Thursday, August 4, 2016

This Week In Not Surfing

1. The Uber driver tries to talk to me but I am looking at Instagram. Halfway to the airport he announces suddenly “Oh! There is a street around here I have to meet a woman! I met her at that McDonalds and she lives down one of these streets. I have to remember the name. There it is! She lives up there.” When we pull up to the terminal I tell him, just as suddenly, “Shenck Street!” He is surprised I paid attention. He laughs and thanks me for the reminder.

2. In the international terminal they play CNN coverage of the Republican National Convention loudly on every flat screen. It showers us in a nauseating mist of fear and patronism. People in bright saris and modest hijabs and in those silly flat and narrow European sneakers and in chunky leather sandals and bedazzled jeans with trapezoidal back pockets gather in small groups staring up at the broadcast. I hear a retired lady golfer and an ex-sub commandant of boarder security say things. Donald Trump cuts on in a pre-recorded segment and announces he is going to win so very, very hard. I am both embarrassed and bemused. And worried.

3. I am staying in the hippest hotel in the hippest section of London. Someone on the crew says the founder of the hotel chain, a very hip hotel chain, actually died of an overdose in the hotel in which I am staying. Another crew member immediately adds that he probably did it as a branding exercise. The bed is very comfortable and the sauna in the basement is very hot. But the wifi is useless in the room and there is no sign to hang on the door that says “do not disturb.” I stay on the second floor and start to take the back emergency stairs almost exclusively.

4. I tour a rehabilitated secondary school in East London where the children of Arab and Persian and SubContinental immigrants wear matching grey uniforms. Because I am White and from the United States and I am subject to the inherent fears of an American, I am briefly unsettled by all the covered hair and serious mouths. I am briefly suspicious of their following eyes. I am terribly insecure about my bulbous caucasian features. I am envious of their smooth and rounded angular faces. I suppose I find many of them, young men and women, simply beautiful by virtue of looking so different to me. Their seriousness in hospitality is entrancing. I remember having this same experience when I was traveling in West Africa. The experience of feeling lumpy and slightly dermacologically hindered. Later in the week I would find myself in the exact opposite situation. I would find myself surrounded by White people. Exclusively white, or nearly so. This had a very similar but far more long-lasting discomforting effect. 

5. I decide to stay in and order room service instead of going out for a drink with a friend. I watch Zooloander Part Two which is not as good as Zoolander Part One, or even as good as the Zoolander Part Two trailer. But the plot device that Owen Wilson’s character is married to an orgy is a stroke of comic good sense. And Kristen Wiig’s portrayal of a fashion diva’s accent is a bit of contemporary comic genius. And the character of the hipster fashion kid who hails everything lame is spot on in an eery, slightly unplaceable way. 

6. I finally finish a Paul Theroux book about traveling in Oceana. I start reading a Paul Theroux book about traveling by train to India. “One always begins to forgive a place once it’s left behind.” Theroux quoting Dickens quoting Mr. Meagles. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Theroux rephrases Tolstoy to: “All luxury is the same, but misery for each person is miserable in its own way.”

7. I ride my bike through to Victoria Park and watch the Asians play cricket. I watch the Africans play soccer. I watch the English toss frisbees.

8. I speak to a Hungarian woman about small business marketing. I speak to a Bangladeshi student about a rechargeable battery he designed to be worn in a shoe. I speak with a life peer who is referred to as “his lordship” and is a baron, according to Wikipedia. We speak about health and education services in the underserved communities of East London. I talk to a teacher with a nearly undecipherable Geordie accent. For eighteen, a denomination we return to often, he says “Aideen.” I am sure for the first half of our conversation he is curiously talking about some pertinent woman. I speak with a lady wearing a hijab about wanting to find a job in global finance. Her eyebrows are perfect.

9. Being a good listener is, at first glance, a hassle. You are stuck at the end of the table with the talkative one. You are the empathetic ear with the sympathetic eyes. Your time, your soul, your patience, is sucked, sometimes, for a mid-length period of time, dry. But it pays dividends. Being a good listener introduces you to ready talkers. Ready talkers can be at least entertaining or in the close proximity to someone entertaining. If you listen long enough they often get to something very good. And good listeners are in high demand. If you can translate good listening to good conversation, you are a golden asset. If not, you become a bore. So watch out. Good listening can make you a bore.

