Thursday, July 02, 2020

Love can't even save us from love

Everything feels off today. Yesterday was brilliant, but today is off, like I got up on the wrong side of bed today, only it's the same side I always get up on, well, most of the time. Some days I get out on the other side of the bed, just because it's more practical, depending on how I've moved in the night, other days I deliberately get out of bed on the other side, just to, you know, mix things up. Today I got out on the right side of the bed, and it was the wrong thing to do.

Maybe I took a wrong turn somewhere. I walked into the bakery last weekend and discovered an insect on my arm, something winged and long, vaguely beetle-like, and I thought of the time beetle on Donna's back, and I had a déjà-vu-like flash of another insect on me not so long ago (Was it in the Sahara? No, not the scorpion, or the nonscorpion. It was something beetle-like.) that also reminded me of the time beetle, that I was also supposed to write about. I flicked it off my arm, there inside the bakery, and part of me actually expects my neighbourhood to slowly collapse around that point zero.

(Although. That insect that wasn't a scorpion, that pinprick in my finger, in the night in the Sahara, the night we smoked shisha in the bright night of the Sahara, and I thought you trickled a handful of sand down my top, only your hand was on my back and the sand was crawling up, it looked like twigs, like frayed straw, and I shrieked and scooped it off my chest, brushed it away, and something pricked my finger. That night when I thought my finger might fall off, my hand, my arm, when I thought I might die, and you said it was nothing, not a scorpion, maybe an insect, I rejected you and returned to my tent, and as I lay on my bed in my tent in the Sahara I remembered how Pierre had told me to go into the pain, but I hadn't known pain like this, and I thought if I went into the pain, I would die. But I had to go into the pain to be the pain so I could control the pain, push the pain back into the tip of my finger. And still I think it was a scorpion. It was 17 hours before I could feel my finger again, and still I thought, it left something inside me, still I thought I might die, or maybe it gave me a superpower. Maybe I can point my finger and wither false bluster or exact truths. Maybe it was a time scorpion, maybe my path diverged that bright night in the Sahara. ) 

I wanted to sit down this afternoon to write about the books I've read lately, but even that's not going to plan. Maybe I don't care enough about them to say anything. (Truly, I don't have much to say about The City We Became or Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982.) Other books, like Blue Flowers, I care too much about. Maybe. Maybe I don't know how to write about books anymore. I don't know how to write. 

I've been watching Fleabag, because I now have a trial of Amazon Prime. I thought it was supposed to be a comedy, and I suppose it is, but it's grim and painful and real. There's this bit at the end of season one where the bank manager mentions how cafés are a difficult business, and it unstoppers her outpouring.
I also fucked it into liquidation. ... And I fucked up my family. ... And I fucked my friend by fucking her boyfriend. ... And sometimes I wish I didn't even know that fucking existed. And I know that my body, as it is now, really is the only thing I have left, and when that gets old and unfuckable I may as well just kill it. And somehow there isn't anything worse than someone who doesn't want to fuck me. I fuck everything. Except for when I was in your office, I really wasn't trying to have sex. You know, either everyone feels like this a little bit, and they're just not talking about it, or I'm completely fucking alone. Which isn't fucking funny.
I feel like this a little bit, and sometimes I try to talk about it, and sometimes it wears me down — the feeling and the talking. I think about how I passed up a chance to fuck in the dunes of the Sahara.

I have Amazon Prime because I ordered a desk. I feel like I've made a pact with devil, both in ordering from Amazon, as the easy, logistically expedient, cheap thing to do, and in succumbing to the need for a desk. It's been made clear that the office will not be returning to normal anytime this calendar year. I think I've always known this, but refused to accept it. I don't like it, I hate it, I don't want to work from home, I don't want the work in my home. But the only way to cope with it now is to relegate it to one ugly little corner where after hours I may render it invisible, somehow filter it out of my perception. The ergonomic chair, however, not Amazon, as yet has no confirmed delivery date.

It's been a 121-day streak of German lessons on Duolingo, and I'm starting to tire of it. Some days I almost forget. It's been two years that I have an imaginary German lover whom I've never met, and every day I consider what lengths I would go to, what risks would I subject myself to, to touch him, kiss him, fuck him.

This week I'm dwelling on the things I meant to do while under stay-at-home orders but haven't: the violin that sits in the middle of the living room but which I haven't played; the sculpture for which I've yet to acquire clay (I want to sculpt time beetles, or time scorpions); the piece on male muses I started writing last winter for which all the tabs have stayed open; the shoebox of papers to sort.

