Friday, February 5, 2016

grids

Dad was an inconspicuous lexicon of muted, linear elements — sans serif digits on a plain wristwatch, a faint ticker stripe on a button-up shirt — that marked him as one of an emergent species. They called their field telecommunications or computer science before it became IT. They belonged to the tribes of Apple, IBM… In fact, dad formerly worked for Bell Laboratories. That was when we lived further east. Bell Labs was, at the time, facilitating some pretty out-there cultural experiments in New Jersey. Dad marked his preference instead to work in the Illinois office, where practical networking was the priority. Dad was a nerd. Now that is cool and when I deliberate over garments for myself, my criteria is would dad have worn this in the ’80s. His glasses were especially great: rectilinear, slightly outsize, rose-gold or maybe silver, lightweight. Dad loved the psych band It’s a Beautiful Day. He smoked cigarettes, was losing his luxuriant black hair, might have taken to something artistic like free jazz if he wasn’t so busied with C++, a programming language then in its nascent stages. His shirts were not so much striped but, like paper, ruled. He appeared ready for coding. A flat-knit V-neck sweater, another slim shirt thinly striped in clinic red. Notebooks had black-speckled covers with taped spines, their pages pale greenish and gridded.

His shirt pocket stowed a pen, substantial, gold, prolate, thin, frequently sidelined by a pack of cigarettes. He did not have a pocket protector. That was the crass joke version of a nerd, but it’s true that the breast pocket is where pens and cigarettes lived. A laminated badge clipped to the pocket edge, affixed with a jumpy silver claw. The badge retreated to the same spot on the kitchen counter each evening, chilling out by the ashtray and maybe a whisky. I was uncurious about the tumbler with its urinary yellow stink. I did contemplate the white ash in the glass tray of smoky grey-green. The company badge signalled that dad was somebody. He had permission for entry. But it was also something to relieve oneself of, to be dumped on the counter, not to take particular pride in. I played with the irascible clip. I intuited its keenness to chomp, to clench like mandibles. I let it pinch.

Dad’s design elements, the ticker stripe, sans serif, v-necks, graph paper, were a kind of rubric, as if comprised of so many points waiting to be connected, blanks to be filled in. It was a note-making aesthetic, suggesting a series of adumbrations. I think of the # symbol: open-ended, an uninitiated game of tic-tac-toe, an embryonic or erstwhile piece of a larger grid. Recently, in writing an essay about the inaugural exhibition at a new south London gallery, I fixated on an awkward moment at the threshold, in which I didn’t know how to ring for entry. I eyed up the keypad along the front door and resorted to pressing # — communicating nothing. As this metaphor took over as the object of my piece, J. suggested I listen to an episode of the radio programme 99% Invisible, which specialises in design history. It informed me that the # symbol is officially an octothorpe, so named at AT&T Bell Laboratories. The *, at the other base of the telephone keypad, was exciting: it signalled footnotes or omissions. The # looked both highly functional and a mystery. The * and # could have been anything. With the development of the touch-tone phone, directors at Bell Labs initially wanted a star and diamond, until a prescient engineer angled for symbols that could be recognised by computers, the # being already resident on keyboards. As a proofreading mark, # means insert space. In a sense, it stands for nothing. When it means number, it is extraneous. Someone from marketing named it the octothorpe, briefly octotherp — referencing its eight points plus adding a suffix that sounded “kind of Greekish”. Therp became thorpe, possibly in homage to Olympian Jim Thorpe, a versatile athlete of European and Native American ancestry. His Sac and Fox name, Wa-Tho-Huk, can be translated as bright path. Called a pound sign in the US, # was originally cribbed from the Roman unit of measure lb. The British appellation hash was gleaned from the term cross-hatching. Now that the hashtag has become a powerful navigational tool, it is, according to Chris Messina, the first Twitter user to employ it in this way, a “typographic superhero”. It’s always a pound sign to me.

