Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sci-Fi Thought Experiment

A kind of hominid on a planet like ours has evolved with a head that is tilted at a 90ยบ angle, so that the chin of the skull fuses with the top of the chest; the survival of the species is miraculous and a result of an astoundingly high mean intelligence. Forward motion induces vertigo for these creatures' being unable to set their eyes on a point in the middle distance, as we do; they survived for ages in sheer cliff dwellings, are excellent climbers, and have developed a civilization that ingeniously accommodates their apparent biological deformity. Unable to look up at the sky or out at their larger surroundings without great difficulty, they have constructed enormous cities with tiny architectural footprints; these towers are built to resemble the cliffs that sheltered the species in the early days of its history.

To compensate with technology for the cruel genetic hand that nature somehow dealt them, these creatures have devised a video monitor system that affixes to their clothing with a special apparatus; it displays an image directly under the earth-pointed face of its wearer. The image is of the area directly in front of the creature, and so mimics what we understand to be normal human sight. Rapid forward motion, however—whether from running or piloting a vehicle—is experienced as psychically akin to falling, because falling is the only visual analogue available to them for it. Genetic memory therefore makes long-distance travel terrifying, and the new technology has inspired a genre of fiction that mythologizes horizontal motion, and plumbs the psychological depths of the minds of those so unfortunate as to undergo it. In these works, which are intelligible to us as poetry, a full-speed run may tear a rip in the fabric of reality, and pilots spontaneously catch fire, and walking around on the ground outside a village may cause it to collapse into a sudden abyss. Speed as such is a cultural wellspring of dread and provides a context in which daring and fear alike are made manifest.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

East Berlin

My sister's apartment is two blocks from where the wall once stood. To memorialize it, they've put up a long row of steel framing poles that replicates its original interior scaffolding. The architectural differences between the city's two halves remain, in spite of almost a quarter-century's worth of colorful renovations on both sides. My sister is taking the day off work tomorrow in order to show us around. I look forward to expanding my acquaintance with Berlin beyond the insides of a couple of apartments and trams.

To get here we rode a long-distance train—no private compartment for us, though; in a show of solidarity we opted for "proletariat class" seating, and were even blessed with access to the bar car for our good-faith gesture. Prices were a little steep for our humble tastes, I should say. Without major nourishment but also without major exertion, we passed the time by reading and playing cards. The fields that rolled by us were beautiful, full of cows and small brick houses that faded into the evening until we could only see our own bright reflections in the window. During the ride I finished Self-Consciousness: Memoirs by Updike, and thought a lot about death.

Rewinding further, my aunt's house was delightful during our weeklong visit. I bled out around five thousand words for my thesis, visited Amsterdam, and spent a lot of time drinking tea while staring out the window at falling rain in the garden. The town of Bussum, where my aunt lives, is stylish and small, allotting a generous (by European standards) plot of land to each freestanding house; most conform to the aesthetic of traditional Dutch architecture, orange roof tiling and all. In the afternoons we would eat cheese cubes off a wooden board and sip wine in anticipation of an hours-long wait for dinner, usually served at 10pm. A good vacation rhythm until Easter ushered us out. The tomb is empty; my aunt's house is also no longer full.

On Saturday Jeremy and I will be returning to Belgium and a frantic race to the end of our program. Strange to think that I'll be back in the states in less than three months. Time flies.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Holland Redux: a Table for the Ages

I love the table in my aunt’s house for how solid it is. At some point, a man in need of a table simply pounded together a set of floor slats, passed on the varnish and affixed a set of thick legs; I imagine that he promptly ate off its naked back after setting it upright. Years of footsteps followed by years of dining have lithographed the surface with grooves that hint at heavy, scraping pots and tossed-about silverware; coffee stains and burn marks set off the grey-brown with a deeper brown and brown verging on ashy black. 

Such a purely functional eating platform. What could be more inviting come mealtime? It's as sure a sign as any that the real attraction is the food. My aunt emerges from the kitchen laden with a platter or a pan of something spattering and clops it onto the table with a deep thud; no fear, you could airdrop munitions onto this thing and the dust would clear to reveal it standing, proud and intact still. A metal pail full of slush and chilled bottles leaves a ring of condensation near the eastwards end; crumbs pile up in the hidden hollows that once sourced branches for another generation’s forest. Priorities. No frills, no unnecessary decorative elements (apart from a false drawer, but this only reiterates its patchwork origins). Just the Platonic idea of support, realized in the air above the dining room floor. And the food does not disappoint. 

I sit at this table in the light of the morning sun and see time, spread out, trapped in the frozen flows of the wood grain. An Ikea table wipes clean; it can be restored to an impeccable state within minutes of a meal. My aunt’s table—well, in the first place, there’s not an impeccable state to which it can, in principle, be restored. It was born old, wizened from a former life of soft beatings under the soles of its owners’ shoes. Its history intertwines with that of the family in the signs of a weathering that has affected every square inch. Nothing is left untouched by its own duration, after all. 

The moment it was first lifted up and ringed with chairs, this table began its work of acquiring tell-tale marks, pointers to its history as a communal object of specific uses. The rings convey this most clearly; nicks and smaller stains gesture at moments lost to memory. The whole surface has certainly faded and made it impossible to tell its original color from its present one. Devoid of the sharp angles of new furniture, its worn, rounded corners conform to whichever new hands would hoist this table during a repositioning. This table does not resist; it will outlast your celebration, your snacks for the game, your lifetime.

Such a table can undergo a thumping. Slapping the wood next to one’s plate mid-laugh, pounding it while gesturing with the opposite hand like a dictator, even bringing down two fists in a memorable rage—each of these is a matter of indifference to the enabling piece of furniture. Your humor and your anger will both subside, someday with an unmistakable finality. Such a table will not bend a leg for the event of your expiration. On the eventual day of my death, my aunt’s table will remain upright, austere, imperturbably resigned. The end of the world will elicit no reaction from it. You may as well be serving a noon brunch, for all this table cares. 

So yeah, that's why I like my aunt's table.