Monday, October 27, 2008

Altered States at UC Berkeley

Over the weekend I attended an interdisciplinary conference at UC Berkeley called "Altered States: Metamorphosis, Epiphany, Revolution" put on by the Comparative Lit. department. Thanks to Anthony, who is in the Comp. Lit PhD program at UC Riverside and drove all day with me on Friday, I was able to hear several papers by graduate students and see Amy Hollywood of Harvard Divinity do a presentation she calls “Don’t Touch Me,” which is about 40% scholarship, 40% creative performance, and 20% feminist deconstruction of both scholarship and performance. My Dad came in from Alameda and spent the day in the front row with us. In the spirit of a post from the second week of camp this past summer, I’ve been noticing again that my concept of “fun,” and therefore how I describe what I enjoy doing, differs quite a bit from most people I meet.

For instance. We were at the conference on Saturday from 9:30 am until 5:30pm. We got three breaks, all of them truncated by panels that went long and Q&A sessions that spilled over. At the end, we nibbled brie and crackers and tried to clarify things with panelists, asked them questions, discussed the talks with each other. On the walk back to the car, I was animated, elated, excited! That was so FUN! I kept saying. Fun because Anth and Dad were there to talk with me. Fun because I think Amy Hollywood is doing a brilliant, layered, strange piece of scholarship with “Don’t Touch Me,” and it makes me hopeful about the state of the academy. Fun because Brook Henkel, from Columbia, who presented a paper called “The Mysticism of Film: Cinematic Visions in Robert Musil’s The Confusions of Young Törleß” spent fifteen minutes telling me more about his project and engaging in some lively argumentation. I think the experience of learning, the physical moment of “Aha!” that occurs when new information, new categories, new connections are made, is fun. It’s pleasurable. It energizes me. Hence, eight hours of paper presentations later, I was bouncing down the streets of Berkeley like I’d just drank a pot of coffee. (I suppose I had come close to it, anyway, over the course of the day.)

Henkel’s paper was particularly interesting to me because of the confluence of issues I also think/read/write about: sexuality, adolescence, and what Musil calls the Other Condition, which is a type of consciousness reserved for visionary, or “altered” moments. Henkel reads Musil’s character of Törleß as someone obsessed with externally confirming his experience, who distrusts his own “visions” (which are written in such a was as to seem cinematic) unless he can somehow validate them in the experience of someone else. I asked Henkel, as we stood too close to the trash can and prevented everyone from casually dumping their paper plates in the pile without acknowledging us and our conversation, if he thought that was a condition of adolescence, a normal condition for everyone, or some kind of pathology. He thought about it. “I think everyone has this desire to some degree, likely beginning in adolescence,” he said, “but this character is obsessed.” So visionary, or “altered state” experiences are fundamentally frustrating (and ultimately, truly maddening for some) because by their nature they flout three basic desires: the desire to control when and where they happen, the desire to remember their wisdom perfectly, and the desire to articulate them adequately to others. How are we to use the wisdom gained from our time crossing into the “secret, unnoticed life of things” if we have trouble remembering and articulating it once we’ve crossed back over into normal life? Henkel seemed unperplexed by this question, but he liked my “irritation.” I told him I wasn’t irritated, I was caught in what seemed to me a very noble frustration. We agreed that the problem of bringing useful wisdom back from the Other Condition was likely only to be solved by those who cross over and back regularly. One must practice having visions, then.

This conversation dovetailed nicely with a question I asked of one of the conference coordinators: why no panels about drugs? What a long and rich artistic tradition we have of writers and filmmakers using psychotropics to create deeply affecting works. Seems that they belong at an Altered States conference, deserve to be critically read and viewed by people this skilled. “We got some papers on that,” she said, “but they just weren’t that good.” Wow. So the American phobia of DRUGS has not yet been destroyed by the bright light of rationality in the academy, and the myriad artifacts of human explorations into altered states induced by injesting substances both legal and illegal, synthetic and organic, culturally traditional and culturally taboo got lumped into a “that.” She defended the conference by reminding me that there was a paper on Dionysian cults. Yes, that’s true, I said. But I am still surprised that there wasn’t enough good scholarship submitted on the Beats, or writers of the psychedelic movement, or even the opium-smoking artists of Paris and Vienna in the 30s and 40s. It seems those kinds of altered states still, still, STILL, are considered second-rate next to an ecstatic vision from God, which most of these academics don’t even believe in. Strange, and disturbing, since that indicates even those who study the altered state, Other Condition, visionary “trope” in literature are cynics, not people deeply fascinated by the human potential for expansive, ecstatic experience. Or maybe they are, and there was just some little politics going on that I’m unaware of, where scholars of early Christianity and ancient mysticism don’t like the kids from the other side of the timeline, and it hurt them enough to invite Sarah Juliet Lauro, whose paper was titled “The Zombie Martyrs: The Contagious Spirit of Christian Conversion Narratives.”

