Monday, December 28, 2015

Lobster Thermidor

It seems so odd and arbitrary that we only occasionally think about the history of the things around us, and only at the things that we deem "historical" in nature. A 19th Century church, an old family photo, these are things where their oldness is an essential feature in the collective imagination, and so we always consider their histories. Or we see something new that has a specifically antiquated design, or something in which we know the history of why it was built that way, or the intent of its inventor or designer, and we can tell ourselves the story of how this thing that we see came to be in the world. We might let the shape of our electrical plugs, the bright red of a Solo cup, go without comment that day. But sometimes the narrative emerges, uncoils, and becomes visible. And so it was recently, when the narrative came to me in the form of a lobster.

The story of how lobster became gentrified is one of the more popular pieces of kitschy American food lore, especially in the wake of David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster. What was once considered an inedible pest became a cheap protein and a standard meal in the colonial prison system before its eventual, full rehabilitation as a luxury food. Or perhaps you've heard about the six-foot lobsters that reportedly roamed the shores of Manhattan Island in the Colonial Era, like animal symbols of the hyperabundance of a supposedly virgin continent.

 

And when the lobster came to me, that crossed my mind. But what was far more interesting was the way in which it was served. The beast came with its claws already cracked, its insides splayed open and blended into a rich, creamy filling, lashings of egg yolk crystallized along the sides of the shell.

 

The name smacks of antiquity. The dish was named at Maison Maire in late 19th Century Paris in honor of a play, Thermidor, by Victorien Sardou, a titan in his time, but likewise now mostly forgotten. The play opened in 1891-- a time, known in popular memory, as the Paris of La Belle Époque, of Monet water lilies and boulevard flâneurs, but which was also a time of near-constant military intrigues, the Dreyfus Affair, the beginning of France's colonial incursions, and the far-right populism of General Georges Boulanger's revanchist political campaign, before Boulanger's suicide on the grave of his mistress several months after the opening of Thermidor. The play is the story of the Thermidorian Reaction, the 1794 French counter-revolution that lead to the execution of Maximilien Robespierre and the bloody purge of leftists in 1795, a subject so volatile that the government of Sadi Carnot banned the production at all state theaters... until Carnot's own assassination shortly afterwards, in 1894.

 

And the lobster thermidor has become something of a rarity. Once a luxury staple, it has faded into obscurity, along with other out-of-fashion dishes codified by Auguste Escoffier. Roux-thickened soups, sauces heavy with crayfish butter and meat glaze, breaded chunks of beef and veal, compound salads drowning under gelatin or mayonnaise, and grotesque, floral garnishes of puff pastry and vegetables have been relegated. We see their photos lurking in old cookbooks, with shimmery surfaces in oversaturated colors.

 

And so what I have on my plate is not just a dish, but a high-modernist relic-- a dish borne of the capital and excess and tumult of the 19th Century, enshrined in the ideology and iconography of the 20th, before being junked in favor of new tastes. A culinary Cadillac.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Sunset, Saphan Khwai

Get off the metro at Saphan Khwai at sunset. Walk southwards, towards Pradiphat Road. Lunch shops are selling off the remainder of their curries for the day, signs for windowless “cinemas” down side alleys. New condos loom over the rows of empty shophouses quietly crumble in the humidity, down sois that until recently, terminated at the dilapidated remains of the once glorious New York Theater, a block of high modernism reduced to one of the neighborhood porn theaters before its eventual demolition. And off to the left, the ever-glowing pink neon sleaze of the Sutthisan Road go-go bars.


 
I'd walked this route countless times to visit my friends who live in this area. But it was only recently that I began to pay notice to the grim, lumbering building on the Northwest corner of the Saphan Khwai intersection.

From ground level, it mostly seems to be a row of shops like any other-- food places, wholesalers of cloth, jewelers, all of the normal elements of most Bangkok neighborhoods-- but look a bit closer.

Up above, there are a few more floors than one would expect, and doors to nowhere jut out from masonry walls. A security guard waves cars in and out of an underground parking garage. Looking through to the back of the shops, a large, empty space can be seen, the walls painted institutional green, with a large empty tile floor in the middle. And above a food center, one sees the railings of overhanging floors, the interior space hidden behind hung white sheets.

A little research, and I finally found a photo of this, the Sisupharat Arcade Building, as it was under construction in 1979, right at the start of the Thai economic miracle.


And as it stands today, after its last iteration as the Saphan Khwai Branch of the Merry Kings Department Store, another victim of the 1997 Financial Crisis.


The hivemind of the Internet has become immensely fond of dead malls, those malls that either are abandoned, or, more likely, seriously under-occupied, remnants of a consumer base that has since moved on. It's as if, in the continuing wake of the big collapse in 2007, there's something cathartic about seeing a material manifestation of the total obviation of the suburban, American dream.

Bangkok has contributed to it in the form of the New World Mall, the structure near Khaosan Road that became famous for having partially filled with water, and becoming home to schools of carp.


Thailand's 1997, America's 2007. At the bottom of the business cycle, inefficiencies will inevitably pool. Destruction, sans renewal, emerges as an inevitable characteristic of capitalism. And this is why there is something so compelling about those sites that remind us of this sobering fact. We live among constant billboard, fantasy consumer products projected at us from every angle. Which is why, on warm nights in out-of-the-way neighborhoods, it might not be a bad idea to look at the broken concrete that lurks behind.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Arabesque

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

L'Avventura

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.

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.