A Momentary, But Edifying, Lapse Of Focus

This past Friday, I went climbing in the Shawangunks with my wife and daughter; we were guided by Carolyn Riccardi of Eastern Mountain Sports and received some wonderful instruction throughout the day. My daughter attempted some elementary routes as did my wife and I. I also attempted and succeeded in climbing a slightly harder route–for me: the 5.7 rated Nice Crack Climb, whose most tricky part is a bouldering move to get off the ground. It took me six attempts to get past that; a very satisfying if exhausting accomplishment. A little higher up, a crack needs a little work as well, and here, I spent a little time figuring out how to move up. Finally, I saw what had to be done; I would have to twist my body sideways bringing my left hand across to the right and then as I pulled myself across laterally, to reach up with my right hand to a very useful little hold that was now visible. I reached across and moved up–and then, in the very next instant, I had slipped and was dangling on the rope in mid-air, expertly and safely belayed by our guide below.

I had started my celebrations a little too early–and I had paid for it. Not for the first time, I was rudely reminded that it is best to wait till the finish line is reached before tooting one’s trumpet.

In that fraction of a second before I slipped, I had experienced a surge of elation. I had figured out how I was going to get out of this jam and move on to the top of the crag’s face. Till then, I had been tired, a little sweaty, my hands scraped and blistered in a couple of spots; I had started to experience some doubt about my ability–as a very inexperienced climber–to solve this face’s challenges. And then, when the ‘solution’ presented itself to me, I thought I had glimpsed the promised land, the end of the route. I had already started to imagine the backslapping and congratulations I would receive once I had rappelled down. And in that fraction of a second, my mind and body weren’t working together. And so I slipped.

I got back on the route and finished it, this time making sure that I remained focused on completing the move. And I did indeed, celebrate with the rest of my climbing companions once I got back down. That glow was worth basking in; but the most important lesson hadn’t been the fact that I had completed my first challenging route in the ‘Gunks. Rather, I had gained insight into something I had read in many accounts of climbing: that it requires concentration and focus at all times, that the worst mistakes happen when you take your eyes off the prize. Many climbers write of how this intense focus can be intensely pleasurable, allowing them to feel a level of awareness of their body and mind that they do not experience elsewhere. I think I have the faintest glimmering of an idea of what they are getting at now. For this permanently distracted person, that focus seems especially alluring. It sends out a siren call of sorts, beckoning me away from my desk.

The Distinct Relief Of Being (Partially) ‘Off-Line’

I’ve been off blogging for a while, and for good reason: I’d been traveling and did not bother to try to stay online during my travels. Interestingly enough, had I bothered to exert myself ever so slightly in this regard, I could have maintained a minimal presence online here at this blog by posting a quick photo or two–you know, the ones that let you know what you are missing out on, or perhaps even a couple of sentences on my various journeys–which might even have risen above the usual ‘oh my god, my mind is blown’ reactions to spectacular landscapes; network connectivity has improved, and we are ever more accessible even as we venture forth into the ‘outdoors’; after all, doesn’t it seem obligatory for travelers to remote ends of the earth to keep us informed on every weekly, daily, hourly increment in their progress?  (Some five years ago, I’d enforced a similar hiatus on this blog; then, staying offline was easier as my cellphone signal-finding rarely found purchase on my road-trip through the American West.)

But indolence and even more importantly, relief at the cessation of the burden of staying ‘online’ and ‘updated’ and ‘current’ and ‘visible’ kicked in all too soon; and my hand drifted from the wheel, content to let this blog’s count of days without a new post rack up ever so steadily, and for my social media ‘updates’ to become ever more sporadic: I posted no links on Facebook, and only occasionally dispensed some largesse to my ‘friends’ in the form of a ‘like’ or a ‘love,’ my tweeting came to a grinding halt. Like many others who have made note of the experience of going ‘off-line’ in some shape or form, I experienced relief of a very peculiar and particular kind. I continued to check email obsessively; I sent text messages to my family and video chatted with my wife and daughter when we were separated from each other. Nothing quite brought home the simultaneous remoteness and connectedness of my location in northwest Iceland like being able to chat in crystal clear video from a location eight arc-minutes south of the Arctic Circle with my chirpy daughter back in Brooklyn. This connectedness helps keep us safe, of course; while hiking alone in Colorado, I was able to inform my local friends of my arrivals at summits,  my time of commencing return, and then my arrival back at the trailhead; for that measure of anxiety reduction, I’m truly grateful.

