A Line of Best Fit

Ennis is an old man. After he wakes up, which takes some time in and of itself, and after he's had a piss and eaten a slice of bread with liver paté on the kitchen counter, he sits on the couch, watching the news, watching the news for fear of not watching the news for fear of the silence that could ooze into the space around him were the news to suddenly end, quickly and without warning, like life itself.

The news, on high volume, drones. And Ennis is an intelligent man. He understands more so the implications of his involuntary obsessions rather than their nature, and finds solace in them nevertheless. His wife of forty-two years passed away thirteen years ago, but this is no longer an issue. It was, but is no longer. Ennis, seventy-eight then, felt for the first time in however many years the pulse of want take form inside his testicles. Blue balls at seventy-eight while his wife laid waxy in the satin-lined coffin, and after the eulogies, Ennis faked an impending vomit and took off to the mall where he purchased a new Samsung Galaxy S7 and a high-speed blender.

On the news: stills of a teenage farm boy lying face-down on a hospital bed, a pitchfork sewn across his buttocks, just missing it. And here we are, the team and I, standing outside of Ennis' strange little red-roofed one-story with our cameras and our notebooks, spying. His television is big enough for us to make out the imagery; the volume loud enough for us to hear around the block. Perhaps we are terrible people, doing something like this. I don't mean to be brash. Perhaps I should speak for myself. And yet, even still, I would say the same: what a terrible person I am. 

When I arrived here, seventeen days ago, my first thought was that I had to figure out what it meant to be alive. After a few days, this particular goal was thwarted by a related one: to demonstrate a dramatic interweaving of lives, maybe four or five—lives—and then somehow turn all of that interwovenness into some grand conclusion or, like, teach a lesson with it, or eye-open somebody somewhere. 

"And why," Bernie starts, "do you say that you're a terrible person?"

For a moment Felix relaxes in the chair—a burgundy armchair slightly stained along the right arm. He crosses his legs and then uncrosses them. He does not know how to answer, his nervousness palpable, visceral, filling the room. Bernie rephrases the question:

"You mentioned that you don't think you're a good person. What makes you think this?"

I want to refocus our attention on Ennis. I really felt like I'd been onto something with him. But I always think that I'm onto something, and I go with it, end up becoming distracted by something somehow, and before I know it the something that I had been onto dissolves or fades into nothingness or sometimes completely obliterates itself with such force that even if I try to remember what it had been, I can't. It's impossible. Like reaching into the Atlantic and expecting to pull out a kernel of corn. It's like I'm building fences around my own ideas. That is how it starts. With the ideas, the introspections, all of them existing on some sort of plane that is at once intriguing and unreachable.

But like I said, I want to stick to Ennis. He's where the real truth lies. Nothing self-referential about him. It's refreshing, but at the same time, it's sad, it's like he never takes a moment to recognize himself and goes on living within a framework that exists only in the objects around him, like the TV, like his breakfast—because he eats the same thing every day—because these are the physical reminders he takes as proof that he exists. Beyond that, there's nothing. 

I met him on my second day here. He was in the grocery store, a tiny little thing that sells only bread and varying quantities of chicken. He asked me how I was liking it here, and I told him so far so good, asked his name. Ennis, he said proudly. He was old, I remember thinking, white stubble poking out of the clay-like skin of his cheeks. He was holding a loaf of bread, the kind that's bagged in a porous plastic so as to let the heat escape after baking. I could see that the bag had a yellow circular sticker on it showing that it was being sold at a discounted price. Ennis extended a hand, "Welcome," and though I shook it, the cold meatiness of it, I could not stop looking at the loaf of bread that he was holding with his other. Zeroing in, I noticed a small tuft of greenish fur alighted on its seeded crust.

And I thought: Really? Moldy bread? I had—improperly—assumed the sterility and unbridled cleanliness of these parts of the world; you look at a faraway point on a map surrounded by water and you think that it's got to be clean there, so far out that the winds of pollution dissipate long before they reach the shores. I tore my gaze away from the loaf of bread, returned to Ennis whose mouth was moving. All I could hear was the music coming from the portable radio which sat on the cashier's small counter, antennae and all. I initially thought that the song playing might have been one from my childhood, but then a rough-voiced woman started crooning in the lingo of land. Ennis was speaking to me but I could not hear him. And it's not as though he was speaking inaudibly—his volume level was fine—so I cannot understand why I left the grocery store without the slightest clue as to what he had said.

"Does this happen to you often?" Bernie asked, migrating his silver-capped pen from his left hand to his right with a deft twirl of his fingers.

"Yes," I said, and Bernie sighed. He was not supposed to sigh. Subtle cues like these tend to prompt feelings of helplessness: you are so far from being able to be helped, is more so what they say. I shifted in the chair, brushing the edge of the paper bag which held the cake with my leg. 

"What do you have over there?" I leaned down and picked it up, flattening my hands beneath the cake's cardboard base. 

"It's a cake."

"Is it your birthday? I don't remember your files saying that it was in Sept—"

"It's for a friend."

Had I been prepared to gift Bernie the detectable? Are we ever prepared for anything?

Bernie smiled and said that we didn't need to talk about it if I didn't want. 

Ennis wanted to be profiled, I continued. In his old age, his greatest desire was twofold: to die, and to document its process. The problem was, he explained, was that he was healthier than he'd ever been in his life. No ailments. None. He'd even tried giving himself cancer once after his wife had passed away by sitting in front of a microwave in three-hour blocks. He'd made a little nook out of it—a chair and table and television set. But nothing. I suspected that he had gotten the idea from a South Park episode, but Ennis denied this accusation and claimed that such "creative disgraces" were beyond his scope of understanding.

In a way, my arrival came at the perfect time. You can maybe say that about all things really. But after that day at the grocery store, Ennis invited me over for dinner. I was hesitant at first, but rationalized my decision to go with the realization that I had nowhere else to be. I showed up with a bowl of pasta (rotini) that I'd cooked with tomato sauce from a jar and a few onions thrown in to give off the impression that I'd made the dish from scratch. Ennis had prepared horse meat marinated in lemon.

 

  

Budapest is Shattering

Örs vezér tere is the final stop of Budapest’s metro line 2. The train terminates just beside the city’s IKEA, and a massive shopping center outside of which local junkies gather. From the station, my apartment is a ten-minute walk through a local park and residential area. I dragged my carry-on suitcase behind me over a walkway through thirsty-looking park trees, trying not to let the sweat on my forehead fall into my eyes. Children were playing basketball behind a rusting fence to my left as I walked, their laughter punctuated by the sound of shattering glass; In the distance, workers stood on the concrete ledges of an old apartment building, smashing its glass windowpanes into a hollow interior.

For a capital city, Budapest is surprisingly difficult to navigate. Only a few months ago, in June of 2017, the city introduced bus route 100E which connects Ferenc Liszt International Airport with two stops in central Budapest. The bus runs every half hour. To catch it, one must purchase a ticket from either a desk employee or at the one kiosk located in the bus loading area. When you board the bus, the driver validates your ticket by tearing it in two.

I first visited the most popular ruin bar of in city, Szimpla Kert. In 2004, the dilapidated building that now houses the bar was saved from demolition by a group of entrepreneurs who were looking to start something good for the city. Deciding to make the best of the building’s rugged charm, they filled the space with eclectic furniture and décor. Szimpla Kert is part of a larger creative movement and new generation of bars in Budapest that adds a level of truth to the saying, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

On Sundays, the bar hosts its weekly farmers market, though it had far less food than I would have expected. There were jarred jams, pungent cheeses, colorful vegetables, three open bars, and a musical duo dressed in traditional Hungarian garb plucking Zithers—a string instrument that resembles a violin lying down with many strings stretched across a thin, flat body—in the crowded space. One of the musicians seemed tired, perhaps hungover, or equally possible could have been his distaste for the gawking tourists standing all around him. His partner, a young woman with quick fingers, smiled at me. I noticed there was a clarity in her gaze, like she knew something I didn’t, like she had finally found the humor in the spectacle of the show and was just waiting for everyone else to catch on.

After leaving Szimpla Kert, I ventured a little further, towards the city’s District IX. The aesthetic here was far less touristy and assumed a more ordinary appearance while also being notably run-down. Here, the colors of the buildings were less vivid, graffitied. As I continued walking, District IX appeared more and more deserted, its atmosphere oddly post-apocalyptic. Restaurant owners dined outside in empty squares, keeping watch for potential customers. A pair of old white sneakers sat in a street side flower bed, the laces intact.

My accommodation for this trip was a simple but comfortable green-walled, one-bedroom flat. It contained an impressive English library with a number of fine novels. The bed, an unexpectedly luxurious futon, was sprawled between a desk and a window from which I could see a segment of the building’s parking lot and a sliver of park beyond it. More of this park was visible from the kitchen window, along with its ruddy benches with peeling red paint. Though I never formally met my next-door-neighbor, I got to know her taste for techno and affinity for midday titillations through the paper-thin wall which separated our flats.

