The Anonymity of Cities: A Paragraph

Déjenlo todo, nuevamente.

Lácense a los caminos.

                        –Roberto Bolaño

 

If I were to disappear I wouldn’t choose an island or a mountain retreat, instead I would disappear into the congested streets of a colossal and cavernous city like Tokyo, Buenos Aires, or Mexico City. There is something about being in a city, and a foreign city in particular, especially for the first time that grants the visitor the privilege, or better still, the gift, of anonymity. One can leave one’s hotel (the anonymity of hotel rooms also provide a space where one can disappear) and step out into a sea of anonymous faces, randomly moving among the traffic and the stench of the city and other humans. But on a temporary basis, almost any large city will do, provided one does not live in that city. It’s important to note that if one were to disappear that person would have to have no particular destination in mind, just a desire to move in errant directions trusting to chance. There is a freedom that comes with such anonymity, especially in the age of social media, which has made it almost impossible to be completely anonymous, despite how constructed and false our social media personalities are. Social media and email have transformed us into a 24/7 society, from which there is no escape in order to breathe and to think. This, I submit, is not a form of progress furthering civilization, but instead constitutes a de-evolution (I use the hyphen deliberately) in the human species. We think less when we are always available, since we are asked to make decisions in the time span of a sound bite and off the cuff, therefore making our thinking less complex and more standard or conventional. Whenever I’m writing (writing and thinking have always been synonyms for me) and find myself stuck, confronted with writer’s block, or even under a deluge of papers that require grading, I head to Boston to walk the streets in order to clear my mind. I love to do this especially in the winter when I can bundle myself up in an overcoat, hat, gloves, and scarf, and wander among the people, all of whom seem to have a destination in mind, anonymous and free. Commonwealth Avenue in Boston is a perfect location to blend into the scenery and reel out one’s thoughts to see what will bite. So, to quote the great Bolaño: “Leave everything again. Launch yourself into the streets.”

The Oldest Bookstore in the United States: The Moravian Book Shop

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a small historic village (population just over 75,000), in the Lehigh Valley is home to the Moravian Church, a fiercely Protestant organization founded just outside of Prague in 1457. The Moravians settled in Pennsylvania in 1741 and founded the village of Bethlehem. Today Bethlehem is typical of the contemporary Rust Belt, an awkward juxtaposition of extreme poverty with hip restaurants, breweries, and shops just a street away. It is also the home of Lehigh University and Moravian College.2016-06-26 13.07.42

The Moravian Book Shop (bookshop is split into two words on Moravian’s signs) is located on Bethlehem’s Main Street, perhaps the only street worth visiting, with the exception of its historic buildings that are certainly worth a trip. According to the Moravian Book Shop website, it was founded in 1745 by the Moravian Church and has been in operation ever since. This makes the Moravian Book Shop the oldest bookstore in the United States after a bookstore in Boston on the corner of School Street closed to make way for a Chipotle. One would think that the owners would try to capitalize on this distinction with more effort. Yet, the Moravian Book Shop is ordinary in every sense of the word.

2016-06-26 13.08.37-1The building that houses the bookshop is stunning. Its old, German-inspired architecture is a cousin to the Dutch model one sees scattered throughout Pennsylvania. The bookshop itself is disappointing. Once inside there is nothing to distinguish it from a million other bookstores across the country. In fact, even Barnes & Noble, that Goliath currently on life-support, seems to have more character. The stock is made up of entirely new publications, but because of its size, that stock is severely limited. I entered the bookshop through a door that immediately delivered me into a gift shop selling Christmas ornaments (Bethlehem considers itself “Christmas City, USA”), locally crafted jewelry, and a small café. Once inside I had to make my way past counters of goods before I actually got to the bookstore. It reminded me of a rabbit warren, with its twists and turns, its small pockets and dim lighting. In fact, I have seldom been in a more disheartening and boring bookstore.

It seems that the Moravian Book Shop’s only claim to fame is its longevity. This itself is a wonder in a world so dominated by big chains and global capital. Still, the uninspiring feel to the store once inside left me disappointed. After having visited the oldest bookstore in the world in Lisbon, I came away with the feeling that the bookshop’s sense of history is as ephemeral as a New York City restaurant.

