English has a glut of quality words. Most sit contentedly on the extreme edge of uselessness, charmed to be occasionally utilized and then returned to collect dust. Many achieve their quality by defining an action with exacting specificity: defenestration, though enjoyable, is rarely applied (exempting the case of a few unfortunate Praguers). Bewitching petrichor–the smell of earth after rainfall–enjoins us in indirect experience. But why not just enjoy the experience itself? Bumbling sesquipedalian has the unique economy of defining itself and suggests English may be a langauge with too much time on its hands.
With these and 171,473 words—in current use, as found in the Oxford English Dictionary—English comprises the world’s most corpulent lexicon. 2010 saw the official additions of vuvuzela (less cacophonous than the noise it creates), refudiate (a gift from today’s Shakespeare, wordsmith Sarah Palin) and unfriend (far less trouble than falling out). American president Barack Obama was supposedly single-handedly responsible for the inclusion of fist-bump (pun intended). New for 2012, Oxford Online Dictionaries officiated vajazzle (v.: to adorn the pubic area of a woman with crystals, glitter, or other decoration); that twerk has not yet made the list is grounds for suspicion.
So it’s not for want of effort or wherewithal that English lacks a few quality words. When not conjuring them, English does just fine borrowing and then slyly keeping them for itself, the way books tend to end up on the borrower’s shelf. But some words exhibit English’s forever vast lacuna with their efficiency, their specificity, their emotive powers or their romantic connotations. Many of these words are so embedded in the cultures their languages derive from that they would be less meaningful in an English context, but this doesn’t stop me from having pangs of language jealousy. These ten words leave me viridescent.
Near the top of many lists is schadenfreude, a German word meaning “to take pleasure from the suffering of others.” German speakers experience this very sensation while recognizing English lacks such a practical and worthwhile word. It’s moments of usefulness are endless; Milton Friedman getting hit with a pie and the Grape Lady falling being only two examples. Youtube.com owes its popularity, if not existence, to schadenfreude, as evidenced by nearly any youtube hit compilation you may see (Charlie hat mich gebissen!). It even has it’s own abbreviated internet variant, lolz. Schadenfreude seems so innate to human behavior, so deeply connected to what we find amusing, that evolutionary biologists wouldn’t be amiss in tracking down it’s origin and purpose. A word representing nearly daily feelings ought to be one English owns as well (note: Greek contains a similar word: epikhairekakia).
Vietnamese’s contender for most mellifluous word, a variant on “vanderlust,” may be phượt. Phượt means, as a friend of mine explained, “to travel without any destinations and detailed plans set beforehand – just follow the route you love and let your feet guide your way.” Not all those who wander are lost and a person traveling by phượt has the confidence of knowing there is, if nothing else, at least a single superlative word to guide them.
Now for a globally linguistic phượt through love, bewilderment and loss. Whether a trifling dalliance or the incipient moment for lifelong paramours, falling in love for the first time is often so effecting English could stand to have a word to describe it. Vietnamese has a rough verb for that very experience, the supurb mối tình đầu (not a single word, true, but Vietnamese has a limited and monosyllabic lexicon, so word clusters function as single meanings). It’s surely at least as important an act as losing one’s virginity, whose single-word variant in English suggests floral shop theft.
Before mối tình đầu occurs, one may experience mamihlapinatapai. This mouthful, from the Yagánlanguage of Tierre del Fuego, is “a look shared by two people each desiring the same thing, but neither wishing to initiate and both wishing the other would.” What schadenfreude is to youtube, mamihlapinatapai is to classified missed connections. Take this example, from the “Missed Connections” craigslist page of my hometown Milwaukee:
“You were walking with two of your friends on North Broadway by MIAD just before one o’clock You were walking in the middle. I was wearing a white sweatshirt.Just before you reached where that purse shop is and ArtAsia, we made eye contact, you looked gorgeous. Hope to hear from you. Maybe let me know if I was walking with anyone or not to help if you are real or not ”
I certainly hope they were. Unfortunately, mamihlapinatapai is rife with misapplied emotion. Courage pushed through mamihlapinatapai in this one-sided affair:
“To the gorgeous Hotel clark at lake geneva [sic]. Whoever you have in your life is lucky to have you. You are completely stunning. Sorry if I hassled you about the hot tub, I just wanted to get to know you.”
Our tendency to experience mamihlapinatapai (called the Volunteer’s Dilemma in game theory) may well hinder more relationships than it helps. It is the bane of the demure, the polite and the standoffish. As a cinematic effect, it’s excruciating to watch. How often do you find yourself on the edge of your seat, begging the character to just say something before she gets away forever!
I’m challenged to limit my choices from Japanese. In Japan, social interactions have defined sets of rules for regulating words and actions. This is called tatemae. The rules of tatemae change as one shifts from the office to a public place to home, or in discussions with co-workers, strangers or family members. Tatemae is strictly enforced in Japan and is rarely violated. Co-workers may know each other for years using exclusively honorific titles, only changing when social status itself changes i.e. promotions or demotions, through marriages or job loss.
Tatamae contrasts with honne, meaning the true desires and opinions one must conceal under normal circumstances. Going for a night of drinking with co-workers allows for the transition between tatemae and honne, and these are considered acceptable for sharing true feelings—so long as they are not brought up again in the morning. With such regulation of verbal affairs it is not surprising that Japanese communication is strongly non-verbal. Perhaps tatemae ensures the frequent occurrence of mamihlapinatapai. Or, for those skilled in non-verbal communication, mamihlapinatapai may rarely occur.
If necessity is the mother of invention, both lethargy and urgency are the twin forges of new words. From the latter comes the Albanian word Trashëgime. Though trashëgim is literally interpreted as “heredity,” trashëgime has more lascivious connotations. One friend explained it clearly: “Trashegime is the phrase commonly said to newlyweds as a way of congratulating them. It’s really just a polite way of saying ‘go copulate, carry your genetic lines onward.’ More implicitly, it’s a way of saying ‘if you don’t have kids within a year of being married, we’re going to assume something’s wrong with one of you, so get to it.’” Having conquered mamihlapinatapai and survived mối tình đầu, the sweetly shouted sound of trashegime is a blessing and a burden.
But nothing lasts. The author Orhan Pamuk explicated hüzün—a Turkish word with Arabic roots that suggests a deep sense of lingering melancholy one takes solace, even meaning, from—for an international audience. For Pamuk, hüzün is the condition of his native city: “The hüzün of Istanbul is not just the mood evoked by its music and its poetry,” Pamuk wrote, “it is a way of looking at life that implicates us all, not only a spiritual state but a state of mind that is ultimately as life-affirming as it is negating.”
“The hüzün of Istanbul suggests nothing of an individual standing against society; on the contrary, it suggests an erosion of the will to stand against the values and mores of the community, encourages us to be content with little, honoring the virtues of harmony, uniformity, humility. Hüzün teaches endurance in times of poverty and deprivation…it allows the people of Istanbul to think of defeat and poverty not as a historical endpoint, but as an honorable beginning fixed long before they were born.”
