2021-02-20, 六. How it Ends and Elsewhere Begins Anew.
A daughter returns to Greece with her father who was born there. He is returning to exhume his mother. The country's shortage of burial space means the dead lie in rented land, staying for three years before their family must come to retrieve their bones to make room for someone else. The uncle hadn't left the small town with the father decades ago and is the one digging. He clears away the soil, pulling up bits of coffin and bone. The Greeks bury their dead facing west, where the sun sets and where life ends. The daughter is next to her father. First comes the skull with the hair still brown. Then a shoulder bone, a clavicle, and some ribs. The daughter takes a second to look at her father and then back to her uncle. More bones come up, and he reaches a femur and the feet. The uncle steps out. He and the father put the pieces together with their hands. When they are done, the daughter looks at her father who is looking at his mother assembled on the ground. The daughter feels guilty when the thought occurs to her that she might one day stand where her father is. The thought lingers for a second before she glances at the ground and thinks, that's where life once was. Only the three of them are present, and the ceremony has no music or fanfare. Her father will box his mother's remains and bring them to a room that also houses others she'd grown up with. A gentle breeze in the air. The daughter knows that when she returns to work next week, she will have to rejoin her colleagues in the usual office banter. The sun is heavy this afternoon but she knows too the sun does not shine for her.
at unexpected moments
those beautiful days
this longing may never end.
might we as parents
reading to our children
a book from our yore
reconcile first memories?
we, passing them down
this little person
half is me
is this what my mother saw in my blank eyes
looking at her mother
she as her
2021-02-11, 四. On Race, Diversity, and Immigration.
Today’s post is delicate for obvious reasons. Reader be warned, this may make
you more uncomfortable than my other posts, but this is an important issue to
Let's cast aside the political polarization for a moment and have a mature conversation on race and the future identity of America. It's not popular these days but I don't think it's inherently racist to talk about race and its practical consequences, from both perspectives: the white's and the person of color's. There are very real issues that have to be addressed. The recent rise of neo-Nazies, conspiracy theories, and white supremacism is not possible under a well-functioning democracy. It only happens when people are insecure and under threat, and this threat stems from 1) poor white folks who feel the country has forgotten them and 2) the rapid demographic changes are altering the country's identity. I have nothing insightful to say about the first reason on top of the obvious need to address the problem. This post addresses the second reason.
Here are the facts. Estimates project that the country will become majority non-white in 2045. It's very soon— I'll likely still be alive when it happens. What do whites, who are losing representation, think of this? A survey found nearly as many view it positively (26%) as negatively (28%).
I'd like to first write a bit with the 28% in mind. At the extreme is the far-right. Richard Spencer, Lauren Southern, and Gavin McInnes are saying, "We built the wealthiest nation on Earth, we introduced democracy and defended it, we created a free state for all, we created the modern world, and who are these foreigners coming over and stealing our inheritance from us?" This is indeed the reality, and I have to say, they have a point. There's a conversation to be had, certainly not one I can settle but let's examine this further. My view in the end is that resources, opportunities, and equitable values should not be hoarded within lines as arbitrary as race.
It's worth repeating: I don't think it's racist to talk about whites wishing to preserve Western civilization. It's a matter of defensive self-conservation. The far right is the loudest but in today's intolerance that's the only venue to voice this defensive stance. Again I don't think this is racist but their concern is they're being pushed out. I read this from somewhere online—to my fellow liberals, this might be useful to see where the right is coming from—consider a white person moving to China and demanding that Chinese culture be moved aside, that the Chinese should lose rights for racial equality, and that the Chinese should be disarmed and have no option to push back. It's not racist but such actions provoke self-defense even by a neutral bystander. The question is whether it's fair to believe the dominant culture of the country (white culture) would be happy becoming just another minority group and losing the power it's had since the country's inception. I'd like to believe so because the way forward for the country is to accommodate all Americans but I suspect many white folks, openly or privately, don't—specifically the 28% in the survey who didn't even bother pretending. The question isn't about equality. The country's changing racial demographics is like saying: imagine a Britain that's not predominantly British or a China that's not predominantly Chinese. And no matter our skin color, if any of us takes a stroll along the Seine in Paris and see more Muslims in hijabs than the original French, does Paris feel French? This is the unsettling reality. Suppose for a moment that we lifted every poor white American out of poverty and secured their future prospects. Even then, would they be happy with no longer being able to identify with what the country is becoming? Conservatives feel their homeland is being hijacked even while we progressives see inequality at every turn. It's a problem in Europe too with the Syrian refugee crisis. Whiteness, Christianity, and the European identity that built the country are being threatened and what we're doing is blanket-blocking any mention of it as racist when there's a valid point here.
