Thursday, September 24, 2020

The drumbeat of juicy epithets

Madam Józefina Przełęska had woken up on the wrong side of the bed that morning. By ten o'clock, this fact had become a universally acknowledged axiom in the kitchen. By eleven, the entire apartment had broken out in such pandemonium and hullabaloo it was as if there was not just one wrong side of the bed but at least two. 

By noon, the noble residence of Madam Przełęska was pitiful scene of chaos and panic, where august antiques fought wildly in single combat, moving from place to place until, amidst unrelenting skirmishes, they were cut down with the heat of battle and remined motionless, their fashionably spindly legs sticking straight up into the air. Amidst stampeding servants, the lady of the house galloped through the apartment like a Valkyrie on the warpath. Before her resounded the drumbeat of juicy epithets, behind her billowed the flounces of her dressing gown like a burnoose sweeping over the rubble.

The vacuum cleaner growled in the sitting room, salvos of carpets being beaten reverberated in the courtyard, here the windows were thrown open because this stifling air was simply unbearable, there the windows were slammed shut because these drafts could blow your head right off.

On top of everything, the telephone rang without stopping, and the hailstorm of words pelting the mouthpiece slashed the air like a whip.

It was that very moment the doorbell sounded in the hall. It was the last straw. Madam Przełęska pivoted and darted over to answer the door personally, much to the horror of her servants, who, in their hearts, had already entrusted the welfare of this unfortunate guest to the mercy of God.

— from The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma, by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz.

Monday, September 21, 2020

I write from here, from the warehouse of unsold women

It has begun. The second wave of the pandemic. I keep thinking of it as a sociological phenomenon rather than a biological one, like fifth-wave feminism. And it is. It's second-wave pandemicism — because I wasn't angry enough and lonely and scared enough and tired enough the first time. 

It's been 202 days of German lessons, and more than 6 months of working from home. The order I put in at Ikea early this past summer, the curtains to prettify and the task lighting to enlighten, should finally be delivered next week. 

But the last few days, weeks, have been hard. It's too cool to sit on the balcony in the morning, it's more effort to go for a walk. The rituals that helped summer pass are broken.

I dreamt my period came suddenly and my shirt-tails were soaked red, I put my hand between my legs but couldn't stanch the flow, there was so much blood.

I went for a Thai yoga massage because I needed my body stretched and steamrolled. I learned that I've forgotten how to relax. How difficult to be in the body and to let go. What I like so much about this style of massage is the trust exercise of it, the surrender. And it seems I'm unable, I'm so tightly wound, on alert, ever vigilant, and tired. And when he thumbed my right forearm near my elbow, I started to cry. “The body remembers,” he told me. (And I was remembering you, stroking my arm.)

That was Friday, the day Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. I feel sadness, and hopelessness, and defeated. We are Ruthless. 

Tonight I cut my hair and dyed it blonde. Haircuts (unlike massage) are nonessential. I would do it myself. All pandemic-long, I've wanted pandemic hair. A badge of honour. I would cut my hair in protest, in solidarity, as self-mutilation. It's gorgeous.

Some books arrived today, among them, King Kong Theory, by Virginie Despentes:

I write from here, from the warehouse of unsold women, the psychos, the skinheads, those who don't know how to accessorize, those who are scared they stink, those with rotting teeth, those who have no clue, those that guys don't make things easy for, those who'd fuck anyone who's prepared to have them, the massive sluts, the scrawny skanks, the dried-up cunts, those with pot bellies, those who wish they were men, those who think they are men, those who dream of being porn stars, those who don't give a flying fuck about guys but have a thing for their girlfriends, those with fat arses, those who have dark bushy pubes and aren't about to get a Brazilian, the women who are loud and pushy, those who smash everything in their path, those who hate perfume counters, who wear red lipstick that's too red, those who'd die to dress like horny sluts but haven't got the body, those who want to wear men's clothes and beards in the street, those who want to let it all hang out, those who are prissy because they're hung-up, those who don't know how to say no, those who are locked up so they can be controlled, those who inspire fear, those who are pathetic, those who don't spark desire, those who are flabby, who have faces scarred with wrinkles, the ones who dream of having a facelift, or liposuction, or having their nose broken so it can be reshaped but don't have the money, those who are a hot mess, those who have only themselves to rely on for protection, those who don't know how to be reassuring, those who don't give a fuck about their kids, those who like to drink until they're sprawled on the floor of a bar, those who don't know how to behave; and, while I'm at it, I'm also writing for the guys who don't want to be protectors, those who want to be but don't know how, those who don't know how to fight, those who cry easily, those who aren't ambitious, or competitive, or well-hung, or aggressive, those who are timid, shy, vulnerable, those who'd rather look after the house than go out to work, those who are weak, bald, too poor to be appealing, those who long to be fucked, those who don't want to be dependable, those who are scared on their own every night. 

