Life, Database, and Narrative

Days are pretty packed affairs. Like over-stuffed omelets. Seemingly compact and straightforward  on the outside–24 hours, dawn to dusk, 9-5, breakfast to dinner–but within the structured folds of our narrating scheme a lot can take place.

Today, in a mundane sense, I didn’t do much. I prepped for teaching, which involved me reading a lot of articles and book chapters. I talked a bit with a friend, dropping him off while navigating construction-marred streets further thinned with parked cars. I drove home in an oddly bristling, bustling early bird rush hour. I discovered that my car may need a new tire, is overdo for inspection, and has a wonky door. Stressed and a little sickened by the world–like Trump’s remarks this afternoon on the shooting–and the layered little anxieties of my own life, I meditated. Now, I am writing.

I don’t know why I list this little litany. I don’t suspect it makes for good reading, much like those old journals of daily meals or routines that historians–and few others–go bonkers over. But I feel like I just wanted to put some of the basic things I did, leaving out even more granular things like meals or a nap I took.

It may be an odd connection, but doing this reminds me of Lev Manovich’s distinction between the non-narrative, collective pool of data that comprise databases compared to the more narrative, often linear data in a novel. A novel has a beginning, middle, and end with well-orchestrated plot points punctuating the read, making “arcs” or “movement.” And essays do the same thing, for the most part.

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Birth of a Francophile

An older piece that used to be another blog that is, alas, no more. I found it again today, made some edits, and decided to post it, being an old favorite of mine. Enjoy:

I sat around reading warning labels as a kid. Maybe some kids played basketball or kickball. Nope. Not me. That’s where I first learned French.

The words were musical. Though they burbled from my lips in coagulated lumps of mangled forms, I sensed the potential for improvement. For lush vowels and fluid links. Of course I had no idea what they meant, either.  Attention! I said to my dad. Regardez! Gonflable! The last one means airbags, in case you’re wondering.

I started taking French in middle school. My teacher was a lean woman with a face like Edith Piaf and frenetic red hair that never changed, as is suspended in perpetual clothes-folding static. A lyricist of French grammar, she sang songs about the imperfect tense to the tune of jingle bells, and if we misbehaved, she swore in Greek under her breath.

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Time, art, and negative capability

I found my summers yesterday, in the fall, the whole of them blue-sky bound and strewn with wind. The oak and maple leaves weaved paths like a wandering needle as they settled to the ground, sun-curled and scattered. Meanwhile, the afternoon light shimmered in the shaking leaves like a mirage or a whispered poem.railway-autumn

Legs folded, I sat on a red Adirondack chair, looking at the backyard where I grew up. A few things were different. The white picket fence wasn’t there anymore. My brother and his friends had taken sledge hammers to it some hot day years ago, celebrated with beer, and piled up the boards like felled trees. A wire fence replaced it, rattling in the wind and squaring off the yard like the lines on a chess board.

My grandfather’s old table was gone too. It was old when I was a kid, gray like the weather had bleached the life out of it, while lichen and moss filled the cracks. I used to poke my finger through knotholes and wiggle it, like a worm, legs swinging too high to touch the flagstone patio where the table rested. I don’t know where that went. Maybe firewood. Maybe the soil behind the stand of hemlocks in the back.

There, on that old table, my neighbor and I built planes with computer paper from my dad’s old Macintosh. That’s gone too, or maybe buried somewhere in a dim corner of the basement, beneath rusted wrenches and coffee cans of old nails. Those days, before the wire fences went up, my neighbor would cut through our backyards and knock on our back door. We rarely called. I’d see him on our back step, his hair like a pile of feathers cemented under a baseball cap, and I’d steal the paper.

For the whole summer day, we’d sit out at that table, folding, and cutting, and throwing our planes when the wind blew. Sometimes they weaved, crashed, and tumbled on the ground like drunk pigeons. And other times, the wind caught the frail wings of our creations and carried them up into the blue, blue sky like birds chasing the sun, and we forgot that there were boundaries, forgot that there were fences and time limits.

Yesterday, sitting on that red chair, I found that joy again. I could see the table, the paper, and my neighbor folding planes beside me. Memories pooled in a puddle that never dried up. The images had a deep resonance, like the memory had bounced back from some distant place, bringing echoes as it returned. Time dissolved.

Then, the moment passed, as a gust brought a branch full of yellow leaves sailing down like a dozen paper planes, all weaving, and diving, and settling. I locked back into time again, like a wanderer suddenly brought back to the path.

