Friendly Silence

A Meal at Google
When I visited Google, I shared a silent meal with some of the people who work there. Afterward, they wrote to me and said, “Never before in that cafeteria have I had a meal that wonderful. I was so happy. I felt so peaceful. Nobody said anything in that whole room full of people. Everybody was quiet from the beginning to the end of the meal. In the history of Google, that’s the first such meal we’ve ever had.” (55)

Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Eat (2014)

I understood by mid-January that the Spring 2024 semester was probably going to rise tempestuous and run roughshod over the time I had been devoting to more regular reading and writing rhythms. It wouldn’t quite be right to say that the reading and writing went altogether dormant; it just shifted, as it is prone to doing, to other things. Even as I had a mid-January deadline for a chapter and as I was tuning plans for the classes I would teach (one a first run, the other a second run), I said “yes” to reading for a book award committee, and “maybe-could” (interpreted as yes!) to another reading-heavy committee. Both sets of reading have lit up the mix board, so to speak. It still feels good to read and read widely, to experience that silent symphony of serendipitous this paired with serendipitous that. Clicks of comprehension are oftentimes almost clicks of invention.

Yet, piled up, deadline-driven reading blankets a semester with an even deeper entrainment. Entrainment, Jenni Odell explains in Saving Time, names the exteriority of temporal regulators in a life. Too much entrainment, though, begins to feel like all of one’s time is planned for you; and so we become busy-busy, and morning noon and night governed. Asynchronous communications, such as text messaging and email, can (and oftener and oftener do, in my experience) function as entrainment reservoirs, brimmed with extras to fill in so the endo-calendar is always chock full. Administering writing programs for a decade braced me for treading again into the brittle psychosphere, a not infrequently brainfogged arena machinated by entrainments which are backed up by reserve entrainments, as when I said yes to the committees, and as when I agreed to be interim director of the PhD program.

Yet, I did say yes. Was not coerced. And I had a pretty good idea of what was ahead. The known trade-off in this is a kind of self-regulated, inevitable quietude in other areas, for example, like having less of a say here, engaging only intermittently on Facebook or Instagram, responding more slowly to texts about social engagements, drawing less, and quietly waiting for sweet flashes of downtime to consider again saying yes to anything more. Another way to approach this would be to underscore that these rebalancings of time amount to sourcing one’s own equanimity; it does little good for me or anyone in my everyday orbit to witness any apparent suffering brought on by a set of circumstances I clear-headedly agreed to.

Now that it’s April and my song is getting thin, I am taking some relief in knowing that these committees are wrapping up, and my interim term lasts only for another month or so. The last day of classes is April 30. And the reading, piled so richly high and smartly wide ranging as it is, has given me a lot to think about, including a more refined sense of possibilities for a class I am due to teach in fall.

Under the quiet, busy din of the semester, though, I have begun to understand the trade-offs in one sphere of activity dialing up, while another sphere of activity dials down, and how, throughout these adjustments–both self-set but also heavily entrained–I am perceiving the silences, lags, intervals of evident inactivity as friendly silence. A decade ago, I would have instead felt some low-level stress marked by tidal entrainment. Friendly silence (and its corollaries in composure and patience) clocks a lesson slow learned.

So Long, Ypsi Brownstone ?

An illustrated bear waves farewell as a dotted line of ants surrounds the entire periphery of his form.
Captain Bluebear and the Ant Pack Honey Travelers.

After some hedging and hem-hawing, I’ve decided I’m selling the Ypsi condo. Change happens, and it is time. It’s the place I’ve lived longest in this life, first as a renter from 2009-2012, then as an owner from 2014-2023. Some Gregorian calendar subtraction, carry the one, and the total is 12 years. But then you kind of sort of have to subtract the past five years because I’ve spent much of each year in Virginia since 2018. Seven-ish years at the condo, and then some. Memories and fix-ups. The fix-ups include painting most rooms, new hot water heater, air conditioner, insulation, cedar fence, new toilets, flooring, and so on. A lilac bush in front, sage and lavender in the side yard, and several hosta plants cousin-ed from the next door neighbor’s overgrowth a few seasons ago.

The prospective sale sets in motion several cascades for several people, including Ph., who has lived there for the past three years. Moving can be stressful, and yet, having stepped through quite a few of the care and consideration gestures for everyone affected by the change, onward song hums quietly toward emptying the place by the end of June, having a painter refresh everything in early-mid July, followed by robust cleaning, and finally, the listing. The realtor, too, was an easy selection because I simply went with the person who gained the confidence of my neighbors who’d sold their places in the past couple of years. I’ver never enjoyed the real estate hustle, but this time is different for being slower moving.

