Purple sunset shells

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On the beaches of Vancouver were scattered hundreds of iridescent, opalescent purple shells. From a distance, they looked like shards of the sky deposited by the purplish sunset. Close up, you could see the delicate violet gradations and subtle shades.

They attracted me, so I picked them up and collected some in my pocket, and took them back to the room where I was staying. I envisioned handing them out to the friends and family I’d see the next day.

But, when I looked at them the next day, they were dull and chalky. Taken out of their environment, they lost their luster.

In the end, I returned them back to the beach, where they could once again soak up the color of the sunset.

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You don’t have to explain your life

You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score. Anyone who expects you to do any of those things has no sense of history or economics or science or the arts.

You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth. But that’s all.

… I hope when people ask what you’re going to do with your English degree you’ll say: “Continue my bookish examination of the contradictions and complexities of human motivation and desire”; or maybe just: “Carry it with me, as I do everything that matters.”

–Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things

 

Cruel Optimism

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Cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing. People have remained attached to unachievable fantasies of the good life–with its promises of upward mobility, job security, political and social equality–despite evidence that liberal-capitalist societies can no longer be counted on to provide opportunities for individuals to make their lives ‘add up to something.'”

–Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism

Painting: Paul Klee

Snowstorms, Anarchy, and New York

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“Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes.”

— Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

When I was a student, I attended boarding school in a cold Midwestern town where it snowed a lot and often. After a big snowstorm, the roads would be impassable by car, so I would take walks through the middle of the streets. It felt transgressive and a tinge anarchistic, to be a pedestrian strolling where normally only automobiles could pass. I would recite poetry or entertain apocalyptic fantasies of being the last person on earth. I could have been the survivor of an apocalypse because I was always alone, the only one treading the snowy street of the small town.

In the aftermath of a snowstorm in New York has the same transgressive feel. Stores, restaurants, and workplaces shut down. Snow gets plowed from the roads and piles up on the sidewalks. Transport stops on the roads. Blizzard winds roar over the Hudson and whip through the city streets into fierce wind tunnels while streetlights alternate colors impotently. We can live without cars and buses and streetlights–what other institutions can we tear down? What if the entire city got buried in snow, and a new city was built on top of the clean white layer?

In New York, I still walk in the middle of the street during a snowstorm and entertain these fantasies, but the difference is I am not the only one in the middle of the street. There are sledders and tobogganers; joggers; dog walkers; hide and seek players; football catchers; hooligans climbing on mailboxes; sirens in the distance and Latin music emanating from 24 hour delis. The streets empty except for people roaming through them are still subtly anarchistic and apocalyptic, but I am no longer alone at the dissolution of society and the end of the world.

Skyboxification and Democracy

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“It’s no longer true that when it rains everyone gets wet. I call this skyboxification… Something similar has been happening in American life throughout American society throughout this last three decades. Against a background of rising inequality, putting a price on everything, commodifying every aspect of life, has the effect of driving people apart, leading the affluent and those of modest means to live increasingly separate lives… This isn’t good for democracy, it’s a corrosive effect, this relentless commodification and inequality, together are corrosive of the sense that we are all in this together. Democracy doesn’t require perfect equality. It does require that people from different social backgrounds, different walks of life, encounter one another in common spaces of everyday life. This is what teaches us to negotiate and abide our differences. This is how we come to care for the common good, to feel that we’re all in this together. So in this subtle but cumulative way, the relentless commodification of life, together with rising inequality, have undermined the social solidarity, the commonality, that democracy in the end requires. This is one of the dangers of the unquestioned embrace of market thinking and of market logic.”

–Michael Sandel via The Partially Examined Life #98

Photo by Andrew Thomas (via)

Difficult Names and Cultural Erasure

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It begins
with your second last name
gone missing from your mailbox,
school ID, and learner’s permit.
It is hard to explain to your relatives
back on the Island.
Your mother says,
you had it
when you left home,
where is it now?
You cannot claim
to have misplaced
your mother’s surname.

–“Crime in the Barrio” in Call Me María by Judith Ortiz Cofer (via)

“Give your daughters difficult names. Give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. My name makes you want to tell me the truth. My name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.”

–Warsan Shire

Weeks ago, I was proctoring an exam at my university’s law school. Everyone was stressed but one student was especially frantic. She had claimed a spot in an exam hall based on the first letter of her last name, but the official exam listing had assigned her to a different room. She was disputing it with the head proctor: “My last name is de la Rioja, Rioja, not de la. I should have been assigned to this room, with the R names, not the other room with the D names.” The head proctor was indifferent. “You need to tell the administration to change that.”

