Waiting to know

Six­teen years ago.

I still remem­ber so many details about that day, most of them so triv­ial, incon­se­quen­tial, which was, I think, all I was real­ly capa­ble of tak­ing in and pro­cess­ing any­way. I can still see my store man­agers face as she received an ear­ly morn­ing tele­phone call from a friend. I can still hear her sharp cry of alarm at the news, freez­ing me in place in the ghast­ly flu­o­res­cent glow of the back­room of the book­store where, a moment before, I had been sleep­i­ly try­ing to remem­ber all the mun­dane steps of count­ing out cash draw­ers and prepar­ing to open the shop for anoth­er day of busi­ness.

Even after all this time, I still don’t know what I can mean­ing­ful­ly say about the real events of Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001. But in the wee hours of this morn­ing, as I checked for updates of dam­age from Hur­ri­cane Irma and won­dered how my few friends and acquain­tances in Flori­da were far­ing. I was struck by how much our infor­ma­tion pipelines have changed from what they were when the jets hit the tow­ers. There was no Twit­ter. There was no Face­book. I knew peo­ple with cel­lu­lar phones, but no more than a hand­ful of them.

At the book­store, we rolled out the tele­vi­sion that was used for train­ing videos and stood around, employ­ees and cus­tomers alike, watch­ing the break­ing cov­er­age on net­work news. We eager­ly clus­tered around the news­pa­pers the next morn­ing when they arrived to pore over the writ­ten cov­er­age, to first begin to digest the news and to try to under­stand the how and the who of it. And a few days lat­er, when the week­lies like Time and Newsweek and The Econ­o­mist and the New York­er, we again eager­ly seized and devoured them to begin our jour­ney to real­ly under­stand­ing what had hap­pened, and what might hap­pen next.

And when time per­mit­ted, we would call each oth­er on our respec­tive work breaks and talk for a few min­utes, ask­ing each oth­er how we were, what we were think­ing, if we had heard any­thing new. We would take com­fort in each other’s voic­es at the oth­er end of the line, the long spi­ral cord of the tele­phone hand­set fol­low­ing us around the cramped break room, teth­er­ing us to that con­ver­sa­tion, to that moment, to that exchange of dis­tant con­nec­tion.

It is trite to say it was a dif­fer­ent time. But it was, and I am feel­ing that most keen­ly as I reflect on the dif­fer­ences in the flow of infor­ma­tion, in the gains in instan­ta­ne­ity in our news sources, and the cor­re­spond­ing loss­es in cred­i­bil­i­ty for the same. Six­teen years ago, we wait­ed to learn the sto­ry, hop­ing to under­stand. Now, we refuse to wait for the news to fin­ish hap­pen­ing before we want it parceled out and post­ed in eas­i­ly-shared snip­pets. And we don’t need to digest it, because most of us all know exact­ly what we want to know already. We already believe what we are going to believe. Any news sto­ry that attempts to counter what we already know? Well, that must be biased, or fake, or… who cares? We dis­miss it as eas­i­ly as we dis­miss our fel­low cit­i­zens who hold to dif­fer­ent hopes or ideals than ours. We don’t wait to lis­ten, we don’t wait to under­stand. It doesn’t even occur to us to try any­more.

Is this all because of that day? Is this chok­ing of our civ­il dis­course the result of those smoth­er­ing clouds of ash and dust that went roil­ing through the streets of Man­hat­tan? Is our nation­al patience and con­cord left buried under the unsort­ed rub­ble? I don’t know: I’m still wait­ing for the news to come in.

I’ve Been Watching Justified

The ear­ly months of 2010 found me unex­pect­ed­ly liv­ing alone in Cana­da, work­ing hard to dis­tract myself from the fact that my wife was hos­pi­tal­ized in the Unit­ed States, and I had cho­sen the self­ish route of con­tin­u­ing with my dioce­san-spon­sored stud­ies instead of remain­ing by her side and tak­ing charge of our two young sons, who instead I had entrust­ed to my in-laws to man­age until Uxor was bet­ter. My pri­ma­ry mode of dis­trac­tion was the afore­men­tioned stud­ies, and most days I would spend at the library from late after­noon when class­es end­ed until the wee hours of the morn­ing, with only brief breaks for food and the quick night­ly Skype call home. My class­mates, few of whom knew much about me aside from the pleas­ant ban­ter we exchanged, often mar­veled at the “fortress of knowl­edge” I would con­struct around myself at my table in the library, often haul­ing thir­ty or forty vol­umes at a time from the shelves and por­ing through them for source mate­r­i­al for my var­i­ous papers.

But I can’t study all the time, and so I also watched a lot of video enter­tain­ment. I made fre­quent walks to the pub­lic library to check out films from the past decade that I had nev­er had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to see. I also embraced the Apple iTunes Store and the week­ly offer of a hand­ful of episodes of new shows as free down­loads. Many of these were utter tripe, and the fact that I down­loaded and watched the pilot episodes of shows like Bas­ket­ball Wives and Bubba’s World should ade­quate­ly illus­trate how avid­ly I was seek­ing to absent myself from a dire head­space. (That even with all of the above, I still end­ed up drink­ing myself to sleep most nights with sev­er­al ounces of increas­ing­ly-cheap Scotch is prob­a­bly also on indi­ca­tor of some­thing.)

