On Cardigans and Social Distancing

Sitting in front of a fire, wearing a cardigan sweater, in February 1977 President Jimmy Carter addressed the nation about the energy crisis that had punched the country in the gut. Clearly the White House’s thermostat must have been turned down. The fire crackled, making the living room warm and toasty. Carter spoke of national policies but also what citizens could do, uttering the words “conservation” and “sacrifice.” The message was clear: turn off unnecessary lights, turn down the thermostat, put on a goddamned sweater.

I remember clearly the contrast from the December before, when every house in my neighborhood was decked out in holiday lights, to the following December when there were no holiday lights to be seen. Everyone took to heart the message of conservation, and also perhaps the message that the annual rite of hauling out ladders to string the lights was no longer necessary. And ever since, the rite is no longer obligatory but voluntary. Now I marvel when I see a house strung out in lights.

I wonder what social distancing — what the mandate to work at home, what the elbow bump (that now is even too close) — will do to our social practices. I can teach class from my living room. Maybe I could teach it from across the world? Why risk running into a student or colleague in the hallway?

Jimmy Carter was absolutely correct about what we needed then and still need to do now about our energy habits. He discussed not just conservation but renewables and a comprehensive national policy.

Now in the face of a viral pandemic, it is absolutely right for us to stay as far away from each other as we can. But not forever, I hope. Not for long.

Conservation is key for energy policy or what we now think of as climate change policy. Social distancing is necessary to stave off the coronavirus. But these are ways of addressing symptoms, not getting at underlying and systemic processes. Addressing climate change means developing renewable sources of energy, just as Carter anticipated over forty years ago but which has yet to be carried through. In fact, under the cover of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has been busy rolling back Obama’s climate change measures.

Likewise, preventing pandemics requires robust public health policies. But instead of these, the United States’ health care system is geared to addressing individual’s needs (or at least those with decent health insurance) not the systems that allow for the proliferation of illness in the first place.

If we address the roots of these problems, maybe the future could hold holiday cheer and lots of hugs and kisses from all our friends.

3/24/2020

I am uninspired,
a little broken, a little sad, and
trepidatious, undone by my mother

wondering if I can write poetry,

but I suppose I already am. This
is a long poem,

interrupted by news flashes and news holes.

Barrenness. Grape purpleness, a virus
ravaging people all over the
Earth,

and there’s not much I can do. The
best I can do is nothing.

Don’t leave the house. Maybe
stay in this little nook of the
house, with my microwave and
big white fridge, with my French
press and small jar of sweetener.

Maybe doing nothing is the
best revenge
against a microbial virus with
the fucking gall
to do this to us all

and a moronic president
hoping for full pews on Easter.

That’s not my Easter
you son of a bitch

Take that in your eye, in your
orange morass of hair and
white-rimmed eyeballs.

 

Gone Poet

Not so long ago, epidemiologists said of a new deadly virus, “not if, but when.” Now the answer is “now.” I read all the news all day long, and it seems there is nothing left to say. Then today a friend wrote me with a “chain mail” poetry letter. So I sent a poem to a stranger, one of my favorite Robert Creeley poems, I Know a Man.

So there are words after all. I will start by digging up some poems I wrote half a lifetime ago. And maybe I will start writing some new ones.

Cactus Leaves

I’m getting
used to the idea
of death
he said to her
while she lay
sucking cactus
leaves, occasionally
sitting upright
to pull a thorn
from her teeth,
and  later, when
the glare gave
way, they made
love in the sand
seeking redemption
then talked
smoking about the
lack of things
to dwell on ever
since abandoning
the Cutlass on the
side of I-91
having assumed
it wasn’t carrying
them anywhere
anyhow,
but still neither
of them mentioned
their visions:
the well and the
swelling tide and
drowning

Our fascist times?

forlorn bridge

How could it get worse. A president found guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors by the US House of Representatives let off the hook by a Senate more willing to look after their own future than the present and future of the country they are supposed to serve.

In my piece last summer for the Los Angeles Review of Books, “The Public Sphere in Dark Times,” I argued that thanks to the robust role of the informal public sphere even Trump could not turn this country into a dictatorship. The events of this past week are put these ideas to the test.

In that piece I distinguish three realms of the public sphere: 1) the formal one of elected bodies, 2) the elite one of leading news media and “opinion leaders,” and 3) the informal one of the street, social media, informal conversations that radiate and connect with each other all over the country and around the world. I argue that all three realms intersect and bounce around and test each others’ ideas.

At this point in time, the formal realm of the public sphere is deeply divided, but enought of it has gained power to legally, if not in any other respect, exonerate Trump. The elite opinion realm is also divided but for the most part highly critical of trump. The informal public sphere, at least as far as Twitter shows, also really critical. The rest of the public sphere, slumbering away in the hinterlands, a sleeping polar bear of apathy? It’s hard to say. Will the informal realms of the public sphere be able to hold the more formal and conservative ones accountable?

My theory is not a crystal ball. Time will tell.

