Friday, December 23, 2011


In the interstices of my daily life, I always look through my notebooks that I keep in my bag. These aren't the Moleskines that so many people who write keep. They're spiral-bound, college-ruled, completely throwaway, and are as filled with idle doodles and grocery lists as they are with intentional writing.

Looking back, I realize just how much I've been writing so much about the idea of home: what it has meant to me and what it means to the general populace. Is it an idea that can even be defined? Or is it one of those concepts, like love, that perpetually floats on the edge of definition. We can think of examples, we can use other definitions to touch on aspects of the idea, but we can't actually nail it down.

That concept, that word is so loaded. Some people know where their home is in the world. They were born somewhere and never left, or they arrived in some city and stayed and stayed. But I'm always searching for someplace that nurtures me, as if I'm a tropical plant that needs a specific soil pH and a specific mineral profile to thrive.

When I write, I like to think about the big questions of space, dialectic, the city, the meaning of Enlightenment. I don't write about the couch I'm sitting on, the weather, the coffee I'm drinking. I write my ideas down, and stare at the world around me. I am sitting in a planetarium, focused on the stars above me, not the seat where I am lying prone.

But this apartment, where I've lived for a year and a half-- longer than anywhere else I've lived since leaving my parents' house-- is the home base for all of these explorations. I sleep in this bed, I read the newspaper under this afghan.

It took a while for me to truly feel like I was living in this apartment instead of merely occupying it. My roommate had lived here far longer, and initially-- as all roommates and sublets feel-- I felt like a houseguest rather than a resident. This was her furniture, these were her books. I knew where the glasses were kept and I washed them after I was finished with them, but this was just what any good houseguest did.

But slowly I came to inhabit it. I acquired things. I got a rice steamer and a food processor and an expensive coffee maker, a desk, a floor lamp. I filled the cabinets with spices and the liquor cabinet with whiskey. Every day, I repeated banal actions, brushing my teeth and baking bread, filling trash cans with used Q-Tips and pencil shavings.

I became familiar with the walks around the neighborhood. Each contour became familiar, the precise gradient of each hill, the time it took to walk to the coffee shop or the grocery store. I waved to the neighbors when they were out smoking cigarettes on their patio, and waited for the bus with the same several people.

And I fell in love with the view over Lake Washington towards the Cascade Mountains. At sunset, I looked out at neighborhoods on distant hills. Somewhere, I imagined, on that hill, there was a girl at a cafe looking up from her book and staring back in my direction. Our gazes met each other and we never knew it.

When I leave this apartment, I will give up the things I own. I'll sell the nice things and give away the cheap things. My posters will come down off the bedroom wall, leaving rectangular outlines in the accumulated dust. My books on the shelves will disappear. The paper towels I bought will get used up, the hair I left in the drain unplugged and thrown out. My imprint on the apartment will get fainter and fainter until it becomes indiscernible. New people will move in, with their own lives and their own things and their own stories of what happened in this exact space.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Memory and Intent

A recent instance of déjà vu: I step out of the shower and into my cold livingroom. The ashen Northwest winter light comes in through dusty windows.

There is something in the tone and the granulation of the paint in my apartment. I am momentarily transported to someplace I think I remember, a house somewhere back in the neighborhood I grew up in. I can almost hear a Chicago Cubs game playing on a chipped, sea-green radio, almost feel my bare feet sinking into worn, scratchy carpeting, almost smell instant mashed potatoes and gravy and the stale coffee left over from that morning.

Déjà vu doesn't transport me to the places I've loved, or to any place that I've traveled. It takes me to early childhood, to quiet towns in the American grain belt. In my conscious memory I remember hiking on the Italian coast and summer evenings drinking beer on patios. In my unconscious memory, all I can see are switchyards and blacktop roads cutting through cornfields.

The one exception is musical memory. When I have a specific memory of a piece of music, it has nothing to do with a momentous event. It doesn't send me to anywhere important. In the age of the MP3, recorded music is what we use to fill in our lives, and it occupies our commutes, our long, lonely drives, the hours we spent cleaning our houses. When we find a piece of music evocative of a certain moment, we think of light, of color, of wind coming through an open window.

When we listen to a song and remember our associations with it, we are not remembering the actual associations. Every time we listen to that song, we overlay a new set of experiences onto the memories we want to hold on to, and we become more and more distant from our own memories. That memory-picture becomes blurred, filled in with white noise. It's when you can't remember the name of a song, when you think you'll never hear it again, that your memory will remain pure.

The nerves connecting the eardrum and the brain can send signals in both directions. Consequently, remembered music can be heard by the ear, as clearly as if it was coming from a speaker. The songs of my life nag me in bed late at night, and I feel as if I can hear the world spinning.

So many of the things we remember are very discrete and practical-- we need to remember what to buy at the grocery store, or the name of a co-worker's child. Maybe we remember some commonly held fact like the name of the Vice President of the United States.

What interests me far more is the memory that is unintentional, the moments when you are suddenly struck by something long-forgotten, when memories collide, when memories supersede your current reality. Déjà vu ends. I am standing in my livingroom, unmistakably here and now. A bit of sun shines on a far hill, and I can hear the cat meowing outside my window.

Monday, November 21, 2011

On Pike & Boren

Four pillars stand on the corner of Pike Street and Boren Avenue, on the Western edge of Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. In the summer, gutter punk kids hang out there, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, busking for quarters.

Until the '60s, these columns held up the entrance of Plymouth Congregational Church, demolished when I-5 was built  They have been left as remnants of an older, more innocent Seattle, a quiet Victorian seaside town that only exists today in faded photographs. Stripped of their Ionic capitals, they jut out of the Earth. It is a monument without memory, a footnote to a glittering young city.