On 23 March 2010, one of the free episodes was the pilot of a new FX series called Jus­ti­fied. Unlike most of the shows, which I down­loaded and played blind­ly (and usu­al­ly delet­ed with a shud­der after the ini­tial view­ing), I had heard rumor of this series in the pre­ced­ing weeks, and I had liked what I had heard. Spoil­er-proof as I am, watch­ing “Fire in the Hole” for the first time was a tremen­dous­ly enjoy­able expe­ri­ence, even though I had read descrip­tions of most of the key scenes already in The New York Times review online. The open­ing reveal of the back of Ray­lan Givens’s hat, and the pool­side show­down with Tom­my Bucks that fol­lows: I bet I watched that 100 times that week. I watched the episode as a whole at least a dozen times through, enough that, the fol­low­ing Tues­day, I made a high­ly unusu­al choice: I decid­ed to splurge the $2.09 Amer­i­can to down­load the sec­ond episode to see if it car­ried through on the promise of the first.

It did, and so did the third, and by the time I had pur­chased five or six episodes, I stopped look­ing back. The char­ac­ters became part of what I clung to through the remain­der of that lone­ly semes­ter: the life-and-death dra­ma of Har­lan Coun­ty became an inte­gral part of my own strug­gle to sur­vive long enough to rejoin my con­va­les­cent wife and begin to rebuild our life togeth­er. And when the show sur­vived it’s ini­tial sea­son to tell more of the sto­ry in a breath­tak­ing sec­ond sea­son, and jaw-drop­ping, gut-churn­ing third, it was defin­i­tive­ly estab­lished as part of the fab­ric of my life expe­ri­ence.

Not only has this series held me mes­mer­ized from one cliffhang­er to the next, but most impor­tant­ly to me, it has held up to repeat­ed view­ings. Most notably, as the third sea­son unfold­ed in all its sor­did won­der, I re-watched all the episodes to date each week while I wait­ed for the next one top drop the fol­low­ing Wednes­day morn­ing. Many were the nights I paced up and down our tiny rent­ed house in sub­ur­ban Ottawa, sooth­ing our new­born third child while watch­ing the machi­na­tions of Robert Quar­les and Elstin Lime­house on the tiny iPod screen I held behind her.

Tonight, the final episode of this sixth and final sea­son of Jus­ti­fied will air, and some­time tomor­row morn­ing that finale will be avail­able to down­load via iTunes, and – unable to wait until evening – I will spend my lunch break hud­dled over my desk at work and gorge myself on every deli­cious minute of the last hour of this mar­velous show. It has been a glo­ri­ous ride, a show I have allowed myself to invest in like very few oth­ers. Some­day, I hope to put into thought­ful words the great esteem I have for this grand exer­cise in sto­ry­telling. I am not ready to do so yet. If you are one of the many who have watched and loved this show over the past six years, you under­stand. If you are not, and you love good sto­ry­telling (of the vio­lent vari­ety), do your­self the great favor of giv­ing Jus­ti­fied a chance to amaze you, too. It pays off in spades.



*The title of this post is a hat tip to a love­ly lit­tle Tum­blr project of reflec­tions on each episode that sad­ly only made it halfway through the sec­ond sea­son. But once you watch that far, I high­ly rec­om­mend read­ing Meghan’s posts, they are gems.

So very tired

I am expe­ri­enc­ing an acute onset of social net­work fatigue these days. No dis­cernible sin­gle cause, no dis­tinct bad expe­ri­ence that stands out as spoil­ing things for me. No, I am just tired of so many places to put things, and so many places to check for things put by oth­ers. I am tired of too many options for pret­ty much the same sorts of con­tent, tired of gaug­ing my arbi­trary pref­er­ence for one place over anoth­er with no more pro­found or defin­i­tive basis than the “feel” of the user inter­face or some such. I am tired of lik­ing and shar­ing and com­ment­ing. I am, in a word, tired.

Now, before this turns into one long whinge, let’s put on the rhetor­i­cal brakes a bit. I love social media; I always have. I am a nat­ur­al at it. I almost nev­er have a thought I don’t feel like shar­ing. What I am going on about is noth­ing against social net­works as they are, but rather a recog­ni­tion that some­thing in me has changed so that I am left won­der­ing if I need a change.

There is no doubt that one con­tribut­ing fac­tor in this is my rel­a­tive­ly recent addi­tion of a prox­i­mate wifi device to my every­day car­ry. Not that I was short of oppor­tu­ni­ties before to flip open my lap­top or tog­gle over to my ever-open brows­er win­dow on the fam­i­ly iMac. But now my access to each and every one of my var­i­ous streams of input and shar­ing are pal­pa­bly omnipresent wher­ev­er the req­ui­site sig­nal reach­es.

