Contrary to what I thought and hoped in the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve accomplished very little by staying home this year (perhaps unsurprisingly). All the motivational talks that made me initially think that I would do something special have done little to lift my spirit up to take actions or make positive changes in the end. Instead, I kept myself busy by working from home for the same multinational corporation (to what end, I don’t even know).
In “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter”, Carson McCullers beautifully describes this feeling of powerlessness that I again had this year.
Later in the novel, the main character Mick goes to New York Cafe (set in Georgia of course) to have a combination of a sundae and a beer (why haven’t I thought of this combination before?) and picks herself up a little. I thought ‘Yeah, at least when all this is over, I can treat myself to the sundae and the beer and pick myself up a little.’
Like many in the tristate area this week of tropical storm Isaias adding yet another challenge to our 2020 lives, did you have a spontaneous, necessary barbecue the night of Thursday, August 14, 2003? What do you remember doing during the great Northeastern blackout? Is it all coming back?
It was late afternoon. I was on a phone call, at work. The call died and the office went dark. Two floors below street level, my co-workers and I groped our way through the hallways to the stairwell, bypassed the elevator, to find out the whole museum had gone dark, and the whole of Brooklyn, and the whole of greater New York area, and yes, the entire Northeast, it turned out. We left work early. I rode my bike home, and picked up my daughter from school. She and I went hunting for a flashlight and candles. Darkened stores set up improvised counters in their doorways to sell flashlights, batteries, candles and matches. At home we warmed up leftovers from the dark fridge, on the stove—glad it ran on gas—enough to eat, not too much to get spoiled. Subways weren’t running. My wife got stuck in the city. One of her co-workers knew of a friend who was on vacation, whose apartment was within walking distance. The two of them spent the night on the ninth floor, got there by elevator and watched TV, granted by the grace of the building’s own generator.
After dinner, my daughter and I sat on our stoop enjoying the neighborhood in the gray of dusk. It was a beautiful and comfortable summer evening—no wind, no rain. Homes were dark, but for the candles. Streetlights were off, and somehow there weren’t any cars coming down our street. It was peaceful. We enjoyed taking it all in. At some point the B67 passed in our peripheral vision, a delightful sight, a startling sight as the bus was awash with light. The brightness of the colors of the passengers’ clothes hurt my eyes, taking me back in time, to high school, flashing back to biology class, and learning of rods and cones, and why one sees the world in black and white for a split second upon waking.
A short pile of small ceramic cups fell on my counter, shattering in irreconcilable little pieces.
One of them, the tallest, was already a patched-up ceramic cup glued together. I had relished in my little experiment in kintsugi, the Japanese art of rendering objects even more precious by mending them with golden seams. This one had thin lips, a discreet tactile pleasure I have always enjoyed, which is why I held onto the single unit for so long. The seams became coffee stained, my morning ritual sealing a prior accident in the past.
There was a twin set of bi-colored chunkier ones made by my friend Nana. Off-white on the outside, and swirled shades of cerulean and gray inside. I will miss these best of all, because I have no clue when I’ll be able to make it home and screech a high pitched hello, before Nana and I throw our arms around each other. The thought of a ribcage to ribcage hug with a childhood friend rings through my chest and wafts off into an expedited oblivion.
I can’t tell if I have become klutzier or if it is the paltriness of noteworthy events that has made these banal domestic mishaps more noticeable, but the fact is my kitchen has taken a hit.
I thought my counter was sturdy, its stone surface unassailable. Now, staring at the constellation of nicks, chalky winks, makes me think that solidity is an overpromise, and the breakable objects remind me that collisions leave all parties marked by the surface encounter. My cooking prep area is now bound to hold onto tiny particles of food, as I figure out how to become handy.
Flower vases, baking tray lids, wine glasses.
Slipped and shattered.
Perhaps mourned, none replaced.
Absence too is an event.
Some things have to be scarred before we can feed off their resilience.
