Friday, September 28, 2007

Toilet Humor

I had a different thought about what I posted yesterday. Specifically, it was a thought about people's artistic output, or lack thereof - what one friend called our "post-creative culture." I suppose what really concerns me is that I notice people censoring themselves and self-editing, because they think that whatever it is that they're doing, it's only something that someone else has done before, which seems like the ultimate insult to one's unique perspective.

This is like the death of the creative individual, brought on by the birth of the ultimate creative individual.

Perhaps I am projecting.

Anyway, I also wanted to end this week, which has made me braindead, sleepy and floppy like a newborn, with something funny. A story:

Yesterday I walked into the bathroom and noticed that the trash can in the stall (for men: these exist for tampons, etc. Do not feel jealous that you do not have them) was bulging with non-standard paper products. I had to look closer, and when I did I discovered that the can was in fact stuffed with someone's financial documents - bank statements, notes from an accountant, etc.

At first this struck me as odd. However, when I thought about it, the concept began to make sense to me. It takes forever to meticulously shred one's financial papers, but it has to be done to ward of identity theft (or so I'm told: it's like the Bogey man). But who would ever look in, let alone steal from, the catamenia bin in a corporate office building? That would be a health hazard!

It was a small moment of genius.

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

So over it.

Now, something was making me think about the war in Iraq, and can't remember what it was. I do know that it wasn't the president of Iran - neither his speech at Columbia nor his decision to shut down all discussions about Iran's nuclear program.

I believe it had something to do with trying to carry an extremely heavy desk home with Dave, though I don't know what. On Saturday we went to the Brown Elephant thrift store on Clark St. and, without consulting me, Dave decided we would truck the thing home sans truck. Often when he makes decisions of this type I try to be game, because my own image of my physical fitness is somewhat idealized - picture me outrunning a tiger, for example, or becoming world-class boxer. Then you should have a good idea.

However, my actual, technical physical strength is a bit different. Picture instead, if you will, me walking half of a heavy and unwieldy piece of furniture about 4 blocks, nearly bursting into tears, being driven home the rest of the way (10 blocks or so) in a friend's van, and having a cramp in my arm for the rest of the day. Dave felt terrible, I felt terrible, it was a great time all around.

Earlier today he sat at the desk in the gray light of seven a.m. - a white desk in a blue room on a muted morning. It made me very wistful - I wished I could sit there and drink tea, but instead I walked to the train, past the Buddhist monk on our street who waters his flowers in the morning.

...Now, you might be asking yourself What on earth does this have to do with the Iraq war? And the answer of course is: Nothing. The lesson to take away is that I'd rather write, think, and talk about practically anything except our current, bloody war. The last time I had a conversation about it I got into a philosophical argument with my boyfriend's family about the implications of torture for the immortal soul (I was "contra" torture), and I have been exhausted ever since.

But that makes me wonder: why? This is a defining battle in our times, with subtle veins of deception and danger threading out from sources around the globe. We have networks of blackmail, lies, violence; moral uncertainty, religious blasphemy, and a seemingly endless string of abhorrent personal decisions. How is this not interesting?

I'm beginning to wonder if anyone these days (who does not work for the news media or any national government) is really willing to talk about something that many, many others have mulled over before. It's almost as though we've worked so hard to convince ourselves that we need to be original and unique human beings that we've somehow alienated our interests from the world.

And it's not just the war, or our numbingly repetitive political scene (Democrats vs. Republicans: rawr...) - we seem to have become too cool for almost everything. Why talk about our creative ambitions when there are so many other starving artists out there? Isn't it lame to like well-reviewed music or movies? I don't know - maybe this is culture's natural reaction to becoming top-heavy in any area: it tilts over and hides the offendingly important object of our attention under a yawn.

Now, most people are able to pick at least one category of life (environmentalism, government, indie rock, writing, whatever) and continue to care genuinely about it. And that's great. But most of the time they still won't talk about it. Maybe they're worried that no one would be interested.
Or maybe it's just passe to take yourself seriously.