Bring it on, second wave. We are already scarred against you.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

There is nothing more heartbreaking than a squandered opportunity

Sometimes I felt that my mind was a soft cloud of air around me, taking in whatever flew in, spinning around, and delivering it out into the ether.

It took me a while to warm to Death in Her Hands, by Ottessa Moshfegh. I couldn't at first buy into the narrator as a frail old lady. The voice (as I heard it in my head) was too much of she who told My Year of Rest and Relaxation, overpoweringly strong (nonchalant millennial). But soon enough, the mystery of the story itself took over, and I thought maybe this tone was the fist clue to the unreliability of the narrator. And besides, little old ladies have all kinds of different voices (what will mine be like, I wonder).

It reminded me of another old-lady-in-the-woods story — Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk — which, along with references to Hansel and Gretel, reinforce the idea that I might be witnessing the emergence of a subgenre of the literary crazy-old-lady category. Moshfegh's and Tokarczuk's characters are both very much a part of their communities, connected to them in ways they don't even acknowledge, while apart from them, self-isolated and grieving.

He liked to tell me that I was the source of my own misery, that I was choosing to believe that my life was limited, boring. He explained that everything was possible, and moreover, everything — every thing and scenario — existed in infinite versions throughout the galaxies and beyond. I knew it was a childish belief, but I had adopted it anyway. Imagining infinite realities made whatever nuisance I had to withstand more tolerable. I was more than myself. There were infinite Vesta Guls out there, simultaneous to me, scrolling down the TOP TIPS FOR MYSTERY WRITERS web page, with only one small variation: one Vesta Gul's hair was falling across her forehead in a different way; one mouse pad was green instead of blue, and so forth. In another dimension, there was a small fire-breathing dragon sitting next to me on the floor. And in another, Charlie was strangled out in the car by an eighty-foot boa constrictor. And so on. The job of the sleuth was to narrow down potential realities into a single truth. A selected truth. It didn't mean it was the only truth. The actual truth existed only in the past, I believed. It was in the future where things began to get messy.

So what truth is she trying to get at? She found a note about Magda's dead body, but no dead body, and Vesta's imagination runs with it. She writes Magda's story, conjures her out of thin air. It is a distraction from her loneliness and her grief over her dead (and abusive) husband. It's all very real to Vesta, and one wonders if she doesn't know a little too much about dead bodies — about how circumstances can lead to murder.

She turns random occurrences into clues. Her paranoia and obsessiveness make everything a sign. Is she just a crazy old lady to be dismissed? Or is something more sinister going on?

Vesta Gul. A ghoul. The vestigial remains of a woman. She mourns Magda, real or not. She doesn't even realize that she's mourning herself, what little is left of her now her husband is gone. 

I loved her the way I loved the little seedlings soon to sprout in my new garden. I loved her the way I loved life, the miracle of growth and things blossoming. I loved her the way I loved the future. The past was over, and there was no love left there. It hurt me to think that Magda was dead, life wrangled out of her body, that she'd been abandoned, with nobody but maybe Blake to attend to her corpse. It is easy, I thought, to find great affection for victims, emblems of vanished potential. There is nothing more heartbreaking than a squandered opportunity, a missed chance. I knew about stuff like that. I'd been young once. So many dreams had been dashed. But I dashed them myself. I wanted to be safe, whole, have a future of certainty. One makes mistakes when there is confusion between having a future at all and having the future one wants.

(What future do I want?)

Reviews
New Yorker: Ottessa Moshfegh's "Death in Her Hands" Is a New Kind of Murder Mystery 
Atlantic: Ottessa Moshfegh’s Riveting Meta-Mysteries

Excerpt.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

The majestic boom of you

(Too good to be true. It's not true. It stung me in the heart.) 

A----o

The trouble with you,
dear, is that your name
is so damn Shakespearean —
I can't tell if our fandango
is of historic import
or mere romantic farce.

Whether you be impostor
or ghost or some Greek chorus 
to illuminate the story my life,
verily my flesh gives way to
the majestic boom of you and
our irrepressibly awkward joy.

Drafted August 2020, for later review; launch date TBD. You're beautiful, AF. Thanks for showing me what joy is possible. 

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Fuck DRM

Cory Doctorow emailed me yesterday, following up on a note I'd sent him in 2014 about his novel Little Brother.

It's about his new book, Attack Surface (aka Little Brother 3). I like that it's a standalone, and it's written for adults. I'll read it.

The story itself sounds great. Attack Surface covers racial injustice, police brutality, high-tech turnkey totalitarianism, mass protests and mass surveillance. As Doctorow puts it, "there is something powerful about technologically rigorous thrillers about struggles for justice — stories that marry excitement, praxis and ethics." 