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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 3

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This past week, I’ve found my niche back in Egypt, after some uneven footing. On mornings when I don’t teach, I sometimes walk, sticking to the shady side of the street, saying hellos to those who meet my gaze, and finding shops to nose through when I reach the main road.

I like exploring bookshops the best. They’re usually air-conditioned and contain hours of entertainment. Also, many of the people who work there speak English.

In one, I met a young man name Ahmed, with the typical slicked-back hair, tight button-down shirt, and blue jeans. The store was empty, and he got me a coffee as I was looking at memoirs to burn away my 14-hour flight home next week.

“You like books?” he asked.

Well, I was in a bookstore, but I decided to be polite. “Yes,” I said.

“What kinds?”

“Many kinds,” I said.

Ahmed flashed me the seemingly universal you-can-trust-me (even when you can’t) Egyptian smile and handed me my coffee.

“I like philosophy, essays, and memoirs,” I said.

“Philosophy is very interesting,” he said.

I sat down, and welcomed him to sit nearby.

“Yes it is,” I continued. “What do you like to read?”

In alternating moments of coy reticence and loquacious openness—replete with dramatic Egyptian hand movements—Ahmed listed a few books, ranging from Arabic pop lit to the classics that sat on his parent’s bookshelf at home.

“I love The Great Gatsby,” he said.

We had more in common than I thought.

Ahmed had just finished his studies in computer science at The American University in Cairo and practiced his English as often as he could. Savvy and driven, he wanted to work for an American corporation, like IBM, and hopefully use it as leverage to move to America.

“At least, you know, at least for a time,” he said. “Until things get better.”

“Any luck with jobs?” I asked.

He held up his arms, showing the bookstore.

Ahmed’s position is normal—perhaps even a little lucky—for many young men in Egypt. Two years ago, the grim job market and the influx of unemployed college-educated helped spur the Jane. 25 Revolution. Now, the same young men face a similar job market: 13 percent unemployment.  If anything, the continued stagnation has only worsened the situation.

A recent college grad myself, I’m always thinking about jobs. Society forces me to. Everyone wants to know what I’m doing, what my plans are. Now what?

Sitting across from Ahmed I couldn’t help but realize how different our worlds were. Random births, karma, or fate—whatever you believe—had flung us in utterly different circumstances. A recent grand, he’s a lot like me, but his options are diminished, and in a few days, another revolution may rupture his country once again.

Eventually, we finished talking. Ahmed took my cup, empty long ago, and I went back to the seminary for lunch. But I couldn’t stop thinking about him.

As I walked back, I took in the mangled sidewalks, the widows begging for lose change, the skinny cats picking at garbage, and the dusty, dented cars that dotted the road.

After a while, it all becomes background. But now and then, something hits you. Like Ahmed.

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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.

Feeling “at home”

I spent the last three days traveling to Boston with an old friend and his girlfriend, House picturescouting for apartments. They’ll both be PhD candidates in the fall–one at B.U. and the other at MIT. My old friend called me about a month ago to catch up, and we decided it may be neat for me to move in with them.

I didn’t get into the MFA programs I applied to last winter, and the prospect of a gap year living with my parents at home as I applied to other programs didn’t seem pleasant. My friend agreed. Boston would have plenty of people, schools, and opportunities to explore. I’d be out of the house, living in the world.

The plan was to find a two-bedroom in Cambridge area for a reasonable price. Turns out, it wasn’t that simple.

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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.

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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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There’s a difference between quiet and silence. Before I graduated high school, I climbed

Photo I took from the summit as the sun rose.
Photo I took from the summit as the sun rose.

Mt. Marcy, the tallest mountain in New York State, with one of my high school friends, his dad, and another scout. We started our ascent at midnight, reached the peak by 4 a.m., and waited for the sun to rise near five.

On our walk up, our breath mingled with the humidity, revealing webs of water vapor in the light of our headlamps. We sometimes talked, but mostly, things were quiet: the shuffling scratches and thuds of our footfalls as we scrambled over rocks, the heavy pants of our breath,  The occasional slosh and swallow of our water, and the continued cracking and hissing of wind laced through forest.

Now and then, I’d hear an animal, it’s sudden rustle breaking the background.

Quiet is a sense of monotony, a pattern, like a radiator rattling and blowing in a classroom. You forget the noise is there. It’s like the air, bearing down on us, stirred up in with fingers, vibrating in pulsing with invisible waves. Yet we feel like nothing is there. Continue reading