Feb 24

Just some more miles

Grading. Forever grading. What I’m poring over is a basic hard news story assignment. There’s only about 40 of these, and most of them from various school board and town council meetings. There are a few people who went to the same meetings, and that’s fine. The students found different angles to report on. But what’s most interesting, to me anyway, is the news they found.

Sadly, a lot of these meetings aren’t getting covered in the small towns because of the spiral the news industry is presently in. Some of the stories my students are writing about are absolutely worth the reporting. Some of the stories are quite good. I know I’ve learned a lot about some of the regional goings on from these stories. I hope my students are getting something out of the feedback. It’s a treat to write all of that feedback, but it can be time intensive — sometimes, I think they, are longer than the stories —

Me? Write long? Never.

Today’s bike ride was interesting. Let’s set the stage. A week ago, this month became my most productive bike riding month, in terms of miles. I’d put in more miles in 22 days than I have in any single month in the last 15 years. (This probably helps explain some aches and pains.)

Somewhere in this area on today’s ride, I eclipsed my first thousand miles of the year.

Definitely helps explain some of the aches and pains. And also the parts that feel pretty good. That’s probably not a lot, 1,000 miles in two months, but I’ve never even had one month with 500 miles or more, until this month.

Which is where this gets silly. I have a spreadsheet with all of these little cycling tidbits on it, you see. Because of that, I knew I could get over 1,000 miles today. And that seemed a great winter goal. Soon I’ll be riding outside again, but to have 1,000 miles as a base, in the basement? It was appealing.

So, when I opened the spreadsheet to add today’s totals to the ride, I looked at the page where I keep the month numbers and realized, if I did just 1.5 more miles, I would have a 600 mile February. Again, not that much, but it’s a lot to me.

So there I was, after dinner, getting back on the bike, just to get that extra 1.5 miles. I did this in jeans, and slowly, because this is silly. But it’s a goal to hit, even if I only just became aware of it.

So I did three miles.

February 2024 is a month that’ll be hard to top. And, since we’re at the end of the month, here’s the big chart.

The green line is a simple projection of where I’d be riding 10 miles per day. The red line reflects my 2023 mileage. The blue line is what I’ve done so far this year.

It’s been a big offseason. And, sometime soon, I’ll be back to riding outside once again.

There are a lot of roads to explore!

OK, I’m out of photographs. I’m going to share one more photograph next week, because it comes with one of my favorite stories of our New Year’s trip. I still have a lot of video to share, but I’m running low on the still images.

Here’s one of me with some grunts and other reef fish in the background. I can minimize my bubbles too!

And this is the saddest site in diving, when you’re back to being just below the surface, and the dive is over.

So, Monday, one fun story, and then a lot more videos in the days to follow.

I suppose I should get back to the Re-Listening project. This is the one where I’m listening to all of my old CDs in the car, in the order in which I acquired them. I’ve been (intermittently) writing about them here to pad things out. These aren’t reviews, because who cares, but usually just memories and excuses to post some music. The problem is, where I am in my collection right now, there aren’t a lot of big, prominent memories attached to any of these.

I was in a burning discs phase, you see. A lot of fairly interesting things were getting slipped into my CD books, but none stayed in the stereo so long that I could tie a lot of experiences to them. This installment sees us in November of 2004. A colleague — who also left the newsroom and returned to a university campus, as a social media manager, where he seems to be doing well for himself — made a copy of U2’s “How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb” for me. I can’t recall what I made for him in return. Hopefully it was decent. This is decent.

And so there’s the whole album, if you want to hear it. Nothing quite as iconic, perhaps, as their early stuff, but when I listen to it now, it sounds like U2, and that’s never a bad thing.

Except for the catorce in “Vertigo.” You can still roll your eyes at that.

Feb 24

Mostly words about reading words

I am grading things. This is a week of a lot of grading. I made the mistake of grading the simpler stuff first. I thought it would build momentum, but now I’m not so sure.

There are a lot of things to grade this week. The only thing to do is take them on one by one and try to provide useful feedback to everyone along the way.

In class last night we talked about social media and how it is used, sometimes for good, sometimes for less desirable purposes. These are the four readings the class had this evening.

