T-Shirts of Relationships Past

On textiles and tender memories…

I noticed the other day that, when I thought about it, a good number of my t-shirts are directly tied to a memory of a relationship.  Now I do not mean that I remember wearing them in association with a particular moment of a relationship, I mean that literally, I would not own said t-shirts without having been in a particular relationship or arrangement.  Some of the oldest are my basic black t-shirts.  I bought these while I was dating in college because I needed something to wear out, but also had no money to spend.  While they have probably become an affectation of faux-simplicity, they are also nostalgic in that sense.

More specific shirts I know even better.  I bought my M83 t-shirt with the “fry kids” from their Junk album at a concert with someone that I had, at one point, hoped to end up spending the rest of my life. It is possible I would have gone to that concert with someone else, but in all likelihood I would not have bought that exact t-shirt.  Another, I bought at the movie theater when I went to see Interstellar.  The actual shirt is a merchandising tie-in with Pacific Rim, but it was on sale in the lobby and looked like a great memento of the occasion.  Another shirt I bought at a concert for City and Colour.  My ex on that occasion was an ardent Dallas Green fan, and I liked the design of the shirt.

I realize that this entry would do well with some pictures, and I may come back and add some when a better photographic opportunity arises.

Another ex-affiliated shirt I wear regularly is an overlarge Champion-brand Brevard College t-shirt.  I bought it as a memento of the beautiful time spent in the foothills of Pisgah natural forest, even though said ex ultimately never completed the degree program there.  Yet another t-shirt I bought at Express, because yet another relationship I had involved innumerable shopping trips to the mall and to that store in particular.  I am a sucker for sales and dark blue, and so ended up with that shirt and a bright red one of similar textile quality.

There are other t-shirts, from other memories, but I think that it is noteworthy that unlike many many other objects I own, be they books, carvings, rugs, furniture, or what have you, the most emotionally charged are ones that I wear on a daily basis, washing and wearing and wearing through as time passes, until perhaps one day I will end up telling the full stories associated with each shirt like a qipu knot of utilitarian fashion.

Webs of Copper, Webs of Glass

On the physicality of communications, old and new…

Over the past weekend I read a book called, Jefferson’s War, by Joseph Wheelan.  It is a surprisingly quick read, and a very interesting look at early United States history.  The subtitle he uses is America’s First War on Terror 1801-1805, and while discussing that allusion could occupy an entire long post, I am more interested in looking at that book in contrast with Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War, by Stephen R. Platt.  What fascinated me reading both of them, is the role that slow communications played in so much of what went on during both conflicts.  The Barbary Wars of Wheelan’s book took place in the era immediately following the creation of the Constitution and the first years of the current United States, yet some sixty years later, during the Taiping revolution (or rebellion, or civil war, depending on whose point of view you take), communications were largely confined to paper and pen carried along by messengers.  At best, during the Barbary Wars, you had ships that employed flag codes between vessels – semaphore at a tactical level was not a novel concept at the time, but incredibly limited in range.

Large decision points of both conflicts hinged on information that was weeks to months out of date in arriving back at the countries of origin of the European and US forces involved.  Being an English and Chinese-language-capable scholar, Platt primarily discusses British and American involvement, as well as giving an in-depth look at both the Qing imperial forces and the Taiping rebels’ records (such that are available.)  His account covers many incidents in the war where the fate of the Taiping rested on perceptions in Britain that were shaped by communications, some physically intercepted, some merely delayed in reaching London than others.  Wheelan, too, touches on several decisive moments where the delays in communication between the US and its naval forces dramatically changed the outcome of battles, strategy, and public perceptions of the war abroad.

What fascinates me about this is that the same sorts of “accidents” of delayed communications are not exceptional – if anything, the communications enjoyed by both sets of forces were still much more rapid and effective than those available to militaries, merchants, and decision makers of all eras of human history.  Today, delays of more than a few days or a few hours are considered abnormal – we find ourselves frustrated at having to wait longer than a few seconds for messages to transmit across the internet or to make a strong connection between telephone exchanges.  I find that one of the most difficult things for contemporary laymen to grasp is this incredible distance and delay in communications in history.  Sometimes I even find myself guilty of projecting the granted ease of sending a message nowadays onto situations in the past where even distances of a few kilometers could prove decisive.