Not only a foreign word but a foreign sentiment for North Americans. The overt determinism of hüzün suggests why American Culture—the narrative of the American Dream, the City-on-a-Hill—would find it anathematic. “It is hüzün that ordains no love will end peacefully,” Pamuk continues, “Just as in old black-and-white films…the hüzün the boy has carried with him since birth will lead the story into melodrama.” Imagine that Hollywood films were not always subjugated to the imperative of a happy ending.
I’ll finish with two very Iberian offerings. La Madrugada, similar to l’heure bleue, refers to the period of time between midnight and dawn. Its cultural connotations specify the moments around and before dawn when the night is darkest, as the quotation from Thomas Fuller contends. We are a diurnal species and, for the majority of us, intersections with la Madrugada are infrequent and memorable.
Words alone rarely make cases for national recognition, but this is not true of saudade, celebrated in Brazil on January 30th. Saudade—an emotion of la Madrugada?—is the intense, nostalgic yearning for someone or something lost accompanied by the knowledge that they or it may never return again. In cases of saudade, the matter is out of one’s hands: circumstances are determined by the whims of fate. Where hüzün brings acceptance, we are denied even that when experiencing saudade. It is a crude historical note that both words can be viewed—as Pamuk views hüzün—as sentiments collectively shared under the emotive shadow of faded empires: we can thank Portuguese, the language of Fado, for the heart-rending saudade.
I am indebted to Phong, Matt and Marisola for their contributions and to Lydia, for teaching me to appreciate specificity.
Lessons from Paris 1968
For hundreds of thousands of us in Wisconsin, June 5th recall election results were a punch in the stomach: they hurt terribly that night and left us feeling queasy in the morning. This feeling exists and persists against our better judgment: we knew the polls would be tight and that Walker was leading. We knew Walker had an insurmountable financial advantage. These weren’t new suspicions: they were present when had our hopes put in recall—did this not feel a bit like a bitter concession? The queasiness, the disquietude was present when Barrett won the nomination—hadn’t we been through this already? Were we really convinced it would be different this time? Many—most?—of us weren’t convinced but went along with it because it was a great all or nothing gamble.
That was the risk: that everything from Madison 2011 until now could be thrown into one pot and lost. And now that it has been, what do we do with our collective deflation?
When Madison became a focus of agitation in January of 2011, it seemed as if a sleeping giant had awoken. Enlivened through its anti-ideological connections to the Arab Spring, participants in the Madison uprising and occupation were guided by the values of justice, fairness and dignity. Walker had broken Wisconsin’s fragile purple social contract. In a state that has long lived with Blue senators and Red governors, Red senators and socialist mayors (Frank Zeidler was mayor of Milwaukee from 1948 until 1960, straight through McCarthy’s tenure) and other improbable combinations, Walker’s ramrodding of blatantly unjust policy roused and riled historically patient Wisconsinites.
From this, a new political awakening had emerged: thousands came to realize that, by working together, we can get things done. Direct Action got the goods—but so did representative democracy. The Wisconsin 14 became heroes simply by doing their jobs, albeit in a very unorthodox way, by getting out of Wisconsin. They were representing us—us! And we found we could support them with our very bodies—which were in turn fed by tremendous amounts of pizza, paid for by sympathetic people from around the world. Wisconsinites felt, for the first time, the strength of globally supported local action. It was, vertically and horizontally, a moment of seminal initiation into a world of public consciousness.
Madison’s protestors and occupiers did much of what could strategically have been done short of a general strike—an event many lament not happening. Ultimately, Walker pushed his union-busting agenda through in a bit of smarmy legislative trickery. The 14 returned and the protest dispersed leaving everyone to contemplate the next step. All that anger and energy and, seemingly, few satisfying places to take it: will the judiciary restore collective bargaining rights? Can we gather the signatures to recall Walker? If we put our faith in the Democratic Party apparatus, can they help us reclaim this state?
We know the story, intimately. Decentralized, direct-action oriented protest shifted to the medium of electoral politics. Sconny uprising turned career politician do-over. “Keep Calm and Stand Strong” became “Grin and Barrett”—we knew we had to do it, but we sure didn’t like it. He didn’t mention collective bargaining in his campaign—an issue which may have mobilized voters. He harped on Walker’s job record as if cutting 17,000 public employees was something Walker wouldn’t be proud of, as if Milwaukee’s own one-sided class war was a pedestal of success to stand upon. Again, facts we knew. Again, the big all-in gamble.
Our Wisconsin story has many historical precedents of which the events of Paris 1968 bares some strong comparisons. Like Madison of 2011, Paris saw a great political awakening whereby traditionally politically active demographics—students, unions—were joined in the streets by thousands of newly-mobilized citizens. What began as a protest against the state’s crackdown on student politics culminated in a general revolt over larger issues (the ability to unionize, minimum wage increases—sound familiar?). Participants utilized direct action tactics: street protests, wildcat striking, occupations and, ultimately, the general strike. Paris’ uprising took place on a grand scale: over 11,000,000 workers struck for two straight weeks. The economy stood still and the 5th Republic nearly collapsed when President Charles de Gaulle disappeared. In the power vacuum workers occupied factories and began revolutionary experiments in alternative economics. Nothing, it seemed, would be the same.
Then de Gaulle reappeared with a strategy, familiar to us all, that out-maneuvered the entire revolution: a recourse to electoral politics. He would not stand down, as some demanded, but offered instead an opportunity for the French to vote in a new election. Votes and votes alone would decide the course of French politics: workers will go back to work, students back to class and on election day, each person will have their vote. The Communist Party—the largest French far-left party, but a party which represented the Parisian protesters about as well as the Democrats could be said to represent the 2011 Occupy Movement—agreed to the elections.
The revolutionary fervor quieted. Most workers went back to work and students went back to class. Now marginalized, those who continued to strike were arrested, ousted and banned. Police reoccupied universities and planted agents in factories. The fractured left Socialist and Communist Parties in-fought while the conservative Gaullists consolidated their power and organized. When the elections came, the Gaullists, preserving and validating their rule, soundly defeated the left.
If this story hits close to home, that’s because it should.
It is now, at this point, that we can choose whether our Wisconsin story diverges from Paris 1968.
Following the Gaullist reemergence the protest movement faded or transitioned out of immediate importance. All hope had been placed in one all-in gamble without the foundation of large-scale organizing kept in place. Consequently, the successes of the Gaullists were not a detour but the end of the road, for the immediate future, for the French left.
This is one possible direction we could take. If the sickness we woke up with Wednesday morning leads to cynicism, sorrow or flight, the recall election may be our end of the road. Wisconsin could become the homophobic, anti-woman, racist, anti-education, anti-labor, environment destroying state we fear it becoming. The conservatives will say: you had your chance. You had your election. You lost. Now eat it.
To which, if we learn history lessons, we may reply: our visions for a better Wisconsin did not fit into the scope of your recall. Barrett’s election would not have pacified us. We are not democrats and the recall was their tool—one so weak Barak Obama supported it with merely a tweet. We are emboldened with or without your career politicians. Because it is not the spirit of the recall which we carry within us, but the spirit of a Madison Occupied, of the Arab Spring, of Paris 1968.
