Monday, October 26, 2015


They come at me at points in the day, when I'm least aware. When I'm lying in bed at night, or during a slow afternoon at the office. Sinuous forms, peacock feathers and nudibranchs, dancing around the corners of my vision before they dissipate in the murk, or swim off into the unknown territories beyond my eyelids.

All of them could loosely be termed “arabesques,” a loosely used term, of course, but something that also implies complexity, interwovenness, and transcendence.

We get the term from the intricate patterns of Middle Eastern decorative work, mosque tiles filled with lines wrapped around one another in eternal horror vacui. In the cosmology of the Islamic Golden Age, it was the purest form of representation. The curvilinear patterns reflected the warp and woof of the Arabic script, and by extension, the Qu'ran, shape and language bound together in an eternal logos.

And in Southeast Asia, it manifests itself in the unalom, the spiral pattern that decorates the edges of sak yant tattoos and mandalas, and which I see in white paint on the roofs of Bangkok taxis, interlaced with the ancient Khmer script.

The forms exist in nature. Not only in the vines and tendrils that inspired so much of the original Middle Eastern arabesques, but also in the invisible forces that contour the world around us.

I see them in the sea creatures that seem to toe the line between plant and animals, floating on waves, or fixed to the ocean floor, like creaturely plants. Lacking vertebrae, constrained as they are by water pressure and turbulent flow, the crinoids and corals and coelenterates, bryozoans and holothurians seem to us earthbound creatures to be as unfamiliar as aliens. And in his masterwork Kunstformen der Natur, Ernst Hackel painted and displayed them to almost look abstract in their unfamiliarity, patterns that could readily decorate a Turkish doorway.

You see the arabesque form inscribed into the rock in the gravitational flow of water, in the deltas that frame the swampy ground at the mouths of rivers, and in dry regions, deserts and Alpine highlands, the ghosts of streams form great alluvial fans.

And you see it in the Lichtenberg figures, the delicate, dendritic tracings that demonstrate the flow of energy through insulating matter. They appear in the clay of lightning-struck soil, and on the skin of lightning strike victims.

In the late 1950s, Gaston Bachelard turned his attentions to these sorts of descriptions. Unsatisfied with descriptions of the world around him in terms of origins and causes, he turned to raw, lived experience, how the thing in the world reverberates with him, the observer. He believed his subjective experience to be indicative of universals.

I don't ascribe any universality to the arabesques I see. A hardline phenomenologist might say that they constitute some kind of deep-seated umwelt. But I think that, in reality, as with all perceptive phenomena of this sort, they are simply the constellation I perceive among many stars, seen through my own very specific telescope.

And yet it's a powerful enough connection that it shapes my perception for them. Lying in my bed, they seem to move around me, velvet-black and shimmering gold. When I wake up in the morning, they suddenly scatter as my eyes open. They lie there in wait, hiding themselves in the shadowiest recesses.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Fly by Night

It started in my earliest memories, with walks around the town I grew up in. On humid summer nights, or after December snowfalls, I'd walk the 15 minutes down to the windswept Main Street, a line of brick storefronts anchored at one end by the power plant that forever belched out white steam. Each dimly lit shop window held a certain mystery. Cheap leatherette couches and diabetic footwear for the elderly Middle Westerners. Model train and car displays-- my favorite as a boy, a little scene of the Iowa Highway Patrol pulling over the General Lee, Bo and Daisy Duke with their hands on the asphalt. Dusty posters advertising all-inclusive resort packages on a sun-drenched islands, a faraway and carefree wonderland of graceful palm trees and velvet-soft surf.
And just as compellingly there were what seemed to be the outer fringes of the adult world. The dingy biker bars with front doors reeking of stale beer, the clack of a pool balls, Appetite for Destruction playing from a jukebox, the loud noises of house parties with people in the half-light out by a keg on chilly autumn evenings, blowing exhalations of smoke out across garage lights. One bar had an always-shut black door... a topless place, a strip club, never was sure what it was, but there were a million rumors about it in the 5th grade. And at the end of the street, there was the tattoo parlor at the end of the street with a hand-written sign reading “We have the right to refuse service to assholes,” and I thought... my god... you're allowed to use words like that on signs!

