Thursday, March 23, 2017

The invisible sky

Paul Klee, Reconstruction (1926)

After sitting on my bookcase for over two years, my secondhand copy of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities (1972; trans. William Weaver) has finally found a place in my lap.
When you have arrived at Phyllis, you rejoice in observing all the bridges over the canals, each different from the others: cambered, covered, on pillars, on barges, suspended, with tracery balustrades. And what a variety of windows looks down on the streets: mullioned, Moorish, lancet, pointed, surmounted by lunettes or stained-glass roses; how many kinds of pavement cover the ground: cobbles, slabs, gravel, blue and white tiles. At every point the city offers surprises to your view: a caper bush jutting from the fortress' walls, the statues of three queens on corbels, an onion dome with three smaller onions threaded on the spire. "Happy the man who has Phyllis before his eyes each day and who never ceases seeing the things it contains," you cry, with regret at having to eave the city when you can barely graze it with your glance.

But it so happens that, instead, you must stay in Phyllis and spend the rest of your days there. Soon the city fades before your eyes, the rose windows are expunged, the statues on the corbels, the domes. Like all of Phyllis's inhabitants, you follow zigzag lines from one street to another, you distinguish the patches of sunlight from the patches of shade, a door here, a stairway there, a bench where you can put down your basket, a hole where your foot stumbles if you are not careful. All the rest of the city is invisible. Phyllis is a space in which routes are drawn between points suspended in the void: the shortest way to reach that certain merchant's tent, avoiding that certain creditor's window. ...

Millions of eyes look up at the windows, bridges, capers, and they might be scanning a blank page. Many are the cities like Phyllis, which elude the gaze of all, except the man who catches them by surprise.
It's said that familiarity breeds contempt, and there's truth in that. I think it's more often the case that familiarity breeds indifference, disregard—especially when the familiar person, place, thing, or event exists in the vicinity of ourselves and our habitual pathways, and when we are not required to engage with it. My friends from New York profess to be proud of living in the same city as so many world-class museums, theatres, and other cultural sites, but rarely if never visit any of them. And people who live in Denver or Boulder don't habitually stop what they're doing to gaze at the mountains for a while (unless they're taking a smoke break, I suppose), while a visitor from the East Coast such as myself will sometimes halt in the middle of the parking lot, neck craned, mouth slightly open, gawking up into the distance, oblivious to the traffic he's blocking.

Marco Polo tells the Great Khan about a city called Phyllis, whose splendor is lost on its residents. Incidentally, Polo has already admitted that his accounts of Phyllis, and of all the other cities in his reports, are all descriptions of one city, the same city, permutated, rotated, cropped, zoomed in and out. Insofar as the strangeness and beauty of our environs are generally lost on us all, yes, Phyllis is every city, and we are all of us residents. The entire anthroposphere is Phyllis.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Some themes, elaborated: cities and straight lines

It happened, eight years ago, that a friend of mine was visiting her parents in Jersey and needed to get back to Washington, DC on the quick. I was happy to give her a ride, and then to spend the night with her. It wasn't for the first time.

She's been living in Minnesota for a few years now, and got engaged last winter. Less than a decade ago we were smoking cigarettes together outside Paul's Diner on Route 46 after closing shifts at the bookstore, but to recollect those nights with her now, to remember myself then, is like imagining the life of a stranger. The day-to-day state of things seems so obvious, so unneedful of an explanation until one thinks back to a past he's lived, history he's experienced, old acquaintances he's made and lost, and then the present becomes a mystery beyond all reasoning or utterance. How did we get to where we are?

I believe that if most of us are honest with ourselves, we perceive the arcs of our lives being determined not principally by will or fate, but by a conspiracy of accidents, chance meetings, impulsive swerves into the exit lane, mistaken boardings of the wrong train, last-minute changes of plans.