This problem extends to academia. A very recent vanguard in the humanities has essentially been saying: "we" have been oppressed, colonialized, underrepresented, and now that we're empowered we're going to take what's ours and air our dirty laundry. I'm not saying their push for equality is wrong but that they leave no room for the other side in a climate of cancel culture. Think of all the academics whose entire careers are based on what is now blatantly called imperialist and colonialist. The premise of the country as a free state where all are equal is not possible when we are separating ourselves into piecemeal subcultures defending our turf. America cannot be an either/or but has to be an inclusive both/and. Among many other adjustments, the required coursework reading may very well have to change from the exclusively white Western canon and the field may need some serious reflection on its context and history, but this doesn't mean dissolving the discipline, as Dan-el Padilla Peralta is open to doing with the classics. Let's recall that even ideas as radically departing from traditional Western perspective as those in Edward Said's ORIENTALISM didn't call for destroying the whole field.
What is happening is human nature: everyone pursues his interest, and it is the country that plays mediator for all citizens. Can we each stop demonizing the other side? It is useful to keep in mind John Rawls' veil of ignorance and take a step back from our particular place in society to think larger. With America soon to become majority non-white, we have to make peace with that fact. Now, onto something more interesting.
Towards a Brighter Future
This is sobering: a study last year found that when people are forming teams and adding members, they deliberately reduce diversity when they are shown whether a potential member boosts or drops the team's overall diversity. This behavior looms large. For all we tout diversity in our public relations messaging, for all the apparent diversity in cities, residential neighborhoods are largely segregated by race, even in our most diverse cities: New York City, San Francisco, and Chicago. And this map shows the race distribution in the country using the 2010 census data, with one dot per person, each dot colored by race. This is the undeniable state of affairs: de facto segregation. Residential segregation translates to school segregation. These maps show segregation consistent with the country's racialized geography, and this is over half a century after Brown v. Board of Education. Whatever image of a racially integrated country we may have in mind is not just overly optimistic but entirely wrong. PRRI surveyed racial compositions in 2013 of social networks within racial groups and revealed shocking homogenity. Among whites, 91% of friends are also white, among Blacks, 83% are Black, and among Hispanics, 64% are Hispanic. And Asians? No data for us. We're invisible. But these numbers remind me of Beverly Daniel Tatum's WHY ARE ALL THE BLACK KIDS SITTING TOGETHER? because of its title and how it cuts at the core of the matter. What is disheartening is I have not even the slightest instinct to say these numbers are out of touch with reality. What about the entertainment we consume? A study found "[w]hite participants showed significantly less interest in seeing movies with mostly Black casts than in seeing movies with mostly [w]hite casts." Another study found that whites and Blacks have few favorite TV shows in common. And books? I couldn't find a study on this, but let's be honest. If we can't even bring ourselves to watch movies and TV across races, how many do we suppose have read James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, or Toni Morrison? Or Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie, Orhan Parmuk?
So we don't live together, don't go to the same schools, aren't friends with each other, don't watch the same movies or TV shows, and if we meet each other at work what guides our conversations is a societal restraint from broaching race that precludes any serious discussion and mingling. How then are we to make friends across racial lines if we don't have much in common, can't point out the obvious, and skirt about the issue by talking shop, and when we invite that friend to our circle of largely homogenous friends we are also transferring the burden of restraint to them? And what are we talking about when we say with such conviction that we understand the Black plight or that of other minorities who have been less abused and less disenfranchised over the course of the country's history if the immensity of our unquestioned confidence comes from—indeed betrays—our own realities, our projected mythologies and imaginations exchanged among friends, cloistered in our communities where everyone looks and thinks like ourselves?
Racial inequality is something we can't help but pick up on. We adults don't talk about it because we've learned restraint, afraid of saying the wrong thing, and instead keep quiet or look away. Kids notice it too but are more open to speaking their minds. In the podcast NICE WHITE PARENTS, the host Chana Joffe-Walt describes this kind of situation when white students, who bring more funding power, started enrolling at a predominantly Black and Hispanic middle school: "These boys, even at 11 years old, they've absorbed the same messages that [the school] wasn't so good before. It was a bad school. He and his friends, they've turned the school around. That's what he's learning." This is what the boy in question said: "The kids wouldn't pay attention. And they had, like--got to, like, zone out every little thing. And I bet they learned very little. And now this generation with us, I think we're doing a lot better. And I think that we're learning at a much faster pace." This comment isn't racist so much as it's an innocent observation of a consequence of our education system and a history of suppression, and what he is saying is something we all notice when we come across it, but the current political and social climate casts over us a pall that mutes what we already know as wise silence.
Here I digress to put in a word on immigration. Like any proper New Yorker, I am a flaming liberal. I support the idea of equal opportunity for all whether in this country or in any other. In spite of this, I don't think the answer to the immigration question is to throw open our doors and let everyone in. There is a limit to how many the country can tolerate without bankrupting the social system. David Frum notes the practical concerns of immigration, that immigrants cost the government more than they contribute in taxes. A part of me says this is the price of an egalitarianism, but this deficit also surfaces a brutal reality. How can we accommodate indefinitely more immigrants when our country is already steep in debt and millions of our own, those we look in the eye as our fellow Americans, are struggling? Frum advocates focusing our immigration policy to accept highly skilled immigrants—doctors and engineers—who earn their keep and help the country remain innovative. This, of course, means a continual brain drain from their home countries, which strangely enough has been found to increase wages and democratic values back home. I'm not convinced, however, that losing a nation's best and brightest helps a developing country stand on its own and catch up rather than merely benefiting indirectly from Western progress. But this is the price of supplying American innovation, securing American well-being.