The skyline has become the symbol of the American city, the Protestant work ethic translated into an image. It is the glossy picture on the cover of every tourist brochure, of every Chamber of Commerce booklet.

Approach closer. At night in downtown Seattle, you see empty office buildings glowing with cold fluorescent light, crackheads muttering to themselves on street corners, the homeless Indians, the secure entrances with triple-sheets of plate glass, rough concrete walls, loading docks. The contradictions of the city are made apparent.

In ancient ruins, the monuments have been cleansed of their contradictions. We only have sphinxes and palladia, the glories of the past. In the 19th Century, the Brits built fake Roman ruins on the manicured grounds of their estates, an attempt to transpose a nostalgia for the halcyon days of Greece and Rome to their own provincial, petty aristocracy.

At Sukhothai, I wandered among crumbling laterite stupas and elegantly carved Buddhas. On the bone-dry plains of Central Thailand, all that was left were pools and palaces, temples and throne halls. Gone were the ordinary rice farmers and laborers, the Lao slaves, the lepers, the broken backs and crushed arms, the purges and burnings. We have only traces of ancient majesty, the serenity of the dharma-king.

So much of the modern skyline is made of glass and steel. With North American weather, it seems likely that they will fold and crumble. All that will remain of Seattle's Washington Mutual Tower, Space Needle, and Columbia Center will be fragments. They will dissolve into silica and ferric oxide.

This isn't a bad thing. Albert Speer famously designed his Nazi halls to decay beautifully, to evoke the romantic sensibility of future poets. There's a sick fatalism in that, a sort of cultural refusal to consider present realities, a privileging of the mythic over the real.

I walk past the pillars again. The sun is setting behind the Olympic Mountains. What is beautiful and valuable about a city isn't the monuments it builds, the narratives it tells itself. It is transient moments like this, when light and color and shadow seem perfectly harmonized. The dark shape of a ship, loaded with cargo bound for Asia, cuts across the still water of the sound. I wait for a moment and stare, breathing in the cold air, before walking back up the hill to go have a slice of pizza and a drink.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Linguistic Reality

Maybe a year ago, I experienced a horror at what seemed to be a complete slippage between my language and my thoughts. I became convinced that my words for emotional states and abstract concepts were ultimately flawed. The way I used them seemed different than the way everyone else did. I felt, momentarily, that my voice had been stolen. When I rode the bus home every day, I floated, unsure of my own world, among strangers.

It's not like most of our words have a concrete, permanent meaning. There is at least some degree of arbitrariness in what we speak. It reminds me of that lovely quote by Wittgenstein:

"Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses."

For whatever reason, I've met a lot of linguists in the past couple years. And so many of them have this sort of autistic relationship to the world. It's as if linguistics is their own way of discovering human society. They take interpersonal communication-- something so subtle and difficult and loaded and impressionistic-- and change it into a precise scientific reduction. Everything is parsed into phonemes and morphemes, syntax and semantics. Positive science is the barrier they erect against the maelstrom of social reality.

When you're younger, language seems like a matter of precise terms. You're learning new words constantly, and they all have a meaning. In school, you learn the rules of grammar and spelling, synonyms and antonyms. But as you get older, that linguistic certainty is shaken. Suddenly, there is context, history, questionable definitions. There is the exhilaration and the terror of discovering one's own subjectivity.

I suppose I'm trying to determine my relationship to my words because I've been trying, over the past year or so, to make my living as a writer of some kind or another. And to a certain degree I've succeeded. I've had more or less steady writing work. But as my current contract draws to a close, I have to wonder "is everything going to turn out OK?"

For me, reading and writing is the nearest thing I've ever had to a religion. In school, the point of reading was, for the most part, a vital part of some quest for knowledge/truth/etc. But outside of a life as a student, I stopped reading books to learn more about the world. Instead it became, above all else, a form of therapy.

At the twilight of the Roman Empire, the fallen Senator Boethius sat in his jail cell, contemplating Aristotle and Cicero. The important thing wasn't the conveyed knowledge. It was that a great idea can ameliorate the boredom and the loneliness and the meaninglessness of day-to-day life.

My coffee is getting cold and it's starting to rain. But then, after five minutes in front of a Russian novel, I pass into a world mediated by someone else's language, and everything dissolves into light.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Rainbow

I've been taking the bus home every day across Lake Washington, along the curvilinear form of the Evergreen Point Bridge. It floats on pontoons for most of its span, and you spend most of the ride seeming to skim the surface, gray water meeting gray skies.

The sun barely peeks out from the light rain, and suddenly a rainbow is refracted over Laurelhurst. You see the hilly neighborhood through it, and the paint on each house is slightly modified by some point on the natural spectrum.

It is in these fleeting occasions, when the shape of the city is suddenly, briefly transformed, that you come to look on a place as you never perceived it before. Through the veil, something you see every day explodes with new life. Suddenly, minute details become obvious-- an A-frame on a hillside, a row of poplar trees-- and every time you pass by them now, you notice them. The experience of a place becomes permanently altered by a single moment. The rainbow isn't just an optical effect. It is a catalyst of perceptive transformation.

When I see somewhere for the first time, I automatically transfix it my mind as the "natural" appearance of a place. It is my first clear vision of what that place is. Maybe it will change gradually and imperceptibly. Maybe it will change overnight, suddenly destroyed. But either way, when we notice it again, after an absence, we are staring at the remnants of what was there before. Maybe it was someplace you cherished-- it could have been the spot where you had your first kiss, the backyard where you lost your first tooth. When we look back on a place, it is all caught up in nostalgia and sentiment.

If we see that place over and over again, our picture of it conforms to its new reality. That old image is contorted until it is nothing but a Vaseline-smeared trace of what it once was. When we recall it, we see flickers of light, but it ultimately recedes back into darkness.

