Tuesday, 6 Aug 2002 (2)

Now the question is, Where am I going to fly to, on my new ticket, in the next two weeks? – since I can’t use it to go abroad, and I can’t fly while I’m abroad, and it expires in a year. I suppose I could give it away. That’s not likely.

While I’m asking questions, the other question is, What do people blog about? I had thought, before I started this blog, that it was an ideal solution to the problems of I’d come across while keeping journals. Keeping a journal, when I’ve managed to stick to it for any length of time, has always proved to be an extremely valuable activity.

But I couldn’t ever manage to stick to it for any length of time. I had two explanation for that. One was that, since I didn’t have any audience for what I was writing, I couldn’t really give myself a character for what I wanted to say. The only possible audience I could imagine was an older, wiser self, or an older, less energetic self, and the character I assumed in playing up to that audience shamed me terribly. It’s very shameful to deliberately play false, and humiliating as well, when the only one who might think poorly of you for doing it, or not doing it well enough, is yourself. The other explanation was that, since I had no audience, no one hearing what I had to say would be hearing news. That makes it difficult to select things to say. Select is the wrong word, since I would, more often than not, simply not have anything to say.

Correspondence with a few individuals seemed to solve both these problems, and looking back over my old emails I see they’ve been at least as valuable to me as journals to organize my thoughts. Except that in correspondence, my thoughts have been necessarily limited by other concerns associated with those I write. There are topics that I know don’t interest, or irritate, certain of my correspondants, and other topics I don’t feel comfortable pursuing that I pursued with these correspondants.

As I say, blogs seemed to be a wonderful solution to the above problems. Only now, I can’t quite get a handle on how the format’s supposed to work. I have the feeling that an online journal isn’t quite what I have on my hands here – so I’ve been looking around at blogs, to see what I like to read. I’m not quite on track yet, though.

Tuesday, 6 Aug 2002

I’m right now sitting at a public email terminal in the LA airport, waiting for my connection to Honolulu. I’m waiting an extra four hours for it, because I gave up my seat to some standby passenger, a course I recommend to all. I get a fresh new (1st class!) seat, a free ticket to anywhere in the continental US, and I don’t have to talk to a single family member for an extra four hours. Bliss… Of course, I should use this time to work on my master’s thesis, due in six days, or one of the other two papers I need to finish to get my master’s, but I feel that would be a misuse of a laziness windfall. And coincidentally, just this minute my friend Chris from high school emailed me from, guess where, LA, asking where I am. Maybe I’ll even get to see him again. My cup overflows. In addition to all this, I’ve got an idea of how I’m going to finish one of those two papers, on Tristram Shandy. That lovely “now I can go on” feeling. Quite a change from this morning, when I found out I had only half the time left I thought I did to finish my thesis.

Monday, 5 Aug 2002 (3)

Samuel Johnson (quibble=pun, obselete):

A quibble is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapours are to the traveller; he follows it at all adventures, it is sure to lead him out of his way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.

True, that.

Monday, 5 Aug 2002 (2)

When I got off the bus from Chicago in DC last Thursday, lugging my far-too-heavy bags (I’m sure they were over a hundred pounds, but I couldn’t say how far over. I can say, though, that I would have been better off mailing some of those books), I was intending to walk to the metro, two blocks from the Greyhound station.

But as soon as I got out the door, an old man with pop-eyes, crouching like a deaf, undernourished, stupid, hairless gorilla, said “Patrick?” I said “Yep,” which seems to have been accompanied, in his mind, with the implied continuation “I was indeed looking for a taxi, thanks”: he motioned me to follow him toward his.

I think it was either it was hot and I was tired, and it would have been stupid to carry my bags (I would have had to stop and put them down every twenty feet or so to rest for a few minutes), or I figured that my parents, who had promised to met me when I got off my bus, had decided to call a cab for me instead, and it would be unfilial of me to refuse. I usually like to meet a new place on public transportation or on foot, so we can get used to each other on a broad scale before I start getting used to the individuals who live there.

So I dragged myself and my stuff after him (he encouraged me: “I know you can carry that, Patrick, you can do it”) got in the cab, ready to be driven home, only he’d never heard of my neighborhood. After I had made a couple casts around for other nearby places he might know, we settled on a nearby road, which he said he knew. Unfortunately, it turned out, he didn’t know how to get there, a fact which we discovered halfway over the Potomac on a bridge of his (apparently random) choosing.