But Audible (an Amazon-owned monopoly) won't carry the audiobook because Doctorow took the ethical decision not to wrap it in DRM. (See here for more on digital rights management.)

Doctorow is making the unabridged audiobook (narrated by Amber Benson) available on Kickstarter. So you can get a great price and take a moral stand by sticking it to Jeff Bezos.

"This is a first-of-its-kind experiment in letting authors, agents, readers and a major publisher deal directly with one another in a transaction that completely sidesteps the monopolists."

I'm not generally an audiobook listener, but I'll make an exception.

Kickstarter
Audiobook preview
Print excerpt

Friday, September 04, 2020

The fish in the desert

I went to a psychiatrist once. I was doing something that had become a pattern in my life, and I thought, Well, I should go talk to a psychiatrist. When I got into the room, I asked him, "Do you think that this process could, in any way, damage my creativity?" And he said, "Well, David, I have to be honest: it could." And I shook his hand and left. 

No one would ever guess at the film genius of David Lynch by his writing. He struggles to articulate the concepts he claims bear him such creative fruit, and he fails to inspire.

Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity is likely a genuine effort to explain his creative process, or lack thereof, to aspiring artists. But it doesn't work on paper. Weirdly, Lynch's ideas are much more compelling when shared orally:

Introduction 
Eraserhead 
Suffering
Kubrick 
Keep at it 

I've moved beyond plumbing my own depths for creativity. I'm trying to understand how other people find it, use it. I'm reading about how it works for profit and for fulfilment. Ideas do not come to Lynch in dreams. Rather, he taps into the unified field of consciousness.

********

One morning this week I wake up feeling something graze my left breast. Maybe it was the cat's tail, maybe it was the corner of the bedsheet, but I recall the feeling of the sand insect, what I thought was a scorpion but couldn't possibly have been a scorpion, like sand trickling down my chest but in reverse, creeping upward. 

How lucky it stung my finger after I'd brushed it away, how lucky it hadn't stung me in the heart.

And so I lay in bed, dreamily happy about all my good fortune, on my cloud of a mattress, the good fortune of my job and the satisfaction and rewards it brings, the good fortune to have my family close to me (including, at long last, my mother), the good fortune to have met a man who suits me perfectly, to have taken him as my lover, and I realize it's too good to be true.

It must not be true. Somehow I have fabricated this perfect reality of mine. It stung me in the heart, I am lying in a coma in a Bedouin tent in the Sahara.

This must be why Sa'id keeps texting me. After riding camels and smoking shisha that night in the desert, he is somewhere nearby, trying to coax me out of my coma, while feeding my bliss. "Sa'id" means "happy."

There is no pandemic. My coma mind created it to quarantine me from the world and help me go into myself, to find the pain and expel it.

I have brought my mother to me, to my figurative bedside. In this fever dream, I toiled to pack her belongings and move her to another world. In that house where I grew into myself, I sifted through my own life as much as hers, as I gazed at photos, threw out meaningless school reports and newspaper clippings, fingered longheld but long-forgotten trinkets. (I kept the nugget of fool's gold.)

My friends are increasingly absent. Our paths are diverging. I don't blame them. If my friend were in a coma, after 6 months, I might stop calling too. The intensity of  the communications with my imaginary German lover has also waned, as the likelihood of meeting fades into an impossible future. Of course, he has no idea that I am trapped within my body (always trapped within the body), comatose in the desert.

Instead I am wrapped in a cocoon of bliss. My mind has concocted a near-perfect life, worked through the rage and grief and the at-sea-ness of it all, I have gone into myself and am coming out again in a foreign but familiar place. Can I die of happiness? This is not real.

This feeling of lying in my lover's arms... perhaps they are treating me with sand baths, immersing me in the magic of the Sahara, the desert is my lover.

How lucky it stung my finger after I'd brushed it away, how lucky it hadn't stung me in the heart.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Infinitely nonchalant

Traveling to another province has a postapocalyptic vibe. You see everyone wearing masks and you wonder what happened here. And then you realize that it's the same as at home, and you wonder why you thought it would be different.

My mother's basement has yielded up all its dead bodies — its yearbooks and Polaroids, record albums and memorabilia, documenting lives we'd forgotten we lived.

I find an ad mounted on plexiglass (the germ of an art project?). I can't decide if the colours have faded or if time has emboldened them.   

I wish Café Blasé were a real place, where everyone wears creamy pastels and has big 80s hair. A place where copywriters gather to pool their adjectives. An utterly worldly, other-worldly place. As if one day, we wake up fresh as daisies and collectively decide to stop caring. And we look beautiful as we go about it.

