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.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

In America, Part 1: Up the Hill

A trans-Pacific flight is not so much a flight as you normally take as it is a vortex. Upon leaving, you are at the mercy of the pilot, the cabin staff, your fellow passengers for half a day. Maybe you try to sleep, with the help of the complementary box wine or with a Vicodin hastily swallowed before hitting airport security. Maybe you watch a string of movies, or episodes of some dumb comedy. You do whatever you can to negate the experience of being somewhere up there, losing all sense of time as your day is severed by the International Date Line.

And yet, after that long flight from Seoul-- muddy palace grounds, warm cups of pine needle tea to beat the pounding, frigid rain-- we come down from the clouds over the Skagit Valley, to a landscape where sun hits the snows of distant mountains, reaching down to an immaculate, blue fjord. And it was then, in a return to the city I called home for three years, that I felt that I was where I should be at the moment.

I was experiencing it, this time, more or less as a tourist. “Where you visiting from?” the market vendors asked. And at least in some areas, I still felt like a tourist. A wine tasting here, a plate of excellent local Virginica oysters there, a long, meandering walk along the waterfront. “Oh, used to live here, but just seeing old friends in town,” I'd tell the lady at the fruit stand or the Quebecois tourist I was sipping wine with.

And I could do the tourist-guide description. I could talk about the beautifully fresh salmon, the great view from Kerry Park, the artfully arranged soaps and artichokes in the Pike Place Market, my favorite dive bars. But, like all tourist guides, that says nothing about the actual experience of being in the city, its shapes and textures, especially when you've lived there.

So I went deeper, and did what I used to do every Saturday-- leaf through old books in the library, grab a cup of coffee, and begin the long, steep, lonely walk up Capitol Hill, through used-car lots and past the old shipping warehouses where countless 30 year-olds with startups imagine themselves as nascent Bezoses and Brins.

Sure, there were a few of my old haunts. The shitty bar where I did my regular trivia night. The pizza place where I read Borges as I tore into two-dollar slices of Mediterranean. The bookshop where, on cold, dark nights I could step in, just for a bit, to read a Raymond Carver story that reminded me to keep on.

But, those bright spots aside, not only had things changed, they had changed radically. Whole blocks were torn out, replaced with cheap trash that reached for “industrial aesthetic” but just reminded me of a school gym in New Jersey. The grotty boutiques staffed by grumpy grunge-era rejects were closed or closing. And saddest of all, the neighborhood has an increasingly short supply of the bars it used to specialize in, places where you could be anyone, a fat transsexual, a college professor reading French philosophy, a streetwalker taking a quick five, a scuzzy lurker with a shitty arm tattoo and a whole litany of lies to tell, places where all the pariahs and weirdos and a few putatively model citizens could share a round of boilermakers.

It is, of course, common to blame the tech industry for these developments. It's both easy and fun to lay the blame on a business world that rewards the sort of fucker who thinks it's OK to act like Don Draper as long as he rides a longboard to work.

Yet while there is a certain truth to that-- or at least, there seems to be, based on the sorts of businesses popping up all over the Hill-- there's also a certain inevitability to this. Any group of freaks, artists, and their attendant sycophants and wannabes knows that the neighborhood dream is fated. As soon as that repulsive label for geographic locales-- “creative”-- is applied, a wealthier clientele will move in, and the previous residents will move to other places, areas further out or more dangerous or in some other way less appealing.

A phrase like “you can't go home again” was probably a cliche even before Thomas Wolfe made that the title of his final novel. Hell, it was probably close to a cliche when Heraclitus said “ever-newer waters flow on those who step in the same rivers” around the turn of the 5th Century BC.

However, regardless of how many times and in what ways the sentiment has been expressed, it was still unsettling to wander around the web of my own memories, see my own particular desires, my own projections onto the built environment, supplanted by those of others.

And then, dejected, I walked down a hill and up another, to the warm place where I knew I could count on a cat, a good book, and a beer, three things that have rarely failed to disappoint me. And when I flew out on the redeye to Detroit not long after, I knew that Seattle and I had had the conversation we'd needed to have.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

"Farmers' Market"

On a sweltering Saturday morning not long ago, I took the metro up to Siam Square to check out the Bangkok Farmers' Market, a weekly event that floats around between fashionable neighborhoods of the city, occasionally in Siam Square, in Ekkamai, in Thong Lo.

