The Archive of Childhood, Part 3: Earliest Memories

The third in my occasional “Archives of Childhood” series.



What are your earliest memories?

Recent conversations with family and friends have challenged my assumption that most people remember early childhood. I now wonder if it is mostly creators and scholars of children’s literature — the people who, admittedly, I talk to most often — who recall their formative years most clearly.

My earliest memory dates to my crib days. I remember the mobile that hung above my crib. I liked the shapes. Watching them rotate fascinated me. I lay on my back, looking up at them.

My earliest narrative memory dates to 2 years old. I woke up from an afternoon nap in what was either my crib or a bed with bars on its sides: one of the long sides faced the room, and the other faced the wall. My teddy bear had what we called “googly eyes” — each pupil is a black disc inside a larger clear circular disc. googly eyesWhen you moved the bear, the pupils would jostle around. However, the eyes had come loose. My picking at them made them looser. As I picked at them further, they came off.

Teddy was now eyeless.  I was sad.  My carelessness had blinded him.

So, with Teddy, I climbed over the bars of the crib, and dropped to the floor.  Quite likely, I threw Teddy to the floor first, and then climbed over the bars second.  I remember thinking that if mommy saw that I was sad, she would be more sympathetic and would respond with urgency — swiftly finding a way to restore Teddy’s sight. (Perhaps the eyes could be stuck back on?)

The author, Teddy, and Panda, c. 1972

From the vantage point of adulthood, I now know that she would have been sympathetic even if I were not crying. But the two-year-old me drew upon my sadness to manufacture tears.

When her crying son arrived with his eyeless Teddy, mommy proposed a fix. She would sew new eyes for Teddy. You can see the result in the photo at right. That’s me, at about the age of three, with my good friends and confidants Teddy (whose new threadymade-eyes seem already to have come a bit unraveled) and Panda.

My Book About Me by Dr. Seuss, Roy McKie, and Philip Nel, age 7.At the time, I thought of this incident as “when I got my memory.” In my copy of My Book About Me (in which the young reader answers questions), under “What is the first thing you remember?” I wrote “When I got my memory.” That opaque sentence fragment refers to the Teddy Incident, although only I knew that.

I then thought of my life as before acquiring memory and after acquiring memory — as if the beginning of memory happens all at once. After the Teddy Incident, I had memories. Prior to the Teddy Incident, I had no memories.

This early understanding of memory derived from the fact that after that day, I remembered what had happened on the day previous. Two days later, I looked back on the previous two days and found that I could remember both Teddy’s temporary blinding and events of the following day.  Three days later, I looked back on the previous three days and learned that I retained bits of all three days — though I cannot now recall anything that happened on the latter two days. At the time, I could and it was a revelation: I had gained the capacity to look back and reflect on my past! And it all began with the Teddy Incident — when I got my memory.

Yet I did have even earlier memories, but — in my childhood mind — they were mere impressions and not actual memories. A real memory had some narrative, or perhaps a sharper emotional content. For me, those “real” memories began with sorrow over my accidentally, briefly blinded teddy bear, and my mother’s compassionate response.

I have many other memories from my earliest days. Do you? Or is it unusual for memories to extend back that far?

Maurice Sendak, 2011

As I say, perhaps such extended memories more commonly afflict people who write and study books for young people. Maurice Sendak* once noted that his “needle [was] stuck in childhood.”

So is mine.


* Pictured above, late in his life.  I neglected to note the source of the photo, but I used it in my tribute to him, the day after he died. On this blog, there are quite a few posts tagged Maurice Sendak. Why not peruse a few?

Comments (3)

Farewell to Facebook. Mostly.

Goodbye Facebook

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a few months.

Over the past year or so, I’ve been gradually drifting away from Facebook. Lately, the drift has become a decisive move. Last month, I downloaded my Facebook data — in order to better see precisely what Facebook was collecting.  Then, I removed Facebook from my phone and tablet.

There are many reasons for my move — most recently, Facebook’s pursuit of treason for cash. But, more generally, I am stepping away because — like so many “free” platforms — Facebook is a parasitic business that monetizes your attention and personal data. I don’t feel comfortable supporting Mark Zuckerberg’s reckless, lucrative, criminal enterprise. So, I’m on his platform less often.

But I haven’t yet closed my account. Two groups with which I am affiliated have Facebook presences; I feel a professional responsibility to maintain an account in order to manage those. It’s possible that I may occasionally pop in to post birthday wishes. I suspect, though, that my infrequent engagement with this predatory platform means I’ll miss a lot of Facebook friends’ birthdays. I’m sorry about that: I really enjoyed posting a different song each year.