The grocery store, a simple 4-minute walk from the flat, had a moderate alternative food aisle and one of the largest orange juice selections I’d ever seen. Mysteriously, all of the store’s employees were green-eyed, and when the rusty-haired cashier asked me something in Hungarian, whether or not I’d had the correct change, I presume, I blinked back at her blankly, my mouth cracking open for the first time in what had probably been four days, something English falling out of it, and she huffed at me as though I’d done something wrong.

It wasn’t long before I began to question the extent to which my inability to communicate might have been negatively coloring my perception of the city. That’s one of the risks you take by traveling; you never really know to what degree yourself will get in the way of it. This implies a paradox which seems inherent to journeying. Among probably fewer reasons than we’d expect, we travel to experience an element of authenticity that we tend to believe is lacking from our daily lives. How easily our homes can turn into automated machines and the people within them robots, we think. But we also forget that few things are more authentic than waking up and going to work every day. What is realer than alarm clocks, missing keys, and spilled coffee? Is it authenticity we’re actually in search of, or something else?

In remote northern Iceland, for example, a forty-year-old woman attended an artist residency. She was a painter who had recently lost her wife to cancer. “I’ve been painting a lot of jars full of objects lately,” she explained during the residency’s monthly artist talk session. “Paper clips are some of my favorite things to paint. Also, pills. I’m still trying to work through the grief. I’m trying to turn it into something positive.”

In Bangkok, a graying middle-aged man sat at a restaurant table along the sidewalk in Sukhumvit, two attractive young women by his side. Their long hair shined as I passed them. One threw it over her shoulder, revealing her delicate collar bone and a prune-like bruise along her neck. “I would really love it if the two of you came back with me tonight,” the man said to them, the gold band around his ring finger glinting in the sweaty Thai night.

At an official meetup in Budapest, I met an Italian man who appeared to be my age. He explained that he was between jobs, not sure of his direction in life, just broke up with his girlfriend, and now in the middle of a three-week trip around Eastern Europe with his friends. He sat down next to me. He had a drink. He moved a little closer. Dirt was caked beneath his fingernails. When I told him I was married, there was this look.

This meetup that I attended took place on the upper floor of another ruin bar in central Budapest. It was the kind of event that you find out about online and arrive to alone with a drink in your hand, nervously looking around for others who are also alone and seem lost. I sat between two men—one a Russian in his late thirties and the other a Hungarian named Imre in his late twenties. The Russian’s English was broken and saturated with idioms. When I introduced myself to him as Katie from the US, his response was an enthusiastic, “You hit the nail on the head!”

Imre was as IT employee from a small city two hours outside Budapest. He wore a black t-shirt and open-toed Velcro sandals. “Hungary is a much more closed society than you think,” he told me “People here are filled with hate towards everything. Foreigners, locals, everything.” Though an odd introduction to his homeland, I pushed for a broader picture with limited results. The Russian took out his phone and began to show us photos of his son. I mentioned that he was cute. “By the skin of his teeth!” he replied, then asked me what I thought about Trump.

Budapest appeared to be a thoroughly different place by night, as if the dark revealed something forbidden that wasn’t meant to be seen in daytime. After the meetup, I took a brief stroll and noticed a restaurant that I hadn’t seen during daytime. All of the dull colors that I’d taken to be the city’s aesthetic signature were now invisible, and the dilapidation of its architecture now seemed charming—a painterly backdrop against a spotting of tables and chairs set up along the sidewalk. Above, colored string lights formed a ceiling so that everyone’s face glowed in the balmy air. 

I took the subway home. The was something eerie about Budapest's metro line 3. With cars from the 70s, train interiors were peeling hospital green and black rubber floors. Orange lights flickered on the doors that more so slammed closed than slid. Gray rubber handle bars dangled from the ceiling. But the best part of this time warp on wheels was the lighting. Incandescent dome lamps flickered with the movement of the train and created a sense of foreboding not altogether unlike the eerie, abnormally quiet moment in a film that comes just before a disaster. Standing next to me was an overweight man whose t-shirt read You are so sexy (when I’m drunk).

Returning to my temporary home in the dark, I sat on the wooden stool at the kitchen table. I recorded my surroundings: sink, window, other sink, rubber cutting board, paper towel roll. A magnet on the mini fridge showed an image of Amsterdam’s canals above “Amsterdam” written in rainbow font. I reached for a paper towel and noticed the word “Paris” printed all over it, along with suspended baguettes and glasses of red wine. Elsewhere was everywhere here, and perhaps we are never really where we want to be.

After eight days in Budapest, I was more than ready to return home. On the morning of my departure, my host messaged me and wanted to know how my stay was. I told him it had been lovely. I departed before six in the morning on a Saturday, watched the sun come up through brittle trees and turn the gray apartment blocks a delightful peach. The apartment building whose windows had been shattered just days before was now a skeleton of crumbling concrete and protruding supporting rods.

I had broken into a sweat by the time I reached the subway platform, and with nearly twenty-four hours of travel ahead of me, I questioned what I had really gotten out of this trip. What can anyone gain from loneliness, really? At best, perhaps the ability to recognize the same misery in others; at worst, an aversion towards anyone and anything that doesn’t feel it too. More and more I have started to think that the world is a very dull place unless you share it.

On the subway, I sat between two women dressed in business casual with too much perfume. They couldn’t have been more than a few years older than me. Their nails were painted red, burgundy. I held onto my carry-on suitcase with my ankles and placed my backpack in my lap. I watched the train speed up, the people on the platform whizz away as we left it. The women stared dead ahead into the blur beyond the window, there but not. We weren’t that different.    

Whiskey Time in Riga

The cheapest flight you can get out of Reykjavík is to Riga, Latvia. Wizz air, the low-cost Hungarian airline that flies this route, charges passengers up to seventy-five Euros for an airport check-in. Online check-in closes three hours prior to departure, leaving last-minute travelers and computer unsavvy folk with little choice but to foot the bill. Wizz’s in-flight magazine, though, is fantastic.

I wanted to see how history continued to live and breathe within a former member of the Soviet Union. I wanted to witness a cultural and economic progression, and understand how Latvians were revitalizing their identity after a long history of cultural repression. This is why I decided to visit Latvia. It wasn’t until 2004 that Latvia joined the European Union, only a decade after the country declared independence following the collapse of the USSR. Today, still more than a quarter of the population is Russian, signage around the country is written in both Latvian and Russian, and a silent battle between the two groups wages, each side fighting to achieve greater cultural influence in Latvia. Just this past summer, for example, the Latvian government backed a ban on the Russian language as optional for school exams. This change is just one example of a larger transition from a long-established “Russification” towards an embrace of Latvian identity and cultural renewal.

A weary but calm-sounding pilot sounded over the intercom aboard our small jet on the ground in Reykjavík. “We’ll be taking you back to Riga shortly,” he said, his word choice indicating that he assumed most passengers would be returning home from their holiday in Iceland. I don’t doubt there was some truth to this. In recent years, Iceland has undergone a massive tourism boom that has fetishized its landscape, priced out locals from downtown Reykjavík, and turned popular streets such as Laugavegur into soups of Airbnbs, single roasts, and overpriced thermal wear. The Icelandic government has yet to come up with a plan that adequately accommodates this surge of visitors, and in the meantime, flights to and from the capital city continue to sell out. This explained why most (if not all) of the passengers on my flight were Latvian, and Riga seemed like a less plausible holiday destination to the pilot than a Holiday Inn outside Columbus.

I landed at sunrise. In a cab on the way to my accommodation, the driver presented me with a series of city maps that were color-coded with popular attractions and restaurant advertisements, along with his business card. Poppy techno spooled from the speakers. As we drove over a bridge linking the city center to its outskirts, he pointed out Old Town, the concert hall, and a grandiose governmental building. “That’s where the president lives,” he told me proudly, then pointed in another direction and added, “Down that way is very good Latvian university.” Though it’s difficult to get a good view of any city when you’re driving through it at forty miles per hour, I did notice a stark distinction between the cobbled streets of Riga’s Old Town out the window to my right, and the decrepit, graffitied buildings out the window to my left.

The building I was staying in was built in 1915, my host Peteris explained. I followed him up five flights of dim, sunken stairs and tried to ignore the smell of mold. Corroded wires poked out of the walls and holes into nameless dark depths appeared along the floor. “Everything is backwards here,” Peteris explained, referring to the locks on the apartment door which appeared calcified, coated in a questionable whitish substance. I was taught to twist the key counter clockwise, and to jangle it while pushing inward simultaneously while also turning the handle slightly to the right. “And don’t lock it three times if someone’s inside, otherwise they’ll be locked in. Just twice is fine.”

Peteris was a skinny man in his early thirties with white-blonde hair and a pinched face. Red Converse All-Star sneakers decorated his spindly, hairless legs. As a designer and graduate of the Art Academy of Latvia, Peteris was proud to show me his most recent work—a sculpture of a broom, white, embedded with a row of colored LED lights that shone on the wall behind it. He told me I could change the color of the light via remote control. Above the futon bed, there was a framed photograph of Peteris in New York, illuminated by a setting sun, his red Converse carefully positioned against the street.