Some­times I can keep my check-ins in check. But more and more often I find myself “loop­ing” in a man­ner not far off from the sketch in the pilot episode of Port­landia, and that is not a good feel­ing. I am lost in a fog all too often, not ful­ly present to my fam­i­ly, and unable to ade­quate­ly con­cen­trate on projects and tasks. So what should I do? Cut myself off from the dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ty? I don’t want to. But I do need to find a delim­i­ta­tion to my engage­ment with said com­mu­ni­ty, and I think the time may be a hand to focus my scope of engage­ment a bit. I am a com­pletist by nature, so just as I strove to col­lect and read every Alfred Hitch­cock and the Three Inves­ti­ga­tors mys­tery, so too I have felt near­ly com­pelled to keep a wrig­gling toe in every major social net­work. But I am reach­ing a point where I am ready to say:

Yeah I tried Pin­ter­est, but I just don’t need that in my life.”

Goodreads is a good idea, but I just can’t fit it into my soul any­more.”

Foursquare isn’t a social net­work; it’s a game, and one which yields me no real reward.”

I am not try­ing to paint a scene of win­ners and losers here, but rather, I am try­ing to define a rea­son­able amount of engage­ment with social net­works that still leaves me time and ener­gy to be engaged with, well, my real life. It’s an ongo­ing process, but the soon­er I can pare down the num­ber of but­tons on my mobile touch­screen, the soon­er I can define what streams of input and out­put are most enrich­ing and mean­ing­ful to me, then the soon­er I can delib­er­ate­ly make myself avail­able to the peo­ple and expe­ri­ences most impor­tant to me.

Goody goody gumdrops!

It was Dr. Michael Miko­la­jczak, the pro­fes­sor with whom I took three of my eleven cours­es in my under­grad­u­ate major (Eng­lish, if you are just join­ing us), who first inspired me to don a bow tie, for which I will always thank him, as I am sure does the gen­er­al pub­lic. A col­or­ful and dynam­ic instruc­tor, he is also mem­o­rable for his pecu­liar views on final exam­i­na­tions.

Lit­er­a­ture cours­es in a lib­er­al arts insti­tu­tion are not, in my lim­it­ed expe­ri­ence, gen­er­al­ly seen as con­ducive to eval­u­a­tion in writ­ten exam form. These are the sort of things we write essays for, texts spread out on our crowd­ed dorm desks while we fid­dle with the mar­gin and line-spac­ing set­tings and try to avoid spilling either cof­fee or beer on any of he library books. But Dr. M. had his own approach to ped­a­gogy, and he was very fond of the final exam.

On the morn­ing of a final exam, you should leap out of bed and say, “Goody, goody, gum­drops!”

I want you to think of the final exam as an occa­sion of joy,” he would explain to the class, and in each of the three semes­ters I heard this speech, the stu­dents seemed pret­ty uni­form­ly skep­ti­cal on this point. “The final exam gives you an oppor­tu­ni­ty to revis­it all that you have learned this semes­ter. On the morn­ing of a final exam, you should leap out of bed and say, ‘Goody, goody, gum­drops!’ ” The class would pret­ty much just be star­ing at him at this point, won­der­ing what he was on.

I won’t pre­tend I was any fan of those final exams at the time, but I have nev­er for­got­ten Dr. Mikolajczak’s words. And now, in the ulti­mate days of my grad­u­ate stud­ies, I think I can say I final­ly say that I share and embrace his enthu­si­asm. It is only in these long hours of pan­icked review that I am tru­ly see­ing the extent of what I have (the­o­ret­i­cal­ly) learned these past three years of work toward my Licen­ti­ate in Canon Law. It is almost not too strong to say that it is only in this review that I am learn­ing what before I had only heard, which is not meant as a judg­ment on my pro­fes­sors’ ped­a­gogy but rather as a telling com­ment on my own lack­adaisi­cal learn­ing style.

Let’s dis­pel any illu­sions you may be har­bor­ing about me. I don’t take notes. I don’t make flash cards. I don’t ask ques­tions. I don’t raise my hand dur­ing lec­tures. I don’t get around to read­ing a lot of the ‘rec­om­mend­ed’ texts, or even many of the ‘required’ ones. What do I do, then, to have made it this far in aca­d­e­m­ic pur­suits? Two things: I lis­ten in class, as active­ly as I can man­age, and I care. Most days, that is enough. Which is for­tu­itous, since that is all I can man­age.

Now, three days before I must stand before a pan­el of my pro­fes­sors and answer on the spot what­ev­er ques­tions they choose to throw at me, I am doing some of those stu­den­ty things I just said I don’t do. I am por­ing over canons and com­men­taries, labo­ri­ous­ly cre­at­ing a heap of index cards dur­ing the day which my lov­ing wife will use to quiz me in the evenings. I am, in a word, actu­al­ly work­ing at this, which feels for­eign to me (because it is), and also feels down­right thrilling.

Should I have felt this sort of agency regard­ing my own learn­ing before now? Absolute­ly. I am embar­rassed and ashamed that I have large­ly slouched through my aca­d­e­m­ic degrees, because I could, rather than muster the ener­gy and courage to real­ly try. Who knows what I might have become? At the least, prob­a­bly a bet­ter man. But it is too late to change what is past; what I can do is change the game, even at this late hour, and I am unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly con­fi­dent that I might be able, not only to make this work in this crit­i­cal moment, but to make a last­ing change of it that will open new pos­si­bil­i­ties of pro­duc­tive learn­ing and knowl­edge reten­tion for me in the future.