Note to Self podcastMy move away from Facebook began with Manoush Zomorodi’s Note to Self podcast, which I started listening to at the beginning of 2017. Its “Bored and Brilliant” series (2015/2017) introduced me to the Moment app, which allows you to monitor your use of your iPhone or iPad. (If you have an Android phone, it recommends the BreakFree app.) Moment showed me how often I was using my devices, and helped me cut back.  Subsequent series — its “Infomagical” series (2016) and its “Privacy Paradox” series (2017) — also helped. I deleted apps I wasn’t using. I turned off notifications. I tidied up my apps into little folders.

If you wonder whether your use of technology may be hindering or even harming you, I highly recommend these three Note to Self series. If you have already noticed the ways in which apps and social media ensnare and prey upon your attention, then perhaps you have already taken the necessary steps to reclaim your life. Whatever you ultimately decide to do, I recommend reflecting on your relationship to technology. Not coincidentally, such reflection is the focus of the Note to Self podcast.

I used to make the effort to, say, check Facebook only twice a day — an effort at which I did not always succeed. However, in the past month or so, I have found it quite easy to stay off of Facebook. I actually find myself putting off checking Facebook. I’m simply not comfortable being there. Its willingness to aid Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election is a major catalyst — selling Trump ads at much lower rates than Clinton ads (because Trump ads got more clicks), taking Russian money (in Rubles, even!) to fund pro-Trump propaganda & fake news, or allowing Cambridge Analytica to harvest its users’ data (again, in support of the mendacious traitor who currently occupies the White House… well, when he’s not at one of his golf courses).

Mark Zuckerberg in Washington, DC, 9 Apr. 2018. Photo by AP

In his testimony yesterday, Mr. Zuckerberg said his slow response to Russian meddling is “one of [his] greatest regrets,” and promised to ban apps that are “doing anything improper.”  Earlier that day, he said he will make sure Facebook is “a positive force in the world.”  There is zero reason to believe him. First, he has made promises like this before — as in this 2009 interview, below.

Second, there is no regulation that would compel him to keep these promises. Third, and as Tim Wu points out, the flaws of Facebook are not a bug but a feature. Facebook is designed to surveil its users:

The problems are central and structural, the predicted consequences of its business model. From the day it first sought revenue, Facebook prioritized growth over any other possible goal, maximizing the harvest of data and human attention. Its promises to investors have demanded an ever-improving ability to spy on and manipulate large populations of people. Facebook, at its core, is a surveillance machine, and to expect that to change is misplaced optimism.

Exactly.  If you sign up for Facebook, you’re donating your personal data and time to an enterprise built on manipulating you and selling others whatever you tell it about yourself. Because that’s what Facebook is.

Beyond the obvious fact that I don’t want to continue enriching Mr. Zuckerberg or supporting his poisonous enterprise, I simply don’t like being on Facebook. It feels like a sinister, perilous place to be.

I know, of course, that social media has always been far more dangerous for women, people of color, gay people, the trans community, and all whom society renders more vulnerable. And I am aware that many daily behaviors implicate all of us in injustices of various kinds. (How much child labor went into making your cell phone? Who made that chocolate and under what conditions? How much money does Twitter make from Russian bots or the traffic generated by Herr Twitler?) I realize that it’s nearly impossible to disentangle ourselves from all dubious products and practices. But Facebook is one that I can step back from.

I’ll miss knowing what’s going on in people’s lives, and I may well miss useful professional information. But I won’t miss the misinformation, the clickbait, the amplification of outrage, or that queasy, soul-sucking feeling of being on Facebook.

So, that’s why you have been seeing much less of me on Facebook — and will see even less of me in the future. I have yet to delete my account, but that day may come, too. We’ll see.

Twitter bird logoIf you need to reach me, email and Twitter (@philnel) remain more reliable ways of doing so. Those who know me know that Facebook was never the best way to reach me (though I once had the app on my phone and tablet, I never installed Facebook Messenger). But for those who weren’t aware, now you are.

Be safe out there.  Take care of yourselves.  And drop me a line if you need anything, OK?


Image sources: “Goodbye Facebook” from Anusha Sachwani’s “Facebook to Pull Support from These Devices!” (BrandSynario, 29 Mar. 2017); Note to Self logo from Note to Self podcast (WNYC); AP photo of Zuckerberg in Washington DC from “Mark Zuckerberg plans to tell Congress that as long as he’s CEO, advertisers won’t take priority over Facebook’s users” (Business Insider, 9 Apr. 2018); Twitter button.

