Sudden Changes in Thinking and Attention

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about scope. I’ve been reading about new developments regarding taxes and the U.S. Congress and the presidential candidate I voted for in 2008, and I’ve been reading about work by a gay artist that has been removed from the Smithsonian, and all the news looks bleak. It’s been a very long time (2008, I imagine) since I’ve looked to the year ahead and seen sunny days and clear skies. I don’t know that our country will ever be a place to be proud of again.

I’ve diagnosed myself as suffering from abstraction sickness. It’s a malady similar, perhaps, to Reality Hunger. I can define it as an inability to focus on or fully comprehend items, concepts, and people that are both geographically distant and generally plural. I read an article about gays in the military and I find no clarity, and then I attend a meeting of the Capstone Alliance—UA’s queer faculty advocacy group—and I feel some small kind of warmth. The creator of a very successful cable television show tells me through acquaintanceship that no TV writers’ room she knows of would ever let a book-writer like me inside, and then I read a profile of Chuck Lorre in the New Yorker, and like that I lose all interest in people who write television for a living.

Instead I go read Weather Underground’s forecast for Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 35404, and see a hard freeze warning in effect. I read it word for word.

Dry air and continuing cold air advection will cause a couple of spots to fall to or below 15… with the coldest spots expected across the north. Because of this a hard freeze warning will be necessary tonight. The main concern will be bursting water pipes… so take the necessary precautions to prevent this from happening.

Also be sure to check on the elderly to make sure that they have heat… and bring pets indoors.

Advection’s a bit abstract for me, referring to the horizontal transfer of heat in the air, so instead I think about the elderly woman who lives next door and the name she has that no matter how hard I try I can never remember. It seems suddenly a grave concern.

I don’t know exactly what’s happening, here. I’m trying to look closely at the definitions of words like “provincial” and “parochial” and discern some difference between them. I’m trying to figure out how I as a writer and I as a person awake every day can take the wide scope of the world and keep it close without becoming some kind of hermit.

It’s probably this: the man I love is living a seventeen-hour car ride from me and is thus becoming increasingly a voice I hear through my ever-shitty cellular phone service and decreasingly what I remember: a man I could hold and watch laugh. A soft rhythm of breaths to fall asleep beside. And so in pining for this abstraction to become concrete and present again any such abstraction, any distant generality is causing more of a rash in me than it ever did in the past.

As ever, I want to be Joan Didion:

I am not a scholar. I am not in the least an intellectual, which is not to say that when I hear the word “intellectual” I reach for my gun, but only to say that I do not think in abstracts. During the years when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, I tried, with a kind of hopeless late-adolescent energy, to buy some temporary visa into the world of ideas, to forge for myself a mind that could deal with abstract.

In short I tried to think. I failed. My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible, to what was generally considered, by everyone I knew then and for that matter have known since, the peripheral. I would try to contemplate the Hegelian dialectic and would find myself concentrating instead on a flowering pear tree outside my window and the particular way the petals fell on my floor. I would try to read linguistic theory and would find myself wondering instead if the lights were on in the bevatron up the hill. When I say that I was wondering if the lights were on in the bevatron you might immediately suspect, if you deal in ideas at all, that I was registering the bevatron as a political symbol, thinking in shorthand about the military-industrial complex and its role in the university community, but you would be wrong. I was only wondering if the lights were on in the bevatron, and how they looked. A physical fact.

Provinicial means, among other things, narrow-minded, whereas parochial seems to mean just narrow in scope. You remember those self-congratulatory bumper stickers: “Straight but Not Narrow”? I need “Gay and Narrow”. I need an aesthetics of narrowness.

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