Play(dough)

[Image from Learning4kids.net]
[Image from Learning4kids.net]

Playdough. Tiny hands tweak, pinch, stretch the dough into tinsels, meaty threads, snakes curling into snail shells–suddenly smashed flat, “like pancakes,” and rolled smooth in young palms into spheres. Perhaps, with a few gentle, well-placed tugs, the children teas out arms and legs, or a simple face, then the fingers close, vise-like, dough peeking slightly from the spaces between, molding shaping it into a small brain, nooked and crannied, and grained with palm lines.

Then, at the end of the day, it all goes back in the plastic can, smashed, once more, into an uneven cylinder. “Don’t forget,” say the teachers, “or else you won’t be able to play with it anymore.” Sealed behind primary-colored lids and walls, the malleable plaything remains withdrawn and dormant, waiting.

II.

“Writing is revision.” A teacher I once shadowed said this a few times. So did I to own students, thinking it a properly provocative, axiomatic phrase. Something White Lotus from Kung Fu might say if he taught first year composition.

But, to be honest, I don’t really know what it means. Is it a reference to something like Linda Flowers and John R. Hayes and their “cognitivist approach to writing,” in which revision and pre-writing are part of the “writing process”? Or perhaps it’s a more political adage, on the “revision” of ideological entrenchments and social structures. Writing allows one to “revise” the state of things, both inside our heads and outside, in the world.

Or it may stretch the never-ending inventive tweaking that revision entails over the whole of writing. In other words, writing is a constant “revision” of sorts, a constant trying to get words out as best as we can. We are never done. The moment we pick up our pens, we are already revising. The moment we “finish,” we are still revising.

III.

If one mentions (or Googles) Albert Camus, the word “absurdity” is not far behind–neither is “existentialist,” which is a whole other issue. But, as with most cases of historical association, things are more complicated.

The “absurd” is the first of three philosophical progressions for Camus. During WWII, Camus wrote the trilogy of the absurd: the play Caligula (1944), the novel The Stranger (1942), and the essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). This, he said, would be his guiding process, tackling his ideas with a play, a novel, and an extended philosophical essay.

His second trilogy centered on revolt, inserting human values in the face of nihilism. Writing the book-length essay The Rebel (L’Homme révolté, 1951), Camus received a wave of criticism. For one, he attacked the French left, which included his friends Sartre and Beauvoir, because they knew about the atrocities of the GULAG and still supported Stalin.

But more pointedly, Camus also changed his thoughts. He no longer was the “prophet of the absurd,” but the spokesman of revolt. While some argue this shift was a complete rejection and others say it forms a “continuum” with absurdity, both represent a shift.

As Camus writes in his essay “Enigma,” “Everyone wants the man who is still searching to have already reached his conclusion. A thousand voices are already telling him what he has found, and yet he knows that he hasn’t found anything.”

Camus was still searching, still stumbling and exploring his ideas, flashlight in hand, but his public name was already solidified–and, in many ways, remains so.

IV.

Playdough is revision. You’re never done tweaking or sculpting it. As it’s name suggests, playdough is always “play,” never product. Pure process, pure doing, all about feeling the grainy pliant substance stick and fold with your fingertips. And each time, it goes back in the container, like an artist who scrubs away his canvas just to start again.

It’s not “art for art’s sake,” but creative construction and exploration without a clear endpoint. Like a sand box or a “sand box” game, playdough provides a space to explore the space. That’s its end and means.

In a sense, it even differs from a “game,” our usual sites of play, as playdough has no constraints. No “rules” that structure the game. For example, in soccer (i.e. football), because you can’t use hands and arms, the “game” is to use one’s other body parts to head, dribble, kick, cross, and score.

Playdough has no “rules,” except, perhaps, a parent saying you can’t stick it on the rug.

V.

Camus also wrote that writing is a “daily fidelity,” a daily act of holding onto and working one’s ideas and images into something that may take years. For some reason, Camus often latches on to five years, saying that one must have an idea five years before one starts writing about it.

