“For Real” (Okkervil River)

Lyrics of the moment:

Some nights I thirst for real blood
For real knives
For real cries


Sometimes the blood from real cuts
Feels real nice
When it’s really mine


It’s just a drive into the dark stretch
Long stretch of night
Will really stretch this shaking mind
And this room, unlit, unheated
And the ceiling striped
And the dark black blinds


Cause there’s nothing quite like the blinding light
That curtains cast aside
And no attempt is made to explain away
The things that really, really, really, really, really are behind

You can’t hide

—from “For Real” by Okkervil River

July 28, 2015

I understand now, more than ever, why David Foster Wallace spent most of his last weeks eating his mother’s casseroles and watching television. I understand now, more than ever, why severely depressed people find themselves avidly seeking the entertainments of their youth.

Specifically, I find myself in search of the intensely but unclearly remembered. The things I have yet to revisit. Not the old favorites I’ve returned to again and again, the movies who dialogue I mouth as I watch and the books whose best lines I drop into my conversation and letters.

When I’m merely sad or in the midst of “routine” depression, I look to old favorites from my youth at various ages, Cummings and Keats, classic sci-fi, British mysteries, The Lord of the Rings in book and movie form. The comfort is in the consistent rewards each of these give in their own way, sometimes in the story, sometimes specific words or lines.

But when things get bad, when I’m somehow simultaneously empty and filled with darkness, I look for familiar strangers. I crave, suddenly, episodes of Magnum P.I. and that thriller novel where the protagonist suffers from an irregular heartbeat and is always waiting for the unending gap between one clench of his heartfist and the next.

I want these not for anything anyone else will find in their pages and scenes—it seems unlikely anyone else could benefit from watching Murder She Wrote or thumbing the pages of the thick 1977 paperback edition of the Guinness Book of World Records—but for myself. Literally. I’m trying to find the person I was then, untainted by the intervening years. And if I can’t find him, perhaps I can—for a few merciful minutes—experience something the same way. Or even just remember, at a remove, how I felt things then before I was filled with anhedonic shadows.

But it becomes harder and harder to find these entertainments. Harder to remember them. Harder to find a way into them. And what happens when I run out of them? What happens when I run out? What happens when there’s nothing left?

I’ll Be Watching The End of the Tour Too

David Foster Wallace’s family and widow have denounced The End of the Tour. That’s causing an ethical quandary for many hardcore DFW fans who are torn between the family’s wishes and their understandable desire to see the movie. Not me. I’ll be seeing the film (which might be a long, long time. Sigh.) for very much the same reasons elaborated upon in this post by Michael Moats.

Ian McKellan Reading from Sir Thomas More

If you like Sir Ian McKellan and Shakespeare, you’ll probably enjoy McKellan’s performance of More’s speech as written by Shakespeare (in his contribution to Sir Thomas More) toward the end of his appearance on the WTF podcast. The play as a whole is uneven, and Shakespeare’s contribution relatively small, but it packs a punch, as in this bit from the section McKellan recited:

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to th’ ports and costs for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.

And if the one-on-one conversation and face-to-face performance doesn’t change Maron’s mind about Shakespeare, there’s no hope for him. But that’s OK…Maron has a real knack at getting into the genuine with his guests (in contrast to Chris Hardwick’s terrible McKellan interview on The Nerdist from the same week in which McKellan wasn’t necessarily enthusiastic, but Hardwick’s smug unctuousness did nothing to bring him around).

The Etymology of Grass

While trudging through my steps today, listening to A Way With Words and a caller asked about the etymology of “grassing” in the British sense of informing on someone else. One of those fascinating bits of slang that derives indirectly from a rhyme (something the Brits seem particularly fond of) in this sequence:

  1. To inform on someone was to “shop” them out.
  2. To shop is to be a “shopper.”
  3. The slang rhyme becomes “grasshopper”
  4. Thus we have to “grass” someone out.

Though, in my “research” (aka quick Googling) there is a competing—or possibly collaborative—theory about the rhyme that “grasshopper” arose because of the rhyme with “copper” (who one would grass to).

I love that kind of thing.

Also, if you don’t listen to A Way With Words, you should. That is all.

The Black Dog Nipping at My Heels

The black dog can slither like a snake. The black dog can make himself invisible. The black dog can teleport through locked doors and closed eyelids. He snarls from behind me as the passage grows narrower and narrower, the lights dimmer and dimmer, then appears suddenly in front of me when the walls are so tight I can’t turn around.

With his constant snapping, I can barely read, much less write. He snatches my half-formed poems and shakes them, snapping their necks. Even his barking is derisive.

And the black dog can talk. We have conversations like this:

Maybe I should write about some of the things I’m doing with teaching and WordPress for #TWP15. I’ve been doing it for a long time–

Why? Nothing you’re doing is interesting. It’s all been done before. And by smarter and better.