Comments (2)

Running Out of Time

Following a December blog-conversation about Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal (occasioned in part by her own chemo), my friend Alison Piepmeier asked me to send her a contribution to her blog, Every Little Thing. It appeared there on Monday. I’m reposting it here now.

In case you’re wondering, I got permission from the close relative (named below) to quote her. Then, just after this went live on Alison’s blog, the aforementioned relative — not knowing it had just been published — also gave me permission to name her. (I didn’t, initially, because I wanted to respect her privacy.) I’ve decided to leave her unnamed here, too. If you know me, you’ll know who I’m talking about. If you don’t, you can guess.  Anyway.  Here’s the post.


Dear Alison,

Thanks for the invitation to contribute to your blog. Since our correspondence (via the blog’s comments) occasioned the invite, I’ve decided on an epistolary essay. This is it.

As I write, I’m returning from a conference (MLA!), both longing for the continued fellowship of friends and recognizing the need to face my many (and multiplying) tasks. I want the conference to go on, so that I may continue learning from and enjoying the company of smart people, but I also face classes to plan, proposals to write, manuscripts (my own and others’) to edit, and so on.

I always struggle with that impossible balance between the need to create and the need to think, between ambition and reflection, between ticking off one more item on an ever-expanding “to do” list and succumbing to sleep. I think that you do, also — though I know your struggle is more urgent. Indeed, as I share these thoughts, I’m aware that you’re living in much closer proximity to your mortality than I am to mine. Unless I’m struck down by illness, accident, or gunfire (hey, I do live in America), I should have several decades left. There’s no guarantee, but — at the moment — my long-term prospects look, well, longer than yours do. So, I hope you will forgive my presumption in addressing a subject that you (of necessity) have probably thought about more deeply than I have.

 Photo of Jack Hardman (author’s stepfather), 1990s.Although I don’t have a morbid disposition, mortality has been a lingering companion since my early 30s. There are two reasons, the first of which is my stepfather’s passing. Jack’s death was the cancer equivalent of a train wreck: the diagnosis came in December of 2000, and in January (a little over a month later), he died at the age of 72. For months afterward, I used to talk, silently, to Jack. These conversations became a bedtime ritual. Every night, before sleep, I sent my thoughts in his direction, and hoped that somehow they would arrive in his mind, in the great beyond. Though I knew I was not really reaching him, these imagined communications helped me grieve.

Front cover by Chris Ware for: Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, Sept. 2012)The second reason was the twelve-year endeavor of writing the biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, two (married) children’s writers. This was a race against time. Both were born in the first decade of the twentieth-century, and the people who knew them — especially during their early days — were dying. I narrowly missed talking to Hannah Baker, Johnson’s editor at the newspaper PM, and to Kenneth Koch, the New York School poet who taught Krauss poetry. Many others I interviewed died before I finished the book: Johnson’s sister, Else Frank; children’s writers Syd Hoff and Mary Elting Folsom; artist Antonio Frasconi; and filmmaker Gene Searchinger. Maurice Sendak died four months before the book’s publication. You don’t need to interview people in their 70s and 80s and 90s to learn this truth: the older we get, the more dead people we know.

But how do we face the inevitability of our own deaths? Religion comforts the devout, though I don’t for a moment imagine that it removes all worry. I was recently talking with a close relative of mine who, like me, is essentially agnostic. She faces the certain prospect of irreversible cognitive decline. We don’t know whether it will be a swift descent into oblivion or a slow slide towards confusion and forgetting. We’re hoping for slowness, and she’s doing her best to keep her mind and body active. She knows that Alzheimer’s or dementia (it’s likely one or the other) will claim her, but — as far as she’s concerned — not without a fight!

Recently, discussing her end-of-life plans with those close to her, she said, “I’ve lived three score and fourteen years. I’ve had a good run.”

A relative of my generation asked her, “If you had a heart attack tomorrow, you’d want to be resuscitated, wouldn’t you?”

She replied, “Not necessarily.”

“Wouldn’t you? You don’t know what the future holds.”

“I know what the future holds. A heart attack, whenever it happens, is a good way to go.”

The frankness of her statement gave us all pause. Yes: I, too, would prefer a heart attack to a slog through the thickets of dementia. But I’m struck by her ability to make peace with her own death. She does not want to say goodbye just yet, but she’s prepared to say goodbye when the time comes.

