Tuesday, July 29

places to keep

traveling is a thing I very much love, and I've been pretty lucky to find a million excuses for indulging in it, so I am not surprised that the list of places where I've spent time is getting a bit long.

the length of the list does surprise some people though. Canada? and Budapest? and the UK three times now? Paris too? I don't think I mean to sound boastful about it all. everyone has their priorities, and moving around in the world seems to be one of mine.

a more noteworthy and thoroughly more surprising thing, I think, would be to find someone who has never moved around. someone who has lived in one place and soaked up everything of it over years and years and years. wouldn't that be something to boast of? keeping to one, neat, consistent, contained set of spaces?

a few weekends back I stayed in Oxford with the lovely Nicola, and got to see lots of old nooks and corners and pubs and museums and parks. one such museum was the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology (can we start spelling archeology like that all the time, eh?), where there were displays from almost every corner and time period of the world.

I found myself drawn to the pottery. so different on the surface, all these bowls and urns and cups and vases. but they were all made for a pretty similar purpose: to keep stuff in. for holding water, or preserving food, or arranging flowers in.

there were cabinets full of vases from Greece, Egypt, China, Japan. little plaques listed out the distinctive markings, the stylistic marks and the contexts that give them archaeological significance. I did not read all the descriptions--it would've taken so long. and besides, museums are not only educational. this one is not only for archaeology, but also for art.

Greece, Egypt, China, and Japan are place I haven't been to yet. looking at artifacts could never count as visiting. I might someday find excuses for visiting the middle east and the orient and other far-away realms. I might not. I might have used up my life's traveling quota too soon, too euro-centrically. I hope not.

the day after our stroll through the Ashmolean, Nicola and I saw this exhibit on the Great War at the Bodleian Library. there weren't urns and vases on display there, not this time. the cabinets were mostly full of paper and ink: stories from soldiers and politicians and workers from the first of that infamous pair of long-ago (but not as long ago as some) wars. reading them was eye-opening on several levels.
this war is one I've learned about in school, of course. there are dates and holidays and all that in my head somewhere. but mainly this first world war is framed for US citizens as a prelude to the second, and World War II takes up more space in our cultural memory, for some reason. Pearl Harbor, perhaps, ties us more closely and corporeally to the tragedies of that conflict.

seeing the Great War through a British lens or two or three was so different than seeing it through the lens I'd always seen it through before. I'm not sure I can explain well enough how it was different, but if you think for a moment, you might be able to imagine for yourselves. I don't need to explain that Britain was touched by this war much more deeply and brutally than my own country was. nobody needed to explain that to me, exactly... yet I hadn't thought about it, not really, before. all these manuscripts, bound up for holding memories, preserving moments, arranging experiences in--they made those differences real.

my final night in the UK this year, I got to see Henry V (second time this summer). the Glasgow acting company who's been performing it framed their performance with a 1915 end-of-year school festival, complete with songs of Flanders Fields and letters of condolence filling the silence during simple costume changes. the juxtaposition of the great Battle of Agincourt with all the battles of the Great War, so many on the same French soil, prodded my thoughts further in the direction of war, duty, bravery, and the value of sacrifices. it ended so sadly--Elizabethan armor transformed to early twentieth-century uniforms, the desperate enemies of English and French soldiers transformed to allied casualties.

I've thought before that almost everything we humans ever touch becomes a place for us to keep things. we build shelters and tombs for our bodies, shelves and closets for our things. we use pottery for holding water and poetry for holding feelings. and then we bind books, build museums, raise up theatres, and dedicate monuments to hold those things that do so much holding for us. we can look at all the layers of containment and be grateful, awe-inspired at the combined beauty and utility of them, glad that they do so well at keeping our places as we move through time towards an end we can't quite see past. some shapes and some structures are better for keeping certain kinds of stuff. some museums are less art and more archaeology, or vice versa. plenty of this pottery is different on the outside, but the general purpose seems close enough. these are our necessities, collected and revered, filled to their brims with stories.

Sunday, July 27

over matter

Saturday, July 26

time travel


let the process of untangling myself from the cosy embrace of the Greenwich timezone (as friend Chris marvelously put it yesterday) begin....

Sunday, July 20

Wednesday, July 16

reflexibly

what would you say was the prime of your life? the time when you were happiest, on top of the world?

somebody asked me this question the other day. it's one I hadn't thought about before, so it wasn't easy to answer. I love collecting questions and inquiries like this, though, to aid in conversational-scuba-diving efforts. for example:

-if you had a plant growing out of the top of your head, which kind of plant would you prefer?