Somewhere Else

IMG_3024It was just over a year ago that I found myself on a train traveling from Milan to Turin in the hopes of conducting some preliminary field research on a possible book project about this northern Italian city. Speeding through the Italian countryside I had just over an hour to relax and let myself gaze out the window. As always, I had a book with me, but it sat there unopened as I scanned the passing fields and farmlands. There is something about traveling by train that is infinitely more relaxing than almost any other mode of travel. My mid-morning train was not busy and I had an entire quad of seats to myself. A family of four was seated next to me. The mother and the father (I presume that they were married and that the two teenagers were their children) were talking quietly with one another while their two children were busy on their cell phones. It’s at times like this, spying on other people’s children, on other families, when I miss my own the most. At that moment, just about twenty minutes outside of Milan, I started really missing my family and longing to be back home. So here I was, on this train in Italy, but mentally I was back in the United States with my family. Yet, when I am home, all I can think about is the next trip, and mentally I am always searching for that new adventure, in someplace I have never been. I look up street addresses on Google, I read about restaurants and bars, museums, bookstores (always bookstores), so much so that even when I am at my computer at home I’m somewhere else. Is this what Odysseus felt on his return to Ithaca, even after all those years? The longing to be someplace else is sometimes so strong that I find myself unable to concentrate on anything I happen to be doing at that moment. It’s a restlessness that I’ve felt since childhood, and it with me nearly every minute of every day.

For me travel has always been about the departure, the planning and the moments leading up to the trip. It’s about the expectations, the movement itself. Traveling by train gives one a sense of being somewhere else unlike any other mode of transportation. There isn’t the sardine can-like feel of air travel, and traveling by car or bus always comes with the stop and go of traffic. Time doesn’t stop on a train, it moves, and stutters its way through the country-side and from station to station. One stops for brief moments at out of the way places on one’s way to a bigger city with a bigger station. At those brief stops there is the short hustle and bustle of activity, of people waiting to get on or off the train. Once things settle down we set off again slowly, and soon we are back in the countryside.

But travel by train is still travel, and unless one is traveling first class all of the time, the actual experience of travel can be anything but pleasant. Some years before, I climbed aboard my first train in Italy, going from Milano Centrale to Bergamo, about an hour away. I didn’t realize that before climbing on board one had to have one’s ticket stamped by a small green machine standing at the entranceway to the platform. Once on board the conductor asked for my ticket. After examining the ticket for a few moments he asked me to step out into the hall. He informed me in his halting English (by now my understanding of Italian, always marginal at best, had failed completely) that I had committed an error and that I had two choices: I could pay him a small fine, or pay a much bigger fine and accompany him to station headquarters in Bergamo. At this point I started to think that I was being taken, and that all he was after was a bribe. I was also highly conscience of the fact that I had left all my luggage, including my passport, in the compartment. All at once I found myself in a Paul Bowles story. Because I didn’t want to push my luck and challenge him on his own turf, and wanting to get back to my luggage as soon as I could, I paid my fine. He wrote me out a receipt, warned me that in the future I should pay attention to proper protocols, and walked away, leaving me swaying there in between train compartments. Later that evening, I looked into railway travel in Italy on the hotel’s computer and realized that he was correct, and that I had neglected to follow protocol. I was lucky, I guess. Milan still has those little green machines, but I purchased my tickets for my next trip before hand and had them on my cell phone. The conductor glanced at my phone and motioned me onto the train: simple, direct, and without incident.

Several years ago I read Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar and was captivated. I found someone else who felt the same way I did about train travel. Although Theroux said it in his book much better than I ever could, I felt that I had found a kindred spirit. I still find that book one of the best commentaries on traveling by train ever written. It was also Theroux who showed me that it is much more interesting to write about what goes wrong on a trip than what goes right. Many years later, when I met him in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I found him to be just as charming as his books.

When we travel, especially alone, we discover things about ourselves that cannot be revealed when traveling with others. Traveling alone gives one time and space to think, to reflect upon the actuality of travel. For me, travel allows me to slip inside my own mind without a responsibility for others. Sitting on that train, moving through space, I was able to exist in many places simultaneously. Perhaps this is why my two great passions in life are reading and travel: both give one the gift of being somewhere else.

