Thursday, August 23, 2012


There are four songs I compulsively listen to on repeat:

Rasputin by Boney M
Turn on the News by Hüsker Dü
Alice by Pogo
For What It's Worth by Buffalo Springfield

Notably these are all 'one-hit wonders' in my music collection. I own no other songs by any of them. So I checked out their chords. Rasputin, a disco track, goes B A G F#. Turn on the News, a punk/alternative track, goes F# A E B. For What It's Worth, a classic rock track, alternates simply between E and A.

Hard to say what Alice's chords are. I wish there was a phone app that could identify chords from listening to a recording.

Messing around on the virtual keyboard with the above I found the chords deeply satisfying. Apparently, however, there are only a few 'universal' earworms (catchy songs), according to research. Perhaps surprisingly another common factor to getting a song stuck in your head is stress. This may be is why rather innocuous repetition can so tick us off.

The strong neural connections of our earworms may then serve as a way to try and clear the slate when stressed. Repetitive behavior, in a variety of animals, tends to correlate with stress management. Compulsion, in general, is a way of avoidance. When I'm bored in a very long meeting I'll start writing out the countries of the world, or drawing a map. Some doodle. These help keep us focused when our brain isn't in the game. 

Stress, distraction, compulsive, repetitive behavior. I'd not be at all surprised if they're neurologically linked. Taken together they're the basis of the frustration from being 'in a rut'. Being in a rut: boredom and fear joining forces to frustrate us. Boredom of rote and fear of change. The frustration of repetition and the stress of contemplating changing course.

I wish I could say something bland and comforting like "We all get into ruts sometime" but its not true. I know people who don't. I envy them. Generally they are tremendously active types, always with full calendars. They don't tell interesting stories, because it doesn't occur to them that their recent trip to the Bahamas is worth recounting - it only comes up accidentally, incidentally. And if this sounds like I'm talking about 'The Most Interesting Man in the World' for Dos Equis it's because I sort of am. Interest, after all, is what gets us out of a rut.

This Fall I'm teaching two new courses, one on Philosophy, the other on Art History. While I'm knowledgeable in each, the experience will be a first for each. It's one of the steps I've taken, along with a change in State, to keep teaching interesting and engaging. Unlike English, where you can change which books to read, World History is pretty much the same course over and over. Trench warfare is as bad an idea in 2012 as it was in 2011, and 2010, all the way back to 1914.

Likewise, as the Loser Generation posts suggest, I have a critical interest in politics. Whether I can maintain it as just a hobby or interest is increasingly uncertain. This may be my last year of teaching. But what qualifications do I have to work on a campaign?

Stress from contemplating change, frustration from repeated activity: if you don't look out you too will be stuck listening to Hüsker Dü .

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