Alli understands the some of the important subtleties of being an adult. She understands, for example, the important wastefulness of disposable cotton makeup remover rounds. Sure, they prove that finally, after twenty-some-odd years of trying to absorb normative gender practices, wearing makeup, taking it off (the whole ritual of public performance and private self-care) has finally taken hold. Sure. This is a major part of the purchase. But maybe more importantly, it’s a surprising and affirming pleasure to spend earned money on disposable little puffballs good for one use and then thrown away. It’s like paying for cable, or owning two proper kitchen appliances, one of them a waffle iron.
2:01 pm • 5 March 2014
14. Tour Guide
Hannah used to visit extended family in Brooklyn before it was hip. Actually, she used to visit her family in Brooklyn before hip was hip. But they moved and it’s been a while, so she she probably wouldn’t be able to make any relevant recommendations.
But Philadelphia, on the other hand, is full of fun, cool places to hang out, to pleasantly pass the time. The historical sites are cool too. Overrated? The cheesesteaks. Maybe? But ask her about Virginia. She’ll begin the tour from her family home. She’ll take you to the diners, the coffee shops, the used bookstores, the state parks, even the video store, one of the last existing institutions, surely, where the staff know their patrons. With lesser detail, but with equivalent enthusiasm, she’ll describe the neighboring city and its worthy sites.
11:47 pm • 4 March 2014
13. A Culture of Reading
Don James remarks that one of the major surprises in moving north from Atlanta was the visibility of a reading public, a Culture of Reading, he calls it. He remembers observing how, on mass transit, passengers frequently brought reading material with them, usually books. As a literary historian, he noted with joy that here and there someone might be reading a nineteenth century novel. It’s just not the same in the South, he said, at least not in Atlanta. There’s a sense here of the formative value of literature, the idea that reading books cultivates in the reader a care for civic character. Of course, it’s not just books, but the book is an exemplary unit of comprehensively sustained narrative or idea. Tweets, for instance, don’t quite work in the same way. There, the text that’s being consumed shapes a different sort of reader, one looking for more immediate knowledge, or for swifter access to information. Overall, he observed, we read more than ever before in history.
11:41 pm • 4 March 2014
12. Treading Water
Sometimes a metaphor can give expression to an otherwise ineffable feeling yet still be, pragmatically, worth very little.
It’s not a long distance relationship. Neither is she really an “ex,” though. Emmanuel sighs that the conditions of their relationship are detailed and a lot of work to explain. Some friends advise a more complete and a more explicit commitment; others advise cutting off contact entirely. Some, encouraging him to decisive action, offer the following analogy: You’re like a shipwrecked sailor who, instead of swimming to one nearby island, or to another nearby island, chooses to tread water indefinitely, putting off the inevitable. Emmanuel says it’s not a totally inaccurate way to describe his feelings, sometimes. The implications for the future though, are, upon scrutiny, just as vague as what the metaphor implies about his past.
2:01 pm • 4 March 2014
Allison’s writing a paper on an adaptation of a Sherlock Holmes short story, from text to film. In Doyle’s narrative, there’s minimal erotic tension between Holmes and the female antagonist. Each acknowledges the intellectual sophistication of the other; they part ways; the photograph is safe. In the movie, their relationship is teased out to a more elaborate flirtation. Allison observes that their more easily evident erotic desires makes these film characters appear more human. Crossing 33rd street, stepping over the ice slush onto the curb, Allison continues. At the same time their visible intimacy is conditioned by individually successful performance of an almost inhuman level of smartness and prettiness. So it goes both ways.
10:02 am • 4 March 2014
Speaking of innovations on campus, this one and others, Dennis remembers the recent opening of a new library at the University of Chicago. He described the impressive aesthetics of the compact edifice, how a single-story building could look so organic among other more or less built-up and manicured campus facades. The thing about this library was that all the books were stores in an underground storage space directly beneath the edifice. You’d enter the building, fill out a digital form, and the machine would look into itself; like a car factory or an Amazon warehouse, it would retrieve the book for the reader with incredible speed. It’s all very high tech. “The book is dead,” observed Dennis. “You’ve built a masoleum.” His tour guides—among them the architect—weren’t very pleased at his remark.
9:12 pm • 3 March 2014
"Do you ever have moments—not moments, more like periods—where technology seems to be conspiring against you so pervasively that you wonder whether you’re in the wrong for trying to complete any given task? Say you need to send a document, and the printer runs out of toner, then paper, then it won’t quite save or upload." And on and on. "And you don’t even really want to be sending that sucky document in the first place, too, y’know?" Mercury retrograde notwithstanding, Kelly’s description of this comically difficult episode suggested to her the possibility that at moments like these, the inertia transcends any given agent—human or computer—and instead is a quality that belongs to a system in which both humans and computers participate. It’s a curious thought experiment—makes it easier to calm the frustration. But isn’t the frustration what makes us most different from computers in the first place?