When I saw like the cowboy-looking dudes I saw drinking coffee at all-night diners, their inner thoughts seemed to synchronize with the wail of the Chicago Northwestern freight trains that barreled through town. And in my room, I would look at Edward Hopper figures, and knew that the term “Nighthawks” captured something I wanted to be a part of.

The small child grew into the awkward adolescent, and his walks became longer. He knew more of the realities that he'd seen in neon colors when he was younger. The clerk behind the gas station counter no longer seemed knowing, but like a dropout with a stringy goatee and a couple prison tats. The old man waiting for the train to pass was no longer an old sage, but a burned out case, reliant on a dwindling pension, a couple illegitimate children in another town he barely remembers the name of. And in retrospect, I try to think how I must have looked, a hulking, tall, fat, solitary teenager, walking rapidly down late-night alleys, seemingly disoriented from the world, lost in the Radiohead CD I was listening to, someone best avoided.

Now, it would seem that the streets of a city at night have lost all mystery. I can go into the bars whenever I damn well please, can stay out until sunrise. In other words, to fully engage with the adult world.

But a fragment of the mystery remains. All it takes is the mosquito-swarmed light of a noodle shop, or a second-floor room not entirely hidden by drapes, to remind me of the image of a city by night, that photonegative image that haunts my early memories.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Violence After Midnight

The two of us are lying in bed. Ms. S. wakes up, and hears me mumbling.

-She won't expect a thing, I whisper.

Still lying down, I slowly reach my hand across. My fingers run across over her face, and then I jump up, and press my hands down, covering her mouth and nose. She struggles for a moment, and then throws me off.


As she tells me this in the morning, I don't know what to think. Did this really happen? How could it have?

My memories of the night had been staying in, watching a movie, cooking dinner, splitting a bottle of wine, going to bed fairly early, and getting a good night's sleep. Dreamless, even.

I'd of course heard countless stories about people doing all sorts of things while sleepwalking. And yet I'd never had any experience of it. Roommates, girlfriends... none of them have ever said I'd done similar things. I've always been a fairly light sleeper, and I toss and turn somewhat, but never anything even remotely close to this act.

To even call it an “act” has the horrifying implication that it had a motive, that it had intention. I know I can't blame myself for what I've done in my sleep. But it's still difficult to admit that I'd been violent in my sleep, especially as someone who doesn't really have violent tendencies. And I know that if I do admit it, while I won't become a pariah, I'll become vaguely suspect in some way. It is tantamount to making visible the albatross around my neck.

And regardless of any question of motivation, it makes the last few moments before falling asleep a bit more tense, a bit more nervous.

The fear of sleep is something pretty innate, and it's few people who haven't experienced it to some degree. Because when you are lying there in the darkness, you are prone, and whether the fear is that of monsters under the bed when you're five years old or is that of the killers and rapists outside when you're 35 years old, we fear what crawls around in the dark.

But what's also frightening is the fear not of your defenselessness when you're sleeping, but of you could do when sleeping. The sleepwalker is an active participant in our world, but their motives are firmly embedded in the hazy logic of the dreaming world. Abiding by the logic of some hidden place within consciousness, the somnambulist lives on both sides of that line, and is rendered blameless because-- like amnesiacs or the insane-- he or she has become separated from common human reality.

So whatever parasitic force within me took over that night, I hope, that by putting it out in the open instead of burying it in shame and denial, I can confront it as such. In calling it what it is, the albatross can fall off and into the sea.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


I know I belong to the binge-watch era. Most people I know go through downloaded TV series, popular book series, whatever, in a matter of weeks if not days if possible. And yet I've always been the opposite, wanting to linger over things for as long as I can, sometimes to the point of waiting for years to finish movie trilogies.

