Sunday, December 15, 2013

Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story

The new biography of David Foster Wallace published last year.  The first biography of DFW, as it claims, which kind of struck me as something.  Poignant?  Suggesting there will be more?  I'm not sure.  Recognizing the historical significance of his character preemptively?  Did the first biography of Lincoln recognize itself as such?

Anyway I'm 2 chapters in, just to the point where a collegiate DFW rounds off an all A's education at Amherst (briefly interrupted by two stints of withdrawl from school, counseling, and serious depression) with twin theses in philosophy and writing.  The writing thesis was the 500 page Broom of the System, which wasn't great but was basically a draft for Infinite Jest, which was great.  I should emphasize, this was his undergraduate thesis.  He interviewed at Oberlin before settling on Amherst, I took a lot of philosophy, had intended to major in it but lost interest.  There are some parallels that I guess make it obvious why I like his writing so much.  It also makes me want to read Pynchon, who was a big influence on him and I guess who a fractured, postmodern sense of trying to convey the enormity and chaotic instability of the world come from.

It makes me think about ambition primarily.  What is it that drives someone to achieve like that?  To study all the time and get A's and pour so much into an outcome.  Whereas he came out of school and obsessively wrote until he was famous, I drifted out of school and basically never wrote again.  I'm always curious about what drives people, because at the root, that seems like the only thing worth talking about.  The Why rather than the What, because who really cares about the What - everything we do is in some way just the wind passing by, but who we are and why we do it is something else.  After the existential angst I think everyone goes through in their teens, you realize nothing is ever going to just slap you in the face and be God's Truth the way the world is (if, in my opinion, you're critical/honest enough to push through your own sense of comfort with an easy solution) and so the world becomes something you just have to take a position on, right?  And then you just act out that position and try to revisit first premises as infrequently as possible.  So what is it that drives some people to exhaust and extinguish themselves with the result of accomplishing something great, or lasting, or consequential?

In some ways, I think architecture is a response to writing.  A counterbalance, maybe.  I still feel that I am a writer practicing architecture, and I find a number of things annoying about the architecture world (that everyone has the latest iPhone, the complete phobia of reading and writing and anything other than visual communication, the lack of interest in the complexity of the world, or in asking larger questions).  But architecture is the most concrete creative process there is, right?  You can't doubt that it exists, or has an effect.  It's all very practical and straightforward and organized and suggests a world in which cause and effect are intact and physics and psychology entwine and you simply proceed down the path.  I don't know what that means about me, or where I'm headed (something I've never been able to catch a glimpse of).  When someone writes my biography in some alternate future universe where I've become famous, will this be the moment of finding my calling, or a kind of tangential exploration of an idea made concrete?  I'm still curious about the ambition piece of it.  It seems like the only way to become really good at something is to be completely and utterly obsessed with it, sacrificing pretty much everything in your life to fuel this pursuit.  When you read about these really famous people, they often have horrible relationships and homelives, but we still revere them without ever really asking what the cost of their achievement was.  Why is that?  It seems awfully short-sighted of us as a culture.  What would it mean to realize you don't want to make the sacrifices it would take to achieve something great? (Whether you have the talent or not is another issue entirely, of course.)  What follows from this other path?

The thing that is coming to mind for me is balance.  Equanimity.  No one ever made a Hollywood movie about that, did they?  (which raises the question I meant to work in a while back, to what extent are my own impressions of success colored by what may be an enhanced cultural trope: sacrificing everything to achieve something great.  I'm so annoyed that in our movies and stories, we never get the full picture.  Why learn about something if you only ever have an incomplete fiction to compare yourself to?).  Halfway through college I stopped taking philosophy classes and started taking religion, so that I ended up with a minor in each, split evenly between my sophomore and junior year.  Where philosophy seemed so masturbatory and pointless, religion seemed like it was really trying to understand what it means to live in the world and be an individual.  That's a difference with DFW.  It seems like he clung to philosophy as a way to try to impose his need to have a grasp on reality on the world, I'd guess related to his severe issues with depression.  I still feel like I'm exploring, like no matter how grounded in reality you become and how much you learn about the economy and what it takes to succeed in life and how to get a mortgage and all the adult stuff, it still feels like an experiment, like this thing that's only real if you choose to believe in it, and that you just sort of try on and move through for a while.  Or maybe forever.  But the point I guess is it's never quite convincing, and I'm too thorough with things to settle for that.  So what do you do with a life you are in fact by God living yet don't quite believe in or haven't committed to enough to be great at?  Is there anything else?