It was nice, it really was. Good food, in the form of wicker baskets full of baguettes and chèvre, handcrafted decorations, people milling around enjoying themselves, doing their best to appreciate an outdoor market in the viciously hot Thai summer.

And yet something seemed off.

No more than a mile to the Southeast is the Khlong Toei fresh market, probably the largest in a city full of fresh markets. Little-touristed, it's probably what you imagine when you think of an outdoor market in Asia. Barrels of more varieties of rice than you knew existed, seabass and groupers gutted into drains, pig carcasses dragged by their hooves over the asphalt, appliances of dubious origin in mismatched cardboard boxes, bunches of shallots wrapped in twine hanging from eaves, technicolor-bright piles of mangoes, eggplant, and sweet potatoes. When Émile Zola called Les Halles the belly of Paris, he was referring to a place with all the energies and odors and frantic movement of humans and machines that Khlong Toei has to this day.

The Bangkok Farmers' Market, on the other hand, struck me as having less to do with the ideal of the farmers' market as I've always known it then a self-conscious imitation of the aesthetics and gastronomy of Brooklyn and San Francisco, transplanted, via the city's cosmopolitan classes, to its poshest sections.

Whereas the farmers' markets in America attempted to recreate the local cuisine and close relation between producer and consumer that characterizes the great markets of Europe and Asia-- the aforementioned Les Halles, Tsukiji in Tokyo, Covent Garden in London-- Bangkok never fully lost that. The pork that's in your noodles there was probably merrily squeaking in a smallholding in Ratchaburi a couple days ago.

Slapped with a comfortably English name, the open-air market only becomes acceptable to young Bangkok wealth when refracted through a North American sensibility.

Although more than anything, I'm reminded of the French House of Bourbon, most notably Marie Antoinette, and their habit of building so-called hameaux around the countryside. In these idealized peasant villages predicated largely on the floaty idealization of nature proffered by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the harsh, feudalistic political economy of François Quesnay, the great men and women of the twilight years of the ancien régime dressed in rustic clothes and built palaces in imitation of cottages.

We build our holograms, and come to accept them as normal. This is how hegemony functions. And while I'm trying my best to enjoy my bread and cheese, I can't shake the sense that I'm doing so within a mirage.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Sunday Nights

It's one of those Sunday nights after a weekend that seems to have gone on longer than it should, the sort of night where you should get one final stretch of rest before arriving at work on Monday morning, refreshed and ready to attack that stack of work that's been waiting on your disk since Friday afternoon, when you were so impatient to leave.

Instead, I'm lying awake in bed. It's what... 4:00 a.m.? The mosquitoes are out tonight, and I can't lie still. There are a million ways to try to fall asleep, counting sheep, telling yourself narratives, focusing on the images under your eyes and watching the patterns they weave together. Or the more physical ways-- a shot of Jim Beam, a quick jerk-off, a couple of Xanax.

Lately, I've been trying to read when I'm up in the middle of the night-- light things, things that I've already read before, and things that provide a weird sort of comfort-- Paul Theroux on travel, Anthony Bourdain on food, digestible, beach-ready nonfiction written by professional hardbitten cynics, as if somehow their experiences provide a viable distraction from my myriad professional, romantic, artistic, and personal failures.

But my sleeplessness isn't just a product of the mosquitoes, or the anxiety. We mythologize the Friday night and the Saturday night, the lazy Saturday and the lazy Sunday, and the faithful address their gods at Sunday morning mass or Shabbat dinner. But we neglect our Sunday nights. We don't address the power they can have over us.

Their unique misery does not just come from the dread of the coming Monday morning-- it's the utter melancholy of not having done anything decent with your weekend. When the co-workers ask what you did, what do you say? That all you did was get pissed on Friday night, failed to pick up some girl, spent the rest of the weekend lying about, maybe going to the movies?

