Monday, January 5, 2015

First night in a new space

It’s funny calling a space that doesn’t smell like you home.

This apartment doesn’t smell like my home. It doesn’t smell like me. The air smells like someone else, like someone else’s home.

The cat is panicked. She doesn’t know what to think. She doesn’t want to be here. She doesn’t think this is some great adventure. Her mind is set to going home, to sleeping all day, slipping outside in the evening, and running the block all night.

She won’t eat. Her water is untouched. Genevieve paces the apartment once, then once again, then hides under the bed, perches by me in bed.

Adam and I have just moved into a new apartment together. Nothing is unpacked; the apartment is stacked with boxes and bags. Delivery pizza sits on the table. We have a DVD of “Are You Afraid of the Dark” playing on my laptop.

The front left of the couch lacks a foot and an abridged version of Gibson’s Fall and Decline of the Roman Empire currently supports it.

Exhausted from moving furniture all day, we plan to eat, move a few things out of boxes, then try to fall asleep if the cat doesn’t spend the entire night meowing, plaintive and afraid.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Moving days

I have keys to our new apartment and I’m looking around at the boxes and bags and piles of trash and plants and all the furniture and I am wondering how it all will fit in our new space. I am wondering how it all ever fit in the space I have. I wonder why I keep things that are broken, that I don’t use.

Adam and I are moving in together. We found this place not too far from where I am living now. It is small but not unaffordable. It’s on the MAX line and easy to get to. Several friends live nearby. It’s not modern and new but it’s not unlovely. It has potential.

I met the woman from the property management office today to sign the lease and pick up the keys. The place was very cold, but no one has lived in the space for months and the door was open. I have to tell myself it will be fine. The windows are new. The place doesn’t look drafty, but maybe I’m wrong.

The agent instructs me to look around the apartment and make a list of the condition of everything, which is standard but always seems slightly insane to me, as if I, the new tenant, should know everything that should or not should not be wrong or usual about the apartment, as if I can catch and record every detail of the apartment so that at some future I can say yes, but it’s always been like this.

She says to take pictures of everything.

The agent suddenly notices that the hatch to the attic is ajar. She tries the backdoor and it’s unlocked. She looks afraid and tells me she believes there may be a squatter up in the attic, that it often happens, that she will show a residence and find a squatter in the vacant unit. She looks nervous but continues to talk loudly, walking around the apartment. I am nervous at first, watching the hatch in the ceiling to the attic, but nothing changes, no one emerges, particularly not the face of Bob the Devil staring down at me like like he stared up at Laura Palmer’s mother. I try to act casual because I would prefer to finish discussing the apartment and leave so that the agent can call the police or the handyman or her muscle or whoever needs to come and ensure that no one is living in the attic.

I’d like to change my ways. This is a juncture in my life where I have to decide to stop saving everything. I don’t need every letter ever mailed to me. I don’t need the postcards on the fridge, the old printer printed photos family members have mailed me, drawings from my young cousins. I don’t need to keep wires to long lost electric blankets, and batteries, and bad earphones, all of which need to be promptly recycled. I don’t need a tiny plastic bag with the three left over cloves from some past baking experiment. These are all the dregs of my life, the detritus found in the back of drawers, the things I meant to throw away or recycle and pushed ever farther back into a drawer until they were forgotten.

The cat will no longer rule this block of North Albina. She’ll need an adjustment period, but at least we have both a front and back door egress to escape through in our new place. The block is tame, but the roads nearby are busy. I worry about raccoons; the neighbors with the birdhouse will worry about the cat.

I’ll have to leave for work a little earlier in the morning. Adam and I will have to be a little more conscious of each other’s space. I have to be neater, tidier. The cat won’t be able to sit in the window to be let in - I’ll have to remember to check for her at night. I’ll be farther from Red Fox - I won’t drink as much, I’ll save money, I’ll vacation in the spring.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Softly carbonated blue and mornings

Gray and light gray and blue. There’s a patch of white and yellow where the sun is already too high in the sky for it to be 7:30 in the morning. Here in Portland I see so little of the sun, its transverse short and hidden by the low stone wall of winter clouds.