And thus it was that I finally got around to watching Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Eclisse, the final film in his trilogy of “modern life” movies, one of the landmarks of world cinema, one name-checked by countless respected critics and filmmakers.

I'd been putting it off for the better part of a decade. When I was 19 or 20, I watched L'Avventura, the first film in the trilogy as part of my drive to become a serious film buff, the sort of guy who wouldn't just namecheck a movie, but prefix it with the name of the director... “Lynch's Blue Velvet,” you get the idea.

Like a lot of teenage boys with intellectual pretenses, when I first started to consider movies as art, I was drawn to the films of Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, movies that in addition to being generally quite well-made, had the additional benefit of having enough moment of badass and detached cool for a 16 year old boy to really dig. Escapist fantasies, really. All I really wanted to do was do the twist with Uma Thurman, or to turn a basement fight club into an anarchist cell.

And from there I moved onward, in fits and starts, through the films of Tarkovsky, Herzog, Cassavetes, Kurosawa, until, after being delighted by Antonioni's far more popular Blowup, I got around to his early landmark L'Avventura. Here were the bright young things of postwar Italy on a fateful pleasure boat journey where one of their number disappeared. Panic, followed by a frantic search, and then everyone just... kind of forgot. Their friend's disappearance simply became a buzzkill, a distraction from their lives of weekends in Mediterranean resort towns, elegant aperitifs, and chain-smoked Gitanes. This was it, I thought. Ironic distance. Ironic title. The blasted landscape of a desert island off of Sicily, the garish horror of the unthinking rush into the modern.

The '60s had begun, and Italian cinema was changing. The neorealists-- wartime poverty, workers trying their best to make ends meet, bread lines and desperate situations-- were on their way out. Italian neorealists like Vittorio De Sica and Luchino Visconti transitioned into lush period films, Pier Paolo Pasolini started the decade with the mean streets of Rome in Accattone and endied his career 15 years later with fascist mountaintop orgies in Salò, Fellini announced his new sensibilities with a helicopter-borne Jesus carried over Rome, and Antonioni began his long journey into vermouth-flavored ennui.

And yet, as I continued to explore the European art cinema of the '60s, somewhere along the line, it ceased to impress me. When I watched the second film in Antonioni's trilogy a couple years later, I was singularly unimpressed. In fact, I can barely remember the thing. It blends into countless other films I'd seen around that time, by Jean-Luc Godard, Luis Buñuel, and their fellow travelers, all using the same actors, Marcello Mastroianni, Alain Delon, Catherine Deneuve, Monica Vitti... how many expressionless middle-aged men entombed in their book-lined studies and painfully tasteful high-modern pieds-à-terre cold-shouldering their neurasthenic, be-Prada'd wives, the whole nasty scene pinned down by self-conscious reflections of Freudian and Lacanian devices.

Antonioni reached his low with his voyage to America in 1970, making the mind-numbing hippie fantasia Zabriskie Point, which tries to draw the, in retrospect, beyond-laughable connection between property crime, revolutionary Maoist politics, and human orgasm as equally liberatory urges in a late-capitalist society, all culminating in an en-masse fuck in the California desert.

Watching L'Eclisse saddened me. All these years after being stunned by it, I have to admit that L'Avventura is truly daring, is truly a wonder, and his Blowup is just as good.

And it's not like what Hollywood has on offer most of the time is any better. If I try to go to the latest CGI spectacle, I come out deeply glum, feeling that I didn't just watch a movie, I just watched a heavily marketed magic trick, seemingly designed by a cynical production team with a mission to condescend to its audience's basest instincts.

After a year or two of obsessive film watching, I sort of trailed off. I went through long phases, of whole months even, without watching a single movie. But that period had transformed the way I saw movies, the way I saw art more generally, and the way I saw the world. You so often learn more from what you don't like than what you do.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

After Midnight, 27 May, 2015

There I was, in a living room. I knew that I'd been there before. The sage-green wallpaper, the molding on the windows, there was a certain familiarity. But I knew that I knew this place from a long time ago, early childhood. That's it, a house I used to visit often. I know this walnut table. I know the smell of this room. We lit the candles, and one by one, our friends walked in through the door, sat down at matching walnut chairs, their hands folded.

