Mile Marker 405: For Kylie


Custom ring by Jilian Maddin:

Just south of Nashville lies one of the most splendid stretches of road in the United States. The Old Natchez Trace is 440 miles of unspoiled countryside running through Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. Traveling down the trace is like stepping back in time and catching a glimpse of pre-industrial America. There are no billboards, no gas stations, no big rigs, no hotels, no strip malls, and no towns. The speed limit is 50 miles per hour the entire length. Driving the trace is something like a spiritual saunter through the Upper and Deep South. It’s the perfect panacea for those poor souls among us who were raised on concrete. The trace is replete with hiking trails, scenic overlooks, picnic areas, waterfalls, historical sites, and nature areas. The extraordinary charm of this place must be experienced first hand. Words can do it no justice. The trace invites you to slow down and experience life for what it actually is.

For Kylie:
This was a highly orchestrated day. I wanted everything to be perfect but I worried that it may not go according to plan. When we continued south from the hotel in Bowling Green I anxiously eyed the morning clouds. And later as we ate breakfast in the car, I rehearsed everything in my mind. Repeatedly.

baker_bluffWe entered the Natchez Trace Parkway at mile marker 444 and the countdown began. At mile 442 you and I were already taken aback by the natural beauty of this place. At mile 438 we crossed Birdsong Hollow on the double-arched bridge. Though the view was great, it was little more than a preview of things to come. By mile 435 the gray gave way to blue skies and my heart began to soar. At mile 428 you were too spellbound by the trees to notice the tear welling in my eye when I said, “Today is a perfect day.” At mile 420 I silently asked that this moment would last forever. At mile marker 405 we pulled off the road and my life changed forever under a tree atop Baker Bluff Overlook.

Before we met I was searching for you Kylie, through smoke and ash. I glanced upward and asked for someone considerate and compassionate; someone spiritual and moral; a loyal and healthy person; someone with a loving and supportive family. And then there you were. You have waited patiently as I have healed, as I have gradually let my guard down, as I have come to understand all that is wonderful about you. In truth, you had me at hello. I was just too dumb to realize it.

“Today is a perfect day. I want a lifetime of perfect days with you Kylie. Will you marry me?” I don’t know much about marriage. But I doubt every day is perfect. What I do know is that after a lifetime of shared experiences with someone, at the end of the day you are still separate people. And if you aren’t careful you may become strangers along the way. So I will not take you for granted. I don’t deserve you. I am just going to have to earn it each and every day. I promise you Kylie that I will honor and love you to the fullest. I will do my best to challenge and nurture you every step of the way. I will be honest and keep an open heart. And I will do these things for a lifetime.

If memory serves, I believe I promised you a nice country club dinner in Vicksburg at the end of that perfect day. Regrettably, it was late when we finally left the trace. Maybe we lingered under that tree with our popcorn and wine just a little too long. Maybe I drove a little too slowly, trying to see every square inch of scenery. Maybe I don’t regret lingering at all. It’s okay. We’ll probably get around to that dinner soon enough. How many more miles can we travel together in a lifetime Kylie? Who can say? All I know is we have mile 405. We are forever atop that bluff, you and I. Do you understand? The whole world can go to hell and there we will be, under that tree, for all eternity. Traces remain.

Friend, if you ever find yourself driving between Natchez Mississippi and Nashville Tennessee, do yourself a favor. Slow down. Get off the interstate and head out onto the Natchez Trace. And if you pass mile marker 405, pull off the road. It’s the best damn view this side of the Mason-Dixon line. Take a load off under the tree. Stay a while. Breathe it in and soak it up. Know life for what it really is. The trace is a straight shot but you can get lost in all that beauty—if you let yourself. I did.


Loss and a Little Dog

liloo1My father is fond of telling the tale of how Liloo once caused a stampede. It was about 15 years ago when Liloo was still a pup. I can’t remember why, but at the time we were running two bulls with the herd. Liloo happened upon the bulls in a field next to the red barn and began circling them and barking loudly. At first the bulls just stared blankly at her. Gradually they became agitated and charged her, trying their best to stomp her under hoof. There was little I could do other than yell at Liloo as I watched events unfold. She paid me no mind as she weaved figure eights in and around the bulls, all the while barking. Eventually the bulls became spooked by her tenacity and began to run. They ran about a hundred yards down to the creek and then up a steep embankment on the other side. Liloo was snapping at their heels the whole way. They rejoined the herd on the far side of the creek and it was at this point that the stampede began. If I recall correctly, it was only about 15 to 20 head of cattle, but that is more than enough for a potentially dangerous situation. I continued to yell in vain as Liloo chased the herd into the hills beyond. She was little more than a small black dot when she disappeared over the event horizon. I stood there waiting for a good 5 minutes before that Continue reading

A tale of three cities: Austin, Wharton, & Toronto in photos

“The space that homogenizes thus has nothing homogenous about it. After its fashion, which is polyscopic and plural, it subsumes and unites scattered fragments or elements by force.”