This week I feel like an exceedingly selfish person. I wonder if I'll ever be less selfish. I wonder if I'll ever love someone to the point that I'll put them first. (To be clear, the responsibility and love I have for my daughter is quite outside of this equation.) 

There are bits of Blue Flowers by Carola Saavedra that echo Clarice Lispector's Passion According to G.H. (that's the cockroach I want to sculpt, to claim), the reference to something ancient, something primal and primeval. There are bits of blueness, and love, that touch me.
I was thinking about this yesterday, about love, about this insistence on love, as though love could save us from everything, as though love could save us from hate, from madness and even desire. Whoever came up with that idea? Love can't even save us from love.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Chalk dust supernova

Days are getting shorter. Like I'm running out of time for things.

We're having a heatwave. The city phoned me yesterday with an automated message to tell me so, and remind me to stay hydrated. I'm tired of drinking water, I want to hydrate from the outside. Thunderstorms this evening have turned the outdoors into a sauna. Maybe it will break by morning. Maybe not.

On Friday we took the metro to visit my sister. The ride itself was mostly fine — not nearly as many people as I'd feared, though only about half were masked. It's only on coming up from the platform that my daughter felt the heat of the day and the closeness of her mask and she fainted in my arms. I struggled to ease her to the floor without smashing her heavy head. A worker cautiously offered, from several respectable metres away, to call someone for help but I waved him off. In time, a long time, more than an hour, we walked the few short blocks to my sister's place. Hours later we called an Uber, all our exposure-risk aversion outweighed by the simple desire to be home. 

Saturday morning I popped out to the bakery for fresh croissants for breakfast, and a baguette for later. Like the world was suddenly normal and I could do what I want.

I've been feeling ill myself. Today is the sixth day. It's my period, but it's not my period. It's not a dehydration headache, it's not a tension headache, my head barely hurts at all. I want to call it a migraine but it's not, it's a feeling of overwhelming nausea radiating from the tension in my back. Maybe I just need a massage, someone to touch me, someone to fuck me. I am self-diagnosing existential angst, and prescribing something I can't have.

I catch myself worrying that the mushroom is sentient and has deliberately released spores to infect my household with a malleable and unnameable condition from another century.

I feel like there was a lesson to be learned in lockdown, and we missed it. Our minds are fogged. We're not thinking clearly.

The pool in the park is open for business, and I'm mildly horrified. Already at its revised reduced Covid-era capacity, over a dozen people awaited their turn to go in. I feel like I'm underwater.

There are remnants of egg on the sidewalk a few doors down. I thought someone must've wanted to see just how hot it was, but then I realized this pastey mass was surrounded by millions of fragments of shells; someone dropped a single egg. Over the days, the matter has diminished, as if it has sunk into the pavement, the ground has drawn all the water out of it, all that remains is something like a chalk dust supernova, coated in a glistening golden eggwash with a shell mosaic halo. I feel like the egg.

I've been watching things. I May Destroy You makes me wonder about things I may have forgotten. Normal People, much like the novel, makes me want to be at university and in love (yes, I know that's not what it's about). And then there's the little Polish Netflix series that keeps flashing back to the summer of 1994, the summer I was actually in Poland, and I drink my wiśniówka and sing along, wondering what reality I left behind there.

I have acquired a stack of quarantine books. These are them, all the books ordered and picked up or delivered in the 104 days I've been staying home. I have spent the evening fondling these acquisitions in a desperate attempt to distract myself from ordering more.

So far, I have read but one of them. In the meantime I read something big and sprawling (Gnomon), and now I need to finish a library book (The City We Became) before it vanishes into the ether, and another library book (Kim Ji-young, Born 1982) has just been checked out to me. 

There isn't enough time. I am stockpiling for the second wave.

Friday, June 19, 2020

I have walked myself into my best thoughts

You're not built from the soles of your feet up — it's more like your head is a "castle in the air," with scaffolding reaching down to the ground.
I started reading this book in pre-pandemic times, and set it aside to focus on other commitments. When I did pick it up from time to time, it made me angry. Trying to write about it now makes me angry. For all the wrong reasons. But I'll get to that.


In Praise of Walking: The New Science of How We Walk and Why It's Good for Us
, by Shane O'Mara, is an informative and even inspiring book. I first heard of it some months ago when I stumbled on an article confirming what I've always felt, ‘It’s a superpower’: how walking makes us healthier, happier and brainier, which excellently summarizes the ideas the book puts forth and may be enough for some readers. 