Shifting gears: What I loved about Amy Hollywood’s work was that it simultaneously did the job of teaching me about things I didn’t know and derailing my models for “knowing.” Her piece did not explicitly address the idea of the altered state, rather, it put us all in one! Where we had been doing the receiving work of listening to formal arguments, we were suddenly being asked to do the active work of connection in the face of a poetic, fragmentary experience. Hollywood dealt with elements, not points or issues. Her elements were sometimes historical figures (such as John Edwards, and his oft-forgotten wife Sarah Pierpont Edwards), sometimes objects, sometimes texts (Howe’s Frame Structures), sometimes the strange convergence of object and text (crumpled pages, destroyed poems), and she framed this renegade work with a quote about the sublime, which takes place “where works touch.” I call it renegade because she can’t publish it in its current form due to having no permissions from the sources she quotes. Another surprise! I applauded her for bringing a maverick work-in-progress to us. I’ve been reading Stanley Aronowitz’s book The Knowledge Factory, which asserts mostly the death of learning and the stagnation of the humanities, so this crack in the decay, where Hollywood’s bright little weed poked through, thrilled me.

Hollywood reminded me of one of the reasons why I started writing on gorgeous curiosity lo these many months ago, and she called it “meditation on the infinitesimal detail.” This is the way I’m learning to watch films from Anthony via Margaret Waller at UCR. This is a Derridean activity of seeing Big Picture in Very Small Piece, of allowing for fluidity and connectivity between objects and experiences that seem to lend themselves to categorization and separation. Amy Hollywood expressed another of my work’s grand projects: how to tell a story and also disrupt the complacency a narrative can generate. “We should have suspicion of any history that is error-free,” she said. I think this is why she seemed so happy: if the anxiety of perfectionism is replaced by the careful consideration of the meaning of everything (misspelled word, missed appointment, missing link, wrong thought, wrong shirt) not in a Freudian, pathologizing way, but in a deeply curious, compassionate, and creative way, then our constant engagement, which for many is an “altered” state, becomes fabric, grain and weave, the embedded functioning of our lives. We achieve at least one of Musil’s concerns: the ability to move fluidly in and out of the Other Condition. And then comes the desire and mandate to articulate. I recognize that I didn’t discuss the papers on Political and Formal Transformation. I didn’t discuss the papers on Monstrosity and Divinity. There’s just so much, so much.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

At Home in Union Station

Today I woke up to the violent, clutching, screaming pain of Louis getting a wretched calf muscle cramp. It was the kind that hurt so much it feels, in Lindsey’s words, like a piece of metal is trying to push its way out of you. The muscle aches for days like you ran a marathon. We woke up on the floor, because the air mattress I’d clumsily pumped up at 3:00am in his new apartment had deflated.

I’ve spent weeks now running from Riverside to LA, staying on couches and floors and yoga mats and inflatable beds, returning to my room to find more boxes to unpack, more phone calls to make, more little issues to resolve with the cable box, the trash pick up, the rented fridge, the car. I have spent more hours in the past month doing the tasks of moving (for me, for Anth and Linz, for Louis, from Boston, from mom’s, from storage, from multiple apartments) than anything else. More moving than writing, more moving than reading, more moving than watching films, dancing, sitting in cafés journaling about the wonders of Southern CA, reconnecting with friends and family, going on city adventures. It’s all taken much longer than I’d anticipated. Over the past few days I’ve begun to feel trapped in a purgatory—no longer energized by my liminality, I’ve started resenting the unsettled, disorganized, future-thinking (“oh I’ll do That Important Thing once my life has settled down…”) state I live in. A writer needs at least one routine: daily writing practice, or close to it. I can put it off for brief periods to bask in the glow of some other worthwhile activity, but if I go too long away, especially if the other activity feels less and less worthwhile, everything in me gets clogged up and gunky, putrid and ugly, like an old shower drain.

The consequences of not writing enough are quite dire. I feel physically uncomfortable—aching and restless, then lethargic. I become more vulnerable to depressive states and less motivated to make changes in my life. I feel a general discomfort and insecurity about myself, my life situation, my work, my career trajectory, my attractiveness as a friend or partner, my worthiness as a thinker, teacher, artist. I even slip into cahoots with my oldest enemy: secrecy—I may talk to people I don’t know well like I’m writing, even though I’m not. These consequences can be deeply compounded by a lack of exercise, healthy food, sleep, and physical touch. If I’m not writing every day, it’s likely those other disciplines are suffering too.