Somewhere along the line I learned that random finds can prove to be inspirational. As a young songwriter, I had a breakthrough with the word “Topeka”. It was written on the back of an old family photo. Though I had visited my Kansan relatives in that city a few times, the mystery of the word hadn’t taken hold of me until that moment. I wasn’t looking for it. It reached out to me and I realized I had stumbled upon a portal that needed to be explored. I started researching the lives of my great grandparents and uncovered all kinds of stories about Topeka in the ’20s and ’30s. My Mexican great grandmother ran a grocery store and eventually, a pool hall. My Scotch-Irish great grandmother had been adopted by two sisters, one of whom was a prominent dentist in town. I eventually wrote several songs inspired by my ruminations on Topeka.
Taking this kind of exercise a bit further, I frequently play the game of opening up a random book, plopping my finger down on the page and then attempt to create a song or drawing or poem based on the designated find. I find encyclopedias work very well for this exercise. Having just now reached for my copy of the Golden Book Encyclopedia, my finger landed on “comet”. So many possibilities!
One of the aspects of city life that’s now slightly more difficult to access is the plethora of words we would see every day as we moved about the city. My subway ride to work provided me with advertisements filled with copy. I started playing a game where I would write poems using only the words contained in a single ad. Then there were the covers of other passengers’ books or their newspapers. Is the city speaking to us as we move through it? Showing us little treasures if we take the time to look?
I took this photo while walking on The High Line last September. I started wondering what the Arabic sentence meant only when I looked at the photo recently reminiscing about the pleasure of walking in a crowded area. With the miracle of Internet, I was able to quickly find out that it was an installation by a Palestinian artist Emily Jacir.
ex libris commemorates the approximately thirty thousand books from Palestinian homes, libraries, and institutions that were looted by Israeli authorities in 1948.
Not knowing much about the Israeli-Palestinian politic, I can’t really comment on the political aspect of the work. However, it made me wonder if one of the thirty thousand books could be the book that is a foundation of modern computing that allowed me to write this post on a computer. The book “Rules of restoring and equating” is written by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (c. 825) and the latinized word “algorithm” is derived from his name.
This is a little known fact that I learned when I was studying computer science (the field I chose after all my options ran out) as an undergraduate. This is probably a fact that most Americans are ignorant of even though nowadays everyone at least heard of the word “algorithm”. Of course, a popular image of the middle east is the land of savagery and war-mongering, not the enlightenment.
In The Western Lands (probably a perfect book to read during a quarantine), William S. Burroughs acknowledges this intellectual debt the world owes to the Islamic world by using the company his grandfather founded as an example:
Much like the legacy of the Islamic world is veiled by Yashmak and being forgotten by the rest of the world, the legacy of the Burroughs corporation and William S. Burroughs (a perfect example of xenogenesis) himself seems to be disappearing. The Burroughs corporation had invented adding machines (mechanical computers that are literally made out of steel and wood) in the 19th century and introduced a series of technical breakthroughs since then only to become a shadow of itself later. William S. Burroughs, who invented the cut-up technique, is now only given that dreadful title “a controversial gay writer”.
A few weeks ago I was sitting on my porch in Kensington enjoying a quiet morning. This was in the beginning of the quarantine so there was the occasional passing car but mostly everything was still. Suddenly a call sounded; not too loud, but distinct. It was a voice I’ve known my whole life and yet I really didn’t know anything about it. It was a birdsong. The only one that has made an impact on me. I hadn’t remembered ever hearing it in Brooklyn before. And now that we were forced to seclude ourselves in our homes, there it was.
This particular birdsong is one of my earliest memories. Other formative sensations are freshly-mown grass, the carpet in my parent’s first apartment, a mobile that hung above my crib, but this sound… It’s the same every time: a low note, then up high, then down a bit and that note is repeated three times…like this: low-high-mid-mid-mid. And the mid trails down each time it’s sounded. The quality of the call is like a low recorder, as if it were being played in an early music ensemble. It sounds like it’s being blown through a medieval woodwind of some kind, a husky, low salutation.