Diversity—why is it so difficult? I'm an atheist, yet I've sat with a Protestant as he prayed for me, I've linked hands with Catholics saying grace before a meal, I've attended Mass, I've sat in classes full of Catholics. I've joined the Muslim retreat at the Blue Mosque as the muezzin called and witnessed the hall's worshipers kneeling on the floor in prayer. I put on a kippah in Jerusalem and stood face-to-face with the Wailing Wall. I sat among the local community in Mumbai at a Hindu engagement ceremony. So what that I'm an atheist? We should keep in mind that what feels foreign to one is home to another, and it was the arbitrary slight of chance that we ourselves were not born into another's community.
Diversity is the country's future, and it is a future when the landscape of writers and directors will have changed, along with the TV-watching and movie-going market whose preference commands what the entertainment industry produces. One day, this era's fight for social justice, equal representation, true equality under law and its enforcement, will have been but one chapter in the transition to a more equitable world. And one day, we will not think it out of the ordinary that a lead actor is brown though we notice it and are aware of the long struggle that made such casting possible, and we will not be uncomfortable watching a person of color rejoice or sulk or have the full range of experiences of any ordinary human. One day, the unsightly practice will have passed when the camera deigns a moment for the diversity shot and then cuts away, returning to the default whiteness. The country's future is mixed, and we have to accept this as a reality, not boil over with veiled resentment.
William Buckley Jr. wrote, "A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop." What nonsense! How shortsighted is his view of history that for him, history extends no further than the past several hundred years since the Great Divergence that marked the West's emergence as the world's wealthiest and most advanced civilization, and he happened to have lived in the period when such self-flattery is possible. The one constant that endures time is change, and just as no individual lives forever in his youthful peak, no society is immune to its evolving fortunes. How many came before who met worse fates have had to accept change? Russians, Indians, Chinese, Persians, Turks, Aztecs, Egyptians, and all those who belonged to once thriving civilizations: if it is any consolation, others have been here before, and the decline of white power in America is one peaceful tick of change in the ocean of our inflated self-importance. How many in those prior civilizations screamed that the end is nigh, yet the world has moved on, and they carry about themselves in it as routinely as the Earth revolves around the Sun? It's always irked me how any mentioning the fall of the Roman Empire carries an air of puritanical nationalism, that it is with resignation that such greatness came to an end. It certainly was great, but we give the invaders who brought its fall the exceedingly flattering name of barbarians even though they too had families and lives, pursuing their interests just as the Romans theirs, and these barbaric tribes don't seem barbarians any longer when we name them properly: the Franks settling in modern France, the Visigoths in modern Spain, the ancestors of the moderns. We sympathize so intensely with the Romans because we see only one side, and the fact that we continue to use the word barbarians descends from this lineage—it's what the Romans called outsiders. It is worth reminding ourselves the truth Carl Sagan pointed out in COSMOS: "National boundaries are not evident when we view the Earth from space. Fanatical ethnic or religious or national chauvinisms are a little difficult to maintain when we see our planet as a fragile blue crescent fading to become an inconspicuous point of light against the bastion and citadel of the stars." That blue crescent formed 4,500,000,000 years ago, of which we humans developed agriculture in the last 12,000 and began laying the foundation for civilization. It is outright foolish to think that human culture has peaked and should change no further. The future of the country is diversity and what must happen: acceptance and unity, not separation and exclusion. Why not imagine a future where we contain Whitman's multitudes? Across canyons and valleys, lush green praries and eroded rock strewn over sand-blown desert, towering mesas and redwood forests, we find small towns and major metropolises decorating the land under the snow-capped mountains, for we are all of us American: brown and yellow and black and white and blue and red, bound not by prescriptions of the isolated echo chambers that came before but by a full forward march, hand in hand, towards a history that will bear our names in pioneering pride. When we were children we saw ourselves as adventurers and explorers, looking out at a world full of mystery, curious at everything, unafraid to learn, elated to be alive. Where has that sense of awe and wonder gone?
2021-02-09, 二. In Defense of Abstract Art.
Why view abstract art? When we stand before an abstract painting, what is it that we're looking at in the indeterminate swirls that don't even remotely resemble a person, a place, or anything familiar? I wish to address why I prefer abstraction.
If we can represent nature by reducing it into a set of equations, why not too visual expression into art's purest form? And what is visual art on the canvas but the strokes of a brush painting in the four variables of color, shape, size, and space? Consider Mondrian, Rothko, and Kandinsky. They use these variables to their own vision, and even with such a small arsenal, how can we say their compositions are anything but wholly unlike each other? It is often mentioned that abstract paintings lack technical difficulty. To this I say that the difficulty of abstraction is in the conception which requires a certain maturity, not in the elitist sense, but in the capacity to grasp symbolism to its devastating potential. One way to conceive of the world is to view nature and the universe as the eternal constants in which we measly humans flicker by, but another, equally valid one is to place ourselves at the central vantage point because what will it all have mattered if we don't exist? To appreciate abstraction is to take the leap from merely mimicking reality, scrupulously copying down its concretized distinctions and its various shades of light, to human expression, the crux of what it means to be alive.
