A month to honor fathers and graduates, June also offers World Butterfly Awareness Day (the 2nd) and the anniversary of the publication of Ernest Thayer’s famous baseball poem, ‘Casey at the Bat’ (the 3rd). Superman made his first comic appearance in June, and Egypt first became a constitutional republic rather than a monarchy years ago this month. Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova entered space June 1963 as its first civilian, and NASA launched Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity ten years ago in June, to provide footage of the red planet.
In the same spirit, Synchronized Chaos International Magazine’s June 2013 issue permits our readers glimpses into new and familiar worlds.
Lukas Clark-Memler continues his travel narrative from Borneo, while Heather Spergel’s children’s book hero explores magical realms with the help of a very special guitar. Regular columnist Leena Prasad, author of the neuroscience column Whose Brain Is It, explores the phenomenon of hypnosis. Fe de los Reyes’ musical Amerikana dances through the frustration and hope of the Filipino-American immigrant experience, and Romanian writer and painter George Teseleanu reviews Charles Ayres’ memoir of working within the Japanese entertainment industry as an American expatriate.
While Ayres has peppered Impossibly Glamorous with anecdotes about Japan’s music industry, the backbone of the tale is Charles himself: his resilience, humor and hunger to create places for himself to belong, wherever he travels. Although this can become a cliche of travel writing when not done well, the author experiences as much self-discovery as international education through his work abroad. He learns to select elements of various lifestyles and subcultures he admires, and incorporate them into his own life, consciously choosing to create his world rather than merely becoming a product of his environment. Summing up these hard-won life lessons as humorous commandments, he demonstrates how he has processed and integrated his experience into his daily life.
The Filipino/a immigrants in Fe’s performance piece also assert some control over their own identities, by choosing to appreciate both their homeland and their new lives in the United States. Even more so than Charles Ayres, Fe knows who she is and where she comes from. This knowledge gives her the strength to survive a complex and difficult immigration experience and embrace what she finds positive in a new culture.
Social scientists who have examined the psychology of extreme altruists, such as those who sheltered Jews during the Holocaust or launched initiatives to feed the poor or care for the elderly, point to feeling secure in one’s identity and having a sense of belonging as a predictor for pro-social behavior. If you know who you are, and are part of a solid, even if small, community, you can be more willing to do the right thing even when it is unpopular or risky.
Those factors may promote creativity and courage, as well as altruism. Feeling comfortable with yourself, and knowing that you have a home where you are welcome, can make you brave enough to explore a new world and experience it on its own terms, rather than projecting your own needs and insecurities onto its canvas.
Many of this month’s contributors have found the strength to peer out into new worlds, providing a glimpse of different realms of experience. San Jose’s Elizabeth Hughes mentions and reviews several new self-published and small-press books, in the first edition of her Book Periscope column.
Mimi Sylte also kicks off a new column dedicated to fashion, unique in that she focuses on designers in or near San Francisco, a city known more for writing and other forms of art. In her first piece, Sylte introduces herself and why she’s writing on the subject.
Presented within the flow of the lives of real people and fictional characters, this is a monthly exploration of how parts of the brain work.
You are feeling sleepy…
by Leena Prasad
The tall man on stage, dressed in a business suit, is clucking like a chicken. A pretty redhead, also on the stage, laughs whenever the hypnotist says the word ‘paper’. A young boy says the word ‘tomato’ whenever the hypnotist touches him on the head.
Henry watches with fascination and is glad that he did not volunteer to be one of the performers’ guinea pigs. He wonders what hypnosis does to the brain.
Dr. Amir Raz, research professor at McGill University in Canada, conducted a study in which participants were able to perform better at a color recognition game while hypnotized. Normally, if an English-speaking person is asked to quickly identify the colors blue-red-green, they become momentarily confused because of the dissonance between the words and the colors. Under hypnosis, there was less confusion and subjects were able to identify the colors quicker because they were able to ignore the meaning of the words and simply look at the color.
Other neuroscientists are studying hypnosis in different contexts. Dr. David Oakley and Dr. Peter Halligan of Cardiff University conducted a study in which they mapped neural response to pain. The MRI’s on the right show blood flow within the brain while the patient was exposed to various conditions. The top figure shows the blood flow when the subject experienced pain from a physical stimulus. While under hypnosis, subjects were told that pain will be inflicted but no pain stimulus was actually used. Regardless, the subjects experienced pain as demonstrated by the middle MRI. Although not exactly the same, the top and middle images are somewhat identical. The bottom image shows much less activity in the brain when the subjects were simply told to imagine pain.
If Henry had volunteered to be hypnotized, he could have been on stage laughing at the mere mention of the word paper. It is possible that he will respond in the same manner as the study subjects in terms of his ability to identify the colors and to feel ghost pain. Not everyone is hypnotizable, however, and the subject has to be a willing participant in order for hypnosis to work.
As in most areas of brain research, the study of hypnosis has potential. Neuroscientists are in the beginning stages of studying the power of this ancient practice and are finding brain activity correlation with hypnosis. If Henry conducts a web search, he will find documentation of studies that show how hypnosis plays out within the neural networks of the brain.
Josh Buchanan, a UC Berkeley graduate, edits this column with an eye on grammar and scientific approach.
Dr. Nicola Wolfe is a neuroscience consultant for this column. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychopharmacology from Harvard University and has taught neuroscience courses for over 20 years at various universities.
- Blakeslee, Sandra, This Is Your Brain Under Hypnosis, New York Times, Nov., 22, 2005
- Raz, Amir., PhD; Shapiro, T., MD; Fan, Jin, PhD; Posner Michael I., PhD, Hypnotic Suggestion and the Modulation, Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2002;59:1155-1161
- Oakley, David A., Halligan, Peter W., Hypnotic suggestion and cognitive neuroscience, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Vol.xxx No.x.
Should you ever find yourself in the unenviable position of trying to woo a poet
I strongly suggest you skip the part where you whisper sweet nothings into her
ear. She will call your bullshit – she will know nothing when she hears it…..
After witnessing the absolute horrors of the first world war Hemingway could not
bring himself to color his stories with adjectives. What the hell does “horror”
mean when you’ve seen thousands upon thousands of young lives wasted in obscene
ways – what weight can the word “atrocity” hold for a child who has watched his
mother blow up?
So he wrote stories that ask you and I to engage -he intentionally left
wonderful, huge, ambiguous gaps so that language might have a chance to recover
- so that you and I might imbue those gaps with our own meaning. I still can’t
tell if he was trying to find his way back or throwing himself head first into a
future he could not possibly imagine. It’s possible he didn’t even know. And
yes, douche, I know. I wouldn’t want to have sex with the dude – but sometimes
douchebags make great art. (Here’s a little secret – many artists are
douchebags. Don’t tell them I said so.)
So I want to look at two words today….two over-used, nearly meaningless,
clearly important words. Words I think about multiple times a day.
Love and Tragedy
This past Saturday, March 27th (in 2010) a 25 year-old Canadian woman named Eva Markvoort
died. Eva had a fatal genetic disease called Cystic Fibrosis – I grew up with a
friend who also had CF. It is a supremely painful disease and most people who
are born with it do not live to see their 30th birthday (and up until recently
reaching one’s 20th birthday was nearly miraculous.) My childhood friend died
several years ago at the age of 33. When you have CF your body drowns your
lungs. Slowly. While other kids are going on field trips and playing soccer the
child with CF sits on the sidelines….like all serious disease it isolates you
from the rest of the world.