Camus’ often forgotten first novel A Happy Death is a steppingstone to The Stranger. The character is a cold, detached Algerian named Mersault (a one letter difference from The Stanger‘s Meursault.). It evokes similar images, similar echoes and feelings, though the novels differ profoundly.

Scrapped and unpublished in his lifetime, A Happy Death may be a failure in some ways. Or a mere writing exercise, a book-length warm up for a new writer. But still, the question remains, how much does it stand on it’s own? How much is it part of The Stranger? And how much does the distinction matter?

VI.

I always remember that our English “essay” comes from “essai,” the French word for “trial” or “to test the quality of” (like metal in a furnace), echoing Michel de Montaigne’s Essais, which he viewed in a similar light. They were not meant to be polished, finished pieces, but “trials” and “attempts,” sketches or studies in a sense that tested his ideas.

Like Camus’ daily fidelity and playdough’s unfinished pliancy, Montaigne’s Essais were searching, roving, and unfinished–despite receiving countless edits, read throughs and revisiting. And like Camus writing, the Essais offer profound political and philosophical insights. Here, writing is revision, and revision is powerful.

Encountering most essays, however, we often see them as static and finished. We also see them as discrete and separate–or when not separate, as “derivative” or “remixed.” But technology provides a possible return to Montaigne’s Essais or a possible shift into the realm of playdough, of productive play, as our “interfaces” are often not static. Here, writing is much like revision.

Only I shudder to use the word “productive,” because it has become an instrumentally focused word, layered with nasty, anxiety-inducing overtones that make me wonder if I’m “doing enough,” and “keeping up,” and not “wasting time.”

So, in a sense, technology allows us to have interfaces of co-authorship, interaction, constant change, new mechanics of invention, etc., but we also need a culture that can explore this. We may have playdough interfaces, but we need a playdough culture, a culture that isn’t telling us what we have “found,” to paraphrase Camus, but relishes the play of the finding. Doing so, we may further liberate our technology and creativity to innovate and express. But most of all, it may bring more freedom and joy back into the creative process.

As I said above, it’s not art for art’s sake, but doing for doing’s sake. It’s about turning revision into invention and vise versa. It’s about taking our tacky, doughy language and playing with it, seeing what comes out as we stretch and flatten it into compositions.

Five books that made me

As the American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote (or so the various quote websites have us believe),“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” So it is with me. books picture

A confirmed bibliophile, I may not be a surprising case, but I’ll never forget one of my co-workers at Lowes. An older man with rough hands, worn blue jeans, and work boots, he rasped contracting stories in a cigaret-stained voice about “idiots who didn’t know shit about construction.” 

But one day, during his break, when I was reading Don Quixote over a turkey sandwich, he sat down and started talking about books. Books he read in school, like Hemingway, Austen, Faulkner, and Dickens. Books his wife read, like Jody Piccoult and John Grisham. Books his father gave him, worn how-to manuals and beat-up hardcovers gathered from outdated encyclopedia sets.

“I miss reading,” he said, leaning back in his metal fold-out chair. “I miss the stories.”

Soon, I went back to the registers, thinking about it. Probably nothing would happen. But a few weeks later, he came in and pulled out a worn copy of the The Old Man and the Sea.

“My favorite,” he said. “I’ve never forgotten this book.”

Since then, I haven’t either.

Continue reading “Five books that made me”

Unsticking

I’ve been stuck lately. It happens to all of us. Now and then, we feel like Dante, who lastleafopens his Divine Comedy in the midst of an existential crisis:

IN the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct. . .

Fortunately, most of us don’t need to walk through hell and purgatory before we reach the heaven on the other side. And we don’t need to need to wander between dream vision and sleep, gradually learning how to “do well” like William Langland’s protagonist in Piers Plowman. 

But what these texts from the Middle Ages note remains true: sometimes we lose our momentum. Like a turtle pushed out to the center of a frozen pond, unable to gain footing and reach the shore again, we feel lost, adrift, and powerless. Sometimes, this makes us stiff and wooden. As Albert Camus writes in his essay “Return to Tipasa“:

A day comes when, thanks to rigidity, nothing causes wonder any more, everything is known, and life is spent in beginning over again. These are the days of exile, of desiccated life, of dead souls. To come alive again, one needs a special grace, self-forgetfulness, or a homeland.