My old preschool was torn down sometime in the past several years, and the last time I was back in my ville natale, I walked down the gravel alley that ran behind the lot where it once stood. For the first time in 20 years, I saw a power line along the alley disappear behind a huge oak tree. When I last saw it, I was standing in a pea gravel yard in a T-shirt, and shorts, staring up at the adult world, at the dusty Impalas and Caprice Classics the teachers drove, their grilles at eye level. The shade of the oak tree marked the end of the known world. Beyond, was a sun-dappled yard I would never set foot in.

Some day, I'd like to go to all the places I've ever inhabited, seeing what's changed, what's remained static. Having examined the scope of my life through the places I've lived, I can say I saw the timeline of my life made manifest in space. I can say who I was and who I am. When I come back to the place where I live now, I will see that a crack in the paint has appeared, and a cobwebbed bookshelf has been cleaned, new carpeting put down. But the light that hits the kitchen on wintry Sunday mornings will remain.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Color Video

I was sent a video of a lazy Sunday afternoon in Germany, 1937: carnival rides and wheat fields, men drinking beer at the picnic table, couples waltzing outdoors.

We've all seen the images of National Socialism in black and white: the videos of Hitler's speeches before lit torches, Leni Riefenstahl's rapturous shots of parades crossing the Brandenburg Gate.

But it was only when I saw them in color that they really took on a human shape. The swastika flag banners billow in the wind as buses cross in front of them. Those ordinary people heiling cease to look like fascist automatons, and start to look like the Midwesterners I grew up with. It is in this color-soaked reality in real time that fascism becomes apparent for what it is: an ideology that ordinary people willingly took into their hearts. While we've all been told that the potential for evil lies within all of us, it takes a striking image for us to really feel that. Roland Barthes said that the existence of slavery was never real to him until he saw a snapshot of a slave market. There is no veil of history, there is only shocking immediacy.

You don't even necessarily have to see the evidence of a historical event to feel the reality of it in a video artifact. Seang Dy sings in the wedding, a warbling voice from a lost world. You stare into the faces of dozens of people who were almost certainly murdered a few years later. They sip their champagne, blissfully unaware of their fates.

The Internet makes it so much easier to sort through odd pieces of audio and video from other worlds: Syrian pop music, North Korean propaganda, Nigerian cinema, old photos of a long-dead '80s Lower East Side Bohemia, home movies from Mississippi in the '50s. These fragments and ephemera-- memories of individual people, memories of families, memories of towns, memories of whole cultures-- have found some kind of new life, or at least a stay on their execution, on the web.

You find these things through links from websites, links from friends, links from other videos, links from Google searches, links from Youtube searches, intentional searches, accidental searches, misspellings, serendipity. You wade through countless awful viral videos and talentless hacks' terrible covers of songs you like and trollish comments to find gems scattered in the trash heap of the collective consciousness.

I've always had that tendency to pore through the volumes of cultural history, hunting down the weird, the arcane, the baffling, and the shocking. I don't especially care about most new books that come out, I have no desire to keep up with the latest raved-about writer--  all I wanna do is find something transcendent. Fuck Jonathan Safran Foer and Dave Eggers. I wanna read about people selling human body parts on the Russian steppes during the reign of Czar Nicholas I. Each found piece of media isn't just a pop song or a snapshot. It's a portal to another world, another set of lives, another set of mores, a radically different experience connected to you by a thin thread of common humanity.

It follows then, that our cultures, our lives, our memories have the potential to leave this kind of imprint after they're gone, with wildly different effects on different people. When someone finds a picture of me in a box in 50 years, what will they see? What meanings, what connections lie in the notes I scribble on bookmarks? And at what date will the last vestige of my being be an unremembered image?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Burmese Harp

I spent the night in and watched an old Japanese movie, The Burmese Harp from 1956. The war has ended. A Japanese soldier, saved by a monk, stays behind on the baking plains of Lower Burma and dons monastic robes, burying the dead and praying for the foreigners who died in that distant land. The director, Kon Ichikawa, lets the story tell itself without words, through meaningful looks, songs, and flying birds, and above all through the Burmese landscape: endless red clay plains, great silty rivers, decrepit reclining Buddhas, and crumbling limestone mountains.

The skies are turning steely, and I'm living in a pale, icy city, thinking of a sunny land wreathed in incense that I once occupied. Thinking of an old Morrissey song. Every day is like Sunday, every day is silent and gray.

I'd like to think I've chosen where I live. But I'm not sure that I have. But then again, I don't know that I don't belong here. Wherever I've lived, I've been looking for something that seems like home, someplace I can wrap myself in like a blanket.

Our sense of being home is probably a product of our daily routines and patterns, but it's also an accumulation of the fleeting joys that deviate from the daily routine, the little unplanned moments that somehow carry deep resonance. Walking down the street to the store, past rows and rows of identical World War I-era bungalows, ragged palm trees, rusted-out Volvos. And then a weak light pierces the clouds. You pick a blackberry from a bush growing on the margin of the freeway, and it is warmed by the Sun, a whole summer's worth of photosynthetic energy compressed into a dark, sweet taste.

In Thai, the word for home is บ้าน, pronounced "ban," the same word for "village" and "place." All conception of space is made of concentric circles radiating out from a single point. The French have concepts like "patrie" and "chez ____," which have the sort of deep-seated nostalgia, cultural ownership, and Gaullist conservatism I've come to expect from academic French.

By most measures, my home should be the town I grew up in, where I spent the first 17 years of my life. But it isn't. I try to envision it as home, and I come up empty. I've been there twice in the past three and a half years-- that's not a home, that's a distant remembrance.

Every place I have inhabited has come to be occupied by my doppelgangers, individual lives, with their own jobs and friends and hopes and day-to-day routines and worries. They are linked by a continuum of common memory, but I myself, the repository for that memory, seem to occupy none of them.