Close Encounters of the Literary Kind, Part XI: Toni Morrison

On a cold and rainy day in early April, I made my way to Harvard’s Memorial Hall to hear Toni Morrison give the last of a series of lectures. I had tried and failed to get a ticket to her lecture the day before, but on a whim I attempted to get a ticket to her last lecture, which I thought would be impossible, but somehow managed to hit it right and secured a ticket. Tickets were free but only available starting at noon the day of the lecture. I had never heard Morrison speak in person before, and I was excited and anxious about seeing and hearing the last American author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Toni Morrison’s fiction has always been hit or miss with me. I first read her, like most, as an undergraduate in an English class. We read Beloved, a book I heard so much about, but had never gotten around to actually reading. I remember being blown away by the story and the writing. It was a book that, once read, is impossible to forget, for its imprint is too strong on one’s mind. It is a quintessentially American book, every bit as important at Moby-Dick or The Great Gatsby. Yet, most of her other work has left me cold and wanting more. So far I’ve read nothing by her that has stood up to Beloved, and perhaps that is as it should be. After all, it was that book that secured her the Noble Prize in Literature in 1993. If Morrison never writes another word she will still have altered the world of fiction for the better. But I can’t help feeling disappointed by each book she continues to publish.

Toni Morrison was giving the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard. The series of lectures was titled: “The Origins of Others: The Literature of Belonging,” a series that was right up my intellectual alley. The series consisted of six hour-long lectures, each of which touched on her overall theme. I attended her last lecture, “The Foreigner’s Home.” Arriving almost an hour early, I was first amazed by the Sanders Theater in Memorial Hall itself. The theater resembles the inside of some luxurious ship from the age of exploration, or an English church. The interior consists mostly of woodwork, expertly carved and built. One feels regal and smart just sitting on its cold and hard wooden pews. There is something warm, yet deadly serious among those pews. Standing before us was an altar of wisdom, more in spirit with the Enlightenment than Puritan pragmaticism. Still, the feeling in the room was more than vaguely religious.

Morrison herself was wheeled out in her wheelchair by an assistant and placed before a small desk. I could hear a collective gasp as she was pushed down the ramp and placed in front of the desk. We were in the presence of royalty, or some living saint, come down from on high to dispense wisdom. All of this is not hyperbole, but the feeling I had as I sat there. Even though Morrison was not my favorite author, or even in my top ten, I never experienced the feeling I had once she appeared in the room. It was as if the Holy Spirit had entered the room and dissipated among the faithful. It was the closest thing to spirituality I have ever felt, and I had an audience with Pope John Paul II who is now a bona fide saint!

Morrison is quiet-spoken, and methodical in her delivery. She never once wavered from her written text, nor improvised. One has to strain to hear her words, even with the microphone attached to her collar. Speakers, even the most famous, do not normally intimidate me but Morrison left me is a feeling of utter awe. Over the course of an hour I was hypnotized by her voice and tuned into her subject matter. I remember thinking that I hadn’t given her books, those I didn’t feel measured up to her reputation, enough of a chance, and I wanted to go out and re-read everything she published.

She vanished as quickly as she appeared. There were no questions, no book signings, and no photo opportunities. She had given all in her lecture, and that was enough. With any other writer I would have left the lecture hall feeling disappointed at not having met the speaker, but with Morrison I felt a sense of spiritual and intellectual renewal. I had been in the same room with her, I had breathed the same air, and inhabited the same space. There was nothing else to say.

I made my way past the crowd to the doors that led to Harvard Yard, and as I emerged from the darkened theater, I walked out into the newly emerged bright sunshine of a late afternoon, shaken and profoundly moved.

 

Tools of the Trade

There are, I suspect, a lot more of us who are quite particular about the tools of our trade than we realize. When I worked in a lumberyard for a few summers during my early twenties I recall that there was only one brand of hammer that we used to make roof trusses. Of course, I can’t recall the brand of the hammer now, but I’m sure it was a good one. Just as musicians are particular about the brand of instrument and the sound that comes out that instrument, so writers are particular about the tools of their trade. I am particular about the type of pens, pencils, and notebooks I use when writing. As much as I rely on my Macbook Pro to write and communicate these days, there is really nothing that can compare to the feel of a good pen or pencil on your hand as it glides across the smooth surface of a notebook that was selected with care.