And it’s with that spirit that we will channel our frustrations and anger, redirecting them back into our communities. The interim between January 2011 and the recall does not have to have been time wasted—if we take advantage of what was created in between. The connections, friendships and associations we forged in the wake of Madison: the people we met, the conversations we had, the organizations we joined and supported. Formed a neighborhood association around the recall? Reorganize it to address specific issues in your neighborhood. Met a few folks occupying the Capitol building? Contact them again and brainstorm new projects. Worked with prisoner support during the occupation? Reconnect with the people you collected recall signatures with and keep doing prisoner support (there are many political prisoners out there). These are the organizational foundations we will continue to work with—the foundation not left behind in Paris in 1969—that can form the difference of whether or not the recall was a roadblock or a detour on the way to our greater goals.
And stay prepared. It’s only a matter of time before we will take to the streets again.
Crunky Ball Nude: a delicious chocolate product from the South Korean conglomerate Lotte. It’s clear that that Lotte’s marketing and promotional team responsible for Crunky Ball Nude did not consult urban dictionary before naming their product. Had they done so, they would have been shocked to discover:
Crunk: (adj): “…a euphemism for getting really crazy and fucked up on marijuana and alcohol (stoned and drunk. Chronic plus Drunk = Crunk). Or maybe crack and drunk. Or coke and drunk. Or maybe just being crazy and drunk. Whatever it is, it means getting really crazy and fucked up.”
To ball, as an anachronistic verb, means “to have sex.” Used frequently during the 1960s with some success:
“Hey baby. That sit-in at Sproul Plaza was rad. And Mario Savio’s speech made me want to destroy the capitalist apparatus. But first, do you wanna ball?”
Urban Dictionary offers up a quinary definition:
Ball (n): “8th ounce of cocaine (or occasionally another powdered drug), from eight-ball,” which strikes me a something very few people, including myself, didn’t already know.
Nude provides no satisfying alternative meanings, but I find myself obligated to emphasize that it somehow, perhaps magically, suggests greater aesthetic sensibilities than naked.
Thus the casual customer could be forgiven for believing this banal chocolate induces indealized forms of inebriated desire.
I saw it and I purchased it without hesitation.
After eating Crunky Balls Nude I was hooked. I decided to write and inform them of the possible pitfalls of their name choice:
I’m still waiting on a response, but I remain confident Lotte will appreciate the input.
I found Crunky Ball Nude at Daiso, of the ubiquitous and occasionally thrilling 100-Yen shops—Japan’s equivalent of the Dollar Stores and Pound Shops. Unlike the melancholy and disheveled Dollar Stores back stateside, 100-Yen are meticulous and very practical. A trip to the 100-yen shop is a treat and often a scavenger hunt for remarkable and satisfying junk as well as practical housewears. In homage to this venerable institution, I’d like to offer up a select few items we found there.
- Magical Reporting Pad
Low-level English students have difficult differentiating adjectives and abstract nouns within the same word family, i.e. “She is beauty” as opposed to “She is beautiful.” Complimentary indeed, to be the very definition of beauty! But nearly always a language error.
To sell a product, a degree of boasting, even exaggerated boasting, is to be expected. How much braggadocio can an innocuous reporting pad engage in? Not much, I would have asserted. But I was wrong:
“This reporting pad might be wonderful feelings for you [!]“
Not content to merely provide you with wonderful feelings, it suggests the possibility of becoming wonderful feelings themselves.
Question: could these scissors create an origami boulder so strong that it couldn’t cut it? Zing!
There is nothing noteworthy about this drink, but it reminded me of a story a friend related to me of his sister. This sister breastfed her son until he was old enough to speak and eventually invent his own word for breastmilk: “mickles.” Well sorry three-year-old, but the Suntory company of Japan—famous for whisky and canned high-balls—jumped on board the b-milk boat already:
It’s not really breastmilk, but it did remind me of the song this strangely talented and inspired child invented to describe Mickles:
“Mickles in the morning!
Mickles at night!
Mickles in the afternoon
When you hold me tight!”
If you ever read this, kid, consider writing to Suntory about proprietary rights of similar Bikkle jingles.
And finally, as evidence of my argument that cute cartoon animals can be used to sell any product in Japan, I offer up a few bags of death.
It’s not inconceivable to imagine firearm manufactures advertising their weaponry with cartoonish images of bullet-holed humans, eyes crossed with comical X-marks, mouths rendered as thin, and arching frowns. But Japan design and marketing will only inspire American firearms as Japan remains, for the moment and against the wishes of some Japanese, an unarmed country.
There is no more iconographic image of Istanbul—indeed, of Turkey—than that of the sun setting over the mosques and minarets of Sultanahmet. They are the constant frame: to be the subject of a photograph bordered by the Golden Horn and Istanbul’s minarets requires being quintessential. The minarets and melting sun suggest what belongs within the frame—fishermen, trolleys—and what do not—modern looking cars, tourists with maps. Objects of the former fit an acceptable and satisfying craving for nostalgic Orient; the latter violate expectations of what should be there.
Fishing anywhere else and fishing on the Galata Bridge become different activities. Fishing here, the fishermen—they are nearly always men—are responsible for more than their rod and tackle and dinner. They are decades too late to be responsible the Ottoman empire’s waning years but with sunsets and minarets framing them, they remain visually within the reticence of decline.
From the Galata Bridge, the visitor may stare endlessly at the mosques and minarets and slowly warming sky and then inspect the Golden Horn, watching commuters riding ferries or jellyfish floating joylessly on the surface. When they return to the mosques and minarets they will find they’ve entered a new place altogether, a place somewhere along the intersections of a recollection of an old Ara Güler image and the interior of a dream. A kind of solipsism descends over the visitor and, as in a dream, all other people become the background for a viewer whose story swells beyond them. This is the feeling of the moment the geography of a dream matches the geography of what you see before you, like two identical film negatives placed upon each other and held to the light, clear and illusive. For, moments later, when the visitor replaces the memories of her dream with what she views immediately in front of her—when she shakes the dream off she must consider if the Istanbul she sees exists any more than her dreams did.
Heads down, fishermen lean left and right on cold legs as commuters alight their ferries and the sibilating tram glides past and jellyfish float joylessly and the visitor tries to take it all in: the sunset and minarets, fishermen and fantasies, jellyfish and the geography of the dream, and reconciliation. Reality is restored. The moment passes. An image to take home, born of the pose the fisherman made that auspicious moment the visitor wandered here: right place, right time, but the subject may be blowing his nose.
Not long before leaving Istanbul I had the good fortune to attend the Irish Embassy’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration. There I met a long-term expatriate resident of Tarlabaşı, my own neighborhood. She told me this story. In 2003, American soldiers serving in Iraq kidnapped Turkish soldiers under suspicion of a plot to assassinate Kirkuk’s Kurdish governor in what became known as the Hood Event. They American soldiers later “interrogated” the Turks. American media outlets largely ignored the incident, but in Turkey it was seen as incendiary proof of American imperialism and a violation of Turkish sovereignty. Turkish cities erupted in violence and protest against such blatant indignation from a strategic ally. In Tarlabaşı, a predominantly Kurdish neighborhood, young Kurds took the opportunity rebel against the Turkish police force. A prominent police station sits on Tarlabaşı Boulevard, the street forming the upper ridge the neighborhood descends from. The Kurdish kids assaulted the military-grade troop transport vehicle stationed there with Molotov cocktails. But their aim was off and the cocktails set the cloth awning of a small convenience shop aflame. The troop carrier, equipped with a water cannon normally used to disperse crowds, lurched down the hill. It put the fire out but couldn’t ascend the incline of the street and lodged itself in a pothole. The Kurdish kids helped dislodge the police vehicle they had moments before been attacking from it’s hole and redirected it up the hill. Before repositioning itself in front of the police station, the vehicle honked a congenial thank-you to the kids.