A few items of mixed value remain for the round trips I’ll be making to Michigan and back each of the next few months. Whew, is it a lot of driving, but the roads are usually easy, and the northern half of Ohio has in it an antiques and concrete yard decor place I will stop at to stretch my legs and browse the wares on one of the routes. On this most recent return, I carried along a gardening chest loaded with half gallon and quart Masons for fermentation experiments and other Wonder Hollow food storage. I also brought two cloth boxes of old basketball trophies, a yoga mat and ball, two shepherd’s hooks, a set of chimes, two small sponge balls Is. and I used to play catch with in the living room, a few old storage containers holding things like my mom’s cell phone from when she died in 1997, a small stuffed elephant I’m pretty sure belonged to my brother when he was a tot, a 7th grade report I wrote on black bears in agriculture class, a photocopy of the 1992-1993 Park College basketball individual/team statistics, a handheld space invaders game that kept me company on long bus rides around 1982 would be my guess, and a stack of books—a copy of Network Sense, a history of Park College, a few yearbooks, and of course a copy of Moers’ The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear, which properly/rightly belongs to Ph., but which Is. said I should take to Virginia. I read it to her as goodnight tuck-ins for the better part of eight months or maybe longer, and so it lasts, an imprint enduring of another moment of major life changes and felt upheaval. It’s an illustrated but mostly textual sojourn, a wandering narrative, more about the paths and ways than about the destinations. Conjuring a multiverse/pluriverse episodist hodology more wandering adrift than a tightly bundled odyssey; how many directions can we go in more or less at once? Book means a lot to me. And to Is. And to Ph., as well. So once he is settled again in his new place, I’ll order him a copy to make sure he has it on the shelf for T., when she’s eight, ready at dusk for trailing nightzillion wonders sleepily and softly into dreamscapes.

A Break

A break. For driving exactly 500 miles. For resuming a paused yoga practice. For making and sharing tacos on the smallest of corn shells. For studying the curls rising from French pressed coffee, French press being the only available in this Michigan spring breaking place. 42°16′4″ N 83°35′39″ W. 61F and a wind advisory because the troposphere is delivering late morning a wall of stiff winter air. A break for punch-listing several work to-dos. For review tasks needing caught up. For reading. For writing.

Small Stacks

A couple of reading lists, nine titles ordered and delivered to Halle Library on behalf of the First-year Writing Program, and then another pile, an odd-stack, maybe I’ll get to these this summer and maybe I won’t, read bottom to top and top to bottom, shuffled and reshuffled depending on where I leave a copy, depending on what time I have, depending on mood and disposition and weather and gut bacteria, depending on nothing much at all sometimes.

For Halle Library, nine titles.

I am reminded upon posting just the one photo (above) that reading habits run a fickle, snaking course–meandering and irregular, never especially disciplined-seeming except perhaps in their continuing, on-going. Anti-library, nomad-habit, ambivalence, juxtaposition, re-reading, crumb trails, low on fucks or high, intention and purpose or their lacunae, and then add to it finishing up with writing one’s own books, with others or solo, mid-careering, wondering only but so effortfully what’s next and why would this be next but not that. Not the most strenuous May-June ever, litotes.

The Little Mushroom the Englightened Yogi Secretly Stayed With, Untroubled

Implicitly (until now) there is some kind of faint jostling between these stacks, different microlibraries, hints of interest and curiosity washed back by life and distraction, laziness and Netflix, accidental and well-intentioned anti-library, I meant to read you. I really did. I was going to. I was going to read everything.

There’s much missing here, too, another gift, Murakami’s The Strange Library, a couple of books from Ypsilanti Public Library due last night by 11:59 p.m. whose deadline I beat by an hour to renew–a miracle–even though they’re all read, finished, complete, ready for the return slot. Read with greater urgency the books that go back, temporary visitors, ones who would if they could but who cannot stay.

Graphicacy

For the past few weeks, “graphicacy” has insinuated itself into the part of my brain where nagging curiosity comes from (the self-nagebellum), becoming the terministic equal of an ear worm: word worm. Term worm? Lexical maggot? Whatever. And there, for weeks now, it has wriggled, dug in.

I don’t recall encountering “graphicacy” before Liz Losh mentioned it casually in her presentation to EMU’s First-year Writing Program during her visit last month. I wrote down several things from Liz’s talk, but graphicacy was there on top of my notes, large and starred. It stands to reason that graphicacy keeps company with literacy. Both are –acy words, which means they are adjectives converted to nouns and that they name or identify conditions. Presumably these, too, are nominalizations, but they by-pass verbs, which is the problem I’ve been thinking about. We have reading and writing to verb literacy, but what verbs graphicacy?

