Dave Eggers and the limits of memory

Recently, a lot of our online content platforms have gotten pretty good at suggesting stuff that you will like, but unfortunately they tend to keep their suggestions on the safe side. If we were talking about food, it would be something like, “we see that you enjoyed Burritos yesterday, why not try Tacos today?” While I will indeed probably enjoy Tacos given that I enjoyed Burritos in the past, what if I would also like Sushi, if someone were able to introduce me to it? Since Sushi is quite a jump away from Mexican food, I think there would have to be some unexpected event that forces me to try Japanese food in order for me to discover my unknown love of Sushi. I guess I’m saying that, insofar as our tastes can be said to evolve, there should be some random mutations in the process as well, which doesn’t seem to be a strong suit of the various ways to find content online.

In any case, what I really wanted to do was to bring up a point about books, not food. I think it’s good to have a certain degree of randomness in the books I read. Something I like doing is going to the thrift store to pick up books. While this is an okay way to come across some interesting random books for cheap, I find that this approach suffers from a fatal flaw: while there may seem to be an unbelievable number of books in a thrift store, for some reason at least 20% of them are always Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert, and another solid 30% are “For Dummies” guides for boring stuff, like Excel or Hotel Management.

The best way that I have found literary entropy was when I was browsing though book exchanges at hostels. You’re sure to come across interesting books from around the world this way. Sometimes it’s the physical book itself (as opposed to its content) that is interesting. When I was in Iran, this English dude gave me a copy of SuperFreakonomics that he had picked up in India. It was apparently a pirated copy — the cover looked like that cardboardy material they make beer coasters out of, and the lines of text were all crooked and blotchy. A good chunk of the book was just straight up missing (no doubt these were the pages that were not accessible on Google Books when the pirate was making the book). I had no idea until then that people even bothered to pirate paper books.

Something else about hostel books is that, in an unfamiliar environment, even not very good books that you read can stay with you in a strange way. I spent a lot of time reading random books from the hostel bookshelf when I was staying in Istanbul. It was the summer of 2013. I was staying just a short hop away from Gezi Park, and the massive protests that had happened there just a few months prior had left a restive feel about the city. Every night there would be a clash between protesters and riot police in an alleyway somewhere. One of the books I read during those tense evenings was All We Ever Wanted Was Everything by Janelle Brown, but in a German translation (ALLES IST NICHT GENUG). This was definitely a book that I would probably never read in my normal life, much less in German. I certainly missed a lot of important parts due to not knowing a lot of words, but I’m pretty sure that this book is not the greatest, even in its original English. For some reason though, to this day I still find myself thinking about certain moments from that book, so in this way reading the book was powerful and influential for me, but I suspect this has more to do with the circumstances in which I read the book rather than the strength of the book’s imagery. I have really surreal memories of sitting in the hostel common room reading this book, with a warm Bosphorus breeze flowing through the window, when suddenly, shouts and sirens would come from the street below, followed by a loud crack, and everyone in the room would feel a sharp sting in their eyes and nose, and we would all rush to close the window to shut out the worst of the tear gas that had exploded in the street. Then, amidst a tingling sort of worry that hung about in the air, I would sit back down, open up All We Ever Wanted Was Nicht Genug, and be transported back to Janelle Brown’s Deutsch-sprechende Californian suburbanites and their tennis courts, cocktails, Porsche Cayenne…

Another book I read during this strange period in time is A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers. Luckily for me, the copy I picked up was in its original English. This book isn’t bad, but to be honest, it’s pretty unremarkable, and I mean in no way to recommend it here. It’s about a middle aged American going on a last-ditch sales trip to Saudi Arabia to try to shore up his desparate finances. The overwhelming impression I got from the book was that Saudi Arabia sounds like a really boring place to work. The whole setup of the novel was kind of interesting, but I felt like there wasn’t much of a point to the story and the writing style was kind of weird.

However, the experience of my trip seems to have sprinkled my memories of this mediocre book with a little bit of MSG, and in the coming years I found that many quotidian moments from that book had seared themselves into my memory. I would often replay random moments from the book in my head, such as the main character reviewing the embarrassingly low income on his tax return. This developed in me the impression that I actually really enjoyed A Hologram for the King, and that it would be a worthwhile experience to read another Dave Eggers novel, so I went out and got his book The Circle. I had read that this book dealt with a dystopian future involving a powerful social media tech company, which sounded like a timely and interesting topic. As an added bonus, I discovered in the first few pages of the book that the main character attended Carleton College. Unfortunately, I think that The Circle is less good than A Hologram for the King (a book that I like only in my memory, but suspect would be not great if I actually re-read it in normal circumstances).

There’s a certain kind of fiction that I always get burned by; it’s where the idea and themes behind the work are really interesting, but then as you work through the book you realize that the author seems to find the ideas behind the story a little too interesting, which is to say that you realize that the story only really exists as a means for the writer to make a point about a particular idea, and therefore the work is incidental to the philosophy behind the work. This was the main aspect I that didn’t enjoy about reading certain hoity-toity “must read” works such as Brave New World and The Stranger. This sort of philosophy in art’s clothes is what seems like a defining characteristic of a lot of modern art works, but at least a painting or sculpture only takes a few minutes at most to take in, which leaves plenty of time in the day for you to ponder the meaning of the work. For a book that takes weeks to read, boredom becomes a much more significant factor. I think at a very basic level, I enjoy a book if cool things happen to cool people who have funny things to say, and in this respect I didn’t feel like The Circle was a very effective story. Not even school spirit could make me care much about the main character, Mae, because I was always aware that she didn’t speak as a real person, but more as a “results not typical” type of paid promoter. There was something about the whole thing that lacked authenticity. And all of this should probably have come as no surprise to me, but my memories led me astray.

What’s even more outrageous is that a couple weeks ago, I had forgotten about the bad aspects of The Circle enough that I excitedly went to go see the movie adaptation in theaters. At this point you could be forgiven for assuming that I was some sort of Dave Eggers-liker. Am I in the Nile about being a Dave Eggers fan? At this point I don’t even know. I just know that I paid nine American dollars to go see The Circle, and hilariously, it was even worse than the book was. Tom Hanks and Emma Watson are in it, so I guess if you like those people you could go see it. Interestingly, Tom Hanks is also the star of the film adaptation of A Hologram for the King, which was apparently one of the lowest grossing films ever to star Tom Hanks, but apparently appearing in film adaptations of Dave Eggers novels is a burden that Tom Hanks must bear until the end of his days.

So judging from this chain of events, I suspect that in a couple of months I’ll find myself reluctantly reading another goddamn Dave Eggers novel, or watching the film A Hologram for the King. Why do I keep returning to Dave Eggers’ work? I think it’s because I will always expect anything written by him to have a special glimmer about it, no matter how many times I find that to be untrue, just because of how I first met his work. I think that a big takeaway from this is that memory can be very emotional, and how we appraise and remember something has surprisingly little to do with the actual merits of the thing. I think of the enthusiastic love that certain people have for those crappy 90’s Saturn cars. Certainly, the Saturn is loved not for its mechanical qualities, but because it is the physical embodiment of certain feelings — namely, 90’s nostalgia, your first taste of the freedom of the open road, and good times in the parking lot of a Sonic Drive-In, with friends who have long since drifted away to become unremarkable adults, but in that one carefree memory of the past, they still carry with them that conviction that the whole world was overflowing with wonder and excitement, just waiting to be discovered, glistening in the setting sun at the end of an open highway… And yet, when we return to those memories turned into objects with sober eyes, they never seem to be as good as we expected them to be. So, caveat emptor for anyone looking to buy a link to their past — the light of the present is harsh.