I lived on Omar Khayyám Caddesi, a street two blocks south of the police station which bisects the heart of Tarlabaşı. Tarlabaşı is a lower-class, under-privileged Kurdish and gypsy dominated neighborhood, despite close proximity to Taksim Square, Istanbul’s economic and cultural heart. Both the diversity and the proximity were compelling reasons to live there. This decision was met with consistent protestations from my students, most of which echo those one hears when they move to underprivileged neighborhoods in America: “It’s so dangerous!” “Aren’t you scared?” “You are not safe there!” It was only in rare moments I felt threatened in Tarlabaşı—we did have a break-in, and an angry neighbor who threw rocks at me after watching me shower through thatched blinds I thought obscured our bathroom. Most of the time I felt safe, and certainly safer than I do in much of Milwaukee. Though I couldn’t relate to the Kurdish or gypsy experience, I took a strange sort of camaraderie in being an outsider from Turkish society. I once walked into a small shop for tomatoes and bread. The proprietor, an affable and ambitiously corpulent woman, asked me a question I didn’t understand. “Pardon, ben Türkçe’ anlayamam,” I replied, “Sorry, I can’t understand Turkish.” “Ya siz,”she shrugged and smiled, pointing to a Kurdish flag, “Neither can I.” I returned the smile.
Most of the students who warned me against Tarlabaşı had not visited my neighborhood. They cautioned me with an unspoken but implicitly accepted racism familiar to Americans. I would, on occasion, encounter a student so filled with vitriol towards the Kurds it would dominate classroom conversation. One stands out in particular: Alp, a middle-manager at some desultory Turkish company. He said almost nothing the first thirty hours of class until the fourth day, when the conversation drifted to Tarlabaşı.
“How can you live there? Kurds will always steal from you. They hate Turkey,” contended Alp.
“Well, they are very polite to me. The Kurds I know seem to enjoy living in Turkey.”
“They are lying. They hate Turkey. All Kurds hate Turkey.”
“All Kurds?” I enquired.
“Yes, all Kurds.”
I couldn’t help myself. “Even the four-year-old Kurds? They hate Turkey?”
“Yes, they all hate Turkey.”
“And the three-year-olds?”
“Even the two-year-olds?”
He considered this question. “No, not the two-year-olds.”
I had already pushed the boundaries of the topic, so I relented there. It was revelation enough to learn that, through teaching or genetics, a transition takes place between the ages of two and three that turns tolerant Kurdish kids into hateful bigots.
My street’s namesake, an eleventh-century Persian polymath, was a saucy genius. In between writing treatises on Algebra and revising the Persian calendar, Omar Khayyám found the time to pen this skeptical, bacchanalian verse:
“Look not above, there is no answer there;
Pray not, for no one listens to your prayer;
Near is as near to God as any Far,
And Here is just the same deceit as There.
“And do you think that unto such as you;
A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew:
God gave the secret, and denied it me?–
Well, well, what matters it! Believe that, too.
“Did God set grapes a-growing, do you think,
And at the same time make it sin to drink?
Give thanks to Him who foreordained it thus–
Surely He loves to hear the glasses clink!”
Omar Khayyám has more than my street to his name. A crater on the moon—just west of a large walled plain called Pozcobutt and overlain by another crater called Zsigmondy, evidently for the satisfaction of lunar geographers—and an entire asteroid have been given over to him. Somewhat less satisfyingly, the asteroid is called 3095 Omarkhayyam.
Walking up Omer Hayyam Caddesi from my apartment I first pass Zafer, who uses his street-side auto-insurance office for the consumption of tea, mostly. It was maddeningly difficult to walk past Zafer without being invited for a glass of strong Turkish tea steaming in a tulip glass. Across from Zafer lived a one of Istanbul’s illuminati, an eccentric novelist and translator who once invited me by for poor man’s nachos and the tango at 2am. Then a bakery specializing in sweets and Su böreği, a burek made from noodles instead of crispy dough. Next, a convenience store for staples. Three young Kurdish men and one industrious “apprentice” worked there around the clock. Following that the bread bakery which stocked us daily with fine white bread at 35 cents a loaf. Here the road inclined sharply and I had to deal with what was often the most trying moment of my day: a gnarled Yabancı-hating mutt who enjoyed creating spectacle of me through intimidation. Making the situation more uncomfortable, the dog typically lounged in the middle of the street, in front of a old man’s tea shop patronized by the neighborhood unemployed. I avoided neither dog nor judgment.
Crossing Tarlabaşı Boulevard at the top of the ridge, I encountered a staggering density of neighborhood diversity. Following Omar Khayyám past the men-only hair salon with the expropriated photo of Sufjan Stevens on the marquee leads to a major pedestrian thoroughfare and the Galatasaray Lisesi, Istanbul’s most privileged and influential high school. Just north of was a series of cheap hotels oriented towards stays of less than an hour and an infamous alley populated by transsexual prostitutes. Balik Caddesi—Fish Street—which connects to tranny ally contains decent bars and mezze restaurants and superlative people-watching spots. South of Omar Khayyám, residents dump bread scraps in a large abandoned lot given over to sea gulls. Just beyond the lot is the traditionally bourgeois neighborhood Pera. All of this diversity is remarkably concentrated: a determined patron can power-walk from the Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Pera Art Museum and his suite at the Büyük Londra Otel, two of Istanbul’s finest establishments, to Hotel Flash in less than two minutes for an affordable blow job.
Walking down Omar Khayyám in August of 2010 I found the scene depicted in the photograph above: eight hearts, presumably from cats, placed in line upon a railing equidistantly from each other. Are they the work of a public artist with a taste for the grotesque? Or perhaps bored butcher? I wondered, and snapped a few photographs. It wasn’t until later, when a friend pointed it out, that I realized how disturbing the hearts laid bare actually were.
Humans adapt to what they experience regularly, even if they daily see horrors. The massive and intimidating police carrier, still lingering at the Tarlabaşı Boulevard police station, became as invisible as an anonymous taxi. Transsexual prostitutes, kids throwing rotten tomatoes from their balcony, weekend produce markets, the irascible Islamic locksmith who scoffs at me as he takes my Liras all can become part of the background with enough time and enough walks up Omar Khayyám.
For all of its squalor and splendor, Tarlabaşı remains one of Istanbul’s vital neighborhoods. It is pulsing and alive, pumping with the blood of tens of thousands of residents doing their daily tasks, working and living. Tarlabaşı has an uncertain future: the Prime Minister’s son has bought up large pieces of Tarlabaşı real estate and an ominous “urban renewal project” is set to forcibly evict low-income residents. But for the moment it remains fully buzzing with the romantic cacophony of urban life: a good place in Istanbul to lay your heart bare.