#BlackLivesMatter and the Power and Limits of Social Media

Social media helps Black Lives Matter fight the power

It takes a village to find a phone

From hope to hate: how the early internet fed the far right

The thing about this class is that I’m always eager to see what they’ll think about the next readings. I hope they come to see how all of the things they are being asked to read over the course of the term come to complement one another and, ultimately, come to work together.

What I’ve been grading today are assignments out of that Monday night class. This assignment asks them to chart several days of their personal media consumption and write about some specific things in that context. First of all, everyone should do the charting exercise now and again. We all think we have a handle on how much we read and watch and listen to this and that, but there’s nothing quite like seeing it on paper. Every time I do this assignment students come away surprised by something or another. That’s useful for some of them, and some come to a conclusion that they want to make a few changes to their personal habits. But the writing is interesting, because they have to tell part of their own story, and you learn a lot.

One student watches 1950s variety shows on YouTube to unwind. Another introduced me to some new music. Still another name drops some bands I played on college radio a million years ago — that must have been an interesting childhood soundscape. Another wrote, beautifully, elegantly, about the impact Little Woman had on her life. It’s a nice assignment.

Then, of course, I spent a few moments reading Louisa May Alcott’s poetry. Her stories, I think, are better than her poetry, but maybe that’s me. Or her books, some of which are magically timeless. Perhaps I should add Alcott back to the list of things to read. She might be another one of those authors that is lost on us when we’re young.

Speaking of books. I finished When Women Were Birds on Sunday night. It was 54 essays Terry Tempest Williams, who, was gifted her mother’s journals. As she lay dying, she says these are for you, but don’t read them until I’m gone. Some time after her mother passes away the daughter is ready to look in those journals, eager to gain the insights of a woman she knew, wanting to learn about the woman she didn’t know. They’re all neatly arranged, these journals, waiting for her to discover what’s inside. They’re all blank. And, from this, Williams writes about her mother, the birds of the west, womanhood, faith, family, and what is there and what’s missing.

It is a writer writing, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

I think I finished it in four late night sessions.

The next problem is that I have so many things to read, how do I choose what to read next? I have a random number generator on my iPad and I let it decide. It decided that, next, I’ll read Brian Matthew Jordan’s Pulitzer Prize finalist book, Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War. Jordan teaches at Gettysburg College and this text has a great reputation for the depth of its research. I saw that right away in the footnotes.

I bought this in December of 2020, and it’s just been sitting there, waiting for the random number generator to call it into action. And chance has good timing. I like to change up the periods I read about, and haven’t read anything from the 19th century since the end of 2021, somehow. (All of which is to say I need to read more, obviously.)

This photo isn’t good, and breaks a lot of the supposed rules of photography, but I love it anyway.

It is the way the light dances at the surface, how the water is blue and white. Sky and clouds and water and you could go any direction you wanted to right here, at least in your imagination. My dive buddy, my lovely bride, is facing away from me, but that’s OK. I like the composition.

Makes me want to go diving. Go figure.

Feb 24

You’re going to watch the video and follow all of the links, right?

Once this day got started, this day got productive. Let’s see, there was a late breakfast. And then I gave Phoebe some extra milk. I did dishes. And then I checked email, and updated various computer things. I pulled in the day’s delivery from the front porch.

I recently met someone who works at the local Amazon distribution center. She told me about the many different kinds of jobs in her building, and the one she’s doing now. I promised to check with her before we ordered anything heavy. Make sure she’s not working that day, ya know. Of course, I could barely pick up the box that arrived today. I hope she didn’t have to heave that to and fro.

I also took care of the garbage and recycling. This was an involved process. There was an extra bag of garbage. And more recycling than usual, owing to cardboard. I haven’t moved this much cardboard since we moved. Some of the cardboard that I recycled today was, in fact, from the move. The move was last June.

Standing at the giant bin, breaking down cardboard boxes by tearing tape with my keys, I narrowly avoided giving myself a cardboard cut. Paper cuts are bad, but cardboard should be registered and require a permit. Dangerous stuff. The guy that works there was patiently waiting on me to finish the task. He was standing down by the two cattle gates at the entrance. I was the last visitor of the day, according to his watch, which said 4:51, but he was ready to get out of there a little early. This was not the regular guy, Milton, that I’ve come to wave at, but another fellow. People are punctual about their early dinner plans, one supposes.

