My colonialist myopia: One Art, Revisited

Here, I’ll write it, like disaster: Ten years ago today, I left Florida.

My time in Florida is tinted with a beautiful technicolor nostalgia of a fading mid-twentieth century paradise that never fully existed, much like the enduring legacy of America’s Postwar Golden Age. For me, Florida is not a place so much as it is an era of air-conditioning and colonialist faux-Hawaiian Mai Tai bars, of circus people’s winter homes, of estate sales for New York’s exported and rapidly fading old people, of faded postcards for sale a dime apiece in second-hand shops, of the intersections of infinite possibility among the toxic stew of different communities, traditions, and groups. Who goes to Florida? People who want to start over; almost everyone born there else flees once they are able. I went to Florida, and even though I know I’d have hated it if I had stayed, I miss it and love it still. Miss it and love it in every bone, every cell of my body.

2001-2005

My time in Florida was bookended by two hegemonically horrific and highly mediated (to say nothing of alliterated!) events, one primarily and immediately affecting white, wealthy people in my New Jersey homeland (i.e., 9/11) and the other primarily and immediately affecting those who’d been long forgotten by those hateful elites in charge of America (i.e., Hurricane Katrina). I arrived in Florida in early-mid-August, 2001, and I left on September 4th, 2005. Not-quite forty-nine months, less a couple of summers and obligatory holiday visits. That is the hyphen of my life, that is the hyphen (The Dickensian even supposing— ) that has defined my existence. Even-supposing and even-still.

These two calamities and my evolution in understanding them defined my youth. Childhood was everything before 9/11; adulthood, everything after. In between, however, were my years in Florida, a liminal state belonging to neither childhood nor adulthood, just as Florida itself belongs properly to neither the South nor to the North. Consciousness may have dawned in New Jersey, but my understanding of myself as an autonomous human being occurred in Florida. My first term of college, as a Russian major: vi Flu-Ree-dyuh. The lessening of shameful shackles to my family: vi Sara-sot-yuh. A sense of myself: Mee-nyeh zavoot Mir-an-da. (I gave up on Russian after one term)

2001-2005.

You show me those numbers like that on my dying bed, I will tell you this. I will tell you, I will narrate this to you because narrative is important – everyone has got a story! I still believe, I still really believe this. And my story, my colonialist myopia, still involves a technicolor super-saturated Florida that was never mine, never existed, a place slowly dying out but that was irrevocably mine for the taking and the reworking into my own story. Even now, my mental construct of this place seems to exist only as it serves my needs. This is because I had the privilege to leave.

2001-2005

In the deceptively and poetically small space of that hyphen, I lived a million lives, more or less. I became a real person, not one defined by her parents’ unending war or the shortcomings of the public education system. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had a place that was all my own, where I discovered music (that others had discovered well before me), where I embarked upon life with a sincerity now unfashionable.

All I knew or continue to know, is that I could walk to the bay, and I could feel the life pulsing through everything around me; if I stayed too still in one place, I always thought, the tendrils of a plant would wrap around me and then I would just be part of the system. I felt so alive in every cell in my body, the world was so resplendent with infinite possibility.

Here I found friendships that last until today, here we ran around barefoot in a multi-mile radius, here we snuck into buildings and fountains at night and swam, here we danced all night and talked all day and sucked dry the vegan protein marrow of life. Here bookcases sagged and we memorized ISBN numbers (or at least, I did) of Critical Editions and here we analyzed the discourses of modernity, here we protested hegemony and here we tried substances and expanded our minds and gave back to the community. Here we found and then lost one another.