Friday, October 18, 2013

A Scene I Would Have Written If I Had Been A Girl On The Bus Today

I was riding the bus home today and the two girls sitting in front of me were talking about one girl's creative writing class.  Her teacher was hard to please and only gave her a 3.1.  Her next assignment was to write a scene of a lover's spat.  So here's what I came up with as I sat there staring out the window and listening to their conversation and letting my mind drift.

It would start with a line of dialogue.  Something in the negative, obfuscating the issue of the argument itself.  Something like, "That isn't really what I was talking about," or "It's not that I don't appreciate it..."  The scene would be a couple, man at the sink doing dishes after dinner, woman sitting at the table staring out the window (maybe drinking a glass of wine).  There would be very little action or movement.  To break up the conversation, you would occasionally see a line or two about washing the dishes, moving them into the dish strainer, staring into the soapy water, etc.  At some point the woman would get up somewhat awkwardly and offer to help with the dishes and the man would somewhat awkwardly refuse her help, not out of spite, but because he was almost done, but this little bit of action would also in some way mirror the larger issue that they are discussing.  It would go on, very slowly, with lots of empty space; not an argument, but two people trying to overcome their differences in earnest.  But they never really come to understand each other, and there are lots of false starts and sentences left hanging.  It ends similar to where it began.  Something like, "No, that's not really what I mean."  And then they sit there and you hear the sound of the dish washer clicking through its cycles.  There's something poetic and sad in that, throughout the course of this conversation, they've abandoned doing dishes by hand.

So that's what I would write about.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Driving Long Distances Through America

I wanted to write a little about traveling this summer and traveling in general and traveling in America in particular.  Anita and I have individually and as a couple done a lot of big road trips through the US.  When I was a senior at Oberlin I worked for a month in Sunland Park. NM doing straw bale building with a Catholic charity.  I drove down from Michigan in I think 2 days.  That was the first (and I think only) time I've ever had Red Bull and I felt like my whole body was vibrating.  I think I went 20 hours one day, slept on the side of the road and started up again after however much sleep in the back seat.  I got a $250 speeding ticket in Amarillo, TX for going entirely too fast in the fog at maybe 2am.  I got a flat tire and this really nice latino couple whom I couldn't communicate well with pulled over and put the spare on for me.  I hadn't even thought to check for a spare.  Why drive this much?  I don't really know.  Just to see what your limits are, maybe?  Or what the limits of the world around you are?

In a similar vein, when I first came to Seattle I was coming from Asheville, NC, which is a really cool little town.  Anita and I had been living together there.  She was going back to finish school and I got an Americorps position with the Seattle Red Cross.  I put off leaving until basically the last possible day.  It was emotional to part and we both cried.  I drove the 2,682 miles to Seattle in 2.5 days, again sleeping in the car because paying $80/night to stay in a depressing, anonymous motel was incomprehensible to me then (and still essentially is, although I'm not as extreme about things now).  I got to Seattle with only a couch surfing arrangement that I thought was set up, but I couldn't get ahold of the guy when I got here.  I ended up staying with my future boss at the Red Cross for a week while I looked for a place.  David was really cool and it's kind of amazing to me that he and his wife Mara took me in like that.  I think he has a big wander spirit that doesn't get out much, because he took to me right away.  He's a great guy.  When I remember back to staying with them, I'm sure I was very polite and did my dishes and everything, but I don't have any memory of the sense of violating social decorum or putting them out.  As in like getting the hint that I should get out of their house asap.  Maybe they really didn't mind having me there, or maybe I was oblivious, but I think I also expected people to be honest and I wouldn't have been upset if they had said hey you have 3 days then get out.  But of course the real world has a lot more innuendo and implication and bullshit that stands in for communication.  Just to say I'm kind of surprised at how naive and in a sense pure and maybe also self-centered I was.

