Saturday, June 30, 2012

"How small everything has grown..."

"If I had to pass through Eastbourn I would not make a detour to avoid the school: and if I happened to pass the school itself I might even stop for a moment by the low brick wall, with the steep bank running down from it, and look across the flat playing field at the ugly building with the square of asphalt in front of it. And if I went inside and smelt again the inky, dusty smell of the big schoolroom, the rosiny smell of the chapel, the stagnant smell of the swimming bath and the cold reek of the lavatories, I think I should only feel what one invariably feels in revisiting any scene of childhood: How small everything has grown, and how terrible is the deterioration in myself!" George Orwell, "Such, Such Were The Joys"


Quoting Orwell here is a tad misleading: my eight years at Saint Andrew the Apostle bore no resemblance whatsoever to Orwell's miserable tenure at Saint Cyprian's, and yet these final moments in his essay resonate. The baffling childhood blend of knowledge and intuition, enthusiasm and fear manifests itself pungently during grade school, where you learn politics, authority, and personal limits each day during each innocent recess. In addition to being a fabulous sensual and narrative account of the writer's early days at school, Orwell's essay is an attempt to describe those dawning moments when a kid realizes that the world is not only larger than himself, but incomprehensible and unjust to boot, governed by seemingly immutable laws of nature under which wealthy, good-looking children are prized, ugliness and stink seek out and adhere to the unfortunate, and adults mete out punishment as if prodded by enormous, inevitable forces.

Here's Orwell after he's received a second beating at the hands of the Headmaster:
I had fallen into a chair, weakly snivelling. I remember that this was the only time throughout my boyhood when a beating actually reduced me to tears, and curiously enough I was not even now crying because of the pain. The second beating had not hurt very much either. Fright and shame seemed to have anaesthetized me. I was crying partly because I felt that this was expected of me, partly from genuine repentance, but partly also because of a deeper grief which is peculiar to childhood and not easy to convey: a sense of desolate loneliness and helplessness, of being locked up not only in a hostile world but in a world of good and evil where the rules were such that it was actually not possible for me to keep them.
This kind of helplessness is visited upon every child, with degrees of intensity and melancholy. Thankfully I was spared such treatment, but not the creeping, grim acceptance of the world's rules, trivial or otherwise. Beyond the frames of these photos below that I took recently on a visit back to St. Andrew's: at a low brick wall a kid beckoned me over to where he was standing with his popular buddies. Doubtful, I nonetheless joined them. He motioned me to sit down on the wall; I did so into a cleverly concealed puddle of fresh saliva. Hoots and jeers, momentary anguish and great embarrassment for me, and a wet seat all day. An unimportant rite of passage, acted out every day across the globe, bullying much less awful than what a lot of kids at St. A's endured. And yet, despite how small everything has grown, how large a memory looms.

I'll look at the slides and swings instead, where we had fun and tried lifting ourselves beyond it all.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Got Rhythm?

I talked with Dan Klefstad at WNIJ recently for the station's summer "Illinois Authors" series, getting my Bon on and discussing Highway to Hell, fame, and AC/DC's career.

For the extended interview, an excerpt from the book, and my "expert commentary" on the three-chord title track, go here.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Abandoned, Ctd

Stiff weeds stubborn in pavement cracks, once private rooms open to the elements, a check-in desk brutalized—an abandoned motel fascinates for the range of human experience that's now only a series of transparencies, each more blurry than the one its covers, ghosts of children and adults who lived simply or desperately, tritely or profoundly, weeping or laughing, and sleeping and waking. Glimpsed and then gone for good.

Gateway Motel. OH 5-W, Newton Falls, Ohio


Thursday, June 21, 2012

An Origin Story

We had the idea to attach plastic drinking cups by string across our yards, bedroom to bedroom, to talk at all hours of the night, thin voices skimming across pitch-black back yards on twine, private conversations allowing us to be virtually (before that word) alongside each other in playdom from the comfort and security of boy bedrooms—and I don't remember if we went through with it all, but now what matters, and this might be pathetic, is how I imagine it might have been, the furtive talks, the imagined face in the other bedroom, the secrecy and power afforded two eight-year olds to talk in private above everyone's heads, so what matters isn't what we did, but how it could've been, what it might have been like and, for an adult who loves the imaginative life a little too much, who worries about its slipping currency in his world, this is all that matters, because after all everything's better in the imagination of an eight-year old, before grown-ups and failure and lack of nerve remind him of the stubborn stuff on the other side of that bedroom door, and now looking strangely at the iPhone and iPad on my desk I think of that kid and the other one, K, who dreamed up their own network above bland suburban yards, not wireless, not yet, but connectivity in all the quaintness of that century, and its promises to two kids who didn't have the dare to string up twine up after all, and so that's where it all lives, back there, where it never happened.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Bars Must Speak to the Wanderer