Somewhere, far away from here, far away from there, I am sitting quietly in a small box deep under the surface of the Earth, staring at nothing, endlessly cycling through the fragments of memory, recalling them, combining them, trying to make sense of them.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Tourist's Eye

A traveler arrives in a foreign land from the English-speaking world. His first experience is the international airport-- its McDonald's, its Starbucks, its steel and plate glass and molded plastic and people rushing down the concourses dragging wheeled suitcases. A few localisms appear-- a flag, regional dishes on the menus of the restaurants, and the accents and complexions of the customs officials-- but ultimately the environment is without nationality.

He takes a taxi into the heart of the city and arrives at a hotel recommended by the guidebook. The desk clerk speaks English, and the hotel restaurant has its menu typed out in neat 10-point Garamond. He orders a curry or a plate of noodles to sample the national cuisine, and it's tailored to the tastes of foreigners, its fishiness or spice toned down, served on a gleaming ceramic plate with a white linen napkin.

In the daytime, he goes to the tourist sites, and sees representations of the culture of the country. He visits shrines and palaces, dusty museums with 18th Century cannons and early missionary Bibles. He snaps a photo of an old building with a bearded man smoking a cigarette out front. Of a statue of the Buddha or Shiva or the Virgin. Of exotic birds pecking at cast-off ice cream cones in a public park.

As he stays on, he learns the signifiers of the land. Word by word and phrase by phrase, he acquires the rudiments of the language, pointing and miming his way through open-air markets and train stations. He learns the sign systems of the culture-- a storefront with a duck hanging from a hook by its beak is a restaurant serving a spicy soup with duck breast and egg noodles. What had been blank landscape, immediate and without context, emerges as a web of symbols strewn throughout the country.

Days pass into weeks. He loses the sense of time that he had in his old country, he adapts to the local currency. The passage of the Sun across the horizon follows a different route and rhythm, and he becomes accustomed to its colors and shadows. He learns more of the language, and acquires the meaning of new signs: the mortar and pestle, the basket of bananas hanging from a rope, the different colors of buses corresponding to different destinations and prices.

His eyes turn homeward. He sits on the beach staring at the waves lapping at a nearby island, glinting in the sunlight. When he goes out for a swim, he looks back at the seaside town, and he is ready to leave. Thinking of the drab weather of his homeland, of the coffee at the shop down the street from his own apartment, he is suddenly filled with a longing for familiarity. It's a little after dawn there now, and at his apartment, the cat is resting a shaft of morning light, waiting for breakfast.

He gathers up his souvenirs that he's bought for people back home, and takes a taxi back to the airport, returning to the place between places. For a moment, he looks at the potential departures: Tokyo, San Francisco, Oslo, and Karachi all beckon. But then, his mind settled and his return ticket in hand, he grabs a quick gin-and-tonic at the airport bar before boarding a plane and jumping back across the ocean.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Dead City as Metaphor

I was sitting at a favorite coffee shop and noticed a picture on the wall of the old Detroit Book Depository. It's an image I've been familiar with for a while.

These images of the ruins of Detroit are old favorites of mine, and with the crash of 2008, they became ubiquitous in the media. The Michigan Theater, transformed into a parking garage, the burnt-out shells of humble '20s bungalows and Slavic churches, the caved-in smokestacks of factories that once churned out Plymouths and Packards, the smashed windows of Michigan Central station. We see them whenever Michigan is mentioned on the news in connection with the recession, through a thin gray haze of light snow.

They aren't new images. In "Roger and Me" in 1989, we saw near-identical photos of Flint, some 70 miles to the North. Or we drove through the countless dead zones: Gary, East Saint Louis, Youngstown, vast tracts of the Bronx. They have less of an impact on the national imagination. They are working cities that rose and fell, never having gained the symbolic significance of Detroit.

But Detroit is a more potent symbol. The Arsenal of Democracy, that once-central cog in the American industrial machine, has become a relic. The symbols of the city-- Henry Ford and Al Kaline and the Supremes and the United Auto Workers-- are all likewise symbols of the old America, something with far more bearing on the present politics of nostalgia than the day-to-day life of the city. We rationalize our conception of contemporary economic and social realities around the image and metaphor of Detroit.

But it goes beyond the pictures of the metropolis itself. We have new symbols for Detroit beyond the material space of the city: Jeffrey Eugenides' "Middlesex," the Lions' 0-16 season, Mayor Kilpatrick's texting scandal, Insane Clown Posse, Eminem trudging down 8-Mile with his hoodie up. They are grotesques crawling among the ruins.

Most of us only see the actual decay of Detroit through our television screens and in photos. Or if we travel through the area, it's an ugly patch we drive through on I-94.

In truth, the city has been declining for a long time, having reached a peak population of 1.85 million in the 1950 census, dropping to 1.2 million by 1980, 950,000 by 2000, and 710,000 by 2010-- smaller than placeless Jacksonville, Fort Worth, or Charlotte. Detroit's murder rate peaked in the '70s, and while it has declined since, I suspect that it's because there's no one left to commit crimes against.

I have to wonder how the citizens of older dead cities perceived their slow destruction. Sparta and Ur and Angkor weren't destroyed by single, cataclysmic events, but faded over the course of centuries.

In the age of high-speed media, we have more and more documentation of the collapse of America's manufacturing cities. We see the subtle shifts-- a plant closing here, a riot there. Our artists and journalists are effectively recording the fall of Detroit with a time-lapse camera. We are our own archaeologists.

Archaeology says this. This was once there. Now it is not. At least, not in any form that we immediately recognize. Dig a little among the scrublands, and find pieces of what once was: a piece of twisted metal, a shard of stained glass, a shredded piece of polyester.