And that is what we need to learn. Or, at least, it’s what I need to learn. During your struggles with the brain tumor, have you figured this out? Have you learned how to say goodbye?

It’s a question that you shouldn’t have to face in your 40s. This may be why I can’t answer it yet, and why my 74-year-old relative can. But I know that the question confronts you, and has been confronting you, throughout your 40s. This is unfair. In fact, it’s unfair of me to expect you to have arrived at a better answer. So, please feel free to ignore this question — or, for that matter, any question I may pose here.

I know that, whenever I die, I will not be finished living. There will be things I have not learned, friends I have not made, books I have not written, places I have not seen, and many obligations unfulfilled. I also know that when my end arrives, I hope to have done more good than harm. I know, too, that I do not wish to suffer: if my prospects look bleak, others should take no extraordinary measures to revive me. Since I am not religious, I also believe that, as my last breaths evaporate and my heart stops, my consciousness will wane, and then I will cease to be. The End. Roll credits.

I do not know whether I’ll have a chance to say goodbye to the people I love, but I know — as what remains of my self dissipates — I’ll miss them. I hope, too, that, if any mark my passing, they do so not through mourning, but through celebrating life. Throw a party. Help yourself to my records, CDs, and books. Hire a caterer. Hire a DJ. Get to know each other better. Sing. Dance. Eat. Have fun.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015)Also, since I vigorously oppose the everything-happens-for-a-reason crowd, they are not invited to this party. Everything does not happen for a reason. To suggest that it does trivializes the suffering of others. Bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people. In the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, “Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints. / It takes, and it takes, and it takes. / And we keep living anyway.” This does not mean that we should respond with indifference. Quite the opposite. It means we should engage fully in the struggle of living. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me, “you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope” (71).

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (CD, 2015)This awareness makes me want to live as fully and as thoughtfully as I can. It makes me want to work harder, and to take more time off. It makes me want to write more, and to write less — so that I can spend more time with those I love. In other words, this awareness simply amplifies that tension between increased activity and quiet contemplation, between labor and leisure. It heightens awareness of the problem I described early in this letter. This is why I’m always (to borrow again from Hamilton) “writing like I’m running out of time.” It’s also why I want more time to appreciate “how lucky we are to be alive right now.” (Yes, I am currently obsessed with Hamilton. Why do you ask?)

I don’t know how to find this balance, but I know that it will require me to accept limits, to say to myself: “Look, Phil: if you are lucky, you might have twenty to twenty-five productive years left. What do you want to accomplish during those years? And how do you want to live?” In other words, I need to set two types of priorities, for both work and life. Since I am also an academic, the boundary between working and living is (at best) thin and (often) invisible.

Kieran Setiya, "The Midlife Crisis" (2014)Philosopher Kieran Setiya has what is, I think, at least a partial plan for how to navigate our way through this problem. In his excellent “The Midlife Crisis,” he charts a course by, first, distinguishing between telic and atelic. As he writes, “Almost anything we call a ‘project’ will be telic: buying a house, starting a family, earning a promotion, getting a job. These are all things one can finish or complete” (12). However, there are also atelic activities, projects that “do not aim at a point of termination or exhaustion: a final state in which they have been achieved and there is nothing more to do. For instance,… you can go for a walk with no particular destination. Going for a walk is an ‘atelic’ activity” (12). Other examples of atelic activities include “hanging out with friends or family,” “studying philosophy,” and “living a decent life.” As he points out, “You can stop doing these things and you eventually will, but you cannot complete them in the relevant sense…. they do not have a telic character” (13): “If you are going for a walk, hanging out with friends, studying philosophy, or living a decent life, you are not on the way to achieving your end. You are already there” (13).

This distinction is helpful because (as Setiya argues) the atelic are more fulfilling than the telic. Pursuing goals gives you purpose (which is good), but can ultimately leave you empty because you always have to move on to the next one: “Our achievements, whatever they are worth, are always numbered” (10). So, instead, he suggests, one might pursue telic activities in an atelic fashion: “Instead of spending time with friends in order to complete a shared project […,] one pursues a common project in order to spend time with friends” (15). Or, put another way, “Do not work only to solve this problem or discover that truth, as if the tasks you complete are all that matter; solve the problem or seek the truth in order to be at work” (15).