Now, I’m back, desk-bound again. Incomplete syllabi await completion; draft book manuscripts call me over to inspect their discombobulated state; unanswered email stacks rise ominously; textbook order reminders frown at me.  It will take some time for me to plow my way out from under this pile; writing on this blog will help reduce the inevitable anxiety that will accompany me on these salvage operations. (Fortunately, I have not returned overweight and out-of-shape; thanks to my choice of activities on my travels, those twin post-journey curses have not been part of my fate this summer.)

On to the rest of the summer and then, the fall.

Nietzsche’s Six Methods For Combating Facebook Distraction

Nietzsche has something to say about everything. Including Facebook Distraction, an ‘impulse’ whose ‘vehemence’ we seek to combat, and for which he has found ‘not more than six essentially different methods.’ (‘The Dawn of Day‘, trans. JM Kennedy, Allen Unwin, 1924, Section 109)

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The Phenomenology Of Encounters With Notification Icons

It’s 630 AM or so; you’re awake, busy getting your cup of coffee ready. (Perhaps you’re up earlier like the truly virtuous or the overworked, which in our society comes to the same thing.) Your coffee made, you fire up your smartphone, laptop, tablet, or desktop, and settle down for the morning service at the altar.  Your eyes light up, your antennae tingle in pleasurable anticipation: Facebook’s blue top ribbon features a tiny red square–which squats over the globe like a ginormous social media network–with a number inscribed in it; single figures is good, double figures is better. You look at Twitter: the Liberty Bell–sorry, the notifications icon–bears the weight of a similar number. Yet again: single figures good, double figures better. You look at GMail: your heart races, for that distinctive bold lettering in your inbox is present, standing out in stark contrast from the pallid type below; and there is a number here too, in parentheses after ‘Inbox’: single figures good, double figures better.

That’s what happens on a good day. (On a really good day, Facebook will have three red circles for you.) On a bad day, the Facebook globe is heartbreakingly red-less and banal; Twitter’s Liberty Bell is mute; and GMail’s Inbox is not bold, not at all. You reel back from the screen(s) in disappointment; your mood crashes and burns; the world seems empty and uninviting and cold and dark. Impatience, frustration, anxiety come rushing in through the portals you have now left open, suffusing your being, residing there till dislodged by the right kind of sensory input from those same screens: the appropriate colors, typefaces, and numbers need to make an appearance to calm and sooth your restless self. We get to work; all the while keeping an eye open and an ear cocked: a number appears on a visible tab, and we switch contexts and screens to check, immediately. An envelope appears on the corner of our screens; mail is here; we must tear open that envelope. Sounds too, intrude; cheeps, dings, and rings issue from our machines to inform us that relief is here. The silence of our devices can be deafening.

Our mood rises and falls in sync.

As is evident, our interactions with the human-computer interfaces of our communications systems have a rich phenomenology: expectations, desires, hopes rush towards with colors and shapes and numbers; their encounters produce mood changes and affective responses. The clever designer shapes the iconography of the interface with care to produce these in the right way, to achieve the desired results: your interaction with the system must never be affectively neutral; it must have some emotional content. We are manipulated by these responses; we behave accordingly.

Machine learning experts speak of training the machines; let us not forget that our machines train us too. By the ‘face’ they present to us, by the sounds they make, by the ‘expressions’ visible on them. As we continue to interact with them, we become different people, changed much like we are by our encounters with other people, those other providers and provokers of emotional responses.