My father developed, with two partners, an apparatus called the telemeter. We were more excited than he was the day the prototype was delivered. We saw a finished object. To him, it was problematic, the result of a series of compromises. He worried about its commercial prospects. It looked like a normal phone keypad but kept a toll and printed a receipt. It was proposed as a means for a business — say a hotel — to profit from a guest’s phone call — say from the lobby. Like many inventions, its moment was fugacious. It wasn’t that it missed the beat so much as hit slightly off. Another group did put a similar item onto the market that little bit sooner, but ultimately, the product didn’t foresee that the process and value of phone communication was rapidly evolving into something looser, more customisable, visual, digital, nothing so clumsy and greedy as a Bible-sized, matte black plastic machine and its spool heartlessly carbon copy-issuing.

I sat and looked at it as if it were a magic box. On an afternoon sitcom called Out of this World, Evie, half-alien, who could halt time by joining her index fingers, spoke to her extraterrestrial father through a pulsing, luminous, zigguartic device, perspex but with the transportive powers of an arcane crystal. It glowed instead of ringing, mystical lucite. The telemeter was opaque, sensible, doomed. It very quickly went back into its box. I stared at it there between the cardboard flaps, willing it animate, wanting it to be clever, meritorious and popular like the Speak & Spell, which offered the world something pedagogical and amazing. Ours was given to us by an aunt who worked for its issuing company, Texas Instruments. It was so harangued by my fingertips that its buttons were popping off, especially to the lower right of the keypad, where I apparently landed my emphasis. The telemeter never had the chance, like Speak & Spell, to be customised by rascally indie musicians, inspire the name of an album by Depeche Mode, resented by consumers as cheap shit. The telemeter was resented by my dad, though. To be resented in one way or another was like its teleological destiny: a device that reified time as money. I thought it was cool. I was proud. I told schoolmates that my dad invented the telemeter. Its name was spatial and futuristic, and only one of many hybrid schemes mustered by my family, so enamoured by the notion of the mixed-breed, to be never fully realised, monikered in a portmanteau somewhere between cumbrous and catchy.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

subjectivity

Mom has a friend who lives near her in the suburbs some fifty miles south of San Francisco. This friend, who enjoys the theatre, insists it is quicker and easier to fly to London to attend a play, considering the state of parking in the city.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

new objectivity

In L.A., doing a quick tour, which is all we could manage with my nephew Heron in tow, of the exhibition 'New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1919-1933', I approached the photograph everyone had mentioned: two boys kissing. Their hair was plastered in sinuous curves so that they looked like entangled letter S's. I remember it being a crisp, pale photograph, the boys smooth and sultry. I'm not a fan of taking pictures in galleries. It extracts the aura out of the experience, the added layer of mediation a removal, the opposite of engagement. But this image was irresistibly ripe for the mood board, Instagram, the desktop, all sorts of anecdotal repositories. I fixed my phone on the composition so that its frame met that of my phone neatly. No photographs, a voice behind me extolled. Americans are so officious and straightforward. In the split second it took me to register her stentorian command, the pause before I pivoted, apologised and slipped the phone into my pocket, I could have pressed the button and secured the shot. The phone was set to silent; no skeuomorphic click would have sounded. But I didn't press. I kind of mimed it, if anything, as if I taking a virtual picture instead. But as proven by my tenuous description above (smooth and sultry?), the memory is its own intermediary.

I think of the child I met whose toy was a wooden block, her 'camera'. She would hold it in front of her eyes and take 'a photograph' with it. I think of Stuart from the band Belle & Sebastian, who has claimed that he became a lyricist because, having wanting to purse photography, he received as a gift not a camera but a space pen, prompting him to consider a different method of documentation. With pen in hand, he began to rethink.