Indeed, sometimes we really do need to come alive again.

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Sisyphus and the fair field full of folk

Yesterday, while sitting in the cafeteria, sipping the last of my tea, I scanned the seething mob of students around me. Pockets collected around tables, laughing. Some weaved through the rows of chairs, balancing plates. Most were focused, making beelines through the groups, mumbling excuses and smiling as they dodged bodies and carts, slipping into their own chair. Others took their time, stopping at tables, picking out apples like a chef at a farmer’s market.

Image courtesy of Vanderbilt library
Image courtesy of Vanderbilt library

Each person had a way of being. Some wore exercise clothes, others had prim button-down Oxfords, most shuffled through lines in pajamas. They had places to go, things to do–or an absence of things to do that they filled with conversations and distractions.

Having spent the morning reading William Langland’s Piers Plowman, an allegorical dream poem from the 14th century, I recalled one of the more famous lines. The narrator, a mysterious figure named Will, falls asleep and finds himself in the midst of a strange country. He describes it:

I saw a tower on a toft · worthily built; 
A deep dale beneath · a dungeon therein, 
With deep ditches and dark · and dreadful of sight 
A fair field full of folk · found I in between, 
Of all manner of men · the rich and the poor, 
Working and wandering · as the world asketh. 

Will then goes on to describe these “fair folk.” Some toil in fields, while “Wasters” devour their products in gluttony. Some seek after salvation, becoming monks and anchorites; others wear the habit as a means to a escape poverty and cheat others. Merchants sell wares. Pilgrims travel. Kings rule, judges judge.

The poem describes a diverse spectrum of life, from highborn to low, and sandwiched them between these two towers: the one on a hill, the other in a ditch. We later discover that the tower on the hill is the tower of Truth, a symbol for God and salvation. The tower in the ditch belongs to Wrong, providing a symbol for a wasted life and a doomed afterlife. As the poem progresses through it’s many “steps,” visions chronicle Will’s search for salvation through Truth.

In the cafeteria, I considered Will’s vision, particularly this “fair field full of folk,” buzzing, weaving, laughing, and living around me. Where are they all going? I thought. What are they doing? Why are they here? A surge of compassion welled up in me as these questions turned over in my head, rolling one to the other. I felt connected to everyone and detached at the same time, an outside observer with a unique stake in the observation.

Continue reading “Sisyphus and the fair field full of folk”

Back home

I’ve been home for about three days now after surviving over 24 hours traveling, sustained by Cliff Bars, airline food, and caffeine. My mom barely held her tears in as she squeezed me near the baggage counter in the echoing spaces of the near-empty airport. The rest of the flight pooled around the carousel, frayed and wrinkled.

“It’s good to be home,” I said.

And it was. Four days before, June 30th arrived after weeks of warnings, anticipation, and scattered protests. Like a ruptured pipe, millions pooled into the squares and streets across Egypt. Tamarod, the grass-roots movement that organized the opposition, flaunted 22 million signatures to throw out Morsi while Tagarod, the pro-Morsi opposition, organized sit-ins.

As some graffiti said, “January 25 and June 30, our Revolution continues.”

Flags, fireworks, clenched fists, posters, and red cards colored the crowds. Couples, children, and friends held cards reading “Leave.” In a country with notorious disregard for timeliness, organization, and teamwork, millions gathered with a single purpose.

“It is the biggest protest in Egypt’s history,” one official told Agence France-Presse.

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Egypt, Week Two

The setting sun tints the Cairo train station like a sepia-toned photograph as we pull away. Through the smudged train window I watch an old man in a frayed linen jacket search through his old army bag as he leans against a smog-stained pillar. Friends take photographs in front of low concrete benches, and a woman hoists a bag of rice on her head, trailing her three children behind.