The Virtuous, Ubiquitous Skipping Of Lines And Pages

In Immortality (HarperCollins, New York, 1990), Milan Kundera writes,

If a reader skips a single sentence of my novel he won’t be able to understand it, and yet where in the world will you find a reader who never skips a line? Am I not myself the greatest skipper of lines and pages?

As a child I was frequently accused by my ‘friends’–never by my family–of skipping lines and pages; perhaps because I was thought to read quickly, too quickly. I detected, even then, some envy in these accusations, some resentment (or ‘ressentiment‘) even as I never took myself to be engaging in any bragging about my supposed speed-reading prowess. I defended myself against these charges strenuously but they stuck, hammering away at me, casting doubt and suspicion upon my assessments of my reading abilities and accomplishments. It made me hyper-sensitive about making sure I had read every single word and line in the books I consumed; those accusations bred a peculiar sort of anxiety and insecurity. (Even though, as Kundera notes, everyone skips a line or two.)

Years later, when I first encountered ‘difficult texts,’ ones that required working through, I was still sensitive to this charge; a book was either read cover to cover, or it was not read at all.  This immediately induced a crisis: I was now constantly a failure. I could not read many of these texts from cover to cover; they were too long and doing so took up too much time that had to be spent elsewhere; they were too difficult and simply could not be engaged with at the level required for too long; and so on. As a child, when I was confronted with a book that did not catch my fancy, I dropped it and took up another. But as an adult, ‘dropping’ a book–or skipping lines and pages–became an indicator of all sorts of moral and intellectual failure; there was no virtuous ‘flitting around.’ It was all straight ahead, nose to the wheel, or it was not reading at all.

Now, as I look at the many unread books on my shelves, the length of my wishlist on Amazon, and the size of the directories that house the various electronic books I have procured through methods of varying legality, it seems that tactical and strategic skipping of lines, passages, and perhaps entire texts is a practical and intellectual necessity. So much yet to read; so little time left; perhaps a little flitting around is in order? As my dear friend Doris McIlwain once said to me, “you need to be a child again; drop the book you don’t like and move to the one you want.” And yet, old and new guilt persists: I am not a serious enough reader (or worse, ‘scholar’), an easy fear to entertain when one is afflicted with the impostor syndrome; I’ve always been this way; I’ve been persistently inauthentic; and so on. As I noted in an older post, these fears tap into a host of others, all concerned with whether we possess the requisite nous and inner resources with which to deal with this life’s challenges. Reading being a particularly acute one; here we find a very particular challenging of our supposed virtues.

Hermione Lee On Wasting Nothing

The Art of Biography series of interviews at The Paris Review includes the following exchange between Hermione Lee and Louisa Thomas in No. 4:


This is something you consistently look at—the ways in which a period that is commonly considered a dead period in a writer’s life feeds into their work. I’m thinking especially of Cather and her journalism, and Wharton and the marriage years before she writes.


There’s a wonderful quotation from Proust, which that great Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen uses. She puts it in her preface to The Last September. “It is those periods of existence which are lived through carelessly, unwillingly, or in boredom, that most often fructify into art.” Isn’t it excellent that that can be the case. My friend Victoria Glendinning has a motto she uses, which I sometimes steal—“Nothing is wasted.” It’s a very reassuring and consoling idea, even if it isn’t always true. Think of those terrible phases in your life when you’re just grinding along, or you’re missing your way, or everything seems arid and disappointing. It helps if you can say to yourself, But something will come out of this. Penelope Fitzgerald wrote a note to herself that I take to heart—“Experiences aren’t given to us to be ‘got over,’ otherwise they would hardly be experiences.” [links added.]

This is very encouraging, I must admit, for someone quite used to ‘grinding along’ and ‘missing [my] way’ all the while thinking that ‘everything seems arid and disappointing.’ Perhaps that ‘experience’ itself will form the basis of what I write in the future as indeed, my terrible distraction and attention-deficit, which keeps me from writing and reading as well or as often as I would like to, has served as subject for several posts on that topic.