I’ve been waking up so early recently. 6 am and my eyes will spring open, not gradually, and I think, I could go back to sleep, but I can’t. There’s no more sleep to be had. So I read. And I make coffee. I have a little breakfast. I shower and am still late to work.

In the past it has always been hard to wake up in the winter, wake up into the dark still, up out of bed in to that morning air that always the frostiest. Morning cold is always the worst cold. People talk about the comforts they like most in the winter, the things they depend on to propel them through these chilly mornings: slippers, carpeted floors, the heater in the bathroom, the automatic setting on the coffee maker. The northern hemisphere is focused on Christmas and the promise of heated floors for everyone.

It’s actually not that cold this morning. There’s something spring-like about the weather: wet and chilly but not frigid, the morning blue and green. It’s just the Pacific Northwest. Even with global warming, the Pacific Northwest is just like this, the weather unpredictable at times, and some days are mysteriously lovely and springlike even when your brain tells you it’s Christmas and it should be snowing.

When I woke up, I stared out the window through the laced and crisscrossed blue black fingers of the cedar outside my window. Dark against the ambient morning blue, watching it wave, framed by the window, I often find myself expecting some mysterious shadowbox play to begin, its characters rising up out of the dark lines of those branches.

I felt like a kid. I felt like it was spring, and I felt that giddiness that you sometimes feel on spring mornings. It’s a very particular feeling that I associate with some very particular morning when I was seventeen. I can’t remember that morning anymore but I can feel it, right there on the edge of memory. A day that I can never recall but have almost remembered on so many days of my life so that I remember the almost remembering more than I can remember that exact day in my youth. It’s like the bubbling and popping of the brain on Zoloft when everything feels connected in an unspecified, fuzzy, carbonated way.

It’s just a little taste, a little tease. We’ll have some good days, some warm days in February. And we will have a lot of rain. It’ll rain until July. It will rain today and get a bit blustery and it will feel like winter again when we go out of the house to get our errands done. But I’ll find this day again, in late May or June, when the crocuses are blooming and the garden can’t wait for summer, and I’ll remember that I always already almost have remembered this memory before.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Sites for meditation, sites for living, sites for having stuff

A friend years ago had a crush on this girl named Stephanie. I was seventeen at the time and Stephanie was twenty-two, and although both my friend and I felt very mature, I could still tell there was something very different about this twenty-two year old’s life. I thought my friend’s crush on this woman was a little ridiculous - a little too earnest considering the situation. Stephanie did not really seem interested in dating my friend. Stephanie confessed she was having a difficult time with her own relationship. Stephanie had a job other than going to school everyday. So I couldn’t worry that much about my friend’s infatuation with this woman; my friend’s constant pining and concern about what Stephanie thought about her.

I was not impressed by Stephanie. I thought she probably did not return any of my friend’s affection, that perhaps she was even annoyed by it, but tried to protect my friend from any heartbreak even when I thought it would probably be best for everyone if she just came out and said, you’re sixteen and it’s just not going to happen.

However Stephanie’s apartment always impressed me. Its aesthetic affects me still. The apartment was always clean. Small, its walls were white and unpainted. The hardwood floors were a light, honey colored brown. Worn down, they could have used some refinishing. Stephanie owned very little furniture and there were very few decorations. There was a couch, a chair, and a bed with a white cover. She’d hung no paintings on the walls, but there were a few plants set around the apartment, healthy and green, tendrils rappelling down from the top shelf to collect the light from a window overlooking downtown Birmingham.

I always knew that my apartment needed to look like this: simple, white, and clean. 

It never has.

I have too many things. Even now as I look around I see things that I should get rid of. Treasures on tables that I should clear to feel happier, calmer. These things come to me unbidden and I can’t escape them. At work, I have a stuffed monkey and a small spongy purple alien on my desk, gifts from coworkers. And because they’re gifts I can’t get rid of them. They just sit there taking up space and staring at me as I stare at my computer screen. But even the thought of dumping them or stuffing them in a drawer makes me sad, as if the secret world of things had desires and needs for attention and love like animals in a shelter.

