My girlfriend and I use technology to augment our relationship. When we spend long periods of time apart we write each other text messages and send photographs of ourselves to each other, often photographs of a sexual nature. Late one night, she sent me such a photograph and I was certain, based on the quality of light in the photograph, that the picture had not been taken recently. I pressed for details about when this picture had been taken and she eventually confirmed my suspicion that, yes, in fact, this was an old picture, taken before we had begun seeing each other. I was hurt and made it clear to her that I expected the photographs of a sexual nature that she sent me to have been taken specifically and exclusively for me; after all, I would do the same for her. She claimed—and I agreed with her—that it was a good photograph and she simply wanted me to see it. After all, there was no guarantee that she would get that kind of light while also experiencing a very sexual mood while we were together, the future being largely out of our control. I was still upset, but it was getting late and my girlfriend and I are adamant that we not go to bed angry and so I was willing to resolve this another day. Before saying goodnight, I began typing her a text message. All I want to do is kiss, and my phone suggested your neck. I accepted this suggestion: All I want to do is kiss your neck. How was the software in my phone able to correctly guess where I wanted to kiss my girlfriend? Of course the answer is that, embedded in my phone’s text messaging software, there is an implementation of a simple language model which keeps track of frequent sequences of words that I type. The software uses this language model to make suggestions as I type, thus further technologically augmenting my relationships. In other words, my girlfriend was not the first person whose neck I’d wanted to kiss, as I’d typed this sequence of words many times before. It is possible that future updates to my phone’s operating system will involve refinements of this algorithm, down-weighting the relevance of word sequences I typed long ago or maintaining language statistics conditioned on the recipient’s identity, thus giving my girlfriend a statistical tabula rasa. It is impossible for me to say. I explained this insight to my girlfriend and said that the photographs of a sexual nature were not so different. We are all like crabs gathering debris and sea-floor detritus in a frantic effort to construct a Self, she typed. I started to type I couldn’t agree more, but after typing I my phone suggested the word sequence love you so much and I accepted this suggestion before telling my girlfriend goodnight, don’t let the blue light bite.
Author: Alex F.
Real, but not that real: My Struggle, Book 6, by Karl Ove Knausgaard
I received the first volume in this series as a gift, mailed to me by Anne Pier in, I think, 2013. I was living in Rochester at the time; I remember standing in the entryway to the building on Meigs St. when I opened the package. I brought the book with me to Champaign, Illinois, then to Tel Aviv, next to Durham, and finally to New York, where I lived for two years, from 2016 to 2018. My first spring in New York, I took a week-long vacation and stayed in an apartment in Thomas, WV, looking out on the Monongahela National Forest. I took the book with me and finally read it after dragging it around with me for almost 4 years. My days in Thomas were quiet and consistently though loosely structured. I woke up, had coffee and breakfast, walked Marcel, then came back and read until lunch, went out again for a long hike, read more until dinner time, drank beer, smoked a cigarette, and read some more. Knausgaard’s writing–simple, precise, even-keeled, almost monotonous–resonated with and helped strengthen the particular mood on this trip, which still stands out in my mind as a particularly happy time. I returned a year later, and by that time I was reading the fourth book. After two years in New York, in 2018, I moved back to Durham, and finished book 5. Almost three years later, I’ve just finished the sixth and final book in the series.
These books have a meditative quality that I think comes from a stylistic feature the author has commented on many times, in interviews and in the books themselves–attempting giving equal weight to the various impressions and phenomena of his experience. The physical sensations accompanying the preparation of coffee are given just as much space in the text as the argument taking place between the narrator and his mother as he prepares the coffee. The literary device echoes the methodology of classical psychoanalysis, where Freud advocates that the analyst maintain a kind of “evenly hovering attention” (gleichschwebende Aufmerksamkeit) during the session. The same kind of bare, vigilant, nonjudgmental attention arises on its own during the practice of zazen in my experience, at least I have found this to be the case during day-long or multi-day meditation intensives.
