Month: October 2015

Music is key

The last piece that we listened to this week, Using Music: Jonathan Mitchell, highlighted one of the issues that I am having with my essay. Although my essay is very different from his, and doesn’t have anything to do with engineering, both pieces are abstract and sort of hard to visualize without the help of external components. Mitchell writes that Bejan’s theory is “very interesting, but it’s also very abstract and visual, and so it was a challenge to find a way to clearly present his ideas using sound.” This is what I’ve been trying to do for the past few weeks and although I’ve started to form some ideas about how to fix this, I’m trying to find ways that I can keep a few of the abstract lines in my audio essay, and find different ways to convey the others. Mitchell didn’t have the option to rewrite this piece to make it more visual, so he had to borrow from sounds and music to help stimulate images that illustrate parts of Bejan’s theory. After listening to these clips, I am starting to realize that I don’t think I have to necessarily cut out all the parts of my essays that are abstract, I just have to find ways to make them more effective, easier and more interesting for the reader to listen to. If I had listened to this piece without any of the music or background sounds, I probably would have zoned out within the first two minutes. And Mitchell knows this, so he added a score that does (somehow) sound like the theory that Bejan is describing. I read in the comments that Mitchell “tires not to spend more than 40 hours total” on a piece of this size, which is 6 minutes long. I can’t help but wonder how much of that time is devoted to finding music.  It seems like it would probably take hours to find the right song (unless you already have one in mind) and it must be hard not to get overwhelmed with all the music and sounds that you could potentially add.

One thing I noticed about all of the pieces is that they all have some sort of recorded audio that doesn’t seem scripted. I wasn’t planning to interview anyone, but I can see that one of the key advantages to doing that is that you end up with a piece that sounds real. Everything, right down to the pauses, seems natural. Not only does this make what you’re saying easier to the reader to accept, it really forces you to stop and think about the way that we communicate orally.

Audio essays: Say what you want to say, without saying it.

Antin brilliantly deconstructs his own experience of buying a mattress with his wife to illustrate the indecisiveness and skepticism that defines post-modernism, and he does this in a way that lends itself well to audio essays or broadcast journalism. Within the first “sentence” we learn that the subject of this essay is a mattress, a seemingly mundane topic eccentrically explored through fragmented, unpunctuated prose. In the descriptions of his wife’s indecision, their pleas for outside help, and eventually, their experience in the mattress store, Antin evokes this feeling of wavering that not only keeps readers engaged, it allows them to arrive at the same conclusion that he comes to at the end. “We don’t know if we got the right anything/there’s no way to know/let us live cheerfully in our ignorance” declares one of the only parts of the text that speaks in a reflective manner. Before I got to this line, I was already forced to have a similar notion because of the way he and his wife exhaust every option they have to make the “right” decision, to find the “perfect” mattress. The majority of readers, those who have suffered from back pain or insomnia at one point in their lives, will immediately empathize with his wife’s determination to find the perfect mattress, and will recognize the efforts she makes to accomplish this as only natural. A few years ago, before I bought my new mattress, I researched for weeks, went to several furniture stores, sought out advice from so-called mattress “experts,” all with the hope of finding this ideal bed that I didn’t even know how to describe. What kind of mattress do I want? I don’t know. Will prospect 48 provide a better night’s sleep than #12 did? I don’t know. Is this one too soft? Too hard? “Am I right she asks/you’re right I say” And then, like his wife, I second-guessed my prolonged decision before I even made it home. While reading this essay, you gradually start to understand this mattress as a metaphor for the many big decisions we make in life; the timeless philosophical conundrums we hope to solve with enough extensive research, even though we know, deep down, (and are reminded by post-modernist works) that there really is no “right” answer. That the “right” answer, like the present, is all relevant to the past and the future; to our previous pains and our idealistic futures without this pain.

Not only did I really enjoy this essay, it’s helping me to think about how to frame my own audio essay. Kern notes that “expressing your thoughts in short, declarative sentences doesn’t require you to eliminate any of your ideas- just to ration them out. You aren’t sacrificing anything by writing less convoluted prose.” If Antin had taken the claims about post-modernism that he arrives to at the end of his essay, and delivered them in a purely abstract form of clever and lengthy prose, his piece would never be able to translate to an audio format.  And I don’t think it would be as powerful. Because he tells us a story, gives us these concrete images that we can absorb, and illustrates his points instead of writing them, I can see this essay being really successfully when delivered orally. He might need to take a few suggestions from Kern before going this route, but this is a good example of what I need to do to my own audio essay. My textual essay is very reflective, and mostly abstract, so I need to find my own “mattress” and use it to ground my thoughts. And it’s not just that Antin grounds his thoughts with a concrete reference point. He structures his entire story in a way that deliberately stimulates indecisiveness in the reader, and allows them to inevitably consider that reality- in this case “the perfect mattress-” is defined by our own understanding of it; our own perception of it.  He says what he wants to say without actually saying it, and instead, forces us to feel it.