*** Oh, and yes, there really was something that was making me want to write about the Iraq war, but I really can't remember what it was. C'est la vie.

Photo credit: KOP on Flickr

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Circus Freaks

I have not been to a circus since I was 13 years old, or so, but I have loved them all my life. I love that they are peculiar, that they are theatrical, and that they embraced the absurd side of performance long before the theater did. Yes, Beckett's world is bizarre, but wouldn't you like to see Estragon, Vladimir, Pozzo, Lucky (obviously not Godot), Malloy, and Krapp shove their way out of a tiny Peugeot and then light each others' pants on fire?

Since the last time I attended a circus I was still at an age when pairing a too-large Victoria's Secret dress with a sickly yellow thrift store blouse seemed like a good idea, I've had to seek my pleasures elsewhere. You can find an aura of big tops and organ music in the later Tom Waits album, which are full of dissonance, sadness, and vocal sepia tones. And one can always appreciate the idiosyncratic complexities of the average human mind (today in the course of a conversation with a friend we both paused to wonder: how do you transpose physical distance into quick breaths or heartbeats? What's the multiplier when you're walking, running, swimming, or riding an elephant?).

But the thing that has always made me feel closest to my own dark uncertainty that reality means anything at all (besides maybe drinking too much whiskey - but that is cheating and makes me vomit) is books. Surprise! (no.)

While reading a review of the seventh installment of Harry Potter on, the idea was suggested that a good piece of fantasy literature will provide you with a "shiver of awe."* As a young reader I could not get enough fantasy - that was where I lived and what I breathed. I can remember certain favorites - Half Magic, Dealing with Dragons, The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings trilogy (of to me by my father, who kindly skipped over the Elven songs when my siblings and I were young and impatient. Now, those are some of my favorite parts) - and most of them, I believe, had the quality of awe. These books (and there were many more that I'm not remembering offhand; like I said, I read all the time) made me deeply, seethingly jealous. I wanted to live in their worlds instead of my own, where bravery had no bearing and there were no parameters for adventure.

As I got older, I switched magical realism in for fantasy literature most of the time - school has a way of teaching one to do so. But some of my finest reading experiences have come from returning to the land of my childhood, picking something up or reading something anew (in some cases, even reading something aloud). Although I'm still jealous of the characters in books like The Golden Compass (which I'm re-reading now) and Momo, something different happens to me now when I read about them. I suppose I am inspired - and why does that seem like such a silly way to say it? - since it was these books, after all, which made me want to write in the first place. And so new ideas come streaming out of me, interweaving with those in the books themselves. My life becomes a part of their lives - as I wanted all along.

An illustrative example: when I was about 15 I read the tale of the peculiarly warped journey portrayed by Brooke Stevens in The Circus of the Earth and the Air. In this book the world of one man comes unhinged when his wife disappears into a magician's trick at an illusive and mercurial circus performance. He follows her to the seeming ends of the earth - a madman's opus, a religious fanatic's dream, an island on which the theatre is worshipped by an army of actors, stuntsmen, and mercenaries. I have not read the book in years, but when I did it became a test of sorts, helping me sift through the world: I made everyone I could read it, and all of my friends either loved it or hated it. Any lukewarm reactions drove me away, pointing to what I assumed was a lack of passion and a lack of possibilities.

* Of course, this reminds me uncomfortably of the much-teased "shock and awe" campaign of the Iraq war. It makes sense though, really: a good fantasy novel and a successful imperial war campaign both seek to unsettle their target audiences, causing them to question, for whatever length of time, their grasp on reality.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Old Man Winter

I have a policy about riding on public transportation (which here means planes, trains, and any other form of shared locomotion, no matter the cost or level of luxury): if someone sitting beside you keeps trying to shove something in your face, don't read it.

