Planning and what freedom feels like

It seems useful to temper what follows with an initial note of humility, irony, and defeat. I have a to-do list, and writing this blog post is the most overdue item on it (it was originally meant to be done by the 28th of January – of this year, at least!). Anyway…

It is difficult, as one moves deeper into the demands of work and parenthood, to avoid running together in one’s mind two things: i) a sense of freedom; ii) long stretches of unstructured time, free from the demands of others. ii) certainly creates i), but it is important to remember that it is not the only way of creating it. Failing to recognise this can lead to a bitter nostalgia trap: you look back longingly to a time of youthful freedom and spontaneity, never to be regained.

Planning is the opposite of spontaneity, but it is not the opposite of freedom. I keep trying to remind myself of this. Writing this blog post is a way of trying to articulate it. In the interests of brevity and vividness, I’ll just offer two examples, one home-related, one work-related.

I rarely used to make evening plans. This arose from a need for unscheduled, demand-free time after ‘the morning routine’, work, and ‘the bedtime routine’. Most evenings, as a result, were spent on the sofa, in front of the television. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but what I came to realise is that often, this time was not as enjoyable, relaxing or fulfilling as it ought to have been. It still felt somehow unfree. Choice fatigue reaches its peak for me at about 7.30pm, and if I wait until then to ask myself/my wife ‘What shall I/we do tonight?’, the answer is more likely to be informed by tiredness and a lack of imagination than by anything resembling genuine choice or resolution. The moral I want to draw here (and I’m aware that to some people this will sound moralistic) is that you need to try to get your best self to make plans that your weaker self can follow through on. It’s harder to slump if you’ve already committed, somehow, to doing otherwise. Sometimes, of course, slumping is what you will want to do, and that’s ok too. I plan to slump on a Friday night!

At work, I’ve started assiduously using my Outlook calendar tool, and I honestly don’t know how I’ve managed to function without it in my life up until now. I use it to manage appointments, and also to plan how I am going to spend the rest of my working days. We’re getting into generic time management territory, but the simple principle here (which I still fail to stick to more often than I succeed) is to allocate fixed slots and spans to tasks, to spend amounts of time on tasks that is proportionate to their importance, and to try not to get sucked into reactivity and the inbox treadmill (two prime instances of unfreedom in my life).

Taking a step back, a good way of summing up what I’m trying to say might be to observe that one way (among many) of measuring the degree of freedom (or autonomy) that a person enjoys is to look at the ways in and the degrees to which that person is able to make authentic, self-directed plans.  Those living under the prescriptive authority of others, or in unstable situations, are, to varying degrees, denied this dignity. When we think of it this way, planning and freedom seem closer to being synonymous than antithetical.

Stories and the internet

I am periodically re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 29 April 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

New technologies have an effect upon the way we ‘consume’ fiction (amongst other things), but they also have an effect on the kinds of fictional scenarios that are plausible if stories are set in the present. ‘Don’t let a mobile phone ruin your movie’ is the tagline of and premise behind a still-current series of Orange cinema adverts (which, although they do not ‘ruin’ my trips to the cinema, certainly constitute a source of irritation).

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The weight of the past

I am periodically re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 5 December 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

(This is a companion blog to an earlier entry which used 4’33”to think about what happens when the medium used to (re)produce music shifts. The current entry thinks about photography, with the help of a book and a television programme.)

A few weeks ago, in a cafe or a restaurant, I noticed a couple looking through a set of photographs that they had just gotten back from being developed – a commonplace sight as recently as perhaps six or seven years ago, but much less so now.

Nostalgia touches photographs in many ways. In her beautiful book On Photography, Susan Sontag wrote:

A photograph of 1900 that was affecting then because of its subject would, today, be more likely to move us because it is a photograph taken in 1900. The particular qualities and intentions of photographs tend to be swallowed up in the generalized pathos of time past. Aesthetic distance seems built into the very experience of looking at photographs, if not right away, then certainly with the passage of time. Time eventually positions most photographs, even the most amateurish, at the level of art.

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Four minutes thirty three seconds of silence

Over the next few months I am re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 4 December 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

I was hoping to have a blog about Jay-Z ready on the occasion of his forty-first birthday, but, having made very little progress with Decoded so far, that has not happened. So I’m going to write on another musical topic that caught my attention a while back (and whilst a blog about Jay-Z will still be pertinent even if it lacks the touch of being posted on his birthday, this blog needs to be written before Christmas).

On Desert Island Discs a few weeks back, Ian McMillan, a South Yorkshire poet, chose John Cage’s 4’33” as one of his Desert Island Discs (along with tracks by Vaughan Williams, Andy Stewart, Doris Day, Love, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, Bing Crosby and Leonard Bernstein). In fact, he chose it as the one track he would, if push came to shove, take with him, stating that it would be the one that ‘always renewed itself’. I don’t know if he’s right about that, but it is certainly the case that it is the track that is most dependent on its listening context for its meaning.

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A model of critical writing: A tribute to Gilberto Perez

At one point in Moana (1926), Flaherty’s documentary about Samoa, we see a native boy start to climb a coconut tree. We don’t see the whole tree, only the bottom part of it, and that view is held, as the boy climbs up, until he disappears at the top of the frame. Then the camera moves upward to take in the boy climbing up another section of the tree, no longer the bottom and not yet the top, and that view is held again until the boy again disappears at the top of the frame. Again the camera moves upward, to take in now the top part of the tree and the boy still climbing until finally he reaches the coconuts he was after. […] Like a narrator, [Flaherty] makes a sequence of something that is not: he shows us the tree a piece at a time, this and then that and then that, as if he were telling us about it. Deliberately he only shows us so much, which makes us curious to find out what more there is and surprised at how very tall the tree turns out to be. The climb, unlike the tree, is itself sequential, but Flaherty’s rendering of it is sequential in a way that the climb is not. Deliberately he allows the boy to leave our view, which draws our interest to where the boy has gone, the space we are yet to see above the frame.
Gilberto Perez, The Material Ghost: Films and their Medium, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, pp. 53-4.

I was very sad to receive the news that Gilberto Perez, an extraordinary film critic, died suddenly last month. Perez taught at Sarah Lawrence College, and on the college’s website a touching set of tributes has been compiled. I met Perez in person only once, briefly, when he visited the UK for a conference. But as a writer on the page, Perez was a source of near-constant intellectual company, stimulation and inspiration for me for long portions of my postgraduate studies – and beyond. He is one of a very small handful of writers about film that I have tried sustainedly to emulate as a model of critical thinking and writing.

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Quality assurance and quality enhancement in higher education

The UK higher education sector employs a range of mechanisms intended to assure or enhance the quality of its teaching and, more broadly, its degree programmes. These mechanisms can often be seen to rest on assumptions, tacit or otherwise, about what kind of an activity teaching is. When considering the fitness for its intended purpose of this or that ‘QA’ or ‘QE’ mechanism, then, it can be useful to consider whether its assumptions about what teaching is are sound ones.

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