These days, this is how I’m trying to approach all projects — I’m seeking atelic joy in telic activities. This means that many of my current efforts are collaborative. For instance, I have just given a paper on allegedly “weird” children’s books, co-written by and co-presented with my friend Nina Christensen. Working on it was fun because, in addition to learning from each other, we could both hang out (on-line, since she lives in Denmark). At the same conference, I chaired a discussion on “Children’s Literature Scholarship and Its Publics”: that was great fun to talk with and learn from smart people whose work I admire. With my friend Eric Reynolds I’m co-editing two more volumes of Crockett Johnson’s comic strip Barnaby. And so on. All of this labor will result in good work that should (we hope!) be useful to others, but it will also be fun — because it will all be accomplished with friends.

I expect that this partial answer — indeed, this entire letter — tells you little that you don’t already know. As I said earlier, my sense is that facing mortality puts these questions into much sharper focus. So, you will (I imagine) have already arrived at better and more complete answers than I have.

I’d like to conclude here by wishing you a long and full life, but I worry that such optimism contradicts your experience. So, let me instead wish you this: sufficient health to enjoy however many years remain, sufficient time to guide your young daughter into an uncertain future, and sufficient energy to pursue those projects that are important to you.

Yours in the struggle,

 

Phil

Leave a Comment

Upgrade Vortex

abstract black-and-white vortex

upgrade vortex, n. The hidden temporal, cognitive, and/or financial costs of getting a new electronic device (tablet, smart phone, computer, etc.).

We need a term to describe the experience of obtaining a new technological item, and then the (guaranteed but never mentioned) troubleshooting and cost that inevitably follows. I propose “upgrade vortex” — upgrade both because this is the catalyst that precipitates the condition (“I need to upgrade my smartphone”) and because spending time in this vortex is an inevitable part of getting the upgrade. I use the word vortex because the problems and tasks whirl around you, threaten to engulf you, but you can ultimately escape them. For example, with the latest iteration of your smart phone, you now need to buy a (more expensive) new plan. Or, you cannot simply transfer your old data and apps to the new tablet because first the new tablet’s system must itself be updated; so, set it up as a new tablet, install the update, and then move your old tablet’s information over. Or the set-up instructions turn out not to work, and so you end up troubleshooting its problems yourself, either via help discussion forums, or the company’s help line.  Or you realize you’ve been sent a dud, and need to return it and try again.*  And, quite possibly, all of the above. But, eventually, you leave the vortex and enjoy your new piece of technology. Hooray!

Until it’s time to upgrade again.  Then,… you re-enter the upgrade vortex.

_____

* If anyone loved Logitech’s ultra-thin keyboard for the iPad (as I did), let me warn you against getting a Logitech ultra-thin keyboard for the iPad 2 Air… because it doesn’t work.

Comments (2)

The Meaning of Life; or, How to Avoid the Midlife Crisis

Kieran Setiya, "The Midlife Crisis" (2014)Why do successes sometimes feel like failures? As philosopher Kieran Setiya points out in a wise new essay, “Our achievements, whatever they are worth, are always numbered” (10). Each time we accomplish something, it’s done, finished, and we must move on to the next thing: “the completion of your project may constitute something of value, but it means that the project can no longer give purpose to your life” (12). And so, in “pursuing a goal, you are trying to exhaust your interaction with something good, as if you were trying to make friends for the sake of saying goodbye” (12).

What’s the solution? Key, Setiya argues, is to distinguish between telic and atelic activities:

  • Telic: “Almost anything we call a ‘project’ will be telic: buying a house, starting a family, earning a promotion, getting a job. These are all things one can finish or complete” (12).
  • Atelic: “not all activities are like this. Some do not aim at a point of termination or exhaustion: a final state in which they have been achieved and there is nothing more to do. For instance,… you can go for a walk with no particular destination. Going for a walk is an ‘atelic’ activity. The same is true of hanging out with friends or family, of studying philosophy, of living a decent life. You can stop doing these things and you eventually will, but you cannot complete them in the relevant sense…. they do not have a telic character” (12-13). So, “If you are going for a walk, hanging out with friends, studying philosophy, or living a decent life, you are not on the way to achieving your end. You are already there” (13).

This, however, does not mean that one should only invest in the atelic. The issue is where you derive value: locating the majority of life’s meaning in the telic will leave you unfulfilled, and often precipitates a midlife crisis. As Setiya writes, “it is at midlife that the telic character of one’s most cherished ends are liable to appear, as they are completed or prove impossible. One has the job one has worked for many years to get, the partner one hoped to meet, the family one meant to start — or one does not. Until this point, one may have had no reason to dwell on the exhaustion of one’s ambitions” (14).