Being Left-Handed in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Recently, we were asked to sign our names on a commemorative wall at the office that I work at. As I was creating my eternal graffito with a sharpie, a co-worker of mine remarked at the fact that I was writing with my left-hand, as if I was doing so as some sort of joke, and not because I found it more comfortable.

It was interesting to me that someone I have worked with for quite some time would have no idea that I was left-handed, as I consider it to be a fairly large piece of my identity. When I was in school it was plainly obvious to see who was left handed and who was not, with all the scribbling away on paper we did and all, but I suppose at work, since I’m just on the computer all day, there is nothing to give me away (I use my mouse with my right-hand, for unclear reasons). Technology solves everything — now I can pass as a normal member of society, without anyone knowing about my “sinister” secret.

The cultural bias against left-handedness still seems to be walking and talking in many parts of the world. I had a strange experience when I was on a bus in Armenia where an old woman sitting near me suddenly started scolding me when she saw that I was taking some notes using my left hand. When I was little, people urged my mother to force me to be right-handed, so that I wouldn’t go through the hardship of growing up being different from everyone else, but she never did, and I am so grateful for that. I feel like a fundamental part of my being would have not existed if I were right-handed, in a way that I can’t really explain or justify, but still know to be true.

Being in the absolute minority of the population, left-handers feel a special sort of affinity for other left-handers, like a tiny head nod that you are supposed to give to another left-handed person, even if they are a famous person who you will never meet and have only read about in the papers. I always thought it was weird how many US Presidents are left-handed. Of the five living former US Presidents, a majority are left-handed, with Bush the elder, Clinton, and Obama representing the Southpaws. Reagan, Ford, Truman, and Hoover were all lefties as well (in handedness if not in politics). It came as absolutely no surprise to me to learn that Trump is right-handed, and to be honest, a small part of me wants to believe that our current President wouldn’t behave in such a shameful way, if he had grown up left-handed instead.

Freshman year of college, I lived in a three-person dorm room, and it turned out that all three of us were left-handed! This seemed like an impossible coincidence, but then again, Carleton’s Office of Residential Life has been known to use their strange abilities, abilities that some consider to be… unnatural, to play little tricks on incoming freshmen.

I quickly found out that one of these roommates was preternaturally good at playing the guitar. He was in a band, and I would always go to their shows just to see him play. He could infuse funky jams with a strange sort of dignity and reserve, which I found to be an electrifying combination. Anyways, I also play guitar, although less well, and the funny thing is that both of us play in the standard, “right-handed” way. I played violin before I learned how to play the guitar, and the violin community seems less tolerant of switching things up to accommodate left-handers, so I learned to play violin the same way that everyone else plays, and by the time I picked up guitar it seemed natural to me to use my left hand to push down on the strings. Actually, I’ve always thought that the hand that pushes down on the strings has a more complicated task than the hand that picks, or bows, so I’ve always found it to be natural to play guitar and violin “right-handed,” and in that sense I’ve always felt lucky that the whole world somehow decided to play stringed instruments in this way that benefits left-handers.

A weird prejudice that exists concerning left-handers is that they have poor handwriting. Actually, I was known for having pretty good handwriting in my high school days, although it has undoubtedly gotten worse over the years through neglect and disuse. Something that I try to keep in mind while writing is what I call “the slant,” which is a slanted angle in the direction of the forward slash “/”. For whatever reason, I have seen that beautiful writing from around the world has a bias towards this forward slant. The direction of the slant is the same regardless of the direction of the writing system; you can see this slant in languages written from top to bottom (Chinese calligraphy), right to left (Nastaliq Persian calligraphy), and you can also see it on whatever is on that ring in Lord of the Rings. In English handwriting, I’ve found that an easy shortcut to make writing look good is to have clear and straight ascenders and descenders that all slant forward at the same angle. It has always seemed more natural to me to make this slant using the left hand rather than the right hand, and I have found it strange that this forward slant shows up in calligraphy around the world. The fact that it is so predominant though suggests that I am wrong and that it is probably more natural to do this with the right hand. If anyone can link me to anyone who’s studied this phenomenon, please do so.

Regardless, none of these disjointed tidbits about left-handed metaphysics matter much anymore. Left and right handedness were only important insofar as human beings worked with their hands, but the unstoppable result of technological progress is that our hands simply matter less as a means of getting stuff done, which still I believe to be, on the whole, a positive trend, although it is one with many saddening aspects as well. Through technology, I can now be more like everyone else. I no longer have to struggle to cut paper using scissors or smudge my hand with pencil lead. Life has become better, life has become more joyous — but in some ways life has also become more boring, and shallow.

Sketches of Iran

With a stroke of his pen, the President of the United States slammed the door on refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority nations seeking to come to the United States. In addition to dashing the dreams of many who hoped to find a new home in the United States, the order has resulted in people who have already built lives in the United States as legal immigrants and permanent residents unable to return to their homes.

Equally as troubling as this awful executive order was that so many politicians and ordinary people responded with either tacit acquiescence or enthusiastic approval. Something dangerous has captured the minds of many Americans. It is the ascent of fear over empathy and imagination; which is to say, it is a victory for that powerful strain in our society that doesn’t have the slightest desire to learn about the lives of people who are different from us, and looks inward for comfort rather than outward for inspiration.

We could perhaps have some understanding of the order if it weren’t so idiotic purely on its policy merits. It won’t make our country safer at all, at the cost of shattering lives and punishing law abiding people who would be great contributors to our society. I was particularly bewildered by the inclusion of Iran on the list of affected countries. Iranian Americans are, of course, one of America’s most successful immigrant groups. Already, we have heard many stories of Iranian scientists turned away from entering America, told that they and their potential discoveries were no longer wanted in the United States. Their majority religion of Shia Islam is one of the main targets of the Islamic State, but listening to the voices of fear in this country, you could be led to believe that ISIS and the Iranian government are the same exact thing. And while Iranian society has its problems, it is much more stable than the image of an out of control war zone painted by Donald Trump’s all too wide brush.

Of course, I find it absolutely shameful that the United States reneged on its promise to offer shelter to people from countries devastated by conflict, whose lives have intrinsic worth as human beings, even if they don’t end up working as scientists or doctors, and I don’t intend to argue that this executive order is wrong solely because it happens to include a relatively stable country that tends to send us educated immigrants. But the fact that Iran was on the list of countries affected by this ban is a very clear sign to me that this policy was not one founded on any sincere (if misguided) security concerns, but is rather a cynical ploy solely designed to incite fear and hatred of Muslims. Iran is a country I visited in the spring of 2010, and I found it to be a country of bizarre contrasts. I saw both very objectionable things and things that turned my expectations upside down. However, my overwhelming impression was that Iran was a surprisingly nice place bearing little to no resemblance to its scary sounding public image in the US. While I don’t claim to understand a country I do not come from, and whose language I do not speak, I got the feeling that Iran is one of the places where American imagination and curiosity has massively failed, with dire consequences. In light of current events, I feel compelled to share random bits of my memories from my time in Iran — it feels like the only power I retain as an individual these days is to share stories with people for whom curiosity and imagination still exist.

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I entered Iran via a grueling 24-hour bus ride from Yerevan, Armenia (which is a whole different story, for another time). The bus was packed full of Iranian holiday makers, who were welcome to enter Armenia with their generally globally reviled passports to partake in the drinking and partying denied to them in their own country.