The other time I accompanied Heron to a museum, when he was even younger, really a baby, so that he was just nodding off and then waking with a squeak and coo, was one of my many pilgrimages to the Agnes Martin retrospective at Tate Modern. My notion of his presence as a gentle, welcome breeze was apparently not shared by some of the other contemplative onlookers, who shot irascible looks as I glided past with Heron strapped to my chest, sure that the artist herself would have found his infantine gurgle to be a delightful compliment to paintings called Happiness et cetera. Before we arrived at the exhibition, my sis Jenny and I found ourselves sitting with her son on the bank of the Thames. I had introduced Jenny to the creamy and salty joys, respectively, of an iced latte and Vichy Catalan water from the mighty Monmouth Coffee. We sipped indulgently, in sunglasses, Heron squinting against his mom's comforting anterior. We realised then that we didn't have a camera. Tower Bridge was in clear view. London in summertime buzzed around us agreeably. But I hadn't yet upgraded to a phone with a decent lens, and Jenny had left hers back at my place. We'll make, we promised each other, a memory.

One recent evening, travelling over that same storied river on a southbound train after work, I overheard the woman across from me say to her daughter: you see, it's better at night. Meaning London I guess. As we crossed the Thames, in both directions the city twinkled. On my side, the giant ferris wheel known as the London Eye was edged in red lights, as if each of its pupils was caught in the flash of a camera. London was insistently fulgent, and glimmering. I thought I'd take a photo of it — caption: A Better London — but of course because of the window's reflection, my viewfinder depicted just gormless me, and the florescent lighting of the workaday train carriage, and bits of the mother and daughter and their shopping, offset by mundane primary blue seats.

I passed another window recently, and across it was lettered: Curator's Cafe. At the sight of this curved moniker I was already thinking you've got to be kidding me when I registered the two men and their flat whites who sat on stools beneath. They were nattily dressed, cross-legged, with well-behaved beards and Brutalist spectacles, their hands gesticulating didactically. It was as if they'd been hired to play the roles of curators. To take a snapshot felt like exploitation, so I left behind the scene as a bemusing, almost uncanny impression. Even more recently, J. whispered a similar sentiment to me on the tube: that it would be tempting but too rude to photograph the man across from us. With his noticeably thinning pate, he leaned against an advertisement that read: Feel like you're missing something? This promotion for hair growth elixir, in tandem with the balding man in repose, was a master stroke of serendipity. But due to our prudence, there exists no proof; you've just got to believe me.

At work on a kind of memoir, I've been writing about a grove of giant redwoods near my family home, and the time Uncle Ted came to visit. We walked with him along the attenuated, sacrosanct loop trail, a hefty camera around his neck. He intently photographed the very tall trees. They seemed impossible. You had to crane your neck, bend it all the way back until you thought it would snap, and still you couldn’t see all the way to the top; the view just became fizzy, dappled and heavenly. I climbed onto a branch and called hey, Uncle Ted, hey. Uncle Ted, hey, take a picture of me. He declined. His point was to photograph nature. I wasn’t quiescent or old or tall or beautiful enough. And it’s true, I had nothing on those magnificent trees. I didn’t know what to do with a pose that wasn’t being utilised, so I slowly dropped into a stance that resembled a regular way of being. He didn’t need to take a picture, anyway; I stored the negative in my limbic system. I can retrieve it easily. It shows an unphotographed nephew on the branch of a stoical tree.

Now I am an uncle myself, and after Christmas, Jenny wanted to take little Heron to see those same big trees. Of course, he slept through it. After we'd done the loop trail, now dawdling, Heron woke, cooing. Let's let him loose, we cried, and indeed against the soft forest floor, a bed of fragrant red needles, he really went for it, galloping. I filmed him on my phone, almost struggling to keep up with his momentum-ecstatic speed. We all became giddy. His phenomenology was so low-level and sublunary. I filmed him in an unequivocally cute moment at which he wobbled and fell on his bum. I stopped recording, then he looked straight ahead, wide-eyed, placidly, as if registering the softness of his landing, unruffled, absorbing the freshness and magic of the trees. Because I had ceased taking video, that wide-eyed look wasn't recorded digitally. Shame, I thought almost instantly; but the unbridled, freshly woken wonder of his expression is in its own way more profoundly chronicled within me.

