On Reading the Unreadable (or Persisting)

Michael Greenberg writes of Jorge Luis Borges:

He advises his students to leave a book if it bores them: “that book was not written for you,” no matter its reputation or fame.

Good advice, but not easily followed.

Borges’ advice isn’t easy to follow because the decision to continue reading is just another instance of that most insuperable of dilemmas: Should I stay or should I go? Should I press on to the summit, risking life and limb, or should I turn back, foregoing glory and the chance to prove myself against the unforgiving elements? I was warned, after all, that I would experience many, many, moments of utter exhaustion, that I would have to dig deep into reserves that I didn’t know existed. Should I persist in this floundering relationship and attempt to rescue it from the doldrums in which it finds itself, thus investigating the depths of my emotional and romantic commitment, or should I cut my losses and run, seeking a better partner elsewhere? The romantic was always supposed to be our sternest test, wasn’t it?

The reading of a book poses this question in particularly vexed form. We have been urged to show a little backbone in our intellectual endeavors; we have been warned pleasures of the mind are not so easily earned; we accuse ourselves, relentlessly, of indolence in matters of edification. We are convinced we are distracted and flighty, flitting from one easily earned pleasure to the next; we are well aware the classics are often ‘difficult’ and require ‘sustained attention’. If a book ‘bores’ us, surely it is our fault, not the author’s, and we should press on regardless, trusting the difficulty journey ahead will bring its own rewards soon enough. Glory, we well know, comes only to those who persist; those who take the first exit on the highway to greatness are destined to only enjoy minor pleasures. So, this boredom that afflicts us, surely it is a reflection of our intellectual infirmity, an entirely ersatz disease. Can its reports really be trusted?

Matters, of course, are made worse in this day and age, as we suffer the ever-growing deluge of the written word, online and offline. We learn every day, with growing dismay, of the decay of the reading mind, the growth of the 140-character missive. Boredom by book seems like an exceedingly common disease, possibly even over-diagnosed.

If we could only trust our own inclinations, our own expressed desires, Borges’ advice would be far more tractable. But we do not. They have gotten us into trouble many times in the past; we know they will continue to torment us so in the future.

Fears of premature abandonment aren’t going away any time soon.

Note: In the past year, I have abandoned classics by Stendhal and Balzac; my guilt lasted for several days, and it was not assuaged when, on reporting these surrenders to a friend, he responded, “Really? I’m surprised. Those are great reads!” Borges can at least rest content his writing will never bore me.

The Curious Irony of Procrastination

Do writers procrastinate more than other people? I wouldn’t know for sure just because I have no idea how much procrastination counts as the norm and what depths practitioners of other trades sink to. But I procrastinate a great deal. (Thank you for indulging me in my description of myself as a ‘writer’; if you prefer, I could just use ‘blogger.’) At any given moment, there are many, many tasks I can think of–not all of them writerly–that I intend to get around to any hour, day, week, month, year or life now. (I procrastinate on this blog too; I’ve promised to write follow-ups to many posts and almost never get around to doing so.) This endless postponement is a source of much anxiety and dread. Which, of course, is procrastination’s central–and justifiably famous–irony.

You procrastinate because you seek relief from anxiety, because you dread encounters with the uncertainty, frustration, and intractability you sense in the tasks that remain undone. But the deferment you seek relief in becomes a source of those very sensations you sought to avoid. The affliction feared and the putative relief provider are one and the same. It is a miserable existence to suffer so.

One of my longest running procrastinations is close to the two-year mark now; this period has been particularly memorable–in all the wrong ways–because it has been marked by a daily ritual that consists of me saying ‘Tomorrow, I’ll start.’ (I normally go through this in the evening or late at night.) And on the day after, I wake up, decide to procrastinate again, and reassure myself that tomorrow is the day it will happen. As has been noted in the context of quitting vices, one of the reasons we persist in our habits is because we are able to convince ourselves that quitting, getting rid of the old habit,  is easy. So we persist, indulging ourselves once more and reassuring ourselves of our imagined success in breaking out of the habit whenever we finally decide we are ready to do so. (But habits are habits for a reason; because they are deeply ingrained, because we practice them so, because we have made them near instinctual parts of ourselves. And that is why, of course, new habits are hard to form, and old habits are hard to break.)

