La Nuit des Temps Perdu

I should be asleep. But with no working air conditioning and a hyperactive memory, I am online writing this. I wanted to capture something that had struck me today. There are so many things that I know, whether cultural references or historical facts, that I know without having actually experienced or learned them.

I am not blathering on about the philosophy of knowledge and neurology, qualia, or the self, here. I mean that I know what the story of the madeleines is like, despite never having cracked a page of Proust, or I know the in-joke about Steve Martin’s race mistake from the Jerk, despite never seeing so much as a clip, from learning what people find funny or relatable. I know the building techniques of corbelled archways in Mayan cities that I have never even seen many pictures of, from reading about them or hearing others describe them. When I think much more about it, most of what I “know” I have no direct relation to at all! I suppose that this is common to others, but I found it almost novel and surprising when I put it into detailed consideration.

Now, maybe, the gates of Morpheus, either one would be a welcome threshold, will open for me.

Why Foreignness is Familiar

On where I find myself most at ease…

Some of us, I have noticed, are extremely sensitive to changes as a negative thing. These people, they want to be comfortable, to have a sense that the familiar is mostly all there is, and that the world beyond their town or neighborhood is a vast, strange, and largely “unnecessary” place filled with people they probably would not like to meet, anyway. To them, the world is best kept simple.

I was not one of those people, from the very beginning. As a small child, I remember always wanting to wander off farther and stretch a little bit further into books, stories, films, wherever – just to see if something numinous, magical, or better lay beyond a panel in a wall, or down a hole, or up a tree. New words and vocabulary had this sense of color and texture, like a candy made of blue or a drink of forest green. I do not think I was synesthetic in any true sense, but that is the best way I can think of to describe it. I remember how pleasant it felt to play with glass marbles in my mouth, or to make it up to the top of stairs I had never before climbed.

One thing I have never told many people about was this intense feeling of goosebumps and excitement just from touching hands with a new person or experiencing a new place. It has become a rare occurrence, and I believe the proper term is frisson, but not having a name for that sense of wonder almost made it all the more powerful.

And where this is going, to get closer to the point of this post, is that I have always, and probably will always, feel more at home in strange places, than in places where I stay for a long time and get to know every detail. Where I grew up, in Virginia, was a particularly magical sort of place for this – the mountains were old, the University was full of ancient buildings and the remnants of hundreds of thousands of students’ time there, the city was full of multi-layered pasts, and the landscape was and remains startling and renewed. After heavy rains, there would be bright red clay slashes through previously green fields, and in snowstorms, cardinals would crowd the trees sometimes. I will never forget the first time I paused in the woods and saw a chickadee skittering and flopping around a creek bank for the first time.

As I got older, I found foreign languages and cultures irresistible. From hearing foreign voices to music incorporating exotic instruments, there was always a sense that if I explored long enough, I would discover something “exceptional” or supernatural, even though I cannot recall a time that I ever expected to encounter anything beyond the real. But that sense, that desire, that yearning is at its purest who I think I am. I have felt more at home in the midst of a faceless Tokyo street or running a sheep path in the Dolomites in Italy, sitting on a train to Brooklyn at sunset or catching Quebecois pop on a chilly summer night driving from Burlington than I have felt at home in the midst of my original, refined, standardized American roots.

I think a big difference, though, is that I can at least appreciate those roots and not feel some need to deny them, vilify them, or denounce them simply because they are not as comfortable and arousing as the faraway and strange. Many people I have met and many works that I have read seem to be an effort to eschew pasts for the sake of that break and departure. To me, being a bridge between different people and different “worlds” is the highest sort of excitement and joy.

One final story and then I will wrap this entry up. One of my fondest memories from college, working in the East Asian Language and Literatures department with Professor Cecile Sun, was when I got to draw a map of Eurasia and describe vast swirls of world history in terms of the movement of language families and Sprachbunds, and how those tied in to material cultures and even features of societies like poetry or dancing. She taught me about her work on medieval Chinese poetry and Old English kennings, and there was this sense of discovery and creating new understanding between things that could not, on the surface, seem farther apart by time and space.

I do not know where any of this will take me, or if there is even any great future for me overall. But I do know that all of these moments and all of these memories of discovery, they are me at my best and happiest, from earliest childhood learning the textures of the walls and carpet, to being thirty one and hearing the eerie, lugubrious calls to prayer droned across Doha at the setting of the sun.

Three Shots of the MacAllan

Tonight’s blog entry will likely be brief – I have been out with coworkers for a few drinks, and then ended up talking to my friend in Poland for a while. I’m listening to Hammock, who are a post-rock band that create these immersive soundscapes and songs that make you feel incredibly small and alone, and yet happy and peaceful at the same time.  Listening to Maybe They Will Sing for Us Tomorrow is like getting out of your car on a pullover, looking out over a vast open landscape with cloud-shrouded mountains in the distance, whistling tunelessly, and feeling a stiff breeze bring the edge of a chill around your well-worn jacket.

If I had any skill at fine arts, drawing, painting, or otherwise creating images, there’s a whole world that I have never seen yet I have experienced in my mind that I would share with people, however imperfectly. Even writing the word “imperfectly” I can still feel the shrill crack of the one professor, Trudy Grimes-Holman, who demanded that we never use adverbs in her Introduction to Fiction Writing class. Also taboo was any use of genre elements, and any discussion of complex or abstract topics that detracted from a very narrow sort of realism. I did learn quite a bit about technique, but the scars from that class as far as muzzling my imagination have been long and deep.