Anyway, the sun was out and it was an easy enough chore, even if it all took the better part of an hour this time. When I backed the car out to set off for the inconvenience center I looked into the yard and the trees beyond and said, “Spring is starting and you can’t convince me otherwise.” I said this to no one but the cardboard and the other recyclables, because there was nowhere to put a human being in my car. But nothing about the drive, the chore, or my return made a convincing counterargument, either.

The long-range forecast calls for the low 60s this time next week.

In class last night we did not talk about the weather. I warmed up, though, with a little history lesson of Voyager 1, the golden record and Blind Willie Johnson. Voyager 1 has been flying my whole life, and more than twice as long as my students have been alive. And these last few months, Voyager has been slowly, sadly, limping to its own end, decades after exceeding its mission parameters. It’s no less sad for the over-achievement. Perhaps more so. Doug Muir wrote something beautiful about it.

Also, a student asked me what I thought about Jon Stewart’s return to The Daily Show. Short version: It felt right. Last Monday’s re-start was a start, a clearing of the throat, a framing of the conversation. His return is going to be best understood over time. So let’s see what he does between now and November.

And what he did last night. My goodness.

My lovely bride and I did our first research in grad school on Jon Stewart. It was one of the first 2,200 or pieces of scholarship about the comedy-satire-politics show. I think the preemptive criticism in the run up to his return was overdone. Stewart still has one of the most unique and powerful voices in the much broader genre, and the circumstances today aren’t that different than nine years ago when he walked away. More acrimonious, but let’s not forget from whence we came.

If anything, the show runners have to consider how the Daily Show’s style of accountability — via the technological breakthrough of database queries and video playback — is finally more widespread now. That, if anything, blunts the ability for him to tackle his first real target, contemporary media. (People forget who the real satire subject matter is.) That part will need to be reshaped, perhaps, and along the way, he’s going to annoy everyone sporting a little letter behind their name. I could do without making the superficial punchline an ad hominem attack, I never liked that part, but he’s still got plenty of punch in his gloves. And the ratings are there too, much to the chagrin of last night’s subject matter.

For the actual class we discussed Ellen Ullman and Nicholas Carr. Basically, what is the internet doing to us, and why is it all bad? The Ullman piece was prescient, she wrote it in 1998, still stands by it, and, what’s more, was correct. The Carr readings date to 2008 and 2010. The latter is a book chapter of his, but that essay in The Atlantic should give us pause.

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets—reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts,
watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link.

For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.

The first time I read that piece I saw a lot of the same complaints. And so I’ve been trying to change my habits — sometimes with more success than others. I think the change has been fruitful, when I’ve been most successful at it.

One of the assignments the students have to do soon includes an element where they chart their own media consumption. If this is done well some people will look at that and think, “Yes, that seems about right.” Others, however, will look at the data they’ve collected on themselves and be stunned.

Maybe that’ll mean something for them going forward.

Let us go forward together, back under the surface of the water.

I made this video before class yesterday with the intention of publishing it then, as well. Only I made a critical error in the rendering and exporting process. (A two-paragraph explanation of everything between now and then goes right here. An explanation made all the more hilarious because I teach this stuff. So I figured: Tuesday. Today, suffice it to say, instead of having to remake the entire video, I remembered Premiere Pro has a pretty decent autosave function, which was a big time-saver.) Having correctly rendered and exported the video, I was able to upload it and remain quite pleased with the result. I think you’ll like it too. I think the beginning and the end are the best part.

Also, enjoy the flounder, the sea anemone and the beautiful eagle ray.


Tomorrow, I’ll have a few more diving photos for you, we’ll go back in time to meet a local 17th century man of considerable importance and I’ll probably try to find a way to talk about riding my bicycle in place. Because, right now, I’m going to go ride my bike.