A cat in Istanbul is it’s own individual. If the degree to which space is afforded to an individual or a species is proportional to the respect it is given, cats in Istanbul are fortunate indeed. Roman felines may have an internationally-renowned shelter for them at the site of Caesar’s assassination, but nowhere I’ve seen allows cats the same generous space as Rome’s sister, Constantinople. The city itself is a sanctuary, likely safer for cats than for humans.
Istanbullu dogs are largely a phlegmatic sort, content on donated bread crusts and slow to react. Far less territorial than their human counterparts, they rest in gangs of two or three on street corners. Pedestrians are obliged to go around them. Petting them is optional and is ignored as often as it is appreciated. Cats demand their public space more emphatically, to no-one’s surprise. They inhabit basements, alleys, mosques, museums, restaurants, balconies, roofs, plazas and dumpsters. They are paragons of enterprising usufruct.
Why would street animals be so well cared-for in Istanbul, while in most of the west they are treated with derision? Americans often see non-pet felines as nuisances. Humane Societies, true to their name inasmuch as their actions are representative of humanity, regularly kill animals who don’t have care-takers. I asked friends about why cats are treated well, and a rationale I heard frequently was that Islamic moral sensibilities towards the poor and oppressed also apply to animals. Istanbul’s cats and dogs find themselves the fortunate beneficiaries of this tradition. I heard this most often from Turks who rarely prayed, visited the local mosque on Friday or fasted during Ramadan. These conversations often took place after a glass or two of wine, which I find endearing. This suggests, to me, that while obligations to animals may be inspired by the religious tradition they are now a more interwoven part of Istanbul’s moral fabric.
Turks joke that the final resting-place of Istanbullu cats is in the food carts of kebab vendors at Fiyapı İnönü Stadium, where Beşiktaş—one of the premier Turkish football clubs—plays. Whether this end would be an ignominious or triumphant one depends entirely upon your football allegiance. Fuelling the fans of Beşiktaş, who likely consider their own public participation a key element for achieving victory, may be the most honorable—possibly morally obligatory?—way of recycling an otherwise useless feline corpse. Rival Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe supporters would consider any sacrificial cats treasonous and, possibly and more seriously, in violation of Turkish Football Association rules. Assuming not all dead cats wind up as kebabs, where do the thousands of cats go after they expire?
I saw hundreds and hundreds of cats in Istanbul, but only two dead cats. I found the first in a dumpster: a white and orange tabby, supine and frozen. It’s face grotesque and twisted in a stiff half-snarl, it died in a moment of confrontation. Someone in the neighborhood had tossed—or placed, it was lying as if it had been placed—the cat in the dumpster but I couldn’t decide if this was an act of sympathy or callousness. My second dead cat was a recent automobile victim, and I gave it the same burial and lingering goodbye, though I debate if “disposal” is a better word. Pathetic obsequies, done to ameliorate guilt. To what degree are we beholden to dead strangers, whose presence is only felt or known at the moment of—indeed, by virtue of—their passing?
In 1452, Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, popularly known in Turkey as Fatih—simply, “The Conqueror”—stood atop Rumeli Hisarı and looked towards the city he was fated to make his own, and towards the event which would define his life. He was a man aware of fate and considered the taking of Constantinople his birthright. His chroniclers followed him about, embellishing the epic, but their combined chronicles could never match the narrative he was forming in his own mind, the trajectory of a life unsatiated even as his armies felled the great walls of the city.
Glaring down the Bosphorus towards the city, some wry smile would have creased his face, like an inverted “T” to his aquiline nose. He had coerced his Pashas into building the towers of Rumeli Hisarı (the Rumelian Castle) quickly or else face execution. The Pashas took his command to heart and had the Rumeli Hisarı constructed in four months and sixteen days. Built at the narrowest point of the Bosphorus, its purpose was to prevent enemy ships from sailing south and attacking his forces as they besieged Constantinople. Less than a year later, Fatih achieved his birthright andjustification for his moniker: Constantinople was his. Greeks and historians, notably Steven Runciman in his skilled telling of the siege, maintained a narration that held the holdout Byzantine Greeks as tragic heroes and the attacking Ottomans as antagonists. Turks hold an alternative version.
Today the straight-side restaurants below the Rumeli Hisarı are among Istanbul’s most popular brunch joints—they even received a visit from Anthony Bourdain. South of the castle, a terraced cemetery, stoic and aged, winds its way upward nearly to the top of the elevated landscape. And above the cemetery, a tidy and well-regarded university whose architecture is more reminiscent of American Ivy League than modern Istanbul, broods. These are well-worn places, places of transport and leisure and learning, and while Fatih may have envisioned the nature of his own life’s trajectory, he could not have seen the micro-histories lived within his city over the next five centuries.
Fatih knew it has his ultimate end to take Constantinople for the Ottomans. We have since divested ourselves of belief in this kind of fate, preferring more crafted forms of self-deceptive comfort. But this isn’t to say we cannot maintain our own visions of the future. With cities and with relationships our lives merge and depart and intersect again. If I know myself intimately, I can intuit these future intersections, vaguely but with a comforting certainty. Muslims are taught that a person’s mother and their death are written; I believe we are given less than that. But in knowing ourselves deeply, interpreting the intimate math of our decisions, our trajectories can appear clear. Along that trajectory we find each other again and again, in streets, parks, bars and, perilously, the recesses of the imagination.
Perilous because the narratives we create for ourselves compel with greater control than we would like to grant them. Once an idea establishes itself, its seeds may germinate into reckless imagination, indulging in desires unchecked by our place in the world, tripping into fantasy and then convincing us of their plausibility. With control we can avoid acting upon them but we cannot contain our imaginations. And then, with the onset of the inevitably clash between narrative and reality, dissonance. Or, perhaps, reward: it is not impossible that we achieve the lives we envision ourselves having. The power of having a driving internal narrative is that we quietly acquiesce to it, slowly becoming the fantasy of ourselves we reckon is possible. Emerging from fantasy, breathlessly reconciling it with what we know to be true like recovering from shock, traces of the narrative seep into our lives so quietly we didn’t realize life was different before.
It seems impossible and yet I wait, heart steadily beating, for these intersections both unwritten and inevitable.
Cities, like dreams, are constructs one enters but after leaving cannot see again. The mind powerfully internalizes the places we experience. Weakness of memory is a problem of recall, not capacity. It is possible to dream a place we didn’t saw only fleetingly and cannot remember. Approaching this scene I don’t realize I am seeing for the second time—an old, cobbled street, an innocuous corner, approached from an unfamiliar direction—something seems amiss, like a film played with the video a fraction of a second out of synch with the audio. The composition of the buildings—the lines too symmetrical, too purposeful—the softness of the light around corners, the juxtaposition of something alien: for a moment the mind loses itself in the mystery. I tell myself, “This can’t possibly exist, not like this. I don’t know why but this place seems impossible.” I cannot lose myself fully in the scene because the confusion over it is much too tempting to ignore. Later, seen from photographs, I am taken aback by the scene’s singularity.
We cannot see the same place twice, though our senses may be too weak to discern the details of what has changed. Streetlights flicker, die and are replaced. Roads are fixed, cats find new doorways and crevasses. Residents we see in windows grow older, adding wrinkles and losing hair. Or the mind ignores these changes, cognitively creating continuity, thereby taking comfort in linking past and present. The result is the same: what we take to be the same place again and again is the reflection of our needs to orient geographically and chronologically.