Building a Better Mousetrap

Reading Addiction by Design, Lionel Shriver’s The Post-birthday World, and a lot of news articles, I feel more or less inundated with the sense of the artificiality of absolutely everything in modern life. Right now, for example, my left big toe is in an incredible amount of pain, but it’s the result of doing weightlifting barefoot and in a poorly-constructed squat rack. A wholly manmade situation through which I persist with copious applications of ibuprofen and gritted teeth.

Tonight, for example, I walked over to the bar here to get my allotted amount of permissible alcohol and attempted to get a good hard buzz. The goal there was to get buzzed and write a stream of consciousness, yet more than anything else I ended up commenting on my environment, this “sports bar”-style establishment in the midst of a soulless, hopeless Qatari desert. It troubled me, though, in that stream of consciousness, that I am so capable of envisioning these elaborate, self-sustaining detailed worlds in my dreams, and talking to people, and even sometimes attempting to capture them in drawings, and yet when I sit down and attempt to leverage my expensive, overlarge vocabulary, I fail to even make it to one thousand words to try and describe the pictures.

So I still try to write fiction, genre fiction, poetry, sometimes, attempting to capture that which I wish I could put onto film. But the most fascinating stuff seems to slip through my memories like salmon leaping up a fish ladder against a raging torrent of emotional and verbal non-clarity.

Ultimately, I suppose, this is not that important in the grand scheme of things. My life is a very small conscious ember in the dying fires of greater Western civilization, or perhaps a coal that could eventually spark into a greater engine-driver of the future. At thirty-one, it certainly feels like I have already experienced an outsize amount of the larger world. Lately, when there have been “big world events” I realize that I have physically been to a great number of the places flashing across TV screens and twisted to fit a specific narrative antithetical to my own worldview and civilization’s success.

Yet I still feel compelled to tell stories, or at least take a stab at giving people a tour of these alternate worlds in my head that I get to explore, alone, so often whether asleep or awake.

Wotan’s Day

One thing in my study of languages that has always fascinated me is the way that different languages name days on the Western calendar, especially when they adapt it to a locality that had a different system for structuring time before its introduction.  In Japanese, the days of the week correspond to the sun, moon (日Sunday and 月Monday) and then the five East Asian traditional elements (火Fire/Tuesday, 水Water/Wednesday, 木Wood/Thursday, 金Metal/Gold/Friday, and 土Earth/Saturday.) In other languages, they may use names for old astrological stars, or sometimes simple numbers.

Even within European languages the pantheons shift between Northern and Southern Europe, and possibly even more in other languages of the continent. So Sunday is the “Lord’s day”, possibly linked as much to Sol Invictus as to Christianity, Monday is the moon’s day, Tuesday is the god of war’s day, Wednesday is the all-father god’s day, etc etc… the role of the god or natural feature is similar between the two language regions, but the names and traits are subtly different.

That was, in fact, not what I had planned to write about today. I have not yet even had the time to write on my current story. Nonetheless, it seemed like an interesting topic.

On the writing front, I will probably have to satisfy myself with a few sentences at best. It is already bedtime, and I have not yet put down a single line besides this blog post.


Dark Designs

Today a package came in with two books for me.  I have already begun delving into one of the books Addiction by Design.  It’s insufferably written as an anthropological ethnography, but I think nonetheless the author did do some useful, objective research on her topic beyond interviews and politicized musings about sociocultural buzzwords. The purpose of the work is to explore the industry of machine gambling and its effects on people. I found the book after watching South Park, particularly their “Freemium” episode that points out, quite mischievously and with an iron edge of outrage, observed neurological research on addiction and habituation in mobile games and gambling systems, not to mention a host of other side shots at various other misery industries.

I think that it’s a particularly interesting topic given how dopaminergic nearly everything involving software has become. To play a simple game of solitaire now, one cannot simply purchase an advertising-free copy of the game in the basic form it came on Microsoft platforms in. Instead, there is an always-on connection expectation, pulsing and inescapable advertisements, and a push to upgrade the experience with additional purchases beyond the basic game.

Overall, today was a fine day. I’ve got my current story open, ready to write another portion of my protagonist’s journey towards the big pivotal reveal of the tale. Yet at the same time I am distracted like a bird in a house of particularly shiny mirrors. My left foot is injured, acute sesamoiditis, which is one of the most unpleasant phenomena I have ever experienced, despite its being pretty non-threatening and more a waiting game than anything else. At my job I accomplished a decent amount, while also feeling as though I had wasted a significant amount of the time I could have used to work on ongoing projects.

One thing that I did manage to do was make one of the Germans I run into frequently laugh quite hard. Definitely he belied the stereotype of the dour Deutschlander, and over a cigarette he, I, and a coworker traded some decent jokes and stories. One thing that I will miss when my time out here is over is the regular interaction with people from all over the world. It has been a feature of my work for some time, but especially acute in a place as expatriate as the State of Qatar.

So here I am, all plied with books, doing laundry, writing on my story, and chugging along through another evening. I aim to write in this journal every day until eventually something interesting comes of it, I end up with a readership, or some other grand effect.

25 Pounds Gone

In which I kick off this blog.

The past year has not been much like what I would have expected, had you told me even a few years ago that it would play out this way. I’m sitting in a concrete room in Qatar listening to Estonian Eurodance, talking to my friend from West Virginia living in Poland, and this is, for me, a fairly ordinary night for the past decade.


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