I was very conspicuous as the only non-Iranian person on the bus. Speaking of the power of curiosity, I found Iranians to be nothing if not curious. Almost every Iranian person I met would start interrogating me on life in Japan or the USA (before, perhaps, launching into an impromptu recitation of Hafez’s poetry). It was a little too much for an introverted person such as myself, and towards the end of my time in Iran I tried to halt this endless stream of excited interviews by covering my face with a hoodie while in public (to no avail). During this long bus ride, an Iranian family had great fun “adopting” me and giving me an Iranian name (Mahmoud). They seemed to be educated and relatively well heeled, and they all spoke English unusually well.

Though all the women on the bus were obliged to hijab-up once we crossed the Iranian border, that did not stop these fun loving partiers from continuing to have a good time. Someone dug out a CD from their bag and gave it to the bus driver to put on the stereo system, and as Iranian pop music started to blare from the speakers, many people stood up to stretch their legs by dancing, and soon the whole bus transformed itself into a dance party as we tore through the grassy hills of the Iranian north-west. During a particularly sharp turn, a bag belonging to the man sitting across the aisle from me turned over, and what came tumbling out was a bottle of smuggled Ararat brandy (an Armenian specialty, illegal in Iran). The man stuffed the bottle back into his bag with a laugh, and no one around us took a second glance. This ridiculous bus ride was my first welcome to Iran.

Though I was worried about what would happen to the brandy smuggler, it seemed to me that alcohol was quite obtainable in Iran, at least for those who knew where to look. At a hostel somewhere, I had found a memoir by a German businessman who had lived in Tehran for a few years, who claimed he was obliged to drink more alcohol in Iran than he was in Germany.

One night, the owner of the hotel I was staying at was chatting with me and some Canadians. Suddenly he asked, “do you guys want some homemade vodka?” He then sketchily reached behind a refrigerator and took out a dinged up plastic soda bottle filled with a clear liquid. He had apparently bought the vodka from some Armenians. Iran’s alcohol ban only applies to Muslims, so Armenians are legally allowed to make and drink alcohol, being a Christian ethnic minority. I took a sip, although in retrospect this sounds like a great way to get methanol poisoning and end up blind. The “vodka” tasted like a mix of 80% water and 20% of the cheapest collegiate plastic bottle vodka.

Given the Iranian regime’s hostile attitude towards Israel, I was surprised to come across the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai in the Iranian city of Hamadan. Apparently, it is an important Jewish pilgrimage site. The Jewish caretaker there showed me around. He told me he was a collector of pens from around the world, and he asked me to contribute to his collection. I did have one shitty ballpoint pen in my bag, so I gave it to him, and he was very pleased. Unfortunately for his collection, that pen came from a totally ordinary Iranian shop that I had visited a few days ago. It was given to me by the shopkeeper in exchange for posing for a picture with him. I posed in countless photos with strangers in Iran, where I got my first (and perhaps last) taste of what it is like to be a superstar.

I asked the caretaker of the Tomb if he had any troubles living in Iran, being a Jewish person.

“No, none at all,” he told me. “Everything is fine.” I thought I heard a twinge of tension in his voice as he said that, and admittedly, the question itself was probably unfair. It’s never easy to be different, but I asked for and he gave a simple answer to what I’m sure is a complex issue. But I do hope that he was fine then, and continues to be fine now.

A note on the above: in America, you can more or less take people’s statements at face value, but I found this not to be the case in Iran. For instance, there is a very interesting Iranian social tradition called taarof. As I understand it, under taarof, it is very embarrassing to be seen as ungenerous or selfish, so you must do everything to avoid this even if this involves lying. At the same time, it is considered boorish to accept peoples’ largess if it is induced by taarof, which would mean that it is insincere. So a person is obliged to offer others items, even if they do not actually wish to give them. The person being offered the item must assume that taarof is at play and refuse to accept repeatedly (I have read three or four times, as a general guideline), and after a certain number of refusals, if the other person continues to offer, then the offer can be taken as genuine, and the offer can be accepted.

When I visited a police station to extend my Iranian visa, the clerk who was helping me was drinking tea. She offered me some tea too. I looked around on her desk. There were no other cups on her desk. There was clearly no way for me to drink the tea she was offering me without taking the tea that she was already drinking away from her. I declined the offer, though I did in fact want some tea, and at that point we could proceed with our business. Another time, I went to go see a movie at a theater, and the person sitting next to me was eating potato chips, and offered me some. I was very hungry, so I took some chips without refusing the offer first, and the person understandably looked very shocked. After all, I had just reached into his bag of potato chips and started eating them; who would do such a thing?

Taarof was difficult to navigate because, in actuality, there were many Iranians who showed me extreme and genuine generosity and hospitality. Once, while I was walking through a park, a group of old-ish men stopped me and told me to sit down with them. They offered me tea, which I repeatedly refused, but they were very persistent, and they did in fact have an extra cup lying around. They were a car repairman, a policeman, someone who was quite good at English (the others didn’t speak English), and a person who only had one foot. He had lost his other foot fighting in the Iran-Iraq war. At some point during our tea party, it was decided that I would be a guest at the house of Manoucher, the car repairman, and before I knew it and without having much input into the matter I found myself carted off into one of their cars, speeding down a bewildering series of alleyways, wondering what in the world was happening to me.

Manoucher’s house was modest, but he was generous with his space. As soon as I got to the house, a dizzying array of people of all ages and genders started appearing from what I can only assume were various preternatural portals located throughout the house. I was extremely disoriented the entire time I was there. Once enough people gathered out of nowhere, a dinner party began.

Manoucher’s son was just a couple years younger than me, and although his English was halting, he tried very hard to communicate with me about all sorts of things using a dictionary on his cell phone, which I appreciated very much.

After our dinner was done, Manoucher insisted that I spend the night. This was a little too much for me, and eventually, after much discussion, he agreed to drop me off at the hotel I was staying at, driving me in his Kia Pride, his pride and joy. After some long goodbyes, we parted ways. I still remember that evening as if it were a dream — mysterious and unbelievable, and yet I know for a fact that these things happened. And now, a question on fear and suspicion: would you, sitting in a park having tea with your friends and suddenly spotting a dirty traveler from a distant country who you know nothing about and doesn’t speak your language, invite him to sit with you, take him to your house, feed him dinner, insist that he spend the night? I want to say loud and clear that Manoucher the Iranian car repairman did precisely that. I think I would be too frightened to do the same, and I assume the same is true of most people I know.

In case it wasn’t clear already, I felt very safe in Iran, perhaps safer than I feel in the streets of Minneapolis. I took naps in the park, and walked all over without problem, although I should add the disclaimer that I suspect things would have been very different had I been a woman and not a man. In any case, the Iran I saw wasn’t a conflict torn hell. Instead, it was on the surface a peaceful and civil society, although there were simmering tensions and discontents lurking in the background.

Walking down the streets of Tehran, you could see the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s face sternly glaring at you from a mural, while women covered head to toe in black chadors scurried past. Just a few streets over, I could see that almost every apartment had an illegal satellite TV dish hanging on the balcony, no doubt more than a few of them tuning into Baywatch, Iran’s most popular TV show. A faux-Apple Store was thronged by fast food restaurants shamelessly ripping off American intellectual property, inside of which fashionable young women were hanging out with friends, with colorful cloths just barely covering the backside of their heads to appease the letter if not the spirit of the law.

I met many people who were not afraid to voice their frustration with a government engaged in a constant struggle to claw their society back into the past. One elderly Iranian I met used to live in America, and showed me his wristwatch, which he bought near Harvard Square many decades ago. He was on his way to the US Embassy in Ankara, to try to make it back to the US, somehow. A university student lamented how his friend worked hard to secure a spot to study at an American University, but all of those plans were ruined when his Iranian university made some arbitrary change in policy. He told me in Iran, there were no laws.

