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Hand-Colored Postcards From the Future

One of the nicest things about old second-hand books is what falls unexpectedly from them: notes, shopping lists, receipts, dried flowers.

Best of all are letters; almost always written, if the book is old enough, in an elegant hand, no matter how rough the words. Serendipity and a sense of time’s passage — a literal sense, the scent of old paper — make familiar the unknown author, inscribe the fragment with the whole.

That’s not exactly how I feel about the words below, salvaged from my last blog, but it’s close. It’s as if they were written by someone I know well, a better writer than I, more sensitive and thoughtful and driven. I always feel this way about past writings. I probably always will.


29 July 2006

The man arrived, inevitably, in a labyrinth. The exact details of how he arrived are unimportant. Everyone arrives in a labyrinth at some point, awaking unexpectedly in the middle, not quite sure whether they meandered casually in, choice by choice, or leaned against a section of wall that, as in so many cartoons and movies, simply swiveled right around and plunked them somewhere else.

Unlike most labyrinths, there are no walls; the exit, then, is likely to be something other than a door. The curving, forking paths are separated by swaths of garden, cold-weather-hued green daubed with Queen Anne’s Lace and wisteria and other delicate, complicated flowers. One would no sooner walk across it than push through a wall of thorns.

How, then, to find a way out? Left to chance, never; one needs a guide, an intuition, a principle to follow. Surely classical mythology has come up with a few of these; but who really has the time to look that up?

There are animals in the labyrinth. Grass and flower creatures: pillbugs, ants, butterflies, spiders, snails. When you arrive, a snail resting on a smooth gray stone happens to capture your attention. Looking closer at its shell, which seems grey when seen directly but turns every color just as you move your eyes. As you stand and walk away, the snail starts to turn and extends its eyes, waving them urgently in the other direction; you wait, it slowly — rapidly, to be fair, to a snail — glides forward.

It takes a while to find the way out. You’re not quite there yet, and sometimes worry that you took a wrong turn somewhere, but at other times you believe in the entirety of the choices, that right and wrong are continually determined and possibilities renewed. At night you build a small fire at a fork in the path and fireflies keep you company, offering no advice but blinking warmly, more dense around you than in the darkness behind them. During the day, traveling slowly as you must behind the snail, you have time to think, to go running, to notice the other flowers. Sometimes you see another traveler and you call to one another across the paths, later sharing the light of a single campfire, calling to each other again until your choices have separated you once more.

It occurs to you that the purpose of the labyrinth may not be to find a way out, but to finally merge paths with someone else, and continue walking with them. What is there to do in the meantime, then, than try to live honestly and decently and try to choose wisely, however imperfect our wisdom.


07 August 2006

That time in early August when, finding it nearly dark at eight on a cloudy evening, you sense the summer and the sunshine slipping away, experience an anticipatory taste of autumn melancholy and winter bleakness, and the next day, riding the bus all morning under a pristine blue sky, are filled with unease, a mix of loneliness and finity.

I’m tired of people talking about leaving New York City. The more people talk about this, the less likely it seems they are to do it. This holds for a lot of things I think. When I’m ready to go, I’m not going to talk about it; I’m just going to go. And so on.

Home for fragments and words that would otherwise have been buried in my journal file or forgotten in a half-completed notebook.

On a slightly turbulent plane ride one week ago, window seat looking out across one wing. Remembering reading an experiment — the setup escapes me — in which a person is sensitized to an inanimate object, in this case a desktop; striking the desktop makes the person react as if you’d struck the top of their hands. So I tried to project myself into the wings of the plane, and the wings into me, by concentrating upon the buffeting, the roll of the craft; and after I while I could half feel it, a ghost feeling, an anticipation of a feeling, so when the wings caught cross-currents, I could feel a simultaneous strain in my pectorals, the lateral muscles across the top of my chest, tingling, thrilling with force and freedom of wind.