This policy was developed on a plane ride home from New York City my senior year of college, where I was interviewing (unsuccessfully, I would later find) for an under-paid job in educational publishing (the stuff that liberal-arts dreams are made of!). Some guy sat down next to me, as tends to happen on airplanes, and tried to talk my ear off. I made polite sounds for a few minutes, and then strategically fell asleep, not to awake until the wheels hit tarmac. In the interminably long interval between when we reached the terminal and I was able to file out into the aisle, I noticed the guy next to me fiddling with his phone quite a bit, and then holding it up for my observation by awkwardly twisting his wrist in his lap. I took out my own phone and pretended to listen to messages for the next 10 minutes, but could sort of see his phone number out of the corner of my eye.

Today, on my way to work on the El, I sat down in the only available seat, next to a sort of dirty looking older man who was writing furiously in a reporter's notebook - the type that makes it easy to flip up the pages as you scribble down notes. I've recently begun re-reading Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, and so was fairly absorbed in my own world. I did notice that the man never stopped writing, but he seemed harmless enough. He fiddled and twitched, his pen skating across page after page. But he left me alone.

Until 2 stops before the end. Suddenly the man began stretching wildly, whacking me in the arm and waving his notepad in my face. And so what could I do? I looked. I suppose that I hoped it would be something interesting and odd, the Good Will Hunting of the bag man set. But all it said was "Jesus Christ is your personal savior." That's apparently all he had been writing for upwards of half an hour.

Quelle boring, bag man.

On a mildly related topic, I am actually looking forward to the onset of winter. I remember getting a text message from Chicago last October, saying "OH my jesus it is snowing!" Ominous though it may seem, that must be coming soon. When I was younger I would curl up on the couch with a book when the weather was dark, consciously turning a blind eye whenever a spot of sun appeared (rare enough, in a Seattle winter). I was protecting the aura of mystery around my reading, the sense that I was bearing something along with the characters in my book of ghost stories.

This may also be why I generally ignore the offerings of public transportation strangers: if I don't see the mundane nature of what they're doing, I can hold them in hope.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Disasters are the most perfect thing of all

After spending yesterday thinking about the beautiful potential of a world molded in the image of your own mind, perhaps it's not surprising that today I am thinking about megalomania.

As anyone will know who has glanced at the front page of the New York Times, one Mr. Nuon Chea has been arrested under "suspicion" of being a high-ranking official in the Khmer Rouge. According to a source of the Times, Nuon Chea was a man of strictest and most disinterested brutality, telling those who worked for him to kill even useful prisoners since "[They could] always get more." On another occasion he told the same source to burn a pile of bodies in a pile of tires and, most ominously, to "leave no bones."

Now that he has been arrested, he told his wife not to visit him in prison or memorialize him when he dies. "When I die," he said, "all will be finished."

I don't want to regurgitate any more of the article, since I can't convey the depth of suffering that was experienced during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. But what could he have meant when he said "When I die all will be finished"? Indeed, two questions come to mind to answer that question: Could he possibly believe that when he dies, all is finished, and Does anyone not, in some way, think the same of themselves?

I think that most human minds, fragile and vainglorious as they are, tend to believe that they are at the center of something. Indeed, they believe that what they make, want, and see is the true weaving of the world, and that human creation - especially their own creation - is a manifestation of true reality. Or at least, of the best reality.

But I also think that most people are able to reserve this belief for their own private universes. Most people, whether they are prideful, kind, modest, or even cruel, manage to temper their narcissism with reason and account for forces stronger than themselves.

Maybe I'm reacting theatrically, but Nuon Chea's statement to his wife makes me feel as though he stopped tempering his beliefs. Looking at his words feels a little like staring into a scary darkness, the end of which cannot be seen.

But I still believe, somehow, that beauty can save the world.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

How and when and why did God make the angels?

Lately, Dave has been bothering me to switch banks, and not without good reason. Here in Chicago, there simply aren't that many Wells Fargos, and most of the ones that do exist specialize in home loans instead of providing me with an ATM. And so, each and every time I want to withdraw cash I'm forced to swallow at least a $2 ATM fee - more if Wells Fargo really is charging me $1.50 for transactions done with other banks.

