2.27.2013

Feeling it: Of Habit and Scheduling


Every morning, I eat the same breakfast: granola (without flavor and crap like raisins — just toasted oats), a wallop of raw tahini, and rice milk all heated for 30 seconds in the microwave (cold food shocks my 98 degree body). This breakfast works for me — it keeps everything moving in every sense of the word.

This is the beauty of habit. I don't have to weigh and consider, fiddle and experiment. Nope: I slide into my breakfast as if it were a second skin. This, of course, was earned through 43 years of trial and error and is not to be taken for granted.

We are fundamentally environmental creatures. We live in, with, and amongst the world around us. You are what and how you take in, take up, and refuse what you encounter, what's around you, your environment (in this sense, I am an environmentalist). In the process, we develop relationships with things, with food, with spaces, with people, with things. These establish themselves to become habits that propel or hamper — or, more frequently, both at the same time — the system that is you.

While habit can be a beautiful way of going with the world, it can of course lead us to avoid life. We get trapped in ways that might have worked for us at some point but no longer do. And, sometimes, we enjoy habits that sap our vitality (addictions are the most extreme example). Just watch someone absent mindedly smoke a cigarette, drink a Coke, or eat a bag of Doritos. That blind reach for self-destruction is disturbing to witness.

So, despite my granola habit, I still consider my breakfast each morning. Is granola right today? Often, it's perfect. But, some days, this body just doesn't want toasted oats. So I have my gluten free toast with 85% chocolate and a banana. Yum! Or whatever seems right.

My goal, at all points, is to feel the ever elusive and seemingly vague but actually particular it.  My body changes. My moods change. The weather changes. Meanwhile, all I want to do is what's right for me and this circumstance at this moment — this meal, these words, this drink, this nap, this walk all driving my vitality. This is a trying but rewarding task.

I've done a pretty good job of engineering my life so that I often have the opportunity to make these micro decisions that are anything but micro. This, to me, is the great crime of labor: it alienates people from the means of their own production of self — my existential twist on Marx.  Waking up to an alarm clock every morning so you can trudge to work through 45 minutes of angst riddled traffic is not the means to healthy self production. Duh.

But as I live in this life and have clients and a child, the world will not let me make any decision at any point. Often, I am asked to schedule things in the future. 

Now, I'm tempted to say that I loathe scheduling. But it wouldn't be quite true. I am resistant to scheduling.  Scheduling is anathema to my way of being. It's a deficiency that borders on cognitive disability. When someone asks, "Hey, what are you doing next Saturday?" my mind fogs over. I literally can't answer as I can't fathom life that far ahead. 

And, in reality, how can they ask this of me? I mean,  how do I know how I'll feel on Saturday — not to mention next week, next month, three months from now? Yes, I love Ween but that doesn't mean that two months from now I'll feel like seeing them live.

Whenever I have appointments — say, a medical check up or meeting with a client — I get agitated. I can feel the tug from the future, a nag, a drag, like I'm forgetting something. That future possibility leaks backwards into my present and it's not pretty.

With work, it's easier to stomach because I feel like I have no choice — this life demands doing things we don't want to do. But if it's something I am actually excited about — a concert or trip to see a friend — I get anxious that when the time comes, something will go wrong. I won't want to go. Or I'll be sick. It's too much pressure. I just want to focus on today, please.

Habit and scheduling — the past and the future: these are the forces, the temptations, that distract me from reckoning the now.

But then I think: such is life and such is time. It's a fold. Habits are always forming just as events are always taking shape in the future. The now is never simply now. It is always a before and an after, both real and possible.

The trick, I suppose, is to feel an it that is at once now and then. I have to learn to extend my reckoning of the moment, let it flow into possible future worlds. The problem is I have no idea how to do that.

2.23.2013

Of Pants & Adulthood


Sometimes, when I'm walking downtown, I look at what seem to be grown up men. They wear work clothes — work shirts, work pants, work shoes. And they all wear watches. On the weekends, they wear cargo shorts, sneakers, and baseball caps. Which is confusing. I see myself as such a boy but I wouldn't wear shorts and a baseball cap if you paid me. Ok, maybe if you paid me. 