But this is all pre-amble.  An attempt to establish a shared history.  Now you know a little about where I'm coming from with driving long distances, with a sense of wonder and excitement at the sheer motion of it, at the stunned reverberations of arriving somewhere and letting the background streaks catch up to you.

* * *

Two summers ago (before starting grad school), Anita and I put all our stuff in storage and took a 4 month cross-country road trip.  We visited pretty much everyone we know, went to 12 national parks, lived in Vermont for a month and Virginia for 2 weeks, and went over 10,000 miles.  We begun heading East through a northern route that took us to Arches, Canyonlands, Bozeman, Yellowstone, Madison, Detroit, and on to Vermont.  Bozeman and Madison are very cool places and I could see living in either.  We visited Mark in Madison during the period leading up to unsuccessful recall of Governor Walker (which I was disappointed about because he is a total prick).  It was interesting to hear about the issues of the place, and also to see Mark at work in the particle accelerator.  In Detroit, I wanted to see the downtown more because we only ever went downtown for baseball games and plays and Detroit had been getting so much press as a post-apocalyptic incarnation of America's grim future.  We went to Layfayette Coney Island and saw some of the amazing Art Deco sky scrapers from the 1930's when Detroit was at its highest point.  We even got a personal tour of the historic Fox Theater from the architect who oversaw the remodel (he's the corporate head of architecture for the Little Casesar's Pizza empire, which is headquartered adjacent to the Fox and also owned by the Ilitch family.  My dad had some connection, and I think mostly he was just glad to have something other than work to do on a Friday afternoon.).  It was very cool, but I left feeling still disconnected from all the raw artsy stuff you hear about in Detroit.  We went to Michigan Central Station (abandoned and incredible), but we didn't climb the fence and break in.  It was the parents version of the urban exploration trip that I had intended, but it was still impressive.  Detroit is an incredible place, and there are so many things going on there, and so much to learn from it.  I definitely like being from this strange and singular place.

In Vermont, we lived in our friend Colin's house that he owns.  It's like any other artist/musician rental flop house except he owns it.  He had talked of getting me to help with building projects, but I don't think he was really that motivated because it never happened.  It was kind of a strange and conflicted visit.  We lived there for a month, and mostly it was great.  Vermont is probably the most beautiful, peaceful, comfortable places I've ever been.  I've never really felt like anywhere was home, from growing up in the placelessness of the suburbs to everywhere I've been since, but Vermont probably comes the closest.  There are no billboards in the whole state, and it's all small state roads leading to dirt roads that don't have signs.  When you take the highway into Burlington, it doesn't feel like you're in Vermont anymore.

We where staying in Montpelier, which with a population of 8,000 is the state Capitol.  Like Oberlin, Montpelier is kind of a town that couldn't really exist.  What I mean is, despite it's small size, it has more than it's share of arts and culture and entertainment, primarily because it has an influx of money that doesn't make sense for its size (the school in Oberlin, the government in Montpelier).  Those are good places, and something to look for, I think.  Colin wasn't working and it seemed like no one in his house was working.  Actually, it seems like no one I know in Vermont works much in general.  The impression I get is that's it's an easy place to sort of work part time, and pursue your own creative interests and not ever have to be pushed into deciding things about your life.  Every day in Vermont goes something like this: Wake up and make some kind of veggie scramble for breakfast.  Sit on the porch eating and talking and drinking tea.  There are always people on the porch, and Amanda and Josie and Eric would come by pretty often too.  Make plans to go on a hike or go swim in the river.  Ride bikes to get there.  Come back and decide to go out to Morse Farm for creamies (maple flavored soft serve ice cream).  Come back to the house and play a board game, or read, or go on a walk.  It felt like summers from childhood that felt like they lasted forever.  I remember that feeling, and I remember somewhere in high school when the summers started to feel shorter.  Whether it was because I was growing more aware of time and the structure of life, or busier, or just planning more.  I think the essential element is being bored; not having plans and just letting things happen and approaching each day fresh.  What should we do today?  There's something so nice about that.

