The new temp didn’t seem very bright. Just something about him. He’d taught English in Korea and now he was home: he would always talk about that, or anime. The two ran together in the minds of the permanent staff.

He said the culture was different, it wasn’t easy to live that way. He would just get tired. At the first he loved being strange. He could say what he wanted. But now he would rather be home where things made sense, and relax.

It was suspicious, somehow. Did he have to talk so much? He was answering what nobody asked him. Was he stupid? You look up, and he was standing with his mouth open.

He didn’t seem to catch on to the work. What he could manage, he did slowly, and he filed the papers out of order and mis-stamped things, no matter what you did. And there was something superior in his attitude.

He was standing behind the older temp one day. He’d had to vacate his cubicle temporarily for repair work. He was standing there, staring at her back, whenever she looked, for half an hour. The work director passed by.

Were you needing some work, she said. He mumbled something. They went into another room. Later in the day the older temp asked where he had gone. He won’t be coming back. A frightened look across her face. We had to let him go, said the manager. She made a defensive gesture near her chest.

Beach hotel

We’re at the beach for the weekend. Our hotel is book-themed. Each room is named after an author: we’re staying in the Lincoln Steffens room, decorated with a desk and typewriter; and we have photos on our wall: of a grimacing Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson looking like the missing butler from the Munsters. They really look as dead as they are. Teddy doesn’t look like his end was restful. There are photos of authors everywhere, the hallways are hung with them all up and down their length, so dense they are at most a half a foot apart. Photos are standing on the bookshelves, arranged in layered rows on the mantlepieces, and for sale in the gift shop as postcards.

It’s kind of creepy. It’s not that I don’t like books, or authors. But that’s all these photos have in common: that they are all of authors. There’s nothing else; that’s the only aspect of their lives, characters, and interests they have in common, yet it is enough to make them symbols of some kind of alliance. It doesn’t feel comfortable. Even as a decorative principle. Regardless of whatever other alliances they may have had, whatever differences or hostilities existed between them as individuals, here all that is erased and disregarded. The shallowness is stifling. It’s like drowning in an inch of water.

But the view from the third floor library, where I am writing this, is extraordinary. The ocean doesn’t look large, visibility isn’t high enough, but it gives a sense of restrained power. The waves are irregular, and small, the ocean’s forehead wrinkled, worried by crossing winds. Last night I sat up and was reading, and the wind was blowing so hard my chair moved beneath, me, I could feel the walls ripple as it struck them, and the pipes sounded like a performance art troupe was hammering on them. Today the wind is still strong, there are birds levitating in place on it, hanging right outside the window.

On the beach, the sand is thick and wet and stays out of your shoes. It is flat and even and all homogeneous, apart from a half-made jetty, large rocks running down into the water. I walked out on them at low tide, just as the tide was turning to come in, and felt the barnacles and other clinging creatures making noise beneath my feet. There are streams running down from yesterday’s rain on the town, they make mini-ravines with abrupt, cliff-like sides, and they fan out into deltas with muddy islands as they descend to the ocean. And north from the hotel, there are large rocks rising out of the sand like monsters out of a swamp.

I spoke with a young boy: after I came off the rocks, he asked me if there was anything to see. He was holding a dog by the leash, a tall, nervous thing that kept stepping back and forward in a jerky way. I told him he could, on the far front of the jetty, see pools between the rocks the tide had left behind, and there were some sea-creatures to see there. I wonder when I will be by the ocean again: the air is unlike the air of the land, and it is good to bring my cares here, and spend some days in the company of any books, and with the sea there as a huge sink, bigger than whatever worries I can bring to it.

Looking forward, looking back

Technology, or new media, or google, or somebody, has helped take the mystery out. There are plenty of blogs written by Peace Corps volunteers in the Caucasus. And I actually recognize a lot of what they describe, though I’ve never been near there. There’s a certain post-Sovietness that seems to be common to where I was (from September 2002 until January 2004, I lived in a small, ethnically Buryat-Mongol town in Eastern Siberia).

I can look forward to the same old exhortations to drink, the same condescending and infantalizing behavior by those who know me, the personal questions from strangers, unasked-for honesty, aggressive dogs, and mini-celebrity status. The same catechism of questions, even, persisting unchanged over thousands of miles of the previous Evil Empire. How much do teachers make, are you looking for a wife, is our vodka better than yours, how do you say kaif in English.