-Yeah, went to see Birdman at the Lido, way good, I'll say between gulps of coffee.

Try going out to a nightlife-heavy neighborhood of your city on a Sunday night. The streets are largely empty of cars, restaurants are empty save for a few couples too lazy to cook that night. Pulsing music plays from bars devoid of customers. Who the hell is out?

In a city like Bangkok, there are the tourists, a tubby German couple with matching fanny packs. Braying, sunburnt Brits in neon shorts. Salarymen getting quietly trashed, stumbling in a horde out of some Japanese-only hostess bar. Pairs of Chinese women in sundresses, ordering syrup-sweet cocktails and filling the bar with the loud chatter of Shanghai and Shenzhen.

And everywhere, there are the stragglers. The industry people-- all the line cooks and bartenders and waitstaff whose schedule runs counter to that of the rest of the world. And the serious partiers, all the people desperately trying to keep the spirit of the weekend going, stumbling ahead in nicotine-laced, prematurely hoarse, bleary-eyed groups of four and five.

I walk past them, on my way home, late enough that the streetside restaurants are busy cleaning up and hosing down fish guts and chicken blood into the sewers.

This is the absolute nadir of the week. The distractions of work and social life have been scraped away, and you are left alone and tired, past empty offices, empty bars, metal grates pulled over storefronts, and you see all the joys of city life inverted, a city that is palpably and painfully real.

And so maybe it's no wonder I can't sleep, and I'm sitting here next to my well-thumbed copy of Dark Star Safari, underneath my blanket, watching the shadows the ceiling fan makes against the curtains.

But when I see the first bit of light come out from over Lumphini Park, I know I'm going to be fine, at least for now. The palm trees turn this deep teal color, and the calls of the geckos and night birds are slowly replaced by the sounds of diesel trucks making their early morning deliveries. And it's when the night is finally beaten that I can turn off the lamp.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Sudelbücher

A woman comes into my apartment, and before we sit down and have a drink, she picks up a notebook sitting on my bookshelf. She gives me a glance, grabs it, and opens it up. I think about telling her not to open it, but what could be weirder than coming over to someone's apartment and for them to have stacks of mystery books? Suddenly, I can feel myself sinking, an overwhelming wave of dread and anxiety coursing through my body as I fall.

I should admit that I've never written diaries or journals. I suppose that when I travel, I keep travel journals, notes on what I've seen, how I felt about X, that I ate Y. But these really just seem like extensions of what I write normally, which is something far less categorizable.

There is a terror is that if I write a more conventional journal, I'll feel the need to write everything down in a more linear fashion, to shape the subjectivity of my experiences into something more diaristic and descriptive. Looking back, I will simply be annoyed at my dishonesty.

And there is a second terror that what I write will be nauseatingly immediate, lacking in perspective and analysis, embarrassing for its lack of context. I have had enough trouble beating myself up over my past, and I don't feel the need to nurture that tendency.

What both cases have in common is that they make me conscious of the fact of reading what I wrote at some point in the future. And so, as a result, I'll quite likely self-censor, and write for the person I will be in the future, not the person I am.

The German physicist and writer Georg Lichtenberg kept what he called the sudelbücher, and this is the term I prefer to use for what I do. The notebooks I keep are made up of false starts, failures, disjoints, flights into fiction of a thousand varieties, stray observations, philosophical pensées, witticisms, all the crap that forms a record of my life.

And, by virtue of their ephemerality, and also by the fact that I move around a lot, they don't need to be kept. They can be discarded, ripped apart, forgotten, left around. Because, with a lot of this writing, I often quite simply don't want to know what I was thinking.

It becomes too intimate, and when another person looks into the raw material, my memories suddenly become their territory, or worse, their entertainment.

This is perhaps unfashionable. We're expected to flog our mental states on the public market, neatly packaged on Twitter and Tumblr. To have glittering, personal interior worlds becomes doubly unusual and somewhat suspicious.

Yet I don't know what I'd do without them, and without the ability to engage the world via the material act of putting a shitty ballpoint pen to a piece of paper. I let the world see the fragments that seem to be worth sharing. The rest, no matter what a failure it is, is therapy.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Waiting

A few years back, I was at a fourth birthday party held for a co-worker's daughter. Like most kids' parties, it was cleaved in half, with the children running wild and watching cartoons in one room and the parents getting half-sloshed in the next.