To some future generation, Detroit will not be plagued with nostalgia for an old America, but will be a new metaphor. It will be a ruin as exotic as the crumbled temples of Carthage. The ruins will be uncovered and respectfully cordoned off. Instead of a public grain market, there will be a shipping warehouse. In place of a temple to Astarte, the old Tiger Stadium. Schoolchildren will take tours, and, growing bored with the antiquities, skip stones on the surface of the Rouge River until it's time to get back on the bus.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Aleatoric City

Sitting on a bench in Steinbrueck Park, looking out over the harbor. Tourists are looking at a map of the city that is hopelessly not-to-scale. Downtown is stretched and warped, a funhouse version of itself.

Modern maps are representations of the physical city. A tourist looks at a map of the city (or at a GPS, or at map software), at the grids collapsing into grids. He plots a route using the gray lines of streets, the red bands of freeways that slice the city into chunks.

And then there is the city experienced on a personal and subjective level, based on our landmarks, our routines, the ballet of traveling from point-to-point that composes our day-to-day lives: walking to the bus stop, driving to work, biking to the grocery store, and all of the other little spatial tics that, when accumulated, form our conception of the shape of the city.

And, lastly, most subtly, there is the aleatoric city. Things you cannot control, things left up to chance. Bumping into a friend you haven't seen in months at the market, encountering a little restaurant hidden down a side street, a tangle of warehouses you get lost in trying to find a shortcut. In the aleatoric experience of the city, every street and every corner hums with the potential for fortune and misfortune, synchronic event and diachronic event.

Cardinal directions make sense to me. I've always looked at maps. When I look at the map, when I conceive of the form of the city, the personal and aleatoric experiences of space are subordinate to the lines of boulevards, parks, rivers, and railroad tracks. Minneapolis: a grid curving along the Mississippi River. Seattle: a fractured isthmus decorated with lakes and canals. Get on Google Maps, and there are the shapes of Paris, Tokyo, Fez, Rangoon, Miami.

But then I visit the city and the map fills in, block by block. All of the sudden, the abstract shape is imbued with light. A corner that was once a red square, a gray dot, becomes a flight of crows on a fall evening, an ice cream scoop falling off a cone, three Japanese girls taking a photo on a flawless summer afternoon.

This was how I viewed cities until I came to Bangkok, a city whose cartographies elude reason. The tangle of major roads-- Yaowarat, Ratchadamnoen, Rama IV-- separates out vast swaths of alleys, many too narrow for cars. Without pattern and without shape, my perception of the city cannot be contained in the map and so I throw the map away. Bangkok is made of connections between the Hualamphong Railway Station and favorite noodle shops, black canals and gilded palaces.

The solitary central stupa of Wat Arun, the temple of dawn, looks over the old city, glittering with tiles originally made from the shards of Chinese ceramics dropped by junks as ballast in the Chao Phraya River. Celadon cups are discarded and reborn as tiles. Cracked and faded tiles are taken off, with new ones embedded in their place. The map of the city is analogous to the stupa, constantly taken apart and reconstructed. City and stupa are a massive mah-jongg game, tiles replaced, tactics perpetually revised, individual pieces re-shaped, carrying on into infinity.

Monday, August 1, 2011

In Montana

The passage out of Seattle is sudden.  One minute, you're amid the gas stations and cubist housing estates of Issaquah.  The next, you're up in the misty clefts of Cascades that David Lynch chose as the setting of Twin Peaks.  And then you're out in the country beyond Cle Elum, a flat empty brownness.  Our little Hyundai is a mercury bubble on a strip of highway across a windswept plain.

The radio stations faded out in the mountains, and all the stations in Seattle became superseded by country and ranchera music.  We find a remnant of a previous era, an AM station playing old Brill Building songs with strings and horns.  Someone singing about a rose that grows in Spanish Harlem, dutifully broadcast across the desert for 50 years.

I'd forgotten about highways as escape routes.  About the joy of getting out of town for a while, kicking around gravel parking lots and diners with hand-painted signs.  When your life is defined by cityspace for so long, you forget about the vastness that separates here from there in America.

Glacier National Park is a place so gorgeous that it looks barely real.  Narrow waterfalls cascade down snow-capped mountains, shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight above lakes as translucent and blue as sapphires.  It is almost disconcertingly similar to James Hilton's Shangri-La, to the vision of paradise described in the Qu'ran. The peaks are named Almost-a-Dog, Going-to-the-Sun, whole mythologies captured in simple map references.

We walked along the shore of Saint Mary Lake, along contorted sedimentary cliffs with pale bushes clinging to the sides.

On a sunny day, it's something like Lake Como, a slender body of water lined with bright pink flowers. Squint and you can see characters from Tender Is the Night traipsing along the shore. A pink ribbon flies off a hat in the July wind and is caught by a columbine.

On a gray day, the mountains reveal themselves to be jagged and barren.  The sheer cliffs are barricaded by gray scree slopes, a landscape fit for witches and ghosts.  The heavy log buildings of the park brood, entrenched into the bases of the Lewis Range.

The two images of the lake are holograms of each other. Separated by a perceptual veil of light and color, they occupy the same space, the same contours, facing each other, never touching.

This was our funereal tour.  I wanted to see the glaciers that gave the national park its name before they finally melt.  That last piece of glacier will fall apart 10 or 15 years from now.  It will absorb enough energy from the Sun that it will enter phase change, transform into free-flowing water, and that last little transfixed piece of a previous geological epoch will swiftly dissipate in the waters of the river.

And yet, despite the inevitable demise of a place I was falling in love with, I tried my hardest to put my fatalism behind me.  Here we were, away from our lives and obligations for a few days, drinking screw-top red wine and sunning ourselves on cliffs. We immersed ourselves in a fading summer out on a windy high mountain aerie on the edge of America.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Snapshot Image

I chanced upon the Russian photographer Sergey Chilikov when looking for the photo on the cover of Beirut's "Gulag Orkestar." You can find an archive of his photos here.