Similarly for procrastination; we continue to put off for the morrow because we imagine that when the morrow rolls around, we will be able to easily not put off, to get down to the business at hand. All that lets us do, of course, is continue to procrastinate today. The only thing put off till the morrow is the repetition of the same decision as made today–the decision to defer yet again.

Now, if as Aristotle said, we are what we repeatedly do, I’m a procrastinator; I’m an irrational wallower in anxiety, condemning myself to long-term suffering for fear of being afflicted by a short-lived one. That is not a flattering description to entertain of oneself but it is an apt one given my history and my actions.

The Never-To-Be-Returned-To Perennial Draft

My email client shows eighty-two drafts resident in its capacious folders; my WordPress dashboard shows thirty-seven; and a quick search through various document folders on my desktop machine shows several dozen others. They are monuments and gravestones and white flags of surrender; they are signposts of intention, evidence of procrastination run amok; they are bitter evidence of an old truism, that you don’t know what you think till you see it in writing (and some of these show that I wasn’t thinking very much); they are caustic reminders of how imagination all too often outstrips effort and completion, how writerly ambition outruns ability.

Unfinished emails, some of them intemperate rejoinders to online commentary, personally critical emails, offensive or presumptive correspondence, some of them idle thoughts left half-formed, yet others overtaken by the turn of events; embarrassing reminders of what might have gone wrong had I ever, hastily and recklessly, hit the ‘send’ button; these sit in my mail folders. Very frequently, I sigh with relief at a bullet dodged, and wince at how I might have irreparably damaged a relationship. Here, there are many a drawn and then subsequently holstered gun, put away with its chambers still cold.

On this blog, my unfinished draft count had run as high as eighty; it needed some persistent cleaning up–deletions–to bring the number down. Some are mere notes to myself, with a pointer to something I felt needed response and commentary; yet others bear the mark of an incompletely worked out thought, simply run aground for lack of inspiration or perspiration. And my document folders show that I have started many more academic projects than I have finished. Like the blog posts, I have set out and then given up; the inspirational thought of the evening all too quickly turned into the laughable conceit of the morn; and sometimes, awed and intimidated by the dimensions of the presumptive task, I have let my shoulders droop, battened the hatches, and retreated. 

I have deleted many drafts over the years. Some were too ludicrous to tolerate any longer; why had I ever thought that line of thought was worth pursuing? And some too, were so incomplete, so grotesquely misshapen, that I could not even recognize the thought that had initially germinated it – let alone proceed with it any further.

And so there are the ones that remain. I humor myself, often, with the thought that I will return to them, to move them on, to push them on beyond the proverbial finishing ribbon, to bring them to conclusion and pat myself on the back for having shown persistence and gumption. But some of them will never be completed; I have moved on; I leave them around to tell me where I had gone wrong in the past and where I might again; and for all the various edificatory reasons listed above.

There is uncertainty here aplenty and certainty too, that their count will increase. But that thought is reassuring; for perhaps they will only increase as the completions do. That much is enough for now.

The Burdens of Proofreading and Copy-Editing

There must be some sort of writer’s law out there that captures the sensation I am about to describe: as your book approaches the finish line, and as the final proofreadings, corrections, indexing queries, and debates about jacket and cover compositions pile up, the author’s nausea at the sight of his former ‘dearly beloved’ increases in direct proportion.

I have described this sensation before:

[W]eary and exhausted by the endless redrafting, polishing and proof-reading, I want only to be done with the damn thing. It’s not as if I’ve considered the ‘product’ then to be complete; rather, it is that I cannot summon up the energy for another painfully close and exacting edit. (Months later, when I look at the submitted version, I’m astonished by how much dross I let get by me.)