Some time ago I was getting dinner with a public school teacher. This person was white, but she worked in predominantly low-income black and Latino neighborhoods. “You would not believe the names!” she commented blithely.

During add/drop period at the beginning of a semester at my university, professors at my graduate school often begin with calling attendance. It should be quick, but it always takes twice as long as it needs to because of professors stumbling–apologetically to be sure–over the names of international students. The Chinese sanguinely provide their American names. Even I generally call my classmates by their “American names” if they provide them, and in Nagaland, I often interacted with people I met through their “Christian names” rather than their given names.

People’s identities are complicated–certain parts of our identities may come to the foreground in interactional certain contexts, sometimes prompting different variations of our names. But the patterns of whose names tend to be changed, and in what ways, by whom, and with what consequences, is clear. Is this a world we want to create–one where cultural backgrounds are erased and given dominant-culture replacements? A world where a supposedly global-minded educational institution does not know how to handle its international students’ last names? A world where certain names are written off as difficult compared to an arbitrary standard?

I say no, and that we all have reflection, self-work, listening, and targeted learning to do to put a stop to this erasure in the domain of one of the most intimate words that an individual possesses–their name.

Photo: “Lady Liberty” by SETH at the Museum of Public Art, LA 

Language of Locality

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 “I’m not a national at all. How could I come from a nation? How can a human being come from a concept? … Histories are real, cultures are real, but countries were invented. … All experience is local. All identity is experience. I’m not a local. I’m multi-localMy experience is where I’m from. What if we asked, instead of ‘Where are you from?’–‘Where are you a local?‘ This would tell us so much more about who and how similar we are.”

— Taiye Selasi, “Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local

To be clear, nation-states (countries) are just as “real” as cultures and histories. Culture, histories, and nations are all social constructs. All are “invented concepts” that are real in their effects and consequences. A nation may be newer, larger, or more abstract than a culture or a history, but fundamentally, nations and cultures are the same types of conceptual thing–all are social constructs based on shared cultural knowledge.

The crux of the matter, though, is this: given a wide range of social constructs at our disposal, which constructs more accurately reflect and describe our individual identities? Nationhood, as we all assume when we ask “Where are you from”? Or something like “locality”?

Jodhpur and Astonished Bewilderment

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Jodhpur, a city in the state of Rajasthan, was a highlight of my 1.5-month-long trip to India. Jodhpur and its people delighted and astonished me, right up until the final hour before departing. This is about that final hour.

The morning of my departure from Jodhpur, I was rushing to grab my luggage from my hotel in an effort to catch a bus to the next town. I was taking a familiar route through the “Blue City” and passing through familiar streets. But this time, something caught my eye. Or rather, the absence of “something” caught my eye. Real estate and living space were valuable in this historical, touristy part of the city; where there weren’t commercial and residential buildings, there were temples and shrines galore. Yet here was a space, a gap in the urban sprawl, with no low rises or spires piercing upward.

Even more puzzling, stone steps beckoned up to this negative space, as if to a pedestal–but evidently with nothing on display. So, somewhat automatically and unconsciously, I ascended the stone steps, not expecting anything at all. And I gasped out loud.

Beneath my feet opened up a yawning, massive trench, so deep that its darkened bottom could not be discerned from my vantage point, its vastness so shocking that I experienced vertigo. The sound of flowing water, which I had not even registered before, rushed into my ears. Streams poured out from innumerable spouts–some animal-shaped, some seeming to seep from the rock itself–trickling down along dozens of dizzying stories of exquisitely carved tiered levels and stairs and collecting into a pool at the bottom of the trench. This pool sat at the base of a massive, monumental stone archway several stories tall. The stone at the bottom of the structure was dark with discoloration, giving the impression that the watery opening in the earth continued into infinite blackness.

I once described being “surprised” in Thailand, but surprise connotes that you have at least a minimal level of expectation of events to come, which are then contradicted by reality. Here, I could not say I experienced surprise–bewilderment would be more accurate, as I had no reference point for what I was looking at, no expectation for what it could be. Taking in the entire monumental sight of it, in that moment, the only corresponding image my mind could muster was to a Legend of Zelda video game I played as a child–which says something about the mysterious and mystical aura of the place. There was no signage, was no one around to inquire, and my guidebook had made no mention of this massive architectural trench.