Changing the Rules

I have been busy in my head of late assem­bling a (hope­ful­ly small) col­lec­tion of new rules for myself vis-à-vis blog­ging (in par­tic­u­lar) and mak­ing stuff for the inter­net (in gen­er­al). This has been fun, excit­ing, a lit­tle mad­cap, but most­ly sober­ing. I am real­ly crap at per­sist­ing in mak­ing any­thing, online or off, almost entire­ly due to an absence of dis­ci­pline in my inter­nal life, with an over­whelm­ing amount of mun­dane life com­mit­ments piled on top.

My life is not going to mag­ick­ally become less crammed full of demands and com­mit­ments. Far from it. In two months I will be done with grad school and back home work­ing full-time once again, in a demand­ing posi­tion as head of two depart­ments. So it will do no good to wait and wish for things to calm down. Instead, I need to calm myself down, to tame my mon­key mind and re-devel­op, from square one, the “mind like water” that David Allen speaks of. And after way, way too long spent most­ly just feel­ing sor­ry for myself and/or pan­ick­ing, I am at last climb­ing out of my rot­ten rut and mak­ing a real effort to dust myself off and get charg­ing for­ward.

So here are, in no par­tic­u­lar order or rela­tion to each oth­er, sev­er­al new rules or para­me­ters I intend to imple­ment and enforce for myself. I don’t expect any mir­a­cles to hap­pen as a result, but if I put in the effort, I do expect them to be the first steps down the path to a more bal­anced, pro­duc­tive, and cre­ative expe­ri­ence of liv­ing.

  1. Make stuff. I have to lead off with this, because it is the eas­i­est thing to com­plete­ly lose sight of. How many times do we (and I include myself as the poster child for this) get lost in a for­est of incred­i­ble-sound­ing tips and tricks and tools and meth­ods and oth­er pro­duc­tiv­i­ty porn, and nev­er end up mak­ing a damn thing? That’s right, too many. I fan­cy myself a cre­ative per­son — a writer, if you will — and I have let too much moss grow on my tired back. Even while my world is in flames around me, I am tak­ing up my writer’s torch again and start­ing once more to write myself to safe­ty, or at least to sense. While I have quite a range of writ­ten projects in the off­ing, per­son­al blog­ging is the most imme­di­ate, and offers the most direct path from effort to com­ple­tion and grat­i­fi­ca­tion. So here we go, and no stop­ping. Even if it is crap (and when isn’t it, real­ly?), it still needs to ship. The lights are com­ing back on.
  2. No more com­ments. This one has been a long time com­ing. The only hon­est rea­son to allow com­ments on a blog post, even mod­er­at­ed ones, is sim­ple: the blog­ger needs to prove to him­self or her­self that peo­ple are read­ing their stuff. I will with­out hes­i­ta­tion admit that is what I have looked to them for as long as I have been blog­ging. I’m not say­ing I am beyond that now — I crave atten­tion and affir­ma­tion as much as ever — but blog com­ments are hard­ly the way to get that in any mean­ing­ful degree. I have a lot more to say on this point, but we will have to save that for future post. For now, it is enough to announce that I’m switch­ing them off.
  3. Build up a reserve before launch­ing any­thing. Too many times over the past, well, whole life, I’ve had an excit­ing idea, done some ini­tial burst of work on it, then imme­di­ate­ly dashed about to friends, fam­i­ly, and the cute barista to get them all to take a look at it forth­with. Even when the response was enthu­si­as­tic and reward­ing, my cre­ative sta­mi­na was so low that, in every case, my out­put rapid­ly fell behind my self-imposed expec­ta­tions, and I just gave up and quit. This time, before I light up a neon sign point­ing to my lat­est endeav­or (yes, there is some­thing new in the works), I want to make sure I have the shelves stocked, so to speak. Tak­ing the extra time and effort to stack up a few weeks worth of con­tent means I can open the dig­i­tal doors with plen­ty for folks to look at (and judge if they want to keep com­ing back), and might help me cement the habits I need to keep mak­ing stuff at the same pace once the thing is live.
  4. Work in nine­ty-minute blocks of time. This is entire­ly behind-the-scenes to my read­er­ship, obvi­ous­ly (unless I opt to set up a live web­cam of my “writ­ing process” but that thought is incred­i­bly nau­se­at­ing to me), but I still feel it is worth men­tion­ing. I have only just begun to try it, but I agree with my guru Mer­lin Mann so far: nine­ty min­utes is a good, sol­id chunk of time, and I think it is fea­si­ble to shut down the nat­ter­ing dis­trac­tions of Face­book, Twit­ter, and real life for that long and real­ly knuck­le down on one thing, make real progress, and then break before I start rab­bit-hol­ing or fall asleep. I’m going to start set­ting a timer, and we will see if such a self-imposed con­straint can help me push out of the lethar­gic bub­ble I have been drown­ing in.
  5. Embrace the tools I need to suc­ceed. Yes, this trans­late to new stuff — tools — and this is still dif­fi­cult to jus­ti­fy, even to myself. Most of me thinks I should just hun­ker down on the back steps with a Mole­sk­ine and a Mont Blanc and write a whole new world. And some days I will still do that, I hope. But so much of the writ­ten work I intend to do is bound for elec­tron­ic for­mats, it makes more and more sense to work at a key­board, and while record­ing words in elec­tron­ic form is among the most basic of tech­no­log­i­cal tasks, there are also such things as tools that real­ly, real­ly work; that give me every­thing I need, noth­ing I don’t, and then get the hell out of my way and let me just make stuff. I have a good start on this (Scriven­er is still my cor­ner­stone, roof, and foun­da­tion), but I intend to exam­ine what tools will real­ly and tru­ly assist me in my work­flows, (pos­si­bly) go ahead and get those tools, and then for­get about every­thing else that is out there for a god long time. Obvi­ous­ly much more detail on this point will appear in future, as well.