After a few nights, I decided to look into one of Peteris’ recommendations: a nearby jazz concert. I walked through dreary concrete apartment blocks and dusty, littered sidewalks, eventually arriving to a grassy hill behind a building whose grandiose golden outline indicated a pre-soviet era construction. A large crowd of all ages was waiting beside an empty stage. As the stubbornly blue Baltic sky quieted to dusk, the musicians took to the stage. The band included three young, skinny men dressed in brightly colored hotpants and button-down, collared shirts. They introduced themselves as ‘Whiskey Time’ and began their show with a raging rendition of Beastie Boys’ “Fight for your Right”. It was far from being jazz music, but the crowd went wild. The lead singer tore off his left sleeve and poured a cup of beer over his head. “Every Wednesday night,” he shouted into the microphone, “We dance.” 

Departing from the American classic, Whiskey Time continued their performance with an eclectic mix of traditional Latvian songs that sent the crowd jumping and cheering. After each number, the band members tore away another part of their shirt, slowly revealing more and more skin. Something white flew through the air and landed on the lead singer’s head. Momentarily departing from the microphone, he held the bra up to the stage light, spun it around his index finger and whipped it back into the audience. 

In those moments, I found Riga to be a vibrant, unusual, hopeful, and youthful city. As the blue and red lights danced over the heads of the pulsing crowd, I came to notice a humble, unassuming energy about the place—it was an energy that somehow transcended Riga, that almost transcended place entirely. This rawness is something that I have had a difficult time finding in European capitals such as Budapest and Amsterdam, where the unspoken goal to help a city live up to its name courses through the bloodstream of the night like an aphrodisiac. I could sense none of this in Riga, where people appeared to be earnest in their partying, having little to show off and nothing to prove.

Inside the building—functioning as a bar, a performance space, a library, and a community space, I met Edgars, a Riga local of Latvian descent. Perhaps in his early forties, he wore a gray fanny pack and Crocks, and he held a cup of beer that leaked over the edges throughout our conversation. I told him that I was visiting from Iceland, and when he asked me why with an air of confusion, I told him the truth—that it had been the cheapest airfare I could find.

“You have Harpa in Iceland!” he interjected passionately. “The great Icelandic concert hall.” Edgars was an orchestra conductor who was frustrated by Riga’s lack of performance spaces. “You know Latvian orchestra? Some of the best musicians in the world here. World renowned. If we want to bring New York Philharmonic to Riga, where are we going to put them? We can’t put them anywhere. It is embarrassing. We have nothing in Riga. This is big problem.” I then complimented his city’s newfound cultural initiatives, motioning towards the now (very) sweaty Whiskey Time on stage.

“That is not art, that is sex,” Edgars explained, draining the last of his beer.

Our conversation took a strange turn when Edgars began to explain his living situation. He lived across the street from this building, in a one-bedroom flat with his mother. I peeked over my shoulder and out the window at the gloomy apartment complex across the way. I could not see any lights on through the windows. Though he’d lived there for over twenty years, only recently had his frustration peaked. “The noise of this place is disturbing,” he told me. “They respect nothing. It is no problem to have new things to do, this is good for Riga, but to go on with the music very late, this is no good.” I was able to sympathize with him, having had my fair share of noisy neighbors, although I suspected that his frustration was less about noise and more about the politics behind who gets to get what and when.

At another bar beside the stage, I met Juris the bartender. He was glued to the screen of his phone, leaning against the countertop. I told him how great I thought the performance was, and how exciting it must be to have new events like this in Riga. “It is not that good,” Juris replied solemnly. “You are seeing Riga on the best day of the year. It is very depressing otherwise.”

Rebecca Solnit meditates in A Book of Migrations:

“Every place exists in two versions, as an exotic and a local. The exotic is a casual acquaintance who must win hearts through charm and beauty and sites of historical interest, but the local is made up of the accretion of individual memory and sustenance, the maternal landscape of uneventful routine."

Could it be possible that my night with Whiskey Time was no less than a glimpse into Riga’s exoticism? Had all that cheap beer gotten in the way of my seeing the city in its true light?

Having enjoyed my time in Riga so far and not wanting to interpret Edgar or Juris’ negativity as an indication of a truer and sadder Latvia, I took a day and traveled to the nearby beach town of Jurmala. In the train station before boarding, I sat inside a canteen over a bowl of pink borscht. Mangroves and small canoes were painted onto the canteen’s walls, Whisky Time-esque music played over the radio, but this did little to lift the depressive ambiance of the place; leaky-faced, pale men and women sat eating around me, most of them also alone. Where was the hope that I had sensed just the previous night? Where had Riga’s spunk gone?

Traveling is such a delicate thing sometimes. Without having a deep understanding of a place, a single event or strange conversation can so easily derail your perception of it. This begs the question of how much we can actually rely on our own experience to reveal a level of truth to a place we’re merely passing through. We must travel knowing that despite our best attempts, we may never really know a place.

A few nights later, I ventured into Old Town around eleven on a Saturday evening. I followed the thumping of music towards an empty club, where a DJ was spinning to an audience of none. An iPhone had been set up behind her to live stream the performance. The club’s name, Cuba, served as a gentle reminder that I wasn’t there, but here, in a desolate Riga on a Saturday night. At the bar, a young man stood above a tray of six Jägermeister shots with an open wallet, searching for another card to use after his first was declined twice.

Throughout my seven days in Riga, I continued to witness various indications that Latvians were enjoying themselves during a period of change and novel prosperity. I saw more pregnant women and luxury cars than I had ever seen before, for example. I saw slick black Bentleys and Mercedes Coupes parked against solemn, dilapidated housing blocks, and protruding bellies just about everywhere I looked. I saw porcelain-faced women and men with combed hair decorate crumbling sidewalks in ironed, colorful garb. I felt my apartment shake while leaning against the wall as I sat in bed—it was a deep sort of structural shaking—like a muted reminder that history can’t stand forever.

Today Some Years Ago

I was in sixth grade science class. We were learning about stars. Somebody from the school’s head office came to our door, leaned against its frame. I didn’t think anything of it—this sort of thing happened. Our teacher, a course-haired newlywed from a few towns away, told us to hold on, to study the open page in our textbook depicting a constellation and try to connect the dots. A minute passed, maybe two, not too many, it’s difficult to say. We had a radio in the corner of the classroom by the window that our teacher went to turn on. She said nothing for a long while. We listened. She had to keep readjusting the antennae because there was static. I was sitting at a table with three or four other students, and we just looked at each other and blinked. We were eleven, some twelve. We blinked, we didn’t know. Our teacher was wearing a red dress with small flowers on it. Her arms were folded against her stomach, her hands were gripping her elbows and she told us, “I feel like I’m in a dream.”

Later, by my school locker, I spun the lock far past the correct combination and spun it some more. Something about numbers that day. My face was wet and warm. I was wishing that I could just stay there by my locker and spin the lock forever. Eventually, there was a hand on my shoulder. Someone asked me whether or not I wanted to try calling someone, and I followed that someone down the stairs and into the school office. The phone’s receiver cupped against my ear. I pressed the numbers—I always remembered phone numbers—but the lines were dead. So I tried another phone number, but there was just this ticking sound at the other end, like something short-circuiting or like the clipping noise that sounded on WCBS Newsradio 880 before they reported the morning traffic, or like the anxious tapping of your foot against the floor when you’re waiting for someone to come home.

In Conversation with Parker Yamasaki

Parker Yamasaki: The link between “travel and art-making” runs through the magazine. What of your own experience has led to your interest in these subjects?

KT Browne: I lived in Taiwan for a year before moving to Iceland. While I was there I taught English and finished a novel I’d been working on. It was a big, perhaps drastic decision to leave a wonderful circle of friends in Los Angeles that I had been a part of, but that move opened up new areas of interest for me, most notably, what it means to be an artist in transit. I was often alone in Taiwan, frequently traveling around SE Asia, and feeling both creatively inspired by the travel experience and deeply removed from much of the region’s political and societal realities.

 

What were some social and political realities at the time you were traveling? Can you think of any specific moments that you had this feeling?

I remember mentioning to one of my Taiwanese co-workers that I wanted to visit China while I was there. Her reaction was one of disapproval. “But why?” she asked me, as though I had just told her I had plans to visit Antarctica without a coat. I later learned that my arrival to Taiwan closely followed the cessation of The Sunflower Student Movement, which was a movement protesting the passing of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement between China and Taiwan—an agreement which essentially liberalized trade between the two economies. Culturally speaking, Taiwanese (especially the young) see themselves as Taiwanese, not as Chinese, and often resist being at all associated with China. The more I spoke to people, the more I realized how deeply this sentiment ran alongside a growing sense of Taiwanese nationalism and a desire to gain political and cultural independence from China after a long history of dependence. There was also a generational mindset-gap at play in this tension as well; the older generations were not as vehemently opposed to the agreement as the younger were, in part because they were happy with maintaining the status quo and didn’t see the need to rethink cross-strait trade relations.