-name your life's greatest ambition.

-what color would you most like to paint your ceiling and why?

-when or if you have children, would you rather they be dazzlingly clever and generally miserable or hopelessly unintelligent but generally happy?

-which food would you choose to be the only thing you ever ate from now on, every day, for ever?

the responses to these are usually less like answers and more like explorations of reasons and motives and priorities and hypotheticals of all kinds. much better than talking about whether it might rain tomorrow.

lately, on my travels, I've been noticing reflections. puddles. train windows. lakes. shopfronts. such surfaces make crazy collages of here and there, above and beneath, inside and outside, forward and backward. the photographs flatten a lot of that deep, shifting, photo-overlay feeling into an only slightly disorienting double-exposure feeling... but until I get around to figuring out proper gif-making, these static juxtapositions of image-within-non-image-within-image are what I have.

I once asked my physicist sister whether the reflections of cars' taillights in dark, wet streets look infinitely long, extending infinitely deep because those cars are moving, or because the car I'm in is moving, or what. she wasn't sure how to explain the optics of it all to me. I'm still wondering, a bit, how that works. maybe I should ask this guy.

of course the feeling of infinitely long, red taillight streaks and/or of a whole world upside-down in the canal water is an illusion. the look of all that space is a trick. but maybe so is everything. human eyes are complicated. optics and light are complicated.

on the wall of an Indian restaurant we visited the other day for lunch, I noticed a wallpaper pattern of the following quotation, all slanted in elegant script: "Illusion is the first of all pleasures." what does that mean? maybe I'll add it to my collection in the the form of a philosophical challenge-- does all enjoyment predicate itself upon a false sense of security, permanence, or desert? hmm.

on slaughterhouse 90210 the other day
 I saw this excerpt from Catherine Lacey's Nobody Is Ever Missing:
“We don’t get to stay in moments and that should not be news to you. We are both familiar with the concept of time, the awful math of it, how our history always gets larger, less understandable, overweight, overworked, over and over, and memories get misfiled and complicate feelings for no good reason and some people seem more able to deal with this, to keep their histories clean and well ordered but I still don’t understand why we came unstuck from those moments we wanted to stay and why the moments we wanted to forget still haunt us.” 
I've mentioned Slaughterhouse 90201 before, eh? tumblr is a strange universe, but it is great for thought-provoking snippets like the above paired with television stills. this quote goes pretty interestingly with the question I began with. what period would you say was the prime of your life? the time when you were happiest, on top of the world? out of all the moments and seasons in your ever-deepening history, which are the very best?

while I pondered what answer I would give the questioner, she told me that most people do say right now, or at least include right now in the span of time that counts as their most happy, confident time.

I wonder if that's because everything else seems either haunting and heavy or lost forever. unreachable like the sky, or mere reflection like the sky's image. in comparison with the all-encompasing now, the past and future look like tricks of the light.

Sunday, July 13

an only world

Saturday, July 12

wrapped

the trouble with all these academic books I've been speeding through this summer is that so much moreso than non-academic books, they're always incorporating ideas from other interesting-sounding books. so many references and engaging paraphrasings. not all of them are of the sort that draw me in and make me want to read even more academic prose, but some of them are.

sometimes the titles alone are intriguing enough. like The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires by Tim Wu. or some Edmund Burke: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. or these strange fictional pieces, He, She and It or The Female Man, both referenced/recommended by Donna Haraway.

another fiction (science-fiction) showed in up my most recent academic read to be paired with Huxley's Brave New World: Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward. the contrast of the two makes me curious.

and then there is this one: The Compact Culture: The Japanese Tradition of "Smaller Is Better." Andrew Feenberg, in Between Reason and Experience, cites this book in connection with a postmodern-ish view of technology. he wonders in unison with its author whether we have Japan to credit with the advent and growing ubiquity of tiny little gadgets running microcomputers, and whether this path of development would or wouldn't have ever happened without the grand, tradition of small Japanese things. I was talking on the train yesterday with a lovely stranger named Megan and probably blabbered too too much about all these books I've been thinking about. when Smaller is Better came up we wondered jointly what sort of argument its author would need to make to convince anyone that a propensity for smallness was caused by whatever he imagined it was caused by. geography? physiognomy? genetics? I want to read the book, just to find out.

speaking of Japan and smallness and culture: sushi.
Miniature Food - Sushi
{ photo borrowed from the very kind St├ęphanie Kilgast on flickr. }

one evening the other week, friend Chris and I were wandering hungrily around Manchester and I was craving sushi. (parts of me are always, in fact, craving sushi.)

the particular island nation I'm currently hanging around in is not hugely known for its sushi, that I know of. but it is known for pasties and pies. and whenever I am in the UK I do my best to enjoy as many pasties as I possibly can. they are glorious.

and so on this hungry evening, two deeply rooted cravings confronted one another. I can't remember if it was me or Chris who suggested we get our hands on both.