Feb 24

A former student, the yard and dive photos

I had a lovely chat with a former student today. I had her in a class when she was a freshman and knew her all four years of her time in college and, today, I have the great good fortune to call her a friend. She is, and was, a talented human being. She sat in the back of the classroom, quiet as could be, but she took in everything. Everything.

One of her classmates and friends was loud and over the top and could command and intimidate anyone in a room. She was funny, but Sydney just sat in the back and soaked in everything.

Outside of the classroom she became a staff writer and then a section editor for the campus paper I advised. Her senior year, she was the editor-in-chief of her campus paper. She was also the section editor of two local community papers her senior year. She also carried a 4.0 GPA. She also was honored as one of the top journalists in the south that year. I’m telling you, this woman is talented.

Two years ago now she was on a New York Times team that won a Pulitzer Prize, and if you think I don’t find ways to insert that into conversation you haven’t been paying attention. She’s a book editor and still writes for The Times. Even better than all of that, she does all of these other things. In the last few years she’s taught herself to sew and knit and cross stitch. She has taken up, as an adult and just to try it, aerial gymnastics, and she’s getting quite good at it. She has discovered a green thumb. Late last year she and her husband moved to New England. They are way up there, and enjoying their first real winter.

I was telling her how much I admire all of the things she does. As is typical, I laid it on pretty thick. As is typical, she downplayed everything. She said, “My life is full of more things that bring me satisfaction and make me look forward to the future than I’ve ever had before, and that’s not nothing.”

Something about this young woman, her freshmen year in the back of my class, I knew she’d figure it all out. And now here we are.

There isn’t a term for it, short of the greeting card cliche, but it is so heartening to watch people you like thrive. And to watch them discover the things that make them thrive. Oh! It comes from years of mentally cheering for people daily, and then getting semi-regular dispatches. To see people, who I knew best as students, continue to find ways to learn and challenge themselves well into adulthood, it’s really something.

In my teaching philosophy, I’ve always written that I hope to help teach the value of a true education: the joy of learning.

Best part is, Sydney isn’t the only person I know who has embodied that. Maybe that means I’m on to something. I hope so.

A quick spin through the side yard, just to share some different photos. I got lucky with the light on this shrub, which enjoys a nice golden tint in the late afternoon sun.

This stone path doesn’t go anywhere magical, but it seems like it should, doesn’t it?

We have two-and-a-half stone paths, and one of them does seem like it should go to Narnia. Not this one, though, it just takes you to the utilities. But look! There between the stones!

Is that a periwinkle? An euonymus? Whatever it is, the ground cover is emerging in early February! I am heartened once again!

Maybe I’ll get to the backyard tomorrow.

But, today, we must return to our underwater lair. And if we can’t actually do it, we’ll do it with some photographs from last month. To the deep! And before you do it, I’ve already done. I was humming the opening bars to “Baracuda” at about 65 feet here.

This was our dive master on one of our boats. He was serious until he realized he didn’t have to be. And then he was hysterical. Big laugh. I think his laugh amuses him, too. He reminded me of Carlos Mencia, a little bit. Apparently, in his day job, he’s some sort of underwater welder. So he takes strangers diving as a side hustle.

Imagine that. You get on a boat and that’s where you meet people and, to some degree, you’re kind of responsible for them. Now do that and make great jokes that grizzled vacation veterans haven’t heard before. This is the life of a dive master.

Also, he took this photograph for us.

He was very gracious with his time to do that. We wound up getting quite a few photographs. One day I’ll put that on social media and see if the university will share it. And if they do, this will be a new thing, taking that flag to interesting places and so on.

Also, he wanted to take a photo with the flag, too.

But he never asked what a Rowan was, or what that owl was about. He just wanted a photo, which was cool.

I think I can get about two more weeks of photos out of that trip. And, of course, there are quite a few more videos to upload, too. I may be able to pad this out to spring yet!

Jan 24

That was some sunny day

It got up to 42 degrees here today. And, for the best part of the day, it was sunny. This, I think, is why I have the unshakeable and mistaken feeling that spring is just around the corner. It’s the sun. I’m in recovery from years of the midwest’s monotonous gray skies. Right or wrong, early or on time, I look outside and think, it’s coming.

“It” being spring.