It is difficult to be a sick child, the sense of being that obviously different
can have a profound impact on a developing persona. It would be easy to abandon
all goals and future hope unless you are a person like Eva. Tomorrow, the 31st,
would have been her 26th birthday. In a little under 26 years Eva managed to
earn a bachelor’s degree, participate in the making of – while simultaneously
being the subject of – a documentary about living with Cystic Fibrosis. She fell
in love, she danced, she traveled when she could, she survived a double lung
transplant – unfortunately her body rejected them and she died waiting for a new
donation. She raised awareness and money for research. She talked to anyone who
would listen about the importance of organ donation. Even when she was strapped
to tubes that she hated, by her admission, she did not stop. She never stopped.
If you go read her blog what you will find are pictures of a beautiful young
woman surrounded by family and friends and love. You will read about what brought her joy and
what she hated (tubes. plastic tubing. not being able to move freely through the
world.) You will read gratitude and you will see an unwavering gleam in her eyes
that can only be replicated by people who have had a conversation with their own
death, and consequently figured out that our time here is much too short to be
afraid of living.
She was beautiful, absolutely beautiful on the outside and most importantly she
was lit up from within. I did not know her. My friend Heather, another
beautiful, breathtaking warrior of a woman led me her way.
When Gabby was dying so many of you who never met her told me how much she
changed your lives, how blessed you felt to receive her message – to really hear
what she was saying on her way to where she is now.
Gabby had that gleam in her eyes.
Since those two women have died I have heard and read the word “tragedy” being
bantered around…. “Oh, what a tragedy.” “I’m sorry, I cannot invite this kind
of tragedy into my life right now.” Tragedy, tragedy, tragedy.
And I know what people mean. Because no matter what I or anyone else tells you
it is likely that you will not be able to have a conversation with your own
death until you get a little closer to it – and what a shame that is, because
none of us knows when it’s coming.
Is it heartbreaking to lose a person or animal we love to death? Absolutely. Do
we walk around mumbling and smoking pot in the morning like lost little grief
drones for weeks and months after? Probably. We grieve. It is ok. It is what
must be done.
But let us not mistake our grief for something altogether different.
Gabrielle Bouliane and Eva Markvoort lived harder, faster, brighter, better in
their short lives than those of us with the great privilege of much more time
A tragedy is what happens when you are given life and you waste it. Hating your
thighs and staying in loveless marriages and diminishing yourself in exchange
for the false comfort numbness brings – that is tragic.
That was not Gabby. That was not Eva. No.
They are triumphs.
In one hundred years, if we have not blown ourselves into a million, billion
pieces the chance that anyone will remember our names or know we existed is
slim. That is the reason the slam god couldn’t invite the “tragedy” of Gabby’s
cancer into his life – he was too busy working, promoting himself. At first, and
for many months thereafter, I was furious with him. Now….now I feel sorry for
him, when I think about him I almost always think: “What a tragedy.” 100 years
from now it is unlikely that people will know his name, or Gabby’s name or Eva’s
name or my name…..but right now…in these moments….before both of those
gorgeous creatures left this planet their worlds were flooded with life.
Visitors, cards, poems, songs, stupid ass videos, horrible hilarious jokes,
tears and laughter and repeat that a bunch, and good food when it could be kept
down……and here comes that word….Love.
Those two women were so alive thousands and thousands of people willingly signed
up to be with them while they were dying.
There is nothing warm or welcoming about hospitals. Hospitals are not made for
patients, they are made to maximize the efficiency of the medical professionals
who work inside of them. Being ill doesn’t give you some instant Zen-like sense
of serenity and understanding. People come to stick things into you or pull
things out of you and never even tell you their name. The beds suck. The food
sucks. The medicine and the baths never come on time.
You don’t lose your desire to be out with people your own age. Doing the things
other people take for granted – just, walking through a park, going to the
movies, reading poems at your favorite dive bar. You long for normalcy – you
feel grateful when people complain of their headaches or colds because most
people start to and then look at you in horror and say: “Oh, I can’t complain to
you!” As though we collectively feel like ours is the only suffering that
exists. As though we are already dead. We actually miss your bitching. (Don’t
take it too fucking far or you will get an “are you serious” eyebrow
raised…..but yeah….we want to hear about your headache and your biology
professor and your three year-old’s temper tantrums. We need it honestly.)
Gabby was scared. And angry. And she was in tremendous amounts of pain.
I didn’t know Eva – but it’s a safe bet to assume those things may have been
true for her as well, especially the last part.
You see, they made a choice. They both made a choice. They could have easily
become bitter and angry and resentful about the hands they were dealt. Instead
they decided to use the time they had to talk to us about love. Not the
Hollywood/Hallmark bullshit, but actual love. The kind of love that can pull
one’s spirit up out of a hospital/hospice bed and use whatever remaining energy
it has to project it’s essence onto the canvas of the world.
As Gabby sat, early in the morning, writing to her friends and family about the
importance of continuing to live after she died she had to face her own grief
and fear around her death. Of course she did. She loved us enough to sit there
and do it anyway.
As you can very well see if you read Eva’s blog her entire hospital room was
covered in cards and letters and pictures and gifts from people all over the
world…she called it the wall of love. Imagine the kind of world we could have
if everyone committed to only building walls of love.
To know for certain that your life is ending – and to use your remaining time to
remind people of how magical and hard and breathtaking and impermanent this all
is – to remind us to pay fucking attention. Pay attention. These are
extraordinary acts of courage.
The word love is overused. It is overused by a lot.
Love as a machete cutting a path to move forward.
Love as a bullet to penetrate hearts.
Love as a match, struck to illuminate and burn.
Love that looks you in the eyes from the place we are all most afraid of being -
the doorway to whatever comes next – love that assures you that while people and
animals and plants all die – this thing, this thing that is flowing through you
and me this very second – this thing outlasts us all. And it is us and we are it
and therefore it is never silly or wrong to invest ourselves in pursuit of it -
it is the only way, really. It is the only thing to do.
To avoid that kind of love – and many do because it can be painful to be cut and
shot and burned-but to avoid that kind of love for fear of the pain it may cause
is a gigantic fucking tragedy.
Dear Gabby and Eva,
First the daffodils came, and then a small patch of vibrant purple little
flowers like a strange toupee for the grass. And just this morning two tulips-
one red and one white with the softest yellow shading on the inside. It is
the South, even our flowers are dandies. The trees are getting their leaves back
and everything around here is a thousand different shades of green all at once.
And the air, the air smells like hope and birth and genesis. And when the wind
sweeps up behind me and orders me to hush my scattered, needless thoughts I
always think of you now.
Thank you endlessly – everything beautiful I see I try hard to see it with as
many different sets of eyes as possible – that is because of your love and the
overwhelming triumph of your spirits.
My heart resides tonight with all of the people who were closest to you both -
my prayers are that they may find peace while they grieve and know that you are
part of every gorgeous thing the world offers up in exchange for our mortality.