For years, I wrestled with what to wear. The thrift plaid wardrobe that defined my twenties made me feel like the shlumphy twenty-something I was. The Banana Republic attire of my 30s made me feel like I was still proud of my first real job! Humiliating.

What, I wondered, are men supposed to wear?  Khakis are, well, stupid. Wool work slacks are absurd. Dickies painters pants are just plain wrong (on me, that is, not a priori).

Thank goodness for jeans. Jeans span generations. But the cheap shit Levi's I had sagged off my skinny bar mitvah boy ass. Expensive jeans became the way to go. The first time I dropped over $100 on jeans was disconcerting, to say the least (now I wish my jeans were only $100). Of course, said jeans are the new adolescent wear (no, they're not skinny jeans). But, tell me, what the fuck else am I supposed to wear? 

Forget the watch. I'll never wear one.

It's not easy being an adult today. I think back to my mother at 43 — she had three kids, the youngest of whom (me) was 14. She was a woman. No doubt about it. Me at 43 is another story. And it's obviously not just me. I look around at my peers and we're all dressed like bozos of one form or another. 

But this issue obviously exceeds what to wear. What is that defines adulthood? I'm 43; I have a kid; I was married for 13 years and am now divorced. Isn't that enough? When does this adulthood happen?

I don't have a real job. I tried a couple of times for a few months but that life is not for me. So I've had my own company — or companies — for 15 years.

That sure sounds grown up when I say it. But it doesn't seem to impress women. Maybe this is because what drives me is not professional ambition but that desire for the freedom of my youth. Having my time accounted for drives me ape shit — and a lot of my time is accounted for by a 58 pound cutie pie nincompoop. So with the rest of the time, I want to wake, eat, work, shit all in my own rhythm.

This seems normal to me but, to some (ahem, to certain women), I refuse to grow up. When I told a female friend of mine recently that I am excited about those times when no one knows or cares where I am, she told me it was funny that I still held on to that desire.

I suppose this desire to be free of responsibility is young. But I also feel like we've defined adulthood by the acceptance of suffering — the suffering of marriage, the suffering of work. Which smacks of capitalist propaganda. Maturity is giving up all your free time so someone else can get rich? Really?

Now, there is something mature about accepting suffering. But not suffering at the hands of some corporate douche bag! Adulthood entails understanding the suffering of this life and having some sympathy, for oneself as well as for others. And, in my book, it also means reducing that suffering when possible (ie, not having a shitty ass job). 

Another supposed token of adulthood is owning a house. But who the fuck has the money for a $1.6 million condo in San Francisco?  I make pretty good money, too, but that's just not gonna happen.  Does the fact that I'm a renter exclude me from adulthood? Seems silly to me.

I am a father and feel, for the most part, utterly capable. I've rushed him to the ER, sat with him in an ambulance, yelled at doctors and cajoled the system to make sure he's treated (don't get the wrong idea — he's quite healthy; shit just happens to kids). I've stayed up with him when he's had nightmares, held his hair when he's vomited, taught him to throw, ride a bike, watch the Marx Brothers, and order a double americano.

But, once in a while, I feel like I just don't have it in me. One time, when he was around two, I had the stomach flu for the second time in two weeks. He had it, too. To say I felt bad would be a supreme understatement. I couldn't pick my head up except to vomit — which I did 18 times in 24 hours. And, still, I had to take care of him. And so I collapsed — in a puddle of my helpless tears and, weeping uncontrollably, called my mother just to have her tell me everything would be ok. Then I went back to mending the sickly little beast.

Sometimes, I look in the mirror and try to assess what I see. Nearly bald head — and what remains is increasingly grey. And, when I look a bit closer, I see all the loose hairs that eluded my buzzer the last time through. It is obvious that I don't have my remaining hair professionally coiffed as an adult might.

I have what might be called a beard; its sparseness gives me pause. I wonder if, to others, it still looks like the bar mitzvah fuzz, the rabbinical face pubes, that defined it for so long. It is increasingly grey, as well.

This reckoning of my face taught me the obvious truth. We all live, each of us separately, in multiple times. In my face, I see the the grey as well as the adolescence; I feel the maturity alongside the desperate fears of my childhood. Different parts of me are aging at different speeds. I am not one thing that moves through time until it passes that threshold of adulthood. I am a multiplicity that moves — that ages — at different times in different ways.