I remember the first time I encountered Barnett Newman's VIR HEROICUS SUBLIMIS. I was pulled to it as if by a magnet, drawn up close to the life-sized red canvas, the red consuming my entire field of vision, and I felt shivers running down my spine. Staring straight ahead, I felt transported to another realm, and what ran through me for a full minute was a whole world of sensory saturation. The canvas encased all passion, all desire, all rage, all triumph, and it was surging excitement, jubilation: the sublime. What I felt was nothing less than the chaos of the universe, human folly, birth and death, our meaningless motions, coming together in a form so simple. It is an overflowing power even though the painting does not laboriously enumerate all human mistakes under the sky, it does not have any semblance of a character or story, it doesn't have any material substance other than color and size, for this impalpability mirrors what we have in the end: nothing. And this sensory experience is the meaning of the work, needing no other indication than the title: Man Heroic Sublime. Some attempt to approach the painting using traditional methods, examining its construction and the artist's background. To do so is to have missed the point. They place undue emphasis on the vertical lines, the zips, and deconstruct the order in which Newman painted them—it's a rather simple exercise of withholding some vertical space with tape and then either painting between a pair or painting around one. But this is not the right way to look at the painting, and we do not understand the painting through its technicalities any more than we get closer to understanding what enables life by analyzing the brain's atomic makeup. The zips merely serve to provide a sense of size for a painting that stands taller than any viewer.
I am not suggesting that expression and meaning is limited to abstraction's dominion. Consider Norman Rockwell's undeniably political THE PROBLEM WE ALL LIVE WITH, or Caspar David Friedrich's proud WANDERER ABOVE THE SEA OF FOG, or Giorgio de Chirico's dreary THE MELANCHOLY OF DEPARTURE, or the contrast of human transience and the mountain's unfazed apathy in Hokusai's EJIRI IN THE SURUGA. Let's not forget Yayoi Kusama's more visceral infinity mirror installations that manifest her internal world, rife with obsessions, a black room illuminated by floating lights all around, all receding into the horizon, a world on fire from which there is no escape, a world into which the public voluntarily steps. Or the same concept rendered more explicit in Edvard Munch's THE SCREAM, which unlike the former cannot be misinterpreted as just a pretty picture. What I am saying is abstraction's poignance arises from its simplicity that is too often overlooked, a simplicity that not only enhances a painting's lyric capacity but elevates the art by inflecting upon its very medium so that the artist, the process, the art meld into one. Why should a Ronnie Landfield stare at us less directly and speak to us from further away than Vermeer's GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING? In one brush stroke dashing across the surface, one color reaching upwards, dancing among many in our human dynamism, we see not a landscape or a portrait but a visual ode singing the tune of our inner complexity.
To stay clear of art's mystique, I must mention the regrettable reality is that any mention of art is preceded by its reputation. In this sense, art is like wine tasting. Wine tasting and, even more importantly, the acquired diction developed to describe it unfortunately connote class aspiration, class maintenance, and the whole system of media that reinforce wine's continued esteem and consumption. We don't dwell a second on wine's unfermented cousin, the unremarkable grape juice, but we go to considerable lengths to distinguish between wines by variety, region, year, and color. Though we may sensibly separate a heavy malbec from a mild pinot noir, when we start throwing around phrases like "flavor of blackberry", "notes of earthy vanilla", "hints of seasoned red plum", and "a rich dark chocolate lingering in the aftertaste", all the while affecting a poker face as we swirl and sniff ourselves into high oblivion, should we not ask ourselves if there might not be a more productive use of time than making an impression? Any genuine appreciation for wine is quickly extinguished when artifice enters the conversation. So too is art when we chase the big name, attach a price tag, and enshroud it in undue mystery. The art market has not escaped the American variety of ruthless capitalism, and decades of rising economic inequality has permitted the rise of rogue billionaires who patronize rogue artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. Why do some artists fetch handsome sums at Christie's or Sotheby's while many of their peers struggle, forced to sell their work on the street? There is a market whose taste is determined by an exclusive community, and the clients, keen on entertaining guests of similar standing, viewing a painting as an investment, patting themselves on the back for procuring a rarefied treasure for the spouse, transact in prestige which, too, can be bought. The truth is that the chief executive officers, the hedge fund managers, and those in the professional class whose wealth has passed the threshold where capital allocation alone suffices for comfortable living have not, over the course of their upward career trajectory, had the time to calibrate artistic taste. The real artist, dedicated to his craft as a parent to a child, for whom art is a means of living, is at the mercy of the tastemakers, the curators, the established critics. Such is the art market. But American capitalism, ever eager to place its hand on every exchange, bends the market to its own morality. This is not art for art's sake but raw capitalism. Let us appreciate art on its own accord, art for all. As Jerry Saltz says, anyone can look at art—including abstract art.
writing fiction is like
doing pure math
simply pen and paper.
painting a world in abstract
color and shape
2019-10-19, 六. On Humility.