I thought about what an interesting combination that would be--a tray of pretty sushi laid next to a few golden-crusted pasties with grease paper around them. but why not? after all, the concepts behind both are so similar. you can put almost anything at all in a lovely pastry crust and call it a pasty. and just about anything wrapped in rice and nori counts as sushi, doesn't it?

you might argue that seaweed paper and buttery pastry crust are not at all anything like close to analogous. but why not?

we discussed this a little bit. pasties come in many regional varieties. I've learned that in Scotland they're bridies. there's a whole list of alternatives and realted food items on wikipedia. you might even expand that list to include things like burritos or tamales or dumplings or eggrolls or wontons. they all fit the pattern: savory something contained in a bread-like skin.

but does sushi truly fit? now that I've thought about it more, I'm not so sure. sushi involves savory bits wrapped in a perfectly decent grain... but it's not quite bread-like, is it? plenty of other differences pop up, too. the whole thing isn't cooked. it doesn't stay all wrapped up and self-contained, exactly--you have to slice sushi first. and it generally isn't the thing to eat sushi with your fingers, though I suppose there aren't really rules against it.

so what do you think? does sushi belong in this category? does it matter?

in the end we despaired of finding good enough sushi, so we raided Tesco for grapes and crisps and pita bread. the excellent photo of pasties + sushi on the same picnic platter has not yet come to be. I still think it should though. one of these afternoons...

Sunday, July 6

plant pots

Friday, July 4

the great affair is to move

I didn't know this was going to happen, but I spent a good chunk of my week in Edinburgh, sleeping in a hostel bunk and pretending to know my way around the old town.
this is the Waverley railway station from above, surrounded by gardens and trees. yesterday (which is not the day these photos were taken on, actually) I sat there watching rows of benches and acres of grassy spots fill up with teenagers with guitars, young families with strollers, students with coffee, and various other folk not so easy to peg as one sort of person or another. we had some rare bright blue skies and plenty of sun.
usually you don't find such nice parks abutting giant railway stations, do you? this one makes me quite happy anyway, whether it is the only nice railway-adjacent park in the world or not.

my explorations of Edinburgh included countless strolls up and down the Royal Mile, one lengthy morning brunchtime of scones and writing in this charming Belgian cafe, two somewhat adventurous educational visits to bridges and archives, a handful of peeking into museums, one plateful of haggis...
...and two lovely evening hours of a most entertaining, inspiring literary pub tour.

friends Kaitlyn and Justin and I learned a bunch of things about some celebrated Scottish wordsmiths and reveled reverently in the reciting of various snippets of classic prose and poetry. I added a few new items to my endless list of books to read. a rambly synopsis (not comprehensive in the least) of things learned and/or pondered upon:

- Robert Burns once wrote love letters under the pseudonym Sylvander to a lady who insisted on calling herself Clarinda instead of Agnes McLehose. you can read a bit about their passionate letter-writing (and listen to any other Burns poem you fancy--they give me goosebumps, some of them), if you have a minute. I wonder how serious or how playful they were in their correspondence. which of them pined more for the other? were either of them merely playing along, safe behind pen and paper and propriety? some Burns scholar may be able to guess. are there any accomplished Burns scholars in my audience?
{ the talented actors, reciting a perfect mix of poetry and history. there was even singing. }

- they say Sir Walter Scott invented the modern popular image of Scottishness, did you know? it was hisevent planning on the occasion of King George IV's visit that made kilts so cool. he's also got a humongous, spiky, old monument along Princes Street--the largest of any monument to any writer anywhere, apparently. why haven't I read a thing he's ever written?

- Robert Louis Stevenson died in Samoa after having lived there with his family, telling stories and meddling in politics. his writing Treasure Island makes more sense, knowing how much he loved traveling. I noted a quotation on one of the plaques in the basement section of the writer's museum: "For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints." the sentiment there reminds me of my father. I didn't always appreciate dislocating one's self for the sake of nothing at all, but thankfully I've come around. the feather-bed of civilisation is over-rated.

remind me, next time, to blog about pastry crusts and seaweed.

Sunday, June 29

hello, needs