—Henri Lefebvre

My home is scattered across three disparate communities. Fortunately, I am able to spend time in all of them on a regular basis. Traversing these spaces has underscored for me their commonalities and departures. In the photos that follow I have tried to capture some of the distinctive elements that are relevant to my own life. Click the images to see larger photos.


A_austinI spent half my life in Austin. Although my intuition tells me that Austin’s heyday was probably in the 1970s, it was as good a place as any to live. During my recent trips to Austin I have noticed a deep ambivalence among my closest friends regarding the recent transformations of the city. Change is inevitable but change is also marked by multi-directionality. Built environments are arenas of class struggle. There is an unmistakeable flow of composition-decompositiom-recomposition in urban landscapes. The fixed spatial systems created by capital in the past must be overcome by capital today. The first time I noticed these dynamics was when Austin decided to shutter Liberty Lunch Continue reading

Radical Labor History in San Francisco

I spent this week at the Union for Democratic Communications conference in beautiful San Francisco where I gave another presentation about my work on the UFCW and the Walmart strikes. In addition to catching up with old friends at the conference I managed to carve out a little time to learn more about the city’s amazing history of class struggle. Click the photos below for larger versions.

Vesuvio Cafe and Jack Kerouac—where beat poetry was invented.

Continue reading

CCA and 40th Anniversary of SFU School of Communication

First Peoples Building, University of Victoria

I have had the pleasure of spending the last week here in British Columbia. My first stop was the beautiful city of Victoria and the annual conference of the Canadian Communication Association. The University of Victoria campus was stunning and I very much enjoyed the festive atmosphere of the congress. This was my first time to publicly present the work that I have been doing on the Walmart workers who have recently stood up to the firm and demanded better pay and working conditions. I am excited about this research and I love drawing attention to the efforts of the UFCW and Walmart employees. Their courage and determination are inspiring.

I then left CCA and made the short journey over to Vancouver where I attended an international conference in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. This was one of the best conferences I have ever attended. The conference featured such notables from our field as Jack Qiu, Mark Andrejevic, Dan Schiller, and Richard Maxwell. I was reminded why I was so desperate to come to Canada in the first place. Here was a collection of the world’s best and brightest looking toward the coming collapse and giving careful consideration to the potentials of the post-capitalist age.

Douglas-fir trees with people for scale

For my part I was invited to revisit an old and familiar topic. There was not one but two panels on the audience commodity theory. And though I don’t place any value in the theory I do value the debate and the opportunity to critique the theory in the home department of Dallas Smythe. As I hear so much about the so-called rationalization of audience behavior in the context of new media, I also see an overabundance of shady social media management firms and compromised automated data analytic services. I have developed a deeper economic critique of the notion of demand management as it pertains to user activity and I appreciate the opportunity to give it a test-run at SFU.

It has been both a fun and productive week but I am tired and looking forward to a good night’s rest in my own bed.

Sleeping in the cellar

It’s down there in the dark. I can hear the wet, staccato whisper emanating from its fetid mouth. It’s breathing. Or is it laughing? A sickening giggle that alternates between that of a small child and that of an old man. I stand at the top of the stairs gazing down into the pitch black. Dread fills me as I see the yellow-orange eyes round the corner and peer up at me from the dark. There is nothing human in those eyes. It’s here with me…inside the house

On the day I left home to study at the university my parents and I stood in the driveway next to my car. As we said our goodbyes my father told me, “you can always come home but it will never be the same when you come back.” I am sure he meant well. Perhaps it was some bit of wisdom that his own father had imparted to him when he left home. Yet I fixated on that one little sentence for years afterwards, and in the process, I shouldered myself with an abundance of emotional distress. I loved my home. I struggled for decades to find home again and regain my moorings. Continue reading

The gutting board

I was amazed at how much the old cane pole could bend. It must weigh a ton! That pole’s gonna break for sure. When he pulled the fish out of the water and plopped it on the shore I was disappointed. I had expected something much more gargantuan. A shark perhaps. Still dangling from the line, the old man brought the fish to his backyard work area. I learned a lot from the old man next door. I grew up in a house on a lake. Much of my childhood revolved around that lake and the house next door. The old man and his wife had no children of their own. Looking back, I realize that I served as something of a surrogate child for them. I was eager to do so. The old man’s wife would occasionally cook dinner for me. She and I took a keen interest in the muscovy and mallard ducks that called the lake their home. The old man was always kind and gentle toward me. I liked him, not because he was wise, but because he had a calm manner about him. I had never known either of my grandfathers so I suppose he was my surrogate as well. I eventually came to understand that his stoic and detached nature was symptomatic of unhappiness in his own life. Still, the old man showed me many things growing up. He taught me how to fish. And he was the first to show me the face of immeasurable suffering. Continue reading

Who is it that knows there is no ego?