But even from this free-floating attention, a distinct voice and a particular narrative emerges. The narrator’s “I” can’t help but structure these impressions around his own egoic needs, his likes and dislikes, his shame and insecurities and ambition. In attempting to lay bare the raw materials, the bare phenomenology, of experience, Knausgaard drills deep into the core of the self, to what is real in our sense of separateness and individuality. In the context of Buddhist psychology and metaphysics, it is often said that the ego “is real, but it’s not that real”. The way I understand this is that the ego, or sense of self, is a real phenomenon, a natural and biologically rooted outgrowth of human cognitive development, as real as a daisy or a large-mouth bass. But it is also as unreal as a daisy or a large-mouth bass, insofar as all these phenomena are in some radical sense inseparable from all other phenomena–indeed, they (all phenomena) are all literally one thing. Knausgaard’s books get at this point obliquely, using the tools and language of literature and memoir rather than psychology or religion.
For me, these books draw out and beautifully develop the painful and often embarrassing details of childhood, growing up, fatherhood, friendship, and heartbreak to get at what is the most urgent and arguably only real spiritual question: what is this?
On the morphology of the virus
When the virus started spreading, we learned it was spreading to many countries and steadily if unevenly into their territories. We knew that the tool needed to detect the presence of the virus in a human, the testing kit, had not yet been manufactured in sufficient quantities to provide a confident measurement of the spread. There was also the matter of inconsistent symptom presentation: many who had the virus in their bodies seemed not to display readily observable signs of infirmity and would therefore be unlikely to get tested for the virus even if the test were more widely available which, recall, it was not.
Responses to the reported spread of the virus included measured reassurance, various forms of panic, and denial. These responses were easier to monitor than the virus itself, being legible and right there on the computer—you just had to go and look for expressions of the responses, and they could easily be found on the virtual social networks to which most of us had convenient access.
Many more children than usual were at home because schools were closing in large numbers to contain the spread. Curiously, it seemed, children could carry the virus but were unlikely to become sick from it, making their potential as carriers all the more pernicious. Suddenly a hug offered by a child seemed like something to regard with more caution than before. Indeed, hugs became something one had to approach with a great deal of caution across the board.
For my part, I still hugged the dogs, it being my understanding that dogs could not host the virus or transmit it to a human, even though the virus seemed to have originated in some other animal, presumably domesticated. My girlfriend and I hugged throughout the day, especially after arguments, which luckily became less frequent during the spread of the virus, the prospect of widespread and painful death seeming to put things into a new perspective that diminished our commitment to our opinions about what specifically transpired in the quotidian manifestation of our life together.
We avoided crowded places even more than usual, though if you know my girlfriend you will also know that she was never one for crowded places anyway. But we embraced the new injunction to avoid unnecessary contact with other humans, and we paid for two jigsaw puzzles to be delivered directly to our house, disinfecting them with a liquid spray upon their arrival. We took the dogs on hikes, reasoning that, even if the trails were to become a bit crowded, as they often did, the virus would quickly disperse and could not concentrate into problematic density, the outdoors being what they are, namely very open and large, at least by our judgment.
One of the jigsaw puzzles was a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, “The garden of earthly delights”, separated, of course, into many interlocking pieces that we would later attempt to fit together in order to recreate the original, vivid scene depicted by the apparently troubled Dutchman so long ago.
My girlfriend worked on her computer and I read my books in silence, as was my usual habit, though I felt that the phenomenology of reading for me had become more intensely personal, in light of the virus and its uncertain spread among humans. I read new books and classics, books that provided highly readable accounts of popular scientific trends, novels with difficult images and language that I had to plod through sometimes quite slowly, frequently consulting a variety of references to more fully engage with the text. I carried out my daily Zen meditation practice, having in the last few years become something of a devout Buddhist, owing to certain developments in my personal life.
A commonly shared conviction was that our community’s collective efforts to avoid each other should have the result of appearing, down the road and in hindsight, as an overreaction to the virus, their effectiveness causing the virus to seem like a considerably less severe threat than what we had allowed ourselves to believe it was.
I found it helpful to review my high school Latin dictionary when prompted to do so by my reading. After encountering an allusion to St. Benedict, I was put in mind of the English word benediction—good word. We all sought the good word, I thought, whatever meaning this might have for a given individual in a given set of circumstances. Virus, of course, was Latin for poison. Perhaps misleadingly unrelated to virile, virtue, whose etymologies both point ultimately to the Latin for man along their respective semantic and morphological diachronic trajectories. I had a teacher, years ago, who couldn’t stress it enough—language change is atelic, an English word derived from the Greek telos, for end, which we encounter more mundanely (from Latin mundus, or world, i.e., in our worldly affairs, I am tempted to think) in telephone, television, telemetry. Language change is not driven towards some end, in other words, as many once believed, long ago, in this country and in many others.