Just as the earth has rock time, ocean time, moth time, human time, I have multiple times. Part of me is, in fact, adult — I take care of my son with aplomb. But part of me is a little boy that wants to have his mother take care of him. I handle clients who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies but I also love to get lit up and listen to music.

To define adulthood is difficult and perhaps absurd. How much of what we call adulthood is the inevitably of age? How much is accrued wisdom? What does that wisdom look like? Is it acceptance? Or relentless striving? Or is that a false dichotomy?  In any case, what we define as adult is multiple,  just as all words and concepts are. Just as there is no one me, there is no one adulthood.

Still, I'll never wear a watch. Or cargo shorts. 

2.16.2013

You Are Your Accidents


I don't know squat about tarot, tea leaves, or the I Ching. But, that said, I get it. Everything we do is necessarily constitutive of who we are. Or, rather, it's constitutive of how we go.

This may seem like a pedantic distinction but everything turns on it. Because if you are who you are then what happens to you doesn't really matter. Your being transcends the accidents of life. Yes, I slept with someone else but I, I am faithful.  I can hear Paul Scofield's Sir Thomas Moore in my head (in A Man For All Seasons).



But if you are how you go, well, then everything you do constitutes you. Accidents are no longer accidents. And not because everything happens for a reason — that's theological silliness — but because everything that happens is the world, is you. To sound like a douche bag, ontology is not a teleology but a teleonomy.

What makes this hard to grasp, hard to believe, is that this everything includes things that happen to you. If you were a being who just was who you were, then you'd be an absolute self that enjoyed a clear distinction between you and everything around you. But if you are constituted by how you go, this going includes when someone steps on your toe or hits your car or when you get the stomach flu twice in two weeks.

I know women who say, I'm just not lucky when it comes to men. This seems to assume that luck is something other than what they are. I'm a good person so why don't I meet the right person? But the thing is: You are what you do. If you're not meeting someone it's not luck; it's what you're doing.  (Maybe the thing you're doing is assuming you need to meet the right person and that you're somehow unlucky.) What drives me crazy about this claim is that it blames the universe while absolving the woman of all responsibility. But you are the universe! You are your luck!

This gets harder to think about when we consider sickness. We might be inclined to say that if we are our accidents that we somehow deserve our accidents — such as, say, cancer — or that they're our own fault. But that is not what I am saying at all. There is no deserve just as there is no reason. We go as we go. We are this way of going in the world and this way of going goes like this. This this changes over time. And this this is complex and multifarious. There is no agenda; and it's not all causal. You are a cog within a cosmic engine. The world exceeds you, always, flowing endlessly. You might need to change which cog you are or which flow you're in. 

If we are as we go, then we are not Is (how does one write the plural of I?) who act on the world. We live in what's called the middle voice — neither active (I fly) nor passive (I was flown) but at once active and passive, neither active nor passive. I'm told Classical Greek has a middle voice.

Anyway, back to tea leaves and tarot and the I Ching. If you are everything that happens to you, this includes the tea leaves in the bottom of your cup, the cards someone draws, and the way the sticks fall.

The thing about those things is that they demand keen interpretive skills. None of them gives an answer as if there were a definitive future waiting for you. It says here to wear your hair in a bun Then you'll meet your man! This is not a teleology, after all; your life does not move towards a certain end (well, other than the obvious one). It just moves — with a kind of purpose just not a known, certain, or pre-defined purpose (ergo, a teleonomy or what Kant calls purposeful purposelessness).  A shrink does the same thing as a tea reader but has tons more data to work with. All a tea reader has is some soggy tea leaves. 

His task is the task of all of us all the time: to make sense of the accidents we are. (And then figure out what to do. And then do it. It's a relentless process.)

William Burroughs would cut and fold his writing, along with newspapers and other novels and such, and reassemble them in different ways. This was his dominant writing mode; his writing tools were a typewriter and a pair of scissors. See his essay  here. Now, there's a lot to say about the cut ups. But one big realization I had was that while the cut ups introduce chance into the writing process, they are not about chance per se but about navigating that chance. Which is to say, the cut up method demands discernment. After all, Burroughs wouldn't keep each and every cut up. He'd select which ones to keep and then how to use them (which, in its way, is another kind of cut up). The cut up method is life condensed.