Or:

[C]opy-editing is hard, tedious work, of course, leaving behind many a scar worn in by memories of endless, iterative checks.

That moment is upon me again. My co-author, PVS Jagan Mohan, and I are now getting close to the final production stages of the first volume of our history of the air war component of the 1971 Liberation War for Bangladesh. (This is the second book we have worked on together; the first was a one-volume history of the 1965 air war between India and Pakistan). The book has been eight years in the making and I can’t wait for it to be over. The lion’s share of the work has been done by Jagan, but I’m still exhausted. I can’t imagine how he feels.

As is evident, I do not enjoy this process of ‘finishing’ a book, so much so that in the past, I have suffered from anxiety-ridden dreams about it. There is always, in these closing stages, a particularly insidious fear: that the process of revisions will never end, that I will be stuck, making revisions and emendations, caught in a perpetual loop of sorts, never seeing a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a manuscript come to fruition. Writing is a series of hurdles; this last stage, just like the first one, feels like the hardest. (Well, there’s those middle stages too, when you doubt the wisdom of ever having started the journey.)

Nothing makes copy-editing and proofreading less tedious. This morning, I have played classical music and electronica as sonic accompaniment; they offer only partial solace; they won’t do the reading and corrections for me; they won’t make the act of reading these four hundred odd pages for the umpteenth time any easier. I have, of course, sought relief in distraction: perhaps Facebook, perhaps Twitter, perhaps more sensibly, a little play-time with my little daughter.

Somewhere in the distance, because of the presence of the PDF file of the final proofs resident on my desktop, I can sense the final finished product: a slick paperback with an artfully designed cover, my name on its spine. But it’s still distant, and I feel overcome, again, by a curious mix of tedium and anxiety.

This thing, this beast, is supposedly a virtual intangible thing, an electronic file. But as I crawl toward the finish, it weighs on me like something far more corporeal.

Social Networks and Loneliness

As a graduate student in the late 1980s, I discovered, in quick succession, email, computerized conferencing, and Usenet newsgroups.  My usage of the last two especially–and later, the Internet Relay Chat–would often prompt me to say, facetiously, that I would have finished my graduate studies quicker had I stayed off the ‘Net more. That lame attempt at humor masked what was a considerably more depressing reality: staying online in the ‘social spaces’ the early ‘Net provided was often the only way to deal with the loneliness that is an inevitable part of the graduate student’s life. The emailing quite quickly generated frantic, incessant checking for the latest dispatches from my far-flung partners in correspondence; the conferencing–on the pioneering EIES–led to a full immersion in the world of conference discussions, messaging, live chatting; Usenet newsgroup interactions developed into engagement with, and entanglement in, long-running, fantastically convoluted disputes of many different shadings; IRC sessions generated a cluster of online ‘friends’ who could be relied upon to engage in long conversations at any time of the day or night.

All of this meant you could be distracted from classes and reading assignments. But that wasn’t all of it obviously; an often denuded offline social life was given heft by the online variant. There is something curiously ironic about the need for ‘filling up’ that is implicit in that statement: my daily life felt hectic at the best of times. Classes, assignments, campus employment, all seemed to occupy my time quite adequately; I fell all too easily into that classic all-American habit of talking loudly about how busy I was.

And yet, tucked away in the hustle and bustle were little singularities of emptiness, moments when the crowded campus would appear deserted, when every human being visible seemed surrounded by an invisible protective sheen that repelled all approaches. Into these gaps, thoughts of lands and peoples left behind all too easily intruded; into those interstices flooded in an awareness of a very peculiar distance–not easily characterized–from all that seemed so physically proximal. (That mention of ‘lands and peoples’ notes, of course, what was significantly different about my experience; I was voluntarily displaced, an international student.) These turned what could, and should, have been solitude, into just plain loneliness.