We know that the English lexicon is rife with morphological overlap with Latin largely due to the conquest of territories populated with English speakers by French-speaking Normans in the 11th century. The result being that English is now a Germanic language with a surprisingly Latin-via-Norman French-derived lexicon. I experience especially poignant reminders of this in the enviable decomposability of many German words. Wörterbuch (book of words) instead of dictionary, Fernseher (far seer) instead of television, Handschuh (“hand shoe”) instead of glove. The still-Germanic morpho-lexical core of English seems to have flown under the radar of the conquest. Hand, shoe, word, see. Words so embedded in the daily lives of people that they could hide in plain sight and avoid contact. Though this metaphor must of course be abandoned, telicity being in the very marrow of what it would mean for the words themselves to be ascribed agency and the will to remain hidden or untouched.
So, too, the spread of the virus appeared to be atelic or at least impersonal, and its apparent lack of interest in children perhaps an unhelpful if encouraging anthropomorphization.
“I’ve lost interest in all forms of self-improvement projects,” my friend Dave said to me as he sprinkled the last bit of fish food onto the surface of the koi pond he maintains in his yard.
Self-improvement projects, according to Dave, always turn into labor, and all labor is bondage. “That’s why”, he explained to me as we sat down on the bench next to the koi pond, “my various projects take such a long time, and why the scope of my projects has narrowed in recent years.”
Dave explained that any personal project—that is, any activity that is not directly related to performing the duties associated with his job or meeting the various demands placed on him by his wife—must consist in activities that he can perform in the evenings from his bed. Dave said that by satisfying this constraint, personal projects cannot become labor and, by definition, cannot result in self-improvement. “My circadian rhythm and melatonin conspire to put a relatively hard upper bound on how long I can pursue a given personal project. I can engage in the personal project for usually ten minutes or so, at which point I doze off involuntarily. I simply do the activity until I become tired, and when that time comes I am, conveniently, already undressed and in the bed and can immediately fall asleep.”
This explains why Dave’s personal projects sometimes take much longer than one would expect, given the complexity of the project and Dave’s demonstrated aptitude in the various tasks involved. Knitting scarves for his siblings every Christmas, reading the most recent popular non-fiction, providing his colleagues with feedback on early drafts of manuscripts: These were all things that—when I first met him, presumably during a time in which he, for one reason or another, was less wary of self-improvement—Dave once did in a matter of weeks or even days. Now such projects routinely took Dave more than a year to finish.
I reminded Dave that he had built the very bench we were sitting on. I reminded him that he had borrowed my wife’s station wagon to go and collect the scrap wood from which he would go on to construct the bench, since the car he drove at that time was too small to haul the planks without creating hazardous driving conditions.
I reminded Dave that he had built this koi pond fifteen years before, that he’d dug up a crude hole with a rented backhoe and I’d helped him to refine and sculpt the shape of the hole with mattocks and shovels. I reminded him how I then helped him lay down a plastic liner to create a sealed ecosystem that had thrived all these years.
Were these not worthy projects that improved not only the self, but benefitted others in various ways as well, I asked him. And specifically, by involving and enlisting others in these projects, was he not taking something that, in a certain sense, was not his? Is it not the case that the wellbeing of not only his friends but also the fish were somehow being jeopardized by his refusal to honor the legacy of these projects in our shared lives? “The life expectancy of the fish is not something I fully thought through,” Dave admitted, sighing. He said he wished the fish would simply die peacefully, since he couldn’t justify killing or neglecting the fish, all in the name of not improving himself.
Before we went back inside to have coffee, Dave had to measure the temperature of the water in the koi pond. Every year, he recorded the water temperature each day in a small notebook, starting on Labor Day. When the recorded temperature remained below 55 degrees for seven consecutive days, Dave stopped feeding the fish until spring. For years this felt to me like a dangerous gamble, but Dave had researched the species carefully and assured me that the fishes’ bodies stopped producing certain enzymes related to digestion once water temperatures regularly fall below 55 degrees, and that they could even become sick and die if one were to continue feeding them in these conditions.