Back in London, down a side street in Marylebone, after darkness had fallen, so that I could pretend that the Range Rovers and fur gillets and Kooples so profuse in the district are actually walking sticks and pipes and duplicitous promenaders, the stuff of the era of Sherlock Holmes, I attempted, over triangular rooftops, to capture the resplendent full moon. But the moon deferred to a bank of frayed clouds, so that the image on my phone was tenebrous, miasmic, not an accurate depiction of the staccato, alert scene that actually surrounded me: an after-twilight pricked with the interjections of bright windows and lamplight. And the moon, so fulsome that night, turned out to be camera shy, or unphotogenic. I walked on, existing somewhere between my present reality and the photograph's misty version of things.

When we first returned to London in early January, the trees that line the drive of our apartment building had been pollarded; one had been chopped all the way down to the stump. My heart fell. At least, I avowed, they haven't felled the trees in the backyard. Over the following days, trucks arrived, unloading heartless men with cavalier saws that further reduced the back garden's leafy benevolence. At least, I averred, they won't touch those massive firs at the edge of the property. The next morning, as I did the dishes, I glimpsed an industrious figure halfway up the trunk of one of those seven-story evergreens. It seemed impossible to be witnessing such cruelty. I took a snapshot. But I couldn't bring myself to upload it to Instagram, putting viewers in the position of pressing the heart icon to convey sympathy for a situation they don't actually heart. No, this was beyond the kind of rant that can be contained in the neat little squares of social media. I felt hollowed by the small tragedy.

The trees are now gone. I used to look out the window at night and their needly pyramidical tops allowed me to imagine I was in the Pacific Northwest. I thought of the indie bands that came out of Olympia, Washington, how they unleashed guitar riffs like forestation. I thought of Dale Cooper on Twin Peaks: "smell those Douglas firs". I now see instead the backs of a half dozen houses. At least they're brick Victorians. They've got some claim to narrativity. I haven't looked again at the blurry zoom snapshot I took of the man up the tree. Can't really bring myself to. Doing the washing up, I gaze out at a plain yard. I said to J., now it's like Oakland. The place about which, of course, Gertrude Stein expressed, there is no there there. I like Oakland, but its name can deceive; it can register as a wasteland of warehouses and empty lots, not a bucolic romp through fallen acorns underneath sagacious, thick trees. And I've been thinking about this: when my view was blocked by verdant layers, edged jaggedly against a crepuscular sky, underneath which the foxes screamed through their terrifying acts of copulation, and inside of which several rascally squirrels performed a similar thing, I had a more evocative view. To me, the obfuscation of fir trees, strangely misplaced in south London, was a manifestation of the imaginary. I perceive less now, the further I can see.

Taking a break from writing, I adjourn to the kitchen to face the current batch of unwashed dishes in the sink. I see that the window has fogged over, obscuring the view almost completely. I find that most welcoming.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