Of course I know it is all fine and dandy to spout some half-digest­ed pro­duc­tiv­i­ty tid­bits I’ve picked up from some pod­cast. I still have to prove — first to me, and then to you — that I can step up and put some or any of these wor­thy rules into last­ing action. For now, it’s just more talk from a chron­ic under­achiev­er who is rapid­ly run­ning out of chances to get it right.

Visit to Excelsior Brewing

In a rare incur­sion into the Twin Cities Metro, I was able to briefly vis­it the brand new Excel­sior Brew­ing Com­pa­ny brew­ery on Sat­ur­day after­noon. I had been dying to get there for some time, espe­cial­ly since they had promised me a free t-shirt in response to some pre-open­ing Twit­ter inter­ac­tion back in, oh, late May I think, and I am one of those peo­ple who will dri­ve an hour and half to get a free t-shirt.

But far more than that, I want­ed to be able to set foot in at least one of the glo­ri­ous spate of new brew­eries set­ting up shop in Min­neso­ta in 2012. This is a very excit­ing time to be a beer lover in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. I’m not sure what has been more frus­trat­ing: watch­ing this abun­dance devel­op from far away in Canada’s Cap­i­tal through­out the past fall and win­ter, or watch­ing it from 100 miles away this spring and sum­mer. It’s prob­a­bly for the best, though: if I was still liv­ing in Saint Paul I would be a beer-chasin’ fool right now, and that’s prob­a­bly not what my fam­i­ly needs of me.

But back to Excel­sior. As I men­tioned, I was only able to man­age a very short vis­it, long enough to col­lect my t-shirt (thank you very much! I wear it proud­ly with my kilt!) and enjoy a small sam­ple of their inau­gur­al brew, Bring Jumper. The sto­ry that was being told when we were there is that they had planned to brew a ses­sion­able Amer­i­can Pale Ale, but their brand new brew­ing sys­tem was far more effi­cient than expect­ed, and a mon­ster 8%ABV beer had come out instead. I just have this to say about Bridge Jumper: if it was tru­ly as unplanned as leg­end would have it, I cer­tain­ly hope is is repro­ducible, because I LOVED it. I can find a ton of beers that smack me in the face with a bushel of hops, but Bridge Jumper smacked me with a big malty hand instead, and that is all too rare a treat. Bra­vo, Excel­sior Brew­ing team, and I look for­ward to try­ing all your efforts, I hope for many years to come. And next time I vis­it, I’ll make sure to give myself time to enjoy a full pint of some­thing. And I’ll be sport­ing my new shirt, too.

I need to buckle down

Oh, to strike out bold­ly, suck­ing in deep ded­i­cat­ed draughts of knowl­edge and digest­ing rapid­ly and ener­get­i­cal­ly, then turn­ing and plac­ing with both hands, as far out into the world as I can reach, my own craft of words and think­ing. This is my goal, this my desire: to light a fire in my own bel­ly that will know no quench­ing, to burn with ideas, to labor long and fierce­ly into the night and before the sun ris­es, to be a schol­ar who admits no dis­trac­tion until his work is done. I want to punch myself in the face so hard I cry for a week at the ache of it, to slam my fist against weak flesh and bone and wake me up to the plowman’s labor I need to have set my hand to years ago.

What? Yes, I want to be a writer, and I have many avenues of that craft that I want to chase my words down, herd­ing them like rabid preg­nant cats, cor­ralling them into the shape of sto­ries, his­to­ries, insights, and truth. We know how dear­ly I still want to tell my sem­i­nary sto­ries, the sto­ries of my jour­ney of faith and reli­gion, and noth­ing would bring me more sat­is­fac­tion than to see that project con­sum­mat­ed, per­fect­ed, and chas­ing around in search of a prof­itable avenue of pub­li­ca­tion. That day will come.