As Dave bent over the edge of the pond, holding the thermometer just below the surface of the water, I closed my eyes and pictured Dave finding the fish dead, one by one, floating on the surface of the water. I saw him bury the fish in the nearby forest, pouring freshly-dug soil onto their lifeless orange bodies. I imagined myself coming by one Saturday and helping Dave remember how to operate the backhoe so that he could fill in what had once been his treasured, self-contained pond ecosystem. I saw the dirt piled up where the pond had been, a neat little mound like a tidy unmarked grave. I saw the bench slowly rotting from exposure and Dave finally breaking the bench down with a crow bar, prying the nails loose and burning each piece of the disassembled bench in his winter fires. I saw the fire in the fireplace smolder and the heat in his house concentrate to a finer and finer point in Dave’s bedroom, under his covers, where he would one day fall asleep for the last time, a barely discernible smile playing across his dead lips, as if in wry acknowledgment of the possibility that things had improved at last.
A useful conceptual framework
From the second story of our house the highway sounds like an ocean. The similarity is enhanced when the sun shines brightly onto the exterior walls of the apartment building visible from the upstairs rooms on the northern side of our house. To us the roar is constant, dissipating after we have fallen asleep, and picking up again before we are awake.
Our street runs east to west, and the rising sun illuminates the rooms on the eastern side–the spare bedroom, the dining room–and in the evening the setting sun shines into the house’s western-facing rooms–the master bedroom, the study.
Sometimes as we are finishing our final cycle of dreams, almost awake, early in the morning, the dog asleep in his bed next to ours, snoring quietly, the actual orientation of the highway and the rooms is distorted in our minds, and for a few moments before fully waking it is as though the highway near our house, parallel to our street, is rotated ninety degrees, and it is as though the sun rises over our house as it does the sea, and the roar of the highway traffic is more like the ocean than ever. I grasp at this image, but it fades as we wake up completely, leaving the slightly flawed analogy intact.
Paid time off
We come to this same town every year to escape the clutter of daily life. Every year we rent the same room in the same building on the main drag through town. When we get here, after unloading my luggage from the covered bed of the truck, we go to the grocery store. This year at the Stop-n-Save I buy three avocados, unsalted butter, pork rinds, one dozen eggs, two cans of tuna packed in olive oil, tomatoes, pre-washed romaine lettuce in a plastic container, chocolate, coffee, bananas, and a pouch of Red Man chewing tobacco.
Marcel waits calmly in the cab of the truck while I check out. I see him address an itch by gnawing gently on his body where it itches.
We always come to this town in spring, when Marcel’s allergies act up. In all of my pictures from our trips, year after year, Marcel’s face grows whiter, and there is always a spot on his left paw, darkened by his allergic licking. I try to keep him from licking but still he licks it when I am unable to watch him.
I bring magazines to read, as well as books. I bring books I feel I cannot easily make time to read at home, owing to the clutter of my daily life. Last year I brought Middlemarch, and this year Swann’s Way. These demanding texts are more manageable during our trips, taking advantage of my employer’s paid time off policy.
I bring my meditation cushions in a big duffel bag I use only for that purpose. I arrange them in a corner of the bedroom. I use a lint-roller to clean off the black buckwheat-filled cushions and plan to meditate for longer periods than I am able to at home, temporarily relieved of the clutter of my daily life.
Inevitably the clutter of my daily life re-emerges, takes new forms when refracted through the lens of my paid time off, grows from the seeds of disorder that lie in my heart. Socks and underwear accumulate on the bedroom floor. Olive pits and empty cans of tuna start are left on the kitchen counter. Within the context of my paid time away from the clutter of my daily life, daily hikes provide a respite from the chaos. Each day we hike between five and ten miles in the forest. Black bears are not uncommon in here, and we sometimes see bear scat on our long walks. To date we have not seen a bear in person, so to speak. I do not bring a gun on our trips.
I sometimes mutter to myself, Just for once I’d like to see a bear out here. Maybe then, if I experienced the big fear that would presumably arise in me as a result of seeing the bear, the little fear from the scat would dim. Then I wouldn’t be so cut off from everything, I say out loud to myself as we are walking on a trail near town, marked with blue diamond trail markers. Maybe then I’d notice the socks and underwear accumulating, and maybe then I’d just put them into a plastic grocery bag, saved for that purpose, that I could carry home and empty into the hamper in my bedroom, or directly into the washer.
What can one do to bridge one’s separateness from the natural world? Going on a long hike on my paid time highlights my alienation from the natural world. I end the hikes in the midst of an imagined dialogue with my enemies, defending an obvious rhetorical position to the people lodged stubbornly in my nervous system. Trudging through a national forest, looking at my feet, lost in thoughts, I’m more tired than when I started, my chances of sleeping improved, but the rocks, streams, trees, and turtles remain silent and concealed.