America is undoubtedly a better place, where we can have more trust in our government and its institutions, but recently, that trust has been shaken to the core. A visa, or a green card, is a document promising to let an individual into the United States. But with a stroke of his pen, the President can make legal documents suddenly invalid. Even stamped with the approval of the US government, a nation of laws, words may not mean what they say anymore. Are you feeling safe now?

I was exposed to a bewildering array of viewpoints during my time in Iran. There really are people in Iran chanting “Death to America.” Although I didn’t meet any of those people myself, they made their existence known through anti-American propaganda painted on murals. Many people I met were conservative, religious, and voiced what seemed like valid criticisms of US foreign policy, using reasonable language that would feel right at home on America’s college campuses. Many urban Iranians seemed to be cosmopolitan and secular, and were enamored with American culture, and spoke admiringly of the US. I also did meet one person who seriously told me he wished for President Barack Obama to bomb his country, so that his people could finally be free. Not a single person made me feel unwelcome for being a US resident. I mostly remember the Iranians I met for their gregariousness, their love of poetry, their obsession with civility, and their insatiable curiosity.

A few years after my trip, I gave up my Japanese passport to become a US citizen. I had hoped to return to Iran someday, but it looks all but impossible now, at least in the near future. But at least I can always remember: that when I was on the train that would take me out of Iran onward to Turkey, having just put the city of Tabriz behind us, I looked out the window, and I saw the afternoon sun setting fire to endless hills of golden grass, and I thought it was the most beautiful landscape I had ever seen, and I felt like if I looked hard enough, my body, and the train, and the tracks would start floating into space, and dissolve into nothingness under the gleaming sun.

Make It Snow (So)

I sit in a dark room, trapped indoors by a hot mug of tea and a disgusting wet snow falling outside. As I sit in my chair, my face is lit up only by the glow of my laptop screen, which is brighter than usual as it is currently depicting the famous reflective head of Patrick Stewart. Even through some tinny laptop speakers, his deep voice still commands authority as it speaks out, “Make it so.”

I have a few days off from work due to Christmas, and I found out that the entirety of Star Trek: The Next Generation is available on Netflix. I was pretty shocked by how having a few days off of work immediately destroyed my usual Normal Person habits. Though I had a lot of ambitious plans to get cool stuff done during this mini-break from work, I have scaled those back and I am now mainly trying to avoid a repeat of my awful video game filled Thursday, and I guess watching Star Trek seems like a slightly more positive activity to me.

Even though Star Trek can be rather campy at times and has its fair share of ridiculous moments that would make a black and white cartoon of Jackie Chan throw his hands up in disbelief, I still believe that it is a very special kind of show. I think this is made most clear by comparing Star Trek to Star Wars, a similarly named and yet diametrically opposed franchise.

On a very basic level, both franchises concern themselves with the act of zipping around on spaceships, visiting far-off worlds, and interacting with various aliens that contain sweating Angelenos hoping for a shot at stardom beneath their silicone skins. But their stories work through different methods.

As a child, while I understood that Star Wars took place in a galaxy far far away, I didn’t really understand why we are explicitly told that the story took place a long time ago, even though all the spaceships and blasters and lightsabers and stuff clearly point to the future. As I understand it now, all the Space Age stuff in Star Wars is not actually an integral part of the story, but is really more of a marketing ploy to get people to show up to the theaters in greater numbers and also obtain licensing fees from the sale of Star Wars action figures and SkyMall products. The story could just as effectively been in some sort of Bronze Age setting, for example. All of the advanced technology in Star Wars just results in a gritty world not too different from our own, rather than a utopia as you might expect, and many of the inhabitants of the Star Wars universe lead lives that are in essence defined by age-old concerns that are relevant today. They strive to make money, they worry about their safety, and they waste their time on self-destructive activities, so it seems like the technological differences between our world and the Star Wars universe doesn’t really affect the message of Star Wars in a fundamental way. The major difference between our world and that of Star Wars is the existence of the Force, which is a sort of quasi-spiritual power that runs through the story’s examination of Good vs. Evil (as well as the Evil that is ever present within Good, and vice versa). So in a lot of ways Star Wars seems more mythological than realistic.

Star Trek, on the other hand, is set in our own universe, but hundreds of years in the future. It is a world in which technological advances mean that human life no longer has to be poor, nasty, brutish, and short. “The Dismal Science,” which is the study of scarcity, is rendered obsolete by the abundance that is made possible by “Science Science.” So I feel that the setting of Star Trek is much more integral to the plot than is the case for Star Wars. Star Trek is more an examination of what becomes possible in an utopian future where every person’s material needs are fulfilled, which is not to say that there aren’t challenges in the Star Trek universe, but they tend to be more philosophical and psychological in nature.

I think that Star Trek has a rather unique storytelling structure. What I mean is, I feel like every movie/TV/book plot ever goes like this: ordinary, unimpressive main character goes about their quotidian life, until some opportunity/person/force gives them the chance to become a part of something more distinguished, and by persevering against setbacks and challenges the main character finally becomes a super cool person who can accomplish awesome things. This, of course, is basically how the Luke Skywalker storyline unfolds.

However, Star Trek distinguishes itself in that the main characters are already awesome people at the beginning of the story. Everyone serving on the Enterprise is one of the best at what they do (or otherwise they wouldn’t be serving on the biggest, baddest ship in the Federation). There isn’t a whiff of incompetence anywhere on the ship. So the story focuses not on the process of an ordinary person becoming great, but rather on already great people at the height of their powers deftly navigating themselves through tricky situations.

Of course, the aim of the generic, Normal Peter Parker to Awesome Spiderman story format is meant to make us sympathise with the story more by allowing us to self-insert, and allowing us to imagine that maybe we too could leave our generally boring and unremarkable lives to become awesome, distinguished, and famous. But actually, I believe that the Star Trek story format works in a similar way too, and this is another way in which Star Trek can be said to be utopian; when we self-insert into the Star Trek storyline, we don’t have to imagine our current selves struggling through the process of becoming amazing, but instead we can imagine a version of ourselves that is already amazing, and has already “made it.” But what, exactly, do we do after we have “made it”? The answer to that question is very tough, as it is ultimately a question of human values. And those are the sorts of big questions that are confronted in a utopia where each person’s material needs are covered, and each one of us has found our life’s purpose, and has become the exact person that we have always believed we could be.

This Hegelian Life

I’m a big fan of the second movement from Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique. There’s a great scene from the movie A Boy Named Charlie Brown where Schroeder plays through the entire piece, coupled with a psychedelic animation sequence. I’ve liked this piece ever since watching this movie. (As a side note, I like imagining the scrunched up noses that the studio executives made upon hearing that there would be a 5 minute classical music interlude in this children’s movie that they were paying for. Hopefully there are still filmmakers out there who are willing to take a chance on weird artistic choices like that.)

Later in life, I started taking piano lessons, which gave me an opportunity to learn to play this piece. I found that my piano teacher had a very close relationship with this piece of music as well. When I told her that I wanted to learn the second movement from the Pathétique, she immediately took my sheet music from me and proceeded to mark it up with her pen. The markings did not seem to have much to do with playing the piano. At the beginning of the piece, I saw that she had written “BIRTH,” and at the end, “DEATH.”

