When does the work day begin?

Peak hour pedestrians in Brisbane Queensland Australia

We recently relocated to another suburb of Sydney – one which is farther away from the CBD (where I work) than our previous home was. My commute used to involve only an 11min train ride, which never afforded much of an opportunity to read. Not only am I a slow reader (so I might get through merely five pages in that time) but 11 minutes is also too short of a time to “lose oneself” in what you’re reading.

My new commute involves no fewer than 31 minutes on the train, and typically a 5-10 minute wait at the station (I almost never waited longer than 2-3 minutes at our old station, owing to more frequent services). Suddenly, my commute is more than three times as long and reading is fully back on the menu.

Most of the time, I’m reading non-fiction, as this is easier to dip in and out of should my commute prove distracting (or should my cognitive energy be in short supply). Such reading forms a not-insignificant portion of my work as an academic and so, in a rather real sense, my work day starts even as my commute does. Normally I would be disturbed if ‘work’ was creeping into the few moments of solitude I enjoy in a day, but reading has always been one aspect of my job that never feels like ‘work’.

Today I found myself pondering this point even as I was undertaking my commute to work: has my work day actually begun, or is this reading serving as a ‘soft open’ to my working day? Put another way: does the hour I spend commuting to and from work count as an hour of doing the job I’m ostensibly commuting to?

Ultimately, I’m not terribly concerned with the answer, so long as I’m enjoying what I’m reading even as it helps me move my work forward. I might as well have my cake and eat it, too.

Bookshelves Lined With Your Personality

I don’t get to read much fiction these days. As an academic, I read more non-fiction than most people (yet somewhat less than I’d like to read). Unfortunately, I can only read so much in any given day before I hit a point of diminishing returns in regard to my ability to engage with and process that reading. The reading component of my j-o-b tends to monopolize that limited reserve of cognitive capacity. As a result, I usually don’t have the energy for fiction by the time I’m home.

However, I do get some reading done in large spurts on the odd day off from the j-o-b and domestic duties. Usually this sees me enjoying some fiction in between movies. Yesterday was one such day – I was enjoying Ian McEwan’s Lessons in between screenings of Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse and Un Beau Matin [One Fine Morning].

As I picked up where I left off with Lessons – at the start of Chapter 4 – I encountered an idea that I could relate to:

Books are difficult to tidy. Hard to chuck out. They resist.

While I don’t have an impressive library in terms of size, I do have a library highly curated to my aesthetic and/or intellectual tastes. The volumes on my shelves have become even more precious to me ever since I took up the habit of underlining my favorite passages (as I did the above passage from Lessons) and scribbling my reactions in their margins. I began to feel that my books are a part of me – a feeling which only intensified when my son was born and I realized that one day he would inherit the books and be able to read them ‘with’ me via my marginalia.

Delightfully, the reverberations of this idea – of books resisting being tidied – were almost immediately echoed back to me from another source: Un Beau Matin. In the film, Sandra (played by Léa Seydoux) is confronted with the task of helping move her father – who lives with a neurodegenerative disease – out of his apartment and into a residential care facility.

One component of this task is finding a new home for the many books her father had accumulated as a philosophy professor. Sandra eventually finds one of her father’s former students who is honored to take the books. As Sandra and her young daughter, Linn, help with the organization of the books in the home of that former student, Sandra remarks to Linn that the books are more her father than is the person in residential care. This confuses the young girl, who points out that her grandfather didn’t write the books.

As still images of the books on their new shelves fill the screen, Sandra explains that, while he may not have written the books, he did pick all of them; engage with them; love them. Sandra tells her daughter that the books are like shades of her father’s personality – each a different piece of the puzzle of his personhood.

Perhaps this is why books are so hard to tidy.

Transcending A Lack Of Movement

Sometimes – even as I move downstream through the ‘infinite scroll’ of social media – an image catches my eye and I immediately know that I love it. Less often, closer inspection leads to that image becoming one of my favourites. This is a story about one such image; an instant favourite.

I find that more often than not, the images I like best are those of the subject caught in motion1. The perfect photo is something of a miracle in these instances. It transcends a lack of movement in the image by suggesting the time passed and the time to come. Of course, video can show us the moments before and after a critical, focal moment, but a still image can – if it is captured not a moment too soon or too late – be more powerful than such a video. For while a video relays reality as it happened, the perfectly-timed still image outsources the construction of contextual reality to our imagination.