I don’t make a lot of trash at all, which sometimes becomes a problem when something starts to stink though the trash bag isn’t a quarter full. But there’s still too much. And there’s still too much stuff here. Just things. Just too many things in my apartment. But I never know what to give or throw away.

There’s always more to get rid of and there’s more to buy. We all have those mental lists of things that we would like, things that would make our lives easier. I dream of new speakers and a new pannier for my bicycle. I need a spray bottle to keep some of the plants moist and a shoe rack to organize the space by the door. I want to finish building this small aquarium to fill with duckweed and Marimo moss balls. I have no idea where I would even put it. There is no more room left for plants. There’s no room for anything. And I don’t need more things. I need fewer.

I saw an advertisement for Amazon’s “Cyber Monday” specials and clicked on the link. I don’t think I knew just what to expect and most of it was uninspiring, the odds and ends of Americana. A thermos. A trampoline. A sale on fleece tops. A set of golf clubs made from plush material for infants. These are the things we could do without, the things we could buy for ourselves when we need them, on a whim, in the grocery store. There are no dreams behind these gifts. They don’t need to be on sale. They are novelties and trivialities.

And then there was the best, most bizarre item being offered up on sale on Amazon’s Cyber Monday. I said, which of these things is not like the others? It’s billed as a “Meditation Grotto of Sorrento.” Within a faux envelope of rock “carved” with roses, a statue of Jesus frowns out, the sacred heart aflame in his chest, his upturned palms punctured and bleeding. 

In the photo it looks as if the statue could be fairly large standing on this lawn, but at thirty-six inches tall, the statue actually seems awkwardly sized, as least to be out in a great open space like this. The seller describes the piece as a, “timeless, European-style grotto… [a] "destination spot" for meditation.” It’s always nice to be able to bring a little bit of classic European meditation inspiration to the United States. I can’t find any reference to a Grotto of Sorrento like this actually existing in Europe.

If I had a lawn, what would be in it? How much more crap would I have? Lawn gnomes and those shiny balls on pedestals. Cheap water fountains lined in black plastic with koi fish swimming for raccoons to eat. A garden overrun with herbs and flowers and plants growing tangle that discourages tending. A compost heap smelly and overflowing. A resin Jesus tucked away by some tree near a concrete bench. You know, for meditation.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The meaning of life

E. O. Wilson has completely disappointed me in the end.

Entering college, freshmen were asked to read his book The Future of Life, which I thought would be a horrible, sentimental, general plea for saving the environment, a book which can do no one any good because despite how fascinating animals can be, depictions of our vastly differing biomes here on Earth inspire no one to rush out and give up electricity and modern convenience and renounce their cars. Instead, Wilson’s The Future of Life gave us the facts. He gave us facts that as an 18 year old I didn’t understand we could quantify, facts that we had only hoped at and facts that were dismally depressing about the state of our environment. It was inspiring, interesting, clear, well-written. I have recommended it to numerous friends over the years.

A Harvard entomologist and world-renowned ecologist, Wilson is a pretty smart guy. He knows a lot, and importantly he can synthesize and coalesce a lot of technical information into very clear writing. However having just finished reading his most recent book, The Meaning of Human Existence, I would have to say that Wilson’s ability to integrate information and ideas seems not to extend past any discipline that ends with ology.

Throughout the book, Wilson vaguely encourages the humanities, not for any great contribution they have made to human existence but because they represent this particular human condition of bungling through reality with our particular senses and emotions. He notes several times, in fact, that religion and philosophy (which he seems to conflate) sought to explain the universe at one point when there were no structures for scientific study, but now seem to consist of nothing but dogma.

Wilson believes science explains everything. That all we need to know about the universe, about our minds, can be and will be eventually be determined by science. He writes, “The self-contained worldview of the humanities describes the human condition - but not why it is the one thing and not another. The scientific worldview is vastly larger. It encompasses the meaning of human existence - the general principles of the human condition, where the species fits in the Universe, and why it exists in the first place.” He’s right - the humanities and science do have different goals and means of investigation and purviews. And I think he’s right that human existence has been molded by the physical world, by evolution, by the universe, but I’m not sure a study of the physical world, of the universe necessarily points back to human existence.