I think we were both also a little bored and frustrated with our time in Montpelier.  The flip side of that pleasant drifting feeling is it could feel aimless.  Anita didn't like how dirty the house was and how much PBR everyone drank.  I liked it a lot as a moment in time, but I couldn't really see that being my life.  I felt like I needed more structure - I need to be working towards something, putting energy into something and getting a sense of accomplishment from the results.  And maybe also doing something that benefits people besides myself.  In some ways that life in Vermont is very selfish, because it feels like choosing to withdraw from the world.  To draw a line around what you can control and say this will be my life because here I can eat what I want and do what I want with my time and explore myself, and out there it's compromised and messy.  As you can see, I'm very much of two minds about this.  Honestly, this exact issue is at the heart of how both Anita and I feel about and struggle with growing up and becoming adults and getting careers and all those things that are happening out in the world outside the Vermont, which is kind of the snow globe where these dreams still exist.  It's a big issue, and as with everything in my life right now, it's what this post is secretly about.  But it's also about driving.

* * *

I'm going to shift gears a little and leave that summer of 2011 behind.  This past summer (2013), we took another big long road trip.  3 weeks and 5,000 miles through all of the Western states.  We went down to California, over to Las Vegas, into southern Utah, up to Yellowstone, and on to Glacier, Montana.  Here's the thing about America and the West.  It's enormous and incredible and there's so much empty space.  I had some kind of slow dawning realization on another trip we took (maybe it was part of that one in 2011?) driving through the middle of nowhere looking for a place to camp in Wyoming.  We had intended to stay in Grand Teton National Park, but there was a forest fire and we were forced to evacuate.  We ended up driving through this extremely desolate area of central Wyoming looking for a state park to spend the night.  The road felt like a thread laid through these giant, prehistoric rocky canyons.  The only things out there were the road, the rocks, the ever-present wire fence, and occasional pronghorn antelope.  We passed towns there were the intersections of two highways with one building, not even a gas station.  Finally we came to the Wind River Canyon, which was a state recreation area with a small, desolate, wind-swept camp ground on a hard patch of clay above the river.  There were a few other people there in tents and RVs.  We pitched our tent and huddled against the wind and just felt small.  After that day of driving through Wyoming, I feel like I understand the conservatism of this country more.  Politically, I mean.  The big cities on the coast and foreign countries and wars on other continents just felt so remote and unreal there.  This country is enormous, and so much of it is still wide open empty spaces.  Sure someone owns the land, but it isn't all developed, and it isn't anything like Europe, where we would have passed through 3 or 4 countries, each with a distinct culture and identity.  You just don't get that kind of casual bumping up against other cultures or ideas or ways of living in so much of America.  Beyond this, it's simply profound to just experience the space of this country.  The raw openness of it.  This is something we have that so rarely gets talked about because so much of the culture is centered in the cities, and is very anthropocentric.  Driving through Wyoming is something like going to the moon compared to living in Seattle.