Of course, I did not give up, but began exploring, walking along the edge and descending as far down as I could go without being fearful of falling in. My exploration revealed some clues. An old sign requested visitors to “remove shoes,” suggesting religious significance. Yet the place was in a state of abandonment, the grounds were too gravely and dirty to possibly walk on barefoot (even by local standards). At the same time, the water and the structure were not actively dilapidated or polluted with refuse–this fact being quite remarkable as all other negative spaces in the city were filled in with makeshift landfills.

My exploration yielded few answers, just more extreme bewilderment–and twinges of fear, as the deeper I descended into the trench, the more I felt that the inexorably flowing water and vertiginous depths were drawing me down into their subterranean maws. I climbed out and eventually caught my bus, leaving Jodhpur without solving the bewildering architectural mystery. In fact, I did not find what I had seen until long after leaving India and returning to the U.S., when I spotted an article in one of my social media newsfeeds.

Of course, many readers will have known, without my exhaustive narrative, that I had stumbled onto a bawdi, a “stepwell.” They have a long history in India serving dual purposes as water storage and sites of worship, but today they are neglected and under-appreciated in all their functions, even tourism. As photographer Victoria Lautman said, “They could be next to a shopping mall or at a popular tourist spot, and you wouldn’t know about them.”

It is truly unfortunate that stepwells are undervalued by locals, that they are falling into neglect and disrepair, that many visitors leave Jodhpur and India without experiencing the awesomeness of a stepwell. But the one small upside is that, for now, stepwells are capable of truly astonishing and bewildering those who are fortunate to stumble onto them.

The Mountains or the Sea

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A common question formula, especially in Beginner English lessons, is “Where would you rather live: in the mountains, or by the sea?” The assumption is that these are opposing choices, and selecting one reveals something elemental about you.

I’ve lived for a time by the sea before, but this month has been the first and longest stint I’ve lived in the mountains. Being here has made me challenge the assumption behind that dichotomous question. The mountains and the sea appear different, on their surface, but experientially, have remarkable similarities.

This month, I’ve been in Northeast India–a mountainous Himalayan region thrust between Bangladesh, Nepal, Burma, and China–staying in a village about 4,700 feet above sea level. Just as by the sea, here in the mountains, the landscape is vast and your gaze extends as far as it can reach, with the far distances eliding into pastel watercolor versions of their nearer selves.

Like the seaside, the mountain landscape seems still and unmoving, but really it changes imperceptibly, moment by moment, as clouds shift, the sun moves across the wide sky, small figures in distant villages conduct their daily business, and bluish smoke rises from kitchens at suppertime.

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Like the seaside, adverse weather is truly extreme. When it rains, it drenches. Relentless rains pour down in buckets all night. While leading a class at one point, the rain on the metal roofing was so loud that it was impossible to hear my own voice, let alone make it heard to the students. When it’s not raining, it is wet. In the distance you see a cloud, and a minute later, your world is enveloped in a shroud of condensation: you are inside the cloud. Living inside a cloud takes some getting used to, such as not being able to see past five feet in front of you, and the reality that your clothes simply never dry after being washed.

On the seaside, it seemed to be an assumption that some things would have to be rebuilt anew each year after the onslaught of winter monsoons. Here also, recovering and rebuilding from rains is a near-constant effort. The Himalayas are young mountains made of still-loose sediments. Consequently, roads routinely collapse from the sodden weight of water and mud, a phenomenon called “sinking roads.” Landslides have been known to down whole houses, or schools. Just as power outages were to be expected in my former town on the seaside, electricity here is categorized as “regularly irregular.”

Like the seaside, mountains elicit that fundamental sense of reflection, insignificance, and awareness of one’s own small place in the wide world.

There are, of course, meaningful differences between my experiences on the sea and in the mountains, but sometimes expected unity is more interesting than expected difference. Or, as they say here in India, there is unity in diversity.

So maybe it is time to rewrite that question based on anthropological findings; from now on, I will ask my English students, “Would you rather live in a desert, or in a rainforest?”

Risk and Sidewalk Subway Grates

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Recently, the Village Voice published an article: “Twenty Ways to Die in New York.” Though comprehensive, it misses one crucial way, possibly the way that most intensely structures my daily life. That way is: electrocution by metal grate.