It felt tender to speak about China to the Taiwanese, and so eventually I refrained. I also didn’t feel as though my cultural understanding was deep enough to be able to participate politically in an accountable way. This, plus not being Taiwanese, nor having strong connections to the country ultimately led me to feel removed from the sociopolitical climate, similarly to the way I felt removed from the recent Women’s Marches in the US during my time here in Iceland—I was able to observe, reflect, but could not partake. This thought train lead me to question belonging in a new way. To what degree does anyone belong to a place if they can only view it as an outsider? Must we participate in society—and if so, how, and to what degree—in order to be a part of it? Is it enough to simply exist?

 

Love the questions that you ask. So, did you ever end up visiting China?

Sadly, no. I lived in the southern part of Taiwan—Tainan City—and getting a Chinese visa would have required me to make the 3-hour trip up to Taipei during the week, which proved difficult in the face of my work schedule. I did end up getting rather close to China, however—some 2 kilometers away from it when I visited Taiwan’s Kinmen Island. After a failed attempt at renting and riding a moped (it’s not the same thing as riding a bike), I set out on foot to explore the island—a lush and storied place known for its decommissioned military sites and massive underground tunnels that were used during wartime. There is one particular spot on Kinmen that boasts the best view of Xiamen, so I headed there. There was exactly zero cloud cover that day, I remember, but still the sky could not seem to shake this hazy, grayish filter which grew heavier over the city’s skyline. So I saw China from Taiwan, knowing so little about the place before me and yet simultaneously felt a part of it, if anything, for merely being human with the right to clean air.

I was also lucky to have been able to get to Thailand and Malaysia; both stirring, kaleidoscopic places in their own right.

To backtrack for a moment, the discrepancy between my personal reality and the realities surrounding me got me wondering about the responsibility of art-making abroad—to what extent are artists responsible for representing or interpreting in the context of new cultural, social, or political climates? Should artists be held accountable for making work that somehow offers commentary on the current issues in their host country, or is it enough to make work that satisfies the individualistic impulse to simply observe, record, and create based on visual and behavioral happenstances?

Ultimately, these questions lead me to adopt a new angle to how I observed the spaces around me. I started to go out of my way to listen to the tones of conversations, for example, and to notice the way people embraced or shied away from the relentless East Asian sun, and I started to pay closer attention to my senses, to how I felt in certain public spaces, and how I imagined others felt there, too. All anyone can do is work with what they have, and I eventually decided to think of my cultural blind spots as a means to engage the unknown in a new way. This, in essence, is what it means to travel. Naturally, I’m interested in finding and publishing work that touches upon these ideas as well.

What also sparked my interest in the link between travel and art-making was my experience with community. Thomas Swick (a phenomenal travel writer) writes,

“Often, though, travel is sad because what we see doesn’t include us. Much of a travel writer’s life is spent watching other people have fun. Everyone who travels has the same experience; we’re all outsiders, excluded from the action. Being left out is never pleasant, but in travel it’s even more frustrating because a few days ago you were not just part of a group, of friends or family; you were the envied and celebrated member, the one heading off, as the travel brochures put it, for exciting adventures in exotic lands.”

A lot of the art and literary worlds are defined by the notion that they are communities, which is great. I think that having a community as an artist is a pretty crucial part of making art in general, but that’s not to say that being part of a community is always a given. Being part of a community is a privilege. And sometimes, artists—like everyone—are very alone. This can be especially true while traveling, as Swick observes. So while I was living in Taiwan, alone for most of the time, I also started to become curious about the implications for artists without a community, in places where art isn’t so readily apparent, perhaps in cultures or environments where you’re working against the grain, so to speak, without the feedback of like-minded individuals, or in situations where you’re trying to be recognized and appreciated by a population that just has different interests. Living in Iceland has extended this curiosity. And though the cultures of Iceland and Taiwan are quite different, the notion that you’re a foreigner making artwork outside of a certain sociocultural norm is still apparent.

I would often head to a local park during my breaks between teaching classes. It was a beautiful spot with benches surrounding a pond, shaded by bamboo trees and mangroves. I loved watching the way others spent their time there; I noticed that many would spend hours just walking around the park in circles, a small radio slung around their neck. Those who sat in the sun sheltered themselves with umbrellas, which I thought of as a happy medium between embracing and rejecting the sun; between sunlessness and sunburn. Taiwan has a subtropical climate, and so the sun can be extremely strong, not to mention physically draining. To avoid the sun while riding a scooter, for instance, people wore specially made sleeves to cover their arms. Although more interesting to me was the secondary reason for this general aversion to the sun—untanned skin is deemed more sophisticated in Taiwan, as it implies you work inside, in an office, or so a friend of mine explained. Tanned skin implies manual labor, outdoor work. I found this fascinating, as it’s essentially the opposite of how we view sun-tanned skin in the west, which signifies travel, vacation, but perhaps more pertinently, an ability to do those things. Still, both views similarly relate to wealth and privilege.

 

You mentioned in your e-mail that the articles are published in both Icelandic and English in attempt to bridge the growing divide between locals of Skagaströnd and residents at Nes listamiðstöð. Have you witnessed this divide firsthand?

I have. I think it’s a difficult thing to describe, since this ‘divide’ is not so quantifiable but rather felt. Skagaströnd is a small (roughly 500 people) close-knit community with a deep history and an industry that’s largely based around fisheries. Artistic incentives sometimes go unnoticed here, especially if they involve visitors rather than locals. Nes listamiðstöð holds an exhibition once a month, and though there is a solid group of regulars who attend, they represent only a small fraction of the community. I’m even guilty of not attending as often as I should, and to that end, I think it’s easy to shy away from the unfamiliar when you’re so comfortable with the status quo; it’s easy to hide inside your home and forget that you’ve got to make an effort to reach out to newcomers and embrace change. Generally speaking, however, there doesn’t seem to be too much interest in the temporary residents of Skagaströnd, perhaps because they are, by nature, temporary; they have no familial ties to the town (which seems to be an important aspect of ‘belonging’ here), nor to Iceland in most cases; to invest in them means an eventual goodbye, and sometimes it’s easier to see the difficulty in this reality rather than the upside, which is not to say it’s the right way to go about it.

This is a tricky subject to navigate analytically, because on the one hand, measures are being taken to highlight the importance of the arts in these remote parts of Iceland; local funding organizations are investing time and money into cultural initiatives—ICEVIEW is generously supported by one of them—for example, but without similar enthusiasm on the community level, things tend to stop short. That being said, I believe that we could be doing a lot more individually. We could be caring more about integrating different populations residing in the same place—not just in Skagaströnd, but throughout Iceland—by investing ourselves more in the arts, and in the idea of difference in general. In an environment that’s so remote and already so socially rooted, it’s absolutely essential to get to know who you’re living around and with—and going the extra mile to have a conversation with them—if only for a short period of time. We can learn from one another, to put it simply. We can show up. It’s about making people feel welcome, whoever you are, wherever you come from, whatever you do. Community dynamics are absolutely critical to one’s experience in a place, for better or for worse.

 

What indications did you have that this was a situation requiring attention, and when (in that process of thinking) did ICEVIEW come to play?

I felt like a bit of an outsider when I moved here and definitely noticed a lack of interaction between the locals of the community, and the artists-in-residence. In other words, the permanent and temporary residents. It could be that the two populations have so little in common, which is fine (and a fact of life sometimes), but I also believe that you don’t need to have anything in common with someone to benefit from their existence. And further, you don’t really know whether or not you connect with someone until you get to know them. 

I just recently met a long-time resident of Skagaströnd who makes these beautiful handmade fish leather books. Why have I just met him recently, after I’ve lived here almost two years? Why have we not involved him more with Nes? What could I have done differently? I also frequently notice that large portions of the town’s population turn up for church or school-organized events (packed parking lots are a dead giveaway), but far fewer show up for Nes events. The the pendulum does swing both ways, though. Artists frequently come here with the desire to meet the locals, often with an attitude of amazement and wonder. Sometimes, this awe enters the realm of investigation, which I’d imagine could arise feelings of discomfort within the local community, who—like anyone in a similar position—may notice themselves being closely observed and shy away from interacting further.

An artist recently submitted their work to ICEVIEW and included a statement which used the term “genuine Icelanders”. On the one hand, I found this word choice amusing, but also recognized it perpetuating the notion of the other, making Icelanders out to seem less like regular people and more like rare objects encased in glass in a museum. I think one of the difficulties artists face when they’re traveling is figuring out how to go about engaging with environments and populations in a respectful, informed way.

All this seems to highlight the disparity between the permanent and temporary communities here, and indicates a certain lack; whether that’s within our communication strategies, attitude, or mindset it doesn’t really matter, since of utmost importance is that this lack be recognized. From there, we have something to work with. Such observations led me to further develop ICEVIEW as an attempt to break down this divide within the community and make all residents—whether permanent or temporary—feel more welcome.

I also recognized that language barriers could be contributing to this divide as well, which is how the idea to make the journal bilingual came about. There’s so much wonderful Icelandic literature that never gets translated into English, and vice versa. By translating our magazine’s content, we are literally breaking down the language barriers and increasing accessibility to the arts.