I just stubbed my toe. That happened. But, feh, who cares? Now, were I to stub it again or bump my head into the cabinet or drop a plate, I'd begin wondering about my clumsiness. I'd stop, slow down, take heed, shift my rhythm with the world. Years ago, I cut up my hands badly three times in as many months — a knife while cutting vegetables; a broken glass while washing dishes; a fist through the window to deter a crackhead on the fire escape. These may have all been accidents but clearly I needed to change my way of going.

Francis Bacon would begin his paintings by smearing paint on the canvas with a broom. He'd then work with what was there, put it to use. "All painting is an accident," he said. "But it's also not an accident, because one must select what part of the accident one chooses to preserve."

This, it seems to me, is the trick. Knowing how to read the flow of accidents that I am. Which is hard. Often, I feel like I'm just looking at some shmutz at the bottom of my cup. 

2.14.2013

Teaching, the Internet, & Me

I taught from 1992-2008 — at UC Berkeley, mostly, and for a few years at the SF Art Institute. Unlike private universities, Cal — that's what they call UC Berkeley which, being from New York, confused the hell out of me — anyway, Cal doesn't pay its graduate students (at least not in the humanities and at least not if you're me). So grad students in Rhetoric survive by teaching university required composition classes (why hire faculty when you can pay grad students less?). Then, when I finished my degree in '98, I continued teaching for another 10 years as adjunct faculty.

I loved it. Even as a grad student instructor, a GSI, I had free reign over my syllabus. I taught insane classes in which I only assigned books I loved — Nietzsche, Barthes, Burroughs, Nicholson Baker. After grad school, I began teaching the introductory lecture to the major as well as upper division electives with course titles such as "Joy & Complexity," "Bring on the Strange," "Seeing Seeing." We watched David Lynch, Cassavetes, Godard and read Merleau-Ponty, Bergson, Deleuze. It was exquisitely delirious.

But over the 16 years I taught, there was a marked change in the students. I mean, there were always peckerheads. Just as there were always astounding, brilliant, bizarre, curious students. Indeed, the proportions probably stayed the same. Such is life: take any group of 100 people — regardless of geography, gender, class, race — and 90 of them will be peckerheads, six will be ok, two will be awesome, and the last two will be ridiculously excellent.

Of course, among those 90 peckerheads, there's a lot of differentiation — there are assholes, dicks, fuckwads, douchebags, the insane, stupid, precocious, etc. By the time I left in 2008, the peckerheads at Cal were preodminantly self-entitled shitheads who always asked — no joke — "Is this on the test?" (I didn't give tests.) Students who felt it was my obligation to make sure they understood rather than it being their obligation to learn (well, it's both of our obligations). Students who would interrupt my lecture because they'd left a sweater in the room and did I mind if she looked around— during my lecture! Wait until the class is over, you little fuckstick. Students who'd write on their evaluations of me that I was conceited. Well, yeah, I think I know more than you, shitbird. I'm your fucking professor. I began to feel like I was there for their amusement, another channel on the infinity of cable, another app to fiddle with, another post to proffer casually cruel "comments" (see RateMyProfessor, the Yelp of teachers).  

And this entitlement was institutionalized. One time, I had an over enrolled class and so required an initial paper to gain entry. One shithead didn't do it and so I told him I was going to drop him. The problem was I didn't officially drop him until it was too late and I was shut out of the system — which meant he had to pay a $10 late drop fee. All right, my bad — I was happy to pay the $10. But then he complained to the chair of my department who told me, and I quote, "Students are clients." I will never believe that nor will I ever teach as if that were true.  

My point is this: I loved teaching — I loved it in my bones — but I began to be annoyed. And then, the semester before I stopped teaching, I was approached by the university's IT department and asked if I'd be willing to have my lectures podcast. Sure, why not? I had no idea what the repercussions would be once my madness was broadcast for all to hear. (I assumed I'd be arrested — partly my paranoia, partly the self-entitled shithead students and the general will to litigate.)