Yesterday morning I stepped out of the chaos of the house to go for a walk and get a coffee. Stupid town where pedestrians are looked upon as freaks and the only coffee option is Tim Hortons or Starbucks. I haven't lived here in 37 years. I don't think I'll miss it.

I haven't cracked a book in over four days, since before the long drive. I'm currently not reading Ottessa Moshfegh's Death in Her Hands.

Reading was different, of course. I liked books. Books were quiet. They wouldn't scream in my face or get offended if I gave up on them. If I didn't like what I read, I could throw the book across the room. I could burn it in my fireplace. I could rip out the pages and use them to blow my nose, or in the bathroom. I never did any of that, of course — most of the books I read came from the library. When I didn't like something, I just shut the book and put it on the table by the door, spine facing the wall so that I wouldn't have to look at it again. There was great satisfaction in shoving a bad book through the return slot and hearing splat against the other books in the bin on the other side of the librarian's desk. "You can just hand that to me, " the librarian said. Oh no, I liked to shove it through. It made me feel powerful.

Friday, August 21, 2020

The basement of joy

We're packing up my mother's house to move her to Montreal. I'm finding joy scattered throughout her basement. 

  • My father's typewriter (deceased)
  • A nugget of fool's gold
  • A box full of Polaroids my brother (deceased) took while bored, drunk, and/or inspired
  • The album I loved that I thought he'd sold
  • Several books to learn German
  • A note from my cousin (deceased, age 36) to tell me about the Smiths and his turntable

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Music will still do to people what it does to us now

"Songs do not change the world," declares Jasper. "People do. People pass laws, riot, hear God and act accordingly. People invent, kill, make babies, start wars."
Here's a novel that's mostly fun, if a little long (what is it with men shamelessly throwing hundreds upon hundreds of pages of their excess verbosity upon you?). Utopia Avenue, by David Mitchell, is the name of a fictitious British band in the late 1960s, fusion folk psychedelic rock 'n' roll, their struggles and adventures.
"Songs like dandelion seeds, billowing across space and time. Who knows where they'll land? Or what they'll bring?" [...] "Where will these song-seeds land? It's the Parable of the Sower. Often, usually, they'd land on barren soil and not take root. But sometimes, they land in a mind that is ready. Is fertile. What happens then? Feelings and ideas happen. Joy, solace, sympathy. Assurance. Cathartic sorrow. The idea that life could be, should be, better than this. An invitation to slip you into somebody else's skin for a little while. If a song plants an idea or a feeling in a mind, it has already changed the world."
We get to know three of the band members quite intimately, while the drummer remains aloof. Each of them standouts in their fields, the manager brought them together with the goal of forming a genre-spanning supergroup. So it was a little less than organic, but on the whole, they're hardworking, decent people who make respectably good music; they pay some dues but find some level of success. And they at times succumb to the lifestyle excesses that come with the job.

The guitarist's story thread veers off into the paranormal. This makes me roll my eyes a little, even if I can't turn the pages fast enough; it's also classic Mitchell territory and fodder for late-night weed-fueled conversations about life, the universe, and everything.

The characters do not get equal airtime, and this felt unbalanced to me. The manager also stars in a story a two, but it's impossible to ignore the cameos. David Bowie, Brian Jones, Leonard Cohen, Syd Barrett, Janis Joplin, and others. Gimmicky to the point of tiresome. It irked me that Cohen mentions Toronto but not Montreal. 
"Once, I took the elevator up there." Leonard nods at the Empire State Building. "I looked over Manhattan and was seized by an absurd desire to take it. To own it. Do we write songs as a substitute for possession?" 

"I write songs to discover what I want to say," says Elf. 

"I write 'em 'cause I just bloody love it," says Dean. 

"Maybe you're the purest artist here," remarks Lenny.
Cue music. It just feels a little cheap.

Although, I thoroughly enjoyed the extended scenes with Francis Bacon, one of a few non-musicians on the London scene at the time to make their way into this novel, but likely I responded to that only because he's been a topic of conversation around here lately, his art grim and eerie and visceral. His art is not on stage here, only his lifestyle.

These walk-on parts add nothing to the story. But in a sense, they are the story. This is Mitchell's love letter to a bygone era of music that I can only assume played a significant role in shaping him.
"In fifty years," said Jasper, "or five hundred, or five thousand, music will still do to people what it does to us now. That's my prediction."
So, what does it do to us now? Music is our balm, our panacea. It can encircle you with your people, it can shut out the entire world. I think it is used more often as a distraction than as a connection. It blares everywhere, but who really listens? 
Hundreds of people pass by. Reality erases itself as it rerecords itself, Elf thinks. Time is the Great Forgetter. She gets her notebook from her handbag and writes, Memories are unreliable . . . Art is memory made public. Time wins in the long run. Books turn to dust, negatives decay, records get worn out, civilisations burn. But as long as the art endures, a song or a view or a thought or a feeling someone once thought worth keeping is saved and stays shareable. Others can say, "I feel that too."
It transcends language and creates an illusion of oneness; one person responds to a beat, another to a melody, another to the story the lyrics tell, but it taps a harmony of being. It's much more complex than a shared feeling.