At the same time, I’m wary of implying that change is needed simply because I observe this to be so. At most, what I can offer is one perspective, and perhaps through sharing that, contribute to a wider understanding of a place and a people.

 

Was it your first time in Iceland when you moved to Skagaströnd? Or had you visited before? Also, if I may indulge in the classic: why Iceland?

No, it wasn’t my first time in Iceland. Originally, I came here as a writer-in-residence with Nes, in 2015. I left when my visa ran out after three months, spent some time at home in New York, and then moved back in 2016 (I had fallen in love with an Icelandic man I’d met during my initial trip there). 

 

Can you tell me about your very first impressions of Iceland? Did you go straight to Skagaströnd for the residency or did you first spend time in Reykjavík? How did you get to Skagaströnd and what were you thinking along the way, and once you got there?

I landed in Keflavík sometime after midnight at the beginning of August, so I was prepared to witness the midnight sun, which isn’t to say that it awed me any less. To spend a whole life going to sleep at night in the dark and then suddenly experience the opposite really shakes up your sense of time in a way that no level of jet lag can ever do. I was due to stay in Reykjavík for two nights before heading to Skagaströnd. When the taxi dropped me off at my hotel, I did not enter the hotel. I instead followed the sound of music and the noise of a crowd towards the city center—I had arrived smack in the middle of Innipúkinn Festival. It was a fabulous welcome to Iceland. Despite my travel-induced weariness, I wandered into the middle of the crowd, luggage in tow, and ate a taco, mesmerized by the serendipity, by the beer-brightened crowds, and by the reality of having finally, finally (!) gotten to Iceland.

I took Strætó to Skagaströnd a couple days later. It was a special moment when we passed beyond the city lines and into the country: my recognition of Iceland’s terrain from photographs met the newness of the firsthand experience of actually being there, and this conjured a profound sensation within me, almost as if Iceland had been long awaiting my arrival, a feeling that was not dissimilar to returning home after a long stint away. I was, of course, smitten with the landscape initially. I think it’s difficult not to be.

I was warned that the driver who would take me from Blönduós to Skagaströnd could not speak English, so I wrote out my address for him on a piece of paper. He nodded with total confidence, shifting into drive. Seeing Skagaströnd emerge as cozy nook against the sea was not just picturesque, it felt borderline unreal. It seemed like a place that didn’t realize how beautiful it was, perhaps because the absence of signage depicting tourist attractions and natural landmarks kept the town’s presence unassuming; initially, it felt like some kind of hideaway, a place beyond all places. The red, yellow, and green double-story house that I was staying in only added to this surrealness, as did the absence of people on the streets and the total, almost obliterating silence at nighttime; all of which also contributed to my rising suspicion that time, in Skagaströnd, had stopped.

I discovered the band Sigur Rós as a teenager and remember thinking, What is this…this incredible noise?! Where does it come from? Even earlier than that, though, I recall flying to Spain on a family vacation and looking at the in-flight moving map as we crossed over the North Atlantic. Reykj….avi…what? I distinctly remember a mounting sense of confusion as I attempted to sound out the impossible arrangement of consonants, yet also a sense of wonder at how anybody could possibly live that far north. From then on out, Iceland was on my radar. By the time we landed in Spain, I was already proclaiming to my parents, “I need to go to Iceland.” And when they asked me why, I said, “I just do.”

So Iceland became this point of curiosity for me a long time ago, one that grew over the years and eventually turned into a fierce sense that I had to get there. Turns out my gut was right.

 

Do you remember exactly when you took this trip to Spain? How old you were or anything like that?

I must have been about twelve when I took this trip to Spain. I say this because I distinctly remember being fifteen when I first discovered Sigur Rós, bought a poster from their fourth album ‘Takk’, and hung it up in my bedroom. I actually think it’s still there today, sort of as a quiet reminder that life tends to leave clues about where you’re headed if you look for them.

 

Published interview available in The Reykjavík Grapevine, July 2017.

 

 

 

Mirrored Worlds: An Interview with Stuart Klipper (Excerpt)

The American photographer Stuart Klipper is what one might call a quintessential globetrotter. He has traveled extensively throughout his career, reaching both the North and South Poles, all 50 states of the United States, and has logged thousands of miles of seaborne travel. Stuart’s curious, exploratory spirit has driven him to photograph the physical topography and ambient conditions in some of the world’s most remote places in panoramic format, earning him numerous awards and multiple grants from the NEA as well as the Guggenheim, Bush, and McKnight Foundations.

 

Today, he is at home in Minnesota; we’re meeting via Skype. “Can you see me?” he asks, adjusting the angle of his computer screen until he appears within the digital frame of mine. He waves, fingers decorated with heavy, turquoise rings. In the background: a patchwork of photographs tacked onto a wall, a tin letter scale on top of a filing cabinet, countless books—items too many to number, and each (I presume) with its own story. The perceptive eyes of a gray-eared cat peer at me from one of the photos on the wall, and we begin.

 

In conversation, Stuart is eccentric and introspective, often pausing to parse out the philosophical depth of a particular thought or question. At the time of our Skype, Stuart has just returned from what he describes as “a completely unanticipated, self-imposed, and intense photo project of a major tree removal operation.” His face is reddened from the June sun, but his delight in the unprecedented task is unmissable. “I was there—just up the alley—for about three hours with my little camera. I’m obsessive when it comes to these things,” he explains.

 

—KT Browne

 

 

You’ve been to Iceland about seven times now, your most recent trip being in July of 2016. What has made you want to keep coming back?

I’ve always been deeply impressed by how Iceland has turned itself into an almost sacred presence for me. It’s a place where geology is so actively evident, and there’s something really compelling in that. I also know a lot about the Icelandic sagas and Norse history and admire how everyone there knows what happened on that piece of land generations ago. Also, the whole thing about ‘the hidden people’ intrigued me too—you could be walking over a whole lava field and be told that there could either be actual water coursing underneath, or just the hidden people talking to you. So I carry these ideas with me each time I return. It’s all so enthralling.

 

During your most recent trip, you took a series of photographs in both B&W and color—essentially, you took two photos of the same thing.

Most of the larger bodies of work I’ve done were with more than one camera and in more than one format and emulsion. This trip was with two cameras, similar formats, different in scale, in both color and black and white. The importance of that decision might become evident once I start getting a handle on the work, but if nothing else, the black and white images serve as an indication of another world, or an alternate way of viewing one thing.

 

Why did you choose to execute the series in this way?

I think I like to carry so much equipment [laughs]! Well, really there are two things that I think come into play. In the past, what I’ve usually done is go out and try to concentrate on something that first arrests my attention. I’ve done this in many permutations, and then go on to see how I could come at that thing or place differently. I’ve also spent a lot of time over the years immersing myself in scientific subjects and how science works. As a kid and into adulthood, I subscribed to Scientific American. I read it religiously. So I know the constructs of scientific epistemology, which is another way I counterpoint images with the idea of complementarity in mind. I have a few different views that exist best when they exist in relation to one another. And I think it’s important to look at things that are seemingly central through more than one mode of observation and reflection.

 

Like a new way of seeing the landscape.

Yes. I made some choices, of course. In Iceland in 2016, I used the larger camera, a Linhof Technorama, for the color panorama shots. The other camera I used was a Hasselblad Xpan for the black and white photos. Uniformly, I kept a very heavy red filter on the Hasselblad camera during that trip. That intensified contrast and changed the hue of the sky. I didn’t do it conditionally, though. I didn’t take the filter on and off depending on the light and conditions. I wanted an aesthetic uniformity no matter what I was shooting. Otherwise, the photos would have been modulated by this filtration. I was just after a certain tonal voice.

 

Iceland is such a popular tourist destination at the moment. Naturally, a lot of images are being made in the country, and about the country. How do you feel about that?

At least this most recent time I went to Iceland, I knew that we were going to be around a lot of tourists. That was a given. I don’t try to be outrageous or anything, but a lot of times when I’m in places where a lot of people have cameras, I start to think they’re thinking things like: why is that guy—me—pointing his camera a different way than everyone else is? In general, sometimes the more oblique views give the greatest intimacies. When you don’t look at things head-on. When it comes to image-making, I have my own vocabulary—cognitive, aesthetic, and philosophical—and that was one way I knew that when I got to a waterfall, what would take me most out of the center of the frame were the torturous nearby rock surfaces rather than the grand cascade itself.

 

Has tourism changed the way you approach photography at all?

Though I’ve traveled a lot in my life have looked at a lot of things, I’ve never felt like I was doing what most tourists do. I think that when I arrive to places in which tourists are so heavily engaged, I try to address the appeal of those places in terms of why they’re becoming part of a tourist vernacular. A lot of times I wind up including some of those people in the images because they’re part of the overall reality I’m encountering. If the phenomenon of being in a touristy place is evident, I try to address it rather than become part of it. But I admit, I’m intimidated sometimes. 

 

Why do you think Iceland has become so popular for tourists? Is it simply because it’s beautiful? Or does it have something to do with being remote?