Fran Varian is a writer, performing artist, healthcare and Lyme disease activist, in Durham, North Carolina. Every time this essay is read, she asks people to consider organ donation in memory of her friends. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Fran is also fundraising to support her medical treatment for advanced Lyme disease – which will not save her life but could give her a few more functional years: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/fran-s-hella-pretty-lyme-fighting-army?c=home As a thank-you-gift she will send some of her poetry, or other artistic offerings from her friends.
I have to say that every special book by Heather Spergel is a gift to the world. Especially Nini Spergelini Guitar-ific! This delightful rocking children’s story is created for kids of all ages and is chalked full of wonderful unique illustrations. It’s a limitless adventure showing a talented boy following his dreams through his determined imagination and beyond. Truly a one of a kind book that I know you and your family are sure to treasure for years to come!
Nini Spergelini Guitar-Ific may be purchased here: http://www.amazon.com/NiNi-Spergelini-Guitar-Ific-Heather-Spergel/dp/0983214859
By popular demand, the musical revue Amerikana: Made in the Philippines returned to the San Francisco Bay Area. For one April night, the back room of the Fort McKinley Restaurant and Bar cast a gentle spotlight on the Filipino-American immigrant experience.
Amerikana, a nickname for a Filipino immigrant to the United States, is billed as the true-life story of one woman’s journey to find a better life and locate her long-lost sister. Lead character, and director, Fe de los Reyes discovered as a young adult that she had a sister she’d never met, who had been adopted by an American family and raised without much knowledge of her background. So, she sets off for the USA, braving bureaucratic immigration procedures and a complex job search along the way.
The background music was loud for such a small venue. Especially the Fort McKinley, which offers elegant waterfall and rock sculptures and hanging baskets of flowers. Sometimes the music overwhelmed the delicate lyrics, which revolved around subtle mispronunciations and attitudes conveyed through tone of voice.
Yet, we were able to follow the story, even when we could not make out every word. This was mostly due to Fe de los Reyes and the cast’s strength as performers – their energy, variety of facial expressions, and movement across the entire stage. Fe possesses a natural ability to communicate through humor, without trivializing the loneliness, curiosity, hope and frustration of many of the immigrants she portrayed. She and many others accomplished this through mannerisms and song lyrics, such as the wry ‘Money Isn’t Everything…but it Almost Is.’
The musical only briefly touched upon Fe’s journey to find her sister, which left me curious about how that happened. The program does pay tribute to the sister as a key member of the cast, saying the play likely would never have been produced without her. And her story ties in to the overall plot, as her path reflects the journeys of some immigrants, who discover their heritage at a later age. Still, it would have been interesting to see this explored, especially since Fe brings up her search several times in the first act, while applying for her green card.
Much of the story deals with obtaining paperwork and official permission to come to the United States. This seems almost harder for Fe and her castmates than adjusting to the language, or the people, or the culture here, and serves as a statement of that reality.
One scene portrays the broader confusion and dislocation of the immigrant experience, again with the musical’s characteristic exaggerated humor. Ninjas representing problems such as ignorance, discrimination and misinformation attack Fe in her bedroom, conveying the constant waking nightmare of living in fear of poverty and deportation. Although Fe wins out over each of these masked bandits while the audience cheers, these full-grown men survive, and would pose real danger if they actually hit her, so the scene leaves us uneasy. She’s not vanquished her enemies, just lasted another day.
Even though the characters’ hardships persist, the musical leaves us with a hopeful feeling. Near the end, Fe and much of the rest of the cast come and perform a slow piece on traditional Filipino percussion and string instruments. Here she affirms that she will never forget her beloved Philippines. This song is one of the most complex and musically strongest of the entire production.
When juxtaposed with the finale, a rousing remix of the title Amerikana theme, we see that Fe has found a way to live as both an American and a Filipina. Unlike her sister, she has had the opportunity to understand and embrace the positive aspects of both cultures.
Book Periscope: What’s New in Self-Published and Small Press Books
A column from avid reader Elizabeth Hughes
A Travelogue in Four Parts
I spent the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013 in Borneo. These are the notes I took while on the island. A warning: the following account is personal, biased, unedited, and in some places, the truth has been stretched to make for a more interesting read.
In the previous entry, the reader found that the narrator – a bleary-eyed troubadour with a bitter distaste for holidaymakers – was coping well with the unfamiliar terrain, unpredictable weather, and unimpressive food…
2 December 2012, 5:28 PM
Last night was memorable. We stayed at a friend’s house in a tiny village just outside of Kuching – Siol Kandis – and spent much of the night sitting on the upstairs balcony, under the stars, the air full of fireflies and music. The house was rustic, and its blue and yellow chipped paint gave it a Caribbean feel. Sitting on the deck, talking, listening to Bob Marley, Ben Harper, Radiohead, Buena Vista Social Club – slide guitar punctuated by the yelps of roosters and stray dogs, the clouds dark with rain, the mosquito coil burning ash. “From where you’d rather be.” All that was missing was the Corona and lime.
We must’ve sat up on that deck for hours, the sky darkening and the prospect of heading back into Kuching for dinner seeming more and more unpleasant. But stomachs can be an amazingly motivating force, and we ventured into the night in search of food. Kuching is perhaps even more pleasant at night than it is by day. The heat is gone, the lights on the riverfront shine bright, food stalls spangle the boardwalk. Food is plentiful, and we end up across the river – the small ferry costs 50 cents – at a covered food court. I order eight (lapan) satay chicken skewers and a plate of white rice. I pour the satay sauce onto my rice and eat it with the chicken. It’s a simple dish, not entirely adventurous, but tasty. And compared to my father’s laksa – noodle soup with prawns and coconut, which sounds good in theory but generally turns out greasy or watery – I was more than happy with my meal.
It begins to pour around 9 p.m.
This is the first of the rainy season I’ve experienced. The raindrops are like an American tourist: fat, clumsy and erratic. The torrential downpour continues intermittently throughout the rest of the night.
I slept soundly and woke this morning to the sound of the rooster’s cry. It is an irritating, yet natural way to wake, and I can imagine getting used to it. I like being up at 6, before sunrise and before the heat. Sleeping in ’til midday, like I would do at college, now seems pathetic. The best part of the day happens before lunch. The second best part of the day is the evening. Between 12 and 4 it’s uncomfortable to be outside.
We drive from Kuching to Serikin for the Sunday morning market. On the way we pass miles of development; facsimiles of Western suburbia; subdivisions and strip malls. Sarawak is a community in transition. The people have gone from rural villages to identical gated housing estates. From market stalls to Giant supermarket chains. The government subsidizes cars so that everyone can drive, but the roads cannot accommodate all the new traffic. So we sit, jammed, and wait for a chance to overtake. What was once the world’s oldest rainforest is now a suburban sprawl.
Serikin is border country; it’s the closest town to Indonesia. I see armed military and think how uncomfortable their army fatigues must be. They look fatigued. The market is mostly for Malaysian tourists; we are the only orang putih there. Stalls are set up along a dusty road, selling everything from Angry Birds pyjamas, to knockoff Ray-Bans, to durian ice cream, to cane furniture. The vendors are relaxed and don’t pressure us to buy anything. As I said, it’s a tourist market, but a Malaysian tourist market. Serikin isn’t even listed in Lonely Planet. It may as well not exist.
