10.02.2018

Walking with Moods, Curves, & Inflection Points

I just spent the last few hours walking through San Francisco's Golden Gate Park — a ridiculously, generously fecund place to stroll. As I made my way from the buffalo — yes, there's a buffalo paddock in the park — down different paths, over knolls and knells, until I came to the Pacific Ocean screaming its glory, I was struck by the continuous modulation of mood that that park, as well as any walk, affords.

Any walk, every walk, is a stroll through and with a modulation of mood. Sometimes, a mood may persist over a long stretch. I find this to be particularly true when I hike as the space tends to be less urgently variegated. But GG Park, as in a city, enjoys relentless shift of foliage, sky, curve, incline, and inflection. Which is to say, as I walk, I rise and fall, walk through a breadth of trees and plants and flowers from all corners of the globe, find myself in wooded enclaves only to turn into the yawning sky and blaring sun as a path curves this way then that. All of this shifts the mood.

What is mood?  Well, I see it as the affective state of the visible world. There are such and such leaves, lighting, scents, colors, textures. We readily record all that with our senses; all of these elements are quantifiable. But they all also have qualitative states. This leaf is soft and welcoming; that one, edgy and shy; those all play together; these others loom large as individuals. Or the play of sun: the melancholia, the exuberance, the sharp edge, the dull glows. Now combine the leaves and the play of sun — not to mention the sounds, birds, insects, decaying stumps — and you get an assemblage of qualities all working in some kind of concert that forges a certain....mood, a state that is as historical as it is immediate, the entire history of a place or thing coming to bear upon the senses and upon sense itself, ghosts playing in the leaves and shaping the now just so.

And of course there's you: you bring so much to the situation. You bring all your knowledge, history, and enculturation, all your assumptions and associations about what makes something melancholy or exuberant, not to mention how you're feeling that day. We all know that when we're depressed, it casts a pall over everything we see just as when we're joyous, everything seems to rejoice.

And yet mood is not subjective. You do not just invent the melancholia of the sun from the depths of your being. Mood is a conspiracy of states that exists out there in the world, as the world. It may run through you but it doesn't only live inside you. Mood is expressive. You are not simply subject to it; nor do you determine it. You live through mood in the middle voice — neither active nor passive, both active and passive. You only know the mood as you are a participant within it, as much determining it as it is determining you. Of course, this mutual determination is rarely equal. Sometimes, your shitty mood overwhelms a place just as the intensity of a place can overwhelm you. In any case, mood envelops as it emerges.

Every time I'm walking through GG Park, I am struck by the play of curves, both horizontally and vertically, and the way this shapes the tenor of the day. The pleats of a curve distribute time, and hence mood, very differently. Consider the straight, clear path: you can see indefinitely in front and behind you. The path stays with you, never out of sight, just as the future yawns before you without surprise. There it is! And yet you quite literally see time receding; you see and feel your past moving away from you. The effect, and affect, is a play of inevitability and all that existentially entails.

Now consider a sharp turn. You have no idea what's around the corner. It could be people, animals, oceans, a cliff, a meadow, sun, shade — you can't know until you make the turn, forging anxiety, anticipation, excitement, even if muted. And then once you make the turn, your past vanishes in one fell swoop, as if it were never there.

And then there is what I call the Hockney curve (David Hockney loves to paint this curve). It is gentle, steering you towards a future that is unknown — you can't quite see around it and yet it's coming gently, generously.  Meanwhile, the past recedes at the same clip — with no real urgency, what's behind you falls away. This curve tempers intense mood shifts.

David Hockney

On my walk today in GG Park

And then there are inflection points — dramatic shifts in mood and, usually, terrain. Picture walking through San Francisco's Union Square with its Saks and Apple and Tiffany's down Geary Street, past the fancy hotels, when you suddenly find yourself in the Tenderloin — yes, that's the name of the neighborhood — with its abundant abjection. People lying in the street, some shooting up, some lying in vomit. This is a common experience in America's city: turn a corner and everything changes.

Or walking west in GG Park and soon the road widens, the sidewalks exand, the trees reach higher and then, like a miracle, there it is: the freakin' Pacific Ocean staring at you from around the bend. Everything changes in that one moment. Every time, it simultaneously takes my breath away and fills me with its briny air. It leaves me winded — deflated and inflated at the same time.


Once I walk to the ocean, leaving the park behind, I am in a totally different moodscape as the infinite stretches out ahead of me, seething, and the sky, freed from the trees' framing, is allowed its full extension.


Inflection points abound, even if less dramatic than the ocean's emergence. We know inflection points in all aspects of our lives — that moment when water boils, when satiety hits, with coffee kicks in. And we know these inflections points in mood as we make our way. Turn this way and suddenly everything is frantic, tumultuous, hurried. Turn that way and the day takes a deep breath.

I like to take what I call mood walks. They are best done alone so I'm not distracted by the niceties of the social. But mood walks can of course be done in tandem; that might make them even more complex. In any case, as you walk, lean into the micro moods. Note the way you feel, the way the place feels, as you move past that house with its manicured lawns, then that with its broken crap on the stoop, then past that alley that wreaks of piss. Feel the way the speed and noise of the traffic shapes it all. Let the sky impinge upon you, conspiring with people and places and machines to make the day feel just so.

As Michel de Certeau writes in his incredible book, The Practice of Everyday Life — in his chapter entitled "Walking in the City": "The panorama-city is a 'theoretical' (that is, visual) simulacrum, in short a picture, whose condition of possibility is an oblivion and a misunderstanding of practices." That is to say, when we picture the city, we picture pictures of the city splayed before us as if in a map. But our experience is always particular as we only see what we see from our vantage point at this moment with these things, these scents, this digestion, this dappled sunlight — what de Certeau calls this practice, this doing. Yes, our experience is historical and this history shapes our moods. But our history, like our vantage, is perspectival, local, particular, and always coming to bear within this now.


Such is all experience of walking, not to mention living. We are always enmeshed, enveloped in moods we shape and which, in the same breath, shape us. It is incredible to me how mood is not spoken of more, how it has not become a science. Lohren Green's Atmospherics is the closest thing I know to reckoning mood as knowledge. And, of course, Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles.

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