2:01 pm • 3 March 2014
The major difference between a theological approach to God and a phenomenological approach, explains Hector, is that theology explains God to those who already believe, while phenomenology begins with an “as if” that presumes unbelief, or at least, skepticism. That insulation, while perhaps, perhaps, limiting the ultimate proximity the human subject will experience with God, also offers an avenue to perform respect for the God that compels such curiosity or desire. It allows approach without presuming that human actions have any effect on God or God’s will. According to some scholars, this is the kernel of sacrilege—actions performed with the expectation that God will respond. If, as in Hector’s account, phenomenology engages with the divine through on the hypothetical register, maybe phenomenology is the more respectful of the two.
10:02 am • 3 March 2014
Juan—who looks forward to research and creative expression in Visual Anthropology; who is recently taking on the challenge of translating his own poetry from Spanish to English; who cares about achieving not happiness but contentment—Juan woke up early to go to church this morning. He tries to go every week and says its OK if he misses occasional Sundays. He gets a lot out of it. He feels moved by the collective spirit of the congregation, the way people inside the church go through all the motions together. He observes that when he’s in the service, his temperament takes on, or internalizes the peace within the church. Such calm’s characterized not by lack of motion but by unity of the motion of constituent parts.
Because Juan composes his poems on a cell phone, this summary is also being composed on a mobile device.
8:15 pm • 2 March 2014
There’s something absolute about the Midwestern cold, claims Ryan. It’s a force strong enough to seem animate, if not alive. It sucks the noise out of the air. It paralyzes not only nature, but also machines. It kills things. He remembers one winter, staying up late to thrice shovel the driveway, awake till 2AM. When the snow stopped, an unpredicted deep freeze descended, and, as the temperatures dropped, eventually reaching thirty degrees below zero, Ryan thought about what that cold would feel like. He wondered whether he’d ever in his life have the chance to experience such cold again. He kept his snow clothes on and waited. It got colder. When he got up to open the door, he found the handle had frozen, and that ice had seeped into the space between the jamb and the door, sealing it shut. “The house was freezing from the outside in,” he says.
He’s skeptical about the idea that weather is a significant factor in the hospitable, gregarious Midwestern personality.
2:01 pm • 1 March 2014
The life to come
Minus beer and cilantro, the dinner Jordan prepared might have been frijoles charro, or something out of one of Cormac McCarthy’s westerns. It was serious soup. At the table, Jordan described his research into the Taize community beyond the recipe he used to prepare dinner; he shared his new knowledge of its practices and rules. He described the attraction so many visitors often feel toward the order, but he did so mostly in the negative, through the fear of the intensity of that attraction. Perhaps it was fear of sacrificing the pleasures and satisfactions of sensuous life. But it may also have been fear of the decision—between that worldly life and a sacrificial ascetic life—fear of the possibility of choosing incorrectly.
You’d have to be pretty committed to the life to come, the rest of the table, mostly, agreed.
10:01 am • 1 March 2014
Whitney has three goals this weekend: First, to finish an application for an internship at a prestigious local art foundation. No urgency like that of the present.
Her second goal is to consider ways to rebalance her life. Whitney practices Bikram yoga regularly; she reads both for pleasure and for self-improvement, from John Green to Michel Foucault. Lately she’s been especially interested in sustainable food practices, from supporting local farms to refusing the free candy and chocolates in the office pantry. When she crosses town on SEPTA, going from home to work, and back again, she notices the squalor and abjection of urban lives. It’s been really permeating lately.
10:10 pm • 28 February 2014
Studying poetry at this institution is a unique experience, opines Natalie. The professors here have been influenced by a poetic movement that’s frequently skimmed over in other literary communities. The reverse is also true. Here, syllabi and conversations minimize the influence of poets that are essential to mainstream accounts of American literary history. Wallace Stevens, for example, she can’t imagine seeing on a syllabus here. On the other hand, her prior institution had owned the James Merrill papers; there, that style of expressive verse—“Postromantic”—had almost occluded other movements, like that of the LANGUAGE poets, say.
So, no, it’s really difficult to answer that question of a disappointingly underrated poet of the twentieth century.
2:02 pm • 28 February 2014
"You only have to bring toothpaste half the time."
A context-free piece of advice Allison offered. Oldest siblings have to learn everything the hard way, through experience. Early sleepovers, for example, are a major new experience in social life. It helps to find common moments, and, well, a lot of kids brush their teeth, even when parents aren’t around to nag. Standing in front of a mirror, too, offers a brief, unexpected frame to view togetherness, one that doesn’t depend on talking or conversation. The shared moment takes place just before or after the solitude of sleep, and the moment isn’t primarily about desire or consumption—it’s more about hygiene and self-care. Sharing isn’t necessary; always having a proper tube of toothpaste is one way to perform grown-up autonomy. But sharing is a small way to trust others. Leave it at home, sometimes, maybe.
10:01 am • 28 February 2014
Alice was talking about sadness. She believes that being a good listener is one special value a person holds in a friendship. She describes, towards this conclusion, a personal narrative that synthesizes the hurts of youth toward an empathetic adulthood. Not completely, though: the performance of empathy hides an interiority that usually feels socially inept. When she narrates this story, or other chronologies of personal development, her voice gets a little bit softer, and rounder, highlighting the tentative quality of her story, or its fragility.
During one late break in her narrative, she sat up from the floor, opened a bag of almonds, and crunched a few in her mouth.
11:36 pm • 27 February 2014