Just in the past couple days, I’ve started to dwell on old memories and think of things I hadn’t thought of for a long time. The memories seem to come compulsively. In certain moods, I have difficulty keeping violent images, thoughts of violent harm to my body, getting sliced to ribbons, getting hanged, or shot, or punched, I have a hard time keeping representations of harm to myself out of my mind. There’s a force to the thought that is very like the force the thought is of, the same contempt for my own integrity. These memories have the same compulsive feeling to them. But I can’t be sure what to do with them. I’m not revolted at them, nor am I really pleased by them. There’s a curious lack of affect to them. They’re like a dull movie, or more exactly, like someone else’s memories.

Soon after I moved into a new home in October of my first year, I got pneumonia. My host family was sure I had gotten it from running around without a hat off. My habit had been to walk around the hills in the afternoons, I stopped that because of the weather, soon after. There were lots of things to find. Over a hill, one hundred feet away from my door, there were no dwellings, no civilization for miles. But it was like civilization had walked through, taking mile-long strides, its hands in its pockets overstuffed with junk, dropping bits of garbage everywhere without taking notice. Once I found a dry stream bed filled with children’s shoes that may have been there since the previous winter. Abandoned vehicles, a sofa, a filing cabinet, a tire. Or a window frame, or piles of rotting documents, or a lonesome boot in the middle of a flat, empty plain.

I had lost my hat somewhere I can’t remember where. Looking back I was a little out of control. I can remember walking for it seemed almost an hour to the local temple, outside of town, and nearly fainting on the way, because I had forgotten to eat. At any rate, this was after I had been in my new home for two weeks or so, I went on my usual afternoon walk, it was cold and windy, I thought my hood would be protection enough. It may have been but a couple days after I was running a temperature and feeling strange. I was sent to the clinic. I remember not wanting to take that advice, but it turned out to be good.

I had trouble understanding the doctor because her face mask made it impossible to read her lips. She gave me antibiotics, told me to rest. I remember being asked how I was feeling, I told them my brains were boiling. I was giddy, and laughing. I had a temperature of 104 but I felt great. Exhilarated, grinning, dancing in the front hall. I only stayed home a week or so, then was back at work, But I remember one teacher telling me it looked like I had really grown up, she couldn’t say how, but I really looked older. Later she said, no I’d just lost weight.

It’s a persistent memory, the feeling of the fever, the light glow I had, like I had witnessed some kind of glorious event, but only at a distance, and happening to someone I wasn’t all that close to, so the effect wasn’t very strong but it was still in that genre. The taste of the memory somehow lingers on the back of my tongue. From that point on, however, I felt at home, I got used to the repeated questions, the stares, I even began to speak more fluently. I started to make friends and feel content. It was as if the sickness was a gate I had to pass through, a staging area while I switched horses, on my way to another stage of life.

Transition dialogue

A: You’re on your way now. It’s finally begun! That process that you have been waiting on for so long is finally gearing up. You must be in a strange state. How does it feel?

B: It’s strange to be in between. I’m not here any longer, I’m not there yet. I can’t really relax. It is a strange state, it’s like not being any state at all. It is exactly like not being in any state at all.

A: Don’t you feel a little bit here, and a little bit there, both at the same time? That is what change is all about, after all. Isn’t it being in two different states at once, so you have aspects of both and aspects of neither; isn’t it a new and exciting mixture?

B: Right, like when I ride the bus in the morning, I am at one and the same time already at work and still at home. Or actually, not at all. A transition is another kind of beast entirely from its start and its end. It has nothing to do with either stationary state, exactly because it’s not what they are, stationary. Like being on a bus, the process of transition is bumpy and irregular, and requires a heightened degree of attention and awareness. Now imagine it is a new bus route, and you only have a few loosely-described landmarks to watch for. Does that sound comfortable?

A: Huh. Because the impression I had from you before was more like this: you are loosening your grip on your present life, in order to shift and reach out for someting new. You talked about living in a tunnel, a cold, dark, wet tunnel, for so long, crawling and crawling and never seeming to get anywhere, and then you get a whiff of fresh air, warm, dry air. It sounded like a pleasant prospect. I could see you becoming expansive as you talked. Now you don’t seem pleasant, or I mean pleased.

B: Fear and restlessness look like energy, because they are energy. Regardless, they aren’t pleasant.

C (to A): Do you think he has really changed at all or is in any process of change? It looks to me as though he is where he was, just as before, only he is unsure about his prospects, which is why he talks about change so much, and dresses it up in such varied costumes, to frighten himself or flatter himself and see which one he thinks it looks best in, or he looks best in.

