The Bituminous Time It Takes to Rebegin ⏳

The obvious pattern here is that I write Earth Wide Moth entries on breaks. This time it’s Wednesday of spring break, the middle of a week in the middle of a semester—that temporal middlemost divot for a slouch and an exhale and a say.

I was thinking of bitumin because ever since I learned of the (by now well-known?) Queensland U/Professor Parnell pitch drop experiments, bitumin comes up as a terrific example of patience and the taffy-pulled reward of studying for many years things slow, old, and transforming though inobservably so. I’m no geologist, but this solid-seeming bitumin fascinates because even while it is friable, or ready to crumble, so too is it viscous. Given time enough, it forms and relinquishes droplets to gravity. Bitumen drips, if you leave it alone. Wait for it. Wait.

This spring break, like so many other breaks I’ve shoe-horned in and amidst WPAing responsibilities over the past five years at VT, has meant once again driving 500 miles from SW Virginia to Michigan, jeans and sweatshirts shoved into a luggage, watching the weather along the route so as to avoid freezing rains or patches of snow, fetching groceries, and upon arrival generally going along with the anything-whatever of granddaughter time, Is.’s club volleyball schedule, and then some. The practice, if it can be called a practice, is to be easy with it all. Equanimity-crafted lifestyle. And this time of year, there are thesis and dissertation chapters to read and comment upon (two on Monday, two more on Tuesday), continuing teaching prep and some comments on the short-form writing we’re practicing in Food Writing, a boomeranged second-time-around review task due next Tuesday and too long put off across the accelerated and travelsome and also cough-hacking throes of February. Yeah, sure, it’s work, but I experience it as slowed down during the break. Meanwhile, the email inbox has quieted. This week it has lessened to a trickle of reply-all-good job-all-well done-all congratulations among faculty colleagues and a few one-offs about the latest surveillant impulses and precise questions people have about AI-screened computing activities disguised in the protective father logics of cybersecurity, like if robotic dogs chased aggressively a twenty-first century suspicious hermeneut. If you can imagine these as blue-skied comforts, it’s some kind of time at some kind of beach or the like.

Warming up again to the ms review is next on today’s to-dos. I first read the manuscript and wrote 914 words of reviewish guidance ten months ago, May 2022. And because those ten months since have proven to be the most locally extreme and austere in what is now a decade of WPAing, I find it’s requiring more concerted effort to prioritize and focus upon this routine work, to muster a bituminous rebeginning and to return to the manuscript so I can read every bit as generously as before. At sloth’s pace, it stably holds together; quickened, it crumbles and fragments: I get it.

Thirtieth Days

Still on sabbatical. Thirty days. Work rhythms have been more predictable and disciplined lately. Up early enough, write until noon or so. Out of this, a chapter takes shape–the third chapter. I just sent it off to the editor. Just over 10,000 words. Fourty-eight references. Ten original figures plus the linked-clickable animated index. Something like 44 pages. Embedded notes about “could do more this this” and “could do more with that.” Threaded through is a realization that I’ve been working on this chapter for a few years. And then up next will be a hard revision of the second chapter, hacking away at its extralong bulk, then adding back another 3,500 words. It’s basically a concept review: three concepts. And two are done; one remains. 

Deterministic Footfalls

Here’s a fascinating RadioLab podcast on deep patterns in cityscapes, “Cities.”

After listening, follow it with a sip–a chaser–from Calvino’s Invisible Cities:

In vain, great-hearted Kublai, shall I attempt to describe Zaira, city of high bastions. I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. […] The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls. (10-11)


My two Twitter accounts unexpectedly synchronized yesterday, matching in number for the first time ever. Two-hundred forty-three tweets in each. #sotta

Right-o: #sotta is a hashtag for State of the Twitter Accounts. Of course, I realize that hashtags don’t help organize blog entries the way they do Twitter updates. So much runs together nowadays.

Their unplanned alignment, though not especially remarkable for everyday people (even Digg overlooked this happening), was just uncanny enough for me to justify taking a step back, a deep breathe and reflective, 24-hour pause. Could be a conductive, insightful occasion, or not. The two accounts resemble fraternal twins. One came first. They have much in common, but they do not quite look alike: different avatars, different personalities, different aliases, different habits of writing and linking.

I keep the older account around because it follows and is in turn followed by a somewhat more collegial and professorial company than the other. The second account is more teacherly; it fills a pedagogical need for the activity streams ENGL328ers write throughout the semester. In other words, the second account is more for orchestration and course-specific guidance.

Two-hundred forty-three tweets: that’s nothing. Even multiplied by two, it’s in the shallow end of the pool some measure away from Twitter users who have upwards of two thousand entries. So in this, my first half-year of tweeting, I’m still trying to figure out where my own writing and working rhythms blend in with the Twittersphere, whether I’m being (perhaps somewhat willfully) negligent of the accumulative effects of writing not only in a networked platform but in a networked platform with such a boundless temporality as this.

Short Sentences

Tomorrow in ENGL328, we’re working with “Short Sentences,” the first chapter in Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. The chapter presents four basic sentence types or kernels: equations with be, equations with linking verbs, transitives, and intransitives. In the first half of the chapter, Tufte attaches numerous examples to each type of short sentence. I find the types to be fairly intuitive and, perhaps because they are short, easy to identify. Only the equations with linking verbs give me pause because the linking verbs tend to stoke a deeper philosophical question concerned with being and transformation, i.e., whether the subject is altered by the piling on of noun complements.

In the second half of the chapter, Tufte switches scales, moving from the local logic of these four sentences to their paragraph-cumulative effect, whether one type is deployed repeatedly or whether they are working in combination with other types. Here the idea is basically that the two equative types stroll along at a slow pace, intransitives elicit slightly more movement or action, and transitives deliver the most bang because they maximize one thing’s verbing of another thing (the direct object, required for the transitive form). Tufte’s paragraph-long examples highlight the cumulative effect of these short sentence types in context.

A couple of tweets from students today have forewarned me (whether they were meant for me or not) that we will have a fair amount of skepticism to work through tomorrow. As far as I can tell (from their own short sentences, of course) the value of this framework is in doubt. That’s fair. And, in fact, I’m glad to see that they are not only reading Tufte but tweeting about it before class. I think of Tufte’s opening chapter as offering both an analytic method and a heuristic, or generative guide, for revision. The analytic method amounts to a vocabulary and a set of techniques for differentiating sentence types. It’s difficult, without seeming enamored of current-traditionalism, to say that grasping such principles as these helps writers. But it does offer us a scheme for talking about prose style, for pinpointing in yet one more way a sentence’s distinction.

Also, I’m interested in establishing tension between Tufte’s approach and Lanham’s Paramedic Method, which we will look at for Wednesday. Lanham, after all, insists on the importance of concrete subjects and action-packed verbs. Tufte’s attention to equatives and to pacing lends something of value to the subject-verb or character-action patterns so conspicuous in Lanham’s method (also in Williams’ Style). So, while I recognize the value in keying on vivid subject-verb couplings relatively early in sentences, I also appreciate Tufte’s recognition that equative forms may bear strategically on the acceleration (or idling speed) of a passage.