Iceland is great at marketing [laughs]! Why is it popular right now? I don’t know for sure. The country of course had a financial rebound, so I think that this was the life ring Iceland was tossed. I have a feeling that my earliest photographs of the country had attracted curatorial types who are aware of the history of explorational photography.

 

I know that you’re particularly drawn to high latitude, isolated places—Antarctica especially. You did a big body of work there.

Well, I am trying to get to places that are uncommon, and that might harbor deep spiritual meaning for me. A lot of these remote places I visit allow me to stand aside from just about everything else in the world, and give me a viewpoint from which I can look back out from and gain a new sort of clarity, perhaps. As for the isolated, desolate parts of the world, sometimes all I have to say is that it just feels so good to be in that kind of space and place.

 

How did your interest in these kinds of places come about?

I read a lot about the Antarctic and the Arctic as a kid, so it’s a place I’ve loved knowing about for a long time. I guess you could say that I was primed with these early passions. I also had a few friends in college who were similarly interested in remote, difficult places. Antarctica is a big, empty, very daunting and harsh part of the world. That attracts a certain sort of people, and especially those who I like to call ‘life listers’. They have geographic bucket lists so to speak, who will do just about anything to add to them.

Before I ever got to Antarctica, I had signed on for a trip to go way down to southern Chile and Argentina, deep in Patagonia. At the time, I thought that was the closest I’d ever get to Antarctica. That was remote in its own right. It was also quite an important location terms of human migration in the sense that it was pretty much the end of the road. That was a really powerful symbolic notion for me, being such a restless, wandering person—getting to the place where you had to stop.

I originally went to Antarctica in 1987 as part of a private sailing expedition. I was put in contact with a very adventurous yachtsman from Bermuda who invited me to come along. I like to joke about it and say, we sailed to Antarctica! which is, I guess, historically correct [laughs]. The five subsequent times I went was with the National Science Foundation as a participant of their Artists and Writers Program.

 

You also have quite an interest in the American Midwest, too.

When I was making sense of what I was trying to make sense of, I had been going to a lot of faraway places, traveling abroad a lot. The whole notion that artists go away to come back home stuck with me, especially since this was a time period in which I was coming back home and realizing that best way to drop anchor in home ground was to see what home ground actually is.

When I transplanted to Minnesota from New York, I tried to gain an understanding of my new home and was given a commission based on the work I was doing—finding the intrinsic characteristics of different American regions. I was hired on by a corporate art consultant who wanted photographs from three states. I ended up calling the project The World in a Few States, and so it became a non-dirty double entendre—I understood the states to be cognitive, intellectual, and perceptual rather than literal. This was the sort of thing I was trying to figure out—certain constructs, and how to fit them into a creative frame of reference.

Beyond location, my curiosities are about getting a handle on where people live their lives and what they’ve done there. Specifically, I like to scope out the types of land and landforms that seem to determine how cultures are developed locally.

 

Do you think traveling as a photographer changes what home ground is for you?

Well, a lot of this kind of work is solitary by definition—artmaking. I guess getting back home is a bit of a relief. Of course, there’s generally a cat waiting for me [laughs], and even once, a girlfriend. Also, the counterpoint between what I’m discovering in places where there’s a potential for things to be very new, and then coming home to the familiar is always enjoyable.

I’m a volunteer in an elementary school, and one thing I’ve told my students is that when you go to another country, even commonplace things there seem remarkable, like Wow, that’s what a toothpaste tube looks like in that part of the world?! And I tell them that traveling is a bit like pushing a little switch and walking out your front door to find that your front yard is suddenly different from the front yard you’ve always known.

 

*** Full publication available soon in ICEVIEW MAGAZINE, Vol. 2 ***

The Hedge Trimmer and the Planks

There is a deck made of wooden planks on which two people sit. They sit on folding beach chairs, far from the beach. They are lovers, still in an early stage of their companionship where things like time and weather and happenstance and death are as little to them as a tuft of dust in the corner of a room or a chipped cereal bowl, and we must accept this. Yellow dandelions poke through the cracks of the planks beneath their feet, reach up and tickle the metal legs of their beach chairs. Like an animation the weeds rise upwards, grow quickly. Above, a sky so blue it's gray. The lovers, noticing the strangity, stand. The weeds keep rising all around them. Their stems thicken and eventually surpass them in height. Bigger and bigger they grow. The lovers look up at the flying saucer pedals now like they're clouds they need to read for signs of rainfall. Then they look back down at each other. Then back up.

In time, yet without hesitation, one says to the other, "You're graying." 

And the other says to the one, "Your eyes have a web of wrinkles around them."

They laugh. The laughter is short lived. They age. Time passes quickly. Too quickly. One's knees grow weak. The other's hands become arthritic. They fear they will no longer be able to hold one another thoughtlessly. Then comes the pain. Some of it is physical, not all. The yellow dandelions are much too high now. They block out the sun. Morning or night they do not know. The planks of the deck are now invisible beneath their feet. They stand on the musky entwining of weeds.

At some point along the way, the sound of a hedge trimmer begins to whir. It comes as a hum that is, at first, too faint to speak of, but then it grows.

"Yes," the other says, regarding the hedge trimmer's nearing, half-agreeing to a sentence that the one never uttered. "Yes, but what?" says the one in reply, half-attempting to piece together a memory that long ago dissolved into fast-spinning years. What was it that had been asked of him? What was it? 

All the while there is the sound of a gaining rumble, the hedge trimmer nearing. 

Then one says to the other, "The sun has set baby," not actually knowing whether the sun has set or if it's still up there. All those weeds, all this blindness. A world too yellow to want for long. The hedge trimmer is now much too close for either of them to hear what the other is saying anyway. It's about a meter or two above their heads, it's holder invisible but still determining what to cut away.

Kindred Sleep (Novel Excerpt)

Irene flies away toward a faraway city, another place. It's easy enough; airport traffic is nonexistent, only pilots remain, desperate to leave. No security, no lines. Airplanes sit on tarmacs with their doors wide open, letting on board whoever is willing. Irene takes a plane, a boat, a train and she settles into the deep quiet of another abandoned city. She heads underground. She waits for a subway she doesn't know will come.

It is impossible to say where exactly Irene went or if she knew that her journey was timed to a kind of clock without hands, or that her path had already been laid long before. She traveled unknowingly, crossing city and county boarders with an urge to escape. Irene yearned for all things to be new but could never find a way to ensure this; she always seemed to return to the place she had left from. And even then, she could never really say if she had made headways, or in what direction she had been wandering, if she had even been wandering at all.

 

Headlights snake through a damp black tunnel. A subway screams as it arrives, bellowing, and yellow lights flash as it halts before the railing. There are many people inside, and this surprises Irene who isn't prepared to see crowds. Everyone reading, making phone calls, carrying on what she remembered to be signs of a normal life; all of this astonishes her—how life can still go on. She pushes past the crowds and finds a seat along the shiny orange plastic, beneath the dated advertisements, her head against a window into which words have been scratched; words in a language she cannot understand. Arms brush past her, shopping bags and shoelaces. Muted chatter and the muffled tones of music sound out from nearby headphones. The train fumbles forwards, and Irene takes a rest. Her eyelids quiver over her eyes and the train rolls onward.

Moments pass, hours as Irene sits on the subway, riding towards the end of the line. Her eyes close but she doesn't sleep. Instead, Irene becomes more attune to the world around her—feeling, perceiving the every sensation there. When her eyes open, she notices a man sitting directly across from her. His eyes are a wide, a vibrant green. He stares at her, this stranger. She twitches at the sight of him, for his gaze is strong and strange and at the moment she twitches, he too does the same, as a mirror—his motion in perfect correspondence with her own.

When the stranger moves, Irene watches him; when he shifts his legs across the train's dirty orange seat, crossing and uncrossing them, she does so too. Then a smile appears across his face—subtle, fleeting. Irene smiles back in a silent reply. She's then struck with the sense of the familiar: the stranger's mouth curls in a way that reminds her of James' smile, and this makes her long for him deeply. It is so quick, this moment of recognition, and it is gone before Irene has the chance to say what exactly it was about this stranger's smile that seemed so familiar. Perhaps it was the shape, or its curvature as it formed that upwards arch. Irene shuts her eyes. Her eyelids burn. She cannot look away from herself, even here, so far from home. One can travel around the world a thousand times over before a demon falls away. She keeps the image of the stranger's mouth in her mind because it pleases her. A mental film hurls into play.

The stranger continues to watch her from across the floor of the car without moving. Irene then drifts into a faint and shallow sleep. She drifts into an imaginative distance faraway from there. From this distance, she can watch the scenes of her mind like a movie; she can escape, if only for a moment. She watches how the stranger moves, peeling off the subway bench at the final stop after all of the crowds have left. There in her mind behind her closed eyes, Irene sees the stranger approach her, grab her by the wrist all tight and urgently and guide her away with him into the puddle of the street.

She goes numb as the stranger fucks her vertically later on. Against a doorframe, Irene watches her hands spiral and writhe, then rise to the stranger's face and cover it. She pushes hard over his eyes, his nose, and his cheeks, curling her hands and stretching his skin so that he starts to resemble James again. She distorts the stranger, watching his eyes go from vibrant green to glassy blue if she squints just so, and then his hair turn from brown to black. Sweat pools across his forehead, crooked between Irene's wanting fingers; by then the stranger is a ghost.