tar

We crouched over glorious pools of freshly laid tar, prodding and inhaling the bituminous stink. I was learning about urban planning, I was learning about chemistry. Or at least the pitch black of tarmacadam as it came into itself at the behest of our fingers and knees, not quite magma, gelatinously. We attempted to pop the day old bubbles but simply redrew the boundaries of craters in the goo. The spills were inviscated, hardly volcanic, no longer metallic, but might as well have been boiling cauldrons the way they invoked topics for discussing. Ponderosa was a suburb named for an autochthonous tree. Our street, christened perhaps in regard to an alike climate, was called Mediterranean Place. The ponderosas here were not tall pines but tract houses. The street overlooked not pellucid sea but other dead-end streets. Med Place became a cul-de-sac in three different directions. The houses were dun-coloured and boxy. The neighbourhood was laid out behind a mammoth K-Mart, which embarrassed me. Passing trucks were events, mainly because they’d have to turn around somewhere and pass through again. So you could really clock the driver, and they could clock you. I careened from our drive, past our zig zag cobbled pathway and alpine shrubbery, onto the street. I was on my Big Wheel, a plastic manual motorbike about twice the size of me. A big rig screeched to a halt just a few feet in front of me. The sound of it stopping was like the score of a whole city collapsing. Stunned, I stayed put. Looked at the big plastic wheel between my feet. I wore no socks, just flip flops. My family fallaciously monikered them thongs, as if stretched between our toes we wore a rainbow-striped bikini. My ten toes now looked vulnerable. I counted them quickly. The thick truck driver stepped down off the cab. He pointed his finger, his face ripening. He sprayed beads of sweat off his spongelike orange sideburns and tobacco-stained sputum from his chapped lips as he shook his head and shouted in disbelief. Don’t ever ever, he said. You could have gone right under this thing. I shocked at the complicated metalwork and mighty tires underneath the beast. The rubber stank and the rims gleamed. I stood up and as I backed away, stumbled and lost a flip flop to the unsympathetic asphalt. Mom came running. Don’t tell HIM what to do, she cried. Get back in that truck. YOU drive carefully. Her power was acute. Maybe it was because she was pretty. I saw everything in a sunnier new light. Mom was fair and gently curvaceous. My older friends said she looked not even twenty. He apologised and ascended the rig.

When I was older and on something thinner and taller, a bicycle with a license plate between its handlebars, I came to a sudden stop. We always did this. We tried to make a screech and impart a skidmark on the concrete. I stopped too emphatically and this sent me heels over head all the way over the front wheel. It knocked the wind out of me. I let out an ecstatically painful HO. I was learning about physics. At a birthday party there was an egg-dropping contest. The rules were: put an egg in a box and send it off the roof without breaking. Mine survived, thanks to dad, who taught me that cushioning was the key. In the box, the egg needed to be held aloft. The integral element was its suspending.

On late afternoons, without dads, we sat on the curbs and watched the neighbour with the fancy sports car. We’d say look at that ‘s’ car go. It was the ultimate funny thing. Over the squigy black spills, our lifeless, miniature tar pits, we shared revelations and apocrypha; anyway the others bruited anatomical falsehoods as I provided the gullible audience they needed. Duran Duran and Atari were topics on the brink of the deep. A fingertip pressed into the whiffy black goo. Notions and tar bubbles are analogous to comfort and milk for me. Squatting with my coevals, the world became microscopic, and balanced on the thigh and knee. Squatting, we were like a bunch of Chinese busboys in the alley behind the kitchen playing cards. We didn’t yet have cigarettes gripped between our front teeth. Tiny pebbles, sharp-edged and geometric, got stuck in the tar and in our own skin at the knee, leaving a temporary depression that was satisfying to see.

I stood on a lump of coal after a barbecue on a trip to the beach. The sand was soft at the base of the lissome cypress trees. The burn, sharper than hot, was obvious right away. I’d never really considered the bottom of my feet. Though when I was younger I used to put my big toe in my mouth and suck on its salty stink. Another time at this same beach I had watched a group of teenage girls run together gleefully. They seemed almost desperate in their eagerness to frolic, as if just released from captivity. They disappeared around the promontory, where, if you waded through water at the foot of the escarpment, rumour had it there existed an idyllic private beach. Later that day, the same girls returned; their body language was drastically different, though no less frantic. One of the girls, her curls wet, was wailing. Half of her face was covered in blood; rather than streaks, it had gone bubbly and pale from the foamy sea. The others walked with arms around her. I had looked away and over to the jagged cliffs where they’d just been disporting; those rocks now seemed less Elysian than bellicose, given to tempt only maliciously. Now I had my own official injury. I was taken to first aid at the boardwalk, an discomforting scene of crop tops and tattoos. It was cleaned, wrapped and iced. The burn was only third degree. Then I took the bandage off early, after one instead of two weeks: in the playing field of the schoolyard near my house, I attempted soccer with an acquaintance twice my size. I felt giddy with how fast we were running. The rubber of the flip flop burned my healing sole; I let one then the other kick off my feet. The blades of grass were cooling. That night, my foot ached and felt weird. I looked at the former burn; it was now red and puffy, and punctured with tiny holes. It looked like some unappealing diarrhetic fruit my mom’s mom would try to get us to eat. It was strangely proto-animate, as if it might speak. I was taken to a doctor, this time in a mellow suburban practice, where under aquamarine lighting I was lightly scolded for my imprudence. I felt the game was worth it. Running barefoot had been so freeing.