I struggle with guide books. On one hand I love them, love the adventure and the writing and the backpacker romanticism, but on the other hand, I hate the attitude they foster: if it ain’t in the book, it ain’t worth the time. Lonely Planet is more than just a guide, it is the definitive reference for travel. This mentality is killing the intrepid spirit of the wayward traveller. If it’s in Lonely Planet, it’s not ‘off beaten path’ – the shh! don’t tell marketing is a laugh. You show up to the ‘unspoiled’ beach only to find a hundred other travellers there already. All searching for that unbeaten path. It is essential to stray from the guide book – to use Lonely Planet only as a ‘guide’ and not the be-all-end-all scripture it has become.
The rains have come. It’s 6:07 p.m. and the sky is a thousand shades of grey. My favourite smell in the world is fresh rain drying on hot tarmac. I smell that now. The stronger the rain, the hotter the ground, the better the smell.
3 December, 5:56 AM
The smell. That’s what I’ll remember most about this place… the smell. Your eyes can play tricks on you, but the nose never lies. A picture may speak a thousand words, but only a smell can recreate an experience. I can look at a photo and remember where it was taken, what was happening, but it’s more like remembering a film than recalling the actual experience – I look at myself, third person perspective, rather than occupying my body at that moment. I’ve found through my travels that only a smell can capture the real essence of a place – only a smell can transport you back to an exact moment. A memory smell: you rarely expect them, they surprise and disorientate, but are always welcome.
The smell of a certain laundry detergent, floating down an open drain, takes me right back to Monteverde, Costa Rica. The smell of heavily air-conditioned supermarkets takes me back to Barcelona. And I will always remember Southeast Asia by the smell of rotting fruit. It’s not a bad smell, but it’s pungent. Piles of fruit carcasses rotting on the curb. Rambutan husks littered like cigarette butts. The overripe smell of fruit orchards – surplus fruit, wasted fruit, rotting fruit.
Borneo has a distinct fruit smell; a smell that is wholly unique and unlike anything I’ve smelt before. Durian. A thorny fruit – coconut like in size, hard-shelled – with an overpowering smell, oh that durian smell. It’s everywhere. In restaurants, national parks, shopping centres, even our house. Durian is a specialty of Malaysia, they grow elsewhere, but nowhere as prevalent. Durian vendors line the streets, the sides of highways, villages, cities. Everywhere. Inescapable.
It’s not the smell of napalm in the morning, it’s the smell of durian.
The smell is far beyond description. But the taste… that’s something else. Two nights ago we were invited over to the neighbour’s house for a quick introduction. Within five minutes of arrival, we’re offered some durian. The eldest son, Ming, brings the fruit out on a chopping board. He clumsily cuts through the thick shell with a comically-large knife. Once opened, the smell is intensified. The air feels hot and thick. My tongue is swollen. I scoop up a piece of durian flesh, it has the consistency of dough. The smell is bad, the taste is slightly better. A salty tang, an almost meat-like texture, a creamy and smoky aftertaste. For the next 24 hours everything tastes like durian. The ‘King of Fruits’: conquered.
Outside the jungle is thick with mist. Or is it fog? The ground is wet. It’s 6:30 a.m. and my arms itch with mosquito bites. It’s impossible to sleep without open windows, but that means mosquitoes. I had a coil burning, and a plug-in repellent on all night, but I’m still bitten up. My thigh itches. I scratch and it feels better, but then it feels worse. The best thing for mosquito bites is rubbing alcohol – it dries the bite, and kills the itch.
Yesterday, on the way back from Serikin, we veer off the main road and stop at a cave. A Buddhist cave. Right outside of Bau, the cave is a spiritual landmark in the area, frequented by primarily Chinese residents who pray at the Buddha’s feet. But the cave is also a natural wonder. Huge and cathedral-like – fitted with speakers playing Tibetan chants on loop – smoky with incense. It is free to enter, and donations are expected for incense sticks and candles. Once again, we are the only orang putih – the cave is full of Chinese families quietly praying. There’s a white stone Buddha sitting on a high ledge inside the entrance of the cave. There’s a rock in front of the Sublime One that is smooth from decades (centuries?) of kneeling worship. The cave shrine – cavernous temple – holy hole in the wall. I wash my hands in a shallow tub, and my impurities float away.
My brother was sick last night. Perhaps food poisoning, water-borne bug, or general heat exhaustion – he projectile vomited for three hours straight, poor soul. We haven’t been eating or drinking carefully. Ice in drinks is often made with unfiltered water – it’s advised not to swallow it. There’s a bit of an urban myth here that says ice with a hole in it, that is, smooth and shapely ice, is from filtered water. Take that with a grain of salt (or a cube of ice) but I’ve been eating the ice since day one. It’s one of my favourite ways of battling the heat, and I always order my drinks on the rocks. But still, we really ought to be more careful with what we put in our bodies. My brother’s torrent of bodily fluids was a warning against carelessness.
We stayed in for dinner: three steaming boxes of nasi putih kosong (plain white rice), with soy sauce, crushed peanuts and a chili paste mixed in. It was a good meal; basic, but safe; filling and easy. Cheap – RM1 (1 Malaysian Ringgit) – 40 NZ cents.
And now it’s quarter past seven – today we will explore the wider Kuching area, brave the huge shopping centres, visit the nearby Wind Cave, and Bau’s Blue Lake. Tomorrow we fly to Sabah, for 11 days of beach and jungle.
It’s 7:30 a.m. on the lost island of Borneo. Sarawak. Monday. It’s hot and I’m ready for adventure.
[4 December to 5 January – no entries logged – 33 days of silence]
6 January 2013, 10:07 AM
Where to begin. It’s been over a month since I last wrote, thirty-three days of silence. It’s a new year, 2013, and while I’ve never been one for resolutions, it feels like a good time to start writing again. I have excuses, reasons for my absence: unsafe accommodation, inappropriate weather, river crossings, limited luggage, a technology-free sojourn. I didn’t write for the right reasons. But still, it is time to document once more; time to reflect and remember; transcribe and transform my memories into words, sentences; cement with syntax. Immortalize. It’s the sixth day of the new year, it’s not raining but it will soon. The air is stale. No, that’s not right. The air is fresh, tangy with a jungle bite, it’s my sensory perceptions that are stale. My skin and finger tips are blunt, rusty, stale. I’ve showered twice today already, but I feel the itch of perspiration all over. My toe is infected; it’s going septic. I’m going septic. It throbs and glares and demands attention. My mind wanders… Where to begin.
A linear chronology of the events of the past month is difficult. My mind is muddied. Was I stung by a jellyfish before I saw the pit viper? Had I already suffered through food poisoning when we swam with sea turtles in the South China Sea? The progression of things matters far less than the isolated moments. The to-and-from and connecting-the-dots is of little importance. What remains, after days of fever and infection and exhaustion, is a series of beautiful vignettes. A collection of moments that float to the surface of a month’s worth of memories – scenes of significance amongst weeks and weeks of sweat and insomnia – captured in ink on the pages of a crumpled notebook, captured in pixels on the viewfinder of a digital camera, captured in scars that cling to my body.
Where to begin.