“This piece is like the passage of life,” my piano teacher told me. Her interpretation: the first notes are played with the image of a baby passing into consciousness, opening its eyes, and taking its first steps. Later in life, the safety of childhood is left behind, and the tone becomes dark and tumultuous as life’s various challenges are confronted. In old age, those challenges are relegated to the past, and a sort of resignation and contentment sets in instead. And then life comes to a close, ending with a tone that is strongly reminiscent of how it began. Experiencing the Pathétique in this way is very moving for me. As the piece comes to an end with the beginning motif, you really get the feeling that the music is in sync with some sort of natural order, a cycle that has been repeated a countless number of times, and will continue on long after you play the final notes of the piece and take your foot off the sustain pedal.

In this idea of life as the Sonata Pathétique, life is defined by a sort of template, or a form, which probably involves generic accomplishments such as getting married, having kids, etc. So I guess in this worldview, a life is judged as being “good” according to the degree that it adheres to the structure imposed by this template. This idea is tied to a related idea of what a “good” society is; a society can be called good to the extent that its structure resembles that of some sort of ideal form.

This view of life seems to me to be ancient, although maybe it’s not. While this view of life is still important in our culture, I feel that its influence has waned in favor of a more modern ideal of the “good life” — which is to say that, it seems like the idea of what a life should look like has shifted in tandem with how our idea of what a society should look like has shifted. I think that the modern idea of society originates with Hegel’s idea that history is directional. Just as a disclaimer, I could see myself being completely wrong about this and the following statements, but whatever.

The directionality of history contains the idea that society as it exists is imperfect, but it is constantly improving. The ideal society doesn’t exist as a template, but rather as an abstract ideal, which is defined as a comparative — as something that is “better” than what we have today. I think this idea of progress is basically at the foundation of what we consider to be a “good” society. The clearest, but by no means only expression of this in our society is the idea that there will always be economic growth. Under this idea, a society is good if it is wealthy. It is assumed that a society will experience economic growth, pushing it closer to its goal of wealth. This is an assumption underpinning a shocking proportion of decisions that our society makes. Interestingly, though I don’t quite understand this concept, apparently money originates not at the point when it comes off the government printing press, but at the point when banks make loans for interest, so in essence, the very concept of money necessitates growth.

In any case, translated onto a personal level, this Hegelian worldview means that a life path is not good insofar as it fits into some pre-defined template. Instead, a good life is directional, and is constantly improving, moving towards some definition of “success.” What this means: education as a series of levels to be cleared, each level increasing your access to success. A job, and then a different, better job. Another skill you can check off on your LinkedIn profile. Income increasing every year, home value increasing every year, stock investments growing in value, 401(k) growing in value. Each stage of your life measured in terms of how much you have improved on what the previous generation had.

The benefit of this Hegelian lifestyle would seem to be that it gives everyone the freedom to pursue goodness, even those people who would otherwise be excluded from a more traditional, pre-determined sort of life ideal, which can often be discriminatory and exclusive. The downside seems to be that, due to the lack of clear destination, people can use the pursuit of success as an excuse to indefinitely put off achieving anything like contentment. If the whole goal of life is improvement, this obviously conflicts with the idea that many people quietly carry in the back of their minds that “when I have X and Y, and I’m finished with Z, I will finally be content.” There is no clear concept of what “enough” means in this worldview.

Of course this is all assuming that this sort of constant improvement is even achievable in practice. Often it seems like people who have met all of their needs still suffer anguish solely due to the fact that their life paths do not really fulfill this ideal of improvement. How realistic is it really to live up to the pressure of always improving upon your parents’ achievements, and improving upon your own achievements each year? It also seems like we are hitting up against hard limits to growth that are imposed by the size of the planet that we live on. So we are facing both ecological and psychological constraints to this idea of constant growth.

Obviously there are a lot of interesting opinions on what an alternative to the growth mindset could look like for society at large. But on an individual level, it is really hard to know what the alternative to the pursuit of growth and improvement could be. A lot of us recognize that the constant improvement mindset is bankrupt, but we either can’t or won’t return to a more ancient ideal of a templated life, and without those guiding ideals life seems to be aimless and directionless in a way that is very anxiety inducing. And taking advantage of this vacuum of philosophy is an endless stream of self-help gurus, lifestyle bloggers, political agitators, garbage content streams…

I guess the only thing we can conclude is that figuring things out can be pretty hard. So let’s cut ourselves and others a little bit of slack, and try to stay warm over the Holidays, and rejoice, because why not?

Malevich, Duchamp, and the end of SEO

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square
Kazimir Malevich, Black Square
During what was a few life cycles ago for my mind, I had gotten the idea that going to law school would be a cool thing to do. As it turns out, the President of Carleton College, where I was studying at the time, was himself a graduate of Harvard Law School, which I knew from my research to be kind of like the Harvard of law schools. And it so happened that we found ourselves standing next to each other during a dinner for students in the Political Science department. So I asked him somewhat inartfully if he had any “recommendations” regarding law school for me.

His reply: “Study hard for the LSAT, and get the best score that you can get. Then, go to the best law school that you can get in to.” Apparently worried by my dumb stare of a reaction, he quickly added, “Of course, not everyone can attend the Harvards of this world…”

I should add that the President gave me 100% sound advice for an aspiring lawyer, and also the question itself was a bit unfocused. I think my disappointment at his answer mainly came from being jarred out of the postmodern mindset that I had been steeped in during college. The idea that one school would be “better” than another seemed foreign, in a weird way. After all, the idea of value judgments having intrinsic rank seems to be only obliquely examined by the sciences (not that I took that many science classes…), and in the humanities, the idea in itself seems to be largely frowned upon. Reading Nietzsche was an interesting and persuasive break from what has ironically become a sort of postmodern establishment in undergraduate classrooms (and I should acknowledge here the contradiction in that Nietzsche played a big role in laying the early groundwork for postmodernism). Unfortunately Nietzsche was kind of vague about who the arbiter of values and rank should be in a godless world, but he sure as hell didn’t have the U.S. News and World Report ranking of law schools in mind, and I gradually realized that I was too much of a postmodern to cut it in the legal world—and I have the President to thank for giving me the first of many off-putting glimpses into what I believe to be the field that truly deserves the moniker of “the dismal science.”

Fairly or unfairly, those who have traditionally defined the idea of good and bad have a reputation for stuffiness and general hoity-toityness, so you can imagine the frustration with which artists tried to smash these systems of value judgements—for example, Kazimir Malevich with his Black Square, and Marcel Duchamp with his Fountain. The frustration with the way the arbiters of aesthetics (being the ones in possession of political power) refer to style and skill to value art led these artists to remove style and skill from their works entirely. So, the result was art that couldn’t be valued in terms of good or not good, which was a blow to the legitimacy of the establishment aesthetic ideal of “good.”

Malevich and Duchamp pioneered the idea that it is not necessary to aspire to be “good” (at least in the way the word has traditionally been used)—that creative work in the pursuit of the “not-good” is constructive and legitimate. Fast-forward to 2016 though, and my feeling is that postmodernism ended up merely opening the door for a sort of crass commercialism to take up the position formerly occupied by establishment aesthetics. Yes—I think that those two ruffians deserve at least part of the blame for the emergence of clickbait…

Malevich and Duchamp advanced “not good” art with the aim of making the idea behind a work of art more central to the work than the final product, or the physical process that went into making the work (which, in Duchamp’s Fountain, was merely the proto-Jackass-esque act of tipping a urinal on its side).