This summer we spent the most time in Utah.  Utah is an incredible, beautiful place, if you can get past the creepiness of Mormonism and the 4% beer.  They were driven out of everywhere else that was settled, so they came out west to find their Zion and they picked one of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet.  Besides Salt Lake City, which is in the north, there really isn't much in the way of development in the state.  A lot of small towns that mainly cater to tourists, 5 incredible National Parks, a number of National Monuments, and the background landscape in-between, which is just as amazing.  We saw slot canyons and shear granite faces and wild animals.  At the National Parks there were hands down more foreign tourists than Americans, especially Germans.  It seems strange that we have these singular places that are worth traveling half way across the world to see and yet almost no one I know has bothered to take a trip out to see any of them.  For my money, the National Parks are one of the best things this country ever did.  And this is maybe the other thing this post is about.  Because in the traditional sense of traveling, of going to exotic foreign places and seeing lauded sights, I've barely done any.  I went to Germany and the Czech Republic for 2 weeks to visit Mollie (which was great), and I went to Australia for 3 weeks when I was in 8th grade as part of this student exchange thing.  I've spent a little time in Mexico and Canada, but not even really that much.  That's it.  I never did study abroad at Oberlin because I always felt like there was so much going on there that I didn't want to miss.  I haven't done any study abroad at UW because it's expensive and I don't think the education is as good and I would be away from Anita and just out of the rhythms of my life here.  It's something that I feel almost guilty about, because what everyone really loves is to hear about your travels.  And the kind of people who travel a lot have this shiny veneer of excitement and passion and or living life more deeply than the rest of us.  Maybe I'm being defensive about it, but there's always something I distrust about that rootlessness.  About being willing to let go of all your connections to others and just set off into a new place, where you'll meet all sorts of people and do all sorts of things, but never really get too deep into any of it, and then move on to the next place.  It's exciting, but there's something about it that is using change to replace substance, if that makes any sense.  Again, maybe it's just curmudgeonly of me to think this way, but I wanted to put this out there as an alternative.  See America!  Get in a car and drive a million miles across the desert and find these magic places.  In Capitol Reef National Park, we saw so many stars at night, you could hold a finger tip up anywhere in the sky without covering one.  When I took long exposure pictures, you could see the colors of the stars.  It was almost spiritual, being out there in a dark sky environment and thinking about all the things that are right in front of us, but that we can't see living our lives in the city.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Huntington Gorge, VT

When I visited Huntington Gorge, I was living in a friend’s house in Vermont for a month, part of a four month extended summer road trip before starting school.  My memories of the Gorge as a place are inextricably entwined with my memories of that summer, and of being in the still eddy just before the waterfall - on the brink of something big and sudden and new.

Summer in Vermont is sitting on porches drinking cheap beer, riding bikes for long distances with no destination, rounding up a car full of people to go get creamies at the farm (locally made, maple-flavored ice cream).  And swimming holes.  Summer in Vermont is being naked in the sun at swimming holes.

The Gorge is a popular place (swim suits), down some country roads and a short hike through the woods.  There is no parking lot, no sign - you have to know where it is, which means someone else has to show you.  So even from the outset, the Gorge as a place carries with it a sense of a community, an initiation of sorts.

Huntington Gorge is a living play structure as well as a place of trespass.  In places the rocks are worn smooth by the swift river current that carved out the Gorge.  Geological time is laid bare and you can feel the power of the water by trying to swim against it for all you’re worth, yet staying in one place.  In other places, the rocks are jagged, eroded, their bases uncomfortably shaved away, holes worn through in strange and delightful places.  The rock serves as a place to sun bath, to climb, to sit, to eat and drink.  It is beautiful and strange and interacts with you at all scales in the narrow canyon.

The Gorge simply exists.  It is a place outside of the realm of property rights, rules, legal restrictions.  The Gorge is dangerous, and this is part of its appeal.  To be able to feel the force of a river means risking getting pinned up against a rock and experiencing a brief moment of pure terror.  Or just imagining that such a thing is possible, and knowing that there is no proscribed dictates mitigating your experience of the landscape.  There is a raw poetry and a deep sense of connection that comes from such experiences of nature.

