Nashville’s First Pedestrians

Too hot for pictures in Nashville. Way too hot.

I read Eudora Welty’s “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” just before leaving for Tennessee, and it set up our new landscape perfectly.  Not really for the regional dialects or the social commentary or the geo-racial politics. Simply because of the way she describes the God damn heat. Or maybe it’s the way she just describes everything else in the story that makes you sweat. It’s sort-of a head-first-into-the-deep-fryer type of feeling. Motif of internal punishment…damned to eternal flames and gnashing of teeth? Fine, whatever, please just don’t leave me here to slow roast like this BBQ.

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You can’t win.

And it’s hot.

It looks like the town’s on fire already, wherever you go, on every street, with crape myrtle trees and mimosa trees blooming their heads off. And a thousand cops everywhere you go, almost too young to start shaving, but streaming sweat. I’m tired of cops.

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But we made it to Knoxville, too, and it was a little less hot. I brought Sylvia Townsend Warner and Janet Hobhouse, so I cooled myself with Gothic English countrysides and anxious New Yorker apartments, respectively.

Overall, I really enjoyed our Southern jaunt. The luxurious smell of savory biscuits in the morning, the eerily vacant sidewalks, the gratuitous use of mason jars and second person plural….ya’ll know what I’m talkin’ about. From the day we packed far too many light cardigans in our luggage tagged for BNA to the day we tossed our ‘what would Dolly do?’ tote bag into the overhead compartment of our flight back to SEA, I’d say we were as happy as two stuffed squirrels drinking miniature bottles of bourbon and playing cards.

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Donner, Party of Seven?

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When I was kid I thought the drive from Davis to Tahoe was just about the longest, most agonizing ride you could experience. As it turns out, the directions for the longest ride to Tahoe are as follows: Head South-East on the wrong freeway and end up in a touristy gold-mining town.  Then take a slow, windy detour to the Auburn In N’ Out. Follow the same road after making yourself sick from a mix of peanut butter pretzels, ginger beer, and Ira Glass’ ever-so-smooth, always-so-nasal voice. Stick head out window to ensure that you are still alive. Arrive, dear friend, at Tahoe to reap your reward.

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Yolo county, California

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We were just in Davis for a short while, but below are some things that happened while we were there that aren’t reflected in these photos:

More fresh eggs in the morning

Joey ate a five-year-old’s grapes

Tim’s bike tour through Davis

Michelle’s pool and an inflatable orca

Dad’s gnocci

Guadalajara in the park

Sunburns

Davis night scene??

Megan somehow planned out the rest of our trip

Lots of talk about In N Out

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Sometimes a Great Notion

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I first read Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, one of my all-time favorite novels, just after I moved to Seattle in 2007. It wasn’t easy. The reading, the dreaming, the living. But, looking back on it, Kesey’s depiction of the Pacific Northwest (specifically Oregon) was the perfect introduction to my new geography. I, too, dreamed of moss covering my eyelids in my sleep. I, too, watched rust appear on metal objects even though I couldn’t remember ever seeing rain. Yes, that lumber-cutting, slumber-abbreviating, log-chipping, calf-rearing, Hank’s bell-ringing, bootless book I assume was both only ever written and read in the dark got me good.

Of course, I wasn’t wading through any rivers or hauling lumber or even sleeping under the stars. I was eating trail mix in a dorm room and tossing textbooks up to my top bunk and passing out without remembering to remove my glasses. But at night–and in the mornings when the sun took its sweet time to rise–I thought I knew exactly what he meant.

I was reminded of Kesey’s novel when we passed through Oregon and stopped to visit my brother, Tim, in Ashland. Sometimes because of the scenery, but more often because of Kesey’s braided narratives; the swift switching of first person between characters done so seamlessly you lose yourself in a melange of thoughts and voices that eventually become one tired, restless mind in the wilderness.

Years from now, looking back on this trip, I don’t expect any of us to remember who said what. Llama Del Ray or fairy ponds? Pot-holed, backwards truck rides into town? I don’t know. But I am fairly confident we will recall how we all felt, in this place, in this time, all braided and bound up together in Ashland with Tim.

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“Look…Reality is greater than the sum of its parts, also a damn sight holier. And the lives of such stuff as dreams are made of may be rounded with a sleep but they are not tied neatly with a red bow. Truth doesn’t run on time like a commuter train, though time may run on truth. And the Scenes Gone By and the Scenes to Come flow blending together in the sea-green deep while Now spreads in circles on the surface. So don’t sweat it. For focus simply move a few inches back or forward. And once more…look.”

– Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion

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Life, A User’s Manual

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If you really want to make it so, you can condense Perec’s Life, A User’s Manual, down to a series of lists. Truly extraordinary lists. Not your average grocery store or ‘shit to do before I get on the plane’ or ‘reasons to give up booze’ lists. Lists mostly of things–things that tell the stories of his characters’ lives more adequately than their own monologues or actions ever could. The novel is brilliant for many other reasons, but you don’t need me to tell you that. And, of course, the lists get at something very personal about Perec himself. They tell the story of an author who lost both his parents at a young age, and somehow found his way through the terror of the Holocaust; through it all, he developed associations between tangible things and intangible realities, pasts, hopes, despairs…

Instead of swooning over his literary labyrinths, I’ll add another list to Perec’s User’s Manual.

Third floor, apartment next to the main stairwell, first room, living area. A record player is propped up, with its needle on a Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood LP. The girl who lives here, Lindsay, is fairly certain that this record was given to her by her friend, Joey, who also gave her Perec’s novel, and therefore may actually be responsible for this passage. To the left of the record player is a roll-top desk, crowded with two Swedish children’s books from the 1950s (Lillingarna och Trollen, and Tomtebo Barnen), a book that was once a romance mystery twisted back and its edges cut and pasted together so that it forms the shape of a vase with two hand-sized American flags sticking out from its neck, a flashlight, an empty water bottle, Mod Podge, pay stubs from a book store and a non-profit, a shot-sized beer stein from a past Oktoberfest with the words ‘Seattle Weekly’ printed on the bottom; it now holds coins (mostly pennies), a ceramic mannequin of a child in a rabbit costume playing the guitar with one foot missing, Bananagrams, papers from the Department of Homeland Security, pens, a metal slinky with a twist in its center, keys with a rectangular, purple tag that reads in black ink; ‘Treaty of Neerlandia,’ thank you notes, and a crumpled black and white series of photos from a photobooth of four people smiling in front of a zebra-print background. Lindsay has never met any of these people. Next to the desk is the first of four bookcases. On top of the bookcase is one Swedish children’s book (Puttes Äventyr) with cover art that depicts; blueberries, a snail, and a yellow border, two tickets to the San Francisco County Clerk in a gold frame with a cardboard background, a wooden elephant her Aunt Georgeanne gave to one of her siblings on a trip back from Africa in the mid-1990s, a large gold-framed photograph of her and her older brother at young ages in masks and pirates clothing, and two hand-size American flags sticking out of two boxes covered in German reklam book pages that once were cereal boxes but now are stuffed with all of her favorite postcards, newspaper clippings, photographs, and letters. Propped up against the wall are seven framed butterflies pinned to a framed piece of Styrofoam. Her favorites are The Common Jay, with robin’s egg-speckled blue against its black-tipped wings, and The Tawny Rajah, with an auburn color that bleeds from its thorax out across its wingspan.

Next to the first book case is another bookcase, and a chair, and another bookcase, and between the third bookcase and the couch where Lindsay sits while typing now is a wooden statue about the size of a small child, of a woman with an ornate, pine cone headdress. She stands with one hand pulling up at her dress, which appears to be silk or something quite lightweight, although it is really just wood. This statue was given to her by her maternal grandmother, although before that it lived in her grandparents’ household for many years. As a child, Lindsay would offer the wooden lady imaginary tea and treats during the day. At night, she hoped the wooden lady kept her peace offering, as she stood silently over the end of a long, narrow hallway, always staring (eye-to-eye) at Lindsay.

Family, Home, Me

My dearest of dears, my friendest of friends is putting together a pretty incredible project in her town of Xerém, Brazil. Her photojournalism/storytelling project is engaging the kids in the community she works with there, as well as everyone else from home and abroad. So, I highly recommend 1. checking it out here 2. participating.

So, Michelle, here is my submission for photos of home, family, and a self-portrait.

On a semi-side note:

I’m reading Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea right now, and I was reminded of these people (family) and places (home) that are so inseparable from who we are and how we see ourselves. I suppose this photo project really gets to the crux of that, but when reading Mishima I was reminded of what it’s like to be a child and to take great meaning in the relationships between so many other people, places and things— mostly by allowing them to play a much more intimate role in characterizing what I thought of myself. I remember trying to understand my world by creating rules for how things must be, how people and places had to align, because that was just the way things were. Once I had rules for the world I could understand how to exist within those norms. I want to say a big part of growing up (sigh) was letting go of those rules, of those direct lines we draw from bed to safety or from home to family or from one heart to another….but really I think I ended up drawing more lines, building more relationships between places and feelings, or between people and myself.

Of course, Mishima’s Noboru captures it all so perfectly drastically:

“Noboru and mother– mother and man–man and sea– sea and Noboru…

He was choked, wet, ecstatic. Certain he had watched a tangle of thread unravel to trace a hollowed figure. And it would have to be protected: for all he knew, he was its thirteen-year-old creator.

‘If this world is ever destroyed, it’ll mean the end of the world,’ Noboru murmured, barely conscious. I guess I’d do anything to stop that, no matter how awful!

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Family

Self-Portrait

Ijburg and the Treaty of Nostalgia

This time of year I get pretty nostalgic for pretty much anything. The Germans have the perfect word for it: sehnsüchtig. From sehnen– “to yearn for” and suchtig– “addicting.” All together we get the ever-so-romantic adjective of “being addicted to yearning.”