Quitting Facebook

Screenshot 2019-11-22 at 9.17.49 PMI just quit Facebook today. It wasn’t that big a part of my life but now that I’ve quit it I realize how much of my cyborg life it was. Just like my phone. I might not use it that much but it is always there. And now FB no longer is, not the scores of people from my adolescent years, not the students and colleagues from my 30s, not my more recent friends from greater DC and Boston, not my current philosophy colleagues from all over the world. Facebook made it possible for me to have all these great connections, just as it made it possible for it to scoop up private data from 31 percent of the global population. Yes, 31 percent. And then monetize us, harvest us, market to us, capture us for whatever they want. So I decided finally, after much prodding from a few friends, to say, no. No more. I have found an alternative to Facebook that promises not to sell my data, not to algorithmize my content, to just let me share my news with people I like. Maybe this is a fantasy that somehow I can keep my personal stuff to myself. But I’m okay with better being a good alternative to unacceptable.

What is so curious is that so many of my otherwise principled friends and colleagues are willing to scoop up the benefits of Facebook and turn a blind eye to the harm it is doing.

Falling water, falling away

Screenshot 2019-08-30 at 8.19.18 PMI just finished watching Ken Burns’ two episodes on Frank Lloyd Wright. I’m left with where I was at the start, with mixed feelings. Yes, Falling Water is one of the most stunning architectural masterpieces of the past century, but for the most part Wright’s architecture focused on creating inner sanctums, not windows to the world. And most of it leaves me cold.

He was a philanderer and a charlatan and a narcissist and an egoist. And there is no “however” to follow to make up for his personality flaws. The man seems to have been totally unbearable.

But there was genius. He knew how architecture could create a richer internal world.

Which makes me think about his mother.

Ken Burns’ documentary makes clear that Wright’s first and ever love was his mother, and he was hers. His father abandoned them, just as he later abandoned his own first family. The man never negotiated the Oedipus complex, because he didn’t have to. So throughout his life he remained the narcissistic omnipotent childish overlord, and demanded that everyone treat him as king.

But maybe in that pre-oedipal refusal of oedipus, in that refusal to succumb to a superego (the heir of the oedipus complex), he was able to retain an inner magical world that could create Falling Water? What does that say about the tradeoffs we all make every day, trading away creativity for civilization?

Time Management

Screenshot 2018-06-15 09.59.34I’m planning to run a workshop for graduate students on how to manage time, both the time when there’s never enough time and the stretches of time when there is all the time in the world (like a sabbatical). I’m still working on this, so let me run it by you all. Maybe you have some ideas? Please post them in the comments.

Time Management Workshop

Introduction

  • Zen things. Do one thing at a time. Do it slowly and completely. Do less. Put space between things. Develop rituals. Think about what is necessary. Live simply.
  • Find your style, whatever is ego-syntonic. Don’t use this as an exercise in making yourself a better person. Go with who you are and find methods that fit with who you are. Are you a morning person or a night person? Do you like to work at home or do you want to be around other people? Are you happier setting aside time blocks or do you prefer checking off tasks for the day? Do you prefer analog or digital tools to keep track of tasks?

Plot out your work.

  • Set a goal (map each goal separately) and then break it down
  • Develop a loose timeline and then plot it out backwards. If it’s a long-term project this might mean plotting month-by-month from the end to the present
  • Do this with your various goals and make a list month-by-month of what you’d like to accomplish. Plot it out.
  • Then start with month one. List what you would like to get done. Underestimate what you can do. Then start with week one. Don’t micro-manage every week or month going forward. Just focus on that one week in that one month. Give yourself a set of aims for the first week, then divvy them up over the week.
  • Depending on your own personality,
    • If you need a big chunk of time to get into something, aim for one big task a day.
    • If you prefer to work in spurts, spread things out over several days.
  • At the end of each day, be happy if you do even 80 percent of what you hoped to accomplish. And then give yourself some free time to chill. Every morning recalibrate the new day, depending on what you got done the previous day.
  • It’s okay to decide something is no longer important.
  • At the end of each week, reassess. At the end of each month, plot the next month.
  • Structure available time very modestly.
  • Give yourself time to relax and replenish.

Tools:

  • Digital tools: Pros — there are many apps, always in your pocket, no need to carry around a separate notebook
  • Analog tools: Pros — more physically present and in your face, writing by hand helps mental processing and remembering
  • My favorite tool: For me, digital is handy but easy to forget. I work well with the bullet journal. https://bulletjournal.com/pages/learn; and it’s oddly more nimble than the digital tools I’ve tried. You can use this method with any notebook though a moleskin with a bound edge is nice.

Tips for how to manage time when you are over-extended.

  • Make the most of available chunks of time

Tips for how to manage when you have big stretches of unstructured time.

  • Remember it will be over before you know it.
  • Don’t think all or nothing. Aim to do even a little bit every day you are planning to work.
  • Break big long projects into monthly then weekly then daily tasks.

No matter your style or how much or little time you have, forget about multitasking. Studies show that no one can multitask. Aim for serial monotasking, whether a day at a time or even just 15 minutes at a time. One can get an astonishing amount done in 15 minutes when monotasking. As a piece of this process – but not the whole thing — look up the pomodoro method. Feel free to adapt this for what works best for you.