I'd forgotten the beauty of simple snapshots like this, photos without the pretense of memory. These are the ordinary people of what was once the Second World. These anonymous vintage snapshots are connections to a world I will never experience, will never see in any form other than a grainy, faded image, names forgotten or maybe even never learned by the photographer.

It is by mere accident that one of these pictures achieved fame. In an interview, Zach Condon said he first saw the cover slipped out of a book in a library in Leipzig. A very personal photo becomes universal, transformed from a memory-machine into an image in the public consciousness.

A photo, taken either for a personal collection or a now-extinct daily newspaper, is uploaded to the Internet, separated from its origins by yet another degree, and disseminated to a largely undiscerning global public.

Because holding a photograph and looking at it on a computer screen are different experiences, even though a photograph is "supposed" to be a crystalline representation of reality. The material photograph is a more direct link to another era, unmediated by a contemporary piece of technology. It's sepia-toned or washed out, and it smells of junk drawers and the dull, metallic smell of silver frames on dusty mantles.

This tells me the photograph is not merely an image, but takes on a life of its own that digital images, unless they're printed out, will never have. Think about all the ancient family photos you've doubtless seen on the shelves of tract homes and McMansions in outlying suburbs of American cities. They're most likely the only things more than 50 years old in a great many homes, a solitary fragment of past existences. We burn our cities to the ground, we build our new houses to last a single generation and yet, amid contemporary suburbia, the individual's line of memory is preserved as a photo, set in a respectable position on a matte-painted particle-board shelf in a white-carpeted den.

Despite the very American and very Protestant environment, it reminds me of those Chinese Confucians who honor their ancestors as a fount of authenticity and truth, even amid the rise and fall of dynasties and the building of 100,000-man factories in Shenzhen. The Confucian attitude seems to be that the truth of a righteous life is beyond material, beyond memory; it exists in an impossibly stable and a priori vacuum. Whatever sound and fury happens in China-- capitalism, Communism, and capitalism again-- that which Confucius called "the way" floats above, immaterial, impassive.

It's been years since I looked through any old snapshots of my own family. It's helpful to consider the photo as a universal subject when you've forgotten the snapshots that are supposed to mean the most to you. When, in some distant future date, I look again on pioneer great-grandfathers and aunts in beehive hairdos, what will I see? What will I feel? What truth will I ascertain? Will I feel a primordial connection to some ancestral imagination? Or will they simply be faded scraps of paper, chemical tracings on thin cardboard moldering in shoeboxes in a house 1500 miles away.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Enchanted Bluff

Whenever I'm wandering around the Hill and have some time to kill, I tend to stop into Elliott Bay Books, the sort of wonderful, comprehensive local-institution bookstore every city should have, for a bit of browsing.

I hadn't read Willa Cather in ages.  At some point, she appealed to me greatly, along with all the other American regionalists, but as my literary tastes expanded into the wilder, weirder worlds of French surrealism and portent-laden postmodernists and the Japanese avant-garde, she got left behind.  So I picked up her collected stories, and opened up to page 64, her 1909 story "The Enchanted Bluff."

I first read it at a tiny used bookstore back home.  Along with a handful of other businesses constantly on the edge of folding, it occupied a section of the ground floor of the Sheldon-Munn, the town's once-grand railroad hotel now converted into tiny apartments for the elderly and impoverished.

You walked in through a creaky door, and the place was covered in industrial carpeting, with piles of books on the floor, mildewed volumes of long-forgotten onetime bestsellers.  Books by Josephine Winslow Johnson and Gene Stratton Porter and James Gould Cozzens.  Stories of Christian virgins in peril that must have once belonged to the schoolteachers and small town lawyers of Story County, Iowa some 80 years earlier.

I spent frigid winter days combing through musty shelves of dog-eared, yellowed Signet Classics and Modern Library editions filled with faded pencil scrawls written in Iowa State dorm rooms a generation or more ago.  Put together a stack of two-and three-dollar paperbacks, and walk home through the snowdrifts.

Like all teenagers, I was unsure what I wanted out of life, but was quite sure what I wanted wasn't this: high school in a dreary town centered around a land-grant university and ringed by meth labs.  So I read Thomas Pynchon, John Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, T.S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg.  In cracked and moth-eaten trade paperbacks, I could envision my world centering around a tiny apartment on a narrow street in Montparnasse, a rough-hewn cabin in the forests of Northern Wisconsin, a life of jumping trains and bumming rides.  Each dusty book represented a hazy, impressionistic dream.

Which brings me back to Cather.  "The Enchanted Bluff" is a lovely, wistful story about a group of boys hanging out for the last time on a sandbar.  The summer is ending, and the narrator is about to leave town, and he tells a story about a place in New Mexico called the Enchanted Bluff.  They all make plans to go there.  They never do.

Memory is shaped by the stories we tell each other, the symbols and phrases that run as motifs through all human interactions and relationships.  The mythic, the ideal level.  The Enchanted Bluff isn't a real place, and it doesn't need to be.  It functions as a symbol that is sustained even as the actual relationship falters.  And as we remember our relations, our images of the actual people we once felt something towards-- whether it was love, friendship, or enmity-- become blurred, impressionistic.  What remains: symbols, narratives, old photos, souvenirs in attic boxes, ghostly images floating on the edge of memory.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

In Memory of Modernism

About a month ago, my attention was drawn to a set of photos by the Dutch photographer Jan Kempenaers.  He'd gone around the former Yugoslavia with an old map to track down the monuments commissioned by Josip Broz Tito to commemorate the nation's suffering in the Second World War.  Battlefields, concentration camps, and other sites of national import were memorialized in one of those high-minded Communist projects that are so often forgotten.  The monuments were built as a material reminder of the victory of ordinary people over the fascist armies that marauded Europe.