Here I sat so many full-moon nights in the memorial chair on the bay, where that one student in the 1980s had apocryphally self-immolated, and it was here I regarded the mother fox. I did this late in the night every night for weeks and then we became tentative friends, of a sort. Before spirit animals were an ironic white girl thing, the fox was very sincerely mine, and I stayed up late nights to trot down to the bay and regard this wondrous creature as I listened to music on my headphones –

(there is also an important dash in “One Art,” you know)

Here I watched so many beautiful moons and talked of so many beautiful books, the inadequacy of words permeating every conversation about the beautiful world of language and its discontents. Here I had my heart broken once, twice, and thrice. Here I laughed and learned to be an adult far from my fatally toxic family. Here I learned to cook and research and wrote 250,000 words on my blog (not this one). Here I experimented, and tried, and yet despite everything, by the end of it I was still barely even a human being. Just as Joseph Campbell’s heroes must descend into the bowels of a hell – and I am no hero – I had to descend into what has become a decade of loneliness and isolation. Here I smoked a lot of pot and heard the “holy shit!” at the end of “O Comely” and felt at one with that beautiful synesthesiac world of sound. And you can still hear it, at the very end, on the left-channel, if you listen really closely.

The dark tunnels in my mind became my only companion, in those years no longer bracketed by that humble hyphen (2005- ?). All my life, it supposedly only began when I got on the plane that day, and even my sarcastic even supposing with its precious and deliberate m-dash…how ephemeral life; how fleeting our consciousness. What even is it to be alive, within a world crawling with so much cruel and competitive life?

In the hours and days before I left, the news was covering nothing but Katrina: disaster porn and poverty porn and oh-shit this is America, our refuse, isn’t that a tsk-tsk-shame, give to the Red Cross and it’s all good, aren’t They walking all around raping women indiscriminately and looting anyway. This was nothing like 9/11, which had happened just hours, it seemed, from when I’d begun at college, and when I was too dumb to do anything but react and cry and look for names I knew on victim lists on Cnn.com. I had been able to see those towers from my hometown; parents of my childhood friends had died that day. But forty-seven months of protesting Bush, and reading widely, had made me far more critical of America’s corporate-fascist imperialist project, and all for what? And I regarded Katrina’s aftermath with bloodshot eyes, and a firm conviction that I had to get out of this hideous excuse for a country, at least for a little while, as long as someone else was willing to give me a visa…

(Esoterica: Katrina was the name of a close friend from middle school who had decided, in early seventh grade, that she hated me and would tell everyone my terrible sixth-grade secrets. I find the idea of her name becoming a vindictive and violent storm slightly vindicating)

The night Katrina hit Florida, I was volunteering for  dog rescue drive. I had agreed, impulsively, to drive my trusty old ’93 Saturn up to, I think, Tampa and then down the Gulf Coast in order to take an adopted dog to his new home, since nobody else was willing to do the last legs of the rescue relay due to the hurricane, and I wanted to end my time in America with kindness to animals. With the hurricane nipping at my heels, I drove the perfectly sweet dog down to what turned out to be a nominally sober woman. She cheerfully informed me that she had lied about many important things in her Internet application to adopt the dog because “she needed him” and “they needed each other.” The dog, not cleared for a home with children, nervously regarded her grade-school-aged son as she almost literally thumped the AA Big Book.

A hurricane was hitting, I was leaving the country in a few days, and now I was worried this dog would end up thrown away again. I still wonder sometimes how that turned out (“even supposing –” a mordant inside joke from Bleak House that I use as a textual signifier for things that I can’t quite translate from my head).

I drove back to Sarasota that night, focusing only on the endearing image of the woman greeting the dog. The wind picked up and I drove faster, feeling that I was and was not dying anyway. I was twenty-two years old; I was invincible; I was leaving everyone and everything I knew and everyone I knew who loved me in order to go to a country I’d never even visited and live there; and somewhere in all of it I was mildly complicit in leaving a dog with someone so clearly not equipped to take care of him.

For me, the best time in my life always ends in that vacuum, the lonely gate in Tampa airport, waiting and waiting for that flight. One life ended then. Since, it’s been nothing but loneliness and loneliness. I ripped up my life once, twice, thrice, four-ice times, or maybe I didn’t. Sometimes I think I died then and everything since has been a terrible and occasionally wonderful nightmare. What really happened that day was not the glorious and well-intentioned teaching experience about which I had waxed rhapsodic to the admissions committee; instead, it seemed, I signed myself up for a lifetime of meals, alone; concerts, alone; movies, alone; reading alone at night. Going to be alone at night and waking up alone in the morning. The vibrant young person I had once been in Florida, dancing all night at parties, was no more.

