I Remember, I Remember

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.

In Full Bloom

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.

Halavais, Search Engine Society (2009)

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).

More:
“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.

Unplanned Meanderings

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.

And Adult

Ph. turns 18 today. Among my many feelings on this day: That was
fast
.

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
own birthdays.

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
two:

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.

The Small Convex Kind You Stick On

Dog-eared in PrairyErth, a book I was reading last summer:

But the stories didn’t work very well for me, and I walked on, the sky dimming like my mood. Then I remembered that in the little rucksack I carry on my tramps, somewhere among the notebook and pencils, binoculars and magnifying glass, camera and canteen, field guides and raisins, was a thing I’d bought a few days earlier and still had not used: a truck side-mirror, the small convex kind you stick on. I’d recently read about an eighteenth-century traveler’s device called a Claude glass that served to condense and focus a landscape and make it apprehensible in a way direct viewing cannot. When the English poet Thomas Grey first crossed Lake Windermere, he reserved his initial view of the other side for his Claude glass by blindfolding himself on the ferry. Maybe my mirror could rearrange things and show me, so memory-ridden, what I was having trouble seeing.

I pulled out the thing and walked slowly on, watching in it the hills compress and reshape themselves into something different, and what happened was strange and invigorating: in the glass the Chase prairie somehow took on the aspect of my first views of it, and I began to feel again the enchantment of those early encounters. By looking rearward, it was as if I were looking back in time, yet I was looking at a place where left was right, a two-dimensional landscape I could see but not enter: the prospect was both real and impossible, it was there and it wasn’t, and I entered it by walking away from it. If I turned to look, it was gone, something like the reverse of the old notion that when we turn our backs the universe suddenly disappears, to reappear instantly only when we look again. If I extended the mirror far in front of me, I–or a backward image of me–joined that turned land, a dreamscape that could exist only in my palm, a place behind I could see only by looking forward: I was hiking north and traveling south. And then, stumbling along as I was, I realized that ever since I’d come down off Roniger Hill and begun walking my grids I’d been traveling much the same way, and I realized that forward or backward didn’t matter so much as did the depth of the view, a long transit at once before and behind: the extent of cherishing depends upon the amplitude of the ken. (268)

This is William Least Heat-Moon on memory and perspective-two faculties that have, more than others, given shape to my day: a productively clumsy practice interview on campus this morning, the sawing and propping of a Fraser Fir in the living room, and intermittent, melancholic jabs in remembering that my mother, had she lived past 48, would have turned 60 today. So: I could have used a Claude glass–or a truck side-mirror–deliberately to adjust my perspective at a few different points–a mirror trick to help me vanish momentarily from the Syracuse landscape, reverse directions, “rearrange things.”

Irresistibility

Don’t worry; this doesn’t mean the Yoki series has been discontinued.
It’s just a blip in my plan.

Yesterday, I was watching Is. in the late afternoon. Ph. had an away
soccer match and so needed a ride to the school around 4 p.m.; D. was off on an
errand. I was sapped out, dragging. I’ve been off caffeine since
mid-August, but yesterday I suffered an ever so slight hankering and succumbed
to it, stopping off at the
local quick mart for a cold Dr. Pepper. Is. asked, where are we going? I said,
inside for a soda. She said, huh? And I said a soda, a pop. Growing
up in Michigan, it was always "pop." Is. thought I was talking about a
"fruit pop"–the name she uses somewhat interchangeably for 100% juice popsicles
and also for lollipops or suckers, which I’ve learned lately are shoved in kids
faces at every turn from the physician to the post office (today at the post
office in Fayetteville, a chocolate Dum-Dum). It’s constant.

Anyway, the two of us went into the mart, and, of course, all of the candy was lined up
at Is.’s eye level, a galleria of pops and things. She picked out a pomegranate
(?) Tootsie Roll Tootsie Pop, and we were out the door again, me with my soda
and Is. with the candy. Indulged and temporarily satisfied.

The deal with the pop was that she had to eat a decent dinner before she
could have it. No problemo, said the look she gave me. And she did so, happily
working through the nutritional foodstuff before reminding me that the junk was
all-the-while hailing her.

And then we had a conversation about how, when I was a kid, the Country
Corner at the intersection of Remus and Winn Roads would redeem Tootsie Roll
wrappers if they had a star on them. Seems like I ate quite a few of
those.

I also told Is. about the commercial with the dippy kid who sought out a
partner for his "how many licks?" research study: the one where the turtle
admits his inability to resist devouring the thing before completing the
investigation and then passes the kid off to the overconfident and disastrously
lazy owl who gives it two licks before crunching down on the thing. Fade
to shrinking fruit pops with voiceover: "How many licks does it take to get to
the center of a Tootsie Roll Tootsie Pop? The world may never know." Is.
was far more interested in hearing about the boy, the turtle, and the owl, than
in hearing me describe that commercial as my first exposure to flawed research
(that sort of sham inquiry that made it seem like the owl already knew the
answer he would give and instead performed the part only so he could consume the
object of inquiry, take it as his own, and so on).