But to be fully aware of a place and live in the knowledge that it will only exist once as it is a fully enveloping experience. The alignment of the buildings, the presence of people, the texture of the clouds, the tone of the sky, the chiaroscuro of the shadows, the directions of light—I realize it will only ever exist like this at that moment. To return later and to draw connections with the past is an attempt at creating continuity and coherence, but also deceptive: the time of day will have changes, the clouds dissipated, the people blurred into the cursory composites of memory.
Leaving a dream of a created world generates an immediate sense of loss and wonder, and than amazement. How do you cope with missing the interior of your mind? Knowing that the geography of a dream was entirely my creation but being unable to return to it other than through weak and vanishing memories is a kind of torment: the object is close enough to grasp at and far enough away to be futile. Soon the sense of loss diminishes, leaving me amazed by the detail of the geography itself, more detailed than I could hope to conceive awake.
Imagine the person you know most intimately. Imagine their every feature: scars, hairline, the shape of their ears, the placement of hairs on their legs, every movement of their mouth as they speak. Now imagine you have an incredible skill: you can draw, with exact precision, whatever image you could conjure in your waking mind. Given this ability, how would the drawing of your lover look? How precise would it be? Imagine your past lovers. How precise would your drawings of them be? My drawn lovers would never look as detailed, pure and complete as they look in my dreams. And the new places in my dreams, where I sometimes long to be with desperate desire, are greater than I could ever describe them now.
Colors do not exist “in the world.” At the elemental level, my red delicious apple is not made of little red things. Color is the brain’s interpretation of the light energy and wavelength of what we see and construct a consistent mental map our perceptions. Sounds, likewise, do not exist “in the world” but are the constructed map of perceived vibrations. An unperceived world: colorless, tasteless, soundless. And timeless, as time itself exists within a perceived mental framework. The interior of a dream, in its detail, depth and construction, is not all that different from the places we experience and hardly less ephemeral. Stepping into a world that does not exist yet is, while experienced, a coherent whole, we are all vagabond solipsists.
Veda, Istanbul. Sen güzel bir rüyasın.
Embarrassment begins with pretension and ends with taboos. They are correlated: the greater degree of broken subterfuge, the less the actors are able to confront the redefining moment afterwards. When we are at our politest, most reserved, or most driven to impress we are raising the potential stakes of our own victim-hood.
Meeting a partner’s parents. Job interviews and presentations. Unaccustomed social situations. Confronting an intellectual adversary. Each scenario of gravity weighs heavily on a sliding scale upon which even minor kerfuffles will likely, almost inevitably—and here a deftness for misdirection benefits—end in disaster. And among them, classrooms rank near the top. The instructor presents the illusion of wisdom, and the lesser illusion of owning some reliable skills at disseminating it. Forced by social convention to publically accept this illusion without much challenge, the students—skeptical and possibly volatile for it—are at the same time aware of themselves within the group of peers.
When your peer group is seventeen other teenage students in an 8am summer-school English class in Vietnam taught by a witless and undertrained if charming twenty-eight-year-old American, the potential for embarrassment has already reached critical mass. Vietnamese public schools operate under a strict and unbreakable hierarchy whereby instructors dispense and student absorb, without comment or critique. But in the new setting the extracurricular summer school presents, the affable, almost childish American is disarming. Do the students accept his unstated proposal of tentative friendship, and what are the conditions of that friendship? Teachers in Vietnam receive respect, deserved or undeserved. Is this ESL teacher’s unorthodox methodology and outward approachability the real thing, or an attempt to cover the shame he feels at this underserved respect and the attached expectations? The heady current of cross-cultural bewilderment, teenage self-examination and obligatory classroom pretention almost guarantees crisis.
So when, by eight-oh-five, my pants split from on the ass-side from beltline to between my legs, a full nine inches of cacophonous ripping as treacherous stitches give way to Relax brand briefs, it feels like the arrival of a long-awaited punchline.
We had begun class with an innocent and frequently played activity. Students, instructor and teaching assistant stand in a circle, feet touching, bending over with one arm behind the back and the other guarding the gap between our legs from a soccer ball we bat around. When a student smacks the ball through someone’s legs, that unfortunate individual answers a grammar or vocabulary review question.
We form our circle and Ms. Linh, my class’ teaching assistant, smiles and readies herself: she enjoys the game and scoring goals on the blushing students. Nguyễn, one of six Nguyễns in class, looks around for other people looking at him, attempting to determine if he can enjoy this activity without appearing sophomoric. Phương is poised to win, in this as all things. Hương, conversely, wishes the ball avoided her altogether; Anh, whose communist father brought her to Moscow as a young child and who speaks Russian fluently, bends over and brushes a strand of black hair from her eyes. And an unsuspecting teacher, not privy to the painful prank fate and a faulty seamstress are about to play, bends to touch his toes.
Then thirty-eight sets of tympanic membrane, acutely tuned to detect just such mortifying sounds, translated vibrations of air molecules rippled as seam and stitch stretched asunder. Thirty-eight eyes zeroed in on mine, and then looked away as one would if they accidently walked in on copulating parents.
Alea iacta est. The die is cast. So spoke Julius Caesar as he crossed the Rubicon. There was no going back. No pretending it didn’t happen. At best I could tactically retreat and return with composure renewed.
I shifted to press my backside against the wall, a movement clown-like enough to elicit the first chuckles. What a mistake! I could have depended on their sympathy to maintain an air of quiet respect—do we not all fear such moments? Awkwardly shuffling backwards entitled them license to laugh.
“Ms. Linh. Um. I have to leave right now. Could you please take over for…a few minutes?” Stammering as the simmer of laughter grew.
“Mr. Nichali, do you have a problem?”
She covered her mouth but the smile glowed underneath, and her eyes sparkled in delight.
“Um, yes. Quite clearly. Please review…” I struggled, “…what we studied yesterday. OK?”
Ms. Linh just nods her head, fearful of allowing her own laugh escape.
“I’m going to go. Now.”
“Ok, good luck!” Ms. Linh says, giving into giggles and now the students cannot hold back. I shuffle sideways against the wall and out the door.
I sprint through the hallway, down two stories and push open the door to the teacher’s lounge. Behind his desk, Phat, the go-to guy for supplies, tunes his guitar.
“Phat! I tore my pants. Ms. Linh is teaching. I have to do something,” I’m speaking with forced composure. Nonplussed, like it happens every day.
“Oh man. What can I get for you?”
“Do you have thread and a needle back there?”
“I don’t think so.” Phat rummages, unsuccessfully. “Sorry, man.” I pick up a stapler and consider it.
“Ok, please keep looking. I’ll have to do this for now.”
Phat looks at the stapler and knits his brow. “I don’t think that’ll work. Staples? Let me see the rip.”
“It’s bad.” I turn.
“Man, staples are not going to hold that together.”
“What else do I do?”
“Please just keep looking.”
Climbing the stairs again, I consider the ramifications of a surprise classroom observation by my academic manager.
My school didn’t provide a separate bathroom for teachers so I choose the restroom on my floor. In less than three minutes I would lament this decision.