Instead, I was merely scrambling to survive, and falling endlessly through a void. Christ, can I even say anything about my life anymore without it being some twee reference to Indie rock? Sometimes the endless referents make me feel more connected, sometimes – most of the time – they make me feel connected and unreal, as though all I have in life is a Kristevan web of masturbatory, indulgent and pretentious references that I’m trying, desperately, to translate into something the people around me can understand.

I don’t know. What is it to know? Wisdom, certainly, is knowing you don’t know, and the older I get, the more I’ve read but yet – the less I know. So I will leave it an exercise to the reader to determine the meaning of these words I have carelessly spewed forth into the uncaring and unforgiving digital void.

— even supposing —

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Reboot

I don’t want a bunch of overly-eager and suffocatingly supportive people jumping on me the second I post here. I really don’t. Is it possible to just have an audience of exactly the people you imagine, even if they’re not even real?

Honestly, my mother found this blog and so I stopped writing here for a long time, because, well, it should be self-explanatory. I come from people who have absolutely no understanding of boundaries, and they never will.

But, I guess I have to up my Marketing and Self-Branding Games because hey, I’ve been writing a book for the better part of a year and a half now and, even though I absolutely hesitate to write this sentence because of its entailments and implications and the communications it will spark, I’m close to having a draft done, and someday i hope to publish it so I can have a new, exciting set of problems to complain about. First World Problems. This is also the title of the book.
BUT, I’m having trouble focusing on it today, and one of the big problems in my creative life has always been that I find it much easier to write when I know there is the immediate reward or gratification of an audience. At the same time, when I think of certain people as part of my audience (viz., my mother) I totally shut down and can’t write at all.

Also, I am uniquely cursed in that despite the fact that I am very improbably a professional writer, I’m also a terribly unfashionable extrovert. And, but, I spend enough of my time alone, and I always have, and I suppose I always will.

There’s just so damned much to say about nothing. I’m pretty sure that’s the biggest takeaway I got out of my six wasted years in grad school.

Here, I just did over 200 words on the topic of nothing, and I’m still not to the point, by which I mean the vague impulse that spurred me to log in and click “new post.” I suppose maybe I’ll reboot this now, to try and write about things, again, to some kind of vague imagined digital audience, and if anything ever happen with the book, at least I can say I have made a perfunctory effort to Connect with My Digital Public.

So speaking of Publics, not to be confused with Publix, the Southern grocery store chain, what do you all think of Habermas?

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I blog here sometimes.

Geek Buffet

Girlchild, by the improbably-named Tupelo Hassman, is in spite of itself fast becoming my favorite recent novel. I know, how very middlebrow of me. Actually, the technical title is Girlchild: A Novel, but one of the few things I hate more than genocide is when a book feels the need to condescendingly point out that it’s A Novel, as opposed to garden hose or a life insurance policy or a cabbage or something, so I will just ignore that. Today, I will explicate three reasons you should read this book (or four, if “Miranda really liked it” counts as a reason). As a brief summary, Girlchild is the story not only of Rory Hendrix, who grows up in a trailer park community in Reno, Nevada in the 1970s and 1980s, but of the women in her family. It is fundamentally a character study.

1) Girlchilddoesn’t shy…

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Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster WallaceEvery Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ironically, I want to say that my experience reading this book – which I did voluntarily – was totally “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”

Beyond that, I don’t really know what to say about this book or how to assess it.

Part of the reason I think I’m rating this book so low is that it’s so unbelievably sad and unfair that it exists at all. And that’s not really D.T. Max’s fault. Another reason is that what I really took away from reading this was just what a fine writer Wallace was, which consequently heightens the weaknesses of Max’s own writing. I mean, how can you write such a boring, joyless and pedestrian biography of one of the most inventive writers of the past fifty years?

