Context Collapse

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how we get information in the internet age. As a college professor I deeply appreciate the increased access to information and the fact that I hope to never again see a card catalogue. The problem I’ve struggled with the most is the way information is organized and the inhuman pace of the delivery platforms. In a recent short essay entitled “From context collapse to content collapse” Nicholas Carr says:

“I remember, years ago, being struck by the haphazardness of the headlines flowing through my RSS reader. I’d look at the latest update to the New York Times feed, for instance, and I’d see something like this:

Dam Collapse Feared as Flood Waters Rise in Midwest
Nike’s New Sneaker Becomes Object of Lust
Britney Spears Cleans Up Her Act
Scores Dead in Baghdad Car-Bomb Attack
A Spicy New Take on Bean Dip

It wasn’t just that the headlines, free-floating, decontextualized motes of journalism ginned up to trigger reflexive mouse clicks, had displaced the stories. It was that the whole organizing structure of the newspaper, its epistemological architecture, had been junked. The news section (with its local, national, and international subsections), the sports section, the arts section, the living section, the opinion pages: they’d all been fed through a shredder, then thrown into a wind tunnel. What appeared on the screen was a jumble, high mixed with low, silly with smart, tragic with trivial. The cacophony of the RSS feed, it’s now clear, heralded a sea change in the distribution and consumption of information. The new order would be disorder.”

I’m trying to find ways to reorder the input of information. That desire is one of the reasons I started this blog.

Surfing – Guest Post

*This is the first of what I hope to be a long running series of guest posts. My friend, Mark Carter, opens this series with a meditation on the healing power of water. Mark is co-owner of Zen Soul Balance in San Diego, California.

Ten years ago, I stepped into the liquid and was pushed into my first wave at a beach break in San Diego.  It took only one wave for this Indiana farm-boy to experience first-hand the sublime words of Jacques Cousteau: “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”

Duke Kahanamoku, Native Hawaiian, five-time Olympic medalist swimmer, and the father of modern-day surfing, once said, “Out of the water, I am nothing.”  Rather than being melodramatic, The Big Kahuna understood that water is the foundation of life and in a sense, he was right – we are nothing when water isn’t present.

The human body is comprised of 60-70% water by weight and over 90% water by molecule.  Dr. Wallace Jacobs, in his seminal work, Blue Mind, reminds us that “the human body as a whole is almost the same density as water [and] in its mineral composition, the water in our cells is comparable to that found in the sea.” 

Our planet, which is covered in 70% water (96% of it saline), should not be called Earth, writes Arthur C. Clarke, but rather should be called Ocean. Over half a billion people owe their livelihood directly to water-based industries, with 80% of the world’s population living within sixty miles of coastline, rivers and lakes.  W.H. Auden was right, “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.”

I am happy in the brine; surfing 7-days week during the summer and 3-5 days a week in the winter.  Each time I paddle out I engage with the primordial force of creation, sometimes lulled by its playful undulations and other times, scared shitless at its raw and relentless power.  Surfing is a kaleidoscope of emotion and experience.  It links you to the nostalgia of heroes and legends like Miki Dora, Dale Velzy, Hap Jacobs, Greg Noll, and Skip Frye, while allowing you to draw your own lines, your own style, your own legacy.

Surfing is a spiritual act of transcendence and immanence.  It is being surrounded, immersed and grounded in the here and now.  It’s the playful innocence of kids draining the last bit of light from an endless summer.  It’s the act of conversation with friend, landscape and ocean-life.  It’s the practice of patience and gratitude, riding only the waves that wind and sea serendipitously offer.  It is the Aloha-spirit. 

Phil Edwards, 1960’s surfing icon, once said, “The best surfer out there is the one having the most fun.”  I think that pretty much sums it up.

photo credential:

Local Talent

My friend, David Wright, published his excellent book of poems, Local Talent, in 2019. The richness of the poems is in David’s keen eye/heart/mind for the distinctly middle American experience. It is also in his command of the musicality of language. While I’m what you might call rhythmically challenged, I have great admiration for subtlety and complexity of the music in Local Talent. It is also filled with David’s wry humor (he’s full of it) which I love. The title of the book, I think, it supposed to be funny, ironic, sad, and hopeful (where else could talent be?) all at the same time.


A little help from my friends

Friendship has been one of the enduring values of my life. From middle/high school to college to grad school and on into my professional career, I’ve been privileged with deep and impacting friendships. I can trace three of these relationships all the way back to the 8th grade (1985 or so – our lives were much like an episode of Stranger Things).

These people have wide ranging interests and opinions. I’ve not made a friend yet with whom I agree in total. Some of my friends disagree with me significantly in areas like education, the arts, religion, politics, use of technology, and so on. Their interests, passions, and (yes) even their opposing opinions have been deeply important and generative for my life. All the varying perspectives have expanded my capacity to think and imagine and act in the world.

The poet Christian Wiman has said, “…we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.” I think we can make the claim that friendship, at its best, helps us to live more fully. At the least, I can make that claim for myself.

All of that to say that I’ve started to ask some of my friends to guest post here from time to time. In the spirit of knowing What Work Is, I’m asking them to post about things they find admirable, interesting, life giving, and worthy of their affection. The posts will cover a wide range of topics: film, home design, theology, music, community involvement, surfing, and much more.

“We lose something of our humanity by militarizing discussion and debate; and we lose something of our humanity by demonizing our interlocutors. When people cease to be people because they are, to us, merely representatives or mouthpieces of positions we want to eradicate, then we, in our zeal to win, have sacrificed empathy: we have declined the opportunity to understand other people’s desires, principles, fears. And that is a great price to pay for supposed ‘victory’ in debate.” (Alan Jacobs – How to Think p. 98)

What Work Is

“Forget you,” says the poet Philip Levine in his poem “What Work Is”. I used to read the poem with the stress on forget which makes those two words dismissive. A few years ago, I started to stress the you which, I think, makes them an admonition, an opening to the possibility of knowing the real work of life. I decided to name this blog What Work Is because it seems I’m constantly in need of reminders of the real work of life.

I’d like this venture to be about affections more than frustrations. Who and what do I love, think is admirable, and wish to share? It isn’t hard to find the objectionable, the frustrating or the hateful. Certainly, I don’t think we should look away from such difficult, tragic, immoral, or unethical things. That is also the real work of life. However, I’m hoping to use this blog to prompt my imagination and maybe the imagination of others toward the work of loving. In his 2012 Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment of the Humanities, Wendell Berry says, “By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.”

So many of my friends and acquaintances (writers, artists, leaders, teachers, thinkers, caregivers, and so on) have shared their loves and affections with me over the years. I hope this effort (incomplete as it is likely to be) is an opportunity to show my gratitude by giving back.

In the poem, Levine’s character is standing in line in the rain, waiting to be told that there isn’t work today. Levine’s characters are often doing this sort of thing. Edward Hirsch called him “a large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland.” I have an affection for these kinds of characters and poems. The young man’s glasses blur his vision and he mistakes a man in line ahead of him for his brother.

How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,   
just because you don’t know what work is.

Let’s do some work.

PS: I’m going to come back sometime and write about that little phrase “open your eyes wide.” It makes me uncomfortable so it seems like something to think about.