So: I took my friend to DC. While she was at the office the next day—a Monday—I sauntered for hours through the National Mall and Capitol Hill in the languid dogday heat. The National Air and Space Museum was my first priority. I believe I hit up the Hirshhorn next, and peered inside the National Museum of the American Indian afterwards. I know that before meeting up with my friend in the afternoon, my last stop was the United States Botanic Garden, and I know I visited it on somebody else's advice—someone who knew I'd be taking this trip. I don't remember who it was.

The medial chamber of the Botanic Garden's conservatory is called "The Tropics," and is designed to simulate an area of rainforest that has subsumed the remains of an abandoned plantation. Entering the room for the third or fourth time, I came upon a guide giving a tour to a small group of visitors, and listened from a distance. She invited her flock to take a look around, and asked them to pretend for a moment that they were looking at an actual landscape in an actual rainforest. Just on a glance, she asked, how would we know which of these plants were cultivated by humans?

Monday, March 6, 2017

Stuck in my craw: woketweets

As somebody who still thinks of George W. Bush as a war criminal, who cut his subscription to Digitally Imported because its CEO bashed the Occupy movement, who has no compunctions about saying that black lives matter, and who recently wrote his congressman and senators to urge them to grow six balls among them and push back against Trump's "Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States" executive order (and will be doing so again now that the sequel has dropped), it makes me sad to say that I'm feeling increasingly alienated by the progressive left. But here we are.

When I first gravitated towards progressivism during my early twenties, it wasn't entirely because I was drawn in by the raw appeal of leftist ideas. My disgust at what I saw conservatism espousing was a powerful impetus.

My political awakening came during the Bush presidency. I understand the right not only as warmongers and wiretappers, but representative of an uncompromising moral absolutism and a streak of fundamentalist Christianity that preached damnation with far more vigor than it espoused and took to heart the Beatitudes. They stood for intolerance and orthodoxy, and I was glad to throw in my lot with the crowd that professed inclusion, egalitarianism, and the primacy of reason over doctrine.

But over the last few years, I've noticed the left making noises that sound an awful lot to me like the smug self-righteousness and brimstone that set me against the right.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Nature and the English Language

The legendary Pizza Rat

Not too long ago I cobbled together a comic strip based on a couple of conversations I had at different times with different people. It's true that during one of these chats I uttered the word "bitches" rather glibly—but I think in the actual conversation I wasn't maligning any actual persons as "bitches," but rather referring to the "first you write the novel, then you get the bitches" lie that set me on the lonely, misty path I walk. And then we did volley some ideas back and forth about what "bitches" signifies, how its meaning and semiotic timbre change depending on who's saying it (and to whom), and how the singular "bitch" differs from the plural "bitches," etc.

Old news: language is labile. The definition of a word determines the circumstances of its use; over time, the idiosyncrasies of its use alter its definition. And "definition" is, well, difficult to define. Without getting into the "which came first, the word or the abstraction?" conundrum, let's just say that by "definition" we mean the physical object, quality, action, or relation, abstracted, that a word represents. ("Stone" isn't any particular object; it's the bundle of qualities common to the things we point to and say "stones.") A word's relative location in the involute webs of the lexicon can potentially have as much bearing on its meaning as Merriam-Webster's indexed blurbs. Just as we can better understand a person by the company they keep, we can clarify the meaning of a word by examining the words related to it.

The relatedness of words has as much to do with synonymity and etymology as with unconscious exercises of association on the part of speakers, and these linkages don't necessarily have anything to do with linguistics, per se. This most often seems to be the case when a word's referent is something that's neither tangible or visible, and also assumed to be ubiquitous, or fundamental in some way.

"Capitalism" is a good example. If you play a word association game with a liberal and pitch her "capitalism," her answer will probably be "greed," even though that isn't what capitalism is. Play the same game with a conservative, and his answer will be more likely be along the lines of "free enterprise"—which is hardly any closer to what the word "capitalism" actually means. Unless our partisans both dabble in political science or economics, any personal definitions of "capitalism" they submit will be reiterations of their first answers, elaborated into "greed system" and "enterprise system."