Now, as I was adjunct, I had a professional life outside of teaching. I had a start up that, in our own words, leveraged the computational to forge ever new relationships between information (in the arts, specifically). I was an information architect and had helped build a breadth of sites. But it wasn't until my lectures were podcast that I began to understand the internet.

First of all, because my lectures were online, students felt like they didn't need to attend class. Which was fantastic. It meant the only students in attendance actually wanted to be there. No more peckerheads! No self-entitled shitbirds! Oh, what a luxury! To teach to a class of solely interested, engaged students! This is how I'd always imagined teaching. It took the internet to filter out the douchewads and realize this pedagogic Eden.

And then something else happened: I started getting emails from people all over the world. Oddly enough, this had never occurred to me. For some reason, I assumed only my students would be listening. But nope. I got emails from an Argentine minster of education; a philosophy student in Turkey (she knows who she is); a high school student in Alabama; a retired NASA scientist in Kansas; a would-be media mogul in New England. I received dozens of emails a week from curious, interested, engaged people. I'd lost the peckerheads and gained the world.

Suddenly, I was living the power of instant broadcasting. I felt — in the parlance of such things — connected. Which felt strange. The things I read and thought about left me socially alienated (willingly! even gleefully!). My wife wouldn't even listen to me. And my students, well, they had to listen. But now I was ranting and raving about circumstantial propriety and people who didn't have to listen were listening, eagerly. And they wanted more.

Eventually, I had to leave teaching for financial reasons (it's hard to make a living in the ridiculous city of San Francisco). But, thanks to those podcasts, I left like I could leave without leaving, if you will, as now I had the most excellent classroom of only interested students who could teach me things, too. 

And I learned something about the internet, something I'm still learning but which began with those fateful podcasts. I'd always been attracted to the figure of the network — interconnected threads with nodes of differing intensity. Yet I was experiencing something else. This was not a network per se. What I sensed was happening, what I glimpsed operating within the network structure, was something else entirely: community.

Facebook and Twitter are networks, each member a node that feeds the feeds. Structurally, they cannot be a community. They can organize a community elsewhere but can't maintain it (Facebook is trying, perhaps, with groups and pages). There is no collectivity as we are each left, finally, as nodes. Now, I do not mean this pejoratively. In fact, communities make me nervous. I like being a node.

And yet I see how being a node within a network fosters the very self-entitlement that drove me out of the classroom. Look at me! I'm getting jiggy with my bros! This is my breakfast. Yum!  That's not community; that's individuals shouting into the commons from afar. 

Most of the talk around internet teaching focuses on how efficient it can be. If a classroom teaches 140 students, an internet course can teach 140,000!  Maybe. But I'm not so sure about that, at least when it comes to the humanities. That kind of learning takes something different than scale and efficiency. It takes something different than a center with more and more nodes around it. It takes the engagement of community. 

And this is what I learned from those podcasts — that lurking within the peckerwoods of internet self-entitlement is the beautiful possibility of a community of learners.

2.12.2013

Understanding Aspects of Deleuze's Repetition via an Episode of "Community"



Within the span of 21 minutes, we are presented with two forms of quotation. On the one hand, there's the Pulp Fiction themed surprise birthday party. On the other, it's Abed enacting My Dinner with Andre. Even these two films suggest a poignant juxtaposition: the quiet sincerity of Andre juxtaposed with the citational abandon of Quentin Tarantino.  But the episode — Season 2, Episode 19, entitled, "Critical Film Studies" — deftly shifts the very terms of this juxtaposition.

It's Abed's birthday. He's meeting Jeff at a restaurant for dinner and it's Jeff's job to take Abed to the surprise party the group has organized for their pop culture obsessed friend.

But Jeff is thrown for a loop. The restaurant — Abed's suggestion — is fancy. And then Abed shows up not acting like his usual Asperger's, pop culture referencing boyish self. In fact, he seems normal, even mature, socially engaged, articulate. The two end up staying at the restaurant as their conversation becomes increasingly intense and personal.