A good portion of the book is very sciencey, exploring the evolutionary necessities and advantages of walking.
We are exceptional walkers, possibly the best walkers of all species. 
And then it gets neurosciencey, explaining the brain activity that accompanies this particular form of physical activity, and why it's good for your well-being, bodily and mentally. The subprocesses at work even get a little metaphysical.
But the extra factor that helps us find our way is that humans are good at ruminating on our pasts and imagining alternative futures — a capacity that is probably unique to us. The brain's GPS system taps into this and allows us to engage in mental time travel — via memories, or imagining alternative futures. This is a map of time, rather than space, but it is equally essential. 
Walking is a way of being in the community. It is a social and a political act. It can mean to walk with someone and for something. It can be an end in itself.

The greatest achievement of this book is to serve as an argument for city planning to consider pedestrianism and "walkability: cities must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting."
A more walkable city, in straight, is a city that benefits us all in so many obvious and occult ways — obvious, because walkability adds to our health and well-being; occult, because walkability has so many hidden benefits for creativity, productivity and enriching our societies.
I was happy to learn that those dirt trails we tread into the grass have a name: desire paths — the beaten path from here to there that eschews poorly planned pavements, betraying the fact they were designed by people who think of public space as ornament, by people who live in suburbs, by people who prefer to drive.

[Unleash my body and my soul to imprint all their desire paths on the world.]

For a meandering view of walkability, see The Guardian's series, Walking the City.

O'Mara notes that Kierkegaard wrote that "Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it." Kierkegaard grappled intensely with the existential despair of life and love; he did not, however, have to contend with the conditions of pandemic lockdown.

I miss walking. I walked to go places, and I walked for pleasure. The city under quarantine was encouraged to get out for some air, some exercise, and suddenly my world was invaded. My private pastime, my secret pleasure, was appropriated by everyone who used to work and dine and drink without taking particular note of their trajectories.

Walking is different now. Avoiding walkers and joggers, people lined up on sidewalks at pharmacies and hardware stores, people on sidewalks stopped to talk with people in their doorways. To maintain physical distance is engaging other brain functions — logistical calculations, risk assessments. Coupled with a general pandemic-onset panic reflex, walking is exhausting. And clearly, there are not enough sidewalks and green spaces for all of us to enjoy as we should.

I want to walk again, let my mind fly.
But mind-wandering is not mere idleness or time-wasting, at least by the common understanding of the term: rather, it is a necessary part of mental housekeeping, allowing us to integrate our past, present and future, interrogate our social lives, and create a large-scale personal narrative. If mind-wandering is idleness, it is a peculiar and active form of idleness — we are behaviourally quiescent, but mentally vigorous.
I do my best critical thinking and emotional processing when walking. I synthesize my reading, I formulate my writing. I find myself, and I own the ground I walk upon. 

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Malice, saved up against the day

I am unable to concentrate on work this past week. I sit and stare at my laptop for hours. Not cooking or cleaning or distracting myself with productive (if personal) endeavours, I sit and I stare, and I stew about it.

I continue to learn German on Duolingo. I haven't missed a day in a over a hundred days. But even this I don't do during work hours. Diese Katze ist mein Chef, nicht mein Haustier. 

Something catches my eye at the base of the large houseplant, I've had it for years, like a crocheted cat toy that might've flipped into the pot. Only we don't have such cat toys. It's a mushroom, slender-stemmed, pale yellow. My research yields conflicting information — it's dangerous to the plant and the immediate environment and must be eradicated versus it's a healthy symbiotic relationship that should not be disrupted. Where did the spore come from? Did it pry its way through the window screen? Did it sneak in one morning when I opened the front door to greet the day? It puts me in mind of a passage in Tokarczuk's Primeval, and I wonder if it came purposefully to slow down time for me. Perhaps it imbues my tiny queendom with a magic power I've yet to discover, perhaps it will lull me into a quiet death.

I don't read much. I don't blog. Occasionally in the evenings my eyes wander over the jigsaw puzzle — Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights in 2000 pieces. I look at each piece as it constitutes the whole, and marvel at the weirdness of tangled limbs and futurist architecture. Why would birds care so much about these naive humans to feed them? 

On Thursday I went for a walk. It was windy. The wind makes me restless, so I walk and walk. When I walk around the lake in the park, the trees bow down to slap me. Early afternoon and the park is reasonably sparse. Some people sleeping on benches. Some people staring into the void. 

It's hours before I return home. I give up on work for the day. I sit on the balcony and read Gnomon. The wind roars along the ruelle like a sea monster, I feel like I sit just below the current, barely safe. I want to take off all my clothes and let the wind ravish me, but the wind doesn't even know I'm there. 