First time I heard the song I was a toddler, living in St. Joseph, Michigan. Our house was one of about twelve in a newly-constructed subdivision surrounded by open fields, forests and a small creek. From the time I was very little, we would go for an evening walk around the neighborhood. Often it was dusk. The sun was a deep red with a fiery fading orange just above, all dipping under the black horizon. And that birdsong would always call out. The song and the sun setting behind the darkened trees were fused together in my mind. That’s why hearing that same call on my porch in Brooklyn was such a jolt. How could that voice have traveled forty-seven years and several states to find me here in Brooklyn?
In addition to the visual image of the sunset, the birdsong evokes a kind of Greek chorus for me. “I’m still here,” it tells me. “Remember your childhood?” it asks. “Who do you think you are?” Hearing this simple voice is my personal Rosebud or madeleine. It’s some kind of ghost that is simultaneously comforting and haunting.
Because I now have much more free time than usual, I decided to find out who it was that was making this sound. After a short investigation of “bird calls” on YouTube, I came across the exact one. It was the mourning dove. All this time I had no idea and here it was. When I looked at its photo, it didn’t match the shadowy image I’d been carrying in my head for so long. I learned that mourning doves are plentiful in New York (as well as Michigan). They love open fields, hunting for seeds, and they migrate to Mexico in the winter.
Another memory that came hurtling back was Robert Frost’s poem, “Come In” which I had read as a senior in high school. The vidid directness of his language made a big impression on me then. I didn’t know you could write a poem about a bird inviting you into the forest. Here I was, in the middle of Brooklyn, feeling the same dilemma. I remembered my teacher saying, “The bird’s not calling out to the narrator. Nature is indifferent.” But the voice of the mourning dove is so specific. It always forces me to face myself and take stock of what I’ve become. It always finds me. Even in Brooklyn.
On Thursday, February 27th, I waited to board my plane to Minneapolis, at LaGuardia. To kill time, I went, as I often do, to look for books, to stack a poem with the titles sold there, gently rearranging the bookshelves. Browsing the shelves at CIBO Express, this poem emerged:
The Night Window
Since we fell we were the lucky ones, the perfect couple lost in the cabin at the end of the world, becoming the border, the brink
It had an ominous ring to it. It left me a bit uneasy. Having done this at all types of book venues, from libraries and private homes, to independent and chain bookstores, titles offered at airport bookstores often fall in one of four categories: hot business, hot politics, hot romance, and hot self-help. The poems I stack there often have a level of anxiety that aren’t necessarily mine. Once in Minnesota I stayed at the home of friends’ friends, a psychologist and her husband. I shared the poem with them and their friend, resulting in a delightful conversation. I implied I might rearrange some of their books. They laughed, and I gleaned from their response that they wouldn’t mind if I would. The guest room was next to her office. On the wall hung a framed photo of a group of campers, with a title: “I often think something marvelous is about to happen.” That text was an invitation for a book poem to be built on. Needing little impetus, I did. The office shelves were packed with psych books and children’s books, a potent combination.
I often think something marvelous is about to happen
I’m a frog singing the living tradition.
Where there is no doctor cure the little prince thinking in systems—
the whisper— the way things work stumbling on happiness where the sidewalk ends
To my surprise this poem echoed the sentiment of The Night Window, an answer perhaps, or at least a continuation, more upbeat, but also with an open-ended last line, that begs for a sequel yet again… What’s next? If the first poem alludes to a proverbial mythological dark forest, its sequel might hold a key to emerging from it, to reenter the secret mysteries of our universe, our lives in it. Be well.
The city that never sleeps, deserted streets and shuttered shops. I dream of those dear nearby. The sirens incessant roar, then total silence returns. I dreamt of fields golden skies, when time will come and nothing dies. Wildflowers and cloudless days, Nor fear, nor weary, no more tears. Of Joys gone by, Carefree, The simple pleasures will remain. Each day matters. A sweet refrain, Blessings, Mercy. Spirits soar. Courage they say, this too shall pass. Melancholy fades, a glimmer follows. I wait till dawn, Soft sounds of morning and gentle light enter the room, Much to my delight. Birdsong, a distant bark, The fog horn sounds. All settles down. Another day in this old town.