"So your heart was broken?" the stranger says as Irene twists spirals into his skin. "Get out. Go out and fuck again, and think of him then. Think of him while you're coming." He tosses her sideways, presses hard and heartlessly against her body, and her bones creak and her muscles twitch. "Think of him now," he continues. "Think of his weaknesses. Conjure up all of them. Every one. Spit at them. Spit them out."

Irene's legs sweat streams of blackish liquid. She knots them into the skin of this man. Together they stink of iodine. The room is dim and muggy and the walls are colorless. Outside, every building is a brick building, every man another James, every heart in wait of breaking and the world still fumbles on.

"Riddle yourself," the stranger hisses, thrusting. "To what degree was he intense like you?" Irene moans wordlessly, trying to answer; the stranger's motions deepen. "And how did he fuck?" He bites her shoulder, her breast, her thigh. "Like this?"

There are embers in Irene's sad eyes and the stranger, nearing climax, flips her like a perception to her knees and takes her that way. Her eyes shut tightly. There is pleasure above this dirty, tile floor. The skin of her palms go raw, the skin of her knees, but even this isn't enough to dilute the image of James that has saturated the screen of her mind. Fuck me harder, she thinks. The stranger forces himself deeper into Irene; he leaves earth and she escapes into the chamber of her pussy's pulse, wailing.

"Replay your memories. Replay them again. Blow up their pixels until you're sick of them. Grow sick of him." Irene pulls away. She isn't done. She turns the stranger around and pins his back to the floor. His arms spread out. His desperate mouth opens. She pushes a hand against his face and the stranger peels his lips apart and bites her fingers. Irene lets out a cry, but there is no pain. She cries loud and hopes that the sound waves might crumble the walls. The stranger stands and maneuvers Irene as an animal, like meat, and she likes it. He stands up, pushes her body against the door. Her neck digs into the light switch there, and at that moment she feels a sense of freedom; something shifts. If only for an instant, Irene sees clearly: she will love again. There is more.

"There’s a world out there." The stranger burrows into her, tonguing her ear. Irene is unsatisfied with these words. She thinks them too definitive. How dare the stranger speak to her in this way. She spits at him. She spits at his face as she comes against the door frame, strips of its wood embedding into her back, into her shoulders, digging deeply.

In the aftermath they are still, their skin stained and noxious, black sweat spidering all across their body's grooves.

"Recall that you were fiction. Traumatize yourself with that." Irene's breathing slows. Her eyes cloud; the sweat that has fallen across her lashes hardens to clumps. "Either that, or make your life a fucking cinema. Then bear it."

Irene peels away from the wall and dresses herself while the stranger watches. He says nothing more. He's served his purpose. Irene walks to the door in silence. She grips its rusty handle and takes a final look at the stranger, who's now sitting on the floor across the room beneath a window surrounded by bricks that lie on the floor. Irene slams the door to a close behind her.

 

The subway hiccups, resuming its unstable troll down the tunnel. Irene is shaken awake; her eyes open. The doors open. The stranger seated across from her stands and squeezes through the exit doors, disappearing.

At the next stop, Irene disembarks, walks up the stairs and heads towards a river. This city feels abandoned and dead. She waits for the night in the cold air. It is the longest winter. Ice sheets drift without plans along the water. There are sharp pains in her bones, reminding her that she is human. Wet comes to her eyes but she doesn't let it fall.

Pothole pt. 2

So your sister and I travel home together. We wait on the platform for our train and we watch the sun set behind the building of a storage facility all orange and hazy like the rest of this summer. She hands me a card. A little square thing in a gold envelope. There’s also a keychain inside—a little angel. Your sister, a little angel perhaps. She smiles and giggles and I feel all her goodness.

Just so you know, I had nothing to do with her after that. I didn’t even read the card for all I care. Let’s get back to the issue at hand.

One of the biggest potholes you tend to drive over is the one you dig yourself Felix, the one you keep digging, that you refuse to fill, and this tired metaphor repeats itself until you end up like this, homeless in the backseat of a car, again.

This is the pothole: attempting to understand the story.

Remember when you used to be funny? Remember how that felt? Any chance you can get back there? Or like, free-spirited. I miss that Felix. Like when you lived in a faraway country where you knew no one and no one knew you but you weren’t bothered by it, and the anonymity of your life at that point  sort of became part of who you wanted to become and you loved this idea of future-you because it gave you a kind of peace that you’ve never had.

Remember the day on the gondola lift when you flew high above the overlapping palm trees and saw the world as a good place? I remember it probably more clearly than you do, which says something about your ability to tell stories, doesn’t it? I wasn’t even there and I know that you had sat next to a family of Mongolians on the gondola, least Mongolia is where you thought they were from because their language sounded both Russian and Chinese. It wasn’t a crime to draw this conclusion. Stop thinking you’re such a bad guy. I look at a thorny stem and say—I think this used to be a rose once. Does this make me a criminal? No, Felix. The answer is no. So let’s say they were Mongolians, and let’s say they were a family, and you can still remember their faces, right? Let’s say that they were sitting there in the gondola with you, and that none of your memories are false ones, and they were wondering why you’ve come there alone.

What you need to do is remember where your strength lies. How you waited in the line with your ticket beforehand, and when it was your turn to board the operator asked, Just one? and you said, Yes, and the operator looked surprised, or maybe slightly uncomfortable, because he probably wasn’t used to seeing someone so young there all alone, or maybe he was. Maybe all that you thought you saw was just a reflection of what you expected to see.

Pothole pt. 1

Remember when we met your sister for dinner? She had a doll-face on, all smiles and polite. Maybe that is some sort of evil after all. The niceness. The giggling. Well Seth not everyone can be an artist like you, she said to me after you’d gone to the restroom, re my inquiry into her incessant bright mood. I never told you this because I didn’t want to upset you. Your sister can be a real bitch behind the banter.

But so anyway remember that night? It was a healthy restaurant of some sort, the elderly couple sitting next to us was letting their water glasses fill up the space of their absent conversation. It had maroon-colored walls, something earthy for the healthy restaurant, nothing flashy, all maroon and deep blue and leaves on plates.

Is it evil, though? This niceness? And god I remember I was so sore from a massage I’d gotten earlier, a massage that’d been more like a torture chamber as I death-gripped the edges of that skinny leather bed, biting the towel that sat beneath my face. Torture chambers, too many of them in the world you know? God I hated that restaurant. I hated it just like I hated standing up from that massage, from the tenderizing, feeling a pass-out impending but I managed. Here’s some water, some tea, pay us please, leave a tip. I couldn’t walk right afterwards, couldn’t head down the goddamn subway stairs without feeling like my neck was giving out.

I feel I’ve gotten sidetracked, and really that isn’t so much a bad thing. It’s a good thing, but why is it a good thing? I don’t really know, can’t really say. Something about it feels natural maybe. How often do we think in perfect narratives? Honestly. Do we ever do this? Life is more like flipping through the channels than watching a movie. Life is the commercials that happen between what you want to be watching.

In the healthy restaurant your sister asked how I’ve been doing and I said fine because the more fine you seem the better you become at deceiving yourself and since this is and always has been my goal, I shut up. I bit into my leaf. Nobody needs to know the truth of things.

The Promise of Comfort

Often the cold weather swimming group was struck with thoughts of fire. These thoughts would  hit them suddenly, swimming, eyes closed, fingers stinging from the cold. They thought of houses, of fields aflame and thought of whole buildings crashing down and becoming ember. In short, they saw their blue world changing into the opposite of what it was. Such thoughts pushed the cold weather swimmers to swim faster, but not because they were afraid of these images, or they were wary of why their mind had envisioned such drama in the first place. In fact, no one really knows why the cold weather swimmers swam faster after the fire-thoughts. We just don’t know.

Maybe this isn’t much different than what happened to Craig. One day he was happy, the next he wasn’t. Yesterday he’d thought of yellow, today Craig thinks of brown. Sure, we tried to lift his spirits. We bought him Remy Martin. We made him pizza. But all of this just wasn’t enough. Craig sat at the kitchen table, hours upon hours, yearning for something without saying a thing, for a conclusion or some sort of certainty. Guilt overcame us. The want to provide a sense of security without being able. The sun was setting at noon. A milk truck made its way down the only road in town. I remember turning on the radio then, just after the truck had left our line of sight. Something about something was being spoken about in a foreign language. Of all the things most dear to me about our time with the sadness, it is the radio I remember most. Never have I been so comforted by things I could not understand.

An Exercise in Fearing

Okay, Jim. So be it.

You have to believe you’re alright. That you’re supposed to be here now. Now imagine – you’re on a plane. You don’t remember where you left from or where you’re going, only that you used to have a life that was very different than this. A flight attendant approaches you, asks if you’d like a drink. “No,” you say, but he just keeps on standing there, waiting for you to say something different, waiting like he’s disappointed in you for not choosing a soda, or a beer. For living a little. For being in the moment. But this—what you think the flight attendant thinks—is your fear. This is what you fear people think about you, but you have no proof. You shake your head at the flight attendant, “no,” you say, again, and he smirks a little then walks away.