18 August 2006

Spent several hours standing beside abstract paintings and asking people how they felt today. There was Joan Miro’s “The Birth of the World.” Wasily Kandinsky’s “4 Panels for Edwin R. Campbell,” and Umberto Boccioni’s “The Dynamism of a Soccer Player.” Among were young people from Jerusalem and Torino and Valencia and London. Sweet platinum tourist moms from Wilmington, North Carolina. A few admitted, almost apologetically, that they didn’t like abstracts. “To me it’s just stuff thrown at a canvas. Isn’t that terrible? I know it’s supposed to be famous.” Most were moved in some way. The Miro was large and heavy; it loomed from its own wall, the background washes like concrete on a rainy winter day, a black triangle — mountain? — in the top left quadrant, beneath it a thin jerky rectangle — fallen question mark? prostrate man? — which feels somehow human, and also tethered to the washes. But out of it all buzzes an orange circle. Escaping? It is a monumentally gloomy piece. But moving. The Kandinsky and Boccioni, by contrast, were — joyful. their colours were so joyous — primary reds and yellows and blues and greens — Mike Timlin gives up a bases-loaded double to Derek Jeter on a full count in the bottom of the seventh. Yankees 11, Red Sox 10. Where was I? The abstracts were not chaotic or meaningless. They were evocations of states of mind. They gave a shape, a softening, a humanity, to the disorder. The woman from Balencia was as beautiful as the Boccioni. She said the Miro made her cry. Her skirt was the Kandinsky’s green. According to the Landau study, which prompted my visit, abstracts remind people of the underlying disorder to the world, shaking the foundations of the structures we’ve created to soothe our foreknowledge of death. These did not do that for me. They were affirmations of life. Births of meaning. I came tired to the museum and departed refreshed.


27 August 2006

Because of my presence in the morning, my roommate has been unable to tend the garden, which is reached through a door in my bedroom. As a result it has grown with abandon, much recovering from the shearing she gave it early in the summer, when she eliminated a whole hedge of what she would term ‘shrubs,’ which had grown to the size of small trees. There are, I suppose, two fundamentally opposed philosophies of gardening: one in which plants called shrubs are by definition undesirable, and one in which plants are categorized by pleasantness rather than name. At night it had been pleasant to stand beneath the leaves, back to a wall, staring up into the branches of a row of ancient elms that towers in the center of the apartment block. From the right angle, I could see nothing but the elms — no building, no city — and there was a quiet I hadn’t felt since moving to New York. After the shearing, the garden felt denuded, and vapor lights from a nearby building crossed the wall where the shrubs had stood. But a couple months have passed, my roommate has been effectively barred, and now the garden is again dense and wild, with leaves that rustle happily in the wind.

It takes a while for eyes to adjust to the dimness, but once they do the leaves stand out in detail, as in Rousseau’s jungles, and two white chairs seem to glow. The chairs are a fine place to sit and have a beer. I’m going to miss this garden.


18 September 2006

Raccoon Speech.

(Begins w/ patter appropriate to circumstances, i.e., baby talk and cooing noises, words and sounds I’d feel funny writing down. Lullabies half-remembered from childhood:

Dun-dun soi
I must leave you today
For Paiyau
Is far, far away.
If you look for me, son,
You come to Paiyau
Where you’ll find me at home.

And so on. Rock-a-bye raccoon, on a railing top. . . .) Hello? Raccoons? Listen. Is it okay if I call you Paddy? And you, Pedro, and Penny and Paella? Okay. Now, I know we don’t have much in common. (It’s okay, it’s okay, don’t move. . . .) Most of the raccoons I’ve known have been country raccoons. It probably wouldn’t help if I talked about forests and ponds. Like, how peaceful it is when the moon is full, and I can hear the breeze as it rises through the trees, it sounds like the trees are speaking to each other, back and forth, and the breeze never makes it to the water, whose surface is a perfect reflection of the night sky, and when my eyes adjust I see a raccoon, a patch of black darker than the rest, come down to the edge of the water, wash his paws, and he probably sees the mirror stars more clearly than the real ones; teh mirrored stars are more real to him; maybe he looks up at the blurry sky and says, ‘What an imperfect reflection of this world!

I ramble a lot with people, too.

Anyways. I can tell that didn’t exactly soothe you. You’re city raccoons, I know — don’t move, don’t move, be a good city raccoon, just sit still a little while — you don’t know about forests and ponds, you’re all about rooftops, and ancient oasis groves in the middle of apartment blocks, fire escapes and storm drains, pigeon eggs and leftover pizza — I bet you love anchovies — the thrill of garbage day, stealing keys from the pockets of passed-out drunks and hiding them in their shoes. Yeah yeah yeah. You’re tricksters, through and through. Got the masks, the long clever humorous fingers like a tailor or pickpocket. And you thought that tonight you’d trick your mom and dad, pretend to be asleep, sneak out and see the city, the real city, you’re big enough and old enough and nobody tells you when to go to bed. And now the night just sucks. Not what you wanted at all. You’re frightened, you’re scared, you don’t know what’s going to happen to you, what kind of trouble you’re going to be in, you think you might even die. Don’t worry, okay? You’re going to be all right. Just hold still.