This book is rather superficial. I don’t think it pretends not to be, so I can’t really fault it for that. The marketing materials even say it’s the “FIRST!!!111” biography, not the best, not the most critical, etc. In that sense I think I resented it for its rushed, middlebrow-magazine qualities. It is merely a recitation of facts.

The book is also heavy on telling and light on showing. I found myself annoyed at parts when Max would elide seemingly important episodes, or gloss over them, or throw in a “hey by the way,” like towards the end when Max nonchalantly mentions that Wallace was essentially a political conservative. I felt like entire stories were reduced to sentences and asides, which maybe is the closest Max came to being an inventive or stylistically interesting writer. Although it’s sad that Max has this task at all (okay, not really – this is probably the most important book this dude will ever write), I never once got the sense the author was having any fun or even that he really enjoyed Wallace’s writing. The lack of direct quotes from Wallace’s friends and family made me wonder exactly what they thought of this project. The book was oddly sterile and lacking in affection for the subject, his work, or anyone in his life.

I know the NY Times review mentioned how this biography made Wallace seem like a jerk, and while I don’t think biographers have any obligation to represent people positively, I think this dovetailed poorly with the more superficial aspects of the biography. After reading this book, I still don’t feel like I know anything more than a ton of facts about DFW, though I guess since apparently he really liked The Wire (something Max mentions several times) I should finally get around to watching it.

I wanted to rate this book higher. I do think D.T. Max is to be commended for having engaged in a daunting task, and nobody wants to write the biography of a talented writer. The task was complicated even more by the need to stretch out minor aspects of Wallace’s life to fill pages, which just made me really depressed all over again. If this was some clever trick on Max’s part, then maybe I’ve underestimated the book. Nah, I don’t think I have. It just seems like an absolute travesty that the biography of such an important writer has to discuss grade school poetry because the author in question died so horrifically young.

That’s why I’m giving this a gentleman’s 2 stars. If you want to give people the impression you have a superficial understanding of DFW’s work, like maybe to get them to sleep with you, then this is probably a great book to read. But if you wanted to gain at least moderate insight into the writing, process, influences, and life of DFW, the book is a big disappointment.

Time may show that the dull, superficial qualities of this book are actually part of some stylistic project on Max’s part. But I doubt it. If so, I’ll adjust this to 3 stars.

View all my reviews

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Placeholder

And now for something completely different…I am too angsty even to post all the angsty shit I actually write here. So!

Here is an amusing, possibly too-inspired-by-the-Bloggess’-style-yet-100%-transcribed-verbatim conversation I had with my Marxist Housemate on Friday:

I pulled an onion out of the drawer in the fucking refrigerator and freaked out because it was filled with small holes that went all the way through to the other side, like some fucked up children’s toy that also smelled like an onion.

I said, and this is an exact quote: “[Marxist Housemate], did you – no. There’s no way even YOU did this.”
[Marxist Housemate]: WAIT!
Me: Fuckshit, I think we have RATS. in our REFRIGERATOR. And they have TOOLS. WE ARE SO FUCKED. GOOD JOB CATS. GOOD FUCKING JOB KEEPING VERMIN WITH TOOLS AWAY.
[Marxist Housemate]: No, wait, sorry, I was trying to smoke [redacted] out of that onion.
Me: …
(I am rarely rendered speechless. but I was just then)
[Marxist Housemate]: It was disgusting. it burned.
Me: Wasn’t that sort of the point? What made you think this was a good idea? Also, why did you return it to the refrigerator after you had smoked out of it?!
[Marxist Housemate]: (shrug) I’ll buy you another onion.

 

(He hasn’t bought me a new onion yet)

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detritus and practice

In order to make myself continue to write, today I am not going to open, fuss over, and subsequently discard any of the 15 drafts I have open for this site.

Really. 15. Ish. More if I count text files.

Today I am just going to write and hit post and never look back at it again.  It’s more for me – the act and practice of doing – than for anyone else. Props to de Certeau here. Writing and walking and reading and being and strategizing. Let me make vague gestures in the absence of actually understanding anything.