To avoid or resolve the midlife crisis, yes, you can (as Setiya puts it), “invest… more deeply in atelic ends. Among the activities that matter most to you, the ones that give meaning to your life, must be activities that have no terminal point. Since they cannot be completed, your engagement with atelic ends will not exhaust or destroy them” (15).

But you can — and should — also continue pursuing telic activities. Just pursue them for their own sake instead of for the end product: “Instead of spending time with friends in order to complete a shared project […,] one pursues a common project in order to spend time with friends” (15). As Setiya advises, “Do not work only to solve this problem or discover that truth, as if the tasks you complete are all that matter; solve the problem or seek the truth in order to be at work” (15).

Setiya’s “The Midlife Crisis” appears in Philosophers’ Imprint 14.31 (Nov. 2014), pp. 1-18. Just follow the link. As you may have guessed from my summary, I highly recommend it.

Related posts (on this blog unless otherwise noted):

Comments (4)

In Search of Lost Time: Further Reading

Time as infinite spiral

With thanks to all who have read and shared my “In Search of Lost Time” (an essay on why academics work so much, published in Inside Higher Ed today), here are a few links for further reading. Most of these were embedded in the original piece, but didn’t make the transition to the Inside Higher Ed website. I’m listing them in the order they appeared in my piece.

  • Kate Quick, “Hello, Class. Your Professor is on Food Stamps,” Huffington Post, 24 Jan. 2014. (I’d linked my claim “adjuncts are increasingly joining the ranks of the working poor” to this piece.)
  • Miya Tokumitsu, “In the Name of Love,” Jacobin Magazine, Jan. 2014. Excellent piece argues that the “Do What You Love” mantra “may be the most elegant anti-worker ideology around,” and notes that it’s particularly pervasive in academia.
  • Kate Bowles, “Beyond a Boundary,” Music for Deckchairs, 9 Dec. 2013. Really thoughtful essay makes the point that “we don’t yet understand this as behaviour that is harmful to others, not just to ourselves. We overwork like cyclists dope: because everyone does it, because it’s what you do to get by, because in the moment we argue to ourselves that it feels like health and freedom. But it isn’t.”
  • Stevie Smith, “Not waving but drowning” (1972). Repr. on Poets.org. In my essay, I quoted the title to this poem.
  • Dekka Aitkenhead, “Peter Higgs: I wouldn’t be productive enough for today’s academic system,” Guardian, 6 Dec. 2013. The Nobel Prize-winner observes that the imperative to publish constantly would disqualify him from contemporary academia. “Today I wouldn’t get an academic job. It’s as simple as that. I don’t think I would be regarded as productive enough,” he said. “It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964.”
  • Kate Bowles, “Irreplaceable Time,” Music for Deckchairs, 24 Nov. 2013. I didn’t link to this one, but it definitely influenced my thinking. Among the many great points Bowles makes is this: “If we have created a culture in which only those who are most single-minded about work are applauded, promoted and respected, we have made something whose capacity for harm is pervasive and long-term.” Go and read it.
  • Mark Slouka, “Quitting the Paint Factory” (Harper’s 2004). I was reading Slouka’s Essays from the Nick of Time: Reflections and Refutations (2010), and this piece — also not linked to in my original — was another influence. The whole collection of essays is great. I recommend it. (The link is to a — probably unauthorized — reblogged copy of Slouka’s essay.)
  • The tweet below appeared after I’d already sent in my essay to Inside Higher Ed, but it would have made a great epigraph to the piece.

More thoughtful comments on this subject (links added 4 Mar. 2014, thanks to Kate Bowles).

  • Ferdinand von Prondzynski, “Recognising hard work in higher education,” A University Blog, 3 Mar. 2014. “But honestly, in what other profession would you find anyone reading their work mail after midnight?”
  • Overworked TA, “The Underbelly of Putting Yourself Last: Mental Illness, Stress, and Substance Abuse,” Overworked TA, 3 Mar. 2014. “This culture of ‘do, do, do’ never stops.  And it starts in graduate school.”
  • Kate Bowles, “On impact,” Music for Deckchairs, 4 Mar. 2014. “We overwork because the current culture in universities is brutally and deliberately invested in shaming those who don’t compete effectively; as a correlative to this we are starting to value and promote to leadership roles people who really do believe in the dodgeball triumphalism of university rankings as a way of nurturing educational values and critical inquiry.”

Thanks again to all who have read and commented on my essay!

Image source: time as infinite spiral from Mom Biz Coach.