When I was an impressionable child visiting New York City for the first time, I heard a harrowing story. A woman stepped on one of the many metal grates or vents that dot the city sidewalks. Typically this would not be a storyworthy occasion but on that day, a wire had broken loose, touched the grate, and electrified it. The woman who stepped on that grate was electrocuted and, according to my memory, died instantly.

Whether or not this story was true, it was still clear in my mind when I moved to New York last year. At first I avoided walking on all iron grates and vents, either consciously or unconsciously assuming them all to be potential hazards in the urban landscape.

However, in the months since, my relationship with metal grates has become more nuanced. Specifically, they come to symbolize Risk, and how I respond to Risk depends on my mood and state of mind. If I am confident and happy, I stride over the grates with gusto. I taunt life: Things are going great, just try to mess this up. Or: My life is and has been full and interesting, and if ended now I would have nothing to regret.

If I am stressed, anxious, sad, or insecure, I avoid stepping on the metal grates. Life is already going badly enough, why make it worse? Or: I’ve accomplished nothing with all the opportunities I’ve been given, wouldn’t dying now be shameful? Coming home late at night, I avoid walking over the grates, as if being electrocuted is the biggest threat at 1 a.m. on Broadway.

If I am bored, the metal grates seem especially able to draw my attention, and as I approach them I psych myself up. What if the next grate is the one that’s electrified? I place my foot on the grate and feel a thrill through my spine, not of electrocution, but of excitement.

There is one attitude I can never have towards metal grates, though, and that is apathy or neutrality. Measuring and balancing risk always requires some kind of calculation and judgement.

That is why, to this day, with every encounter with a metal sidewalk grate I must examine my entire psychological state and philosophical outlook.

Amor fati: The anti-carpe diem

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My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, “Why I Am So Clever,” Ecce Homo (written 1888, published 1908)

Amor fati is all about living with no regrets, but not in the modern way. Carpe diem means making daring decisions, so as not to feel regret later on, whereas amor fati means (among other things) learning to love the choices you’ve already made, daring or not.

— Oliver Burkeman, “No Regrets? Why not?,” The Guardian (2015)

Love, Cynicism, and Cheese

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“Why do you use this word ‘cheese’? ‘You’re too cheesy?’ Do I have anything about cheese? When you say, oh, ‘he’s being too cheesy,’ when you manifest something that it is the most important thing that we have, we become very cynical. Probably this is is defensive. You know? … I’m going to tease you on this cheesy thing, because… I’m talking to you from Switzerland, and here cheese is something that’s considered one of the most important things, you know? …So I’m going to defend the cheese itself, not as a derogatory word, but something that it is positive.”

–Paulo Coelho, On Being

Iranian Mirrorwork: Contemporary and Historical

Two years ago, I traveled through Iran for 10 days, and parts of the trip still jump out at me at unexpected moments. I recently visited “Infinite Possibility,” a retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum of the work of Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, a distinguished artist with a career spanning over 50 years and the first Iranian artist to be featured at the Guggenheim. When I arrived and I gazed into one of her shimmering wall-mountedsculptures, I had an irresistible flashback.

During the trip, we visited a palace in Tehran whose walls were encrusted with carefully cut shards of glass arranged in geometric mosaic patterns–I believe it was Reza Pahlavi Palace. The sumptuous room seemed to glow with reflected light. According to the tour guide, legend had it that one of the Shahs in history had tasked a functionary to safely transport several giant mirrors to be installed in this palace, or, of course, risk execution. Inevitably, in the course of the journey he broke the mirrors. Thinking quickly, he installed the shards of glass in as a mosaic on the walls of the palace. The Shah liked it, the functionary kept his head, and mirrorwork decor became a staple of Iranian decor and art.

During the rest of my trip in Iran, I saw several other mosques and palaces whose walls were decorated with this kind of stunning geometric mirrorwork. In some cases, mirror mosaics stood side-by-side with brilliant stained glass windows, to marvelous and luminous effect.

Farmanfarmaian’s work is a sleek, contemporary continuation of that rich tradition of aineh-kari, “mirror mosaics,” in Iranian artistry. See for yourself–in the gallery above I interspersed photos of Farmanfarmaian’s pieces with photos I took in Tehran, Shiraz, and Isfahan. For more about Monir and the historical and contemporary context of her very impressive mirror mosaics, the Guardian has an excellent piece here.