The now of my writ­ing, how­ev­er, is the now of my career — my voca­tion — in canon law. I have not emerged as a stun­ning schol­ar in this my cho­sen pro­fes­sion as of yet, and I rec­og­nize cer­tain sig­nif­i­cant lim­i­ta­tions that will prob­a­bly con­tin­ue to bar me from the high­est flights of my field. But that does not mean that I have no con­tri­bu­tion to make, and if I can amend even one of those innu­mer­ate lim­i­ta­tions — my fail­ure to apply myself to my work — then I know that there is a depth to my God-giv­en skills and tal­ents that will tear a hole in the veil of obscu­ri­ty my habit­u­al indo­lence has drawn over my aca­d­e­m­ic years. No more of this. It is way past time to put to proof my asser­tion that I have been worth edu­cat­ing. It is time to emerge from the shad­ows where I have been laz­ing and throw my mono­grammed hat into the schol­ar­ly ring. It is time to read hard and heavy, and to pen some jour­nal arti­cles, like a boss.

And the hard­est part is going to be, with­out any doubt, shut­ting out the cycle of dis­trac­tion I have bur­rowed my metaphor­i­cal ass into over these past sev­er­al years. Yes, I mean Face­book, and Twit­ter, and LinkedIn, and Goodreads, and Tum­blr, and all the many, many dis­trac­tions that the on-line, plugged-in life I have embraced is built around. No, I don’t want to sev­er myself from any of those tools, for I believe they are tools both valu­able and need­ed. But they are also addic­tive, and my infat­u­a­tion with idle­ness has latched me deep into them, a latch I must break if I am ever to be weaned from the Mobius loop teat of social media to the harsh but health­ful rations of dis­ci­plined self-appli­ca­tion to my own men­tal and cre­ative work. (Ridicu­lous hash of metaphor, I know, but what­ev­er, you get my point.)

I know I can write. I know I can read. I know I can think. I do not know that I am able to sit down at a key­board or a writ­ing desk and just read through page after page of sources, com­pre­hend and syn­the­size their con­tents, and turn to put my own thoughts in an order­ly fash­ion upon a page. I do not know that I can hold myself to any task, I do not know that I can keep myself focused on any­thing that doesn’t have a “Like” but­ton attached to it some­where. But I want to believe that I can do these things, and since I have (for good rea­son) no more faith left in myself as a pro­duc­tive and ded­i­cat­ed per­former of any task, I have no path oth­er than actu­al­ly doing these things — and then doing them again, and again, and again: of con­vinc­ing myself and those I love that I can tru­ly car­ry myself for­ward into a tomor­row in which I star not as a dis­ap­point­ing lump, but as a vital and dri­ven artist and aca­d­e­mi­cian who doesn’t sit in dream of projects he would like to start, maybe some­day. I want to start being some­one who starts projects, tack­les them day after day, and com­pletes them. That is how dras­tic I want this to be.

Verbing affidavit

A few days ago a friend in the legal pro­fes­sion post­ed on Face­book express­ing his frus­tra­tion with the awk­ward and cum­ber­some (and oft-used) phrase “swore an affi­davit” and won­dered if there was per­haps some for­got­ten or neglect­ed verb form that would allow him to express this same mean­ing with a sin­gle word. He quick­ly scrounged up affy as a pos­si­bil­i­ty, which (spoil­er alert!) is prob­a­bly the clos­est thing we are going to find to what he (and now I) are look­ing for. But I just plain don’t like affy, and thus the fol­low­ing.

Affi­davit is a Latin verb form, specif­i­cal­ly the third per­son sin­gu­lar per­fect indica­tive active of the verb affi­dare, a late Latin (i.e. Mediæ­val) verb mean­ing ‘to give faith, to pledge, to prove by oath’. It’s migra­tion into legal Eng­lish is uncom­pli­cat­ed: a head­ing indi­cat­ing that “he/she has sworn” fol­lowed by the sub­stance of that oath-backed asser­tion was bound to become a main­stay of legal doc­u­men­ta­tion in the devel­op­ment of the com­mon law sys­tem. But it is as I already not­ed a late addi­tion to the lan­guage: a com­pound of the prepo­si­tion ad, towards, and the verb fido, fidere,’ to trust, con­fide, put faith in (someone/something).’ Clas­si­cal Latin also had the com­pound con­fi­do, con­fidere, ‘to trust con­fi­dent­ly in some­thing, con­fide in, rely firm­ly upon, to believe, be assured of’. Why the con­struc­tion of affi­dare involved the shift­ing of con­ju­ga­tion is beyond my lin­guis­tic knowl­edge and resources (although it is, I think, fur­ther evi­dence if any were need­ed that the Mediæ­vals were most­ly crap at Latin, and just made it up as they went along).

But what of the Eng­lish verb we are look­ing for? Did any oth­er words come into the lan­guage along­side affi­davit? If so, where were they? The word I real­ly want­ed to find was **affide. It just makes sense to me that just as con­fide devel­oped quite direct­ly from con­fidere, there should be a verb devel­oped in par­al­lel from affi­dare. But, for what­ev­er rea­son, it doesn’t seem to have hap­pened in the liv­ing lan­guage. Maybe it is due to the late­ness of affi­dare appear­ing in Latin, when that tongue was already on the decline as a ver­nac­u­lar. Or per­haps the curi­ous shift from the Sec­ond Con­ju­ga­tion to the First in the for­ma­tion of affi­dare itself con­fused things and derailed the pro­gres­sion. In any case, I don’t find affide in any dic­tio­nary or lex­i­con that I can lay hands on.