And in a couple years, you’ll be proud, trust me. You’ll yell at your own cubs nd be waiting just outside the hole when they least expect it, but deep down you’ll be proud of them, and you’ll brag about all this when you’re hanging out with the other adults, drinking Budweiser floaters that you’ve dragged up the tree and into the den. But first — just stay still, okay? People are coming to get you, with ladders and nets and flashing lights. It’s kind of weird, that. I mean, here our society is, the richest in the history of man, we can send a truck and trained rescuers to four raccoons stuck on a ledge. But we can’t even keep some poor woman’s newborn child in the hospital for a couple more days. Like I said, weird. Makes your head hurt a bit. But then, you spend all night scraping people off the pavement, responding to women hit their men, turning on sirens when you hear gunshots, you figure, rescuing a raccoon’s probably a break. A treat. The kind of thing that makes little kids smile, and that matters, cause so long as little kids smile there’s a chance for us. For the little kid in us.

And so long as you’re here, we come out of our apartments, out of our own dens. Turn off the TVs and our loneliness and our routines. Call our friends. We talk to each other and get excited and mill about on the street, inside our roles, outside our roles, connecting to each other, this night a little different and a little special. Because of you. Because we might not be able to save the world, but we sure as hell can help a few adorable little punk-assed raccoons to safety. Yeah, it doesn’t hurt that you’re so damn cute. Especially you, Pedro. (And you, Paella, and Paddy and Penny! You’re all special!) It’s life, all of this. And it’s gonna work for you. Just don’t move, okay?


25 September 2006

Great letter in this weekend’s NYT Magazine, responding to James Traub’s atrocious bohemianism-and-gentrification article. Don’t have the letter handy, but the gist of it was that Traub, and the Times in its depiction of New York arts culture, had defined bohemianism and avant-garde culture as a variety of hipsterism that is fairly mainstream and commercialized, or at the very least not ‘outsider’ or ‘oppositional’. Not that, for example, I’m a big fan of freegans; but if you want to find outsiders, they’re out there . . . and pretending that makers of limited-edition t-shirts are the last remaining rebels disservices the public sphere. It’s a journalistic betrayal.

Thinking about this reminded me of the original question about Le Tigre and commercial sponsorship of emerging indie/outsider artists, and helped crystallize my feelings about that: i/o artists, especially new ones, don’t have to exist in opposition to the status quo — though they often do, and it’s a good thing — but we like to imagine they are, in some way, outsiders, and not just because nobody’s yet opened the door to the vault, but because it’s who they are. And perhaps it’s inevitable that they’ll be embraced, join the club, support a new status quo that they’ve helped to create — and that’s not a bad thing — but it’s necessary that they start out somewhere else, a mental and cultural space that doesn’t accept the fundamental assumptions of mainstream social reality. Which isn’t to say we want art made by aliens or raving madmen — just that Picasso would not have become Picasso if he’d been painting Absolut ads and wearing couture shirts at twenty-three.

Answer to the original question, written in response to a friend’s question:

So the question about Le Tigre and fashion and artists got lost in the heat of the web updating, and I wanted to try and answer it, because it seems important. It’s okay to have a strongly held belief and not understand completely why, but I feel obligated to try and understand it. If this ends up being a bit confused, it’s because I’m a bit confused, and there’s lots of reasons, all mixed up with each other . . . and if I come of sounding like a fundamentalist, a secular Bible-thumper, *tell me*, cause that’s not what I want to be. . . .

To me, it relies very much on association being an active thing — if a band is attached to Le Tigre, the band is in some way promoting Le Tigre, and supporting their actions and what they stand for.

There’s the obvious question of whether Le Tigre uses sustainable materials put together by well-treated workers. But there’s more to it than this. If American Apparel sponsors a band, I’ll feel the same way. Why is this?