Those early days of refuge-seeking in the electronic and virtual spaces made available by the social networking tools of the time left their mark on me. They turned an already easily-distracted person into an often decohered mess of  competing impulses and emotions: a low-grade anxiety and impatience being among the most prominent of these. (I have often waxed plaintive on these pages about the distraction I suffer from; no cure seems forthcoming.)

As is perhaps evident, I don’t remember those days with any great fondness: to this day, bizarrely enough for a professor, I am made uneasy, not ecstatic, by the sight of students working late in libraries or laboratories, peering at computer terminals (as opposed to books, I suppose). And every Facebook or Twitter status that is an all-too poorly disguised plea for companionship generates an acute sympathetic response.

The times, I am told, are a-changin. But some things remain just the same.

Constraints, Creativity, and Programming

Last year, in a post on Goethe and Nietzsche, which invoked the Freedom program (to cure Internet distraction), and which noted the role constraints played in artistic creation, I had referred obliquely to a chapter in my book Decoding Liberation, in which ‘Scott Dexter and I tried to develop a theory of aesthetics for software, a crucial role in which is played by the presence of technical constraints on programmers’ work.’

Today, I’d like to provide a brief excerpt from Chapter 3, ‘Free Software and the Aesthetics of Code’, pp. 90-91:

Understanding how a particularly ingenious piece of code confronts and subsequently masters constraints is crucial to understanding creativity and beauty in programming. Programmers have a deep sense of how their work is made more creative by the presence of the physical constraints of computing devices. Programmers who worked in the early era of computing struggled, in particular, to write code that would work in the tiny memory banks of the time — the onboard mission computer for the Apollo 11 project had a memory of 72 kilobytes, less than that found in today’s least-sophisticated cell phone. This struggle was reflected in the nature of the appreciation programmers accorded each other’s work. Steven Levy’s ethnography of the early programming culture, Hackers, describes the obsession with  “bumming” instructions from code:

A certain esthetic of programming style had emerged. Because of the limited  memory space of the TX-0 (a handicap that extended to all computers of that era), hackers came to deeply appreciate innovative techniques which allowed programs to do complicated tasks with very few instructions. . . . [S]ometimes when you didn’t need speed or space much, and you weren’t thinking about art and beauty, you’d hack together an ugly program, attacking the problem with “brute force” methods. . . . [O]ne could recognize elegant shortcuts to shave off an instruction or two, or, better yet, rethink the whole problem and devise a new algorithm which would save  a whole block of instructions. . . . [B]y approaching the problem from an off-beat angle that no one had thought of before but that in retrospect, made total sense. There was definitely an artistic impulse residing in those who could use this genius from Mars technique (Levy 1994).

These programmers experienced the relaxation of the constraint of system memory, brought on by advances in manufacturing techniques, as a loss of aesthetic pleasure. The relative abundance of storage and processing power has resulted in a new aesthetic category. One of the most damning aesthetic characterizations of software is “bloated,” that is, using many more instructions, and, hence, storage space, than necessary; laments about modern software often take the shape of complaints about its excessive memory consumption (Wirth 1995; Salkever 2003). Huge executables are disparaged as “bloatware,” not least because of the diminished ingenuity they reflect (Levy 1994). Judgments of elegant code reflect this concern with conciseness: “I worked with some great Forth hackers at the time, and it was truly amazing what could be accomplished with what today would be a laughingly tiny memory footprint” (Warsaw 1999).

The peculiar marriage of constraints, functionality, and aesthetic sensibility in source code highlights a parallel between programming and architecture. An awareness of gravity’s constraints is crucial in our aesthetic assessment of a building, as we assess its ability to master the weight of materials, to make different materials cohere. While striving to make the work visually pleasing, the architect is subject to the constraints of the requirements of the structure’s inhabitants, much as the programmer is subject to the constraints of design specifications, user requirements, and computing power.

