Tuesday, January 27, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 15, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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