Audacious Dirty Dish Abandoner

To whom it may concern:

I just went into the kitchen and had to overcome an Everest of dirty dishes just to clean off my spoon. With purpose and plain laziness, you abandon your dish as if the communal kitchen were an extension of your personal space. To say that it is inconsiderate is a vast understatement as it is a clearly a deliberate decision to drop your filthy dish without so much of a hesitation to rinse, wipe and put it away!

The little box in the right hand corner of my computer screen just appeared to let me know that someone is really pissed off. When I click the box, the anger enlarges in front of me and I can see that it has seeped past second thought, beyond the boundaries of professionalism and into the inbox of eighty seven state employees, myself included.

The guy behind me snickers. The only other sound is the continuous hum of the copy machine. If you’d like to cut the tension in the otherwise static air, please make sure you rinse the knife off after, and return it to its proper place.

Need you be reminded time and time again that it is a shared kitchen?

The whispering has started. Keyboards that haven’t been touched all day are going into overload. The retirements of public educators within the commonwealth of Massachusetts have been interrupted by the exasperation of humans. Calculations have been brought to a halt by a breach in office etiquette. Revolutions have started from lesser things.

There are many unwritten rules one has to abide by when working in an office: Start all emails with pleasantries. Regurgitate such pleasantries during awkward moments at staff parties, while waiting next to colleagues at the printer, and throughout any conversation with superiors, lest the interaction steer into controversial territories.  Expand your definition of controversy to include topics like yoga pants, the neutering of pets, and any trending social media story. Avoid these topics like the plague and keep a mental list of neutral conversation starters handy. When in doubt, smile and retreat back to phrases like, “I can’t believe it’s only 11 am” or “I can’t believe it’s already 11 am,” depending on the person. Smother your conversations, and while you’re at it, your personality, with a dispassion so thick that it blends in with the beige, unassuming carpets. Do not, under any circumstances, leave your dirty dishes in the sink.

It is unconscionable that at a professional office of working adults we find such selfish and disgusting behavior that defies the social norms of cleanliness and consideration.

As Google explains, social norms are defined as: “the rules of behavior that are considered acceptable in a group or society. People who do not follow these norms may be shunned or suffer some kind of consequence.” Even without that simplified definition, most of us have a vague understating of what behavior classifies as socially acceptable. Our societies are shaped, to some extent, by these underlying rules, and the defiance of them can have a domino effect. Say you’re sitting in traffic in the right hand lane on I-93, and even though you’re only a few yards away, it has taken you twenty minutes to get to your exit. Just as you’re approaching it, a car from the lane next to you dashes ahead, cutting off you and everyone else that has been patiently waiting their turn. Horns start honking. Birds are flipped, and a series of ungodly curses starts spewing from your mouth. Suddenly, you have damned this unknown offender to hell, insulted his or her mother several times, and are beginning to break a sweat. You have inadvertently defied social norms, not to mention your own moral standards, in an attempt to correct the negligence of these norms that you just witnessed. This is a meager, but not uncommon example of one of the ways in which we teeter on the edge of these social norms daily. We follow protocol, traffic patterns and laws of common curtsey until the moment we can no longer stand it, and something inside of us snaps. The very laws humans have created to uphold basic human decency are compromised regularly, by human error.

            The rules are simple …. Clean your dish.

Most people who live in the twenty first century lead lives of constant movement. I will not bore you with the details of what you already know to be true: we are a society too busy to stop and smell the roses. Too busy to even plant the roses in the first place, let alone notice them. Unless you are among the few who live in isolation, living in the first world requires you to be constantly plugged in; constantly moving from one job to the next. By the time we have a few minutes to ourselves, we’re often too tired to enjoy them. Before we know it, we’re reprimanding strangers for misdemeanors we didn’t even realize we cared about until they suddenly disrupted our weird little routines. We rage war with retailers who wish us ‘Happy Holidays,’ threaten the lives of neighbors who refuse to mow their lawns, initiate heated Facebook rants about our disdain for people who post too much on social media, and publicly question the character of our messy co-workers. Before we know it, we’re pressing the send button on a rashly composed email, announcing our temporary deviance from social norms, and exposing inner pet peeves that thrive in the voids of our malcontent lives.

