In the Brightness of My Day

I took an unusual walk last week. After work I drove to the grocery store that’s closer to my job, parked the car, and walked out of the parking lot. It’s not a neighborhood I know, except for the road I take when I do my shopping. On the other side of the lot, the grocery store looks onto an even larger mall parking lot, and the mall itself faces a main drag lined with big box plazas, small businesses, and places to eat. Suburban, car-based shopping. Strip mall after strip mall, not a lot of pedestrians. People on the street in work shirts, waiting for the bus or walking home. On my side, though, is a quiet residential wedge that extends a few blocks until it hits the Walmart on a very similar commercial street, perpendicular to the other one, but with more restaurants.

I crossed the street and started walking down the first residential street I found. I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I turned left and right as the mood suited me. It was one of those nice early fall days. Light breeze. Sunny, but cool.

Without any particular place in mind, I wandered and my attention was on the houses I saw. Small lots, fairly close to each other. The kinds of tracts that look stamped into the earth when you look down from a plane. My neighborhood is just as planned out, but it dates to the late 1890s, and the large Victorians, densely packed as well, are a totally different vibe. When Mark Twain lived in Buffalo, I think he referred to my part of town as some way out there new development. It’s a ten-minute drive to downtown.

As I walked, I saw many flags, closely divided between American ones and those for the Buffalo Bills. I love blue, and it was nice to have so many blue and red accents along the walk. I want to say I was walking through a post-war neighborhood based on the architectural style. Ranch-style homes, lots of aluminum siding, more lawn than garden. Could it be earlier? For sure. I’m just guessing and don’t know very much.

It was about four o’clock or so, and I hardly saw anyone. A couple folks working in their open garages, an elderly lady getting her mail. I only crossed paths with one person, a young woman walking from her house to her car. Because I didn’t know where the little streets led, I found myself much more alert and attentive to my surroundings than normal. It was really interesting how much of a difference it made to not know where I was. My mind was absorbed with the details of homes and street layouts. Although it had been a long day at work and I had lots on my mind, it was the world in front of and around me that I kept thinking about.

Eventually I ended up onto a third border for this neighborhood. It’s not a main thoroughfare like the others, certainly not very commercial, but clearly an edge street. Lots of traffic. I crossed over to a small park I’d never seen before. There was a small paved path surrounding a playground. I figured there wasn’t much to see, but I was surprised, as I followed the path, to hit upon a little stand of trees. The walk led into the stand, behind the trees, and I walked in. I’m always a little scared walking on my own. Not, like, a lot. But when I was about nineteen a couple guys held me up at knifepoint on my way home from work. They were short, thin, and in clothes that, when I was a kid, always threatened bad news. Jeans, baggy white t-shirts, and bald heads. They weren’t scary to look at they were so much smaller than me, but they did have that knife. I put down my groceries on which I’d spent most of my check, and gave them the few dollars I had. As long as I had that job I couldn’t walk through that stretch of street again. I ran. I guess the feeling lingers. I wonder if they remember that day at all.

This path wasn’t scary like that. For one, there were a few families not that far away on the playground, and it was broad daylight in the suburbs. So, anyway, a little of that always-fear, but I walked in. Very soon, the tall trees on either side blocked a lot of the sun. An unexpected and sudden change. A new mood. Having been walking alone through empty street after empty street, I found here another kind of stillness. On the other side of the path, on the other side of most of the trees, was a thinner clump of trees and a narrow, still stream. So much shadow and greenery hidden behind a busy, noisy street. The whole length of this path couldn’t have been more than a couple hundred feet, but the contrast was intense. Maybe I was still a little on edge. And by this point I was also really responding to all this sunlight. I felt almost dizzy. I passed a Catholic church that really didn’t look like a Catholic church. I would’ve bet it was some community center, or, once I saw the cross, a Protestant building.

I emerged back onto the park’s parking lot, and walked up to another main street. I knew this one would take me back to the grocery store, and decided to follow it. I crossed onto a gas station, then walked across the parking lots of little businesses. Medical practices, accounting-type services, things like that. I took one last side street back into this neighborhood, and found my original street. It was here I ran into the one person I encountered on my whole solitary walk.

Walking back onto the grocery store lot, I felt as if re-emerging into the world of people. Maybe it’s silly or dumb to call my not-knowingness “lost” but it certainly felt very different from walking from one place you know to some definite other place. It was a whole distinct kind of attention. Physically and mentally so unlike my walks in the park or my own neighborhood.