I came across some old archives from my college. In them, photos—I'll provide the links at the end of this entry, but it is my hope that the reader resist the itch to scroll down. The plague of modernity, fragmented, interrupting, dispersed across screens, paper, devices, copies and versions, scrambled notes and secluded apps, cross-referencing links, bold images and billboard pizzazz, chaos and dementia all vying for attention, is not the lack of information but the senseless deluge of it. In these old archives, photos: a past era spread across decades, from the early to late 1900s. The exact dates, just one window among many, are not important. Age is apparent in the photos: black-and-white, the box desktop monitor, the oversized eyeglasses common in a bygone era. An image of the building facade I know so well, that entrance colonnade, the familiar study rooms and library stacks, the exposed brick in the background whose texture I can still feel on my fingertips, whose varying shades of deep tan at the front of a lecture hall I can still see from the back row. Photos of students and professors, angled over a book, gesturing against a blackboard, a chin resting on a palm. These are images of contemplation. I see my former professor too; he is young, the dawn of the present's grey hair still on the unforeseeable horizon, and I am reminded of his soft-spoken, deliberate words, his liberal smiles. Here in these images is an ethos, a generation that has had its day. I ask: where has the time gone? A day will come when my own present, captured in its 4K ultra-high definition, its 60 FPS videos, its surround sound, will seem the same way the image my former professor does to me.
Why am I consistently struck by images like these? They check me and my obsessions, my principles and remorseless ventures, my defiances and rages, my deep subversion and antipathy, my irreverence and disregard, my high expectation, my absurdism which proclaims with all its bared conviction the active pursuit of personal meaning, hinged on individualism and suffering. Who can't revel when resources abound, when surplus is assured? Who can't lounge at the resort, the tropical vacation, under the canopy of a beach umbrella? How can you measure a man's worth without plunging him into confusion, without testing his willpower, without questioning his premises, without first casting him into continual self-doubt, without subjecting him to arduous probing, without seeing what comes of him at the end, without the final analysis? How can you understand him if you only broach the surface? Does not our brittle sentience oblige us to something higher? Begin thus: shut the eyes, lock the world out, and create your own. There is naive happiness: contagiously distracting, wholly irrelevant, easy happiness. And yet is joy and elation not written in the eyes in those photos, snapshots of once-luminous years now laid to rest, encrusted in digitized stone? What justifies this morbid preoccupation, this pathological vexation? Who wanders on the distant shore? There is immortality, transcendence, a surge for meaning, the soaring spirit, and what but a mere few decades collapses a firestorm into flickering vestiges, a reality no longer ignorable, a whirling intensity and dire flame abated by universal inevitability? Push enough in one direction, and the path converges on the other end, the whole ordeal turning out to be nothing more than a simple circle. Is not man waking contradiction, lucid paradox? What lies in the periphery erodes, our own constructions crumbling away, when we, at our silent, inconsequential ends, rejoin the dust clouds. I remember the broad strokes of an algorithm book's preface I chanced upon some years ago, encapsulated in these words: "We are all born into this world grasping for comprehension. We leave it in much the same way." As I gaze at these photos and am forced to confront the fate of our collective humanity, I cave in to the flash of overwhelming sympathy, inspired to the depths towards pure union, and am convinced that this is the veritable truth, but do I not soon regain the call to existence? Am I not at every moment of ease restless? And when among friends at an evening gathering, among companions enjoying company, am I not suspicious of communal comfort, and am I not asking myself whether I shouldn't be doing something productive? Perhaps I do not see past youthful illusion, and I remain the perpetual sourpuss, the unyielding killjoy. Perhaps the matter of fact is this habit of mine is needless exertion, because—you, me, and everyone else—we're all just wasting time. A part of me, down to its very blood and bones, its beating heart and spiritual core, longs for transcendence. Another, which surfaces infrequently, and always with cataclysmic delirium, crumbles down to earth, grovelling on its knees, defeated and repenting. In me are disjoint visions, distal opposites, a fervent intensity which hardly anyone can detect beneath a serene appearance and pliable demeanor, much less for a people known far more for amenability than audacity, the orient's deep-rooted harmony, because the strength of the outward thrust is paired with a stronger restraint, dimpled by over-sensitive nerves quickly overwhelmed from multiple commotion.