Utopia Avenue is not about music, it's about its creators. It explores the inspiration for the music — love, loss, drugs, schizophrenia, otherworldly experience. Sometime the art comes about because it's a better option than not trying to make art. Sometimes it pays the rent. Art can come equally from hard work or divine luck or happenstance.  

Super entertaining and full of flavor (though some not always to my taste), but a little short on substance. It took me to some unexpected places, dramatically speaking, and it was not a terrible way to spend midsummer evenings on my balcony. Even if I can reel off better band names in my sleep.


Sunday, August 02, 2020

I water her every day

About this time last summer, my espresso machine clogged up. After several failed attempts to clean it, I gave up the double espresso filter basket for dead, and resorted to drinking singles. This week, out of the blue, as if I was waking from a stupor, it occurs to me that I might find a replacement basket online without having to replace the entire machine. Twenty-four hours and twelve dollars later, I resume double-espresso mornings. It's a productive and creative week, and also a happy week. I can't help but wonder if all my breakdowns and tirades, my crises of faith in myself and in others, my angers and resentments, and even the desperate explorations into myself — all my emotions — were simply the result of not enough coffee.

It turns out that my tomato plant is cherry tomatoes after all — pluck one, pop it in your mouth, and it's gone. I'd wanted something more substantial. After some initial disappointment, I find I am able to harvest a couple dozen at once after all. This balcony garden yields meagre offerings, though I am grateful for the herbs. I will plant more and better next year.

After 141 days of working from home, I return to the office to retrieve some personal effects. I had a scheduled entry time, with specific instructions about arriving with my own PPE, not arriving by public transportation. I walk the eight kilometres; I arrive early and wait. No one is there to verify my protective gear. No one is there to make me sign a waiver or to attest to being symptom free. No one is there except one of the porters, who looks mildly shell-shocked, like working in isolation has driven him slightly mad — the graveyard shift in broad daylight, with only the ghosts of employees to clean up after.

I recover two pairs of shoes from the cloakroom. I pick my Fluevogs out from amid several dozen sneakers, all neatly lined up expecting their owners to step into them at the start of every workday. The last time I went to the office I was still wearing winter boots.

There are no laptops on the desks, but there are monitors and wires, pens and notepads. Sweaters on the backs of chairs swiveled as if abandoned mid conversation. I am reminded of the pictures of Chernobyl schoolrooms, only this feels more invisible, less organic.

There is an uprooted plant on the floor of the cafeteria. The weeping tree in our studio looks as if it might crumble if I stroke its leaves — it's cried itself dry. Remarkably, my happy bean plant still looks happy — its arms are straining toward the window and it's thirsty, but I swear it twitched for joy as I approached, my every step sending tremors through the bones of the building.

I sit the bean in my bag atop the reference books I came for, padded out with my hoodie. I grab the office-issue headphones. I empty my drawer of instant soup packets and handcream — I may need those.

The rest of the day feels weirdly decadent: hanging out with my sister on her terrace, window shopping, lunching out at an open-air market. Is life normal again? How come I didn't get the memo? Ich will in die Zukunft reisen.

At home, one of the indoor plants continues to have the company of mushrooms. One sprouts and dies, another takes its place. 

Since lockdown, there are now four novels I have read that I have not (yet?) written about here. I continue to read essays by Didion and stories by Carrington ("A Man in Love"):
We went through a door at the back and reached a room where there was a bed in which lay a woman, motionless and probably dead. It seemed to me that she must have been there a long time, for the bed was overgrown with grass.

"I water her every day," the greengrocer said thoughtfully. "For forty years I've been quite unable to tell whether she is alive or dead. She hasn't moved or spoken or eaten during that time. But, and this is the strange thing, she remains warm."
We are overgrown — by masks and gloves and viral effluvia, by our metaphorical mushrooms — but somehow we remain warm.  

