollection of being (or having been) on the verge of something mind-changing.
Ph. turns 18 today. Among my many feelings on this day: That was
I’ve blogged most of his teenage birthdays. You’ll see those entries
listed over at the right, in the Yesterblog (the On This Day in EWM History
feature). And I suppose this entry marks the conclusion of Ph. birthday-blogging,
enjoyable though the practice has been. I mean, adult children can blog their
To make this celebratory entry stand tall among the others, I had to dig for
a few minutes in the photo album, dredge up a couple of photos that, for me
anyway, span (or somehow thematically encapsulate) Ph.’s childhood. Chose
1.) Giddy-up: this one is from when Ph. was about four years old, when my mom
took him to ride the ponies at some ranch near Raytown, Mo. Apparently
they made a fine time of it. Yes, those are leather chaps.
2.) Scorching the Tiffany Springs nets: here, Ph. is drilling a ball past me
on one of the many, many extended shoot-arounds we enjoyed at the Tiffany
Springs fields just north of Kansas City (bordering on the south edge of MCI
airport). I’d guess he was eight or nine in this photo–the days when we’d hang
around at the field until long after everyone else had (sensibly) gone home.