Turnaround two-step

A: A friend of mine asked me a question the other day. I think he wanted to know: was I happy? but for me, he put things in an interesting light. He said, I thought travel was the thing you loved most of everything. I thought you couldn’t live without it. And yet you’ve stayed here, in the same town, hardly leaving, for four years. You’ve made two cross-town moves but you live in basically the same way. And he was right in a way I don’t think he understood. Because what I love is the regular day-to-day. It’s the regular habits and routine I fall into, that is where my heart is, no matter how simple or homely it is. What I call travel, and I do love it, is just another way of enjoying a routine. It’s the same regularity and familiarity and warmth, renewed and refreshed by exposure to different places and different pressures. It’s a small kind of variety, but it’s the sort that suits me. I wouldn’t like the life on the road and the kind of life that would never show the same face twice, the life of the visitor on the surface. It’s the life of a resident for me.

B: My taste is different. I can’t stand to be still. I have to be going somewhere, on the road to something. I can’t abide the thought that tomorrow will be another today. Only I don’t have to change very much to make that so. I take a new route for a week between the same two points, and I watch the progress of the days across that route in their light and shadow, and in the change my week feels as long as a month. Or I make a change in my diet, and I feel the ripples of the change go up and down and across my body, stretched out laterally in time. The same city is endlessly different, even after its general shape is familiar, a slight shift in attention in a detail can make a total revaluation of the whole.

A: So fundamentally, we agree.

B: Absolutely not, I couldn’t imagine two people holding more different points of view! Given, that is, that they believe the same thing, as we do.

Message in a bottle

Listening to the radio the other day I heard a program (sort of) about the 1977 Voyager spacecraft, launched into space with a golden record and other goodies; the hosts of the show talked to several moderately well-known people and asked what they would include. Philip Glass, for instance, would include Bach and Tuvan throat-singing (details unspecified); Neil Gaiman would include the The Wizard of Oz, among other things. Several of the folks interviewed included things it would be difficult to include on a gold record: mandarin oranges in syrup, or an entire meal at Chez Panisse.

Naturally, this got me thinking: if I were involved on the generous but foolhardy project of assembling some sort of representative selection of life on earth, what would I include? This is the sort of thing I think about while bicycling, and so the first things that popped into my mind were: the sound of bicycle wheels on pavement in all the seasons of the year; the feeling of one gets after narrowly avoiding collision with an automobile; the smell of the air on a cold, clear autumn day leaves in a slurry on the road.

Then my mind wandered: the feeling of going home to people who care for you; the desire for and receipt of the first cup of coffee in the morning; the feeling of being warm in bed on a day when you have nothing in particular planned and nowhere in particular to go; the smell of books; a very soft blanket; imagining one has done something well but not being quite sure; warming up after frostbite; the shell of a cicada; the curl of a pea-plant on a string; the smell of soil in the sunshine; water.

The more I thought about it, the less I could think of things to leave out. Even things not commonly thought of during such exercises seemed impossible to omit: quarries – chewing gum – car exhaust. Finally I reached the point (some five blocks from home on my bicycle) that really the only appropriate thing would be to wrap up the entire planet – the entire solar system – very carefully and wait.

Sketch of character

If I’m going to write I’d better do it. (It’s easier to steer a moving ship.) I might make a series: people I have known. Character sketches. I’ve never liked the idea of writing about people. It seems somehow disrespectful. People are large, and mostly invisible. How can I claim to know them well enough to represent them? They could always come back at me and deny my representation: I’m not like that at all. And then I’m exposed, as arrogant and deceitful.

I don’t think that fear is grounded. (It’s a cover [attached only at some edges, with thread – the wind picks up, it billows out, you can see beneath it].) I don’t mind writing about: my state of mind, which is complex and which I’m constantly misrepresenting (except of course I’m in collusion there); what people do, actions being just as complicated as the actors, and just as misrepresentable; or books, which ditto with a multiplier effect.

They say one way to defeat a fear is to confront it. That’s the source of this idea. I thought I might coordinate it with my poor premature project, the book about my travels, such as they are. The happy suggestion was to write short, separable pieces about people I have known. (To be added later: stuff that happened.) Toss them out onto the graph paper. Let them define a field between them. Then try to navigate within that field. One’s in the works. (Really, I need to use this blog for something.) Feel free to comment on them as they come. (You should always feel free to comment, unless you are spam.)