Then, towards the end of their dinner, Jeff has a realization. Abed hasn't changed his pop culture obsessed ways — he's enacting the film, My Dinner with Andre. Which pisses Jeff off: just when he thought Abed was being "real," it seems like it's just one more pop cultural reference.

We seem to have two examples of people pretending to be what they're not — one, Abed playing Andre; the other, the Pulp Fiction-attired group. And yet not all citation is equal; not all pretending is in fact pretending. The two modes here could not be more different.

The friends dressed up as Pulp Fiction remain very much themselves. They stay true, as it were, to their characters — Britta is Britta, Troy is Troy, Chang is Chang. The only thing different about them is their costumes. It's solely an external difference, a shift of veneer. 

The group references Pulp Fiction but remain themselves: they copy rather than repeat.
But Abed becomes a fundamentally different person. He's not just play acting at Andre. He has become other.

Abed, meanwhile, doesn't just dress like Andre. In repeating that film, he becomes something new: Abed-Andre.
And this is the difference between copying and repeating. When you copy, you say the right things, dress the right way. But your mode of operating doesn't change. You may dress as Mia Wallace but you still make sense of the world like Britta.

But when you repeat, you take on the way of another and, in so doing, become something different. You don't just say the right things. You actually make sense of the world differently. Look at Abed: everything about him is different.

He's not just quoting someone else's lines, as if the real Abed existed below or within. He's not pretending to be Andre. But nor has he become Andre per se (whatever that would mean). He's repeating Andre via his own metabolism, creating something new, what Deleuze might call a nuptial: Andre-Abed.

We tend to think about repetition as doing the same thing over and over. But, for Deleuze (and for Kierkegaard), repetition is forward movement, a process of surging ahead differently. If you were the same, there'd be no movement. This changes the very way we think about identity. Rather than being this fixed thing, we are creatures who repeat ourselves (hopefully) — not by doing the same thing over and over but by picking ourselves up and dancing ourselves forward. We are ever anew in the becoming we are.

With repetition, identity is nomadic: always somewhere different, always home.

In some sense, this seems kind of obvious. I am a different person today than I was when I was 2, 8, 16, 28, 34. And yet I am not absolutely new. I'm still me. But what I am is this process of change. The name Deleuze gives this process is repetition. This is the beautiful delirium, the uncanny, at the heart of being: I am ever familiar and unfamiliar, ever anew while still being me (until I am not — I may change so radically as to no longer be me in which case I would no longer be repeating). When I repeat myself — or when I repeat My Dinner with Andre — I don't stay the same. On the contrary, I become something new. 

This is clearly a far cry from dressing up as Mia Wallace. That's just a matter of putting on a costume. There is no internal movement, no  "secret vibration which animates it, a more profound internal repetition within the singular" (see Deleuze's Difference and Repetition). Abed is inside Andre and Andre is inside Abed. It's not that Abed becomes Andre — if he did, we'd see Andre, not Abed. No, in repeating Andre, Abed becomes something new: Abed-Andre.

Consider the cover song. The bar band playing a faithful rendition of The Stones' "Satisfaction" copies. Devo doing "Satisfaction" repeats: it is "Satisfaction" again and anew. This is the difference between copying and repeating. To repeat something is to inhabit from the inside and, in the process, to create something new. (Or take Tarantino. He "steals" from a breadth of films from Leone and Godard to B-films I've never heard of and, in the process, creates his own style.)



"Community" mocks the very will to authenticity as the avowed reality of My Dinner with Andre becomes a repetition. Meanwhile, the letter of authenticity for a briefcase used in Pulp Fiction — a gift for Abed — goes up in flames.

Echoing Deleuze, "Community" tells us that nothing is true in and of itself. We are all playing characters — all citing, referencing, stealing, quoting. After all, none of our words are "our" words; all the lines we speak are, in some sense, borrowed. There is no true authenticity. But that doesn't mean all citation is created equally. Some copy. The trick is to repeat. 

At the end of the episode, Jeff realizes that reference — quotation, citation — is how Abed becomes himself. When Britta dresses as Mia Wallace, there is no internal movement. Nothing has changed: she's still Britta. But when Abed plays Andre, he takes up aspects of Andre into himself and becomes something new, something different.  She copies. He repeats.