But there was one person I couldn't place, the birthday girl's Cambodian grandmother. While the rest of us ate, drank, chatted, she simply sat in one corner of the room, cross-legged on a sofa, staring at the wall. She couldn't speak any English. But there was no shortage of Khmer speakers there, and I wondered why she was so distant.

My immediate thought was that-- like all Cambodians of her age-- she was a genocide survivor, and she was either a) so thoroughly traumatized by the atrocities of late 20th Century Cambodia that she had simply shut herself off the world, or b) had endured so much struggle that the simple fact of being able to sit on a sofa in a nice enough house was pleasure enough.

But both of these hypotheses were ultimately me projecting history onto this woman. I didn't know her story, I didn't know who she was, I couldn't even communicate with her. All I had was a blank stare.

However, I did have a parallel experience I could draw from, one rooted in my own experiences in Cambodia, in the long waits for buses. While I fidgeted around, read, wrote, walked around, other people seemed content to simply sit in silence, eyes fixed forward, sitting on their luggage or their parcels of goods to sell in another town. Bored, impatient, and agitated, I felt and probably looked by comparison like a spoiled child who wasn't getting his way.

Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish foreign correspondent who made his career traveling the odd corners of Africa during the tumultuous postcolonial period, talked about the long waits in rural areas, where a bus would leave when it was full.

“I have observed for hours on end crowds of people in this state of inanimate waiting, a kind of profound physiological sleep: they do not eat, they do not drink, they do not urinate; they react neither to the mercilessly scorching sun, nor to the aggressive, voracious flies that cover their eyelids and lips.

What, in the meantime, is going on inside their heads?

I do not know. Are they thinking? Dreaming? Reminiscing? Making plans? Meditating? Traveling in the world beyond?”

***

Meanwhile, when I wait, I so often think of Sartre's cafe analogy in Being and Nothingness. When you you're waiting for a friend at a cafe, the first thing you notice is their absence. To Sartre, this conveyed that even absence has a sort of presence. Ultimately, it is the void that defines the experience, that makes itself most known.

And when you're waiting, if not that much of your life is spent waiting idly, that void becomes foremost in your mind. This goes double when you're traveling somewhere, when the unforgiving tropical heat is sapping you of what energy you have, or when the cold seems to be freezing your mind solid, or when the rain is coming down so hard that all you can think about is the warm, dry room that you're not in.

Living in the hyperconnected world of a million potential distractions, we can still be jarred by a lack of something immediate and pressing. We spend our time searching and searching for that ideal distraction, whether that's social media, music, video, or the sort of game that's simple enough you can play it in the checkout line of the supermarket. Yet the void still looms, no matter how much we immerse ourselves in potential entertainments.

I have yet to buy a smart phone, and one reason is the fear that when I am deprived of it, my baseline level of comfort with the world will become even more reliant on the electronic feeding tube. Not only will the void cease to disappear, but when I'm without my phone, the absence of a distraction will be even more jarring and uncomfortable.

There are plenty of people bandying around phrases like “digital detox,” and the more entrepreneurial of them are offering screen-free holidays at blush-worthy prices. De-digitalization becomes another commodity (or, to use the one of the most obnoxious words in the English language, “lifestyle”) to be marketed, one that promises lots of hand-crafted curios and expensive pork shoulders. Like the Arts and Crafts movement in fin-de-siècle Britain, these signal the ever-present urge among the privileged classes to shoehorn the material of the past into the ideology of the present.

To cultivate the act of waiting is a completely different endeavor altogether, one far more difficult. To accept the blank canvas in front of you as such.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The National Eating Disorder

Picture yourself-- OK, I'm picturing myself, but I'd like to think that other people think these things as well-- walking down the streets of Paris, on a perfect June day. You see the cafes, the roofs of the grand boulevards. And then you see a McDonald's, and a braying American couple walking out, and you think “fucking Americans,” whether with contempt if you're not an American, or shame if you are.