There is a more fundamental point at play in Lee’s remarks. As the friends and families of writers ruefully note, everything serves as raw material for writing. If the dramatic, the astonishing, the spectacular, and the curious can be so pressed into service, then why not the boring, the mundane, the tedious, the weekday? They too make us and our lives into what they are.

As for material being ‘wasted,’ every book project of mine generates, besides a manuscript file, a ‘bit bucket‘ file, a space where I keep all that I excised from the book: sterile notes, irrelevant asides and digressions, redundancies, orphans of truncated chains of thought. This collection can grow alarmingly large; my current ‘bit bucket,’ for a book whose notes–I will not dignify that misshapen mass with the appellation ‘draft’–run to about eighty thousand words, is almost seven thousand words and twenty-three pages long.  These buckets have, over the years, not been pressed into service; the material collected in them has not found its way into other writings of mine. But neither have I deleted them. I have not given up on them. Here, I’m a hoarder; driven by the same spirit that animates Lee remarks, I persist in hoping that they will ‘fructify’, if not into ‘art’ then at least into the passably readable.

Repent, The End Of Yet Another Year Is Nigh

It is June 30th, 2015; half the year is over. Depending on your age, you will react to this news with indifference or a curious mix of panic, terror, and melancholy. My reaction, as you might guess by my decision to write this post today, veers–sharply–toward the latter.

Forty might be the new thirty, or perhaps fifty is the new forty, but whatever the latest form of the pithy consolation handed out to those who sense the downward slope on life’s hill, there is no getting around, over, or under, the sense of the precipitous acceleration of the clocks as one ages. The theory of special relativity has something to say about this, I’m sure, obsessed as it is with observers, clocks, measurements, and sometime twins doomed to age at differential rates, but the central problem at hand can be described quite easily: the days feel too short, the bright light seems to be approaching a little too quickly. William James, in a characteristically melancholy mood–don’t let his sometimes sunny optimism and flowing turn of phrase fool you–noted that “the days and weeks smooth themselves out…and the years grow hollow and collapse.”

(As the James reference shows, many bright minds have concerned themselves with this puzzling business, and they haven’t stopped:

Friedman, W.J. and S.M.J. Janssen. 2010. Aging and the speed of time. Acta Psychologica 134: 130-141.

Janssen, S.M.J., M. Naka, and W.J. Friedman. 2013. Why does life appear to speed up as people get older? Time & Society 22(2): 274-290.

Wittmann, M. and S. Lehnhoff. 2005. Age effects in perception of time. Psychological Reports 97: 921-935.)

My particular morose take on the rapid passage of time is most acutely manifest in my worrying about about tasks completed or left unfinished and fretting over how to adequately allocate and manage time between my various personal, professional, intellectual, and existential responsibilities. The most depressing variant of this activity was my extremely imprecise calculation of the number of unread books I could see on my shelves, my Amazon wish list, and my ‘Downloads’ folder. As you might have guessed, my arithmetic confirmed my worst years: There are not enough years left for me to read them all.

My writing on this blog shows I’m a little obsessed by the speedy passage of time. Once–in a post written on July 1st, 2012–I made note of how travel slows down time, and on another occasion, on how a mere change of environment can have the same effect. These maneuvers are of limited efficacy: vacations do not last forever, and the unfamiliar, for an adult, all too rapidly becomes the familiar (that’s part of what it means to be an adult, the growing ease of the contextualization of life’s offerings.) I had hoped my daughter’s birth would slow clocks down, but as our family’s marking of two and half years of her life last week showed, that hasn’t helped either. Indeed, as many parents keep admonishing me, I’d better hurry up and take more photos and videos of these years, supposedly ‘the best ones of all.’

Time is running out; I’d better wrap up, and go do something.