And then I wake up.

My, that was pleasant.

But then why is there a knife in my hand?

Did I sleepwalk and get it from the kitchen? Or was it under my pillow this whole time? Did I put it there so I could defend myself? If so, from whom? What am I not remembering?

I lie there a second. It's heavy in my right hand. I can't even lift it. I run my left index finger along the blade, and it's dull to the touch.

What is that noise? Whose voices are those? What are they so angry about? Oh god, that's my voice. I'm yelling at someone. Who? Why am I saying these things? And now I've stopped speaking English altogether.

A face looks in through the window, with heavy eyebrows, mouth slightly hidden.

And it knows what I know.

That this knife is about to go directly into my heart.

And then suddenly, I come to.

I hadn't been sleeping there, not exactly. Dreaming, but awake. The knife is simply my right fist, clenched and heavy, and I'm just now able to move it again. The face is the illumination of a streetlight through the palm fronds.

I'm normally loathe to talk about my dreams. It seems so bloody pointless, so false, and so impossible to convey the truly special qualities of a dream through something so vulgar as simple description. But this was barely a dream, and it was one that I had both the privilege and the misfortune to experience while at least partially conscious.


While the physiologically activity of the brain during this process is beginning to be understood scientifically, and has to do with poor signaling in the complex in and around the amygdala during sleep, the root causes for this misinformation remain somewhat shrouded in mystery. Genetics, clinical depression, narcolepsy, poor sleep hygiene, stress, sleeping position, and countless other factors are suggested as causes.

Meanwhile, different societies around the world have their own folk explanations. In Medieval Europe, they were incubi and succubi, and in Scandinavia, they were mara, giving us the word nightmare. In the American South, it was the ghost known as the haint riding you, and in Mexico, it was the devil sitting on your chest. And in remote parts of Southeast Asia, particularly in backwater regions of Laos, Thailand, and the Philippines, it is blamed on the same spirits that cause young men to never wake up, a condition with countless names throughout the Pacific hinterlands, but only described to science with the sinister and no less mythological name of “sudden unexpected death syndrome” less than a generation ago.


Of course, this is what I spent the following day reading. I wanted some kind of explanation, something scientific preferably, or if not, at least a comfortable structure, something to provide narrative and meaning, regardless of how true it was.

There was that house, the candles, the walnut table. Yes, I had been in that house. And the smell of the living room, that was real too. And it was the same as that of the perfume of a woman who had shared this bed with me a couple of nights before, the scent of which still lingered in the corners of my bedsheets.

Our daily lives haunt our dream lives. This is nothing new. Freud said the same thing over 100 years ago, but had the bullheadedness to consider his free association to be science.

I'll say it in far simpler terms, without any pretenses of positivism. In our sleeping hours, we walk through far deeper, darker forests.

Monday, May 25, 2015

In America, Part 3: To Write About New York

What is there, really, to write about New York anymore? Can anyone write anything that hasn't been said by Alfred Kazin, Walt Whitman, Jane Jacobs, E.B. White, Joan Didion, Paul Auster, Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin, Marshall Berman, Langston Hughes, Don DeLillo, John Dos Passos, and the rest?

Writing anything essayistic bears the requirement that you can only approach your subject in bursts, flashes, the occasional extended close-up shot. If a writer holds a mirror to reality, it's probably a rear-view that they only look at when they need to. And how true is that when you're dealing with a space so vast, so worked-over as New York.

The worst of the Midwest followed me as far as JFK. I was seated next to a gin-blossomed couple from the North Dakota oil country, on their way to a tropical holiday. The husband's material was a book accusing Bill Clinton of organizing the murder of Vince Foster, a favorite paranoiac fixation of the extreme right, and the wife's was a collection of sayings from noted motherfucker Pope Benedict XVI, both of which they felt compelled to summarize to one another next to me while I tried to catch up on sleep I'd lost the night before. And so I arrived in New York City exhausted, my bags on my shoulders as I tried to find my way to my host's apartment. Yet when I came up from the subway at 110th Street, to a slightly chill late afternoon, to books being sold on the street, to the sun setting over the Hudson, it was like I'd drank a sudden double-espresso. I was suddenly in a place that crackles in the nerve endings.