Artists in other genres struggle similarly: creative artistic action is often a matter of finding local maxima of aesthetic value, subject to certain constraints (Gaut and Livingston 2003). These constraints may be imposed on the artist, as in censorship laws; they may be voluntarily assumed, as when a composer decides to write a piece in sonata form; or they may be invented by the artists themselves, as in Picasso and Braque’s invention of Cubism. Whatever the origin of the constraints, “creative action is governed by them,” and “artistically relevant goals,” such as the facilitation of   communication between artists and the public, are advanced by them (Elster 2000, 212). The connection between creativity and coping with constraints is explicit in programming: “It is possible to be creative in programming, and that deals with far more ill-defined questions, such as minimizing the amount of intermediate data required, or the amount of program storage, or the amount of execution time, and so on” (Mills 1983)….Thus, the act of programming, in its most creative moments, endeavors to meet constraints imposed by nature through the physicality of computation, by the users of the program and their desires for functionality and usability, and by the programming community through the development of shared standards.

Returning to Writing (And How It Sucks)

On Wednesday, I resumed work on a philosophy book project that has been on the back-burner for a while. More precisely, I have not worked on it since July 2012. (The fall semester of 2012 saw me teaching three classes, all of them essentially new preparations, and then, like, a baby was born.) Back in the summer of 2012, I had recommenced work on my draft notes after a gap of more than year, for I had taken a hiatus from them to finish my cricket book (essentially all of 2011). All of which is to say that I returned to work on a book on which my concerted efforts have been spread out over a period of almost three years. In the summer of 2010, I had engaged in a frenzy of note-making with little attempt to organize them beyond extensive annotation at some points, and in the summer of 2012, I had taken more notes and added some annotations. There are some skeleton arguments in there, some suggestive points to be developed, and so on. In short, it’s one big mess, awaiting clean-up, consolidation, and whatever it is that you are supposed to do when you try to grow a collection of notes into a book.

This week’s experiences, in returning to this shambolic mess, have been an eye-opener.

On Wednesday, I spent my entire editing session adding annotations to a skimpy section of notes. There were many little scribbles which still seemed suggestive and enticing, and invited elaboration from me. Writing went easily; I wrote over fifteen hundred words and then feeling tired and euphoric, called it a day.

On Thursday, I returned to my notes, and attempted to impose some structure on them. Unlike Wednesday, I added very little to no new content, but simply spent all my time reading and re-reading sections–if you can call them that–of my notes and tried to figure out how they hung together, and how they fitted into the outline that I have had in mind for some time now. This was frustrating, tedious, and anxiety-inducing; I cut and pasted and moved some sections, imposed new headings, all the while struggling with panic as I would encounter one mass of disorganized thoughts or notes after another. I ended my writing with traces of anxiety still lingering in me.

Today’s session was a disaster. As I trawled through my notes, I found many small sections that seemed simply irrelevant to my thesis; why on earth had I ever imagined these to ever be useful or illuminating? I opened up a ‘bit bucket‘ file and began deleting material from my notes file and moving it there. When I was finally done, some five thousand words had been moved. I also continued Thursday’s work  of trying to find and impose structure.  When I ended my writing for the morning, I was in a black mood; the self-doubt and fear of failure that seems to be a persistent, painful companion to any writing that I have done was back in full force.

My writing process remains the same as it ever has: I make a lot of notes and then I work them into shape. I have never worked with outlines. This has always meant that the intermediate stage of my writing–from notes to a draft–is acutely anxiety-and-panic provoking. I am now in that phase; a long, unpleasant journey lies ahead. I can only console myself with the reassurance that this one, like the others before it, will find a reasonably happy ending.