Across the way, a woman is yelling into a void, what would you do without me, how would you take care of her, you do nothing, you think lawyers' fees are more important than spending time with your daughter, you should be fighting to spend time with her, you come and go at your convenience, what if something happened to me, what would you do. I saw him once on the balcony with the baby. It's heartbreaking, and I cry for her, and for me too, thanking her for saying the things I should've said years ago. 
I lean across the table and kiss him lightly upon the brow in benediction, and feel something unknot in me that I hadn't know was tied. Malice, saved up against the day, but never really anything I wanted. I let it go. 

Benedicite, Augustine. You silly arse. 

It's like releasing a heavy sack. I feel muscles in my chest open and unlatch: freedom. I catch my breath at the feeling.

Monday, June 01, 2020

Leaving made a velocity

I, Hazel Brown, eldest daughter of a disappearing class, penniless neophyte stunned by the glamour of literature, tradeless, clueless, yet with considerable moral stamina and luck, left my family at seventeen to seek a way to live. It was the month of June in 1979. I was looking for Beauty. I didn't exactly care about art, I simply wanted not to be bored and to experience grace. So I thought I would write. No other future seemed preferable. Let me be clear: I did not want to admire life, I did not want to skim it; I wanted to swim in it. I judged that to do this, I had to leave, and to write. I wanted to speak the beautiful language of my time, but without paying.
This is how The Baudelaire Fractal starts. I'm stunned by it, it's stunning. This is what happens when a poet writes a novel, Lisa Robertson, I should look her up. 

It's also beautiful, printed on Zephyr Antique Laid paper, whatever that is, kind of creamy, textured almost lined, makes me want to run my finger along all the words, manufactured acid-free from second-growth forests not far from where I now sit.
Prodigal, undisciplined, with an aptitude for melancholy, I left houses, cities, lovers, schools, hotels, and countries. I left with haste, or I left languidly. Also I was asked to leave. I left languages and jobs. Leaving made a velocity. I left garments, books, notebooks, and several good companions. Sometimes I left ideas. After the leaving, then what? I suppose I would drift. I had no money and no particular plan. Cities exist; hotels exist; painting exists. Tailoring also, it exists, as anger exists, mascara exists, and melancholy, and coffee. I liked sentences and I liked thread. Reading surely and excessively exists; also, convivially, perfume and punctuation. I had a fantasy and my diary. I had my desire, with its audacity, its elasticity, and its amplitude. I carried a powder-blue manual Smith Corona typewriter in a homemade tapestry bag. I was eager, sloppy, vague. I wore odd garments. I carried no letter of introduction, and I knew no one. I was only a girl bookworm. I wasn't to stay. None of this troubles me much. The nervous fluid of a city is similar to a grammar or an electric current. Loving and loathing, we circulate. I myself did not exist before bathing in this medium. Here I become a style of enunciation, a strategic misunderstanding, a linguistic funnel, a wedge in language. Here I thought I'd destroy my origin, or I did destroy it, by becoming the she-dandy I found in the margins of used paperbacks. What do I love? I love the elsewhere of moving clouds.
I started reading this while resting in the new park I discovered, a sunny afternoon under cottonpuff clouds. I don't know how I came to stumble on this novel, don't ask so many questions.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

They got on with it

Well, here was my first lesson: it had almost nothing to do with computers, the modernity I was trying to understand. Computers were the bones, but imagination, ambitions and possibility were the blood. These kids, they simply did not accept that the world as it is has any special gravity, any hold upon us. If something was wrong, if it was bad, then that something was to be fixed, not endured. Where my generation reached for philosophy and the virtue of suffering, they reached instead for science and technology and they actually did something about the beggar in the street, the woman in the wheelchair. They got on with it. It wasn't that they had no sense of spirit of depth. Rather they reserved it for the truly wondrous, and for everything else they made tools.
— from Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway.

What is it I'm trying to understand? What modernity am I too old to grasp? It's true, they get on with things. Some things. But in other regards they're clueless, not even aware that there are things to be got on with.

Time moves differently when you're swimming in it.

I think twice before popping into a shop just to pick up the cocktail tomatoes that will satisfy a craving (and then I don't do it, because I shouldn't do groceries for another week, I'll manage without). Elsewhere, I line up and wait and sanitize before I'm allowed to ask for batteries. Yet I can have exotic mango salads delivered in time for lunch. How is it that I can refurnish by balcony on a whim, but I cannot stock up on household paper products? A strange blend of excess and shortage. How difficult it is to understand what it is I need, and what I want.

My government has exceeded the pace of bureaucracy to effect change, hopefully lasting change. Something approaching a universal basic income. Recognition of the the fact that no one should ever go without food or shelter. Sick leave.

But the mood outside is chaotic. Everybody is living in their own world, some oblivious, some nothing-left-to-lose reckless, some simply testing the theory of their immortality. (The fearful are staying home.)