I spent the next few days wandering. I haunted the Museum of Modern Art, snarling at the tourists taking selfies with Starry Night, yet delighted that they left me alone to sigh with the Ensors and the De Chiricos. I skulked through Greenwich Village, where poised, beautiful NYU students had no compunction about pushing me to the curb. I went for long evening walks along Riverside as it passes by Grant's Tomb, up and down Broadway, Amsterdam, Lexington, form Harlem down to Midtown and back, every block having something you've heard about your whole life.

But more so than that, I loved the forgotten things, the accumulated addenda of a couple centuries lingering in the corners.

There were beaux-arts quoins and column and statues, monuments left to rot in odd corners of parks, self-consciously aping Greece and Rome, marble ruins of a haughty, newly mighty American state.

And there were still things like plumbing supply warehouses, wig shops, dirty fried chicken places all named after states and presidents even in the middle of toweringly vertical neighborhoods. Here was a sign in a jaunty '50s font for Barney Greengrass, who proclaimed himself the “sturgeon king” in an era when there were still men named Barney, and they still ate sturgeon.

And I fell in love with the deli food, a remnant of a very singular point in the history of food technology, from maybe around 1920, a time when pastrami, mayo, pickles, seltzer, and sugar cookies were first standardized, a comfortable industrialization of what had once been the luxuries of the shtetl. What was once modern-- the simulated-wood paneling replacing the rough-hewn timber of the taiga, exotically named jam-filled tarts that were once the privilege of the nobility of the Austro-Hungarian Empire now being sold for two dollars apiece-- now relegated to nostalgia.

It's easy to feel regret at the loss of an “old New York,” the New York that I felt was promised to me by all those Velvet Underground and Miles Davis albums. Any number of professional New Yorkers have made it their mission to bitch about the Chipotlization of the city.

Great Jones Street, which contributed a verb to the English language, still had its strung-out derelicts, but they were far outnumbered by the condos. There were definitely still bums on the Bowery, but they stood outside a Whole Foods. I had to wonder, were they still being held on for the sake of pastiche? I hate admitting it, but when a lantern-jawed middle-aged man came out of a doorway saying “Ima get a gun and shoot all these motherfuckers,” my first thought wasn't fear, but authenticity.

And the longer I stayed, the more annoyed I became by all the conspicuous wealth, the multimillion dollar apartments in maximum-security buildings. I picked up the New York Times magazine, and found an article espousing the “simple luxury” of condos in the Hamptons. And of course the photo of a pile of salmon roe artfully balanced in a sea urchin shell stood opposite an article on the revelation that there might actually be income inequality in America! Overindulge on one side, feel guilty on the other, like a schoolboy going to confession after a Pornhub marathon.

Yet this is how it is, isn't it? Your dreams of the place are so often at odds with the realities, like the poor deluded Japanese who can't handle the piss smell and bad attitudes of the real Paris, and lapse into psychosis and delusion. Or the pious souls on two-week holidays in Jerusalem who find altogether too much to connect to, and suddenly see themselves as prophets and messiahs.

My flight back was through JFK again, this time from the international terminal. Hasidim lined up for El Al, men in dishdasha for Qatar Airways, women in saris for Air India, each of them yet more narratives of New York.

I got on an eastbound flight across the northernmost parts of the world, crossing Greenland, Svalbard, Siberia. At this time of the year, the flight-path is an arc of eternal daylight, the sun rising and dipping, but never completing its passage. The time zones whir by at these latitudes, like colors on a roulette wheel.