In part, I guess, because American Apparel sells itself in a way that I disapprove of. Not precisely by objectifying teenagers — I don’t like that, but it’s not necessarily an evil thing. American Apparel — through the language of its images, its promotions — buys into, or tacitly accepts, a warped system of human relationships. Despite its better labor practices, AA still feels like a socially conscious incarnation of Abercrombie & Fitch . . . part of a culture of aquisition, of treating people as means to ends rather ends, of being fundamentally unreflective. A world of reality TV.

In terms of clothing, the necessary corollary is fashion, as opposed to style: our ‘second skin’ being turned into a uniform, assembled under the coercion of companies and authorities, instead of personal taste. Fashion Week ought to be called Style Week; by fashion I mean the clothes that different groups of people wear . . . and it’s hard to say exactly why this bugs me. Part of it is an instinctive distrust of all herd mentalities. I also don’t like the underlying premise that identity is something that can be purchased — that, indeed, *ought* to be purchased, and regularly updated, in order to fit in.

It’s also about the loss of the individual. Having a brand on your chest, even a small tasteful logo, does this, if only by a little bit. (Again, it’s not like this is some horrible evil thing — I mean, my shorts have a Champion logo, but I don’t leave part of my soul at the YMCA.) But a person on the stage, wearing something given as a commercial promotion, *branded*, is in some way less an individual, making his or her own choices, than a fusion of person and corporation.

An artist, and indeed every person, expresses themselves in many ways, clothing being one of them. Artists we expect to express themselves more purely and fully; I want their clothing, and my own, to mean something — even nothing, so long as it’s *them*, and not a commercial. Of course, what if the artist *likes* a Le Tigre shirt? The cut and the color? That’s trickier. Perhaps it’s not such a bad thing. But it still bothers me that Le Tigre is pushing it . . .

. . . and that has to do with the scene itself. Fine, hipsterism is mainstream, or at least a main current. I still like to think that scenes and subcultures embody something spontaneous, something that can grow without being packaged and sold back to us, that they can take root and grow in a space that isn’t commercial. Not a space that isn’t economic — people buy and sell things, we try to make a living, that’s fine. But not in a disembodied way. And Le Tigre — Diesel and D&G and all the companies that sponsor new artists — are by their presence proscribing the space itself, the mental space in which it all takes place. It limits what is conceptually possible; it’s the cultural end of a colonization of consciousness, arriving on new shores to plant the flag of 21st century consumer life and all the habits of thought (and politics and power) that go with it.

Not that people at a Diesel-sponsored show aren’t going to go out and have fun and fall in love and get in fights and do all the transcendent things that people do, wherever we are . . . but it just bugs me. Somehow, if I was living in London in 1966, when Syd Barrett was at his creative peak, when he was going places with his guitar that nobody had ever been, it would have meant less had he been pimped out in Pierre Cardin. If the beam of dawn’s light at his last great show had hit a silver Adidas logo rather than his mirrored strat, he would have been diminished.


01 October 2006

Usually when I visit home, I like to take with me on the airplane back a bottle of my mother’s tea, which I can never make quite the same way, even with the same ingredients. This is no longer permitted.

While in the security line this evening, I watched the screening agent examine every fluid or gel-filled container, squeeing tubes of Noxzema creme, and so on; he was a thick man with muscular, hairy forearms and a granite demeanor, and obviously felt as ridiculous as he looked.

On the plane the stewardess announced, as has apparently become the custom on American, her own name and that of the pilots, so as to make the experience more familial; but most families are, of course, dysfunctional, and I would rather they maintain the sterile reassurance of anonymity.

The visit home was deeply satisfying, and passed too quickly. Like bark from a birch tree, a little of my stress sloughed off, though only a layer.

05 May 2007

The inheritance of whole systems at successive scales above the genetic; what would this look like? Whole systems stratified according to which characteristics? Their interactions with other systems?

Encountered a skunk tonight after reading about skunks in R.D. Lawrence’s “The Wildlife of Canada.” Didn’t feel scared — retreated a few steps, he stopped, I stopped, he went on his way. In the night I could hear the sounds of urban life, but also skunk in the grass; the two are not exclusive.

Is a secular democracy the only form of democracy capable of protecting human rights? This seems to be the assumption — that church and state must be separate — but must they necessarily be?