I use Sharpie fine point black ink pens almost exclusively. The feel of the pen is lean but most important the ink does not smudge or bleed through the page. The ink also seems to last for quite a while, which makes the expense of the pen worth it. When it comes to pencils I only use the Palomino Blackwing 602, a reissue of the famous pencil used by the likes of Nabokov. Although these pencils are quite expensive (about $20.00 per dozen), they are well worth the price. The pencil, made from Japanese graphite and California incense-cedar, keeps its color and is a pleasure to use. Like the Sharpie pen, the Blackwing 602 doesn’t smudge and the tips are strong enough to withstand strong grips and hard pressure. The only notebooks that I use are by Moleskine. These are also expensive, but worth the price. They come in several different sizes and I use those different sizes for different tasks: I use the large notebooks for lecture notes, the medium size ones for research notes and common book writings, and the smaller ones for everyday travel use. In fact, I always have a small, hardcover black Moleskine with me to jot down whatever it is I need to make a note of.

I realize that all of this may sound pretentious, but I am a snob when it comes to the tools of my trade. Most important is the fact that I know these tools will never let me down because I have used them for years. The extra costs can be a bit daunting, and I only stock up on these tools twice a year: once in late August and again in early February, far less frequently for the pencils. There is something thrilling in opening up a new package of pens and pencils and turning the page on a new notebook. It tells me that anything is possible. I always associate a new supply with the new school year, which is one of the perks of teaching for a living. Writing on a computer may be convenient and faster, but nothing can compare with the slowness of thinking that only writing by hand can give you. There is a certain satisfaction one gets by writing this way, and it seems, at least to me, much more lasting and permanent than writing by computer. Writing by hand is less anonymous, and far more intimate. And in a world where speed and convenience have become chief values, it’s wonderful to slide back into the comfort of slowness and precision that only writing by hand offers.

Reading The Road

Under most circumstances the books that come into our possession can have profound impacts on our lives, especially if they are read under the right conditions, by which I mean to say, that a certain times in our lives books seem to find us when we most need them. These books become our special companions providing a life-line to reason when reason seems to be all but absent from our empirical lives.

Yet another presidential debate was being televised, and as usual, I was under the impression that if I watched I would learn something about the candidates and where they stood on the issues. But this was a Republican debate, the third or fourth I had suffered through, and I felt that each time I tuned in I was losing more brain cells. This time I decided I had enough, so I went upstairs to my library to find something to read, anything that would take my mind off the insanity playing out before my eyes. After standing before my shelves for what seemed like an unusually long time, I took down Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a novel I had heard so much about, had never read, but had been meaning to for several years. I resisted watching the film version because I wanted to read the book first. Everything I heard about the novel suggested that it would be a powerful read, so I grabbed my headphones and my Iphone and went back downstairs. My wife was still watching the debate, so I poured myself a large bourbon and parked myself next to her.

I often read while listening to music, and in order to concentrate on whatever it is I’m reading, I always choose an instrumental piece of music, most often jazz or classical. This time I decided to download the soundtrack from the film version of The Road, composed and performed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The pair often collaborate on film soundtracks and while one can hear familiar themes that also occur in their more popular band, The Bad Seeds, there is a melancholic feel to the music they write for film that doesn’t really come across in their rock (if one can call it that) band. Remember, I had yet to see the film adaptation to McCarthy’s book, so I really didn’t know what I was in for other than what I had heard. It didn’t take long for me to get lost in the book. Reading The Road with the music for the film accompanying me, and with the Republican candidates arguing back and forth on my television screen was one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had. The book is powerful, and its sparse paragraphs, littered like icebergs in a thawing sea, represent the fictional loneliness and desperation of the novel’s subject matter. We are never sure if the father and son protagonists will make it to the next paragraph. When the end finally comes, as we know it will, we still find ourselves unprepared for it, and the dam of emotions that had been building up for over 200 pages bursts leaving the reader exhausted and spent. The novel is shocking in its content and simplicity, but it’s that simplicity, the way the story seems to limp along the metaphorical road of our reading, that catches us unawares and leaves us shell shocked.