Such is the case with this image of Australian tennis star Ash Barty preparing for her first match at this year’s Australian Open:

Here we see several suggestive cues all at once. We know where she is – the Australian Open logo is on the bench. We know she is removing her jacket rather than putting it on – note the way she grips it and the position of her arms. She has just arrived.

The professionally-folded towels and the fact that she has yet to remove any gear from her bags reinforce the idea that the match has not yet started. She is thinking of the future, not reflecting on the past. Her face on the video board suggests that she is being introduced. She’s an Australian – this is her “home” grand slam. We can feel her nerves.

The cameraman is visible on the right edge of the frame. His would be an awkward presence in many other cases but here – encroaching on an otherwise intimate photograph of a private moment – he reminds us that many people are watching. The intimacy of the moment is an illusion; a fallacious perception.

Somebody was going to win. Somebody was going to lose. People were going to be watching. Many of them were her countrymen and women. Many of these viewers would have seen live video of this moment.

Me? I’ll stick with the reality this perfect photograph prompted me to construct.

P.S. She was the somebody who won.

Turnovers Are A Part Of The Game

Dana Holgorsen West Virginia Mountaineers Big XII Teleconference Turnovers

Dana Holgorsen – head coach of my beloved West Virginia Mountaineers – used his time in the weekly Big XII coaches teleconference to outline an interesting framing of a common issue in football: turnovers. Turnovers are typically seen in a negative way and they are indeed the very worst way for an offensive possession to end. There’s simply nothing worse* than seeing your opportunity to score end in handing that opportunity to the other team.

Holgorsen doesn’t dispute this fact – he accepts it as given in a unique perspective on the nature of the game itself. He sees turnovers as merely a part of the game. A greater area of concern and focus, he says, is the way in which you respond to this part of the game.

His comments came after WVU committed four turnovers in what was ultimately a winning effort against Kansas State last weekend. Responding to a question about addressing problems with the turnover count, Holgorsen pointed out that there are actually two ways to examine the issue: the turnovers themselves and the responses of both teams to those turnovers. While it is true that WVU committed more turnovers than Kansas State, it’s also true that WVU scored more points off the turnovers they caused than did Kansas State.

Turnovers, of course, do not put points on the board. Points are earned or prevented after a turnover. As this wording suggests, the notion cuts both ways: after the offence surrenders a turnover, your defence must be ‘at the ready’ to come in and stop the opposing offence from scoring. Likewise, if your defence manages to cause a turnover, your offence must be ready to come out and soldier into the endzone. Holgorsen sees this as the “sudden change” battle.

The parallels to life are obvious: nobody, as they say, is perfect. Turnovers, then, are indeed a part of the ‘game’. We will all make mistakes (turnovers) but it is our response to the mistakes that will matter in the long run, not the mistake itself. Winning or losing the turnover battle isn’t important – you should be more concerned with winning the “sudden change” battle.

Holgorsen’s comments remind us to channel our focus (and thus, our energy) into the right thing: the response to the mistakes which will inevitably be made. Take the committing of the mistake as given and you’ll be ready to respond when the moment comes.

* Except for being a Pitt fan. Both Pitt fans are the living worst.

Boots for escaping malaise

I’ve been experiencing malaise for the past couple of days – melancholy but without the sadness. The balance of my life has tipped toward more input and less output. This is never the way I want this scale to tip and yet here I am, mired in unproductive worry.

Into this malaise entered this image from one of my favorite photographers, Alice Gao:


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A post shared by ALICE GAO (@alice_gao)

The image is but one example of the inputs that have begun to outnumber my outputs but it is perfect enough to help me break that seemingly inescapable loop. Case in point: in writing this very blog post about the image, I’m finally generating some output.

The image is deceptively simple. Color has been shifted to black and white; the head and face of the subject can’t be seen; even the action being performed is unclear – is the boot being put on or removed by the subject?

Context has been stripped to these and other ends but just enough is left to allow for infinite possibilities; myriad interpretations. The subject as exhausted worker just returned home, the subject as lover mere moments from crawling into bed, the subject as shopper – lonely or loved or both – checking the boots for fit or style.

Or perhaps these are merely boots built for escaping malaise.

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