The most terrifying consequence of all is inertia: once a practice of writing every day has been derailed, it is far more difficult to get it back on track because I become overwhelmed by shame (that I let it happen), exhaustion (just thinking about what it would take to start again), and then paralyzing frustration because my actions don’t match my greater values and intentions. It feels as though there is a never-ending stream of crisis states or pressing tasks (leg cramp! DMV appointment!) that I will have to sit down to write AFTER. I say it "feels" this way because it is truly my fault that I do not write during, before, around and in. I take full responsibility for my abandonment of the work. In this state, I don’t even think like a writer. I have more difficulty noticing the world, interpreting texts, collecting details, staying aware of all the “material.” I feel a strangeness in myself, a loneliness that I’ve attempted to ameliorate in the past in ineffective and sometimes truly destructive ways. I'm waiting in line behind myself, waiting for myself to call me up to the window.

All this weighed heavily on me when I arrived at Union Station at noon, ready to commute back to Riverside once again. I was early for the train, and so walked around the station looking for a good bench to prop myself, my bags, and my laptop on. I’ve reached a point in my career and writing life where I know that the most important step back towards health and productivity is just to open a file and fill some pages. I don’t need my desk at home, my familiar window, my same cup of coffee or pot of tea. I don’t need the same restaurant booth, or the same time of day. I’ve trained myself to feel at home in the laptop itself—I put in earplugs or phones, and the white frame of my MacBook IS my writing room.

So I dutifully turned on the old workhorse (now smudged with the rough grit of my transient life), and then, in a moment of unexpected clarity and creative grace, I noticed where I was.

Los Angeles Union Station is a tiny wonderland. I sat outside near a blue-tile fountain, while children kicked a beach ball under a lush canopy that had been strung with wrought-iron hanging lamps. To my right, a patio of white-clothed tables gleamed in the midday light, and the loveliness of that place, that place built FOR transients, was the greatest comfort I’ve experienced in days. I am bolstered by the commitment LA made, to make its waystation so intentionally aesthetic. I’ve sat in so many stations that demonstrated only the travelers' desire to get out, get on with it, get to the destination, built with forgettable, industrial floors and ceilings, uncomfortable plastic benches, horrible fluorescent lights. In contrast, Union Station offers up the notion of a Journey, an adventure that starts in the twenty minutes even before you board the train, through its Spanish architecture, tiling, landscaping, leather cushioned seats, Art Deco signs and cozy patio.

I’m glad that after years of journaling I have trained myself to start the writing flow with noticing and describing my immediate circumstance. This is a meditative practice. And because of it, my creeping despair at the state of my life was addressed. Apartments get put together. Lovers come back to tenderness, and to passion. Groceries get purchased and dinner gets made. I have committed to putting it all down, to seeing with intellectual, creative, and emotional courage. When I am running fast towards some imagined future, I must still always remember that my work is my home, and that my home comes with me.

This "nesting" in a portable, transient way calls into question both the notions of home and travel. In 2004 I wrote a paper on the Deadheads for a Travel Literature class taught by the great thinker Maria Koundoura. She's written extensively on the destabilization of "home" for multi-national people (such as herself). My paper explored the special circumstance of the Deadhead community, who are both geographically transient and internally culturally consistent. Where traditional understanding of traveling includes interacting with "new" places and people, the Deadheads have perfected a way of traveling that effectively divorces the act of changing location from that interaction. They somehow build the same city in a different parking lot.

The risk of this action, when mapped on to American styles of travel is, obviously, a sort of isolationist elitism, which we can see in self-contained resort hotels that provide just enough familiarity and just enough exoticism to lure moneyed vacationers from the U.S. to places in Asia, the Carribbean, and so on. They get to be "in" Thailand without having to meet any Thai people outside of the service industry, without exiting a carefully constructed living space that is theme-park-ish in its totality of aesthetic (which I otherwise love, when it is THE cultural artifact, not a way to escape culture), without interacting financially or physically with the country directly. It's a complex situation politically, of course, because of the jobs and revenue these hotels tend to provide in struggling economies. It's a very complex conversation for many other reasons too, and I'm not doing it even a modicum of justice except by acknowledging its unprobed and undescribed scope in this sentence. But what I'm addressing here is that the psychological effect for the resort-style traveler is arguably similar to the kind of at-home-on-the-road mindset of a Deadhead, as both are insulating themselves from the New Unknown in favor of repeating the general routine of their daily life in their new location. While it seems oxymoronic to call any traveler an isolationist, the effect of this kind of movement is NOT to encourage interaction, exchange, knowledge.