Why do I tell you this? Why not tell you this?

So as you sit in the seat on this plane heading to an unknown place, you wish, for a moment, for the return of your old life. I want my life back, you say to yourself. But then you try to recall what it was like in said “life” and realize that it wasn’t much of a “life” at all but more like an game of middle school dodgeball you were trying to avoid by faking a bad knee or “forgetting” your gym pants. Suddenly you’re thirsty. You didn’t have any more of a life then than you do now, but you don’t realize this. Not yet. How could you? You’re old. You’re fifty-two. The flight attendant is nowhere to be seen, and your mouth is dry. Fifty-two, Jim. Did you think anyone could stay bitter for so long? Last year, when I was twenty-four, I made a promise to myself that I’d never again put my life on hold. But this year, now that I’m twenty-five, I realize that I have no idea what that even means. This has nothing to do with you though.

You’ve made no mistakes. You were only dreaming when you said you wanted out. I don’t blame you. I don’t think I do at least. It’s just a shame how it seems we develop blind spots to the good things in life the older we get. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

Selective Focus

What I wanted to say was that I was wrong to mix the pros and the cons to make something beautiful. February in Seattle is moving. The water is everywhere, the rain. Maybe it’s safer to say I should have known better than to face the fact that I knew all along, knew while you leaned off the railing, leaned off the edge and spoke about something intangible that we were probably meant to have made different decisions along the way.

I keep going over the hour in my head as if each one of its minutes represented a decade. Perhaps we met for the first time around the twenty minute mark, around when you started crying, your face flat to the wind. Another ten minutes went. The deckhand told us that we ought to walk away, unsuspecting. At the half-hour mark we entered our thirties, losing grips on our dreams but hopeful them still. I reached out my hand, I tucked away the hair behind your ear, noticing that you hadn’t washed it for a while. It had a thicker feel to it, and you brushed my hand away and said something like, “not necessary,” or, “please,” something simple and I said nothing, not wanting to startle you and not wanting to pry.

In our forties, maybe we could have taken flying lessons finally. Maybe we could have gotten tattoos or done cocaine or run naked through the snow.

You yelled at me for three nights before the final hour. The lightbulb to your favorite lamp had blown out, no extra bulbs in the house, the local shop closed. Said you didn’t like living in darkness, said you hated the way the street lamps shone, all negativity. Getting to sleep early that night did both of us good I think, and we slept a very thick sleep without heat because we wanted to know truth. You didn’t wake up any worse. You spoke of boats to the foggy window.

As of today, December 21, 2014 there are twenty-three ferries that operate on the Puget Sound. Most of them go to places that most people know about. Their routes are outlined clearly across the terminals. You buy tickets at ticketing machines. Fauntlerine/Vashon, Seattle/Bainbridge, Edmonds/Kingston. I’m not sure how fast these ferries travel, although with you in the wind at the edge of the railing, it seems we travel fast after all.

If I try to remember the pieces of the rest of the hour in detail, I end up focusing too much one one particular element, like the shape of a cloud. Or I think too much about the people at the hospital, obsessing over their demeanor or the words that they used, the carefully crafted cunning little words that they used at the end of the world. Like I’ll go over and go over the color of the walls. Your shoes. Your damaged little wrists. Or the moon behind the clouds when I left once it was over. How the moon only glows when you can’t really see it.

Texts from the Underground

On a crowded subway there is a man who decides that he wants to try to move forward with the remainder of his life. He decides this while sitting. After years of feeling stuck. There are people standing all around him as he decides this. There is the underwater-esque sound of music coming through headphones, the smell of cold weather sweat. 33rd Street. 28th. This is New York City in the twenty-first century and everything that is happening is amplified, multiplied. The man thinks of his mother and of his son. He doesn’t know where precisely they are. Many people disembark at 14th Street. Then the subway grows quieter. Then the graffitied advertisements on the subway’s interior walls reveal themselves. One says Time To Change Your Routine above an image of a woman at a desk. One is an illustration of a man taking a flashlight to his genitals. The man tries not to think of things beyond what he can see, but then the subway stops. There is traffic up ahead. He man sighs. This ride will take longer, he thinks. The man is tired and so he closes his eyes for a moment, just for that. The man dreams a dream of water; of faucets, a whole store of faucets, all of them running, the water bright blue. In this dream the man remembers to remember that he needs to eventually disembark, or transfer trains, or turn around. He cannot be sure of which. The water keeps flowing, the train.

Can I buy one?

One what? A faucet?

Yes.

This is a museum, sir. Our faucets are not for sale.

This isn’t a store?

This is a museum.

The man becomes aware that some time ago there was a place in which he felt no need to move forward. Or perhaps it was a time. A time-place. A space-moment. Life in a state of perpetual resolution. Contentment. Why is it that the seats on these subway trains are orange? The man feels a body next to his. There is a full bag of groceries at his thigh. The dream is over. The ride continues. With open eyes, the man looks around. He has not missed his stop. He has not started laughing, as is common for him to do as he sleeps.

The person sitting next to the man buries their hand into the bag of groceries and pulls out an egg. They settle the egg in their lap and dig into the bag once more. They pull out a clear plastic cup. They crack the egg against the lip of the cup single handed, then spread apart the two sides of the egg shell to let the insides fall away. At the bottom of the cup lie two yolks in runny white. No one is looking. Nobody sees. The man, feeling suddenly invigorated, stands. He wraps his hand around the standing pole. He wants to move forward he thinks. He wants to make changes he thinks. The person with the egg in the cup takes a picture of the egg in the cup with the double yolk and will keep it forever in a place that doesn’t exist.

A Moment in Tainan City, Taiwan

It won’t take long before you’re back in bed somewhere with a window open and the air that you’ve known forever blowing at you, making you wish you were gone again. It’s the jet lag, it must be, still present. There’s heat behind your eyelids. Maybe you’re tired. You could be. Four hours ago you were asleep and fourteen hours ago you were awake and then two days ago you were on a plane, westbound and then of course there was that moment three days ago when you were on the other side of the earth, considering the possibility that all you’ve done there was a waste. But then the phone had rung, or the garbage truck started playing its little jingle again, and you opened the window of that small room you never wanted to call home at all, and you smelled the sulfuric acid and the heat of scooter emissions and remembered what it was like to see.

All the Planted Things

I’d like to know what’s happened. What went across everyone’s mind when they looked out of their windows, out their doors and let the sun in. Was it anything? If memory serves me, one either holds or hides from what’s outside of them. People have their ways and the ways tend to occur in clusters so that they may be bunched into conclusions, spoken with a particular manner-of-factness to signify that we all have a grip on the way of things.

You can also ride the line of uncertainty if the facts get too hard. Speak always with your tongue pressed to your jaw to hold your words back, second-guessing and vulnerable. Because, because, because. Do you remember? In either case, I see you as more credible now because you called attention to the inconclusiveness of things by saying so little. The rest of us don’t know how to shower thoughtless, or least we find that our windows were too difficult to open at all, or too wide to shut.

My friend, if you never wanted to see the sun in the first place, you had to run farther away. Didn’t you know this? You couldn’t just hop an ocean and hope for more hours of darkness. You had to run away with feeling and purpose and grit so that people might chase after you without nearing you at all. That’s the only way you could have left for good. Now you’re just stuck between ribs somewhere, not sure what to do with yourself. I know this because of sleep. Dreams are lightless, a fact I find astonishing.

I do need to ask—when we turned over our mattresses, stuck knives into their springs and buried soil inside, were you aware of how deep we went? I ask this because you don’t have answers, and I like when things get tough; tough like the way we each trailed ourselves across the globe with a taste for metal, ruthless. This, at least, could be our common point. I still see you sometimes when I’m on a subway, looking out the window through all of the language written in scratches, through the lines and strange turn-around points of all the messages I can’t understand. Often you’re by windows, too, waiting. The difference, though, is that you’ve already returned some time ago and I’m afraid to. I think of all the years people have aged and how much they’ve accomplished by inverting themselves and being proud of it. You were always humbler, hidden in your changing, resisting being linked to anything like you in order to solve the hardship of being alone.

Do you think that mattress has sprouted yet? That’ll be my first stop after I’m back. I want to see what’s become of our attempts. Then I’ll return to our dwelling, make my way into the kitchen and open the oven to see if that’s where our taste for light got lost. If it’s not in there, I’ll sleep easily. Maybe nothing is worth missing. Maybe common behaviors are just bits of evidence that our brains make connections, seek patterns. I don’t want to believe that this is unfair, so I’ll throw you into a category along with all the others who refused to open their windows when they saw the sun. I’ll clench my teeth as I do, dear friend, if you’re with me.

The World to Come

I’ve arrived but haven’t left yet. I know this because of sleep. In black and white I see the cars that are waiting, trains. I’m in slippers, hurdling heavy suitcases, heading towards an airport in the snow.