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Into the second sky

The dirt floor was warm and damp. The space inside the pigsty glowed brightly, then crumbled into little pieces, like a mosaic. Swallows greeted me with a piercing "tweet-tweet" from their nest up in the rafters. I felt a tingling around my shoulder blades. Suddenly, I became as light as a scrap of foil. I rose up and sat on the pane of the little window which had been left slightly ajar. I flew out into the yard and circled over the orchard for a while. The sky, like the lid of my jar, was pierced with stars. Through them, a different kind of lining was showing. From up high, I could the whole village, with the brownish-green forest to the north and the white circles of the dolomite quarry to the east. I had almost broken through the lid, into the second sky, when suddenly — smack, smack — someone smacked me on my feverish cheeks.
Swallowing Mercury, by Wioletta Greg, is the story of someone who wants to leave even though she doesn't know it, yet ultimately she finds it impossible to leave.

Her small-town Poland does not belong to this world. The village of Hektary in particular seems to exist outside of time. (In this way it reminds of Tokarczuk's Primeval.)

Only when Wiola mentions that her father is humming Elvis tunes do I place the story in the twentieth century. Finally she relates an anecdote from 1981. Soon the village is awaiting the Popemobile. It's a time when Communism and Catholicism are equally strong but opposing forces. Outside the village, the Solidarity movement takes hold, and martial law is imposed. Wiola's adolescence is of little concern to anyone. Yet she comes of age all the same.

The whole place is wanting, for everything from jobs to pretty dresses, but through a naive girl's eyes, there is still magic. Even the paint set Wiola wins in a church raffle is missing a tube, but the names of the colours are like distant planets (it turns out they are past their expiry date).

Wiola's paintings are taken by the authorities to be deeply metaphorical. This is the thing about Eastern European Communism, everything is deeply metaphorical.

There seems to be no great joy in this place. But it's not that it's filled with melancholy either. It feels to me, and maybe to Wiola, like a puzzle to solve, a labyrinth of ritual and tradition, politics and religion, expectations and desires, to navigate and escape.

The sequel, Accommodations, is already in my stack.

Review

Excerpts 

Sunday, July 19, 2020

She's not a girl who misses much

"In June of this year patient experienced an attack of vertigo, nausea, and a feeling that she was going to pass out. A thorough medical evaluation elicited no positive findings..." 
[...] 
The patient to whom the report refers is me. The tests mentioned [...] were administered privately [...] in the summer of 1968, shortly after I suffered the "attack of vertigo and nausea" mentioned in the first sentence and shortly before I was named a Los Angeles Times "Woman of the Year." By way of comment I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.
— from The White Album, by Joan Didion.

Mushroom and Child, by Seana Gavin.
I had my own not inappropriate response to various personal events at the close of 2015. We all have our seasons. But on a societal level, surely 2020 is the year when no event can surprise us, to which no response is unexpected or inappropriate.

My houseplant sprouts more beautiful mushrooms. I wonder if there's a way to preserve them before they shrivel back into the soil. And what of the spores?

I learn: Als ich wieder zu mir komme, bin ich in einem großen Raum. I wonder if I will wake up from this.

Last night I dreamt I was in a big room, and while I was working, a man was taking impressions, like mini casts or moulds, of small parts of my back, smaller than the palm of my hand, such that most impressions were near blank, with only a barely discernible curve. 

I am watching I Love Dick, based on Chris Kraus's novel, which I am considering rereading because I feel I have yet to glean all I can from it. I want to make art of sex and desire, in the things I write and sculpt and maybe in the way I live too. 

Didion writes of the illusion that "all human endeavor tends mystically west." I think about looking for god and whether the search has any value when I know I will find nothing, I will be confronted with more nothingness, the nothingness is endless. I know the destination, but I know this journey too, I've taken it before. I think of Don Draper while I hum the Beatles and think about the taglines I need to explore for a project at work this week.

There are lights on the exterior walkway in front of my west-facing apartment. As I draw the curtains one night, I feel sorry for my tomato plant there, it must not be able to sleep. The plant is five feet tall now and has fruited several dozen green globes. It must be so tired.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The life it's tolerable to live

Nobody dies of consumption anymore.

The wasting disease of frail women. The body consumes itself. Was it cured by the mass consumption of commercial goods? Feed the body; let the mind consume itself and waste away instead.

This week I feel compelled to buy things. With the exception of books, I tend to resist this kind of consumption. I am fully aware of what I need, and the position of those needs in the hierarchy, versus what I want.

One item is out of stock and I have a meltdown. I realize it is not an immediate need after all. 

I buy clay. I have 10 kg of clay delivered to my door because it is available. For months it has been out of stock, so now I jump at the opportunity, even though it is too hot to be sculpting now, I know it will be months before I unwrap the clay. I buy sculpting tools, a set of my very own. I will worry about paint and epoxy later. I mourn the pieces I left sitting in the arts centre since winter unfinished, unworked, untouched.

I buy frivolous things. A summer dress that will arrive long after the heatwave has passed. New curtains for the apartment I want to move away from. Ingredients for a recipe that I cannot make, because other required ingredients are unavailable in my neighbourhood and yet other of its ingredients I have already eaten.