Writing Away From Home

I am writing today’s post in a coffee shop. This fact would not be so interesting were it not for the fact that I am often tempted to do so, but almost never do. Today, circumstances compel me to write away from home and so, here I am. But writing at venues other than my desk is hard. I have written almost every single one of my blog posts on this blog at the same desk; a mere handful have been written at my desk in my office at Brooklyn College, and another handful in other venues: in Baltimore, for instance. I like writing on my favorite desktop keyboard, attached to my ‘home machine’, and have never become comfortable with a laptop. The physical affordance of the keys and the screen is not the same; I am, as they say, not a traveling writer. I do not know if this amounts to a limitation in my writing capacities; perhaps I’m not sufficiently ‘bohemian’ or ‘free spirited’  to bang out inspired prose on the road, no matter what my physical location of circumstance. I suppose this preference does say something, possibly unflattering, about how my low my tolerance for disruption is when I write. (External distractions, that is. As I never tire of noting here, I am very successful at distracting myself with the ‘Net.)

I have tried on several occasions to write in coffee shops. It doesn’t work; I am too easily distracted, too easily drawn into an inspection of the various discomforts that afflict me there. The chairs aren’t comfortable; the music is more often than not, too loud; people talk, loudly enough to make me want to reprimand them, but of course, no one ever said that the coffee shop was a quiet zone. So I’ll confess mystification: I don’t get it. I don’t understand how people can be so productive in coffee shops, how students, writers, programmers, grant-writers, novelists, all get so much work done there.

In a coffee shop, I do not necessarily find the company of people comforting, or a relief from the loneliness at home, from my solitary occupancy of my home-bound work desk. Somehow, in a coffee shop, the company of other people turns into an  acute reminder of isolation. Somehow, surrounded by people, by music, by the diverse smells and aromas of a coffee shop, writing feels like a curious retreat, an odd act of seclusion in a public space.

If I do need a change from my regular writing venue, I would much rather pick a library, to be surrounded by books, the written word and the evidence of the massive labor of thousands of other writers. The library is not perfect, as I have complained on this blog before, it too can be a noise zone all its own. But somehow, the presence of large reading tables, the stacks of books, the sometimes visible names of authors, has a calming effect, and I can get to work, to trying to achieve a state of mind that brings me one step closer to joining the ranks of those that surround me. More often than not, it doesn’t work, but the sustained illusion is pleasant enough to pursue time and again.

Note: In one of the ‘distraction posts’ linked to above, I note how traveling away from a usual scene of distraction–in this case, my work desk at home–can be conducive to writing. I stand by that claim; I just don’t think the coffee shop has worked for me as an alternative.

The Distraction of Distraction

I’ve written on distraction on this blog before (several times: detailing my ‘Net distraction; comparing the distraction attendant when trying to write with a pen as opposed to a word processor or blog editor; describing the effect of changing locales of work on distraction and of persistent online activity on the ‘offline’ world; noting how constraint might be essential to creativity.) This would indicate distraction is often on my mind, that I’m distracted enough by distraction to write about it–again and again. I’d like to think writing on distraction might be curative, that describing my strategies for dealing with it, appraising and evaluating them, might enable me to, as it were, ‘see through them’ to understand what goes wrong. Perhaps writing on distraction will also enable some reckoning with the internal monologues that lead to the breakdown of my ever-weakening resolve to not be distracted; perhaps coming to grips with its phenomenology–the release of tension experienced by responding to a distracting stimulus, the breakdown of my inner resolve to not look away, to not procrastinate–all might help. (It is impossible to write about distraction without writing about anxiety so that little demon will presumably make an appearance.)

At the outset, I should say I find my distraction incapacitating to the extent that–without exaggeration–I can say I am terrified and made unhappy by it. I am prone to thinking I am the most distracted person in the world. (I pen these words in the hope someone will make the effort to try to convince me I’m not so, for  misery needs company.) I experience distraction as a fraying at the edges, a coming apart at the seams, a sundering of the center–whichever description you want to use, it’s all that in my feverish imaginings and experiencing of it.