McCarthy’s literary power comes from his stripped down layering of images along this textual and metaphorical road. Consider the following paragraph, chosen almost at random:

They slept through the night in their exhaustion and in the morning the fire was dead and black on the ground. He pulled on his muddy shoes and went to gather wood, blowing on his cupped hands. So cold. It could be November. It could be later. He got a fire going and walked out to the edge of the woodlot and stood looking over the countryside. The dead fields. A barn in the distance. (75)

Images like this burn themselves into the reader’s mind. McCarthy strips his novel of conventional punctuation (as he does with most of his novels) and presents his reader with sparse, but flock-like paragraphs floating on the imaginative horizon of nightmares. But these particular nightmares are as much a part of American mythology as those written by Cooper, Faulkner, and Hemingway.

To call The Road one of the great American novels is too limiting. The Road is one of the greatest novels of all time. Only a handful of books (in the context of how many books are published each year) can so powerfully capture the mood of its time, yet anticipate and articulate the fears of present and future generations, while incorporating the author’s (McCarthy’s) entire oeuvre, which includes everything that the author might have read. The Road is a masterpiece worthy to be placed alongside The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, Huck Finn, Leaves of Grass, The Sound and the Fury, The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, Beloved, and so many others. The Road is Orwell’s 1984 on heroin, surviving just to score another fix. How do I know The Road is a masterpiece? Because for almost a month I have thought of little else, and have not left its landscapes even after having finished the book. It’s like a powerful dream or nightmare that you can’t shake yourself free from after having awaken.

The Ties Have It

I’ve been thinking about men’s ties a lot lately, especially when it comes to the presidential candidates. I’ve been wondering if there is a connection between the candidate’s political affiliation and the color of the neck tie the candidate wears. Of course, we had two women also running for president, and one still in the race, so this hypothesis doesn’t really apply to them, unless we pay attention to the color of Hillary’s pant suits, but I will leave that subject for another time. In any case, it’s an interesting correlation between tie color and party affiliation and may be worth a closer look.

In the South Carolina Republican debate the front-runner Donald Trump was wearing a read tie and Jeb Bush, then running 5th in the polls, was wearing a blue one. After Trump’s decisive victory in South Carolina Jeb dropped out of the race. Perhaps if Jeb wore a red tie more occasionally he would still be in the race. His blue tie was a mistake, especially for someone dogged by perceptions of low energy as Jeb was. The point is, Republican candidate Jeb wore a blue tie and is now in the past tense, while the present tense candidate continues to wear a bold red more often. Of course, Donald being Donald, no rules seem to apply. After his victory in South Carolina Trump wore a bold blue tie for the next primary. During Super Tuesday he was also seen wearing a blue tie. Is he so confident now that he feels he can tempt fate by wearing the color of the Democratic Party?

For his first appearance as Speaker of the House at the State of the Union, Paul Ryan took to social media to ask the public to choose between a red and a blue tie. Not surprisingly, the red won. Red is the color of the Republican Party, while Blue signifies the Democrats. Following Justice Anotin Scalia’s death, President Obama held a press conference in which he announced that he would fulfill his constitutional duty and nominate an individual to fill the vacancy on the bench left by Scalia’s death. During that press conference I found it strange that Obama was not wearing a tie. Was he attempting to display an air of impartiality, or was this a calculated move on his part?

The semiotic lens through which we view and interpret a person through his or her clothing is more than an interesting exercise, it can also tell us something about how we wish to be perceived by others. After a quick Google Image search I found that President Obama wears dark ties most often. Trump wears bold colors: reds, blues, and a slightly lighter shade on occasion. Moreover, Trump’s tie style favors single color schemes without patterns of any kind. Jeb is partial to stripes. Bernie Sanders seems to prefer ties with dotted patterns. Marco Rubio wears red ties most often, but blue ties also figure prominently in his repertoire. What does this say about him? Perhaps he is more of a moderate than we think? Both Sanders and Obama are often seen without ties, which may suggest that they are the ones who like to get down to work, or at least give the perception of doing so.

However the 2016 presidential election turns out, the neck tie that the male candidates wear may have more of an impact of voter choice then they realize. After all, image is everything in this social media dominated world. Have we lost a desire for ideas, and instead, vote for the candidate that looks most presidential. Since the Nixon-Kennedy televised debate we seem to have sacrificed thinking for appearance, and with Trump as the dominate front-runner for the Republicans, what more proof is needed that critical thinking skills are no longer valued by at least half the voters in the United States.

So there you are: the ties have it.