I had to do a little bit of cursory sifting and searching for graphicacy, to start. It seems like the term was initiated in a mixed and sprawling range across math education (learning to plot points and interpret graphs), geography (facility with maps), and graphic design (technical-aesthetic savvy). Late last month, it surfaced in the context of a conversation about multimodal composition and the graphic rhetoric we have adopted at EMU, Understanding Rhetoric. This is the main reason it took hold for me: graphicacy seemed to gather an array of practices related both to understanding and making visuals. It sweeps into one pile an assortment of visual communications–graphs, maps, word clouds, comics, painting, photography, typography, data visualization–much in the same way visual rhetoric does. And yet, with graphicacy as with visual rhetoric, it feels like we are still missing a sufficiently encompassing verb to capture the array of practices.

At our Advanced WAC Institute on campus late last April (or was it by then early May?), I worked with a team of colleagues on a new (for us) configuration. With colleagues from Communications and Education, we put together an institute keyed on five complementary practices: writing, reading, critical (or I would say “rhetorical”) listening, speaking, and visualizing. The fifth term, visualizing, was mine to introduce to institute attendees, and it was the most difficult to identify with a verb that was adequate to account for the frame, which amounted to concept mapping, drawing/sketching as heuristic for arrangement, and creating occasions for students to work at the intersection of textual and overtly visual and designerly composition.

Because we called it “visualizing,” we began the sessions needing to backtrack and contextualize. With visualizing, we weren’t talking about conjuring brainbound images or about an indwelt priming of the mind’s eye to work on problems or particular ways of seeing. These were among the associations attendees made with visualizing. And this seemed reasonable. Visualizing wasn’t quite the right verb. But what is the right verb? What is the general verb comparable to writing, reading, listening, and speaking that relates not only to seeing but to creating visuals, especially in consideration of vector illustration programs and shape-based concept mapping software that bears only faint relation to drawing?

Graphicacy stirs this question yet again but does not quite answer it. But I hope not to call it “visualizing” ifwhen we convene the institute again next time.

Blank April

  • I’m looking forward to April. Yesterday I was finally able to erase the markerboard above my desk where I list various tasks, responsibilities, and leaden-strum obbligato. Wiped clean, the markerboard.
  • There’s still work to do in April, but it’s a breeze compared to March. Besides the early launch of allergy season, March brought two manuscript deadlines (one a draft, the other a revision), the MASAL Conference, and CCCC in St. Louis, to say nothing of the ongoing teaching of three classes. By some miracle, nothing slipped through the cracks. Or if it did, I apologize and have not noticed.
  • For the first time in I don’t know when, I don’t have any more conferences on the horizon. Blank April, blank May, blank June, blank Indefinite, as far as conferences go.There’s a half-cooked prospect floating around out there for a CCCC 2013 proposal, but I’m ambivalent about conferencing in Las Vegas. The conference falls on D.’s birthday and at a time of year it’s unlikely any of us–D., Is., or me–will be on Spring Break. Plus the call for papers doesn’t exactly light my fire (a common sentiment felt by others, as echoed among at least a few Twitterers).
  • Is. has her swimming lesson extravaganza in a couple of hours, which means families of the lesson-takers all get into the pool for a 40-minute I’ve-not-worn-this-Speedo-in-months splash.
  • Although the conference-coast is clear, another co-authored manuscript is due June 1. It requires shaping and drafting yet. Next week I should probably write it on the markerboard. All of the work–a kind of service-oriented research-in-action–has been done (or is continuing), so its writing is largely a matter of describing and arranging. I should also add the finishing touches on ENGL326 online, a course I will teach in early summer, to the whiteboard, but for now–for a few days–I’m too pleased with having a blank board to so much as lift a marker.
  • I have somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 drafts of things to comment on by the end of the day on Monday (or thereabouts…this might really mean “Wednesday afternoon”). Twenty of them will get 5-7 minute .mp3 files from me, which I record not only to mix things up but also because I enjoy the idea that these audio comments occasionally surface during social events when iTunes is set to shuffle and the audio track hasn’t been deleted. Livens up the party, I’m sure.
  • I’d like to finish three or four books in April: Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole (I’m two chapters in and liking it very much), Mieville’s Embassytown (a treat for meeting March’s many deadlines), Clark’s Supersizing the Mind (thinking about whether/where this fits for ENGL505 in the fall), and Fox’s Aereality (because I anticipate leaning again into mapping and geographies in a couple of projects on the middle-deep horizon). Probably won’t get to all of this, but if I do, oh, if I do. What if I do?
  • Despite the pollen, I will continue running, too. I have a couple of races on the schedule–the Big Bay Relay in Marquette, the Ann Arbor-Dexter 5K. I’m still sorting through what running does, how it is potentially meditative, etc. Lots of layers to this, and the unordered list doesn’t lend itself to much elaboration here and now. I’m also returning to Native Vision (for the final time?), which is held early summer in Tuba City, Ariz.
  • And finally I’ve volunteered (and was sort of asked) to write my grandmother’s obituary this weekend. She died peacefully on March 21, a consequence of cancer(s) whose pathways and concentrations went largely undocumented (i.e., unmedicalized, uncharted). I learned of this on the first morning of CCCC, just minutes after I’d finished a 4-mile run around the arch and also just minutes before a couple of different presenterly/speakerly roles and so felt its intensities extremely privately. But writing an obit is yet another occasion to reflect and remember and maybe I’ll come back to this in a few days to say more about the memories, her influence, about her good great life.