I left on that afternoon. The sunflowers on Thames street saw me moving three suitcases.
The sunflowers were in the sunlight.
The train ran to the underground.
How can the sunflowers and the train meet?
I had never seen sunflowers when I took train.
I received a package in the mail with a new necklace and an earcuff. I did my sanitizing ritual and I immediately start crushing on my new acquisitions. Annika is talented at her craft and makes unfussy things you can wear with anything. But still, this feels vapid. Why do prettiness at a time like this? Cerebrally, I can justify it perfectly: this sale was donating proceeds to health-care workers and I want to continue to support women-owned small business. But this rationale does not account for the discreet, reckless glee when I catch myself in the mirror.
Monica Salmaso’s duets of classic samba bear two distinct traits: very humble objects for percussion instruments, like a clay bowl or aluminum table, and guests airkissing the opposite edge of the frame at each farewell. This awareness of the confining edge and the need to broadcast human contact, mirrors and models for its audience. We Brazilians are big on kissing our cheeks, and touching each other liberally. A stranger might splay his hand over your shoulder blades in a supermarket aisle, just to scooch by with a heavy basket. Contact is not immediately perceived as a threat. The physical boundary of privacy is just not upheld that way. This gets me wondering how long before a random touch will resume being just a signal, and not a sentence.
Matchboxes serving as an impromptu tambourine is an old trope in samba culture. To me, it’s always shown that people are undaunted by not being able to afford a proper instrument, and let nothing stand in the way of their song, which is commendable. But it’s the air kissing the edge of the frame that moves me to tears, because it serves as evidence of their deep commitment to visible affection, but also the more zeitgeisty awareness of spectatorship, like a benevolent, compound investment in the language of togetherness. She titled the series: “ Ô de casas”—this is what you’d say if spontaneously venturing into your neighbor’s home in the Brazilian countryside to announce your arrival. When John Berger draws a line in the sand between nudity and nakedness, he does so by bringing our attention to the fact that nudity includes the awareness of being seen naked. These musicians bring unintended awareness to their separateness and bridge it in a smack.
Today, I also learned that a vibrant screenwriting professor passed away from Covid-19. She was part of the vulnerable group, yet my contact with her left imprints of anything but vulnerability, she was fierce in her feedback, and warm in her humanity. I went back to my class notes and found this:
“The artist’s conflict is always that he wants to do his work,
but the world doesn’t give a damn”
Milena Jelínek, an expat like me, from the Czech Republic, is gone and I haven’t been able to shake off the thought of what her final hours must’ve felt like. I take solace in the fact that she lived fully present, as far as I can tell. If rituals do little for the departed, I think we will just begin to grapple with how being deprived of mourning rites affects our personal threshold between life and death. This edge goes unwatched.
I mark my ongoing aliveness by getting washed, combed, dressed and now, bejeweled. Some people cling on to organization, others productivity, I stick to being presentable. Presentation is interlocution, and interlocution assumes others. Today, phantasmagorical others. This is my week alone while my kid is with his dad. I have to emulate otherness, and I do. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as earcuffs before I struck a friendship with Annika, and now I do. Coping as pizzicato, stringing along, one pluck at a time.
Club Quarantine is another welcome phenomenon in my feed. D-nice just has the most understated demeanor for a DJ and the nostalgic repertoire appeals to my current sensibility. I watch the little response emojis flurry upscreen on his Instagram live and try to relate to this impulse. I place little faith that the action of clicking one more heart icon will give any communal sentiment. My necklace, on the other hand, is palpable, my assumption of others via feeling presentable in front of the mirror, pays off. I enjoy watching D-nice sway his body and get creative on transitions between tracks. Milena taught me how to pay a lot of attention to character entrances and exits, it’s a dramaturgic workout of sorts.
Before undressing to go to bed, I think of the enduring grip of the performance of femininity as I remove my props. I tend to get unjustly annoyed when complimented on my looks. I’d much rather get high marks for all the qualities that I cultivate in myself, not whatever it is that I got on the DNA crapshoot.