(While I can find no author­i­ta­tive attes­ta­tion to it, a Google search did turn up a very small num­ber of occur­rences of affide, only one of which was in the pre­cise con­text and sense as what I was hop­ing for: a motion filed in a case before the Supreme Court of Ohio in 2007 (State of Ohio ex rel. Deb­o­rah S. Reese vs. Cuya­hoga Coun­ty Board of Elec­tions et al.), which includ­ed the asser­tion that “it would not be prop­er for the Rela­tor to affide to such mat­ters.” Hard to tell, though, if this a legit­i­mate use of a real live word that even dic­tio­nar­ies have for­got­ten, or if it just an iso­lat­ed exam­ple of a legal drafter in the Buck­eye State “going Mediæ­val” and mak­ing up a word on the fly, either delib­er­ate­ly or with­out think­ing about it. )

I want to take a moment here to cred­it a fan­tas­tic source I hap­pi­ly dis­cov­ered in pulling this post togeth­er. Alexan­der M. Bur­rill, A New Law Dic­tio­nary and Glos­sary: Con­tain­ing Full Def­i­n­i­tions of the Prin­ci­pal Terms of the Com­mon and Civ­il Law, Togeth­er with Trans­la­tions and Expla­na­tions of the Var­i­ous Tech­ni­cal Phras­es in DIf­fer­ent Lan­guages, Occur­ring in the Ancient and Mod­ern Reports, and Stan­dard Trea­tis­es; Embrac­ing also all the Prin­ci­pal Com­mon and Civ­il Law Max­ims, Part I (New York: John S. Vorhies, 1850). It is avail­able free in its entire­ty through Google Books, along with the sec­ond vol­ume which I have not yet had time or occa­sion to inspect.

It is in Burrill’s work that I found a solu­tion that sat­is­fies me in my legal con­text, although it may not be what my coun­ter­parts on the com­mon law side of things would like.

The par­ty mak­ing an affi­davit is usu­al­ly described as “the depo­nent,” (some­times, but rarely, “the affi­ant,” (q.v.) and in mak­ing his state­ments is said to depose—(“being duly sworn, depos­es and says,”)—but an affi­davit is dis­tin­guished from a depo­si­tion, prop­er­ly so called, by the cir­cum­stance that it is always made ex parte, and with­out any cross-exam­i­na­tion. (p. 49)

So, if I were plan­ning my for­mal vocab­u­lary for my own legal prax­is, I think I will prob­a­bly say “The wit­ness deposed that the lazy fox had no tail.” But if my friend prefers to say that his wit­ness “affied to the verac­i­ty of his state­ment,” then I can only say that the his­to­ry of our lan­guage sup­ports him, and I salute his efforts to res­cue anoth­er lone­ly Eng­lish word from neglect­ful obscu­ri­ty. If you doubt my sin­cer­i­ty, I would be hap­py to **affide this fact to any­one.

Owning and Possessing in a Digital World

We live in curi­ous and con­fus­ing times, as have pret­ty much all our ances­tors through­out all of record­ed his­to­ry. Some lines that once seemed clear are always start­ing to blur, and that is always going to make us uncom­fort­able to some extent, although we all have vary­ing degrees of tol­er­ance for such unease, espe­cial­ly when with it come excite­ment and the promise of new and bet­ter (?) things just ahead.

My friend (and cousin-in-law) Dave Schwartz asked a very inter­est­ing ques­tion on his blog yes­ter­day morn­ing: what does it mean to own a book? He describes his expe­ri­ence of recent­ly pur­chas­ing phys­i­cal copies of three books he already owned in e-book form, and won­ders what that says about him, and in a broad­er sense what that says about dig­i­tal vs. phys­i­cal media.

Per­son­al­ly, dig­i­tal prop­er­ty still feels ephemer­al to me. While I love the fact that I can own whole sea­sons of my favorite TV shows (for exam­ple) with­out hav­ing thick cas­es devour­ing inch after inch of my pre­cious book­shelf space, at the same time, I can’t see them, I can’t hold them, I can’t real­ly know that I have them: ulti­mate­ly I have to believe in them. It becomes almost a mat­ter of faith, and trust as well: faith in an unseen world of zeros and ones that some­how coa­lesce con­sis­tent­ly into the sights and sounds and words that we have paid for, and trust that a glitch, a hic­cup, or dust mote is not going to wipe out all that unseen dig­i­tal prop­er­ty in the blink of an eye.

And that leap of faith trust and in the reli­a­bil­i­ty of dig­i­tal prop­er­ty is a hard one to make, and far hard­er (for many peo­ple) when it comes to books than to music and visu­al enter­tain­ments. Why? Because our rela­tion­ship to books is inher­ent­ly a more phys­i­cal one, at least it always has been since peo­ple start­ed read­ing to them­selves back in late antiq­ui­ty. (Augus­tine com­ments in Book VI of Con­fes­sions how bizarre it was that his men­tor Ambrose would sit by him­self and read silent­ly, rather than aloud as every­one else did: “When he read his eyes would trav­el across the pages and his mind would explore the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent.” Of course, read­ing aloud helped back when there were no spaces between words.) We car­ry books with us, we curl up with them, we smash creep­ing things with them, we amass long shelves full of them, we press trea­sured memen­tos in them. They are for many of us touch­stones mile­stones along life’s jour­ney, some­times even mon­u­ments to the achieve­ment of tack­ling and con­quer­ing a par­tic­u­lar­ly daunt­ing text.