10. I am a man on the outside at one point. I travel to a place where I am even further on the outside than where I was in down-and-out East London. The Britishness here keeps me from the inside track. Perhaps there is opportunity in this. The cover of being “other.” But, for the British, these sorts of British, the largely upper-class English, being unfailingly polite is the mode of conversational transportation. Understanding that their politeness can stall an American of a certain sort, they use it to defang any critical outside perspective. They can spot from a mile away that certain American sort who feels obliged to return the politeness reminiscent of the rules of a library. Quiet or else. And for us, the American sort, there is a satisfaction of returned moral camaraderie we too hope we have in us. And we imagine it will  bring us closer to our ancestors and garner the respect of our grandfathers, say the way fixing our own car or motorcycle or knowing how to catch and scale a fish or generally having a weathered ruddy complexion with a soft, faint smile, crackling through silent, stiff lips will make us feel like our uncles would be proud to call us nephews and nieces. Extra polite. I want them to say to themselves “well this is an odd, lovely American. Not what I thought an American would be like at all.” And they know this. They know full well Americans come in all shapes and sizes and they know we know they know but they also know their politeness is irresistible to a certain sort of American. It cows us, it declaws us, it forces us to be more polite, really, than they are. Because when we are polite to the English we mean it. We are polite. We are being polite because being polite is so obviously the right thing to do. But really. Really, they are not as polite. They are not really polite the way we are polite because they are being polite out of habit. Out of custom. Their politeness is often accompanied by a turned up eyebrow. A slight cock of the head. A nod to “this is polite, see, you are witnessing politeness. Are you catching on?” And there is something inevitably impolite there. And to each other they are polite but in the most brusque, perfunctory way. Not real politeness, more of a tossing out an expectation of politeness to be disappointed easily. A thin, shallow paper veil meant to be sundered at the slightest brush of the shoulder so the politeness can, almost instantly, as quickly as it’s employed and fails, turn to indignancy. It is politeness meant to service the indignant. They put it out there, really, to fail. If it fails according to plan, they are insurmountable, debilitatingly cross with you. They berate you. The sarcasm, as they say, is “withering.” If it fails less to their satisfaction, they retreat to their assumed moral high ground that they’ve built impossibly fast out of the rubble detritus of their destroyed altar of politeness they had just as quickly built in the first place. It is all so impossibly fast, so incredibly rehearsed, and I myself an American of a certain sort trying terribly hard to be polite.  

10. On my flight from London to New York after two full weeks of being away from my family, I plug in my headphones to my phone and put the jukebox on shuffle. Roger Miller’s “King of The Road” queues up. No lie. I am not pulling your leg. This is the song the digital gods have decided to kick off this particular return to the normal world. I have, over the last two years, realized a dream whereby my life is becoming a series of exits and entries. I went from being stationed at a computer in a comfortable room to making surgical forays into the wider outside world. My next goal is to make the trips less specific, or slightly less controlled, or more controlled by me, or more controlled by subject matter, than by a directive to follow a directive. It will always be a bit of a balancing act. And any level of success would be just that. It all seems impossible that I’ve gotten this far.  

11. Two nights ago I was drinking shots of milk vodka, that’s vodka made from milk, on the banks of a muddy estuary in Cornwall. I danced all night. With men and women. Mostly to what someone later described as bad wedding DJ music, but it didn’t seem bad to me. The milk vodka was doing its trick. I danced with a woman who looked like a duchess. In fact, I’m sure she was a duchess as those types were around, and if you looked that particular part, I was told, you probably were the real deal. I danced with a woman who had been a florist but is now a part-time movie extra, but she said, she only gets cast as movie-extra florists. Nearly every British film that has a scene in a floral shop that has come out in the last handful of years has at least her hands in the frame. So she said. The specialization forced upon us is stultifying. I danced with a teacher who had never danced swing. I magically recalled moves from college dance classes. I danced with my new friend Dick who sells solar panels to farmers to set in their fallow fields to make an extra buck in the down years. A woman who found herself at the bar after traveling from Brittany tried to dance with me, and asked if I would let her sleep in my tent as she had no where to stay. Another lady I talked with for what must have been 45 minutes must have said absolutely nothing of note as I don’t remember a thing about our conversation. I danced until the sun crept over the cow laden hill across the misty bog. Then I ordered a coffee and ordered an avocado toast and some friends found me there at a picnic table, a bit wobbly eyed. They gave me a donut and we walked back to our campsite and I laid down for an hour. 