I am loving Gnomon. It's big and surprising, rich with allusion, playful. I imagine it as a video game through which I'm leveling up. (I'm more than 200 pages in, almost a third of the way through.) I needed this book, I needed it now.

It's awakening a sense of creativity within me, how I use words, how I look at art, how I relate to technology, where I fit in society, how I want to shape my life.

Very unexpectedly, this book is strengthening my relationship to my work and my workplace, at times echoing the mission statement and values of the company I work for. When it talks about reshaping the world and taking on hard problems — not only technical ones but challenges with a moral component — it clarifies for me what a very cool company I work for, with an admirable ethos, valuing what everyone has to contribute — everyone's perspective informs the whole. We just do things.

It makes me want to do things again.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Close-packed human chaos

Writing, I'm convinced, is often nothing but revenge — a way of twirling one's mustache, donning buckler and sword and feathery hat, shaking one's gauntleted fist at the gods.
I thought I could use some laughter in dark times; Geoff Dyer's recommendations of funny books came just when needed. He reminded me that I've been meaning to read Eve Babitz, but of all the books he listed, the library had only Terry Castle.

I got off to a rocky start with The Professor and Other Writings. This collection of essays opens with a piece on World War I, which I found neither funny nor particularly interesting, so I was a little wary of what I'd gotten myself into.

While I wouldn't call these essays funny exactly (certainly not in an uproariously side-splitting way), Castle certainly knows how to tell a story.

There's a piece on Susan Sontag, about whom I know shamefully little, and pieces about Agnes Martin and Art Pepper, about whom I'd known nothing at all (and now want to know more).
I realize there may be a few lost souls who've never heard of him. Forget the overrated (and vapid-looking) Chet Baker. Art Pepper (1925-1982) was an authentic American genius. One of the supreme alto saxophone players of all time, Charlie Parker included. A deliriously handsome lover boy in the glory days of his youth. A lifelong dope addict of truly Satanic fuck-it-all grandeur. A natural writer of brazen, comic, commanding virtuosity. A proud long-term denizen of the California prison system. And now, no doubt, a tranquil if desiccated corpse.
In "Home Alone," Castle shares her "shelter mag obsession" and highlights how the industry was traumatized by 9/11, when the idea of "home" was attacked and our sense of "sanctuary" threatened. She later turns a bit morbid considering the furnishings of death and evokes the avian-flu epidemic of 1918-19, noting that bird-to-human influenza viruses were much in the news at the time of writing in 2006. It was somewhat eerie to be reading this against the backdrop of quarantine. In 2020, with virus on all the airwaves, home is our only safespace — it is our office and our entertainment and it circumscribes our whole life. Remind me to check out a home decor magazine next time I pass the newsstand.

Ostensibly the star of the show, is "The Professor," about Castle's relationship with a teacher when she was in grad school. Perhaps because this essay is the longest and most personal, my feelings toward it are ambivalent. It's got some great lines: "Cathy and Heathcliff were like old acquaintances — my weird second cousins or something." But it is also self-indulgent — Castle's old journals are a springboard to the 70s, an emotionally juvenile time. The drama of the affair feels out of proportion, despite the morally questionable behaviour (a student-teacher relationship of this sort today might be judged much more harshly).

Castle's lesbianism is a constant presence, and if not central, then certainly significant to some stories. It made me wonder to what extent is my sexuality present in my writing, even when not the subject of it. Castle's references throughout to therapy also has me reconsidering whether I should give psychotherapy another try. (Why should I? What is it that fascinates me? Why do I feel I'm not good at it? Why do some people get so much from it, and why can't I be one of them?)

All in all, this is the kind of book I'd prefer to have in print, to pick up and browse at my leisure. A bookful of Castle is a lot of Castle. Were this not a library book with a due date, I'd've approached it differently. I'd rather take an essay at a time now and then.
Sometimes in raucous old bebop recordings from the late forties — the grotty straight-ahead bootleg ones with murky nightclub sound, people talking and glasses clinking in the background — the music doesn't end properly, with the usual reprise and nail-it-down final chord. It just breaks off abruptly in the middle of a solo or chorus as if someone had knocked over the mike. You're left with the sense of a close-packed human chaos, now terminated. Art Pepper is a kind of mannequin or decoy, I guess, the sort of mummified icon that even a person as terrified by mortality and other people as I am can latch onto and worship. It's true: I love his deftness and valor and craziness, and the exorbitant beauty of his playing. I love the quick, creamy sound he gets out of his alto. I love his shame-free storytelling. I love his handsome young male face.