Here’s the deal, I think science is fascinating. And more than fascinating, I think it’s important work. Our scientific exploration of the natural world is the key to understanding where humans came from, how and why we act in particular ways, how our planet fits into the universe, how medicine can cure ills, and one day how to effectively use resources not only to prevent destroying the planet but perhaps also to equalize the human condition and reduce suffering. But even if neurobiology and cognitive science can one day show that our human quest for meaning in life is located in a certain connection of neurons, a trait related to a particular gene, what then does that say? Science cannot describe how we exist - it can just describe the material conditions of the universe.

I do not believe we should all be scientists. I don’t think we all want to be. Some of us want to explore in different ways. And though I believe scientific discovery is vital, we lived, unhappily or not, for millennia without the knowledge we have today. Modern medicine has been lifesaving, but a new, thinner computer we could live without if we needed to. Every human should be able to think like a scientist, should be able to think critically and understand modern methods and theories and knowledge. We should be able to reflect on science in the humanities, just as science historically has been influenced by philosophy and art. I do not think that perfect scientific knowledge is the only end goal of human existence nor do I believe that it will solve all our problems.

This book was an apologia for E. O. Wilson. As an early contributor to the evolutionary theory of inclusive fitness, decades later he now conclusively puts that theory to rest. And this book contains some remarkable connections described in well-written, easily digestible form concerning the human condition, human behavior, human evolution, and the social nature of several species on Earth. This book is a justification of a man's life's work. The one thing Wilson does not do is provide us something new here. He doesn't address our needs and projections and desires and lives as human beings. He doesn't address our drive for meaning and fulfillment. And while he does explicate how we fit into a larger picture of the Earth and the universe, he does not address the meaning of human existence.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Unthoughtful in Oregon

That the Republicans are again in control of the Senate cannot be a disappointment to me. I knew it was coming. I accepted it. It was inevitable. It seems like this sort of flip happens at the end of every president’s second term. The country doesn’t think the President has done enough, that not enough has happened, that their lives have not been significantly transformed because they have haven’t. And that’s not the president’s job. But the country uses this midterm election to stick it to a lame duck president who probably wouldn’t have been able to get much done anyway. The country votes against a president who has two more years in office or doesn’t vote at all, effectively saying we’re already done with you and we’re already looking at 2016.

Fine. That’s fine. I expected as much. I’ve accepted that these are the years when nothing gets done. The country will stagnate for a while. And this is the voice of the people, all the people of America, the great expanding shelf of people without an education, without a thought, with strong convictions and little critical thinking. The country is crazy and that’s why I don’t live there. I live in Oregon.

Yesterday we voted to legalize marijuana in Oregon, which is important not only because the modern consumption and perspectives toward the plant have changed significantly in recent decades. Most importantly, there is no reason so many should be penalized, should be jailed for the possession of marijuana, especially since we know that nationally black Americans men are incarcerated for possession at a far higher rate than white Americans.

But I doubt that Oregon voted to legalize marijuana because so many people here were thinking about social injustice. So many out there were probably thinking about ease of access, cost, their own pleasure. This is fine. These are completely valid reasons to vote for something, to support a cause. Yet it seems to me it’s a huge problem that so many of us cannot support causes that have no direct link to us. If it has nothing to do with me, I can’t be bothered, or it can’t matter, or there’s no reason this law should pass, or it must be wrong.

It is completely disheartening that Oregon voted against extending drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants. Enough of us here in Oregon are so illogically stuck on their status here in the States that we can even think about their safety and our own, that we cannot even accommodate their lives here in anyway and cannot seek to sympathize with them.

And it’s disheartening that Oregon voted against labeling GMOs. In a report for OPB, Ryan Haas noted that neither side on this issue openly told the whole the story about the science behind the safety of GMOs, but it’s completely insane that any of us could say to our fellow citizens, no, you don’t have the right to know, to choose. It’s insane that we vetoed a tiny label, something that would cost nothing. And I can’t believe anyone is still falling for that line corporations are feeding us about the price of food increasing. We regulated chemicals to get rid of the hole in the ozone. We regulated the car industry decades ago to ensure that there were seat belts in every car and car makers just cried and cried and said the whole industry would collapse. We required food producers to label ingredients and calorie counts and exposures to allergens but people still shop at grocery stores, we still eat so much crap.