However, postmodernism is too annoying for most people to take seriously, so postmodernism left its mark on the cultural landscape and yet did not extinguish the innate desire that people have to rank. Skill is relatively easy to assign rank value to—a person can be considered as having more skill than another by demonstrating the ability to do something that another person is unable to do. But ideas are more nebulous and harder to rank. Since there is no built-in rank attribute for ideas, ideas must instead be ranked based on the subjective views of an all-powerful force. Some things that I could imagine fulfilling this role are religious texts and cult-of-personality type figures.

However, in democratic America, this responsibility falls to the force of public opinion, which I feel like was called “the Dictator of America” or something by Alexis de Tocqueville, although I can’t locate the quote now, and if someone says a quote but it doesn’t end up on Google, does it really make a sound, and so on. But I’m pretty sure Tocqueville would agree with this general sentiment: that to the degree that ideas can be said to have intrinsic rank in America, they are ranked according to the weight of public opinion behind them.

Hence, the emergence of SEO.

The internet is basically a series of tubes that carry ideas. In America, an idea can be considered to be more valuable than another if it carries greater approval in the realm of public opinion. In this post-postmodern internet, skill, while still a factor in the appraisal of the value of a thing, takes a backseat to the force of SEO. You could say that an internet entity’s inherent value stems from the degree to which it leverages SEO. SEO leads to pageviews, which leads to the securing of public opinion, which is the ultimate American arbiter of value.

It goes without saying that this setup has resulted in a lot of garbage being strewn about on the internets. Which makes sense, because creating a “good” work (meaning work created with an abundance of skill) is no longer the goal, and a work’s “goodness” doesn’t necessarily have a positive influence on SEO. Instead, each internet work must strive to succeed in the realm of public opinion. You would think this would go hand in hand with a work’s “goodness,” but in reality it is a completely different thing. Where as the “good” works of yore aimed to inspire awe, SEO-chasing works appeal to more base emotions such as greed, fear, envy, lust. The result: yet more clickbait headlines leading to yet another blog with a boring WordPress stock theme.

What we need, then, is an anti-SEO work. Like Duchamp’s Fountain acted as a giant middle finger aimed at the insular and judgmental notion of skill, we need another Fountain for our times, which would be a web entity that can deliver the same kind of shock to the SEO-obsessed establishment. Well, I am proud to say that I have found this work, and it is eatmysharts.com.

eatmysharts.com was created by artist David OReilly. I found out about this work when he recently shared the link on his Twitter, saying that he had too many domains and that he would let this one expire. As of today, I can still access the work, but a quick description in case the site goes dark forever soon: once the site loads, a low-poly 3D Bart Simpson skateboards onto the screen. He greets the viewer with a hand wave and declares, “Hey man, I’m Bart Simpson. Eat my sharts.” He then proceeds to shart out what can only be described as more sh than art out of his blocky digital bottom, which pools around his feet. The camera angle frequently changes to give you various views of sharting Bart Simpson. It will basically loop forever but as a pro-tip, you can press “r” to restart the whole business, or “m” to mute the sharting audio.

eatmysharts had a truly mysterious effect on me. I gave a hearty and controlled laugh the first time I watched it. But then, in a few minutes, I found myself watching it again. And again. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I had to strongly resist the urge to watch it at work. It eventually became more than a source of entertainment for me, but something close to evoking awe…

On Facebook, I sent the link to my friend Omar, who is studying coding. I thought he might enjoy it as an example of creative web programming.
His reply: “I did not enjoy that at all, just awful. I don’t know why anyone would spend time making that.”

Yes—I think that the fact that someone spent so much of their time making something so utterly stupid is paradoxically the central appeal of the work for me. I started to examine the source code because I too wanted to know how to make a sharting Bart Simpson, which gave me a great appreciation for the amount of work that went into making this. Looking through the code, I got great joy out of imagining David OReilly hunched over his computer creating Javascript variable names such as shitshafttexture and shitpoolgeo. I started studying Three.js (the underlying WebGL library) myself, and it took me hours just to get this weird blue square to display on the screen. Apparently I have a long way to go.

Clearly, then, we have here a work that is not only skilled, but profoundly disagreeable to public opinion. As such, eatmysharts stands as an extremely compelling challenge to the SEO banality that floods the internet. I think that is what caused the work to capture my attention so powerfully. It represents a Black Square/Fountain moment for web content. That is to say, it is the reintroduction of skill as a value for web content, while at the same it represents an inversion of the SEO paradigm. SEO uses crass emotions to push a slick final product, while eatmysharts uses a idiotic final product to create a feeling that is at once freeing and uplifting…

Also, just wait until it gets to the close-up of Bart’s face, I can never stop myself from laughing at that part.

The Nix Sense

avista
I have been told that I have an unusually keen sense of smell. This seems to be a genetic trait that runs in my mother’s side of the family, and I credit both my mother and her mother with shaping my “smell-aesthetic” from a young age.

I do feel that our culture’s investigations of smell fall short of the attention we give to our other senses. Most discussions of perception that I’ve encountered have tended to be heavily visual-aural biased. Without categorizing this as cause or effect, I would like to point out that these are basically the only two senses that can interact with the plethora of electronic thingamajigs that surround us and have so revolutionized the act of perception (with honorable mention given to devices like the Playstation DualShock that make a token effort to interact with our sense of touch). Let’s also not forget that even the Sixth Sense, which isn’t even real, somehow nevertheless had an entire Hollywood movie made about it. So it’s clear to me that the sense of smell has been given short shrift during the march of civilization.

Part of the problem is that, in my opinion, most discussions of smell tend to be “Zoroastrian,” which is to say that they are dualistic, and we are generally content to simply define smells by the categories of “good” or “bad” (Thus Smelt Zarathustra, if you will). Interestingly, the definitions of good and bad as relates to smell is generally oriented by the human oral-anal axis, with the smells relating to consumption being deemed good, and the smells relating to excrement being regarded as bad. (For some reason, flowers, which you can’t eat, are also considered as smelling good, but I think we can all agree that flowers don’t actually smell good, and their supposed good smell was probably instilled in the unsuspecting public by a PR campaign stipulated by a clause of the Dutch-American Friendship Treaty aimed at increasing tulip exports to the United States).

All human senses have been affected by the development of technology. However, the technology we create is only as inspired as the underlying cultural aesthetic allows it to be. In the case of vision and sound, technology has complemented the existing aesthetic theory for those senses to create a flowering of visual-aural expression. With smell, however, my strong impression is that the main effect of modern technology has merely been to suppress the smells that we consider “bad,” and also create artificial replacements for the smells that we consider to be good. For better or for worse, the sense of smell never came into its own as a medium of cultural-expression through technology, and the only example of such a thing that I can think of is those weird scratch-n-sniff cards that you got as a kid—hardly haute couture.

I work in an office in Downtown Minneapolis. Something that recently struck me is just how few smells that I encounter in my daily life. Everything around me is created to be as odorless as possible. A modern office space is an absolute dead zone in terms of smell. Even when you step outside, smells of any sort are increasingly hard to come by. Smokers, usually a reliable source of odors (which are, in violation of my oral-anal theory, an oral intake that is generally considered to be a bad smell) are increasingly contained in balkanized enclaves so the smell of tobacco smoke is increasingly hard to come by.

For me, smell is strongly intertwined with a sense of place, so a town that is devoid of smell also seems to be lacking a certain vibrancy, or joie de vivre. One of my favorite things about traveling is encountering the particular smell that a place has. I have visited New York City three times now, and the thing that sends an electric tingle through my body and imbues me with a sense of arrival each time is not the bright city lights or the army of yellow taxicabs, but that peculiar, not entirely good smell that pervades the subway stations.