If Style

Two full days this week—Tuesday and today—occupied with reading and reviewing student work means I am almost (almost) finished with the spring term. Today’s workday consisted of reading final projects and exams for ENGL328—a pleasurable enough undertaking all unto itself that it was not exactly a relief when my dentist’s office called late morning to offer a wait-list invitation for a 1 p.m. cleaning. Needed a break anyway: sure, I’ll take it.

Talkative hygienist talked: about a pain-free gum-poke test she would administer, about the relatively unkempt upper-outer-left region, about how that was because I was right handed, about the Chinese lanterns she’d used to decorate the vacation Bible school classroom where she’d spent that morning, about how I was her first patient of the day, about slow-notice children who saw and asked about the Chinese lanterns for the first time today, about how it makes no sense that EMU needed to raise tuition this year, about etc., about etc. For the price of clean teeth, an hour of arhetorical listening, I kept thinking. And then back to the office for two hours or so of more work.

Gems from the exams included one poignant opening paragraph that described exactly what I understand to be the value of this version of ENGL328. Another had the momentarily-profound-seeming typo, Elements If Style. And then there were sentences that rattled around in my head all day after I read them; one about how for the interdependence of writing and living this was a class in “radical biology,” another about how teaching well means constantly sending sound lines through the water. Rattling1: an inversion of Rich’s “You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it,” as “You must live as if your reading and writing depended on it.” What is a pulse, anyway, if not streaming cardiovascular inscription? Rattling2: for the adrift, academically and otherwise, sonic confirmation that there is an uneven floor beneath these immediate surfaces. And so, yes, a delight to read, a short term near-complete, and, next, in less than 1000 minutes, summer vacation, a few weeks of summer R&R (Rest and Relaxation, better described as Reading and Research).

What in the Antilibrary Grumbles?

In The Object Stares Back (1996), James Elkins writes

In my living room there are two large bookcases, each one eight feet tall, and they have about five hundred books between them. If I step up to a shelf and look at the books one by one, I can remember something about each. As a historian once said, some stare at me reproachfully, grumbling that I have never read them. One may remind me vaguely of a time when I was interested in romantic novels. An old college text will elicit a pang of unhappiness about studying. Each book has its character, and even books I know very well also have this kind of wordless flavor. Now if I step back from the shelf and look quickly across both bookcases I speed up that same process a hundredfold. Impressions wash across my awareness. But each book still looks back in its own way, answering the rude brevity of my gaze, calling faintly to me out of the corner of my eye. At that speed many books remain wrapped in the shadows of my awareness–I know I have looked past them and I know they are there, but I refuse to call them to mind. (73-74)

I read this in the hallway of Rackham Hall yesterday where I sat for ten minutes–not staring back, ironically–as ENGL328 students filled out end-of-semester course evaluations. But what was on my mind as I read this was the workshop I was scheduled to lead at noon today for EMU’s Nelson Faculty Development Center, a workshop titled, “How to Curate a Digital Antilibrary: An Introduction to Google Reader.” The antilibrary comes from Taleb’s characterization of the unread portion in Umberto Eco’s personal collection of 3,000 books. Those unread items project felicitously some horizon of possibility. The antilibrary is not antithetical to the library; it is its premonition, its ghost from the future.

I can’t decide about the relationship between Taleb’s conception of “unread” and Elkins’ idea here that even those books that are technically unread (whatever that means) are well-enough known to grumble for their having been neglected. At first I thought, Elkins has no antilibrary. But that’s not quite right.

