Post-Vernal-Equinox Musings

Last week all the plants I had started from seed in February were cut down by the landscapers who mow around my apartment, which is something that would usually frustrate me into delirium, but I’m trying to stay positive in the year 2016, and so I replanted, built a little wall with wood and cinder blocks and stray stones, and resumed my watering and weeding schedule. I also planted various pepper seedlings, and of course some mint. Here’s to hoping that future mowers recognize it as a garden and leave it alone. I mean, carving out some space in the yard in the name of a more diverse ecosystem means less area for them to mow, so you’d think it’d be a convenience and not a nuisance.

Hopefully the wildflowers I’ve planted will attract birds and bees and butterflies. And speaking of butterflies, apparently Nabokov was something of an amateur lepidopterist: Fine Lines: Nabokov’s Scientific Art.  I have to admit that I don’t much like the Nabokov I’ve read (to say nothing of the problems with Lolita), but the paintings are cool, and it’s always nice when a human being recognizes the importance of another species.

I’ve also noticed that the trees in my yard that I first thought were magnolias are actually loquats. He-llo loquat beer, once they start dropping. I will take and post some pictures later this week.


Okay I’ve become obsessed with Infinite Jest enough to start a separate blog just to house theories, thoughts, and (I hope) discussions. It’s called kertwang.

It’ll have tons of spoilers so if you plan to read the thing or you are currently reading it (yay), don’t read the new blog yet.

But when you’re finished (and you should finish)…

The Saddest Thing I’ve Read in Months, Non-Fiction-Wise

Here’s a depressing piece on seeking refuge at work: “Why Do We Work So Hard?” — Subtitle: “Our jobs have become prisons from which we don’t want to escape.” Like I said: depressing.

And of course the author of said piece is an economist, writing for The Economist. And of course he writes, “Karl Marx had a different view: that being occupied by good work was living well. Engagement in productive, purposeful work was the means by which people could realise their full potential. He’s not credited with having got much right about the modern world, but maybe he wasn’t so wrong about our relationship with work.” Thanks for giving Marx some credit, I guess? (I would add that he is credited, even (or perhaps mostly) by capitalist-apologists, for much more than that.)

But then, to the point:

Here is the alternative to the treadmill thesis. As professional life has evolved over the past generation, it has become much more pleasant. Software and information technology have eliminated much of the drudgery of the workplace. The duller sorts of labour have gone, performed by people in offshore service-centres or by machines. Offices in the rich world’s capitals are packed not with drones filing paperwork or adding up numbers but with clever people working collaboratively.

And then, maybe the saddest (nonfiction) thing I’ve read in months:

The fact that our jobs now follow us around is not necessarily a bad thing, either. Workers in cognitively demanding fields, thinking their way through tricky challenges, have always done so at odd hours. Academics in the midst of important research, or admen cooking up a new creative campaign, have always turned over the big questions in their heads while showering in the morning or gardening on a weekend afternoon. If more people find their brains constantly and profitably engaged, so much the better.

Smartphones do not just enable work to follow us around; they also make life easier. Tasks that might otherwise require you to stay late in the office can be taken home. Parents can enjoy dinner and bedtime with the children before turning back to the job at hand. Technology is also lowering the cost of the support staff that make long hours possible. No need to employ a full-time personal assistant to run the errands these days: there are apps to take care of the shopping, the laundry and the dinner, walk the dog, fix the car and mend the hole in the roof. All of these allow us to focus ever more of our time and energy on doing what our jobs require of us.

There are downsides to this life. It does not allow us much time with newborn children or family members who are ill; or to develop hobbies, side-interests or the pleasures of particular, leisurely rituals – or anything, indeed, that is not intimately connected with professional success. But the inadmissible truth is that the eclipsing of life’s other complications is part of the reward.

Where to begin? I’ll just offer three things to think about:

  1. Do people like the author not notice the “duller sorts of labor” because it’s so hidden, or because they’re willfully ignorant of workers in plain sight? And that’s just pointing out the armies of janitors and electricians and paper-mill assembly-liners and maintenance workers climbing cell-phone towers at their own peril to make this creative, challenging, humming “refuge” of the office even possible. Let us not mention, ever, the even larger and more destitute armies of those—mostly children—who have to hunch in mines or toil in factories or arch in scorched fields, mono-cropped as far as the eye can see (the fields), just so creative and wanting-to-be-challenged economist types can “tele-commute.”
  2. If one were a janitor or an electrician or, say, a police officer or even better, a social worker, would one love “taking work home” with them quite as much? What if one were sewing soccer balls for 15 hours a day?
  3. Since when did we categorize human communication, “side-interests,” the “pleasures of particular, leisurely rituals,” or “anything, indeed, that is not intimately connected with professional success” as life’s “other complications”?


On Finishing Infinite Jest

I just finished reading Infinite Jest, which is to say I’ve just begun to re-read it; the annular narrative boomerangs one’s investigation, slinging it forward and sending it with momentum on a trajectory right back to its origin. In other words the plot is a circle (or oval?), and the ending is so abrupt that one is forced to fill in one half of the story (180 degrees) using evidence or suggestions from the other half. There is a paranormal explanation for the events, as well as a Rule-of-Parsimony-adhering one. Actually, there are several of each.

One of the main themes of I.J. is addition: to drugs, to entertainment, to success, to identity, to meta-identity. The possible silliness of critiquing media and entertainment, especially the world-wide web, on my very own little corner of the internet is not lost on me here, when thinking about all these aforementioned things as really ways to complete circuits; drugs are just a way to have an endless conversation with one’s self, after all—and so what is a blog?

But David Foster Wallace shows through I.J. that even seemingly fully-connected loops can be broken, or should be. In this case all the severing work is done by the reader, since by looking at the existing text alone, i.e. sans mental extrapolation, it’s true that not one character ever really changes. Even substance abusers who kick their substances of choice ultimately replace them with other “substances”: drugs for AA, freedom for ideology, perceived happiness for perceived success. Even after major geo-political reconfigurations/cataclysms, people are still just thinking about scholarships and tennis and more drugs. What is broken, then, is the reader’s muddling through this daily existence (see “This Is Water”, the joke of which is also found in I.J.) thinking that media (in our case mostly TV and the internet) is ultimately right about us: that we—especially Americans—are cynical, pleasure-seeking automatons, and that consequently our political-economic arrangements are simply the best we can do.

I don’t think we can do anything about climate change, but the point is we can’t do anything about anything if we don’t ever stop and think about why we’re doing what we’re doing—day in and day out. If we don’t break the loop.