One of the first places I traveled to on my own was Istanbul. Of course I had learned all about the city on the internet before going. I had seen pictures of the buildings, looked at the maps, and learned how to say a few things from a Turkish phrasebook. But, on a breezy January morning, as I stepped off the tram that took me to the Sultanahmet mosque, I was floored by something unexpected—the smell of burning charcoal. On every street there was someone selling chestnuts roasted over a coal fire. And it felt like everything I had read about Istanbul before that moment, and every picture I had seen, was wrong somehow, or presented on false pretenses, because it left out the electric feeling of that charcoal scented winter air. The charcoal smell tinted everything else that I perceived there, from the sight of the minarets towering above me to the sounds of street vendors yelling “Buyurun! Oturun!” That smell will always be central to my idea of Istanbul.

It makes sense that we would drive smells out of our urban areas. It’s accommodating of everybody, and it’s probably an effect of creating efficient technologies that both replaces older, smellier technologies while still driving out/away the smells that were present in a place before humans arrived. But something about living in a smell-free world seems shallow and depressing to me. My sense of smell encounters almost nothing unexpected in my daily life, and I get the feeling that as the 2D virtual world of screens becomes richer, the 3D real world around us grows flatter. Pretty soon they will be one and the same thing.

In the midst of all this, I guess it could be a good thing to seek out activities that allow you to be exposed to a variety of smells—smells that, be they good or bad, hopefully have the ability to increase your sense of being. Some good ones that I’ve found are; traveling (and this reminds me of Paul Theroux, who observed that all travel is also a form of time-travel), walking as opposed to driving, working on my car/motorcycle, and being out in nature.

Have you encountered any interesting smells recently? If so, please let me know.

Coding vs. fiction

code

At work, I sometimes interact with computers using code. This can be a strangely soothing exercise for anti-social types like myself, which I think has to do with the unambiguous nature of code. Computers don’t seem to be very good with dealing with ambiguity, at least for now. Tell a computer that the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything is 42, and the computer will freak out and complain that it was expecting a string instead of an integer (passing ’42’ instead of 42 should hopefully clear that up). The actual human world is full of hypocrites using ambiguous phrases and systems, and code can be a nice escape into a different sort of mindset.

Learning to code is generally praised by policymakers and Your Parents because it can allow you to get some jobs that are safe (both in terms of physical danger and industry trends) and also pay decent wages. But driving this prosaic public image is the fact that code gives people the power to interact creatively with information using the tech infrastructure that has transformed the world but is still in growth mode. So it seems to me that more and more people will be required to code in some way or another as time goes on—even the types of people who have no reason at all to interact with code in the year 2016. And it might be interesting to think of the possible cultural ramifications of such a shift in society.

The mindset required for code is diametrically opposed to something like fiction, for example. Fiction celebrates ambiguity, whereas in code, ambiguity is a defect. I am pessimistic that something like fiction will be able to resist the economic clout of code in the future. The code mentality might increasingly exert its influence on pop oriented artistic media. We may start to find stories with strong, morally ambiguous characters like Princess Mononoke to be confusing, or conversely, we may start to see the illogical increasingly referenced, but merely as a gag, à la Family Guy. Obviously people will continue to have diverse tastes and viewpoints in the future, but depending on how widespread coding becomes it may give a not insignificant nudge to the tastes and preferences of a not insignificant number of people.

I did get the impression during college that my fellow students did not have much patience for ambiguity in fiction, or any other field for that matter. Everyone, myself included, was much too eager to find the “point” of a piece of writing, or impose some outside structure on it. The professors seemed much more level headed on this point, which I’m betting is because it’s impossible to spend so much time researching a particular area without seriously dealing with the question of ambiguity at some point, but students who actually let themselves be influenced by professors on topics like these seemed rare. Perhaps this sort of mindset has some sort of relationship with technology, but perhaps not.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with coding as a refuge of sorts for those troubled by ambiguity, but there can be a danger when the desire for consistency becomes unnaturally strong and takes on a social dimension. The novelist Haruki Murakami has done some interesting research into Japanese cult movements, and from his experiences he identifies the inability to accept contradiction as a trait that is exploited by cult leaders to gain devotees. Cult leaders can promise a fictional world that is free of contradiction, and some people are pained enough by the contradictions in society that they will accept anything that offers them relief.

An observation Murakami makes is that the perpetrators of the Aum Shinrikyo Tokyo subway attack were smart and educated, but despite, or perhaps even because of this, they were corrupted into committing horrific acts of violence. It would of course be wrong to read too much into the perpetrators’ biographies, but personally, I can’t shake the feeling that smart people often tend to have weird political views (my latest confirmation of this being Peter Thiel’s strange endorsement of Donald Trump). Smart people are, of course, better with dealing with the mental gymnastics of enforcing consistency, which is why they are better at writing code, or any other text that accurately hews to the rules of a prescriptive grammar. However, in the social realm, I get the feeling that forming political views based solely on intellect has the possibility to lead a person into territory that most normal people would recognize to be “bad” on a gut level.

Murakami’s antidote against the destructive fictions meant to exclude ambiguity is a different kind of fiction — the kind that is found in his novels that celebrates ambiguity. Despite Murakami’s conflict of interest in making such a statement, it seems valid to me, and it seems that fiction would also be an important balancing force against any cultural influences from technology. Given the inevitability of the march of technology, I hope it progresses in such a way that it enriches rather than displaces art and its social functions.

Places to be in Saint Paul

mall

Malls often put lots of effort into making things standardized and predictable. You walk into a mall, and you know there will be a generic food court where you can get the same shitty Sbarro pizza that you can get at the mall the next town over (although incidentally, the Sbarro Wikipedia page claims that Sbarro was recently forced to start making better pizzas as part of a restructuring process in light of the fact that their awful food “was the major factor that led to two bankruptcies.” I’ll have to verify that soon…) While it would be surprising to get great pizza at Sbarro, barring that it’s generally hard to be surprised by anything in a mall. Most stores you would go to look familiar because you have been to them before, even if it was in a different town. Nothing is weird or out of place. And because that’s actually the whole point of a mall, this is basically a feature rather than a flaw.

Something I really enjoy about living in Saint Paul is that, while the shopping areas are as ugly as any suburban mall, they often contain pretty strange and out-of-place businesses. You would expect to find strange businesses on tree-lined streets near a University, perhaps, but it feels exciting and almost subversive to me when out-of-place businesses decide to set up shop in places that were created explicitly to combat weirdness.

One of my favorites is the Sears near the state capitol. As far as Sears buildings go this one is especially sad looking. It’s the worst exemplar of an Eisenhower era idea of modernity, with a square and featureless concrete exterior surrounded by a huge parking lot, which only pulls you back into the present era because it is filled with rusting Honda Accords instead of Ford Edsels and Studebakers. However, when you walk into this Sears, you will notice that it is bustling with foot traffic. This is not because this Sears somehow sucks less than the other Sears locations that are scattered across the country on life support. The reason is this: on the second floor, tucked behind the shelves of kitchen items, there is a small alcove containing a DMV office.

This DMV is the only reason I have ever gone to this Sears, and I imagine this is true of all the other “shoppers” there as well. While everyone needs to sort things out with their license or car registration from time to time, I can’t think of a single situation in which a person would say, “I need [insert widget]. Let’s drive down to Sears!”