I was informed about intercourse by a bad twin sister in a hot tub at the far end of another cul-de-sac. Disclosures in jacuzzis unfolded like family discussions in Scandinavian saunas. I wasn’t sure what was happening under the bubbling water with this girl and her twin sister, but the brothers from whose roof I threw a boxed egg were present and half-submerged, too. There was a collective giggle and the sudden appearance of feet. Anyway I figured the bizarre congenital action couldn’t possibly be true. Was it, I asked mom and dad, the former of whom denied it as the latter affirmed simultaneously. Well, mom modified, not exactly. The world darkened silently. Someone, it was clear, was lying. We ate, then moved onto oak leaf patterned couches in order to watch Silver Spoons. The blond kid was so rich that he rode a train through his living room. His dad was a jackass but would have been forthcoming about intercourse at least. Everything on the episode seemed outlined, as if its characters and set pieces had been cut apart and reassembled, now revealing scissored edges and barely perceptible interstices. I sat vibratile as a moth as mom and dad stared straight at the cathode rays of the tv. This show was supposed to be so innocent, like the blond kid’s solar face. Now it felt like meretricious; the sweetness made the real world even more mean. The bad twin sister, too smart and bored, eventually became driven to distraction. She was in rehab by thirteen.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

out with heron

On a break from rewriting, older now, lean, balding and no longer, though a strip of metal remains glued to the back of my bottom incisors, with braces on my teeth, I am avuncular. I take my tiny nephew, fidgety, called Heron, out onto the back lawn, blanketed in coppery needles, for a walk. He, with a name like a bird, is surrounded by the sound of thrushes, warblers, robins and woodpeckers, possibly. He may be oblivious but receives messages proprioceptively. I’m also not really sure of the actual species of birds but the chorus is dulcet and rousing. There are more birds than I remember. Convinced I was in the gutter looking up at the stars, I missed the birdlife in between. Heron, the boy, walks in circles. He’s obsessed with a faded tennis ball left behind by his father’s dog. It is no longer yellow nor green, just the dun of spent years and complacency. I ask him not to pick it up with his hands — which is employing reason misguidedly — and together, with J. snapping photos and sweetly attending, we play the closest to a game of soccer likely to be managed with one whose months on earth number only thirteen. Suddenly, new dangers: small carmine berries, maybe poisonous, fallen from suddenly impressive trees. They take on a reappraised value to me. But it’s not just my perception, is it: surely they’ve changed, now so ruminative and stately. With Jenny, I built steps on a trunk I reckoned was sturdy. I hammered planks with small racket and minimal effort, really. A neighbour, English, poked his head over the fence and contested, now you can look into our yard. I was like, why would I want to?, but I could: I could see pool, jacuzzi, sliding glass door, a bathroom window and that of a kitchen, a woman sunbathing. The treehouse was paltry and eventually granted the permission of the neighbour who figured that the sad desktop perched on a branch wouldn’t see much occupancy. He was right, Jenny and I retreated quickly from such rugged living. Now I am with her son who is ambling and erratically kicking. I think to myself, I am walking. In circles, existential, it’s now a kind of retracting; with a fledgling's hand in mine, it is a welcome new form of perambulation for me.

Back inside, the birdsong is drowned out by the whirr of power saws coming from two different directions. The laundry tumbles in an oversized drying machine. I walk to the back of the house to find mother and son fast asleep.