But still I don't switch. Why? It's not as though I have a solid business relationship with them - I've never opened anything except a checking and savings account, never received a high-interest C.D. or any sort of tantalizing offer. Indeed, my student loans lie with them, and it's easy to transfer money from one account to another online, and yes, I have somehow tricked them into giving me free checks (with a tricky, tricky "free checking" account). But on the whole, the reason I hesitate to switch banks belongs to altogether another comfort zone.

I read a quote this morning in an article about the Solovetsky Islands - islands which are most holy to the Russian Orthodox Church, and which have also become a site of increasing tourism. "This land, is it a means for earning money, or is it a holy place?" asked the acting head of the island monastery. "The two cannot exist together."

While I appreciate his sentiment, and come close to agreeing with it, the words made me think - strangely enough, about my relationship to the bank. I think it is an aesthetic one. As ridiculous as this will sound, I know the colors of Wells Fargo, and I know their style. I know how to get around in their bizarre corporate head, even when the decisions they make are maddening or seemingly random. And that, to me, is a comforting thing. I remember walking into a Wells Fargo branch in Grinnell, Iowa, and telling the women there that I wanted to close my savings account and transfer the money into checking. At first they seemed concerned in their banking way, and asked me why I would want to do such a thing. You see, I said, I have $300 tied up in that account (the minimum to keep it open), and I need that money to go to France with my boyfriend. Immediately the employees broke open into smiling people who wanted to know about my life, who cared about my plans, and who didn't mind one bit that I was closing my more lucrative connection to them.

So I have built an idea of Wells Fargo, an image made out of memories and aesthetic notions which I can cling to and understand while trying to navigate the strange financial world.

This is perhaps not a good enough reason to keep open a bank account that loses me money. But I feel like it is evidence of something: the beautiful - and in other, more extreme conditions, worshipful - things we create in a semi-hostile environment. That is, the holy ideas, the art we are still able to build with our minds in a place that is a means for earning money.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Is God a Trickster?

Many cultures throughout history have listed one or more gods on their roster whose job it is to shake things up a little. This can be either a god of chaos, a god of death, or simply a god of practical jokes. Personally, I've always been a fan of the tricksters - the coyote gods (like Shakespeare's fairy Puck in A Midsummer's Night Dream [I know, not a god]) who go around keeping us unsteady, making sure that nothing ever gets too boring.

Yesterday I had an experience which brought to mind this quality of gods and the universe, and which basically made me look like an idiot. It went thusly:

I was looking forward to spending some time alone last night, watching a movie, working on an art project, what have you. Dave and I had just purchased expensive living room paint (curiously named 'Kurdistan'), and were walking back towards home when I decided to stop at a store along the way and pick up a bottle of wine. I know nothing about wine, so I was on the lookout not for the finest of bottles, but one with an appealing label and a reasonable skinflint price. After wandering around the store for a few minutes I picked up an $11 bottle and made my way to the register.

"You know your wines," said the proprietor of the establishment, ringing me up. "But you should let this breathe for a long time."

"Oh?" I asked, obliviously happy in the face of an undeserved compliment. "How long?"

"A couple of hours," he said. "It's a '72. So it needs to breathe. But it's a wonderful wine."

Now, a cultured person might already have picked up a couple of cues, which were pointed out to me later, suggesting that this bottle of wine might not be as...economical as I had led myself to believe. For example, does any low-end wine need to breathe for a specified amount of time? Can you purchase a '72 for $11?

Can you guess? The answer is no. However, I walked home happily, telling Dave how ridiculously pleased I was to be mistaken for a connoisseur. This was my second mistake: the sin of vanity. My first and most important mistake, however, was misreading a price tag that said "$110.00" as "$11.00."

When I arrived at home and was about to uncork the bottle, I glanced at the receipt. Here my unbelieving eyes met, for the first time, with reality, which told me that after tax I'd just spent $124 on a bottle of wine I intended to drink alone, paired with Netflix. I ran back to the store where I apologized profusely, and luckily they took the unopened bottle back and provided me with a well-deserved $13 replacement, as well as a $108 credit card adjustment. The man who'd sold me the bottle looked a little abashed and slightly annoyed.