***

It’s late afternoon on Friday. I am determined to celebrate, along with the working world, the idea of 48 hours of impending freedom from the capitalist apparatus, even if in practice it is not my future.

It is Friday, and while I sit here and wait for my tutoring client, I think about how glad i am I moved here, and I’m telling myself over and over again the rules by which I will now live my life.

***

It’s cheesy, but every time I drive east for this meeting or go east on the train and see HOLY SHIT A FUCKING MOUNTAIN HAS ANYONE EVER SEEN THAT BEFORE? – I feel glad all over again.

I hate being a cliche, but I hated more what I was becoming as I languished in my previous incarnation.

***

I feel I haven’t been here long enough to really Understand and Get To Know the city, but this is everything I want. Suddenly again I feel permanence and a sense of the future, rather than  an all-encompassing terror and feeling of impending doom. This feels like a place that will last. This feels like a place owned by hippies, geeks, and hipsters and at some point or another in my life I’ve been all of those. I live in a poor area. Every day I hear the extremely complicated issues of poverty playing out in extremely complicated arguments; I am extremely poor.

***

My best (only?) friend showed up, almost like a metaphor, so while having an unplanned roommate may be tense and stressful, it’s also saving me money and giving me some human interaction. I’m still terribly lonely. But I’d rather be horribly lonely here than ever spend another day in Indiana again.

***

Seven years ago on Wednesday, I left Florida. I haven’t been back since. I sat alone in the airport terminal as the late afternoon light bled out into evening. I got on a plane, and my long lonely post-college life began.

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“they say time may give you more than your poor bones could ever take”

At this point in my life, I have lived in exactly two places where merely walking around made every cell in my body feel alive and joyous, where I really felt like being alive mattered, and where I could feel, almost to the point of tears, the struggle of things all around me – where I felt that this struggle was part of some primordial and unending narrative.

The first of these two places is where I am now: Portland, Oregon. I do not yet have the experience or gravitas to write about this new place of mine, other than to say I definitely made the right choice in coming here and that I intend to make this my long-term home. One supposes I will write more about that at a later date.

The second place, though, was Sarasota, Florida, and it’s Sarasota I want to write about today. All the places and all the people I loved, I’ve left behind, and I’m done with that now. I’m here to stay and I need to focus on developing the kinds of relationships that make me like myself. But I miss what I’ve left behind; I miss my beautiful, warm home with the exotic flora and fauna and the palindromic zip code. I miss the subtlety of seasons that were there if you knew how to look.

But, the past lives in my bones, or at least, that’s how I feel about it. They say all your cells regenerate every eleven years. If that’s the case, then in only 4 years there will be not one cell left of me that has ever been in Sarasota: not a skin cell that felt the bay sunset, not an eye cell that saw an osprey, not a brain cell that considered the rhetoric of Florida and the irrevocable passage of time at an estate sale, not a hair blown out of place dancing late at night with friends.

(( so where do memories live? ))

Soon enough, all my stories and all my memories will fade, so, I keep writing things down in the hopes of launching what Dawkins would call a meme. So. This one is for Sarasota, the place where I became a real person, the place I liked myself most, the place to which I can never, ever return, lest I lose the illusions by which I live my life. Maybe none of this that follows is true, but it is how I am choosing to tell the story.

***

I. History

What I liked about Sarasota was that, at least when I lived there, several worlds seemed to collide at once, constantly. Here, the grotesque postmodern bourgeois retirement world of golf shoes and condos met the beautiful technicolor mid-century dream of picture postcards and modest bungalows and the wonder of the modern highway. Here the picture postcards met the steaming hot cracker heritage: cut-off jeans and boiled peanuts at gas stations. Here the cracker culture met the fertile mixing ground of those who for whatever reason were beginning their Chapter Two in this beautiful swamp. Here, all the above groups mixed with the Amish and Mennonites. In a shadow I could see the past: we used to go to a bar called Tiki Hut, which was exactly what something from the 1960s would have looked like (or so we thought: here is historicity, cf. Philip Rose), complete with ash trays, hula girls, and some truly amazing Mai Tais. In a box at a chilly bookstore, I could pull out the old postcards and try to write a story of my own making onto a history that wasn’t mine, all within in the curl of a neatly-penned cursive G. At an estate sale, I could put on my soberest shoes and affect the kind of person who would care about custom-made furniture, though I only left with vintage paperbacks and coffee mugs.