The train gains speed as Cairo’s unfinished block housing gradually gives way to broad fields, dotted with a few workers: the Egyptian countryside. Between the fields stand buildings like unfinished shelves, piled and cramped together, with the rebar poking out like lose whiskers.

Dea, Micheal, and I are on our way to Alexandria, Alexander the Great’s famous capital, where Cleopatra once saw Mark Antony and Eratosthenes invented modern geography over 2,000 years ago.

I’ve wanted to see Alexandria since I was a child. The Lighthouse and the Library represent one of the peaks of human civilization, and some of history’s greatest thinkers walked in their shadows. 

Mindful of Alexandria’s epic history, I also recall Egypt’s current issues. The unemployment rate remains over 13%, tourism declines, and the Egyptian pound continues to fall. Rebels block roads around Cairo, intercepting commuters to deliver political statements. Hard-line Salafis attack shrines for Sufi mystics. A recent hotel on the Red Sea celebrated its opening by smashing alcohol bottles on camera. Basic necessities, like bread, fuel, and electricity, remain threatened. Crime is at an all-time high…

Things do not look good for Egypt.

All this occurs as Morsi wrestles to assert Egypt’s water rights against the Renaissance Dam that the Ethiopian parliament voted unanimously to build last week. He cut ties with Syria’s Assad, spurring controversy, and he picked a man named Adel Mohammed Al-Khayat with alleged ties to a terrorist group responsible for an attack that killed 58 tourists last Nov. 1997. Egypt’s tourist minister resigned from the appointment.

Things do not look good for Morsi.

I think of what one student told me the night before. “Before the revolution, we did not have freedom, but we had safety. Now, we have freedom, but no safety. Soon, we won’t have freedom either.”

His words capture the sentiment of many Egyptians. A recent poll by the Arab American Institute puts Morsi supporters at 28 percent–and falling.

A group named Tamarad, “Rebel” in Arabic, hopes to capitalize on this discontent for Jun. 30 demonstrations. Each day, Tamarad gains support: politicians, like Mohamed El-Baradie; disillusioned youth; lawyers; writers; and everyday workers ousted from a job.

Tamarad has already gotten over 13 million signatures for a petition to cut short Morsi’s term and have a new election–almost 15 percent of Egypt’s population.

And things do not look good for tourism. As my time here continues, I consider that this may be my last time in Egypt, at least for a long time. Travel cannot flourish in a broken, unsafe region.

My thoughts swirl as I watch the sun–a bright orange bead on the horizon–set. The train rattles; food carts and hawkers come and go as they sell humus, tea, and sesame treats. Smokestacks silhouetted against the sky smolder like snuffed candles. The fields of sugarcane pass by until they’re too dark to see.

Sometimes at such moments, something opens up inside me: all my years collide into a single moment. One of my friend calls it “the abyss opening up.” I can’t explain it. I can only feel it.

I wonder how I got here. Looking back at my life, I remember when I tried learning hieroglyphics in ninth grade. Around the same time,  I made my own Rosetta stone from wet clay. I also collected papyrus scrolls from novelty shops, pouring over them with a magnifying glass.

Freshmen year in college, I took an Islamic art course and witnessed a new world of geometry and arabesque opening up, embedded with traditions recited hundreds of years ago: the alleged dictations of God. 

One by one, the moments gather, as Beckett’s characters say in Endgames: “Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.” After years of disjointed hours you’re on a train bound for Alexandria and can’t explain why.

I suppose the same could be said for Egypt. One by one, the eons accrue, layered like scar tissue as time ticks forward. Some problems never leave. New ones arise. The people live on. Then, one day, you have an “impossible heap” of problems. Someone must take stock and unravel it, but it’s to big and convoluted to make any sense.

Writing in my notebook, thinking of Egypt, and trying to pin down how I feel, the train rolls on.

***

The next day, we begin our tour, wary after a taxi driver tried to overcharge us the night before. John, a quiet guide with a goatee and a Coptic cross on his wrist greets us in the hotel lobby. After a small stop at the august Opera House, we reach our first major site: the Kom al-Shoqafa, catacombs started in the second century AD. Lost for hundreds of years, a citizen found them in 1900 after his donkey broke through the ground.