Comments (5)

This Is Not a Muppet: Jim Henson, Avant-Garde Filmmaker

Brian Jay Jones, Jim Henson: The Biography (2013)“Back in the sixties . . . I thought of myself as an experimental filmmaker. I was interested in the image for its own sake — different ways of using it — quick cutting and things of that sort. . . . I loved what one could do with the montaging of visual images, so I was playing with that in several experimental projects”

— Jim Henson, quoted in Brian Jay Jones’ Jim Henson: The Biography

One of the many fascinating things I’m learning in Brian Jay Jones‘ magnificent Jim Henson: The Biography (Ballantine, 2013) is that, in the mid-1960s, Jim Henson also made avant-garde films.  He’d been working in puppetry (and Muppetry!) for a decade, and had learned much about how the perspective of the camera shapes the viewer’s experience.

Time Piece (1965)

Here’s the beginning of Time Piece, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1967. That’s Jim Henson himself in the leading role.

Here’s another clip, from near the end of the film.

You can learn more about Time Piece in Jones’ bio and on The MuppetWiki.  The entire 8-minute film is available on iTunes.

The Organized Mind (1966)

Starring a somewhat thin-boundary’d character known as “Limbo,” here’s The Organized Mind in its entirety. The music is by Raymond Scott!

Did you notice the brief image of Where the Wild Things Are, during the last minute of the film?  More on this film at the MuppetWiki, also.

Idea Man (1966)

Like Organized Mind, this film is also from the Limbo series. It’s a meditation on inspiration, creativity, and the difficulty of profiting from your ideas — a challenge Henson faced on a regular basis.

There’s a very brief appearance from Kermit, near the end of the film. As the MuppetWiki notes, The Idea Man was “used for a live performance with Limbo on The Mike Douglas Show on July 20, 1966.”

Ripples (1967)

Also scored by Raymond Scott, this film made its premiere at Montreal’s Expo 67.  Jon Stone, who would work with Henson on Sesame Street projects, plays the central chararacter.

The Paperwork Explosion (1967)

Believe it or not, IBM once sponsored creative, long-form commercials… like this one.  Again featuring the music of Raymond Scott, this 5-minute advertisement has lots of quick cuts between images, and that old stand-by of Muppet segments: explosions!

Though this is ostensibly selling IBM’s Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter, it speaks more eloquently to the hectic pace of modern life.  There’s a little more information about this short on the MuppetWiki.

The “Jim Henson’s Experimental Films” page (on the MuppetWiki) has more information on these and other films. Turn to the Jones biography for more about the man and his remarkable work. Indeed, if you’ve any interest in the Muppets or Henson, I highly recommend Jim Henson: The Biography.  It’s a well-written, well-paced excursion through the life of one of the great creative minds of the twentieth century.

Leave a Comment

How Much Is Too Much?

Sarah Hobbs, "Untitled (Perfectionist)" (2002)Though I often attempt to dispense advice from this blog, I now have a question of my own. How much is too much?

There’s one request that I never turn down: when I am asked to write a letter on behalf of someone going up for tenure and/or promotion, I always say “yes.”  I don’t care how busy I am.  This sort of request is simply too important to decline.

However, I’ve just received the fourth request for such a letter, due in September.  I’ve already said “yes” to three (one for promotion to full, two for tenure) that are due this fall.  On top of that, this will be the busiest fall semester I’ve ever had.  Three different invited talks in three different countries (one of which is the U.S.), two conferences (one in Maryland, one in Puerto Rico).  I’m hoping for some publicity surrounding the publication of the Crockett Johnson-Ruth Krauss bio. and (a couple of months later) The Complete Barnaby Vol. 1.  Having just edited my first full manuscript for Routledge’s Children’s Literature and Culture Series, I discovered Monday that three more full manuscripts await my attention.  I’ve also started another book project, for which I’m working on a proposal & have a planned research trip (also this fall).  And, obviously, there will be teaching, committees, and many things I can’t right now recall — things that will announce their due dates unexpectedly, and too promptly.

So. It’s easier to turn down (for example) invitations to contribute to books, or to join this or that committee.  After all, rarely is anyone’s job is at stake there.  But is it ever OK to say “no” to a tenure-and-promotion request?  My general sense is “no,” & that I should just do it.  As I wrestle with my guilt and sense of obligation, I think about the other people have written such letters on my behalf & who continue to write for me.  And … I conclude that I should keep “paying it forward.”

Shouldn’t I?  What would you do?


Source of artwork, above: Sarah Hobbs’s “Untitled (Perfectionist)”   I found the photo on Mocoloco.  You can view more of Sarah Hobbs’s work on SolomonProjects.com and on her own website, where there’s a better print of the above.  Her Tumblr page is worth a look, also.