Is it worse for, say, 1000 people to be forcibly deprived of their life and freedom, or for twice that number to be deprived of life and freedom, but by (avoidable) circumstance rather than active oppression?

Smells of conditions, such as bemusement or good fortune, the latter of which would have a rather different smell than success, and the former a hint of vanilla.

… the name of the sensation felt when disembarking a plane and walking up a ramp so gently sloping that it seems flat, and you’re not sure why your sluggish balance lists.

Could our paradoxical ability to feel more compassion for a suffering animal than a suffering person be rooted in our tendency as children to empathize more easily with animals, which are alternately examples of freedom or of comradeship in dependence, and generally less difficult to understand than distant and complicated people?

Something made me recall these things together: a New York Times story on the banking of stem cells for future repairs of athletes, the more vicious nature of contemporary hockey and a short story about a group of soldiers who find a dog. The soldiers live in a blasted-out chemical wasteland, genetically modified to metabolize dirt and stone, and after frequent battle — or even self-mutilation, or violent play — are treated with medical techniques that can regrow new limbs and fuse mangled bones. At first they don’t believe the dog is real, because nothing natural could live in such a toxic environment, but they are eventually won over by its toughness, and soon come to feel affection for it — affection being a forgotten emotion. But the dog is too difficult to care for and finally they eat it. Is the relationship between the ability to treat injury and the inability to care causal? Of course not. But somehow these characteristics have flowed in opposite directions in hockey, where players then as now fought hand and foot, but were not in the past thoughtless.

06 June 2007

Jerry Trupiano was inexplicably released as the play-by-play man on the Red Sox radio broadcasts, replaced by an announcer perfectly capable but inadequate, who doesn’t fit in the way that Trupiano did.

Baseball is the one sport that can still be reduced to radio: a background noise for life, not the center of attention but the accompaniment to a summer day. A story to drive to, fall asleep to. Ball, pause, strike, pause, ball, pause, foul, pause … and on for two or three hours, the moments filled as much by ambience as action, giving time describe the events and their actors. Trupiano and Joe Castiglione were the perfect pair, two slow-spoken and aging men who’d watched many games before, pacing themselves with the gradual ebbs and flows of the games. Trupiano’s was a deep voice. His replacement is high-pitched, too quick to speak, to insistent on a rapid flow of information.

If Castiglione and Trupiano’s gravelly meanderings could have been found sitting together outside a store in a small town, in the bleachers or a rainy-afternoon bar, the new announcer belongs to a loud and crowded bar on an afternoon where you’d be better off outside, to sports scores updated on top of taxis. So long, Jerry. Baseball won’t be right without him.

07 June 2007

The blocks of stone on the corner, beside the buildings under construction. Two trunk-sized fragments laid on the street beside the intersection, catching the streetlight, their bulk giving them the presence of old draft animals. They look like concrete, and are definitely man-made, but already they’ve become stone, they have the authenticity of time.

19 July 2007

The sound of a car pulling up to a motel on a summer night.

23 September 2007

Are yuppie semi-bohemians particularly bad parents? Or, at least, do they have weaknesses particular to their type?

Two anecdotes from coffee shop conversations overheard during the week:

An attractive woman in her mid-thirties is having morning coffee with two friends, both of whom look like ex-models and are dressed in an expensively casual way. Her daughter, maybe eight or ten years old, is glued to her Powerbook. The mother, in between talking about her daughter as if she wasn’t there, tells her to stop watching and anime and start working. The daughter, who has a precocious air, says something offhand and otherwise ignores her. Thereafter, every fifteen minutes or so, the mother tries to get her daugther’s attention: “Ayla,” she says. The name, I must say, is a good one. “Ayla. Ayla. Ayla. Ayla. Ayla.” Though her name is being repeated, Ayla ignores her mom and continues to stare at the screen. The scene is repeated ever fifteen or twenty minutes.

Two new parents are discussing with a friend what sport their baby boy will someday play. They seem like nice, thoughtful people. Basketball and football, decides dad, is out of the question — he’ll never be big enough to be really good. What about tennis, suggests the friend. Mom responds that a friend of hers has a son who plays tennis, and it’s very expensive — not just because of the lessons, but traveling all over the country for tournaments and whatnot. They seem genuine supportive and concerned, but it never occurs to them that their kid might just pick a sport that he happens to like, and play it for fun.

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