So I got nostalgic for traveling, and then I looked through old journals and anecdotes from some of my early trips out of the country, and found that in those travel journals I wrote mostly about my memories of home. There really never is any simple satisfaction, I suppose.

My cooler-than-cool younger brother just got back from Amsterdam, and I certainly hope he spent less of his time day dreaming than I did when I was there. So, for giggles, here’s an old journal piece from the last time I was in Amsterdam.

“Ijburg,” I said. The man behind the glass shield just laughed. “I mean …Centraal Station.” We were at Ijburg, the last stop on the 26 tram. I passed him my 2,40 Euros and, with an embarrassed resignation, took a seat by the window.

Rainy days in Amsterdam are so different from rainy days in Seattle, I thought, but could not think beyond the frustrations of the day to my support my observation.

At the station, I stepped off the tram and pulled my hood over my head, relentlessly pushing my wet bangs away from my eyes. Centraal Station is always teeming with people, but somehow the rainy days made the insatiable crowd more overwhelmingly vacant and domineering.  I remembered a tale a boy once recounted for me; hungry ghosts, I thought, all I see are hungry ghosts. So I hurried by the vibrant accordion player and his trumpeter companion pinned against a wall by the mass of people. I stepped past wide-eyed backpackers and stumbled across the intersection of trams, knowing this specific spot was my least favorite crevice of the planet.

I followed Damrak, my pace quick and steady through the mélange of sex shops and tourist traps. I was still encircled by assorted faces and legs and arms and hands—some with umbrellas, some without.

Damrak turned without notice into Rokin. The voices of tourists faded into the sounds of trams rushing against their wet metal tracks and a woman’s boots methodically clapped against the cobblestone pavement with a beat that was just slightly off. Sex shops became coffee shops and döner kebab joints. Rokin crossed Singel and Amstel before it transformed into Vijzelstraat. I walked on the side opposite to the cinema where the night before I watched My Bloody Valentine through 3D glasses, and I felt my lingering horror and a maturing disgrace with my judgment at the time.

Cold and wet, with pangs of hunger, and still embittered by the lasting effects of that damn movie I continued. Herengracht passed, and then Keizergracht. I stopped under the striped awning of a forlorn café to check the map I had scrawled out for myself that morning. My blue ink scratches told me I had gone too far. I crossed the road, turned down a narrow side street, and eventually found myself at my destination. Lipstick-red Helvetica that spelled out F-O-A-M was my guiding beam of light, so I pulled down my hood and rowed my boat ashore.

Perhaps if I wasn’t still loosening the buttons on my jacket I wouldn’t have gone down the wrong stairwell after entering. Perhaps if I wasn’t alone someone would have pointed me in the direction of the start of the exhibit, rather than the end. Maybe if I had learned Dutch I could have read the signs. But my jacket was too stiff and wet, I was entirely alone, and I know hardly a word of that linguistic anomaly some call a language. And so the second portrait I saw in the Richard Avedon exhibition at FOAM Fotogalerie was not of Marilyn Monroe’s tragic smile, Andy Warhol’s scarred stomach, or any number of artists whose portraits were more familiar to me than their works.

Instead I met eyes with the portrait of a bare-chested, bald man with only a minor expression on his face. His body—pallid and glowing against the white background—was shrouded by bees. I stood before him rain-drenched, resentful of the day’s circumstances, and still unable to admit my own likeness with the masses of hungry ghosts. The shock of the bees and the unnervingly slight expression on the pale man were aesthetically wasted on me until I read the words below. Beekeeper. May 9, 1981. Davis, California.

I had to look twice, and then a third time, but it was still there: the hallowed writing on the wall.  Davis, California. Then, for the first time, I felt the man watching me. I looked back. I spied the photographer’s reflection in the eyes and recognized the scenery behind the man with a camera: the landscape I knew so well. I thought I saw the navy silhouette of the mountains from the hollow of the valley, and I could have sworn to have seen the shape of the fields along Russell Boulevard in the spring. There I saw it—the playfulness of shouts and hollers around the town’s sulfuric fountain, the succulence of the peach from a weathered palm in the Saturday market, the vivacity in the dance of moths under her doorstep lantern, and the roundness of all the molecules that together compose a place, a home. Somewhere, in the acuteness of his eyes I recognized the surface of the world as seen from my dreamscape.

In the solitude of my own flight from familiarity, I recognized the contour of the world I would never, could never leave behind, as it is not mine to lose.

When I left the gallery the rain had stopped. On my way back I found comfort in the cadence of the city—its shadows and echoes, its lines and curves that cast the landscape of dream and memory for someone else. I found myself in a palace of memories I did not own and therefore could not see. I followed the tram lines through a labyrinth of translucent narratives, and I held tight to a timeless and unconditional nearness to home.

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