Dispatches from Portland

I've been roaming across the East Coast for the past week and have landed in Portland, Maine. I wish I was the kind of person who believed in a soul because it would be much easier to explain how I feel if I could put it in those terms. It makes more sense to say that my soul is tired---it captures the emotional bit---though it is really just my body. The thing about traveling is that it gives you all the time in the world to think. If you want to contemplate your life, just get in a car and drive across America on your own. I think everyone should do this at least once. But, for me, traveling is always about walking and walking. And by the end of each day I am just worn out from head to toe.

I don't like to admit this because it makes me feel like a failure, but I find life in the Midwest to be extremely tedious. I am a quiet person who doesn't especially like being around people, so it would seem to follow that academic life in a college town would suit me, but the strange part is that I miss living in a city. I miss my old life. I miss the sounds. I miss the food. I miss the ocean. I miss walking home. I miss the work. I miss being around people all the time. How can this be? I don't know. But I think it has something to do with boredom. In big cities, it is much easier to combat boredom. There is more to do and the likelihood of meeting people with whom you can connect is much greater. All you have to do is walk outside and wander around and interesting things just happen.  

I've been thinking a lot about the nature of travel---how it vividly brings forth the physical aspects of the world, the things that can't be experienced via books and screens. My whole life has become books and screens lately, and this may be why I am so, well, what is the word? Unsettled? Unhappy? Un-something. But, life can't just be ideas. It's not enough. This may also be why I love traveling so much; it's one of the only times that I can actually get out of my head, which is not to say that I'm not always in my head (of course I am) but that I can be in the world and feel it, and smell it, and hear it.

I took a swim last night, and for a while I was floating in the pool, looking up at the puffy-clouded sky and it occurred to me that I can't remember the last time I floated in a pool and just looked up at the sky. I'm not sure if I ever have. At any rate, it felt new and profoundly corporeal. Most digital technology is removing us from the physical experience of the world. I don't actually know if this is a bad thing. But it is a thing that is happening.

Anyway. What I really want to write about it Madness, Rack, and Honey, by Mary Ruefle. God. Where to begin. What a wonderful book. I'm just so in love with it. 

I've been carrying this book around all week, thinking that I might have a chance to read on the trip. I wish I had gotten to it sooner. Anthony Doerr recommended it a few weeks ago when I interviewed him, and of course I immediately went to the library and checked it out. For some reason it sat on my nightstand for two weeks, and now here I am in a hotel in Portland, finally getting to it. I'm so glad that I did because A) it's so damn good, and B) it has reminded me why I love ideas so much. Even though I feel like I'm currently drowning in them and academia has tipped me too far away from making, I still believe, if anything, that the world needs more thinkers than doers. The book is a strange and lovely collection of essays on everything from poetry and secrets to fear and memory. I can't really explain it. You just need to read it. If you have any interest whatsoever in language and words and poetry and books, and well, the interior mind. Go find a copy. Now.  

One chapter that I particularly liked was about reading. In the book Ruefle quotes Kafka: "Altogether, I think we ought to read books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn't shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we'd be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us. This is what I believe." 

She also offers up her own reason for reading: "We are all one question, and the best answer seems to be love---a connection between things. This arcane bit of knowledge is respoken every day into the ears of readers of great books, and also appears to perpetually slip under a carpet, utterly forgotten. In one sense, reading is a great waste of time. In another sense, it is a great extension of time, a way for a person to live a thousand and one lives in a single life span, to watch the great impersonal universe at work again and again, to watch the great personal psyche spar with it, to suffer affliction and weakness and injury, to die and watch those you love die, until the very dizziness of it all becomes a source of compassion for ourselves, and for the language which we alone created, without which the letter that slipped under the door could never have been written, or, once in a thousand lives---is that too much to ask?---retrieved, and read: I want everything to be okay. That's why I read when I was a lonely kid and that's why I read now that I'm a scared adult. It's a sincere desire, but sincere desires always complicate things---the universe has a peculiar reaction to our sincere desires. Still, I believe the planet on the table, even when wounded and imperfect, fragmented and deprived is worthy of being called whole. Our minds and the universe---what else is there?"

I hope to, one day, write a paragraph as perfect and lovely as that one. 

The strange part about feeling so disconnected from the physical world is that I have always found comfort in books. I have always preferred being in my head to being in the world. So what has changed?

I remember driving home with Chris one time a few years ago, from Berkeley to San Francisco and we were stuck in traffic for like an hour and Chris said something about how he thought that you had to somehow fight the city, that there had to be some kind of challenge to living there, otherwise what would be the point. We were just inching along the Bay Bridge and I remember looking out over the city and the sun was setting and the clouds were painted across the sky---you hear that phrase sometimes: "the clouds were painted"---and they were. It was the only time I've ever seen the clouds like that, pink and streaked across the sky, and the sun made the ocean shimmer and I remember thinking that he was on to something. That living just can't be easy; we can't just coast on through. And thinking back on my life, I don't quit things that are hard. I quit things that are easy. 

One of the reasons I am moving to HCI is that I believe it is a field that could benefit from more humanistic critical thinking. I don't believe it is a field that needs more scientists (in fact STEM as a whole must integrate more deeply with the humanities, but I will save that argument for another day) but I also realize that there are challenges with trying to bring humanistic thinking into a field that is dominated by quantitative data and hard science. As I was reading Madness, Rack, and Honey, I kept thinking that I would like to write a book like this about technology. That these kinds of books are usually written about language and poetry and art. But these are not the kinds of books---deeply critical arguments based on philosophy and literature---that one finds in most technology fields. And it's actually technology, of all fields, that needs this kind of perspective. At any rate, technology will influence us far more than poetry will, so why doesn't this kind of writing make its way into technical fields? I really hope to change that. 

For now, though, I guess nothing has really changed. I'm still a person of ideas. (How could I possibly shake free of that?) It's probably just that I've been rattled by travel into realizing how much I miss city life and the way it constantly influences the senses. But, there has to be a balance between thinking and making, between ideas and the hard stuff of the world, and it seems that for my whole life I've been bouncing back and forth between the two. It would be nice to land somewhere in the middle, or to somehow pull these two ends together.

At one point in the book, Mary Ruefle says that she would "rather wonder than know."

This, I think, may be what I am trying to say. One of the fundamental problems with academia is that we are all trying so desperately to know, but maybe we should spend more time wondering. Knowledge is the currency on which my world runs, and I'm well aware of the constraints that the university puts on the imagination, but for just these few days as I wander around on my little New England vacation, I am trying to spend my time wondering and not worrying about what I know and don't know and need to know. It's been nice, this lull. I am filled, somewhat unexpectedly, with hope. And it's actually made me really excited about next year and the possibilities of forging new ground in a new field. 

So, I'll sign off here. And just add: Why didn't anyone tell me New England was so full of lovely, tiny bookshops? I lived in New York for THREE years, and I had no idea what magic was just beyond the city! 'C'est la vie.