We descend a spiral staircase where people once carried the dead bodies to be buried. At the bottom, we enter a low low space that smells of wet clay. Marks of picks and chisels etch the limestone walls, feathered and numerous, like snow disturbed by wind.

The guide points out the mingling of Greek, Egyptian, and Roman symbolism that fills the tomb. In one corner, Anubis wears a Roman centurion uniform. In another, Greek garlands surround scenes with Isis and Ra. The site began as a tomb for a rich family, but gradually expanded into a public cemetery that housed over 300 bodies.

I picture the workers carving the stone, the families hoisting the dead through tunnels, and the mourners grieving in thin beams of light.

Next, we visit to the National Museum. Built in 2003, the museum is an air-conditioned collection of history from Egypt’s Old Kingdom, over 6,000 years ago, to the present day. We pass mummies, statues, and mottled ruins hoisted from the harbor from the time of the Light House and the Library over 2,200 years ago.

Used to a country born in the late 1700s, a 6,000-year-old statue of a scribe is impossible to really comprehend.

We end our tour with the Library, a vast modern structure designed to incorporate ancient design elements–like the lotus flower–with modern materials and a modern aesthetic. A 32-meter-high glass-paneled roof rises from a broad reflecting pool. It’s meant to mimic the sun rising from the sea. The walls are of gray Aswan granite, etched with characters from 120 different human scripts.

Inside, the library hosts museums and a sprawling reading room with millions of books in multiple languages. The library also has millions of ebooks, always gathering more.

It’s a beautiful space, and the library guide–a well dressed women with the voice of a recording–rattles off stirring statistics. Still, I wonder what Egypt’s impoverished population can do with a $220 million dollar project that costs students alone 30 pounds for a year-long subscription.

After the library, we eat lunch at the Fish Market, a popular restaurant where you pick your meal from a display of fish on ice, eating it alongside Mezze and fresh-baked bread. The guide calls his mother and asks her how she makes pickled lemons.

After this, we split up. Dea continues on the tour, while Michael and I opt to walk along the shore. Away from the touristy Fish Market–with its clean tables and gentle piano music–a new world surfaces.

Children run into the water, liberated from thin beaches packed inch-by-inch with folding chairs. An old woman swaddled in black veils works at a public wire to steal electricity. Cabbies and buggies stop along the sidewalk, calling us.

“Welcome to Egypt! You want ride? Very, very cheap!” they say, as if on repeat.

The stench of garbage mingles with the smell of sea water, but farther out, the water is surprisingly crisp and blue, with fishing ships flashing in the sun as they bob. Bright flags ripple with the steady wind. Cars honk alongside us like a pack of dogs. On rocky shorelines beyond the beach, people try to catch fish with long, tapered poles.

On our way back to the hotel, we pass a boy trying to fly a piece of paper attached to a string. He isn’t having much luck, so Michael takes apart a nearby basket and fits two sticks in a cross-like pattern on the paper.

“Kite!” the boy says.

We exchange mutual smiles and continue.

Nearby, we pass through a kids’ carnival outside of a mosque. Two young boys race down a hill on ramshackle scooters, almost running over Michael and I.

“Habibii akbar!” one screams, “my great beloved!” He banks left to avoid a crash, knees tucked up to his sholdiers.

After about two hours, we reach the hotel. Dea meets us there. We go out to eat at the palatial Four Seasons–including a bottle of wine. After that, we visit some of the shops of cheap shoes and misspelled T-shirts with things like “Honeymoon Nightmare [incompresnsible word]” airbrushed on in distressed letters. The crowd of young people surges around us, scoping out bargains and enjoying the cool air.

The next day, we leave the hotel and  find our train in the maze of the Alexandria station. The station master tells us one platform, then a passenger yells out another as his train carries him away. The passenger is the right one.