To add to my annoyance, he couldn’t hear barely at all, and his responses were very slow. A couple times we nearly caused an accident switching lanes far too late, long after I had initially suggested it. I became quite irritated with him, and may even have popped out my own eyes a little bit, trying to make them blaze with indignation.

As we neared the agreed-on street, I suddenly remembered a quicker way home from where we were, and recommended a new direction. That was nearly too much for him, and he, in his turn, became angry with me. “I thought we were going where you wanted,” he muttered, more than once, and struck his turn signal.

When we finally arrived, I had intended not to tip him at all, but he didn’t offer me any change, and I was busy dragging my bags out of the street, so I didn’t think to ask before he drove off.

So if that was my Askeladden test, I failed it.

Monday, 5 Aug 2002

After spending four days in Shennandoah County, I find, retrospectively, Chicago is very flat. I didn’t realize, or had forgotten, what terrain was like. It makes you live in places a little differently.

In Shennandoah, there’s usually only one way to get somewhere and that way is determined by the land it goes through. Directions are limited to from town and to town, and when you’re walking, to upstream, downstream, uphill, and downhill.

Chicago, on the other hand, has a way of stamping the four points of the compass on the brain. Other means of reference don’t seem as fundamental. Streets go straight, there are as many ways to get someplace as there are lateral blocks to the longer axis of your journey, and you need only know the address of a place to know how far it is.

I’m periodically struck by this difference. It differentiates the two places more, to my mind, than some of the differences between city and country that more readily spring to mind, when I consider the subject abstractly.

Thursday, 1 Aug 2002 (2)

So soon already, less than a month until I’ll be heading to Russia, to teach English. I’m extremely nervous. The high school where I’ll be teaching is in Aginskoe, Chita region, a predominately Buryat area. These people have arranged it for me, and I’ll be there all next year. I’ve never taught in a high school, and I wonder whether my Russian will be adequate: many of my students won’t have had English before I get there.

The region is interesting, though: the Buryats (in my area) have been Buddhist for some time, in fact they are one of the few indiginous peoples whose religion the Russians (and later the Soviets) didn’t manage to suppress. Then there’s Lake Baikal, one of the natural wonders of the world by any standard. So I don’t think I’ll be bored, just cold.

I also plan to visit Mongolia and China, while I’m in the neighborhood, if my money extends that far, so if anyone has any travel tips for those countries, let me know. And of course, if anyone is taking the Trans-Siberian and feels like a rest stop, I’m only two hours off the line…

Thursday, 1 Aug 2002

Welcome to my Blog. I’m writing my master’s thesis on Claude Levi-Strauss’s book Tristes Tropiques, a kind of memoir, travelogue of his ethnographic journeys in Brazil, and meditation on world history and the present age. Here’s a sample passage (the most often quoted, far as I can tell, and surely one of the most melodramatic, but hardly the only good one):

Now that the Polynesian islands have been smothered in concrete and turned into aircraft carriers solidly anchored in the southern seas, when the whole of Asia is beginning to look like a dingy suburb, when shanty-towns are spreading across Africa, when civil and military aircraft blight the primeval innocence of the American or Melanesian forests even before destroying their virginity, what else can the so-called escapism of travelling do than confront us with the more unfortunate aspects of our history? Our great Western civilization, which has created the marvels we now enjoy, has only succeeded in producing them at the cost of corresponding ills. The order and harmony of the Western world, its most famous achievement, and a laboratory in which structures of a complexity as yet unknown are being fashioned, demand the elimination of a prodigious mass of noxious by-products which now contaminate the globe. The first thing we see as we travel is our own filth, thrown into the face of mankind.

It’s a marvelous book. It’s full of remarkable details – gems of observation and description of characters, landscapes, and cultures. Plenty of the kind of funny stories travelogues excel in: mutual misunderstandings, eccentricities, impossible annoyances, and sheer bungling. It’s not just memoirs, but some of the most stimulating thoughts (if frustrating – it’s not always easy to travel along with some of his more outrageous speculations) I’ve ever encountered. The writing is dense but fantastically pleasurable. Exquisite, on every page. I recommend it to everybody.