As I approached the doors to the store, the several people walking to and from it felt like a real crowd. The blast of air conditioning was strong, so much colder than the already cool air outside. I had returned to real life.

The little woods I found.
Me in the scary woods.
That one church. See what I mean?

Getting On

So how is it that, although we are now agreed about the nature of virtue, we still try to demonstrate progress in areas that are unrelated? What is the goal of virtue, after all, except a life that flows smoothly? So who is making progress – the person who has read many of Chrysippus’ books? Is virtue no more than this – to become more literate in Chrysippus? Because, if that’s what it is, then progress cannot amount to anything more than learning as much Chrysippus as we can.

– Epictetus Discourses and Selected Writings

I’m always on about some scheme to organize myself and impose order on my time. This school year, I’ve started using my Time Block Planner, which I was excited to get for Christmas, and then didn’t touch all year. The idea behind this planner is to reflect upon, and capture in writing, the week’s big goals and tasks, and then plan blocks of uninterrupted time during which to attend to them. Throughout that week, with the appropriate adaptations that arise in real time, you can benefit from the forethought you have expended upon the stuff of your days. For a person like me, this is what passes for difficult wisdom. To keep those blocks truly uninterrupted I use a little blue clock that I wind for a set amount of time. The clock face is obscured by a deep blue chunk of a circle (I think the geometry word is section. Is that right?). As time passes, the shaded area shrinks until it reaches zero, at which point either an alarm sounds or the clock makes a low click. I’ve taken to bringing my little clock to school and using it for keeping track of discrete parts of my lessons. I don’t know if anyone likes this as much as I do.

Why do I use this system? Well, being able to keep track of time without a networked device is a big plus. I am as distractible as anyone. And it turns out I am much more likely to respect a plastic block of color than something less tactile. This, I can do, and consistently so. If I finish something early, I start on my contingency plan. As for the planner, I think that there, too, there is an appeal to the physicality of pen and paper. Add to this the comfort of knowing that if something matters, this tool contains it. Lastly, having the planner nearby while I work lets me jot something down for later without abandoning what I’m focused on. It’s early on, but I have never started a schoolyear with more calm or control.

Related Reading:

Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Cal is a computer science professor at Georgetown, life hack writer, blogger, and author of books to do with structuring one’s life so as to make room for valuable, concentrated effort.

Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. Levitin is a psychologist, and this book is definitely structured like so much popular science. At this point, I sort of think I’ve read enough of that kind of book for one life, but this one stands out. Levitin is a particularly clear writer, and the big question in plain prose is how to make decisions about our physical environment that will be helpful to us given the kinds of minds we have.

Here’s me and my little clock.

First Post

Hi. I paid for this site a while ago and thought I would use it. So far, I’ve used it as a bill to pay once a year. But I think I can do more. I’m not really online anywhere else right now, so how about I use this place for that — my own little corner of the internet. I’m thinking it’ll be a nice place to see what I’m up to and what I’m thinking about. I don’t know how to do (make? run? design?) websites, so, lol, maybe this won’t be any good. That’s okay.

It is rainy and grey this Sunday afternoon in Buffalo. Fall weather is coming, which always makes me really happy. I was taking walks in the park a lot this summer, and I hope to do some more while the weather is like this. Strong breezes and air that is good to breathe.

I made Creamy Corn Soup with Basil last week, and I’m thinking of making it again. I don’t know whether the corn being in season is the reason or what, but the soup had a really nice creamy consistency even though there’s no milk or cream. If I were serving it for a group, I would strain the soup — I bet the bits of corn would work great in another dish. At home, though, I liked it just fine as is.

Right now, I’m halfway through a book from 2007, The Horse, The Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by an anthropologist named David W Anthony. It’s a lot of fun so far. In it, he lays out the case for his hypothesis of where and when it was that the speakers of Proto-Indo-European originated. So many nice, leisurely set pieces: patterns of sound change over time, interpreting the archaeological remains of pre-literate societies, and how herding and foraging societies influenced each other. Among the interesting tidbits: in Indo-European (or proto-? Don’t quote me to closely here), there was a distinction between moveable and immoveable objects. The word pecu referred to moveable wealth, and it’s where we get words like pecuniary and impecunious. The passing mention of tenon and mortice technology also made me want to branch off and hit up a book just on wheel technology. I mean, can you really do ancient wheels justice in a book like this? Obviously, no.

I took the attached picture last month. It’s of woods along the Susquehanna River in Binghamton. It’s so beautiful there.

That’s it for now. Talk to you later!