We even see this in filmmaking and television writing.  I would argue that one of the big reasons for an explosion in television shows and films set in the nineteen eighties or earlier is because so many plots and tropes rely on communication breakdowns that require an inordinate amount of contrivance to render believable in a modern setting.  A missing person or a person running late to a critical “plot point” back in the day was entirely plausible and a regular feature of history and fiction alike.  Today, barring extraordinary circumstances, we are in constant communication with important figures in our lives and our world, for better or worse.  We rely on a network of communications that still relies on a grand, powerful, and redundant physical infrastructure unlike anything seen before – not even the Indian courier routes of the Mauryas or the Pony Express were effective enough to allow the interconnectedness we experience as a given today.

I will return to this topic later, and, I plan, in more depth in the future, but I wanted to capture that sort of “a-ha!” moment I had when I truly appreciated again just how much “the past is a foreign country.”  When we feel isolated today, it means that we have not had the interaction that we want with the immediacy we expect.  When we make decisions or carry out actions that can change our entire lives, we do not expect to do so blindly or without the resource of advice, be it from friends, family, and peers, or from the broad knowledge base of the internet or far-distant supervisors and managers in business and government.  Understanding the significance of that, I posit, allows you to better comprehend not only the past, but also the way that society and all its multifarious manifestations are changing from the depths of the Third World to the heights of globalized industry and science.

Bookworm Weekend

On finishing several books…

Over the past few days I have had some work, and also been allowed some time off for the US celebration of Labor Day.  While I did plenty of other things, I was most successful at finishing a number of books I have been either devouring or slogging through piecemeal over the past few months.

The first book, which read extremely fast for being a doorstopper in physical hardcover volume, was The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. I enjoyed it immensely, and it is full of details that you only catch if you are an inveterate history, scifi, and language geek such as myself.  Neal Stephenson and co-author Nicole Galland. The overall tone is upbeat and almost cheery throughout, even when you know that something dire is about to happen. The book is written in a very self-aware multi-threaded style, and the authors use everything from jotted memos to skaldic verse to convey a surprisingly coherent narrative.  I would enjoy reading a follow-up volume if they do choose to continue the collaborative project. Stephenson and Galland, I did not know until reading a review of the book, had previously worked together on the Mongoliad hypertextual multimedia project.

The next book that I finished was Markman Ellis’ The Coffee-house, a History, which I first began to read last year as part of the research for my MA capstone project. The book was engaging, and covered an extensive range of primarily English history, seen through the lens of the social and economic roles of coffee and coffeehouses in both practical and more esoteric cultural terms.  Ellis’ coverage of the twentieth century veers into a very different sort of tone, but still conveys a great deal of interesting information.  Apparently before Starbucks, the British experienced a sort of non-centralized “franchise” coffeehouse phenomenon that ran alongside and interacted with the Mod period of the Avengers and the Swinging Sixties. But the majority of the book covers the era of the Enlightenment and Early Modern period, with figures any historian or even popular history reader will readily recognize.

Additionally I finished Addiction by Design, as I mentioned earlier.  I still think that in many ways that has been one of the more informative works I have read in a while, as it gives insight into the industrial scale of emotional manipulation. The gambling industry more or less seems to have heard secondhand accounts of the worst science folklore of Skinner boxes and said “hold my beer…”  But in other ways it touches quite strongly on the larger underlying social and psychological roots of addiction, habituation, and how risk-taking and seemingly wasting time and losing control can somehow satisfy the needs of restless people in broken communities for control over other areas of their life.

Not on the list of completed books, but I began reading Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, which is a very well-written overview of the Taiping Revolution/Revolt/Rebellion that ran almost concurrent with the US Civil War. It is an absolutely fascinating look into Chinese civilization at a crossroads, well before the true dissolution of the Qing dynasty, but very much a vast, seething mass of humans with a few noteworthy figures suddenly slamming into the pressure cooking confines of expanding Western imperialism (in a very literal sense, not the modern intellectual catch-all the term has become.)  The Taiping as a cultural movement are themselves a fascinating group – part cult that would have almost fit in with the Second Great Awakening in the US, part very practical sociopolitical revolutionary party bent on taking China back from Manchu domination. I look forward to reading further into the book, which complements books on the Opium Wars and on general Chinese history that I have previously read.