"Not to find one's way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance—nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city—as one loses oneself in a forest—that calls for a quite different schooling. Then, signboard and street names, passers-by, roofs, kiosks, or bars must speak to the wanderer like a cracking twig under his feet in the forest." Walter Benjamin, "Berlin Chronicle"

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Visitor, Ghost

A visitor to a city is a ghost of himself, ghosting those who live and work there, his feet landing on the pavement as surely as theirs, his body filling space in trains, in parks, in bars, but only temporarily. If he's a bit actor, an extra, than so is the city itself a kind of movie set, navigated through without glimpses of the lives behind building facades. "A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving," wrote Lao-Tzu in the sixth century BC, which is precisely what differentiates me on the train from the riders who fret over being late for work, their second job, an interview, or to pick up their kids. For a traveler, arrival means not stasis—I'm here for a while—but the promise of movement—I'll have to leave soon. Arriving in a city with few fixed plans is one of the rights, and pleasures, of the traveler, but he can't claim that he's really experienced the city when his plans are few and his arrivals brief.
Ghost in the tunnels

On the F Train in Brooklyn, pulling into the 4th Avenue station in Gowanus after gliding through the currently-rehabbing Smith Street Station. How do others see this view? The landscape and cityscape blinking in late afternoon sun, the view across the water to Governor's Island and the piers, the chalky sky and towering, obstinate BQE, the backs of billboards, the nearness of anonymous windows, church steeples and industrial roofs, water towers and graffiti, red brick alight—it's all urban gorgeous to me, in its blight. But I don't live here. I romanticize here, I see here in bits and pieces of my choosing, can leave here when I wish, though it's often before I wish. This view to those who stay? Colors, textures in a language I've yet to learn, and too often fool myself into believing would be easy to pick up.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

21st Century POV

I saw this on Gawker: a video of a young father and his two-year-old daughter playing hide and seek in their home. What makes this age-old game a bit unusual is that the child is wearing a head cam while she's playing:

It's pretty great stuff, if, as the Gawker poster acknowledges, also mournful in a strange way. The Gawker post links to the Wikipedia page for saudade, "a unique Galician-Portuguese word that has no immediate translation in English. Saudade describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. It often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return. It's related to the feelings of longing, yearning."

Right up my alley. It's a fantastic thing to watch as the girl scrambles down the hallways and into and out of rooms searching for her papa, yanking aside shower curtains that tower over her, in her panting pursuit flanking walls that tower over her—in fact, everything towers over her, as is the overwhelming case when you're two. She searches, she calls out, she stumbles, she runs, she discovers her prize (hiding in a closet): it's a wonderful version of one of the many quest journeys that mark the days of our childhood, as each day offers more to explore, more to feel, less to understand. Like most kids' games (and nursery rhymes and bedtime stories) there's a bit of darkness and anxiety threatening to burst the surface of the joy.  Where's papa and what if he's gone?

What fascinates me is how technology is affecting memory. This video promises future generations something I can only fantasize about: a POV shot of life at age two! A snippet of that life, an orchestrated, chaperoned snippet at that, but still...what I can only conjure is now digitally encoded for future playback for this young girl, eventually an adult plagued with nostalgia and memory and the friction between the two. What will be interesting is how this video evidence will disconnect from what the woman will remember of this game: her father's figure; the house's layout; her perspective shaped by the years. The tensions between remembered and documented—the energy of all autobiography, perhaps of all artmaking—will be exponentially amplified in the future decades, as more and more adults, having been raised as children in video age, stumble down the surprisingly long and shadowy hallway that connects what we recall, nostalgically, bitterly, and what we recorded, hopefully, naively.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Park

That this view is duplicated daily across the country for seven or so months never fails to please me. I remember my first glimpse of field green at the old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore like it was, well, yesterday, when my heart raced a bit heading down the concourse to my seat at U.S. Cellular Field. (Sox won 4-3 on a walkoff single by Orlando Hudson.) "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball," Jacques Barzun said, "the rules and realities of the game."

Monday, June 4, 2012