From seat 14C, I watch the sun rise over the equator. From 40,000 feet in the air, the light of a new morning is life-affirming. We land at Kota Kinabalu (KK) International Airport, and wait for our car, consuming cup after cup of dishtowel coffee to ward off sleep. KK is the capital of Sabah, the northern state of Borneo, the Land Beneath the Wind. Whatever that means. Outside the ground shimmers, hazy, unsettled. In sympathy with the climate, my stomach flips and contorts and cramps. I writhe. In downtown KK, where the ocean laps at the salty shore, there aren’t any public toilets. At this point my stomach is erupting from my asshole, and I’m dangerously close to losing all remaining shreds of dignity. The impatient attendant at tourist information points to the right, and 20 sen later I’m squatting over a dirty hole in the ground. It’s a roofless restroom, and as I squat and explode, I stare up at the hot midday sun.
Crouching over a stained squat-toilet, losing weight at a sickening pace, surrounded by the scent of a thousand rotting corpses (the bilious smell of dried urine, faeces, bad plumbing and, quite literally, dead and decomposing rats) really puts things in perspective. ‘Appreciate the little things’ – was the fortune cookie wisdom I could derive from this experience. And staring up to the heavens, as my bowels descended into the fetid squalor of hell, I offered a silent prayer to the lavatorial gods, eternally grateful that I didn’t have to go through this shit every day.
The remainder of our time in KK was filled with night markets, overpriced seafood meals, a breakfast buffet with above average waffles, and an impossibly blue un-chlorinated swimming pool at The Palace Hotel. The hotel was a sanctuary amidst the relentless heat of the north of Borneo. The quiet and calm hotel room perfection was such a relief. Arriving back to our room after a day of walking and sweating was like slipping into a clean, icy-cold (A/C set to 20ºC) glacial pool.
I ate six waffles on the morning of the December 5th.
The islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman Park (TARP – they love their acronyms here), were over-crowded but extremely accessible. Speeding across the South China Sea, wandering through the jungle to find the ‘right’ beach, encountering monitor lizards of a disconcertingly prehistoric variety, snorkelling in the lapis lazuli water – save for Koh Samui, it was the best snorkelling of my life – surrounded by fish of all kinds. (I’d use adjectives like kaleidoscopic to describe the sea life, but that would make me feel self-conscious). The marine reserve was a worthy destination. Out of the five islands that make up TARP, we chose Sapi (the most touristed, but apparently most beautiful), and Mamutik (the most relaxed, but lacking in sandy beaches). Mamutik provided the better snorkelling by a landslide, was calmer and more beautiful. Sapi was loud and full of Chinese revellers who wore lifejackets in shin-deep water. Say what you like about the strength of their economy and industry and world dominance, the Chinese have got to learn to swim.
On Sapi, while traversing the island in search of a less populated beach, I fell down a slight rock-face and ripped my swim shorts from crotch to waist. I scratched my knee against a rough piece of coral, and walked away from the island minus a pair of togs, with a coat of fresh blood on my leg. It was to be the first of many falls and scratches and bloodied limbs. I walked away from the island with the bruised kind of satisfaction that only the walking wounded can attest to.
The ceiling fan spins, lazily, despite being set to the fastest speed. For a second I’m Martin Sheen, in a burned-out hotel room in ‘Nam. For a second I hear Jim Morrison wail, as the jungle turns to flames. For a second I’m haunted; the horror, the horror. And then my toe throbs and pulses and I’m back. I’ve covered my poor hallux in anti-septic cream, and after a visit to the local clinic last week am on a strict antibiotic regiment, eight pills a day. How my toe got so bad is a mystery to me. It is the same toe that was operated on last year; the toenail that refuses to grow straight and instead grows into my skin. It’s ingrown again, and in this humidity, it got infected fast. I limp, and it aches, and should it come into contact with any kind of solid object, a sharp blast of pain splinters through my whole foot. It’s going septic, I think. And the ceiling fan continues to spin, and I wish it would speed up.
On the final day of 2012, I saw a full-grown male orangutan. It looked so serene, yet at the same time, I knew it could crush my skull between its meat-cleaver fists. And despite its ostensible calm, it reeked power. Its eyes hurt. The others spoke of how friendly and gentle it looked, but I saw violence. When the giant ape swung down from the tree, and walked across the viewing platform, I was the first to back away. The orangutan was in control. It was an amazing creature.
Kota Belud is the last town before Mañana Beach Resort. Oh the novelty of being white in a small town. The stares we received, not hostile, but interested. We were alien – not altogether unfamiliar, for tourists did pass through these parts – and out of place. We ate food (noodles and rice and teh tarik – the Malay equivalent of a hamburger and fries). We stocked up on supplies (nuts and crackers and cups of noodles). We left.
In a tiny seaside village, a dozen kids in rags run and laugh. I think: they look happier than most of the pre-adolescents I know. Shacks on the beach, the smell of fish and burning embers, the rotting smile of poverty.
Mañana: bungalows on a private beach, only accessible by boat. Our accommodation: a small hut, mosquito net, sandy floors, sea views. Location, location, location. A View to Kill For. Any closer to the sea and you’d be wet.
Swimming in the South China Sea in rain and sun, by dawn sky or full moon, the horizon burning in the distance. The sky is on fire. Later I find out there’s oil in the seabed, and the sky is only aflame when the excess oil is burned off in the evening. Still, it’s a great effect. Great effect.
I read in my hammock, the sound of the water reminds me of home. Lying on a foam mattress, under a thin mosquito net – rain falls heavily onto our tin roof and the waves seem to lap at the door. I feel like I’m in a reggae song; all that’s missing is the grass. Oil wells burn at the edge of the Earth. I’m hot, humid, uncomfortable, wide awake, but happy. I’m on a private beach, in the north of Borneo, and I’m happy. I’m covered in insect bites, coral wounds, lice rashes and salt (from sweat and sea), but I’m happy. Who wouldn’t be?
Mañana was relaxing, but after three days we were all ready to go. Paradise was lost when I saw a large rat dig through my bag. I was hit with the realization that I was in the most bio-diverse place on the planet, separated from the millions of insect species (three new species of insect are discovered every month in Borneo) by a flimsy net. And there were rats. My nights at Mañana were long, but all was forgotten and forgiven in the morning as I ran straight into the warm and clear sea. I know of no better way to start the day. The food was good – fluffy pancakes for breakfast and dinner, plentiful noodles and rice (of course), and cold drinks. I read, and finished three books, and my skin browned under the Bornean sun. I lost track of time, and my temporal mind entirely. Like a Vegas casino, there were no clocks anywhere. I felt like I was living in a glossy-paged travel brochure.
December 8th: or, how I learned to stop worrying and accept the pain of a jellyfish sting
Jellyfish are evil bastards. They float, inconspicuously in the waves, and attack with menace and no mercy. To call it a predator is giving the jellyfish far too much credit, as it simply waits for unsuspecting prey to breach its space. They mar the seas (Spanish pun, anyone?), spoil the scenery, and destroy the skin. And on the eighth day of the final month of 2012, I experienced the bright and electric pang of a jellyfish sting. During my morning swim I noticed a number of ghostly shapes in the water. At first I assumed they were plastic bags – rubbish from the mainland often ends up on the beach; the urban jetsam was cleaned up each morning by a cigarette-smoking, fat and toothless Malaysian man. I quickly realized that the water was full of jellyfish, giant things, their long, purple tentacles dangling nonchalantly. Backing up to the beach, my eyes on the savage jellyfish in front of me, I entirely missed the jellyfish that was behind me, and felt a sharp, hot pain shoot up my leg, (now that I think about it, it’s very similar to the pain I’m currently feeling in my septic toe).