Or you're at the grocery store, and you see an overweight woman in cheap clothes buying a bag of Doritos, wearing worn-out sweatpants, with two screaming children, and you think what white trash she must be.

Or you see a hippie guy buying organic spelt cookies, and you think how unbelievably oversensitive and snotty he must be.

The point is this, that our moral judgments are, perhaps, at their bluntest when it comes to eating. Food, for most people, other than those (lucky or unlucky, I don't know) few who can simply view it as fuel, isn't just food. And that goes double for my people, who seem to have the weirdest goddamn relationship to the things they eat.

As many chefs, journalists, and others make a point that for so many people in the developed world, food is a way to forget the pains and difficulties and boredom of normal life, the adult version of a security blanket. You don't think about your shit job, your failing relationship, the way your savings account never seems to grow when your mouth is stuffed with junk food, dopamine firing through one's synapses, eyes aglow in a computer screen, an ideal target for the legions of predatory marketers working in the service of the processed food industry.

And when it's not metabolic therapy, it's quite often a stance, implicit or explicit, about your beliefs about health, about what constitutes normal, about your perceived cultural status. It starts from birth-- parents nag their children about “starving kids in Africa,” and grows from there.

There is the health obsession, the belief that food is a sort of medicine. People assume that they can extend their lives by consuming enough green tea or goji berries. They go on restrictive and hermetic diets that divide all food into balms and poisons. They devote themselves to food-oriented approaches to life, whether paleo or raw vegan or gluten-free, that seem to promise deliverance through right eating.

Or there is the attempt to seek culture through food, to travel one's taste buds, to find the most authentic and local cuisine, to source rare items and fuss over their terroir, to chase down new restaurants-- the chef trained at El Bulli! they fly their sashimi in from Tsukiji every day!-- and revel in the sheer refinement and enlightenment of one's tastes.

There are romantics, who look to communal feasts in Italy, to meat curing barns in France, to fishing villages in Japan as an idealistic escape route, to imagine a (patently false) time when all food was simple and homemade and ineffably lovely.

Running opposed, there are the hypermoderns, perhaps best embodied by that Dane Cook of the food world, Guy Fieri, who attempt to revel in processed sugar and saturated fat, claiming that they get it, and that their tastes are that much more "real."

And more recently, in the vein of Michael Pollan, there is the politicization of the menu, the search for ever more sustainable food. A great many vegetarians will demonstrate the evidence for the inefficiency of meat consumption and the environmental and social disasters wreaked by the meat industry. In their wake, anti-vegetarians will denounce these arguments as self-righteous and ill-informed. In the pages of Slate and the Huffington Post, columnist after columnist holds the fork and spoon as tools of revolution on par with the stars and stripes over the Delaware River, the hammer and sickle over the Kremlin.

What ties all of these perspectives together is that they posit one's own hedonism as ideology, and attempt to transform consumer choice into an intellectual position, and attempt to show one's own consumer choices as the most “correct.”

As Pierre Bourdieu pointed out in Distinction, the taste positions of the ruling class are overwhelmingly deemed the standard against which all else is measured, thereby giving anything that runs counter, at best, a certain populist appeal. Bourdieu mostly concentrated on film and music, but the argument could readily be extended to food. After all, there's a reason that when we talk about refinement, the word we use is “taste.”

I've been guilty of all of these tendencies myself, and I've been guilty of making all the presumptions I mentioned my introduction, and I've been guilty of eating because it's an act of self-medication-- I daresay most anyone who reads this will have been guilty of all these things as well. I don't want to declaim for or against any of the aforementioned positions-- I have my opinions, but those really aren't relevant to the discussion at hand.

Something so simple as a biological imperative becomes so fraught with complexity and ethical turpitude, and oftentimes the more cogent we try to make our habits and our aesthetic tastes, the more ethically and intellectually ambiguous they become, because now we have a claim to defend.

It's not like we have an option not to do so, because regardless of whether or not we choose to make such explicit decisions, those around us choose to, and view our acts from their positions. Hold your steak knife close, dear reader, lest you be identified as an enemy, and feel the need to defend your honor.