And now that is chang­ing. The pre­sen­ta­tion of texts to be read is migrat­ing to ever-improv­ing dig­i­tal devices that allow us to car­ry copi­ous amounts of read­ing mate­r­i­al about with us in our purs­es and man-bags. I can­not see this as a bad thing, but at a deep lev­el it is still a dif­fi­cult devel­op­ment to adjust to. It is one thing to embrace the ease and con­ve­nience this shift offers, but it is anoth­er to com­pen­sate for the uncon­scious expec­ta­tions of what it means to hold a book, to own a book, to pos­sess a book. We’ll get used to it in time: we’re good at that.

I always skip the Oscars

Okay, so I have very lit­tle to say about the Acad­e­my Awards tonight (or ever, real­ly), but what lit­tle I do have I will say now.

I have noth­ing against awards cer­e­monies per se, and while I know rather lit­tle about the film indus­try aside from what is com­mon pop-cul­ture knowl­edge (which feels like know­ing a great deal, giv­en the cen­tral­i­ty of that indus­try, but I am sure those of my friends who actu­al­ly work in the field can reas­sure me of how lit­tle I tru­ly know about the inter­nal work­ings of their craft), I would absolute­ly agree that the efforts of the many many tal­ent­ed peo­ple involved at all stages of the filmic art form deserve to be rec­og­nized and laud­ed by their peers.

How­ev­er, I do not think that said event of (self-)congratulations needs and/or deserves to be a break­ing-news, live-tweet­ed, world-stop­ping cul­tur­al event. This has noth­ing to do with the lav­ish excess of such events (which some might deem scan­dalous, but I am done being scan­dal­ized as a gen­er­al rule). Nor do I intend to cast asper­sions on any­one who finds such spec­ta­cles enjoy­able and enter­tain­ing on their own mer­its, pre­cise­ly as enter­tain­ing spec­ta­cles: if you dig that, then keep on dig­ging it. Instead, I take issue with the degree to which such riv­et­ing atten­tion to the Oscars (and the sev­er­al oth­er awards shows that the same indus­try cycles through every year) tempts film-view­ers — indi­vid­u­al­ly and col­lec­tive­ly — to abdi­cate respon­si­bil­i­ty for their own appre­cia­tive fac­ul­ties for the films they see.

I love film as an art form. The con­cate­na­tion of the actor’s craft, the expres­sive impact of the visu­al arts, and the infi­nite emo­tion­al palette of music into a uni­fied art of visu­al sto­ry­telling that is far more than a sum of its com­po­nents, is some­thing I have hap­pi­ly spent prob­a­bly thou­sands of hours enjoy­ing already at this point in my life. (As a more-or-less direct result of my tran­si­tion to my rôle of hus­band and father, I have not seen any­where near all the films I wish I had in the past decade or so — I’ve kept a list, obvi­ous­ly — and I should prob­a­bly get start­ed on my list for this decade pret­ty soon, too, before I lose track.) I know which films I enjoy (for var­i­ous rea­sons), which I feel are par­tic­u­lar­ly amaz­ing, which might even deserve to be called impor­tant. But I do not know one rea­son why the bestow­al of an award of any kind upon any film I see should have any rel­e­vance to my rela­tion­ship to that film as an indi­vid­ual work of art. Just as when I read a book or a poem, or look at a paint­ing or a pho­to­graph, or even eat a burg­er and drink a glass of ale, I am the only crit­ic in that moment. My taste is the only arbiter whose judg­ment is of any inter­est to me as I con­sume, in what­ev­er sense is rel­e­vant, the expe­ri­ence I am fac­ing.

So it sad­dens me, I guess, more than any­thing else, when peo­ple make such a point of see­ing the five (or now ten) films nom­i­nat­ed for best pic­ture, or lat­er, when I hear some­one say “Oh, I didn’t real­ly like that one, but it won Best Pic­ture, so…” So what? Yes, your taste may well be crap, as indeed mine may be, but it is mine, and I gen­er­al­ly stand by it, gild­ed tro­phies be damned. For a long peri­od in my life I watched David Fincher’s Se7en about once a week, and even now would nev­er think of part­ing with my DVD copy, but I couldn’t tell you to save my life whether it won any awards or not. I am pret­ty sure Titan­ic did, yet I strug­gle to imag­ine a sce­nario where I would will­ing­ly sit through that par­tic­u­lar film again.

So, yes, if you love to watch the dress­es come down the red car­pet with celebri­ties inside them, then pop anoth­er bot­tle of what­ev­er and sit back: tonight is your night. But if you love to watch movies, if you delight in the immer­sive expe­ri­ence of film, please do your­self the sim­ple cour­tesy of hon­or­ing what you think is good, great, and leg­endary, and not wor­ry whether it match­es up with the awards list from this or any oth­er sea­son.