I had come across the archive photos a while ago but was reminded of them after I was, in the unpredicatable network of the internet, linked to the late Jack Schwartz's In Memoriam site. Browsing the photos, I felt grounded, anchored. The fact that the camera is not as sharp as contemporary ones dates the photos, contextualizing them. Though I never met Jack, I saw in these images a life in retrospect, countries I've also visited, travels I can relate to, and which, as they appear in those images, seem to belong to Jack's time. To linger over the past is an undiluted view—somber, yes—but it is a fate which not too far in the future will be our own and which should evoke in us not only relation to another time and how we are situated against it, but also emphasize what is at stake when we live ours. The greatest divides are the boundaries across generations, life experience locked away in the written word or the still photograph.
my campus footpath at the start of fall break
under the early evening sun
that eerie feeling
emptiness where people should be
like parts of the city, late at night
having reconciled with the dread
that I'd lost them with my move
I encounter the tribe again
in my cohort
staring down the years ahead
this morning’s decadence
peanut butter from the jar
expanding slowly on my bagel
absorbed in thought
I look up, recontextualizing myself
glancing down two seconds later
a blank mind
I’ve lost my place
walking in hurried strides
pause for a moment, let the rush subside
immerse in the anonymous
project your focus outside
view yourself from the sky
lost in the heaping crowd
that old city life
2019-09-30, 一. Towards Mundanity.
It seems to me that there is a misplaced importance in the glittery and special, the infrequent and towering. Consider for a minute what we deem noteworthy, the occasions, the people, the excursions we wish to record in some form so we may later remember the original instance. Imagine what tempts us to take a photo: family reunions, smiles at the museum next to Starry Night, a friend's birthday party, a beached whale, scuba diving in the lagoon, gazing outwards at the dappled skyscraper lights in the twilight cityscape from top of the Empire State Building. Imagine what we write about: intrigue, mystery, cataclysm, swashbuckling drama, romance, adventure, fantasy, conjured fiction. The objects and events which atract our remembrances are not those that embody our lived experience which bears the bulk of our hours and days but which are instead the rogue anomalies, sparkling and fanciful yet sparse and detached, unrealistic and unrepresentative. Why is it that we pay almost exclusive attention to those infrequent moments and overlook what occupies the bulk of our daily lives, the very things that go unnoticed for the simple fact that the evening commute, the season's pantry selections, the foible during Wednesday's thunderstorm, the arrangement of books, papers, furnishings in the apartment, the brittle morning quietude, are common and invariant? These elements of our present context, the details of our facticity, should be cherished and appreciated precisely because we tend not to see them, and we cannot see their value when we've acclimated to the certainty of their presence in the periphery because they acquire contrast and nostalgic meaning only in the years afterwards when the familiarity and habituated motions we had once taken for granted which had, without thought, colored our backgrounds are no longer accessible beyond vague and, by then, certainly distorted memory, in those moments when we long that time also flows backwards.
To each his own chosen delights and dissipation. What is revolting is when natural complexity is buried by a pacifying smile which disregards and invalidates these indispensible considerations, banishing them to nonexistence. Mundane and common, yes, though nothing less than an appetite for the taste of existence, melancholic and transient.
There is a pond outside, wavelings rippling across the surface, a soft, gentle, constant wind billowing over its still mass. Two adolescent geese are floating near the edge, wings folded, necks tall and curved like cranes, feathered chests thrust out like a hen sitting on her eggs, enticing to the hands like a pomeranian's coat. It is a cloudy afternoon, a uniform grey pall, bleak and gloom looming in the skies above, time seemingly halted, the movements of the guiding lights in abeyance, left without an announcement when early afternoon becomes early evening. Perhaps it is the changing of the seasons. A mild chill this morning, headwind of the winter ahead.
I am sitting in the driver's seat. My mind is frazzled, in disarray, inklings of flickering thoughts branching in remorseless rampance, so many, so variable, too disorganized to pursue. A sense of loss. I am driving down Douglas Road, stuck in unusual traffic, behind an SUV stopped by a red light. I pause, shut my eyes, take advantage of the sterile moment, hoping to quell my racing thoughts again, this time once and for all. I had been catching up with myself all day, tracing the lingering images, inspirations, encounters of the week which had not yet been given due time, the weekend a reprieve from the barbarous class schedule, being tossed between buildings and classrooms, littered with hectic meetings, to-do lists, chaos, fragmented attention. And I had been telling myself that even on the weekend I shouldn't lapse into rest, letting myself loosen up and breathe, that instead I should be working. I am, after all, in graduate school. Isn't that what I moved here for, the busyness, the urgently packed miscellanea of academic life, a new start? When the SUV starts moving, I realize why the road is crowded: it must be football weekend. I am on my way to J's dinner which the day before I resolved not to attend, then considered, re-considered, settled, uprooted, a whole series of vacillations so typical of my character, demanding routine and predictability yet given to sudden whims and unexpected routs. My thoughts are unstable, and I am weary from the day's brooding and pacing, the torrent unleashed by the weekend's dam opening the floodgates of accumulated mental weight, and pursuing each trace is tiring, a private preoccupation, the weekend in the apartment a furnace of dilemma and quandary, sinking into contemplation after which there is no concretized proof of progress but which leaves me relieved and in touch with myself, a weekly rite of passage. I fret at a question that seems to come easily to others and which is answered just as readily, in what to them is a natural wave of the hand and which has never occurred to me as a simple inquiry, not because I do not wish to reply, but simply because I do not know how to answer in a way that satisfies me, much less in the immediacy of casual small-talk: how was my weekend? What may strike others as unfruitful, uneventful, wallowing, unhealthy, and invented difficulty are what permeate the time I have on my own, my home life, which is difficult not only because it does not lend itself to communication and relatability, but also because it is ethereal, lost even to myself unless I write these ruminations down. This is, I suppose, what defines my home life, my little adventures: unpalatable difficulty. But isn't this my default state? To step outside and mingle is easy, comforting, relaxing, but I cannot help but be wary of its draws towards complacence, deceptive alleviation, able to stroll in contentment for it has side-stepped the obligatory uncertainty which, without the forces of disguising compliance, lies in the plain. Plagued by unfinished strands of thought, an octopus' arms flailing about, unbeknownst to anyone as always behind my serene demeanor, I had forced myself to step out the apartment for dinner. I am driving down a road, half-baked in the head, half-delirious, precarious in my habits, not fully re-integrated with reality which I usually re-encounter on Monday but which I can cope with because I know it in advance as a matter of weekly routine. The laws of nature are difficult, but so is the human psyche. If this private, continual journey delves further and further inwards, it is in pursuit of eventual self-discovery. We are each of us, if given proper consideration, our own worlds waiting to be unveiled.