On the bleached old train again, hearing the door clatter as people use the bathroom and vendors race along the aisle, I look out the window. I got what I came for: a taste of a city I’ve always wanted to visit. I also got to visit the ocean that Camus loved so much, walking among the packed beaches, drenched in noonday sun. I could almost see a young Camus among the other children, kicking the soccer ball or swimming through the water, his strong arms cutting through the pale blue.

Phrases of his writing circled in my head the whole trip.

Returning to Cairo, I understand better why he loved the sunlight and the sea–the “wealth of poverty” as he sometimes called it. I guess that was another grain that piled up, spurring my trip.

With all the echoes of past years following me through the city I felt like I was on some pilgrimage. It was just a feeling, but I couldn’t ignore it.

Perhaps, like Chaucer’s pilgrims, we endure the road because we have something sacred at the end of it. Not something religious, but a dream we’ve always wanted to flourish or a place we’ve always wanted to see. The images of a photograph or the words of a particular writer in our younger years become myth-like, and we long to visit their source, like Dorothy longing for “someplace over the rainbow.” Such places feel like they can’t exist in real life. They’re too magical.

But they do.

Whenever I talk about Egypt, people always tell me that they can’t imagine seeing the Pyramids. One can’t. They feel like dragons plopped in the midst of everyday life, something remarkable transcending the mundane.

Alexandria was similar. The name itself evokes hundreds of fantasies and has for thousands of years, culling travelers from all over the world. I feel blessed that I was able to hear its siren song, endure the road, and reach it. I won’t forget what I saw or what I felt. And I hope that other travelers–kids who collected papyrus, read Camus, or pursued their own passions–set foot on their own pilgrimages and that their holy sites remain intact and beautiful.

Clichés and images

In seven days, I put on a cheap, fire-hazard of a cap and gown, shuffle across the Charlie Brown One Nightoverpopulated floor of a gym, grab a mass-produced sheet of sepia-toned paper, and graduate–along with thousands of others in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I have a lot to think about.

I auditioned to be one of the commencement speakers. I don’t think the committee appreciated my attempt to deconstruct the clichés that crowd most ceremonies–those lovely nuggets of wisdom we pocket heading out into the “real word” to find a job because “we’re the future” and “our education is only the beginning.”

“I didn’t think we’d make it,” but we did. Hopefully we’ve “found ourselves” and “remember where we came from” while we’re at it.

I think I’ve made my point…

Clichés are the Easy Mac of our language: artificial, devoid of nutrition, but easy to make. No one really likes clichés, but we use them at important events for well-trod expressions and cheeky adages. They’re quick and malleable. Few of us take the time to truly consider what the event means, or if we do, we can’t find the right words. There’s too much going on.

This is my problem.

I can feel the day approaching, but I don’t know what it means. And I’m not the sort of person who can blithely steps off into mystery like a trust fall. I need some clarity.

Continue reading “Clichés and images”

Almond Blossoms

Another excerpt from my memoir, a polished-up and expanded older piece: almond blossom

On Sunday, Jun. 24, Egypt announced its first democratically elected president: Muhammad Morsi. It’s a milestone for any nation. Egypt is no exception.

I ‘d like to say I was huddled in some austere bunker nibbling rations as a radio murmured Morsi’s name through static, or that I was near Tahrir, watching a sea of faces, cheers, and gun shots rattle in the air as people celebrated the pick.

They’d make good stories.

Instead, I was taking a nap. From my window, I heard someone shout Morsi’s name from the street, so I cracked my lids open to decipher the echoes. When no one else shouted, I closed my eyes again.

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Maps

So I am neither dead nor lost in some Tron-like universe, detached from reality. I’m treasure_map__skull_island_by_pumpkinjack6-d30me8qjust very busy: a starring role in a musical, an honors thesis, and the day-to-day tasks of tutoring and studying. Still, I apologize for my absence.

That said, I don’t have anything new today. But I figured I could copy-and-paste part of my honor’s project, a memoir that also involves French writer Albert Camus called Coming of Age with Camus. It’s coming along, but still needs work. Call it a peace offering.

Here’s the first chapter, Maps:

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