They're all rendered in this unearthly, brutalist style that, as Foucault says, "heroizes the present."

Some look like the gears of abandoned spaceships:
Others like the skeletons of prehistoric sea monsters:
And others, like my favorite, near the Kosovo town of Mitrovica, seem to be nothing but a profound and monolithic gravity:

Take away the graffiti and restore the concrete, and you can imagine the little socialist automobiles gathered outside, the Yugos and Skodas and Trabants and Dacias.  Neckerchiefed Young Pioneers are gathered around, posing for photos, shielding their eyes from the Sun while they salute.

The Yugoslavs put so much effort into memorializing the defeat of fascism.  And think how quickly after the fall of Communism the peoples of the old Yugoslavia slipped into a new fascism.  Tito combated the ethno-nationalist impulse with a vengeance, recognizing it threatened the unity of the state and by extension his own power.  1989 saw the flowering of Prague and Budapest, but further South it marked the dawn of a decade of religious sectarianism and territorial revanchism.

Religious and ethnic wars slashed the Balkans to ribbons, and modern monuments crumbled in the hills.

When I was off seeing the world, I passed through the little Cambodian town of Kep (during the Indochine days, it was Kep-sur-Mer), some 10,000 people on a rocky shore a few hours out of Phnom Penh.

In the '60s, this was the Cambodian Riviera.  Squint at the old town, and you can almost see it.  Men in white suits strolling along the quay, lacing their Khmer conversation with French.  Lon Nol's cronies must have sipped Scotch at the nightclubs, where Ros Sereysothea and Sinn Sisamouth sang.

The streets are quiet now.  When the Khmer Rouge marched into Kep in 1975, they torched the modernist seaside villas.  Teenagers in black pajamas, faces covered with red-checked krama scarves, must have gone through these buildings, ripping out velvet curtains and tossing volumes of Victor Hugo and the Reamker into the Gulf.

The black hulks of the old villas loom over the seaside today.  A number of them bear the bold designs of Vann Molyvann, Le Corbusier's Cambodian disciple who imbued fused the International style with design elements from classical Angkorian architecture.

Modernism is annihilated by another modernism.  Two radical approaches are incommensurate: the new architecture of Corbusier and the beyond-Maoism of the Democratic Kampuchea dictat.

Today, the peasants hang their wash on lines strung from the concrete columns.  The Khmers are tough as nails.  Everyone you see over 30 is a genocide survivor.

The government of Hun Sen, the one-eyed former Communist who has run Cambodia in some capacity since 1985, has announced bold plans to sweep away the ruins and restore Kep as the gem of the coast.  Onward marches the new capitalism that dominates East Asia-- the Chinese and Vietnamese and Cambodians have abandoned the anti-Western philippics and embraced the shopping mall.

So much of me still wants to be a modernist, to believe that Schoenberg can save the world, that a liberationist Marxist praxis will lead to a saner, less alienated society.

All I can be convinced of is that anything and everything is temporary and contingent.  We leave traces of our old desires around the landscape.  The old clashes fade into memory.  But in Mitrovica and in Kep, the flowers are still blooming.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Anniversary Issue

Today is a dual anniversary.  First, I've been back in Seattle one year.  In that year, I've become reacquainted with everything I dig about this town: the watery light off the North Pacific, the madrona trees shading the long steps that cascade down Queen Anne Hill, the sunny, dry days that make you feel like you're walking through a Joni Mitchell song, the cold, wet days where you stay inside and drink coffee in your bathrobe.  I've rediscovered the joys of pho on dripping winter evenings, of gin-fueled dance parties in creaking Victorians, of noise shows in dingy bars, of arguing the difference between various Costa Rican coffees, of the hand-painted signs in Ethiopian script on East Cherry Street.

But, in addition to having spent one year back here, that's also one year I haven't been anywhere else.  I have not left Seattle city limits in 365 days, not even to go to a suburb.  I think, sometimes, about hopping on a bus to Shoreline or Tukwila just for the hell of it.  But this seems even more dismal.  My one time leaving the city would be to wind up in some chilly, windswept strip mall on a desolate strip of the Pacific Highway, before turning back.

I pride myself on being a peripatetic bastard.  On having rejected my home and gone to wander the Earth.  I'm slightly worn out and prone to reminisce about Cambodian mountaintops, about the long mosses that hang in the cold weather rainforests, about the steps of Sacré-Coeur on a July evening when Paris looks like an antique stereopticon.

So I have to wonder why it is I've stuck it out here.  I bitch about it a lot.  Everyone does.  Seattleites love to bitch about the rain, about the bad attitude it engenders, about that weird and pathetic desire that Seattle has to be a world city, to be a New York-in-the-Northwest, a Paris-on-the-Puget.

The virtual city threatens to overwhelm the old real.  The digital age has transformed the old town of salmon canneries and creaking viaducts into a shiny chrome post-metropolis.  What I hate about Seattle is exactly this, its icy, venal character.

And what I love most about it is its remnants, the ruins of the old America that poke out through the pacified city.  The half-erased Chinese signs and signs in a vaguely Chinese font-- COLD BEER, CHOW MEIN-- painted in alleys, the red gantry cranes that sway over the harbor, the filthy river that carries the name of a near-extinct tribe in the city named for its chief, the sudden flights of seagulls that swoop down through cobblestone streets filled with fallen sakura blossoms.

To a certain extent, what keeps people in one place is inertia.  Obviously, there are personal connections as well, to work, to family, to friends.  But I think a lot of what keeps people in one place is that they don't know why they would move when there's no suggestion that where they move would be any better for them.  We will be in one place tomorrow because it's where we are today.