I’m not the only one buying them after all
none left at my supplier
my bagels ran out last night
2019-09-23, 一. Excerpt from the little black book.
Even the presence of company somehow siphons my energy. How can this be? It is enervating, debilitating, constraining, as if my creative latitude has contracted, my exploratory freedom diminished. A sense of companionship gives me at once the comfort of belonging to a group but also a group's conforming tendencies and impulses in which my instincts are muted, not permitted to stretch. The conversations that come closest to satisfaction are with only one other, when I can probe deeply, one-on-one, free from a group's desultory whims and intrusive, distracting, irrelevant itches and bouts, the inevitable trajectory of any social engagement, yet as I am walking to class with J, as I am sitting beside her in the lecture hall, I feel unable to be fully myself, to linger on my doubts and uncertainties, instead irremediably exuding a calm masquerade, putting off equanimity and poise, obeying societal prodding due to internal proclivities I've come to realize have not entirely eroded during the course of my asocial years but which have been lying dormant and are resurfacing beyond my will, when the state of affairs is that I am turbulent, restless, excitable, and in dire need of the independence availed by solitary work. After an accompanied episode, I have not only phased out of touch with my internal state, having lost track of my private compass, having left my cloistered ecosystem unattended for an interrupting duration, a black chasm gapingly torn open, almost an unknown void between the moment I was last aware of myself and my present disorientation, whose back-filling demands recallibration and reflection, but I am also fatigued, aghast that my redoubled effort at socialization competes with my very nature.
I like firm showerheads with delightful pressure, no-sugar-added cheesecake, unscented handsoap, pens that don't smear my hand's belly as it slides across the page, pleasant saxophonists lighting up the subway with jazzy melodies, dark humor, deep conversation, lightweight banter, naughter sarcasm, vulnerable confessions, playful teasing, spending time sharing strange stories, mistakes made, lingering and unresolved grievances, revealing and then laughing, remaining sincere and faithful to the layered nuances of living, breathing, and feeling.
I've been told on multiple occasions I look like a student. People notice it, though it's not true. It seems that I give off the impression that I'm younger than my years. Recently at the post office I was asked, by a cashier with greying hair and a suspicious hesitation gleaming from his eyes, how old I was. Sometimes the waitress at the bar cards me, because my charming youth unsettles even the general appearance of maturity from amongst a group of exclusively older friends, none of them less than half a decade my senior, who had all already ordered and all without provoking the matron's protective instinct. I was once reading diligently in the park when a woman, despite my ostensibly studious posture nonetheless insisted on striking up a conversation, promptly asked whether I'm a high school student, and I later had to convince myself that it was not my choice of reading, whose cover was conveniently hidden in its seated prostration on my lap, but whose hefty size could only have indicated otherwise, that suggested the question. Also in recent memory is a treasure hunt for the UPS drop box at the Presbyterian Hospital on 68th, the sole option at that time in the evening still open for services that was also reasonably close by, when I, in my youthful impatience, could not wait until the following day to ship a package. It seems those hospital folk don't ship packages often because their directions to some secluded hallway in the basement must've been rooted in that UPS drop box's heydays when it was formerly in demand, because it has since moved, and the basement folk, who must've been informed of the move of such a promising and cherished protégé which had proven, in time's merciless onslaught, to not live up to anticipated popularity and had now been cast away in disappointment to some back corner, pointed to the nearby stairs back up to the first floor, across the corridor, down another hallway, and, in the course of navigating so ingeniously designed a hospital, I passed the entrance lobby from which I arrived, coming full circle, realizing that the two directions were hopelessly misaligned, and in the ensuing flurry in search of the holy land, the secret sanctum, the yogi's peace, nirvana in a box, it slowly dawned on me that, really, no one knew where the UPS drop-off was. Or, perhaps more accurately, they were simply directing this little, uncomprehending youth in meandering circles, round and about, until he gave up on his own accord, the hospital masterminds acting as one, collectively and telepathically amusing themselves with their devious tricks and medical humor, because who but a malicious miscreant with hidden motives shows up at the hospital so late at night and with nothing better to do than to drop off a dainty cardboard box— who knows what's in there and what he plans to do? Long story short, the UPS box is indeed in the