Let me introduce a provisional distinction or spectrum for describing various groups, praxes, or lifegames, one running from “hardness” to “softness.” I’ll call “soft” those games, groups, or praxes that you can transpose onto everyday life with only the tiniest interference with your previous commitments— or even more, those that optimize your daily tasks and necessities, rather than diverting or deflecting them. They fit inside or alongside things that you were planning to do anyway, in contrast to “hard” games, groups, or praxes that are dark, uncompromising, disruptive, deflective, or negational in character. Hard groups, games, or praxes are everything from the ascetic exercises of Ignatius Loyola to André Breton asking us to “Leave everything. Leave your wife, leave your mistress. Leave your hopes and fears. Leave your children in the woods. Leave the substance for the shadow. Leave behind, if need be, your comfortable life and promising future. Take to the highways.” Very all or nothing.
The soft can be innocuous, non-experimental, utterly pointless: the Big Lots Buzz Club— a shopper’s club for the discount retailer Big Lots— which has little purpose or effect that I can tell, aside from occasionally receiving coupons via email with the endearingly naive subject line “Your Ad is Ready.” Other soft groups, games, or praxes, however, can be critical when the hardnesses of everyday life refuse to give you any slack in your time, space, or activity, as with most people’s dead-end lives, or in my case, with graduate school. For this, I find some relief with the Lamplight Reading Club, an old thing of mine that really came in handy for life here at Duke University. The premise is simple and designed to address two situations simultaneously: the stuffiness of our daily reading practices and the starkly beautiful and overlooked expanses of suburban strip malls and corporate parks by night. Our Club— so far consisting of one member— can meet any and all nights of the week at a designated strip mall or corporate park in somewhere in the vicinity of Durham, North Carolina— including the inviting geometries of Research Triangle: the manicured lawn shapes and manmade ponds, the corporate sculptures, the well-lit picnic benches and outdoor furniture. Why and how did this combination— reading culture, night, and strip malls— ever come to seem unlikely? Those unconvinced of the beauty of these areas by night are encouraged to attend.
As a subcategory of the Lamplight Reading Club, I’ve also been attending meetings of the Lamplight Listening Club, in order to challenge the sedentary culture of reading itself, or the deathless idea, expressed by Flaubert and scorned by Nietzsche, that “one cannot think and write except while seated.” This offshoot uses text-to-speech applications to listen to texts while walking and losing our way in the suburban expanse, or through dark green swarths of semi-nature.
And a last variation that contains this same obversion, and the same mobilization of sedentary practices, is yet another offshoot, the Lamplight Viewing Club. This Club watches required-academic-viewing by the employment of a Mobile Viewing Station, or MVS (pictured below, and available soon from Lilly Library).
Soft practices insinuate themselves into the pores and tissue of hard practices, or in any slackness in its demands. Lately, I’ve been playing a gas-efficiency game with my new-to-me yet woefully inefficient Oldsmobile Royale. I named the game Tankstellar (while talking to myself, I guess) and the premise was simple: get as far as possible on as little gasoline as possible. After searching for tips on the cybernet, I discovered that this was already a thing called hypermiling, the only real difference being that hypermiling usually had a bit of a gearhead slant starting already with high-efficiency vehicles— but all the same. Tankstellar or hypermiling is like racing only with miles per gallon instead of miles per hour, and being a tad softer in terms of legalities, visibility, and economics. It’s a little more on the grandmaternal side of life, but still has the capacity to concern and annoy your passengers.
Highly recommended, hypermiling turns daily errands into a form of street luge, with a piloting style committed to the conservation of momentum: light on brakes, light on gas, windows up, tires full, straight lines, clean aerodynamics, fresh greens, stale reds, learning routes by heart, wasting no hills, get out of my way, why are you stopping, go. It’s strangely engrossing— an almost Tetristic level of cathexis. Marble Madness may be a better comparison. The style of driving forces you to give total attention to topography, to civil engineering, to the smoothness of pavement, to temperatures, to the flows of roads and the habits of other drivers. While living in Philadelphia, I rarely used to have brakes on my bikes, and the methods and effects are of a kind. Now I just need a more accurate fuel-gauge, a fancy one. See if I can get this baby up to 35 MPG.