Comments (5)

Telemarketing Kills Charity

Do not call.  This means you.Unless I am expecting a call, I try to avoid answering the home phone.  9 times out of 10, it’s a solicitor — telemarketer seeking funds for a charitable organization usually, but sometimes a company conducting a poll.  If I have the energy, I ask to be taken off the organization’s call list (a strategy that does not always work).  If I don’t, then I hang up in the 2-second silence preceding the telemarketer’s voice.

I wish charitable organizations would not punish their supporters with these phone calls.  As a “thank you,” I’d much prefer to be contacted via mail or email.  Wouldn’t you?  In response to such rudeness, I’ve stopped giving to organizations that phone me at home. (I maintain a list by the phone.)  This isn’t an entirely effective strategy.  First, some organizations refuse to stop calling you even after repeated requests. The most egregious is the Sioux Nation Relief Fund / Council of Indian Nations (according to the American Institute of Philanthropy, these two groups are affiliated). While I support the rights of First Nations peoples, I will never give to these charities ever again.  We’ve been asking them to take us off their list for years.

The second reason that this approach isn’t entirely effective is that I end up withholding support for truly outstanding organizations.  It truly pains me that Doctors Without Borders phoned me last September.  To provide medical care to those in need, this group goes into countries that the Red Cross deems too dangerous. For their work, Doctors Without Borders won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999.  I’d been a regular donor for years, and then after this call… I stopped.  To their credit, the group has honored my request not to be phoned at home — I’ve received no further calls.

So.  What to do?  Before you suggest the national “Do Not Call List,” I’m already on the list.  Read the fine print: Charitable organizations to which you have given are exempt.

I think I need to institute some sort of review period.  Egregious offenders will remain off my giving list indefinitely, but those organizations who honor my request not to be contacted at home should have a second chance.  If, say, a couple years pass without a call from the offending organization, then I could put it on probation — that is, I resume giving, but let them know that further phone calls will result in the termination of my support.

Finally, I realize that it may strike readers as a bit churlish (or just downright mean!) to withhold support in order to discourage unwanted phone calls.  I’m sure that some — indeed, probably most — of you have more patience and charity than I do.  Beyond the rudeness, the issue for me is time.  I get at least one of these calls (and usually more) every single day.  And I’m very, very busy.  I don’t have time for all of the important things in my life, much less the unimportant ones.

Final note: I wrote this post about six weeks ago, but debated whether or not I should post it.  (I do not upload every blog post I write.)  I didn’t want to discourage charitable giving.  Nor, for that matter, did I want to encourage selfishness.  But, just now, I received two telemarketing calls at the same time — I had to put one on hold to answer the other.  And, so, I thought… you know, perhaps this method of solicitation has gone too far.  Thus, I’ve posted.

Image source: Switched.com.

Comments (9)

What time is it?

Biegert & Funk’s QlockTwo is a beautifully designed clock.  I’ve an image below, but before reading further you might experience it for yourself (on B&F’s webpage).

QlockTwoThe clock contains the right number of letters to announce the time in a complete sentence.  Its sans serif typeface is easily legible, telling us that “IT IS TWENTY TO TWO,” and then “IT IS A QUARTER TO TWO” in crisp, white letters (it measures in five-minute increments). But what I especially like is the way it slows down the experience of time, converting something precise into something precise enough.  I also enjoy the gentle irony of having an iPhone app that translates the digital precision of 2:16 p.m. into the comfortable analog, “IT IS A QUARTER PAST TWO.”

As the iTunes reviews indicate, it would be great if one could make this app the phone’s background.  As reviewer JLSchend notes, “I see the time on the wallpaper long before I open the app.”  However, the point of the QlockTwo app is not instant access to the time.  The point is to provide an aesthetically and emotionally different experience of time.

Digitally rendered time, with numbers and colons, is exact, keeping track of each second as it slips away.  The second hand on a clock face also tracks time’s relentless dissipation, but, without numbers marking each second’s passing, clock time seems to move with less insistence than digital time.  The Qlock’s rendering of time as text, however, abstracts the temporal from both the spatial (clock face) and digital (numbers and colons).  Time’s past and future are not mapped as they are on a clock face.  And the absence of a digital timepiece’s swiftly accruing seconds gives a feeling of slowness, of being in the present.

Unlike other timepieces, the Qlock does not emphasize time passing.  Instead, it narrates the gradually changing present.

» Continue reading “What time is it?”

Comments (4)