Ali G (the boatman) ran to get vinegar. When he came back with a small bottle and knelt over my leg, I thought he was going to urinate on me. Pee on a jellyfish sting, they tell you. Thank god for vinegar. It neutralized the poison, and dulled the pain. Thank god for Ali G, he peeled the tentacles off my foot and leg, and rubbed wet sand onto the wound. The pain: imagine wrapping your foot in boiling hot, electrified barbed wire. That’s what my right foot and lower leg felt like.
The sting: an intense, white heat, like a thousand needles. The aftermath: long, red, angry welts across my foot and around my ankle. Secretly, I hoped it would scar. To have gone through the pain and the trauma, only to emerge unblemished would be terribly unfair. It did scar, though only faintly. And nearly a month later I look at my foot and see the pale scars, in the shape of jellyfish tentacles.
The night of the sting the rain came down in sheets, threatening the simple bungalow architecture. It was as if Poseidon himself were raging at the door. On a private beach, in the north of Borneo, in the middle of a tropical, equatorial cyclone, my foot painfully throbbed…
My foot throbs. I stand up to get painkillers (I only have common Panadol – how I long for my codeine supply), and nearly buckle over in pain. I sit back down to write. And action…
The Tip of Borneo hasn’t happened yet. The cancer of tourism has yet to spread to its golden shores. It will though, it’s only a matter of time. Everything has an expiration date. The Tip of Borneo is still fresh, largely undiscovered, untainted. It is beautiful. Spangled with virgin beaches, tropical waters, thick and healthy rainforest. It is alive. Wild. Fucking beautiful.
Kudat is the hub of the Tip, and we passed through on market day. Everything’s for sale. Tobacco is perhaps the most popular commodity sold: wizened old men and women smoke and chew and spit fresh tobacco. We check email and news at a cyber cafe (a CC – acronyms for everything I tell you), as eight-year-olds kill hookers on Grand Theft Auto. Does society reflect the media, or is it the other way around?
Christmas decorations are for sale at a Muslim supermarket. There’s holly strung up next to the mosque. Malaysia is a truly multi-cultural place. Christianity, Buddhism and Islam coexist, and the respective religious holidays are celebrated by all. The Chinese Buddhists will have a Christmas dinner, and the Bidayuh Christians will have a day off on Ramadan. Satu Malaysia (One Malaysia) goes the government propaganda, and while there is the inevitable religious and cultural conflict, it is a largely harmonious place. It is more blasé than accepting – the people don’t care which god you worship – and Catholic churches are built alongside Buddhist temples.
We stay at Tampat Do Aman (in Rungus, the local dialect, it means ‘place of peace’). It’s an eco-lodge and rustic as hell. But we sleep. And sleep well. There’s an Australian volunteer school group taking up six of the ten rooms – from across the hall I hear one of the teachers call out “Good night John-boy.” Like they do in The Beach or from that television show. It feels like a bizarre coincidence, as I was reading The Beach that night, but he’s probably just read the book too. A lot of people around here have read that book.
We spend a week at the Tip. Our time is divided between Tampat and Tommy’s Place. Tommy’s is far nicer with A/C, tiled floors, and our own private balcony. We drive down dirt roads to small beaches. At Pantai Kembala we find sea turtles. But they could have been otters. It was that kind of encounter. The ‘I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure those are sea turtles’ kind of encounter. But since otters don’t make a habit of swimming in the South China Sea, we were happy to declare the black shapes in the water sea turtles. Later it was confirmed that that particular beach was known as a breeding ground for turtles. So, yeah. Sea turtles.
The amount of rubbish on the beach was unfortunate.
At Tampat we watched the sun rise over the rice paddies, as twenty-eight Australian volunteers ate breakfast together. Is there any sound as grating as an Australian accent?
On the way to Kota Maruda it began to rain. And although a rainbow had yet to stretch the expansive divide between land and sky, bridging the mortal soil and infinite blue, there in the rear-view mirror, soaked in the sudden drops of water and glimmering in the morning haze, it wasn’t especially hard to imagine one.
The guidebook says that you can see the Philippines from the very tip of Borneo. Standing next to the cast-iron monument that marks the northernmost tip of the island, if I squint, I can almost make out the husks of the islands of the Philippines in the distance. Tommy’s Place is a welcome escape from the gritty ‘eco-friendly’ simplicity (read: horribly under-equipped) of Tampat. Ours is a brand-new villa, built on a hill amongst tall and lanky coconut palms. There’s a palm-thatched deck area, with a bamboo boardwalk to the villa, a mini-fridge and cane furniture. Inside there’s comfortable beds, air-conditioning and a powerful shower. A hidden blue light gives the room a modern and oh-so-hip look. Pardon my superlatives, but the beach was one of the nicest I have ever seen. In the world. The water was by far the best I have ever had the pleasure to swim in. Warm, perfectly clear, sandy-bottomed… I’m tempted to use Biblical descriptors like Edenic and Elysian; hell, even empyrean could be used to paint an image of Technicolor beauty.
The sea looked like desktop wallpaper; like default Windows wallpaper.
Stop me if I’ve gone too far.
At night, from our balcony at Tommy’s, we watch the sun set. The coconut palms were silhouetted against the violet (violent) sky and the colours were so exaggerated that if I saw a painting like it, I’d think it was cheesy. There’s some things that shouldn’t be captured. A picture rarely speaks a thousand words.
I walk to the tip of Borneo, climb over the ‘Do Not Pass’ sign, and amble down to the rocky outcrop. At the very tip of the tip of Borneo, the tippiest-tip, I stand, arms flung wide, the wind stealing my cries of victory. The incoming tide threatens my position, and water spills onto the rocks, pulling at my legs, the Philippines beckoning me closer. Those salty Filipinos, with their greased-back ponytails and pockmarked grins; selling cigarettes for a tenth of the price at the supermarket (which is already a hundredth of the price back home); the Mexicans of Borneo… shit, did I just say that? What I meant to say was: the hardworking, illegal aliens of Borneo; the backbone of the island’s industry, the grease that turns the cogs of commerce. No, that’s not right either. The Filipinos are just chasing the dream, in the same way that my friends in New Zealand move to Australia for work, or how my friends in small-town USA move to the city.
The grass is always greener. The gleam of money is always brighter on the other side.
Sipping chilled water out of a glass Gin bottle – the bottle sweating as much as I am – as the heat slowly fades. It’s just turned four, and I’ve been writing for almost the entire day. Painkillers numb my toe, but it still throbs. The streets are full, seriously fucking full, of wild dogs and roosters and spiders and snakes and feral cats. Roosters caw, and dogs yelp, and cat carcasses lie stripped on the roadside – emptied of meat, long gone. This morning a spider the size of a baseball mitt (an XL mitt) dropped from the ceiling onto the stovetop. It was fast too, not one of those lumbering furry tarantulas, but a quick and mean long-legged hunter. The kind of spider that fights back as you’re crushing it with a shoe. Of course I knew there were spiders and snakes and scorpions living in the house, in the ceiling, inside couches and under beds. But up until then, I hadn’t seen any. Seeing that spider, that beast of an arachnid, confirmed the fact that we were not alone in this house. Ignorance is bliss, and the spider was a wake-up call that screamed, “Hey! We’re here! Try and forget about us when you’re lying in bed tonight!” Biodiversity is a euphemism for ‘horribly outnumbered.’