The restroom was vacant. I sighed. I entered the stall against the far wall, pulled down my pants and sat on the toilet, impotent tool in my hand. What could a stapler possibly accomplish! Folding the seam inward, pinching the fold enough to fit the metal slivers without, I stapled along the tear.
Halfway through this impromptu surgery, the bathroom door swung open and a young boy rushed into the stall next to mine. As he sat, his toilet shuddered under the impact of propulsive diarrhea. He groaned, relieved and evidently pleased. I looked at the barrier between stalls, and then down at my pants and the stapler and felt like I couldn’t actually be there, stapling my pants together.
When every staple was spent I examined the work. It wasn’t pretty, but the seam held.
I paused before opening the door to my classroom, smiled and entered. My students laughed with good humor. Ms. Linh had kept the situation under control, barely, and against her inclination to enjoy my humiliation to the fullest.
“Teacher, teacher! Did you fix your problem?”
“Yes, Phương, I did,” I lied, “Did Ms. Linh review your lesson?”
“Of course. But your problem, teacher, is it fixed now?”
Deep breath. “Yes, I fixed it.”
I didn’t fix the problem. I folded my seam too far inward enough to staple it, and when I turned around to write on the board, the students noticed. I resorted to writing over my shoulder, which produced nearly unintelligible words and more laughter. The staples soon started to fall out, occasionally tinkling on the floor. I couldn’t twist, turn or bend. My lesson fell apart as the joke compounded itself, laughter begetting laughter. Defeated as they became more obstreperous, I watched the clock until the first hour break arrived and then left again.
“Good luck with your problem, teacher!” followed me down the hallway.
Back in the lounge, Phat had managed to procure a needle and thread. I thanked him, ran back up the stairs into the same bathroom and stall and pulled apart the remaining staples. It some was some small miracle the school had black thread and with each threading I regained my confidence. I would return to the classroom and to the lesson plan, and accomplish the past participle with gusto.
I was again half finished when the door opened and another boy ran into the stall next to mine. If his goal was to remind me of the methods and ambitiousness the human body can, when determined, eject liquids, I would have to congratulate him on his success. He vomited, but missed the toiled bowl and the liquid splashed against the barrier separating our stalls. I looked at the barrier, considered it, looked down at my pants, and again imagined I was watching another person sewing his pants in a bathroom stall as vomit spreads across the floor tiles.
Embarrassment is a kind of perdition in that the moment as it is lived seems to extend into eternity and then is never forgotten. My pants, as a subject, were not brought up in class again.
The incident did break new ground in the classroom. As students in Vietnam are coerced into revering teachers as infallible—a condition I was never comfortable with—the splendid view of my ass proved I was anything but. After, we related to each other on a level more human than before, unconstrained by the restrictive teacher / student dichotomy and perhaps bound by the deeper intimacy of a secret.
Following class that day, told a few other teachers my tribulation and the story spread quickly. The level of an incident’s tragedy can be gauged by the amount of time it takes for it’s principle actors to take joy in it’s telling. It didn’t take me much time at all, and I enjoyed the looks of empathy I received from my colleagues, when they examined the pair of shoddy, stapled, re-stitched pants: my hamartia.
As we watched the protests in Egypt on al-Jazeera from our apartment in Istanbul, we felt a compelling desire to participate in some way. Lingering in a living room heavy with shisha smoke, chewing lokum and hasty cig koftes, we followed the events as they unfolded: Mubarak’s vacillations, the thugs on camels and horses charging into Tahrir Square, the ensuing battle. Throughout it, the anti-ideological determination of many of the Egyptians, like many Tunisians before them, inspired us. Their struggle, unburdened by an overt political agenda, aimed towards the elements of human desire: freedom from persecution, the ability to build lives outside of the confines of a corrupt and ineffective state, equality within the public sphere, dignity.
I was politically active in America, but felt extremely wary of exporting my goals, values and strategies for political, social and economic change to places I wasn’t from or intimately connected to. And no Egyptian organizations asked for direct, on-the-ground international support, as did the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in Israel and Palestine: participating directly in the process in Egypt would entail showing up uninvited to a place whose rules we didn’t know.
So how, then, to show people in Egypt that we—and many, many more outside Egypt—support their struggle, without playing a participatory role? We wanted something visual, and something that communicated messages in an international scope. Something physical, and less ephemeral than online notices of solidarity. And we needed something we could carry which would survive the five-week overland route we were taking to get to Cairo.
As we discussed how to do this, another protest erupted in our own home-state, Wisconsin, over Governor Scott Walker’s plan—wrapped in budget-reduction language—to strip public workers of their collective bargaining rights. Thousands of Wisconsinites occupied the capital building in Madison, farmers staged tractor protests, and people from across the world donated pizzas to keep the demonstrators fed. And then this photo popped up:
It seemed remarkable that, in the midst of their own revolution, one individual would take the time to send a message of solidarity back to our home state. But it wasn’t remarkable at all: though few historical parallels can be drawn between Cairo and Madison, it doesn’t detract from a desire to support others who struggle against power. We were just unused to this degree of international interconnectedness.
Then we came up with an idea which suited our needs:
They are small, easy and cheap to send, and can be arranged in a way to create a suitable physical display on a site we couldn’t see beforehand. Mort importantly, they allow us to present many different voices from many different places. What is a better symbol of genuine international connectedness, imbued with the intimacy of real handwriting, than a postcard?
So we wrote up a request from friends and strangers to send us postcards, which we would bring to Cairo and display at Tahrir Square, the centerpoint of the protests. We posted it online and spread the word. We gave postcards to our friends in Istanbul and then to people we met along our overland route to Cairo. When we finally arrived in Cairo on April 28th, long after the initial protests had ended, we had collected nearly one hundred postcards in multiple languages. Most postcards were from friends and family, but a few kind strangers sent postcards as well.
It was in Cairo that we met Mariam Ismail through a mutual friend, and she quickly became the leg the project needed to stand on. Having never been to Cairo before, we planned to simply hang up the postcards and walk away, hoping the message would be brought to a few individuals. Mariam, who participated daily in the Tahrir Square demonstrations, gave the project the life and connectedness it needed. Without her it simply would not have succeeded.
Having missed the revolution itself, we couldn’t have arrived a more auspicious time than the beginning of May. May first is May Day, the international working-people’s day which in most places is just an excuse to get out into the streets. By late April Tahrir Square was still a popular place to go for public discourse but no longer abuzz with activity. Kelly and I walked though site frequently and discussed the revolution in detail with young people and families. Only the homeless stayed over night, though: Egyptians had taken down their encampments, with the stated threat of returning should the newly entrusted military intermediaries not transition to democracy. The police and military clamped down on the great roundabout tearing down placards in morning. May Day, when thousands would gather in Tahrir Square for speeches, festivities and music and the police would be occupied, would be the window for displaying our project.
We decided to string them up in an aesthetic reminiscent of Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags. Our hotel, just outside Tahrir Square, was kind enough to allow us to assemble the postcards in the hallway. They hung across a lanyard running forty meters, about 130 feet, in one continuous length, so it was something of a spectacle for Mariam, Kelly and I to carry the piece across the busy roundabout and to the grouping of trees just south of the main circle.