But it’s not. Not yet. We could be two months out from spring, somehow, but I see green grass and blue skies and shadows and I smile. I smile and I wait and wonder.

Where I park on campus I have to go through a little security checkpoint. There’s a guy in a hut and he’s looking for a sticker on my car. The guy that works the evening shift is an older gentleman. Quick with a smile and full of good patter. Every time I see him my goal is to make him laugh. I don’t think he gets a lot of that in his work role, because he’s always the one delivering the cheery spiel and the interactions may be plentiful, but they’re necessarily brief. So I try to bring a joke, or an unexpected reply to a gregarious man who has one-liners down to an art. But when you get him, he’s got a fantastic laugh. I asked him if he, too, thought it felt like spring. Two more months, he said.

I was afraid of that. But I smile and I wait and wonder.

Tonight in class we talked about some of the work of Lev Manovich and Jurgen Habermas. The students get Habermas pretty well. Manovich is a bit of a mystery, but they come around. We also talked about Photoshop, because that’s coming up in class.

I start this spiel like this. You don’t have to know everything about Photoshop for this class. You do need to some things, and we’ll touch on many of those. We have terrific tutorials available to you online, and I’ll try to one-on-one with you, if it might help you. I tell them they can follow along on the incredible tutorials and spend 19 hours and be well-versed. I tell them the way you learn this program is by doing, and that there are several ways to do the same thing, which comes down to preference and your efficiency. I tell them I have been using Photoshop for a quarter of a century, now, often on a daily basis, and I don’t know how to do everything. Don’t sweat it. You learn as you go.

I say, if I were a gambling person I would bet you a dollar that I will learn something about Photoshop, this program I’ve used for 25-or-so years, in the course of this class. And so then we do a few things on the big screen — which the students tolerate, I’m pretty sure.

In the new version of Photoshop there are mini-tutorial videos built in. You mouseover a tool or a panel and this little box pops up. You can play a short video that gives you an overview. It’s well done. I point out a few of those. And then, on the third one, I actually play the video. It runs 52 seconds. Tutorial demonstrated.

And then I say to the class, “Remember how, about 10 minutes ago I said I would learn something about Photoshop? Just did.”

Big laugh. Human element of the class instructor established. Another thing crossed off the To Do List.

Back underwater. It is a mild winter here, but I’m still in Cozumel in my mind.

Check out this anemone, which the divemaster is helpfully pointing out.

Look who is strong!

In an upcoming post, I have a great and impressive anecdote to share about strength underwater. So keep coming back to look for that.

But, for now, here’s another mysterious brown bowl sponge.

Or, if fish are more of your thing, here’s a closeup of a sergeant major.

And this is the saddest site you can see on a good dive. You’re tank is running low, and you’re having to ascend on an afternoon dive.

I’ve got another good six, eight minutes of air there, guys.

(For some reason, I suck down the first third of a tank like I’m never going to breathe again, but I can stretch out that last 1,000 or 1,200 for longer than anyone would think possible.)

It probably has to do with heart rate. So let’s talk about cardio. Since I last talked about riding my bike, last Wednesday, I’ve covered 164 miles, and am on a nice little streak of six consecutive days with a ride. My legs are starting to notice, too.

One of those rides was in virtual Scotland. I saw the virtual aurora borealis.

A friend of a friend has a wife who seems … I only met her briefly, once, several years ago. She leaves an impression and it might be the wrong one altogether. Anyway, we were talking about Alaska and she was talking about the shopping there and what there is to do and what isn’t there, and all of those sorts of conversations are insightful about a place, because you can learn new things, and a person, because you can learn what they value.

She found the aurora borealis to be utterly boring. And the malls, too.

I have never seen the aurora borealis in person, but whenever there are photos, videos, when a news story pops up, or when I see them in virtual Scotland, I get a good laugh.

So boring.

Anyway, with any luck, in a few days I’ll set a new personal mark for most consecutive days riding. This is the sort of thing that means nothing to anyone, but the person doing it. Eventually, it won’t mean much to that person, because there will be other goals to achieve.

If my legs keep working.

Tomorrow, we’ll see how January worked out, mileage-wise. The cycling spreadsheet returns for 2024.