Sarasota, to me, was a bouillabaisse of all the prominent eras of the long 20th century, discretely preserved and floating around, and I was excited to be part of it. Now I’m gone from it, too, and I wonder if I even left behind any ephemeral traces. A postcard, a coffee mug, even a finger print. What of me remains there? Legend, I hope.

II. Mystic

Vuh-Flor-EE-dyuh, I intoned along with the rest of my Elementary Russian I class at 10 AM Eastern Time each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday during the fall 2001 semester.

In Florida, I whispered to myself at night, during my endless walks down Tamiami Trail and the border of the bay, trespassing rules be damned. And that prepositional phrase contained so much, as I came to discover on my long constitutionals, tracing the outline of the bay like a lover’s body.

People are so dismissive of Florida. It’s all about images and Disney and hyperbolic perceptions of weather, but the truth is this: I love Florida because it is just so aggressively alive. It fascinated – still fascinates- me. At night, often barefoot, I would walk to the edge of the water on the bay, where untamed trees met low water. I would lie down in what I privately called the bower (with apologies to Toni Morrison, I suppose), an area of tree branches that sloped down nearly to make a room, with the only opening the water. The Bower was in a dark, wild area, one of the few places vuh Flor-EE-dyuh left that hadn’t been touched by building mania. My small body and my music and the enormity of the nature around me worked in harmony, and I still think back upon that when I think about the isolated moments in my life when I really felt I had any sort of understanding of the world.

I liked to go to the bower and feel a continuity of history, to try to experience what people felt when they came here — there– B.A.C. (Before Air Conditioning). Even the bugs crawling on me, even the pine needles didn’t faze me; I could open my eyes and sometimes there would be a grand, nearly metaphorical bird only a few feet from me in the water. Sometimes there was a fox; once, she and I sat and stared at each other for several long minutes in the beautiful, hot night.

Always I had music on my CD player (oh! obsolescence!) and for once, I felt like I was part of an ongoing narrative; I felt alive and purposeful. Everything was sincere and new, yet part of something bigger and cosmic. A few times, I saw a dolphin in the water and it was all so beautiful I wondered if I was dead. Here there was no Disney; here there was no golf; here there was no flood insurance: here there was only the world as I could believe a God might have intended it, because in those moments I could really believe that there was, in fact, a God.

And every breath I took, I felt like I was part of a larger thing, that even if I lay down and banyans swallowed me up, I would still be part of a larger living system – that the essence of whatever I was would somehow continue. It was there in those nights, when I lay on the ground and stared at the stars, that I really understood the preciousness of life (and not in the vapid American fundamentalist Christian rhetoric, something deeper, something meaningful). It was there that I really understood that life fights, that everything is a battle around us, that the desire to remain alive and survive is common to every single living organism.

The infinite battles raged on scales from the microscopic to the galactic – as I anthropomorphized them. All around me, some organisms were winning, others losing; everything at the expense of something else and all somehow coalescing into a system.

I didn’t do nearly as many drugs as this piece would indicate, but it was there that I felt a connectedness that extended from the dirty under me to every cell in my body to every bacterium in the air all the way up to the stars, overhead.

I don’t really know how to end this. Those nights are so long past I can no longer be sure they really happened. Most of the best things in my life have happened when I’m alone, and I have nobody to share them with. Now, here’s a pat and ready-made ending: This is why I write: so when I finally lose the homeostatic battle, and nothing of me remains, the meme I sent out tonight might continue.
This ending feels like a minor chord, and I hate it, but nobody reads this anyway. And I suppose if it worked for postmodern composers it will work for me.

 

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