Unable to sleep, too tired to read or write, I can only jot down one thing in my notebook, the one all-encompassing thing I can say about New York. How perfect it is to end my trip back to the country I'm from than to experience everything I love and hate about at once.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

In America, Part 2: The Thing We Call Home

The drive up Interstate 35 northwards from Des Moines is one I've taken hundreds, if not thousands of times in my life. The indicator that I was always home: the blue water tower in the distance. I can't remember-- did I see it or not?

I had flown from Seattle-- magnolias, shiny streetcars, seagulls-- and arrived in Des Moines, at a three-carousel airport with beige carpets, mahogany signs, and sepia-tinted windows looking out on fields evincing still more colors of brown.

And when I arrived in the sleepy college town where I grew up, I had to ask whether these were these really the streets I once knew. I thought I recognized these houses, factories, office buildings. They looked like I'd seen them before, but before in the sense that I'd seen photos of them, or maybe that they were somewhere I'd been a few times before. And at the house I'd spent the first 17 years of my life in, I had to wonder if the stairs were always this particular length.

I don't go “back” often-- once every two or three years, really. While this certainly gives me a certain familiarity with the place as it is, moreso than really most other places on Earth, it's infrequent enough to make me feel, every time I go back, less and less like a native and more like a visitor.

At first, there was this sense of loss and remove, that the deep connection that I'd once had to this place had been severed. As an alienated teenager, as a counter to the superficiality and stupidity that seemed to define most of the world, from the Iraq War down to my idiot English teacher, I looked for a way out. Like a lot of teenagers, I smoked weed out of crushed Pepsi cans and listened to the Velvet Underground in my room. But I also became invested deeply in the forgotten geography of the place I was in, as if, somehow, by piercing through the hologram of modern commercial society, I could find the way to a more authentic way of living, something worthy of my heroes of the time, Kerouac, Edward Abbey, Sherwood Anderson, Bob Dylan.

So my memories of the most forlorn places of the Iowa prairie-- abandoned grain elevators, frozen creeks-- were, in so many ways, so lush and Proustian, that to look at them later on was to set myself up for inevitable disappointment.

But somehow, I've been gone so long that even that sense of disappointment is gone, and to look at the places I was once invested in is instead like looking at a photographic negative, clearly a recognizable image of something, but something somehow distorted and wrong, even if the details bear an eerie, hyperreal similarity-- a mullioned window, the smell of a donut shop.

In the end, I wound up doing what a lot of what other twentysomethings do when they visit their hometowns and come to realize that they can only spend so much time with their families, and they don't really have any friends left there. I walked around town, read books, tried (and failed) to write, watched too much trash TV, drank too much beer alone. I'd stay up until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning in the basement, marathoning my way through Special Victims Unit or Intervention over a bottle of Gordon's Gin and a plastic bottle of Hy-Vee brand tonic water, watching dramatized stories of serial rapists at court and “gritty,” exploitative accounts of snarling alcoholics, heroin addicts, and compulsive gamblers and their weeping families.

Fucking America, I'd mutter as I poured myself into bed.

But then there was the morning I woke up especially early, to a cold sunrise coming in through the livingroom windows, casting its light onto the green carpets, and the books on my mother's shelves.

Some were mine, and I smiled at the new home they'd been given, remembering where I'd gotten each volume. This John Barth, Powell's Books, Hyde Park, Chicago, Spring '05. That Lawrence Durrell, a library book sale. My beloved copy of Invisible Cities, the spine stained with Febreze that spilled in my luggage that I'd read on a filthy staircase in Paris, quietly thinking my god, people can write things like this.

And there were my mother's books, my father's that he'd neglected to take with him after the divorce, books left from relatives and family friends. I'd read a great many of them. But there were others, books I'd never even thought about picking up, that I'd seen all through my childhood, even if I'd only seen them neatly stacked on the shelves-- possess some incredibly bright and furious internal world, some knowledge or some way of seeing things, that I would, one day, be able to touch.

I could smell the coffee in the pot. The sun hit the spines of the books, gilt lettering shimmering in the dark.

This, this was my home.