If I went back, maybe it wouldn’t be the same Gorge I experienced.  Maybe I wouldn’t be the same person who experienced those things.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Desolation Peak Fire Lookout

Desolation Peak Fire Lookout

Desolation Peak, North Cascades National Park
Whatcom County, Washington

      Few places on Earth are more poetic and awe-inspiring than the top of a mountain.  The fire lookout stations in the North Cascades have a rich history of attracting writers seeking the time and space to turn inward for the season.  Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and, most famously, Jack Kerouac all spent time serving as fire lookouts in the Cascades.  At 6102 feet2, Desolation Peak isn't the tallest or most impressive peak in the Cascade Range, but its humble fire lookout may be the only one with a novel to its name.
      The Desolation Peak Fire Lookout was built in 1932 by the United States Forest Service.  The fire lookouts were manned seasonally from July through September and boarded up the rest of the year.  Traditionally a single man would go up at the start of the season and come down 3 months later - although in later years the lookouts were rotated in shifts of several weeks at a time.  The Desolation Peak lookout was home to its most celebrated fire lookout (a term that applies to both the person and the structure) in the summer of 1956 when Beat writer Jack Kerouac worked atop Desolation Peak, inspiring the novel Desolation Angels.
      The lookout itself is a simple 14' 6" by 14' 6" wood box.  It has a peaked roof with a conventional pitch clad in cedar shakes.  The structure has no foundation, sitting several several feet above a rocky outcropping on concrete blocks.  The most distinctive feature of the lookout is that it has 4 walls of windows looking out in every direction.  The windows are protected by wood flaps that are propped up during the season and battened down for the winter.  These flaps are visually compelling, suggesting that the building itself is shading its view in order to scan the horizon (of course, they provide shade for the occupant as well).  The last distinctive feature is a small lightning rod that protrudes from the peak of the roof, protecting the inhabitant in this highly exposed location.

Left: Interior, Desolation Peak Lookout.
Center: Shuttered for winter.
Right: Man operating Osbourne Fire Finder.

      The lookouts (building) were originally established to provide advanced warning of potential forest fires due to lightning strikes or other means.  The lookouts (human) were well versed in the surrounding geography, equipped with an Osbourne Fire Finder, and armed with radio equipment to report suspect fires.  During waking hours, lookouts were expected to spend 20 minutes out of every hour visually scanning the horizon for smoke or other signs of a fire.  The most important function of the building, then, was to facilitate this constant, uninterrupted surveillance.  The solution was to create what was essentially a glass box - at least at eye level.  While the tops of mountains are very beautiful in the summer, they are punishing places in the winter.  These frail man-made structures were expected to weather 9 months of the year unoccupied, resisting snowfall in excess of 100” deep - and be ready for fire season come July.  They had to sustain a single inhabitant, with a small wood stove for heating and cooking, a rope mattress bed, a latrine, and enough space to keep from going stir crazy.  The resulting design is an intriguing study in extremes: very open, and then very closed.
      The form and materials of the lookout station were shaped as much by its remote location as the extremes in weather it withstood.  Even today, the trip to Desolation Peak requires a ferry ride up Ross Lake to the Lightning Creek Trailhead, followed by a 4,400 foot climb over 5 miles to reach the peak.  All building materials and supplies would have been brought in by pack mule.  The wood stove would have been brought up in pieces, and the concrete blocks would have been a challenge, but the rest of the construction is a readily-available, lightweight wood frame and cladding - likely milled from the very forests the lookout watched over.  These simple, functional constraints and vernacular wood construction give the lookout a humble disposition.  Without even a solid connection to the rock upon which it stands, the lookout feels temporary, fleeting, a reminder of man's insignificance in the face of the mountains.
      The Desolation Peak Fire Lookout is a humble building that defers to its context.  It stands on a site uninhabitable for 9 months of the year, exposed to extremes of cold, wind, and snow without heat or maintenance.  The form of the structure is shaped by the paradoxical requirement that it be able to be both totally open and completely closed.  The fire lookout at Desolation Peak is no longer in use as a working building.  As our approach to forest fire suppression has changed, so have our systems of monitoring them.  The lookout station still stands, however, a sort of spiritual mecca and a destination for hikers and literary tourists.  The fragility of the structure accentuates the poetry of the place.  It is a human-scaled object, precariously balanced among giants, reminding us that no matter how advanced we become, there will always be forces in the world beyond our ability to control.