The meditation guide leads us into our breath. We make space for our breath. She assures us we have space to accommodate whatever we need room for. Later, at yoga, the goal is to also make space. What is all the space for? I am already a TARDIS, bigger on the inside, the mind folds in on itself infinitely. How much space does breath take? Don't I have enough breath already?

Why do we need more space? Why must we make ourselves bigger? Is this what we're trying to do when we consume material goods? Are we afraid of wasting away? As if we need an external footprint as proof of the vastness of our interior lives. Or we fear that we lack interior lives and struggle to disguise the fact.

(On the 131st day of German lessons I learn: Größe ist alles.)

What if I compress all my interiority into the smallest space possible, all the angels of my consciousness shimmying to a pinprick point? Am I generating a black hole, feeding antimatter inside of me, inadvertently wasting away?

One friend admits to the struggle of lockdown, having to confront herself, to admit that she is a social creature, to reconstruct herself into a viable being.

Who are you when you have no society to reflect yourself back to yourself? Is this what we're doing when we consume and expand, clamouring to be seen? What kind of person will I be when I emerge? What kind of person do I want to be?

Everything is returning to normal but it's not normal at all. Another friend says we need to start somewhere. Do we?
Like all of us, our lives unfold with the tedium of the everyday and of the obvious things of the everyday: waking, sleeping, working, eating. loving, hearing, forgiving, shopping, always safe, everything always so gentle and slow and sad, the life we construct with such fragility, ordinary life, the life it's tolerable to live, but along with that there's always this shadow, this imbalance, this possibility. Chaos is always lying in wait for us, at any moment, because we are the one who bear it, always waiting, the secret hope that something is finally going to happen , that something is going to happen and propel us toward what we longed for, what we feared, what we never had the courage to name. The first look is merely the confirmation, a reflection in the bathroom in the morning, the first look is a mirror in which we see ourselves for the first time, unrecognizable, and in wonder we notice something that's incredibly beautiful in ourselves. Do you understand? I'm finding it hard, too, but I'm trying to explain it to you. But what for, you'll say? So that you will love me? Perhaps.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

What do you want from us?

When companies posted open recruitment notices for the second half of the year, Jiyoung felt as though she was standing in a narrow alley clogged with a thick fog, which turned into rain and fell on her bare skin.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, by Cho Nam-joo, is an unexceptional telling of an unexceptional story. However, it is an important book, and the fact that Kim Jiyoung's life is wholly ordinary, typical of her countrywomen, is a problem.

This novel charts one woman's life from her birth to the birth of her child and documents the iniquities she faces along the way.
Perfect pieces of tofu, dumplings and patties were the brother's while the girls ate the ones that fell apart. The brother had chopsticks, socks, long underwear, and school and lunch bags that matched, while the girls made do with whatever was available. If there were two umbrellas, the girls shared. If there were two blankets, the girls shared. It didn't occur to the child Jiyoung that her brother was receiving special treatment, and so she wasn't even jealous. That's how it had always been.
A female student dared to question the criteria university departments used for selecting candidates to recommend for job interviews at companies with recruitment activities at the school. 
The most demoralising answer came from the department head himself: "Companies find smart women taxing. Like now — you're being very taxing, you know?"

What do you want from us? The dumb girls are too dumb, the smart girls are too smart, and the average girls are too unexceptional?
Unusually for a novel, the story such as it is is framed by statistics and abounds with references. Gender inequality in South Korea and worldwide is well documented, and the citations leave no room for reader doubt. 

As a novel, I think this book falls short on character and heart. But it serves a higher purpose and deserves the widest possible audience of women and men, girls and boys, many of whom are unlikely to read Labor Market Reports or scholarly articles on gendered expectations and the disparities in income and opportunities.

Although since 2008, it is legal to designate the mother's surname for a newborn, at the time of Jiyoung's wedding (~2012), there had been only 200 such cases.
The world had changed a great deal, but the little rules, contracts and customs had not, which meant the world hadn't actually changed at all.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Part of you wants to flee, screaming

The Woman is well dressed and clean, but there is a high, manic gleam in her gaze, and her bright, cheerful voice sounds false. No one is ever that happy. She's clearly Not From Around Here. Maybe she's an immigrant, too — legal, of course. Maybe she's a Canadian who has been driven mad by the cold and socialized medicine.
The City We Became, by N.K. Jemisin, is a timely, topical love letter to New York City. It's a fun book — Lovecraft meets Sense8. A kind of superhero adventure, where a city comes together to battle an invisible evil. 