OK, let me look at my little list of ideas: Quantity vs. abundance as a function of our abilities and posture? Rabbit-holes as the real world? Memorable learning and ego?

Dumb. Dumber. Dumbest. No one wants to hear your blather. Look around, man…your betters have it covered.

I could work on some ideas for Nousion. Comment on some of their work…

You know those students see right through you? You aren’t asking for their advice and ideas to be inclusive but because you have nothing interesting to bring to the table. You type a lot on their posts and say nothing. Just stop.

[Fires up TweetDeck] I need a connection. Or at least a distraction.

Hey, look how those “friends” you messaged haven’t replied? You know why that is, right?


That’s it. You’re not just unoriginal, you’re a fraud. Quit trying to sit in with those real thinkers and real writers and real educators.

[more silence]

Sit. Roll over. Get up. Get out. Goodbye.

Depressed, Analytical Valley Girl


From Audrey Watters on Twitter a few days ago:

Today a friend sent me a link to James Pennebaker’s Analyze Words, a site that performs textual analysis on Twitter feeds. When I tried it, I realized that this must be the system that Michael Petrilli had used in his “analysis” (it says so in the article, but I didn’t remember the name of the software) because of the strange “Spacy/Valley girl” category. Here are my results (TL;DR I’m a depressed, analytical, personable valley girl):


Automated textual analysis is an interesting, but limited technology. I’m all for using it as one tool among many to spark thinking. But what’s with the sexist, dismissive “Spacy/Valley girl” category from someone supposedly interested in words and language? Presumably it’s a category intended to convey informality, use of words such as “like” and perhaps present tense? Pennebaker’s book on which this is based (The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us) doesn’t provide any specifics…the only mentions of the phrase “valley girl” come in the following quotes, which are predictable in their banality and lack of useful information. First, a comparison of two categories:

Pompous instructions: Although your professors gave this topic rather minimal attention, cognitive dissonance is a common psychological phenomenon with which the vast majority of uninformed laymen will be familiar … generating an example should be simple enough once one has become reasonably familiar with this concept.

Valley girl instructions: OK, we might not have talked about cognitive dissonance much. Which I think is totally crazy cause it’s like, everybody should be able to see that cognitive dissonance is majorly relevant. Like, it’s seriously happening ALL the time, you know??… So OK, it’s your turn. I mean, like really try to think of an example of cognitive dissonance and tell me everything about it.

And then the dismissal (I wonder which category this falls into? Arrogant, Sexist, Old White Man?):

In fact, if I, like, started—you know—writing in a Valley girl style for like gobs of paragraphs, and, you know, if, uhhh, your phone rang and like you totally answered it? You would like majorly start talking like this.

I’ll stop now to preserve our respective senses of dignity.

Not exactly deep thinking is it? I guess it sells better to use the Buzzfeed quiz model than to provide and support textual analysis as a point of inquiry…

Note To/About Self: Rhizo14/15

I finally got around to reading “Rhizo14: A Rhizomatic Learning cMOOC in Sunlight and in Shade” and a quote from one of the #rhizo14 participants the authors surveyed caught my eye. He or she described the #rhizo14 experience as being composed of “disjointed networks of pre-established subgroups.”

To some extent, that was how I experienced #rhizo15. Having been uninvolved or involved only at the very periphery of the previous year’s #rhizo14 experience and various other MOOC and MOOC-like experiences that the most active participants appear to have been part of together, I felt some sense of the outsider looking in. I was surprised at how solid the group formations already were (or seemed) before the course even started.

This isn’t a criticism: that my participation quickly dwindled was fundamentally a matter of the choices I made in how to engage (or not). But the comment made me think about what I was and wasn’t able to take away from the experience that might be applicable to my own practice:

  1. Some (a very small number) of the tweets and comments bordered on hero-worship. That’s uninteresting except that it points to how much the success of #rhizo15 depended on Dave’s position and personality…and I suspect the combination of these tendencies and so many who already had shared experiences explains the nearly complete absence of anyone challenging any aspects of the nature of the #rhizo15 experience itself.

  2. We who don’t have an avid following aren’t going to have much success throwing up a video every week and drawing a crowd of many hundreds or thousands, no matter how provocative or insightful the idea…and given the dynamics of communities and the various roles needed for them to be healthy, this is a situation where size does matter. I like the “big idea” approach, though, foregrounding the big questions that too often lie hidden beneath the surface of the mundane and organizing the experience around them.

  3. Something about the radically de-centered nature of the course appeals deeply to me, though I can barely dip into those waters when teaching formal classes. So a challenge for me is how to facilitate sustained engagement, self-organizing activities and group exploration and cohesion within the bounds of academic terms, defined outcomes and required grades.

  4. I’m intrigued by some of the artistry that emerged. I’m doubly intrigued by the sparks when the artistic expression meets the formalized expression. There’s more than a little of the Two Cultures problem involved here, the divides between formal and informal, art and craft, research and…well, whatever the “other” is.