12. Two days ago I watch Kim Gordon recite a prosaic poemy sort of thing speaking about male guitar hero gesticulations. Then she plugs in a guitar and reenacts the preposterous posturing she had just described. She looks nervous at first. Feels hesitant, but then picks up steam, makes some mistakes, tumbles forward, flops to her back. Her amp comes unplugged as she rubs her guitar against an audience member in the front row and she fumbles plugging it back in. It is utterly fascinating. It is cringe worthy in exactly the way she wants it to be. Full of insecurity and exaltation and pride and creative daring-do. The day before, over a glass of pink wine I’d asked her what her performance would be like, and she said she wasn’t sure, depended on the guitar they had for her. I said something stupid like, “Well, you could play a ukulele and it’d probably be great.” Which was truly a stupid thing to say. 

13. I go to a talk between three writers, two massively egotistical, and one seemingly content to relax in the shade created by their blazing pomposity. Undoubtedly great writers all. Real writers who pour over their words, craft their thoughts, build whole cities and structures and worlds out their literary facility. I listen to them and enjoy what they say, knowing they are the farthest thing from me as can be. Knowing that two of them would never like me because they might think I want what they have. That I might strive for what they’ve got. I don’t know that. That is my own insecurity speaking. Unfortunately, unlike Ms. Gordon I cannot weave my insecurity into interesting musical art webs. I can only try to keep my spirits up.

14. Wings’ “Let‘Em In” comes on the phone jukebox. I love Wings. Wings has always made me happy. Someone I respect, two people I respect actually, were recently agreed in conversation where Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac were the “only” Fleetwood Mac. I can’t remember their exact interchange, but they were in full dismissive agreement about the later pop implosive stylings of the Buckingham/McVie/Nicks iteration. I kept my mouth shut. Peter Green was fantastic, but really. Tusk is one of the great albums of all time. But I don’t know enough about it. These were real academics, see.

15. I spend my time in Cornwall filming the backs of people’s heads for minutes at a time. I film their feet. Their hands. Some of them, very late at night, drag their sleeping children behind them in little red wagons, wrapped in bundles of what looks like yak fur. Truly. They walk and talk in the trees between venues, between sips of milk vodka. The children sleep soundly, rumbling along. 

16. I try to not let anyone catch me drinking coffee. Espresso is ok. Stiff, small stuff I nearly snort. But coffee, there is more of coffee, and it stays hotter longer and I have to sip it and just like my father, who’s coffee drinking I despised, I have the same slurping, schlubbing inability to drink anything even mildly warm without sounding like a clogged drain. So I try to drink coffee alone.

17. I realize quickly that in this context I have an accent. Even my looks are an accent. Rugged, pockmarked American looks, apparently, that make me seem bonafide American. Impossibly American. And as such I should stop speaking. The more an American speaks, the less sexy he becomes. Because Americans ought to be like cowboys. Strong and silent, mysterious and perhaps stupidly, bluntly witty, in a kind of mumbled way. I am sexier when I don’t speak. Intellectually sexier. Everyone in Britain speaks so much. And they are brutally funny, incredibly seriously unserious. I really should stop talking. 

18. On the plane ride home I watch The Hateful 8. I start to watch Laurie Anderson’s film about her dog and Anomalisa, both of which I abandon to the fast-forward button. The Revenant I watch glancingly over someone’s shoulder through the gap in the seats one row ahead of mine. When I see what must be the very last scene, I bring the film up on my seat back screen and plug in my headset, fast forwarding to sync up with my neighbor. The music is very good. It dawns on me that the score must be very good throughout the movie. The end fight scene is brutal. The composition of the final shot is even more brutal. The Beach. Catch Me If You Can. Basketball Diaries. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet. Wild eyed and bearded. The Hateful 8 was so much better than I had expected.

19. The airline loses my bag. I repeatedly, for the next two days, call the airline to see if they’ve tracked it down. My wife tells me a friend told her to tweet about it and hashtag the airline. I tweet about it. The airline tweets back. I tweet back at them. They tweet back at me. They tweet, in a sort of glazed eyed shrug of the shoulder way, “We are doing all we can.” On the phone with the representative I lose my temper and call the whole thing horseshit. The representative says “we’re doing the best we can.” I tell the representative it doesn’t feel that way. I delete my tweets. I still haven’t gotten my bag. It has all the presents I bought for the family in it. 

20. I have not surfed in a number of weeks. I think I have stopped surfing altogether. 


BigDan said...

Peter Greene's Fleetwood Mac is as fake Blues as fake Blues gets. Wings makes everyone happy, are just too jaundiced to know it. What did the airline lose? I'll buy it all here for $5 and send it to you. Love Big Dan

BigDan said...

... some are just too jaundiced...