Why are we continuously fazed by such small matters? We let things like unwashed dishes ruin our afternoon and compromise our sanity, and then raise eyebrows and sneer in amusement when we witness the unraveling of reason; point our fingers at it in disbelief. I can’t presume to know what caused the angry office email that resulted in an agency-wide meeting about the urgency to maintain professionalism in written correspondence, but I laughed at it. I judged the sender, and the offender both internally and during conversations with fellow employees. Then, at some point, I thought about how many times I’d been close to sending an email of a similar nature. Close to posting the paragraph long Facebook rant, despite my own vow to never let my emotions materialize in the status box; close to leaving my dish behind, because after all, there are bigger problems to attend to than the immediate cleaning of soup bowls and momentary lapses in professionalism.

If for some reason you cannot immediately rinse your dish I suggest you keep it at your desk until you are able to, that way you are only inconveniencing yourself rather than being a nuisance to the collective office.

Overreaction is the first step to admitting you are human. I’m going to suggest that those who cannot call to mind a single instance in which they’ve lost their composure are just forgetting that occasion or choosing to deny its existence. Often, our overreactions are merely misplaced reactions; we are surrounded by an influx of complicated problems we cannot hope to solve in one lifetime. We are reminded on a daily basis, by media and firsthand experience that the world is in a dismal state, and will continue to be as long as humans inhibit it. It is a small wonder our anger is unleashed on trivial concerns; we dream of solving world hunger and settle for scolding the culprit who left his crumbs in the sink. These victories usually follow with a temporary relief before guilt or shame takes its place, if it does at all. Some of us move from one petty crime to the other, dictating the way twelve year old girls should dress, policing the proper ways to grieve in public, and denouncing humanity when someone doesn’t give up his seat for an elderly woman on a bus. Don’t we all, to some extent, resume the identity of these self-appointed social norm superheroes when we attempt to correct the annoying, though non-life-threatening behavior of others? And when we do this, are we acting out of some primitive instinct to feel powerful despite what little control we have of our lives, or are we all just one dirty dish away from cracking?

P.s. Just in case you would like to use the excuse of soaking to clean – unless you were previously mixing concrete in your bowl, it all comes off with soap, water and a little muscle – hence, no excuses.

When put into perspective, we usually acknowledge these minor offenses and overreactions as the result of fatigue, stress or irrational impulses we promise ourselves we’ll try to contain next time. Maybe we implement breathing techniques to ward off the anger, or maybe we don’t get that far and instead wallow in a mixed state of self-pity and loathe for fellow humans. We play eeny meeny miney mo with our blame; which came first, the dirty dish or the contempt for ill-mannered behavior within communal kitchens? We extinguish our overreactions with good deeds or justifications as we wait for the next violation of social norms to occur. We seek out other ways to rebel, to vent, to blacken the eyes of our routines and knock our mundane jobs and predictable lives on their asses in the hopes that this quake will revive us from the indifference we picked up somewhere on our way between I-93 and adulthood.

We should, in many ways, consider ourselves lucky to be able to count dirty dishes amongst our list of immediate problems. When we pause during these fits of rage, in the midst of our normal, though unreasonable spells of anger, we usually realize that all of these problems can be scrubbed away with soap and a little elbow grease. Given enough time to soak, these concerns will disperse, leaving room for more productive contemplation to occur. But this type of contemplation is dangerous. Sorting through the never-ending piles of dishes in life’s communal sink takes time, so we continually chose the smaller spoons, the teacups and the butter knives. We tell ourselves that someday, maybe tomorrow, we’ll tackle the serving platters and casserole dishes that we know won’t rinse clean without supplies and exertion. We content ourselves with solvable problems because dwelling on the heavy ones requires a resolute we have already lent to a dozen other causes.  We would lend a helping hand but we’re too busy scrubbing dishes.

By next week, the email will be old news. The woman who sent it will be spoken to, and we’ll plod back into our routines and resume to our work. We’ll all keep our heads down and eagerly await the next interruption, maybe even hoping in some ways to be the one who causes it.