Later, we checked it out on YouTube.

No shortage of innuendos here about research ethics and
consuming
inquiry (either way: of too much fondness for the objects or of destructive partnerships),
but suffice it to say that Is. did not ask me what the answer was (how should I
know?) and neither did I let on whether I thought the question from the commercial was any good in the first place.

In Bad Decline

If you bumped into me on the sidewalk or in the hallway, I might have
mentioned that the visitnow one month agoto
Gettysburg on the Fourth of July was, um, thought-provoking in all sorts of
unanticipated ways.  The placeswar
memorials, battlefields, and the famous cemeterystruck
a chord with me. I was intrigued by being there.  But I thought some
of the re-enactment stuff was oddodd dialed
beyond historical fetishism and into a new range of fantastical dress-up geekery.  I
recovered and was more or less
granted amnesty, I think, for what was a glaring foot-in-mouth moment during which I
compared the degree of geekery between Civil War re-enactors and the Lucas-heads
who attend Star Wars conventions dressed as Chewy and C3PO. 

In one of those subsequent, casual, "we went to Gettysburg" hallway conversations, I
mentioned how the re-enactments left me with a lingering uneasiness about what
was happening at those sites now. Re-enacting war is a strange brew: a half-and-half
concoction blending parts of the worst of Hollywood spectacle and adult
play-acting (no matter how seriously) in the grim, horrific, and atrocious
war-deeds perpetrated on those now-hallowed grounds. Chilling, but hard to pin
down because I didn’t openly object to it (the geekery comment was never meant
to disparage anyone), and I don’t have any problem with gestures of tribute,
respect, and commemoration.

Eventually, in that hallway conversation, the person I was talking with asked
me if I’d read George Saunders’ short story
"CivilWarLand in Bad Decline." 
I hadn’t read it; hadn’t read anything by Saunders, even though his name is the
first one that pops up when I mention Writing Program and Syracuse U. to anyone
who has lived in Central N.Y. for a few years (and then I have to explain how
Saunders is in the creative writing program, which hangs its colorful hat in
English and Textual Studies, and ‘no I’ve never met him or studied with him’,
and so on, until the perplexed looks give way to a change of topic).  "CivilWarLand
in Bad Decline," if you haven’t read it, is a dystopian romp through a
gang-plagued, run-down, underfunded Civil War park.  At breakneck pace,
Saunders writes of a great range of escapades as the ethic of historical
preservation gives way to a relentless assault by modern forces.  Reading
it did not make me feel better about the re-enactments; neither did it make me
feel worse.  But I laughed, and I also thought more carefully about that
profoundly difficult balance between celebrating war and properly reckoning with
the horrible mess it always (and to this day) makes of lives.

Here’s Saunders, a point where the new gun-loving employee joins the staff at
CivilWarLand:

Just after lunch next day a guy shows up at Personnel looking so
completely Civil War they immediately hire him and send him out to sit on
the porch of the old Kriegal place with a butter churn. His name’s Samuel
and he doesn’t say a word going through Costuming and at the end of the day
leaves on a bike. I do the normal clandestine New Employee Observation from
the O’Toole gazebo and I like what I see. He seems to have a passable
knowledge of how to pretend to churn butter. At one point he makes the
mistake of departing from the list of Then-Current Events to discuss the
World Series with a Visitor, but my feeling is, we can work with that. All
in all he presents a positive and convincing appearance, and I say so in my
review. (14)

Writing Feverlets*

Curious about her critique of Derrida’s Archive Fever, I picked up a
copy of Carolyn Steedman’s Dust: The Archive and Cultural History from
Bird Library, recalling it from another patron who had checked it out (v. sorry
about that). I deal briefly with AF in Chapter Three. Steedman
makes the point that AF is less about archives than about Derrida’s
concern for the slippage of origins (a theme in his other work) and the
inseparability of psychoanalysis from Freud (and also Judaism). She
writes, "The Foreword [to AF] carried the main argument, about Freud’s
Jewish-ness, and the contribution of Jewish thought to the idea of the archive,
via psycho-analysis" (7). Basically, Steedman is suspicious of Derrida’s
characterization of the fever (as a frenzied pursuit of origins which do not
properly exist). She complains that the concept of the fever is degraded in
translation from Mal d’Archive, and then she enthusiastically claims the
sickness Derrida mocks: "Archive fever, indeed? I can tell you all about
Archive Fever!" (17). Dust undertakes this "all about-ness" at fever’s pitch;
Steedman, all the while, works to correct (or tune, at the very least) Derrida’s
glancing consideration of the archive left behind in his treatment of other
concerns (psychoanalysis, Freud, and so on).

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