At church, when I was little, my Sunday school teacher told us that to be in Hell is to be forever separated from God’s love. In trying to move closer to God’s love, since then, amidst the clutter of my daily life, I feel I have been only further ensnared in what I sometimes imagine as the Chinese finger trap of solipsism.
During my paid time off, I bring my dog to suicide country, where despair claims the men and women in large numbers, having separated the souls of the men and women from God’s love and taken them with it to be devoured in Hell, the way a lone coyote baits a house dog into chasing the coyote back to the waiting and hungry pack.
I get up on the last day of my paid time off and take Marcel for one last walk, watching for coyotes. I do not bring a gun on our trips.
“Marcel walks to metal” now out at Gauss PDF
My project “Marcel walks to metal” is now up at Gauss PDF, a site edited by J. Gordon Faylor that hosts all kinds of weird, beautiful, and funny art, most of which exists as PDF files. I’ve long admired this site and it feels good to see my work included there.
I started working on this many years ago, in the Spring of 2013 as I was writing my dissertation. I was walking my dog, listening to an album by blackened power metal band Wintersun, and was struck by the contrast so I took a picture with my phone. This is the first image in the series after the title page.
I kept taking pictures and adding metal lyrics for years, albeit somewhat inconsistently. I did not take any pictures in the year I spent in Champaign, IL, where I completed a one-year post-doc after finishing my PhD. I was extremely depressed that year and didn’t make any art. There is only one image from Tel Aviv, where I lived the next year. The project picks up again in 2015/2016, after I moved back to Durham.
The annotations at the bottom of each photo capture the passage of time and changes in geography. You can also discern signs of aging in Marcel over time, particularly in the whitening fur on his face.
Some informal hypotheses regarding the decline of automotive repair facilities in our town
Many of the new businesses in our town operate in buildings that once housed gas stations or automobile repair shops. Some of us wonder why there were once so many gas stations and automobile repair businesses in our town that are no longer needed. It does not seem to be the case, for instance, that the gas stations and auto repair businesses have moved into new facilities; what gas stations and auto repair businesses I am aware of all appear to be housed in rather old buildings. Moreover, there are now more reasons than ever to drive one’s car in our town. There are new restaurants, parks, and offices, too many to count, and by all accounts these are successful enterprises. Given their success and their locations, which are not proximal to the main residential areas of our community, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that people are driving to them. My own experience is consistent with this. Their parking lots seem to always be nearly full.
Perhaps this apparent contradiction can be resolved by the simple fact that–in our town and indeed throughout the world–recently manufactured automobiles are both more fuel-efficient and of a higher quality than those manufactured in the past, and therefore require less maintenance and gasoline. Everyone with whom I have discussed this matter points to a common underlying mechanism: the newer cars combust fuel in ways that incur less damage to the material of the engine. In addition, recently-manufactured cars are very often equipped with the sorts of features that bring the car’s operation into closer alignment with the human cognitive endowment, reducing the risk of accidents and therefore the demand for automobile repair businesses. If the residents of our town drive such automobiles at higher rates, the puzzle is likely solved.
The people in our town reap the rewards of these technological advances. At the same time, we must acknowledge with gratitude that, if circumstances were to suddenly change–if, say, human cognition were to undergo rapid and unexpected changes, rendering the newly developed features ineffective–the buildings that once housed the automobile repair businesses are still available. With minor adjustments and renovations these buildings could once again provide the infrastructure necessary for repairing automobiles in the same way that they once did, more or less.
Six haikus about my sister’s new taser
My sister got a
taser, and my mother got
a gun for Christmas.
We shot mom’s pistol
into the embankment out
back behind the house.
Next we measured the
striking range of my sister’s
new taser: six feet.
Mom couldn’t bring her
pistol to the grammar school
where she taught fractions.
And my sister, she
couldn’t bring her new taser
to college with her.
So they left them home
where I watched them both and I
Kale joke published
I recognize my faults; I am always conscious of my sins. I have sinned and done what I consider evil, which is make a joke about kale. So you are right in judging me; you are justified in condemning me. Anyway here is my kale joke in The Haven.
It may be interesting to you to know that I wrote it when I was alone in a cabin in the woods enduring several days of primordial animal terror. I kept a fire going, held tightly onto a metal fire poker, awaited my demise, read a copy of the New York Times I picked up before heading into the woods, and wrote this kale joke.