We left the Tip of Borneo in a torrent of equatorial rain. The palm trees bending horizontally in the squall, blinding sheets of rain, thunderclaps like cannon-fire; a tropical storm is theatrically intense. It was unimaginable to be anywhere but our air-conditioned and watertight Proton Saga. The Saga. The Civic of Borneo. The Corolla of Malaysia. Cheap yet sturdy, comfortable yet efficient, it’s a Malaysian-made car that is beyond ubiquitous. Owning a silver Saga is akin to eating rice and noodles for dinner: inevitable and boring. But rice and noodles can sometimes taste delicious, and the Saga has been a dependable companion.
Kudat to KK via Mount Kinabalu National Park. The pool at Palace Hotel and a South Indian meal on Gaya Street (the Khao San Road of Borneo). Twenty kids are killed today in one of the worst massacres in US history – Sandy Hook enters the annals of school shooting sites, along with Virginia Tech and Columbine. After the news, I watch The Last Airbender, a film I can calmly declare to be the worst I’ve ever seen.
On December 16th we flew back to Kuching, drove back to Bau, and everything felt surprisingly familiar and comfortable. Despite the fact that before our Sabah trip we had only been in Sarawak for five nights, arriving back in Bau felt like coming home. It seems to be human nature to establish a base no matter where you are in the world. We deem a place ‘home’, make a mark, piss a perimeter, and it is ours. Home isn’t where the heart is, it’s the place we can smell our own urine. And arriving back to Bau – our shoes by the door, our clothes strewn around the house, dried urine on the toilet seat – our scent was strong and clear.
I’m satisfied now, happier than I’ve been in a while. Without writing I feel bottled up, broken, burnt out. This is therapeutic for me, but more than that, it’s expressive. We all need an outlet, and while my brother finds his at the lens of a camera, I feel most comfortable with the vast arsenal of words that bleed from my fingertips. With the flex of a finger, the click of a shutter, a moment can be captured; and with a well-turned phrase, so I capture mine. Looking back on old photographs, the smiles and landscapes seem a century away, and so two-dimensional. A sentence written in the past however, comes alive as soon as it is read. I write for myself today, and for myself in the future. I write to transform a decaying thought into a concrete insight.
I have a remaining thirteen days on this island.
It’s a new year, I’m in a new country, life is full of new opportunities and experiences. If 2012 was the end of time, then 2013 is a new beginning.
Lukas Clark-Memler lives in Madison, Wisconsin and can be reached at email@example.com
I turned the corner
and there it was!
a row of houses
each filled with imagination
I scribbled down the street
held by a free-hand –
a life of permanence
unable to erase memories
I skipped up the steps
only to discover a locked door –
a repeated occurrence
even at the last attempted point
I exclaimed at the threshold
of a lost original thought
to be formed somewhere inside
the living spaces of tomorrow
yes – there I was! on Writers Block –
a neighborhood of experiences
marked by errors and flowing ideas
if only I had the courage to knock
Dave Douglas © 2011
Etel Adnan at work
Etel Adnan at work
“Why is a Solar Ray Burning My Eye When the Sky Still Lies in Ice?”
Words and Places: Etel Adnan
California College of the Arts Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts
Through June 29
A review by Christopher Bernard
This retrospective of the artistic and literary career of the Lebanese artist, poet, novelist, essayist and journalist Etel Adnan is a major event, not only for the local art and literary community, but also for members of the Middle Eastern diaspora in the San Francisco Bay Area, and for the many, displaced by conflict and war, who have had to bestride cultures in an attempt to maintain a complex identity in a constantly and often violently changing world. Etel Adnan’s resilient spirit, her vitality and warmth, glow in the work like a tough flame.
San Franciscans are fortunate to have this wide-ranging exhibition of drawings, paintings, poetry, videos and films by, or about, one of the most important living writers of Middle Eastern descent – it is one of history’s minor ironies that Adnan, who was born in Beirut in 1925, then moved to Paris, where she was just young enough to meet the ageing André Gide, lived in the Bay Area for several decades and only now is getting a major exhibit here (she currently lives in Paris again).
The centerpiece of the exhibit, for me, is Adnan’s arguably most dazzling creations: her leporellos, or folding art books: accordion-like “scrolls,” from a couple of feet to several yards long, some made up of ink or ink-and-watercolor drawings on separate panels or smeared and blotted between folds, others painted in large strokes like Japanese foldout landscapes – displaying drawings like abstract ideograms, smudges of explosions or flowers, of a striking energy and delicacy. Other leporellos include scraps of verse, surreally enigmatic aphorisms, and entire poems, including what may be Adnan’s masterpiece, from 1968: “Funeral March for the First Cosmonaut,” on the death of Yuri Gagarin.
Another leporello of note is “Late Afternoon Poem,” also from 1968, in which the poet and artist asks the perennially relevant question, “Why is a newsman caught in a crossfire while reporting something he does not care to know?” and later asks the profounder one: “Why is a solar ray burning my eye when the sky still lies in ice?” Other leporellos include “Five Senses for One Death” and several smaller ones, including “Sausalito” and “View From My Window.”
The exhibition is of interest not only for the light it sheds on Adnan’s exuberant synergy of talents but also because it places her work in a context of work by other important artists whose work addresses similar themes and follows similar approaches: filmmaker Chris Marker, director and visual artist Rabih Mroué, and the artist collective, The Otolith Group.
Marker, the late doyen of experimental cinema, is represented by his film Junkopia, about the outdoor statues along the bayside in Emeryville, which he made on a visit to the Bay Area in the early 1980s. There are rhymes and echoes between his shots of the bricolage spooks and cast-off avatars on the mudflats of the East Bay and the lively explosions of black, like midnight roses, that populate many of Adnan’s ink paintings.
Fellow Lebanese Moure is represented by a short film of a house in Beirut being blown to pieces, the film shuttling back and forth in time, so that the exploding house seems to move from ruins back to wholeness, then ahead again to ruins, in a jagged, jazzy rhythm, while a voiceover speaks about the tension between remembering and forgetting, or rather the compulsion to remember and the need to forget: “I am not telling in order to remember. On the contrary, I am telling in order to make sure that I have forgottten, or at least to make sure I have forgotten something . . .”
Lining the walls of the gallery are drawings and oil paintings that Adan has made over the decades: the paintings are often simple geometries that evoke landscapes and still-lifes, some with an awkward luminosity reminiscent of an abstract Morandi.
Also included is a slideshow of articles Adnan wrote in the 1970s for the francophone Beirut newspaper Al-Safa, and a table displaying Adnan’s books, including the modern classics of displacement, Sitt Marie Rose and The Arab Apocalypse.