This Sears DMV is not just any DMV. This is the finest DMV location in the Twin Cities. Look it up on Google Reviews and you will see that it has got a 4.1 star rating. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, because of its stealthy location, many people are, quite understandably, not aware of the fact that there is a DMV tucked behind the Sears kitchenware section, which means that the wait times are very reasonable. On the few occasions that I was there, the wait time was around 10-15 minutes. Not to mention the fact that you can spend that time looking at nice Cuisinart Mixers and Nespresso machines instead of motivational posters that say “TEAMWORK, Because working with others is less sad than working by yourself.—Franklin Delano Gandhi, Jr.” under a stock photo of a fighter plane squadron.

The other advantage to this DMV location is that it seems more flexible than other DMV locations. Apparently this DMV was built as part of some privatization scheme, so it is somehow not directly run by the state. I have anecdotally heard that because of this, this DMV can be more “forgiving” than a regular state-run DMV office. They also have innovations of the sort that only private capital can provide, such as an express lane for license renewals and cool freebies such as bottle openers and pens.

Another interesting mall of Saint Paul is a strip mall in Midway. I don’t know what it’s called. It’s the mall containing Rainbow Foods and its ancillary businesses. I enjoy shopping at this Rainbow. I like that it soldiers on despite the existence of a Cub Foods and a Walmart just a block away, in a much bigger and nicer strip mall.

As for the other businesses around Rainbow, there is a Family Dollar, an Army Recruitment Center, a Game Stop, and a business named “To New York” that sells New York themed clothing and accessories.

There is also a bowling alley, but you would never know it from its exterior. The facade of Midway Pro Bowl is basically just the front door, and you would be forgiven for thinking that the place must only have one lane, with no space left for that Daytona USA driving game that every bowling alley has. But never fear, the front door leads to a staircase going down into an underground space that contains everything that a bowling alley needs, and more. On the score screens above each lane, each frame is celebrated or derided by a weird 90s CG animation of a bowling ball that gets itself into various shenanigans, and while watching these, nothing could be further from your mind than the fact that directly above your head are people shopping for giant calculators at Family Dollar.

Also in this mall, right next to To New York, is Peking Garden, which is one of the best Chinese restaurants around. The Twin Cities is full of restaurants quietly serving amazing food from around the world, but for some reason, Chinese food in Minnesota is often not good. It seems that Chinese restaurants have been around long enough in America that they have earned their place as establishments that the majority culture now regards as being totally normal. This normal Chinese restaurant aesthetic brings to mind that place where that racist Asian Christmas carol bit happens in A Christmas Story, and I’m not a huge fan of the food that you would expect to find, and often do find, at these sorts of places. Normalness and ubiquity bring with them a sort of blandness as well.

From the outside, Peking Garden looks exactly like the kind of place where a racist bit in a beloved Christmas film would be set. But inside, things are a little more serious. The interior is very put together in a contrast to the ratty exterior, and the leatherbound menu contains a truly dazzling array of hundreds of menu items. Only a weird booth that is for some reason about 5 feet away from a wall and is on a raised surface provides slight comic relief.

If normal Americo-Chinese food is what you want, Peking Garden has it, and it’s pretty good. But they have more serious items as well buried in their huge menu. The selection is really overwhelming, and the prices cover the same breadth as the menu. Peking Garden can be a cheap grub spot or a fancy night out. It can be anything you want it to be. All I can say for sure is that all the food that I’ve had at Peking Garden has been great. Peking Garden pretends to be your average neighborhood Chinese restaurant, but its regulars know that it offers much more than that.

There’s so much around us that we choose to not see. Perception can become automatic, because we only see what we expect to see. This is why we need art, and weird businesses in malls, to wake us up once in a while, and remind us that we exist. True now as it was in the 80s: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.”

The Good of Small Things

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The Tao of cooking states that a dish can only be as good as its ingredients. So I can sometimes spend an unreasonable amount of time in the produce section of the grocery store. A mountain of onions before me—some of them will taste good, others not.

Annoyingly, spending more money on the organic/local/virtuous variant is an effective way to avoid bad produce. For some reason, vegetables at my local Chain Industrial-Proletarian Grocery often taste terrible, so I often suck it up and head to Commie Cooperative or Chain Liberal-Neoliberal Market for produce with my NPR canvas tote bag in hand. Apparently some scientists’ research shows that the bump in flavor you perceive from organic/local stuff is imagined. I could see this being true but it seems to miss the point: the only reality in taste is the experience itself.

There is another thing I do when picking out produce: I always pick the smallest option. Ceteris paribus, smaller things always taste better than big things. While this sounds really stupid, I guarantee that it is true. It’s like each fruit or vegetable only has a certain amount of flavor, regardless of the size that it grows to be. Try eating a huge strawberry, which will taste just like sour celery, and then try the smallest strawberry, which is sure to be full of the pleasant ur-taste of strawberry. I feel like I read somewhere that produce cultivars are increasingly selected for greater size, at the expense of taste (Citation Needed). This is a real shame.

Thinking about this made me think about other things that are better off small, and I thought of quite a few things, to the extent that I feel that I’ve stumbled upon a fundamental cause for problems in our society: things are just too goddamned big.

Like the blank taste of a strawberry grown too large, the too large things in our society also inevitably suffer from emptiness and blankness. In almost every too large car whizzing down the highways, you can find four empty seats. Let’s take a look in one of these cars: in the cupholder is a crass Starbucks concoction in the Grande, Venti, or Il Duce size (“I like my coffee like I like my shirts—black“). (Car enthusiast apocrypha recounts how Volvo sales in the US languished until Volvo executives took off their Euro-goggles and noticed a horrible design flaw—their cars had no cup holders). These cars are necessary because everything is far away, because our cities are unnecessarily spread out, packed not with people, but with huge empty lots next to huge stores, and really a whole lot of empty space. I could go on about smartphones and clothes at the store being too big, but let’s stop here.

Bigness is a good marketing tactic because we are genetically inclined to find big things to be powerful and unassailable (probably). Big things seem tougher, more useful, more valuable. But this can lead us astray. A cautionary tale: remember that it was not the large powerful dinosaurs that survived the meteor, but rather the small and nimble mammals.

Unfortunately, on both the aggregate and individual levels, all actions are taken with the goal of expanding rather than contracting. Almost everyone I know works in the “expansion sector” of the economy, in one way or another. Organizations seek to grow in size, increase revenue and renoun, add features to the product, add products to the lineup. Individuals wish to accumulate money, and make their possessions larger and more numerous. Contraction in the pursuit of quality is not really a sexy topic to bring up. Organizations and individuals believe that scale will bring them security, and maybe this is true to a certain extent. But scale is expensive to maintain, and organizations and individuals find that their very scale forces them to take certain actions that they would otherwise prefer to avoid, or forgo certain opportunities. Inflexible organizations and individuals can be swallowed up by a changing landscape. Freedom of action is sacrificed for a really dubious notion of security.

I think the pressure to scale up can really burden a person down, increasingly containing a person from a wide open field, to a road, and finally to a railroad track, where direction is largely predetermined and choices, when they arise, manifest themselves as deciding between two things that are basically the same. If your imagination ever becomes too active and thinks that it might be fun to scale down, for a change, there is always a dour pessimist close by who promises a wild forest full of danger and hardship for anyone who dares to stray from the tracks. You will meet this person many times, in real life and in print, and you will realize that they themselves do not benefit from a world with no choice, and in fact suffer from it. But despite this, and because of this, they are offended by the very suggestion that things could be different. At least their suffering has meaning if it is required, but what meaning would it have if it were optional?

But in some ways the pessimists are right. When I dispose of my possessions and attachments and see that there is no longer a path before me, or that everything before me is a path, I am for the first time forced to confront that frightening truth: “I exist!”