"Freedom" is a word whose meaning in most contexts is colored entirely by its associations and piled depositions of emotional content. It is employed so frequently and exclusively as a blunt rhetorical object that it's been pounded out of whatever shape it once possessed. Its closest synonyms are "we're number one" and "WHOO." As far as I'm concerned, the word is a lost cause. Approach somebody who habitually uses it in conversation or on Facebook. Ask them: "Freedom to do what and at whose expense?" Or propose: "if you grant that our actions are directly influenced by our genes and environment by any margin greater than 0%, it has to follow that nothing we do or think is not in some way determined by circumstances beyond our control, and so freedom is more likely a subjective feeling and not an ontological property."

The ensuing discussions will not be productive. But "freedom" is as locked into our discourse as MIDI is into our music, and so our ideologues and political leaders continue to harp on "freedom" as though it were something real, something quantifiable, when in actuality its has transcended all practical meaning and become an amorphous, religiously charged cultural totem.

We sure could use a man like David Rees again.

The word "nature" is afflicted much in the same way.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Sometimes I still draw things.

I forgot to mention this earlier, but I threw together a comic for the first time in several moons. It felt pretty good drawing again, but I wish these things didn't take so long to make.


Huh. This is comic #81 on Comics Over Easy. Nineteen more and I'll have some sort of meaningless milestone to celebrate. (Tigt's guest comic is #68, but whatever. I'm perfectly comfortable secretly counting that awful Ponycomic as two strips so I don't have to wait until #101 to halfheartedly pat myself on the back.)

Monday, January 30, 2017

Monster a Go-Go (politics)

From the film Monster a Go-Go (1965). Unrelated to the post, except
maybe as a metaphor for the savage ugliness of the last week (and
an appellation for Trump presidency thus far).

I'm a little emotionally wrung out, actually. Earlier today I forced myself to stop checking Twitter and the Washington Post for a while and numb myself with a couple episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

It was a good choice.
I don't have the stomach for even a superficial autopsy of President Trump's first ghastly week in office. My emotional state has been vacillating between disgust at his reptile-brained worldview and gasping horror at the ever-accruing evidence that we have a crazy person as our Commander in Chief. Sometimes I experience both states simultaneously. When that happens I have to close the browser and take a very long walk. At the rate I'm sucking in nicotine lately, I'll die of a heart attack before the midterm elections.

For the moment, let's focus on Trump's ideology—insofar as a bilious heap of grudges and gut feelings qualifies as a body of ideas about how the world works. You're familiar with it by now: "America First." Foreigners, particularly the non-white, non-Christian species, are job-stealers at best and terrorists at worst.  Diplomacy is a zero sum game. Things used to be better, back when only red-blooded, white-skinned men were trusted to run things, when America was booming and the rest of the world was convalescing from war, colonialism, and/or Stalinism, and when climate change wasn't a problem because nobody was talking about climate change because nobody was aware of climate change, so climate change wasn't a problem. (Returning to the latter state of affairs is precisely what the Trump administration hopes to achieve by muzzling the EPA, NASA, et al.)

So here we are. What happens now?

I'm finding plenty of cause to be afraid and a few reasons to be hopeful. For now I'd like to admire the silver lining before considering the thunderhead.

Monday, January 23, 2017


Remember back when I said I was working on a new novel-length project? Well, I've been a bit stalled out this week. Call it a crisis of confidence: the more trouble I have writing a chapter or section, the more faith I lose in myself, and the more faith I lose in myself, the more trouble I have writing that chapter or section or any other chapter or section. I've got myself in what the Romans called a circulus vitiosus (lit. "shit sandwich").

While wasting some time and avoiding writing earlier tonight, I revisited those old Moby Dick Magic: the Gathering cards I produced with Magic Set Editor a few years ago under similar circumstances. Man, most of them were really poorly designed. I'm zero for a billion tonight.

So I rethought some of them so as to keep wasting time and deferring What Is To Be Done. I hope they will waste some of your time, too.