A friend told me he had heard that the GMO bill up before Oregon voters was severely flawed, that it didn’t do enough, that there would still be unlabeled GMOs on the market. And this was an argument I’d heard myself from the anti-labeling campaign spearheaded by our favorite food producers Monsanto and Kraft. Here’s the deal: you sometimes have to start somewhere. I complain a lot about the shortcomings of the Affordable Care Act, but with a fiercely partisan congress, it’s amazing that any compromise was achieved at all. There will be revisions and modifications and reworkings to the ACA but we had to start somewhere.

Oregon needs to hold itself up as an example to the rest of the country, as California and New York and Washington state do. We need to put out bold ideas and have the bravery to vote for these bold ideas. So many progressive projects have been implemented in the past, projects that the rest of country have or will eventually take up, but we need to continue to vote for these projects that improve our communities and aid others, even when at times they may require small sacrifices from us as individuals.

This is perhaps the most disappointing result that was delivered Tuesday: Oregonians are not willing to think of other people. People voted against driver registrations for all as well as their neighbor’s right to know the contents of the food they buy. And while I believe the passage of this marijuana legalization bill will prevent so many from needless persecution from this drug and will perhaps help remedy the injustice of black incarceration rates, I do not believe most Oregonians voted for this issue for much more than their own pleasure.

Having lived in Alabama, I remember driving around with a bumper sticker of a blue dot on a red square. A bright blue dot in a really red state, as the slogan goes. Birmingham was a blue dot in a red state, and not even that bright. Here in Oregon, I’m starting to feel the same way. There are certain places, certain people who are bright blue dots in a sea of apathy and self-centeredness, which is all the sadder when I know how much potential this state has. We are privileged with the resources and beauty and current zeitgeist of Oregon today. Now we really to become more conscious of that and of our community and begin to think about what we can do not only to improve our own lives, but how we can accommodate and be conscious of the lives of others.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Certain days have their own music

There are certain perfect things that could have happened and this was one: Mike, the owner of the Red Fox, took and break from the bar and sat down with us. I introduced him to my friend Booth and told him that Booth had been playing music, that he had produced an album in the past few years, and that we had been talking about musicians who care so much about their music, their sound, that they work and work and work, and tinker forever, and it becomes so hard to put out an album, to produce something full and you just want to scream, put it all out there, play it, and come back to all the details.

Mike launched into to all the details. He talked about sound equipment and we talked about musicians. We talked about how sometimes it’s worth coming in to a recording session and knowing what has to be done and know that it has to be in a certain time. Sometimes it’s not worth the technological advantage we have to be able to record and manipulate and lay tracks and edit tracks and snip and cut until the final most perfect sound can be produced. Sometimes music can perfectly be a recording of musicians playing music in a room. 

Adam and I woke up with music in our heads that morning. The neighbor who lives above me was loudly playing some record at 9:30 in the morning, the bass and guitar and drums transmitted down through the skin of the floor. We had stayed up late, our waking difficult, the pressure behind our eyes deep, and our moods delicate in those first few minutes. But we soon accepted the rhythms and vibrations; I had never heard any other sounds coming from his apartment and I couldn’t fault him for his suddenly and early decision to listen now.

We woke up and got coffee, the bleariness from our eyes quickly fading. We went grocery shopping and biked around the neighborhood, the weather warm for one last dry weekend in October. And everything just seemed really lovely.

I met Ryan that afternoon for a drink at Red Fox. The afternoon clouds lovely soft and modulated pastel in the sunset. We had seen some really beautiful sunsets this past month, already missing the color in anticipation of the coming months of rain here in Portland.

Ryan left and I stayed over at Red Fox, reading until Booth met me. It seems like there have been so many albums released lately that have excited me. Aphex Twin and Thom Yorke and Caribou. Doesn't it seem like a return to the days when people still cared about listening to albums?

Sometimes it’s nice to just catch up, talk about music. We talked about how he makes music; about his plans for a new album. And I walked away energized, like there was so much to do, so much that could be done.