Instead, his books are always a little bit read: read through their titles, through an author’s or publisher’s reputation, through a book jacket, or even more fundamentally (as objects) through an assumed to be recognizable materiality. These are bound, shelved books, after all. Consequently, they never rightly, properly fit in the antilibrary, do they?

Elkins takes a hypothetical step back: “I know I have looked past them and I know they are there, but I refuse to call them to mind.” This refusal is a curious game, striking for its thin, wispy relationship to rapid cognition, or thin-slicing. The refusal is a sort of will to indeterminacy, to unknowing, to disassociation. And I guess that’s what I’m thinking about now, having read this, having talked earlier about digital antilibraries: the persistence of an antilibrary requires one part a refusal to look at what is already in the collection, one part embrace of the potentialities in the nearby-but-unknown, and another part thrill in expecting a future in which those materials-awaiting will still be there for taking up.

Time Enough for Slow Reading

Reports like this make me fidget. An appeal to the slow toward “meaning and pleasure” strikes me as less a call for “slow reading” as an idyllic, life-of-the-mind practice and more as a call for “slow[er] reading [than you do when you must hurry].” While I understand the urge to foster thicker, more patient relationships between readers and whatever they read, the “slow reading revolution” seems to me to frame of texts by default according to a filter-first logic, an already-filtered logic. The aim is not revolution, really, but involution by temporal variation, by changing speeds. According to Clay Shirky’s discussion of filtering and publishing in Here Comes Everybody and elsewhere, filter-then-publish aligns with broadcast and with editorial gate-keeping, screening that happens before publication. When user-generated content comes along, on the other hand, these events are reversed.  Publishing happens first, filtering after. For readers, then, the trouble with the web is that both varieties of content slosh around together (an indistinguishable stew): streams are not already separated into cooked content (i.e., filter-then-publish) or raw content (i.e., publish-then-filter). Filtering is crucial in a digital age not only because we need it to survive experientially this growing delta of user-generated content but because the already-filtered is drifting in its midst. These conditions require of online readers a heightened “filtering imperative” all the way up.  And yet my first, admittedly glancing, impression is that “slow reading” assumes filtering to be unproblematic or already settled–a given. Filtering is not exactly reading, right?, but filtering is pre-reading–a flitting relationship that, I would argue, cannot be as slow-probative-sluggish as slow reading advocates would like. Steven Johnson, in his introduction to The Best Technology Writing of 2009, differentiates the slow-fast as “skim and plunge,” allowing for nimble readers who can change speeds as skillfully as Kobe Bryant setting up a blow-by step. Slow reading advocates would appear more concerned more with plunge than with skim. Beyond “slow reading,” I am interested in filtering and in making these skim/plunge changes of speed explicit with students.

I don’t want to mischaracterize the slow reading movement. Nor do I want to seem disparaging or unfair in writing through, as I have done briefly here, a few of my impressions: viz., I have a book on my night stand that I have been reading at a pace of two pages a week for almost three years. Snails, that’s slow. Sometimes I skip a week. Or two. Even slower then. I wish I could quit the book, but there is no hurry. Such a dragged out reading as with this book is like watching a nature program in which a tortoise flips sand over its freshly laid eggs. Flip. Flip. Flip. Or the episode with a sloth reaching for that one succulent cecropia leaf still a meter beyond its lethargic reach. It just seems to me it’s possible to teach a “closer connection” or some deeper involvement with texts via read-alouds and memorization than by invoking a superficial opposition to the assumed-to-be-frenetic character of “reading” online.

Proust and the Squid

I finished Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain early this spring, and I have been meaning to revive the blog again periodically for reading notes, so catch as catch can. Initially, I picked up Wolf’s book because I wanted to know how she dealt with the endangered status of reading in the age of the internet, in terms of carrying through as both “story” and “science” of how the reading brain does neurologically what it does. Wolf’s book also figured into Nicholas Carr’s 2008 Atlantic Monthly article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, and Carr has been drawing attention (on techrhet and from bloggers) more recently following the release of The Shallows. In Carr’s AM article, Wolf was cited as one whose foreboding research insights affirm Carr’s “I’m not the only one” suspicions about the superficiality of reading experiences at the interface. Carr wrote,

Wolf worries that the style of reading promoted by the Net, a style
that puts “efficiency” and “immediacy” above all else, may be weakening
our capacity for the kind of deep reading that emerged when an earlier
technology, the printing press, made long and complex works of prose
commonplace. When we read online, she says, we tend to become “mere
decoders of information.” Our ability to interpret text, to make the
rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without
distraction, remains largely disengaged. (para. 8)

Continue reading →