Tuesday, March 30, 2010

free association #1

camera obscura: Abelardo Morell photographs the world inside various rooms. Not only the world of the room -- the lamps and bookshelves and beds and electrical outlets -- but the world outside the window too, one superimposed on the other through a quirk of optics observed by Aristotle and used by people like Caravaggio and Vermeer (maybe) and every kid who makes a pinhole camera (most definitely). Wouldn't it be great to have a party in one of Morell's rooms? Everyone would wear white, of course, and the trick of the evening would be to pay attention to the conversation while an upside-down Central Park wandered over ties, cocktail dresses, and faces. Or to wake up with Venetian canals floating over your head, and the sky strewn across your sheets, and maybe someone in bed next to you with a flock of pigeons passing over their shoulder, topsy-turvy and in miniature. (I'm sure this wouldn't actually work; but since I don't know anything about optics, I choose to ignore the practicalities.)

flashback cards: So, this lady calls and she wants something that she calls "flashback cards." Not flash cards and not index cards, but this special kind of card that you write things down on so you can remember them. This makes me think of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, because there's an old man in that book who has a card catalogue of all the people he's met. When I heard J. S. F. read, he read from this scene, and his voice cracked, like a boy at his bar mitzvah, as my friend put it. It also makes me think of this comedian I read about, who donated her card catalogue, each drawer labeled with a different kind of joke, to the Smithsonian. I wish I knew where you could get these special cards. You write down the memory. The card keeps it safe. You can file it away, either forever or just until you decide to take it out again and everything is resuscitated, like those foam capsules I used to love so much that turned into dinosaur and spaceship shaped sponges in the bath.

zipper pull: A young man gets into the elevator and he has a silver maglight hanging from the end of his jacket zipper. He's all zipped up, so the maglight dangles right under his chin, and I can't figure out what use a flashlight is when it's (one) daytime and (two) banging into your adam's apple. I wrote a story about a guy who was afraid of the dark. He kept a flashlight in his pocket in case of an electrical outage. This was a minor detail meant to illuminate (pun absolutely, shamelessly intended) his predilection for getting lost. If you had a carabiner clip, I guess it wouldn't matter where you kept your flashlight, because you could always unclip it if you had to. This guy doesn't have a carabiner clip though, it's just the flashlight on the zipper looking like some sort of bizarre metal growth hanging from his jaw.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

dance + words

Alex offered an interesting task today: take a phrase of movement and put words to it. The goal was to speak clearly and in a relatively natural rhythm, without the stilted chanting that's so often the first tendency when your brain is trying to put together a sequence of words and a sequence of steps. The words could be simple, abstract even, but they had to illuminate a shifting, double idea of intimacy: intimacy with the "audience" and intimacy with someone else.

The movement was simple, mostly gestural and pared down, and we had about half an hour to work; but it was fascinating how difficult it was. The words and the steps jostled each other in my head. I'd have hold of one, and then have hold of the other, and when I tried to put them together, I felt like I had to decide whether to snap my words to the shiny apex of a movement (and skirt close to the chanting monotone) or drop them in the spaces between (where the danger of mealy-mouthed hastiness lurks). Then there's the inherent emotion that seeps from a moving body, which tips the slightest verbal melodrama into embarrassing sentimentality. It's like a double-sided magnifying glass.

The words I made up:

Think of me like the haberdasher considers his wares.
Magnify the particular --
white collars, hats, and pins --
Like that glass you keep forgetting on the table.

Point of view is what makes the illusion work.
Your silk handkerchief.
My black hat.
Sim sim salabim.
Smoke and mirrors shoot you in the heart.

Seams and cracks; you're standing too close, but
Carry on! Don't look
You might miss the trick.

Or see something else, entirely.

When I remember sequences of motion, I have landmarks, small pieces and moments, that I rely on because the momentum and connections are logical and inevitable. I can say, my arms are here and then my leg does this and I don't have to consciously remember the thousands of minute manipulations that get me from one to another because it somehow makes sense.

When I remember sequences of words, or am making up sequences of words, I feel like I have to hold onto every single fragment, right down to the tiny prepositions and tense agreements, because words are so precise. They can stand for vast, messy things, but the words themselves are really still in a way. They're partially symbols for what they mean.

Remembering both together made me feel like these languages, dance and English, which I've been speaking for most of my life, were suddenly unfamiliar. It was bizarre and I felt full of prickles (the good kind, the kind that set my brain twirling and make me smile because the day is suddenly more interesting than I deserve).

Sunday, March 21, 2010

charms of the interstate

One of the nicest things about a roadtrip is the time it affords for thinking. It's so indulgent to just sit while the scenery goes flash, flash, flash by the window, listening to music and thinking about nothing in particular. Things like:

tongue twisters: irish wristwatch. irish wristwatch. irish wristwatch.

nursery rhymes: I had a little nut tree nothing would it bear/but a silver nutmeg and a golden pear/The king of Spain's daughter came to visit me/and all for the sake of my little nut tree.

prosopagnosia: If I couldn't recognize the faces of people I love, could I pick out their walk? The way they pick up a glass? Their very own, unique as anything, way of slipping their hands into their pockets and leaning against a door?

When I lived in Southern CA, I drove up and down the 5 a decent number of times. I remembered it as dull (so very flat), grey (dry and dusty), and depressing (all those sad, doomed cows). I completely forgot the fizzy shock of seeing a flock of swallows burst out of mud nests crusted on the edges of an overpass, and about emerging from the hills and looking down on a huge field of lupin cut in half by the freeway, like a hazy purple lake sliced open by a bridge.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

natural history

One of my favourite views in all of San Francisco is this:
Look up from the Amazon exhibit in the California Academy of Sciences, and above your head is dusky green water and heavy, slow fish, all shot through with sunlight from the window-pierced roof. Three stories of simulated rainforest float between you and that roof -- lush bursts of plants, birds, and fragile butterflies; people drifting on a spiral boardwalk; glass dome and metal struts that make you feel like you're inside a giant terrarium -- and everything is full of light.