The monster is insidiously infecting New York; it might be better known as intolerance. The White Woman is a not so subtle metaphor for straight white privilege — her name might be Karen.
She's not looming anymore — not as much, anyhow — but the air of patronizing concern that she radiates isn't much better. Aislyn stares at her, still trying to figure out whether she should be insulted. The Woman leans closer. "That's why you're afraid of the ferry. Half the people on the island absolutely dread crossing that water every day. They know that what awaits them on the other end isn't the power and glamour we can see from here, but bad jobs and worse pay, and prancing manbunned baristas who turn up their noses at making just a simple goddamned coffee, and prissy chink bitches who barely speak English but make seven figures gambling with your 401(k) and feminists and Jews and trannies and nnnnnNegroes and liberals, libtards everywhere, making the world safe for every kind of pervert. And the other half of the island is the baristas and chinks and feminists, ashamed they can't afford to live there and leave Staten Island for good. You are them, Aislyn! You carry the fear and resentment of half a million people, so is it any wonder that part of you wants to flee, screaming?"
A city can awaken, can be awakened. I love that this city is so diverse, and that its parts channel music, art, math. There's a bit of magic hand-waving at the end (or maybe I dozed off), but it's all very optimistic. I'm interested to know the personified stories of other cities.

Listen to N.K. Jemisin in conversation with her cousin W. Kamau Bell at the New York Public Library.

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.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Kissing is inadvisable

Some days are better than others. I am walking more.

It seems to me that, in my neighbourhood, vehicular traffic has increased, while foot traffic has decreased. The parks are full, however. People are sitting and enjoying, but too many of them, too close. After drinking or smoking, they walk recklessly. Traversing green space feels more like a high-stakes video game than a pleasant stroll.

The concrete ping-pong tables are wrapped in yellow police tape, with signage that makes them completely unplayable.

Already it feels like the cleaner air of the last weeks has been reversed. Construction and roadwork have resumed. People are driving. Where are they driving to? There is so much dust in the air, parts of city look to be suffering some post-apocalyptic neglect.

The downstairs neighbours have regular visitors this week; they sit outside, drinking and smoking, about a metre apart. The single schoolteacher at the end of my floor brought two mask-wearing people into her home today.

Along with masks, I think everyone should be issued a measuring tape. This is the real problem: people are shitty at estimating lengths. People have no idea how far two metres is. Signage with arrows implying a certain distance is inadequate; you need to show people exactly.

Another dead bumblebee on the walkway approaching my door the other day. I meant to collect it as a specimen, to use as a model for a sculpture. I looked out later, but didn't see it in the dark, in the rain. The following morning, it was still there, looking somewhat bedraggled but potentially still useful to me. I began to scoop it up, but a leg twitched. I brought it a pinch of sugar, watched it feed itself, and flip itself, and turn hobbled in clockwise circles, and ejaculate some liquid or maybe just wring the wet from its body. It turned to lie on its back, and revved its wings in 10-second spurts. Later it was gone.

I am puzzled by the many men who have turned to meeting people on dating sites. Why would they think lockdown is a good time to meet people? Do they suddenly find themselves confronted by their own unbearable loneliness? Or are they bored? What were they so busy doing just months ago that they didn't realize they were alone? What do they think happens next?

Quarantine Fatigue Is Real:
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and physicians at Harvard Medical School each created guidance on sexual health during the coronavirus pandemic that could provide a road map for a harm-reduction approach to socializing, work environments, schools, and other settings. They communicated the urgent need for physical distancing and the idea that, as the New York document puts it, "you are your safest sex partner." At the same time, the New York and Harvard guidelines implicitly acknowledge that some people may choose to have sex within or outside of their households and offer tips to reduce harm in different potential scenarios, making the risk continuum clear.
Still No Plan:
These days, the safest way to go on a first date is to pick an outdoor activity and to stay at least six feet apart — sadly, one public-health expert I spoke with recently said that kissing someone new would be "inadvisable." If you go on a bunch of dates with someone and feel like the relationship could have some longevity, that's when you could have a candid conversation about who else each of you is exposed to in the course of a day. The question then becomes whether you like each other enough to take on the serious risks of increasing your number of close contacts during a pandemic.
Last night I had a work dream. I'd edited an article on paper(!); the developer who wrote it reviewed my changes, correcting me like a teacher would, in green pen, docking me points for neglecting to fill in the vast swaths of code he'd left out. He graded me 1 out of 6. I woke up when I noticed how dirty my fingernails were (a clear symbol of poor self-worth, or self-neglect).

My eyes are tired. My whole face is tired. I need to get my eyes checked; I'm overdue for an exam, and the ergonomics of my work setup are causing a lot of eyestrain. I need more sleep. I need to decrease my screentime.

This weekend is better. More walking, more napping. Planting. More reading and resting. Yesterday we saw a massive hawk gliding overhead.

No ping-pong. No kissing.