Other cities and countries beckon me, and sometimes I imagine my future self there: walking through the streets of Brooklyn on an early fall evening, biking along the seaside in L.A., high atop a Maoist apartment block in Shanghai, staring down the entangled cityscapes of Berlin or San Francisco or Saigon or Seoul.

But Seattle and I have reached something of an understanding.  It's the spot on Earth that I've chosen, at least for now.  And when I walk home late at night, or when I see the sun rising from behind the Cascades, it reveals itself to me, and it's like receiving a valentine.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Looking Through an Old Dictionary

My roommate has the same dictionary from 1979 that my parents had when I was a kid.  American Heritage, with a glossy red cover, and the outside edges of the pages flecked with little pink dots.

I was looking for a word the other day, but I was immediately drawn in by the illustrations and photos on the side of each page, images I hadn't seen since I was a small child, rendered in black and white.  Pictures of Schopenhauer, of Emile Zola, of aardvarks and zebus.  I knew what Zola looked like years before I knew anything about him.

And there were the tables.  The tables of the orthographic pronunciation of the English language, in both IPA and proprietary American Heritage style, and of the derivation of the many languages of the Indo-European family.  Modern Assamese and Manx traced back through Middle High German, Faliscan, Avestan, Umbrian.

But the best was the measurement table.  The image of the table brought back memories of writing on sheets of printer paper that my mother had brought home from work; they still had copy from the Des Moines Register on one side.  I drew out diagrams of machines that had never been invented, pictures of rocket cars and maps of imaginary towns, always using the measurement table as my benchmark.  In my sketches, I endlessly divided length into rods and yards, weight into measurements both avoirdupois and apothecary.

On the right was the table of scientific units.  But I didn't approach it in any kind of scientific way.  This half a page seemed to contain all the mysteries of the adult world.  This was how they controlled everything-- they knew the eldritch rites of the joule and the coulomb, the farad and the candela.  If I was ever to enter the adult world, I would need to be inducted into their mysteries.  My drawings became decorated with meaningless measurements in hertz and ohms, an elaborate nonsense of Greek letters and decimals, all seeming to carry the gravity of profound science.

Remember Back to the Future?  The flux-capacitor?  You've almost certainly heard the words flux and capacitor elsewhere.  How many of you can actually define them?

The important thing isn't the science.  It's the ritual crossing into something that seems like science but is completely meaningless.  That's what I did as a seven year old child.  Without knowing it, I took the chart of scientific measurements approved by an international association, something so technical and positivist, and turned it around, took flight with it, used its symbols as the basis for something completely imaginary.

When I look back through the dictionary, the mystery of it is gone.  It has become a tool-- and not a very good one, it didn't have the word I was looking for-- instead of a totem of grown-up knowledge.

But a trace of that opacity and mysteriousness remains.  The long-dormant memories that are summoned forth are memories of these specific pictures and tables, independent of any underlying meaning.  These images of Schopenhauer and Zola have nothing to do with the Schopenhauer and the Zola that I would go on to read in my twenties.  They are little crystals embedded in the continuum of memory.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

On Blogging

Why do we blog?

I shouldn't be blogging.  I'm not a technically apt person.  I write-- always have-- but why blog?  I don't even have an Internet connection at home.  I used to have a blog when I was 17.  A Livejournal.  You know the type, I complained a lot about girls not liking me and claimed, with a straight face, that Sufjan Stevens changed my life.

Blogging is probably the most self-indulgent form of human communication.  The solitary writing process is transformed into public flailing.  People want to believe that their own musings have value, and so they type unedited streams of half-formed thoughts and expect people to read them.

There are bloggers who fetishize and giggle over their insecurities and postmodernities, there are bloggers who gush over the latest gadgets or remixes, there are bloggers who write hopelessly misinformed political screeds based on their own provincial preconceptions.  I don't want to be any of those.

OK, so it's self-indulgent.  But eating a nice meal is self-indulgent, having that second beer is self-indulgent.

I read some blogs sometimes.  Ones written by friends.  Or ones dealing with totally wonky topics that I think are rad.

I really can't think of a good reason to write this thing, other than that I've been contemplating it for a long time, and that I want someplace to collect the thoughts that I feel have some validity... the sorts of thoughts that arrive on a gray fall afternoon on one's back porch.

So let's set up some ground rules.

1. Every entry must be at least 300 words.
2. Don't ramble.  Keep on topic.
3. Edit, edit, edit.  After writing an entry, wait at least 24 hours before posting it to the web.
4. I can post pictures of things I think are dope.  The Internet is good for pictures of things.  But this isn't Tumblr.  I barely understand what Tumblr is.  It seems to have a lot of pictures though.
5. There are many events in daily life that make great stories when told to friends over a coffee, but are totally unsuitable for writing down.  They have relevance within a specific moment or with certain people.  They don't deserve to be broadly disseminated.
6. We may have experiences that have great value to us, but they shouldn't necessarily to be translated to print.  Maybe what makes them special is something we can't even grasp.  Or maybe they are experiences that everyone has had and, because of that, it's difficult to make them interesting.  Have you ever noticed that everyone's story about the first time they do mushrooms is the exact same?
7. Lists are fun, but they get annoying pretty fast.  I used to think they were super cool.  I still kind of do.  But does anyone not skim those long lists of stuff in House of Leaves?
8. Try to avoid expressly political diatribe.  It's really, really easy for me to fall into that and become some sneering little punk spouting Marxist cant.
9. Don't fall into the trap of constantly reviewing the books I'm reading or the movies I'm seeing.  You can read a book or a movie review anywhere.
10. Don't try to make grand statements.  They tend to be Procrustean beds.

Onward and upward.