basement, but cloistered at the flank of the cafeteria known as the Garden Cafe—maybe the eponymous garden is no measly, nameless garden of harmless shrubs and idle tulips, but rather a minefield of treacherous strife, a religious rite of passage, the Garden of Eden lost, corrupted, blighted, and man, searching for his return to bliss, must navigate its deadly swamps under the guise of heartwarming food that lull the senses with its lunchtime decor. I stood by the doors at the cafe's entrance, evaluating the danger, thinking, this garden must be the last obstacle, the final precipice, the most trying test. Needless to say, this is where many a sailor who, weary and exhausted from sailing the unforgiving high seas, the mind-bogging and labyrinthine hospital, content themselves with an easy, filling meal, call it a day, and turn their backs on their original noble mission. But not this seasoned sailor. To reach the fabled treasure trove, I bolted into a Rocky-dash up a flight of stairs with exactly four steps, pummeled past twin doors with no comforting EXIT sign in red neon above—there's no exit in this one—actually there might have been but at that moment I was at the height of my powers, a car on seventh gear, too focused to divert my attention on anything but the end goal, so let's go with the story—and, as if by intuited scent, made an immediate sharp left, and there it was: the storied UPS box, hugging the wall, next to its second cousin the Fedex box, in a messy bed of cardboard dangling on the floor. I found myself in the middle of a dimly lit hall, and I glanced quickly both ways, left then right, then left again to eye my proper reward, the haloed UPS offshoot, and I saw in this hall a ghostly post-apocalyptic world just a door beyond, as silent and harrowing as the two abandoned blue-leathered stretchers standing in the background, with only each other for company in their dilapidated, forgotten, eternal melancholy, an early image of the end to come. Anyways, back to the reason I brought this story up: one of the security guards I inquired on my adventure was a young lass, late twenties at most, who at the end of our encounter made a note of appending the endearing label of "darling" to "have a good evening", the sort of diminutive affection that one adult would not share with another, particularly with a stranger, particularly from a lady when the stranger is a grown man, but only with someone deemed juvenile and adolescent, and I, walking away, wondered if it was my demure, solicitous earnesty that reminded her of a child holding out his hands, pleading for his allowance, and provoked her to reveal, as she saw it, the state of affairs. I deserve the credit of my years! I've weathered a quarter of a century! That's hard work!
In my field, there's a concentration of analytical, rational, and fiercely logical types, which I supposes in only fitting, considering this line of work, and though I can spar toe-to-toe with my coworkers, I frequently find myself left unsatisfied with the interactions, that though tasks a, b, and c may be completed double-quick, I have a lingering malaise nudging at my insides, as if I'm missing something I can't exactly pinpoint, as if moving rapidly through to-do lists and completing the day's tasks is not quite enough. So while my colleagues may no sooner remove the last item off their stack than they fling themselves wholly to another concrete pursuit, I am almost always dawdling behind, wondering in a trance about this strange incompleteness and, in brief intervals, why I feel this way. I've grown fairly accustomed to this feeling by now, and I think I know the reason: deep down I have a yearning that life is not simply a procession of successive objectives, bullet points, and graspable actions, because there's a greater satisfaction in touching a dimension beyond the fabric of physical existence. I get this feeling sometimes too at the movie theatre when the credits roll, and you hear the sound of those cinema seats springing back to their upright positions, the audience emptying out, and I remain seated, gazing at the twilight finale. I used to get it too in school, when class ends and everyone is rushing to depart, and I'd think, isn't it a wonder that just a minute ago the room was filled with eager youth, that only a moment's passing as quick as the flip of a coin can so transform a room from brimming, untamable energy to nostalgic quietude, that even now the chairs are still warm. I don't think many of my colleagues will appreciate one of my strange ruminations—listen: water droplets at the faucet are slowly dripping into the wash basin!
Maybe I'm just coming up with excuses for my habitual daydreaming, though I insist that I have a preoccupation with transcendence. You'll understand if the following excerpt from Pablo Neruda's CON ELLA (WITH HER) unsuspectingly disarms you, sends you to the clouds for the brief moments you're reading it, and you stop in your tracks, seized by its beckoning call:
-In the original Spanish:
Como es duro este tiempo, espérame:
vamos a vivirlo con ganas
Dame tu pequeña mano:
vamos a subir y sufrir
vamos a sentir y saltar
This time is difficult. Wait for me.
We will live it out vividly.
Give me your small hand:
we will rise and suffer
we will feel, we will fly