It doesn’t matter.
I am artifice. I am appearance. I am nobody.
I am fleeting. I am fireworks. I am a genuine pose.
No image. No idea. I have nothing to surrender.
A smell. A taste. The whole of the universe in a soft, distant laughter.
I am beautiful nonsense.
There is nothing trivial about me.
I am unfathomable.

Ambling in the new year

In recent months I have been contemplating the various meanings that are attached to the concept of motion. In particular, I have been considering how representations of motion might aid me in furthering my understanding of self. I spent just about every summer of my adolescence in the back of a brown Ford van as my father drove my family to assorted vacation destinations. There was always considerable anticipation of what lay ahead. Indeed, there was anticipation at either end of the zeniths of these familial motions—perhaps the thrill of a rollercoaster at one end or the comfort of one’s own pillow at the other. For me the rolling landscape out the side window of the van was an indispensable component of these family adventures. As I recall those vacations it is the unfurling panorama that I miss the most. It occurred to me long ago that there was a similarity between the alternating fence posts of the undulating landscape—a sort of visible thump…thump…thump—and the dates on a calendar. It is this rhythmic character of motion which occupies me as I prepare to usher in a new year. Continue reading

Finding my own way home

Liloo on the lake

Nothing accentuates isolation like an old, dank, yellow motel room. The nicotine ghosts in the curtains. The DNA on the walls. The musty bouquet of the PTAC. All of them invisible footprints left by the transient inhabitants who came before. Here but gone. One thousand six hundred and fifty miles? Are you insane? Why on earth would you drive all that way when you could fly? Because I need the road like a shovel needs the work. I need to find my own way home.

It seems like my family has been under siege for years now. Like a storm that never leaves but only ebbs and flows. Death, illness, and emotional trauma have been uninvited guests at our Christmas gatherings. Some years I have had a good mind to just stay away. I spent last Christmas morning digging a grave on a hill in the family cemetery during a cold rain. No joke. Continue reading

Suicide and the promise of a soft landing

There is a ledge in my life. A high ledge. Most days I walk by this ledge and think nothing of it. The other day, however, something curious happened. The ledge spoke to me in a clear and cold voice. Why don’t you jump Brett? It won’t hurt a bit. I promise. Come here. Give it a try. It stopped me dead in my tracks. My mind reeled as I stood at the precipice. What the fuck did you just say to me? How dare you?!? What makes you think you can talk to me that way? I’ve healed. My life is good now. Leave me alone! 

This is a rumination on suicide—not a contemplation of suicide. This is not a cry for help. It is a consideration of something that, for me, is very difficult to talk about. I can count on one hand the number of insightful conversations I have had about suicide. It’s partly my own fault. I don’t like discussing it. I also find that it is a subject a good many people are uncomfortable with. Some people find it too morose to talk about. Others find it alarming. There’s no politic approach to the subject. Nevertheless, I want to talk about suicide in a subjective manner without being either morose or alarming. I want to acknowledge it without feeling shame or fear. Continue reading

It’s not fraud if you’re married

Lisa Arends provided me with motivation at every point along the way in my own divorce. She is a fantastic person and I am so happy to count her among my Internet friends. Her ex-husband left her a colossal financial mess when he left Lisa so that he could run off and commit bigamy. Watching Lisa confront her own divorce with strength and integrity has been inspiring. She has another article today over at HuffingtonPost explaining the potential financial liability incurred by innocent spouses because, well, it’s not fraud if you are married. Read more at the link below.

It’s not fraud if you’re married

What’s all this about?!?

The genesis of this blog can be found in a stretch of time beginning in September of 2011 and ending in September of the following year. This period was both the worst and best year of my life. Set in motion by the downfall of a brief and disastrous marriage and culminating with a relocation to Canada as I left Austin, Texas to take a job at the University of Toronto, I embarked on a sometimes-painful-but-always-satisfying journey of self-exploration. As I confronted enormous life changes I reached out by way of online social networking to loved ones for assurance and support. I have re-posted a number of these communiques here under the moniker of seedbeds. I use this term to refer to an area which has been carefully cultivated to promote future growth. This is how I have come to define this year-long period of personal transformation. I am no longer the person I was when this process initiated. The seedbed entries give a glimpse into this period of personal growth for anyone who may be so inclined to read them. Continue reading

Seedbed Part 11

Distance Made Close

I was looking over my facebook timeline when I saw it. Exactly one year ago I checked in at a local Austin bar after arriving home from a conference in New Zealand. On this night my world came crashing down around me. In the hours that followed I hit the lowest point of my life. It seemed that life was no longer worth living. As I sit here now gazing at that single entry on my

 timeline I feel immense relief. Not only did I survive but I came so far. In those moments of despair I had no way of knowing what was to come. I knew nothing of Toronto or my life here. I hadn’t even seen the University of Toronto job posting at that point. Still, I managed to push through the pain and eventually arrive at my current destination. Distance measured in space and time. That old life seems so remote, so unhappy, so unreal. I’ve left it far, far behind. But is it really so remote? Continue reading