I'd like to distinguish that process from what I'm trying to do in calling my laptop my writing room, or bemoaning my lack of routine. I've shrunk the conditions of familiarity so effectively that I can carry them on my back, and that frees me up to DO the kind of observation/interaction/receiving a resort guest or Deadhead is protected against. Of course there is a level of effectiveness I can achieve with my work while surrounded by my hundreds of books that I can't continuously achieve away from them. But what had begun to grate on me this week was that I wasn't lovingly cultivating the self-sustaining discipline of my Project, and instead, had begun to allow the vagaries (vagrancy!) of my outside circumstances to decide more of how I spent my time. While this is an appropriate act to engage in consciously if I have one day in Venice, it's not appropriate to do it unconsciously, and certainly not for weeks on end. And it is especially inappropriate when I am in the transitional period of establishing what my life will look like in Southern California for the next months, possibly years. And thus, the gunked-up shower drain. I need to bring my home with me more, in order to do my work, while avoiding the pitfalls of the isolating travelers.

This is one reason why I'd like to do more travel writing. In Alaska, I felt an energized and workable balance of writing vs. adventuring time, and thus between experiential, meditative, receiving of new information and the intellectual, analytical process of thinking that information into meaning. I know it is possible to stay conscious, focused, productive, and still have flexibility in my days such that the adventures can overtake me. I know it is possible to do these things nearly simultaneously, even (thus a voice-recorder during the movie, a pen and paper during the concert). One of the hardest steps toward that balance, for me, is the one where I start saying no to requests my loved ones make of me--the most powerfully convincing variance of daily life is certainly the continual opportunity to do things with and for the people I love.

Ultimately, I've chosen a life that has the problem of too many worthwhile things to do. The possibility of greatness in my work stems from a more fanatical attachment to it, a protectiveness of my writing time that may very well seem overdone to those who are used to me being able to spontaneously participate in...everything else.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Meeting The Children

I've accepted that I've finally entered the stage of life when some friends will be getting married and having children. What wasn't totally expected was that two of the girls I used to dance with in Los Angeles--when we were all fishnet-wearing cabaret Dames in The Toledo Show--would have children only four months apart. This weekend four of us Dames got together at my mother's house out in the Valley, ate BLT's, and I met Bodhi (right photo, with his mom Kristin) and Juliette (left photo, with me).
"Who would have thought?" said Toni (Juliette's mom). "Just a few years ago we wouldn't have believed this."

Since moving back to California I've been thinking a great deal about the value and purpose of sharing personal history with people. I'm celebrating fifteen years of friendship with Melissa this month. Tonight Louis and I realized that we've known each other for twenty years, which means Anthony and I have known each other for as many. Kristin, Toni, Emily and I all shared an incredible coming-of-age together in the Toledo Show beginning seven years ago, and have kept in touch long after that period was over for all of us. Susan has known me since I was eleven. For the first time, ever, I feel surrounded by history. I made large moves at eight and fourteen years old, and so don't have a sense of "hometown." There's no house I grew up in. I didn't keep groups of friends over my childhood, and don't have a crew from high school. I'm reconnecting with a few college friends, who've known me ten years now, and it feels like a very, very long time.

I don't want to wax sentimental about the inherent value of history. I don't think that shared history alone should be enough to sustain relationships, and I know that for true closeness to occur, relationships have to have current, working content. Otherwise, they are empty vessels for nostalgia to pour in, and I don't want to waste time on that. Examining past patterns, triumphs, defeats, and methods: great. Listing memories for the sake of establishing some commonality: not interested. What seems to be the perfect relational balance is some blend of the irreplaceable shared past experience AND commitment to continual examination and awareness of shared values in the present.

I occasionally worry that because I didn't have a wealth of childhood friends make it into my adulthood I will over-value shared history and offer loyalty to people who no longer have real commonality with me. I notice that the people from my past who seek me out on Facebook are of two kinds: those who exuberantly approach me with concrete memories of something I said or did with them, and those who seem to have a bare minimum of name recognition ("you went to my high school..."). I accept as Facebook friends those who seem to have been affected by knowing me at some time in our lives, and ignore those who don't take the time to extend themselves. This, I think, is one way to make explicit the fact that I value and am interested in what I can learn from the past, without falling prey to an indescriminate invitation for all. There's just not time to try and reminisce with everyone. What I want, above all, is to be in contact and communion with people who care about the same things I do. Many of them, especially at this point in my life, are also people with whom I have years of relationship. Some of them are not, and those friendships have a very different flavor/tenor/trajectory, which is also fascinating.

All of that being said:

Toni taught her baby to kiss. That photo is of Juliette leaning in to kiss me, after sitting in my lap for a total of about sixteen seconds. There is something to be said for that kind of immediate trust and affection, and the something is YES!