There's something thrilling about captured nature. It's nothing at all like the real thing. It's not wild and messy, it's not going to scare you in the night; but it's there, close enough to touch and smell, held still by the constraints of space and practicality. You can see it, without worrying that it's going to run away, without going on some outrageous expedition that (let's be honest) most of us will never go on, no mater how adventurous or lucky we get.

My favourite natural history museum (so far) is the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I remember: room after room of specimens, a hallway of butterflies pinned to walls, and the justifiably famous Blaschka glass flowers.

I pretend that my love for natural history museums is inherited. I have a grandfather who tells me about sailing past the Rock of Gibraltar, the gutters of Morocco, illicit rides on plantation trolleys meant for sugarcane. He likes natural history museums too. We once went to a natural history museum in Las Vegas, some distance away from the neon lights and shiny buildings. It was a small, dim place with the processed smell that comes from air conditioning in a desert. It had several rooms of taxidermied animals, most of them too crowded together to pass for a realistic diorama. Some of them had holes and places where they were going bald. Our taxi never turned up, so we walked back to the hotel.
My other grandfather has always had a stuffed pheasant on a coffee table in his living room. "From my hunting days," he always says. It has unbelievable yellow eyes, and I was never allowed to touch it, but I would go and stare at it when I was supposed to be eating dinner. The best taxidermied animals only look real for a second, because then my eye expects them to breathe and move and start. The poor ones don't look real at all. The stillness that gives them both away also lets me glut myself on detail. To notice that this is the color green on a pheasant's head; or, this is what a viperfish (a viperfish!) looks like when my nose is an inch away from its teeth. I like natural history museums because they populate my imagination. They give depth to the world I carry around in my head, which is what I look through when I examine the world outside. They educate my sense of wonder.
I recently listened to an interview with Richard Dawkins. He said that there's no reason why an ordinary person would have to know about evolution. A person could grow up, get some modicum of education, go to work, get married, have children without knowing that we, as a species, evolved. A person could do that and suffer no ill effects. But wouldn't it be a waste, Mr. Dawkins said. Wouldn't it be sad, a missed opportunity to know something that is so wondrous and elegant and true.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

fill my ears with good

The new album by Beach House makes me want to go on a roadtrip, solely because I think it would be the perfect thing to listen to, at a volume to make the windows hum, while driving a stretch of road that goes on long enough for the sun to set while you're crossing it. It's called "Teen Dream," which makes me wince, but the music brings to mind "drenched" and "haze" and, yep, "dreamy" -- but it has an edge underneath it that makes me want to pay attention in case it slices through. Sexy, too.

(It also introduced me to Pitchfork, which is a one of those rabbit hole websites that are dangerous to fall down. Endless treasures. A new She & Him music video. "Go Outside" by Cults.)

This American Life makes me teary eyed, angry, giggly, and full of a sinking disappointment when I've caught up on my backlog and realise that my ipod is empty of new episodes. I found episode 399: Contents Unknown particularly fascinating.

My sister made me listen to "Stuff You Missed In History Class." I think she offered the episode about the disastrous Burke and Wills expedition to explore the Australian continent. Apparently, one scientist drew a picture of a rat eating his foot as he died. I've now gotten to the point where I'm dredging up past episodes to put on my ipod.

In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg from BBC Radio 4 can be a little pretentious sometimes, but the conversational format is interesting. I remember listening to the episode about Joan of Arc while sitting on a set of stairs in San Francisco while drinking a cup of tea, waiting for a friend, and wondering what it felt like to be so intimately acquainted with someone so long dead.

Friday, March 5, 2010

on meeting a second time

When I saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in the theater, six years ago, I felt like I was watching a party from the wrong side of a thick piece of glass. I was younger and had misconceptions about the world. Love came in primary colors. Memory was fallible, but mostly immutable. I didn't get it.

I never bothered to see it again. People told me how wonderful it is, how much they loved it, how much I must love it, seeing as it's an oddball story about memory and vanishing. "It's just your kind of thing!" people would say, but I didn't get around to seeing if they were right until the other evening.

I loved it.

Sometimes, second meetings are like that. Not very often. Usually it's just more of the same. But sometimes I meet a person, or a book, or a song, or a place again, and I've put on some more time, or taken off a bit of prejudice, and suddenly it makes absolute sense.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

can't sit still when you play that song

When a song comes on that I really love, or is something unfamiliar that I find newly delightful, the first thing I want to do is move. A gentle sway is the usual antidote, lazy curves heading down my spine, but sometimes it's not enough. The skull must nod. The arms must swing. The hips crook, feet shuffle, shoulders bunch and shrug. Moving to music is like laying on the ground while someone beats a drum, or sitting in a room while someone plays the cello and you feel hollow with all the vibrations under your skin.

Which is why I can't sit still to a good song.

The other night I went to see the Magnetic Fields at the Herbst Theater (which is very pretty) and they played an entire evening of good songs (and the particular reason I like Magnetic Fields songs is that they immediately transform me into the character I imagine living them; they open up like stories in puzzle boxes, all witty and sad and beautiful and wicked), but we were sitting in respectable chairs with cushions of red velveteen. Dancing was not to be had. I had to content myself with swaying and foot tapping when what I really, really wanted was to go swinging off the balcony like Tarzan and racing up and down the aisles in full-blown, absolute silliness.

dancing? no, but you can have a mural!


In other news, Paul Berger, who was my classmate at Clarion, has a story up at Strange Horizons. It is almost a fairytale and it is appropriately unsettling and fun to read.