Once the piece was tied up, groups of people began reading looking at the cards. Throughout the course of the day we interacted with dozens of individuals from the region and further afield. Many spoke English—my Arabic being limited—and for those who didn’t, Mariam was on hand to translate and clarify. Hundreds and hundreds saw the cards and examined their messages, and brought their friends by to discuss them. The response was overwhelmingly positive. We shook many hands and exchanged countless shukrans (“thank you” in Arabic) and camera phone photographs. News organizations came by to interview Kelly, myself and Mariam; one crew filmed with the postcards as their backdrop. Most interactions were accompanied with hopeful and discerning discussions about Egypt’s current trajectory. The amount of public discourse and vibrancy was tremendous.
The largest barrier we faced in connecting people to the piece was language. Most of the postcards were written in English, and others were written in German, Polish, French, Mandarin Chinese and Turkish. Here Mariam was extremely valuable in conveying the messages so that, even when the postcards couldn’t be read, the intention came through.
At one point, someone contacted Mariam about displaying the piece in a social center after May Day. With that, the postcards got a second lease on life. Mariam became their custodian. We took the project down in the evening when a rowdy, impromptu anti-Qaddafi rally sprung up nearby, knowing the postcards would shortly be visiting art galleries and social centers around Cairo. Since May Day, they’ve been hung in the Cairo Opera house and Sawy’s Cultural Wheel. Their next stop is the Tahrir Square metro station, which tens of thousands of Egyptians pass through daily and then off to Cairo University.
Most photographs coming soon!
My oldest memories of reading Calvin and Hobbes are some of my last remaining memories from that period of my life. My mother and father had just divorced, and my father was living in a small apartment off of Capital drive in Milwaukee. His apartment looked too much like a divorced-and-moved-out-father’s apartment: when we saw him on Thursday nights and odd weekends, it was among a maze of sealed boxes and framed photos sitting on the floor. A television sat on one of those boxes. I remember feeling strangely close to him in these moments, the Thursday nights: I may not have understood the ramifications of divorce, but the I couldn’t help feeling a pang for his situation. On these Thursday nights we would order pizza and not say much—not that I had much to say at that age—and watch a movie. The routine was pure and melancholic, as if from the moment we arrived at his apartment it was a countdown until we had to leave again. We were not eager to leave. Rather, the constraints of time never allowed for the pleasure of an unfettered visit; the way it would feel if one’s precious childhood weekends began at 6pm on Sunday night.
It was one of these Thursdays that my father introduced me to Calvin and Hobbes. We ate pizza (Dad’s and Tommy’s with anchovies, Cait’s and mine with pepperoni) and sat on boxes and read his first collections and dad would, as he has always done and continues to do, make sweeping statements about the best album ever or the most brilliant author writing. But about Bill Watterson he was right: no one has made comics like Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes.
I didn’t understand much of what Watterson was saying, but it didn’t prevent me from enjoying his creations to the fullest extent my ten-year-old self was capable of, and it didn’t stop me from pretending to enjoy what I knew I didn’t understand. References to Marx and Thoreau aside—and the few strips which were largely contemplative and slightly dialogue-heavy (the strips I would appreciate most in years to come)—the drawings could carry the strip directly into my imagination, so comprehension wasn’t necessary.
Reading Calvin and Hobbes today returns me to my childhood. But to say this alone is insufficient. Memories are inaccurate and often incoherent and almost entirely forgotten. They are only moments in the narrowly conceived narrative of my life. And the objects, songs, words and images which bring me back in time become confused with the actual memories themselves.
How could this be? My childhood was real in that it happened. These comics are real because they exist. But so much is lost in the process of aging. Most definitely lost are the intimate connections between the things that happened: thoughts, moods, conversations. The bonds of events. Questions of when and why fade in the failing attempts to reconstitute the what. The chronology of loss is cruel. The survival of memory therefore requires us to desperate acts of recreation.
I stayed quiet and replaced my memory with his.
–Valentino Achak Deng, from “What is the What”
This is the process of self-delusion and validation. It is sometimes necessary for survival, as Deng’s own need to share collective memory and history allowed him to survive, at the cost of his actual memories. It is otherwise driven by a different need: the need to find some connection, some common narrative, between your past self and your current self. This narrative is never entirely correct or honest.
Here is the role of objects: they supplement lapses in our stories. They blend—sometimes when we allow them, sometimes when we don’t—with our memories until they become indistinguishable and the end result, if relieving and sufficient, leaves us with settled souls.
My baseball glove is one of these objects. The glove becomes pencil, drawing a linear trail through my life. Whether or not the glove was there is not always relevant. What matters is the story it tells in memories.
At my grandparent’s house in Brown Deer with the big back yard and swing set: I now remember the offset rectangular shape of the yard I often mowed, which converges on the small, wild strawberries near the hedgerows, where I hunted for ants to feed my Venus Flytrap. Spinning-until-sick contests with my brother happened here, leading to hours of uninhibited cloud gazing. Then we would eat fresh rhubarb and my grandmother’s rhubarb pie. My grandfather and I played catch here: I see him now in his plumber’s work-pants, going into exaggerated wind-up before tossing a grounder.
From Warwick Court I conjure the faces of my coaches and old teammates, and the geography of the diamonds near Parkway school. Settled here now their angles and symmetry reveal themselves again, giving way to the texture of the infield dirt and the taste of chalk and gatorade, and I begin to consider how thoroughly baseball helped define my idea of summer. Many frozen hours in early spring and sweltering afternoons in summer were spent training here, under Kletszch hill, where I first fell in love during the golden-colored summers of the late 1990s.
And then, to skip ahead—skip past so much more that returns to me now—to my breakup with baseball. The story I remember is one of disillusionment with the work baseball had become during high school: my dislike of ridiculous competition over friendly rivalry, my hatred of the regimentation of the game over pure fun. But these feelings about rivalry and regimentation: were they real then? Or were they part of the story I rationalized as my latent political feelings emerged? It seems more likely I justified quitting baseball with imagined but dignified reasons. It seems more likely I quit because I was upset that I was never very good, or increasingly phlegmatic as I grew up. And now I must choose between accepting the narrative I’ve created, adopting a more likely—if unconfirmed—possibility, or acknowledging that memories are all a mess and I should let them sit that way.
Of everything I’ve lost, these flawed images of my father and his boxes and the pizza and the intimate stillness are still here and I can bring them to life now. Why these above all others?
Without Calvin and Hobbes, would I remember those melancholy days after the divorce at all? My father has since lived in many houses I could not recall even in vaguest detail. Years have slid by with only whispers of memories to collect them. I have to admit that I need Calvin and Hobbes to hold this part of a story together: in being the small part of the story I remember, it becomes the fulcrum of the story itself. It is around this comic that the scene—it’s physical details, its confused, childish emotions—still exists. The details of most of my life no longer exist: Calvin and Hobbes saved this part.
My grandfather sends me comics now, usually a strip called Pickles. I laugh at them and take far more pleasure in picturing my grandfather laughing at them. We connect to each other through them: the grandfather and grandson and small strips of newsprint flying over the Atlantic. Later on in my life the comics my grandfather uses to be close to his errant grandson now will bring all this back to me, as these wonderful days I’m living slowly fold in on themselves, leaving me to unpack and restitch.