"I thought you knew the bottle," he muttered. Luckily, his son was extremely gracious and told me that it happened all the time, which I did not believe but nonetheless appreciated.

All this leaves me to ponder the theological implications of my actions. Was there a hidden message for me in this experience? At the end of the day I was left completely off balance, and I can't help but suspect that some kind of coyote god trickster heard me crowing and cooing with unearned pleasure after being told I knew my wines, and decided to have a little fun with me. If so, I guess I've learned my lesson (read: look at the price tag, you fool).

Of course, the other possibility is that I was intended to drink that wine and somehow, through my sweaty and unbecoming thriftiness (for indeed I jogged all the way back to the store), I thwarted that beautiful fate. We shall never know.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Je vous cherche.

A convergence of events: rumors begin flying that the 15 minute prequel to Wes Anderson's film The Darjeeling Limited will not be in wide release with the feature-length material, and I find a great place to eat moules et frites in Chicago.

The prequel, entitled "Hotel Chevalier," is set in Paris, stars Natalie Portman, and I think that it's only because of the French connection that the buzz around this short film keeps making me think of food.

From what I have read, the film follows the de-unification of two lovers in Paris (a theme not unexplored in the annals of film), and may be essential to one's enjoyment of The Darjeeling Limited. It was originally supposed to be screened alongside the full-length film. So why the change? As a blindly giddy fan of Wes Anderson films, I can't help but feel indignant and worried that the two shows are being separated before birth; Anderson's work is the sort of thing I love so much that any new release makes me break out in a cold sweat, fearing that I will not like it as much and that the magic will be broken.

Having a short companion piece, filmed (as it is rumored) well over a year before Darjeeling Limited was a concept that comforted me aesthetically. I've always been intrigued by bodies of work with continuity - some of my favorite short-story writers do this to great effect (Shirley Jackson and Kate Atkinson, for example) - especially the kind that is simultaneously subtle and obvious. Quiet, eerie connections between stories and films throughout an artist's career (or within a single body of work) evoke a certain psychological realism for me, like experiencing someone else's deja vu. Wes Anderson's movies do share some commonalities - if not in story lines, then in themes, actors, and overall cinematographic style - but adding a short film as a supplement to a larger work strikes me as a bolder move. A related work that is not a mere sequel.

I realize now that I posed a question that I cannot answer: why the change? We'll have to wait and see.

But to tie back in to my earlier culinary vein, every restaurant I eat in is essentially part of an interconnected narrative for me. Our neighborhood is flanked by the Swedes and the Vietnamese (that's right: Andersonville and Uptown), two completely different parts of my life now converging around my apartment. When I step off the El in the evenings I am immediately assaulted by spicy scents of beef and basil, and I remember walking down the Ave in dreary Seattle rain, searching for a Pho place with the correct combination of free cream puffs and sweet chrysanthemum tea. I have never, to my knowledge, been able to consume an entire bowl of Pho by myself, but on days when I want to eat light - when I see water everywhere and solid food seems like a virtual impossibility, as in the Seattle springtime - it is all that I crave.

Conversely, the perfect Swedish breakfast I had on Monday reminds me (and this is cheating, I know) of the street fair hunger of Decorah, IA's Nordic Fest. I remember burly men smelting iron, women in postcard-perfect smocks at a weaving loom ( that a false memory? Well, those women were doing something wholesome), and most of all I remember the Lefse and the meatball sandwiches.

Both foods, and both memories, make me feel nostalgic, pensive, and connected to my past. It's a feeling that can be achieved through food, stray scents, and good art (and also, I suppose, by a fluke of emotion, but that's not really relevant here...), and I hope that ol' Wes is up to the challenge. It's a tall order, I know, but come on: movies cost at least nine bucks these days. He owes me.

** Image credits: "Je vous chercher" came originally (I think) from PostSecret. The "Nordic Fest Poster" is by Robin Peterson of Fernwood Studios.