Since my primary mode of distraction is ‘Net distraction, I’d like to offer another description it. I sometimes use ‘screeching’ or ‘scratching’ in trying to describe the activity in the inside of my cranium that makes me want to stand up and run away–and check mail or reload a page–from reading or writing. All too quickly, when working on a computer, I need ‘release’ and the act of moving the mouse so that something else appears on my screen promises relief. A change of screens, that’s all it is. And ironically, I can never take in whatever it is that I switch to. My mind is too blank at that moment, still perhaps processing residual irritation. Then, seething with rapidly accumulating anxiety about my still-on-the-burner work, I switch back. A little later, the ‘scratching’ begins again. I jump in response. Repeat ad nauseam.

The resultant composite sensation resembles nothing as much as it does a kind of emptiness, a vacuity. Nothing has been taken in, nothing emitted. I feel merely depleted. This depletion calls out for replenishment, and thus, strategies for ‘holding down’ the restless wanderer as well. Nothing has worked yet, and by that I mean no strategy–internet fasts for instance–has shown itself to be sustainable. Perhaps the most successful behavioral modification is architectural as in physical distancing, like that present in my trips to the gym, where for a brief, intense set of moments, I can immerse myself and concentrate on physical effort. In those moments, there is genuine relief, not the empty kind experienced when switching tabs. Then, all too soon, the workout ends, I towel off and head home, already, bizarrely, anticipating the moment when I will sit back down at the scene of my perdition.

Note: In subsequent posts I hope to describe my experiences with the strategies I have tried for dealing with distraction.

Traveling Away from Distraction and Fast Clocks

I am writing from a new location today. I still have book shelves as companions, but their contents are interestingly different. (An impressive collection of graphic novels and lots of medieval history of science for instance.)  The computer runs a different browser (Firefox, not Chrome) and the Pandora station is playing bluegrass, which I have to admit, doesn’t get much airtime on my usual machine. The monitor and keyboard’s geometries are novel.  When I look up from my writing position, just below street level on a row of beautiful Brooklyn brownstones, I see plants and people (at home I look up at a wall, and left out of a window); cats, not mine–the same ones that woke me a few times last night when they jumped on to my bed–wail away, not too loudly mind, in the background.

That last bit should have solved any mystery pertaining to my transplantation: I’m house-sitting, doing  friends a favour, and scoring myself a staycation, for this residency includes access to what must surely be one of Brooklyn’s most sumptuous backyard gardens. My assignments for the week are simple: keep the three cats well fed and at peace with each other; water the garden systematically and thoroughly; don’t break anything.

Writing this blog post from here allows me to combine two threads of earlier conversations: sites of distraction and the slowing of clocks by travel. The latter first. Here, in my new abode, I’ve slowly discovered its particular accommodations, its boundaries and contours, come to grips with its creaks and groans. (And all that was just to figure out where the cats were and to make coffee this morning; getting Netflix to work last night, on the other hand, was a cinch.) I’ve been to this house many times before; indeed, I’ve been visiting this address since 1995, but with my usual hosts away, it feels new all over again. This novelty, this nascent unfamiliarity, has ensured that my day today feels more languid, more open-ended. It is this open-endedness too, that promises relief from distraction, which very often is manifest in a series of bad habits developed with regards to a particular space. Perhaps I will find distraction and procrastination here as well, but for the time being, marvelling at the two windows on either side of my desk, the dappled sunlight dramatically playing with its detritus, it still holds promise as a location unsullied by lassitude and dissolution.

I intend to seek out new sites for writing all week; sometimes in the backyard garden; sometimes on the table in the kitchen upstairs. In conducting such searches I join the legions of those who up and move their headquarters, laptops and chargers included, to coffee shops, to libraries, to summer retreats by lakes and shores. My strategy falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum of possibilities; a simple change of residence but elaborate enough to count as a ‘retreat.’ That word affords the most appropriate description, one capable of doing double duty as ‘manoeuvre’ and ‘location.’ The clocks will speed up soon enough; I will go back to being scatterbrained. But for now, there is possibility and promise. (The Pandora station has moved on to Amy Winehouse and Black Sabbath.)