In the back gallery is an installation where a film about the poet by The Otolith Group is screened, titled (quoting from a poem by Adnan) I See Infinite Distance Between Any Point and Another. The French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard is quoted as saying it is almost impossible to film a person reading – the experience is entirely internal, indecipherable: the only filmable signs are the blinking of the eyes, pursing of the lips, a deepening frown of concentration, a body changing position on the chair, in bed, on the beach; the turning of a page. How does a person reading Jane Austen look different from a person reading James Joyce or Karl Marx? How would you be able to see the difference from outside? Perhaps the only way to film it would be to film how that person acts after the reading is over: the reader of Jane Austen tries to say witty things to her lover; the reader of Karl Marx organizes a revolution. This film tries to answer Godard’s challenge by filming the act of reading aloud by Adnan of one of her poems, “Sea and Fog,” with intense close-ups of the poet, thus emphasizing the bodily presence of this most spiritual of acts.
Several films will screen during the exhibition, including Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, Soad Hosni’s Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni, and the delightfully frank and engaging Autoportrait, a filmed self-portrait (perhaps the first of its kind) by Simone Fattal, Adnan’s longtime companion and publisher.
Along the back wall, an installation film Adan made, a celebration of the California landscape, screens in a continuous loop.
Last but surely not least, as part of the exhibition, local artist Lynn Marie Kirby has created a short, witty online collaboration with Adnan, called “Back, Back Again to Paris,” that can be seen at http://lynnmariekirby.com/eteladnan/back_back_again_to_paris.html. It is a kind of love letter to the poet.
Christopher Bernard is a poet, novelist and critic living in San Francisco. His novel A Spy in the Ruins was published by Regent Press (http://www.regentpress.net/spyintheruins). He is also a co-editor of the literary and arts webzine Caveat Lector (www.caveat-lector.org).
Smoke and Mirrors
Time is slow here and reality evades me quickly. Surrounded by angels to sinister for God’s grace, they conjugate here. Intentions to get back from where they have fallen, this place is just a stepping stone. I meet them here. Have a seat if it is affordable or stand where you can see the show is about to start. A smoke screen floods the building, dim lights cast a luster upon the stage and my eyes are immediately drawn to it. Cylindrical poles grow from the stage and make their ascension towards the heavens. A voice comes over the microphone, I never see him because he is stationed behind the audience, but he is just as vital to the show as the talent is.
“Ladies and Gentlemen we have a magical show case prepared for you all today” says the voice over the microphone.
I didn’t come here for David Blaine, but there are Doves and Rabbits. It is never quiet here music plays as people chatter over drinks in anticipation of the show. Waitresses dressed in black pants, white button downs, and little black vests with bowties fill the floor all at once in an effort to serve bottles of alcohol to the guests. Some prevail and others fall by the wayside in an effort to make their tips before the main attractions start to attract. I see this place in its entirety.
It is too late for the waitresses now, that the talent has been summoned to the floor. Four at a time they occupy the stage. They approach from the right and one by one they start their summit up stairs that lead them to the Promised Land. Six inch heels tap the floor as they find their place on stage. The voice over the microphone introduces them by their stage names and drops a song for them to become lucrative to. They dance, but it’s not for the audience. They dance for themselves. They dance for M3 Beamers. They dance for Christian Louboutins and designer bags. Mascots in their own sense they dance for Georgia State, Clark Atlanta, and Spellman. Tuition isn’t cheap and this money is tax free, so I never judge them. Dollars are thrown high and they plummet from the air like snow flurries from the sky. They break sweats and necks with their acrobatic antics. Ascending towards the heavens I wonder where they fell from. Were their fathers ever there to guide them and give them their first glimpse at affection? Probably not if they were there to catch them then these girls would probably have too much self-worth for this place. As beautiful as this place is, it fails in comparison to them. They dance to multiples songs, their hair swings and legs suspend. Who taught them that? They could have joined the Dance team for the Atlanta Hawks, but this money is better. As the first group of girls’ time on stage comes to an end, a man in janitorial attire hands them a trash bag for the dollars that they just acquired. Money is hand racked into large piles and stuffed into white standard sized garbage bags. Every spectator in the room happily watches their money leave them behind, never to return.
The next group takes the stage built like they are ready to compete in an Olympic 4 x 400 meter race. With tight calf muscles and manicured toes they own the ground that they walk on. I can’t help but wonder what landed them here. It’s probably the same thing that landed me here. An avid admirer of the craft I’m here because I lack something. The spectators and the dancers are synonymous in that we all lack. They long for dollars like I long for attention. We all have dreams that we are in constant pursuit of, be it dreams of a Ferrari or just real love. I cannot get mad at them and they are not mad at me. When I’m here I know exactly what to expect, nothing more and nothing less. I can’t remove myself from this place they stand up on a pedestal and work hard for my residuals. Light bill, phone bill, stripper bill; I could have paid back a loan, but instead I spend it here. Young and dumb I have an obsession with good times. My eyes never leave the ladies the graceful, flawless, effortless, flexible, and extremely talented ladies. I wonder if they know that they are appreciated. Too many camp town ladies singing their songs solo, their baby’s fathers have probably never been in a family photo. I commend the ones that take the stage for their beautiful daughters and respectable sons. The hour glass dwindles and times up. This group’s show is complete, the money is hand racked and bagged and moseyed off to the place where the goddesses submerge from.
I go to the bar to get a drink and its Hennessy of course. It’s always Hennessey. The voice comes over the microphone and I hear her name. Kitty she’s who I’ve come to see. She is who I always come to see. I go back and take my place. She has already made her way up the stairs. I didn’t even get to watch her walk. She cut her hair and it looks perfect, I wish I was the first to let her know. Her confidence fills a glass and overflows; this is what attracts me to her. Always talking with her body I let my eyes listen. I can empathize with Paris. I would have taken Helen too. How does she manage to stand out? She clouds my vision and she is all that I see. Infatuated with her perfection I wish I could save her from this place, but she belongs here. A fish out of water if I were to ever bring her around my mother this is her natural habitat. Money motivated, she is an avid exhibitionist. Tattoos on her lower arm and upper left thigh, I wonder if she sleeps alone. What could I offer her? Love and affection maybe, but that doesn’t pay the bills. Nothing more than a broke college student showering her with dollars that I can’t afford to lose. I lose, but I love to watch her dance, so I continue to watch her dance. I notice every inch of her. I have trouble distinguishing if this masterpiece is mom-given or doctor-made, but I don’t care art is art. The smart money is on her, she just made what I make in a week in thirty minutes. We are both twenty two, but she is about to purchase a house and I’m about to take out another loan. That is crazy, yet I’m still here tipping her. She won’t stop until I hand it all over. She pretends to care and I know this, but she pretends so well that I fall for it every time. She asks questions and I answer. I wouldn’t dare ask her to regurgitate my answers because I would be ashamed of the response so I go with the flow and she inevitably breaks me with a grin. Who knows which part of heaven she fell from, I don’t. I just wish I wasn’t addicted to her company.
Their innocence gets pummeled in traffic so where along the way. Then the pretty girls that they are, they are transformed into temptresses and they prey on the feeble minded. Addicted to the plethora of dollars that come in every night, they do what has to be done in order to make ends meet. If they want for anything, there are no worries because they can afford it on their own. Who’s to blame for tainting them? Not me, but I must admit I do contribute to their excessive desires. I don’t make the mistake of taking it personally. They use me, but they use everyone. Who am I to judge they satisfy my lust, so in a way I use them as well. Neither of us is any more wrong than the other. I just ask that the Lord has mercy on our souls.
Piece by Darion Wilson of Georgia Southern University, author may be reached here: firstname.lastname@example.org