There was no Crab Rangoon...

... that concoction is pure Orientalist-Imperialist-Colonialist bunk! (Though undeniably tasty.)

A Happy New Year to my dear hypothetical readers! 
In the month of December I hurtled through a trip that gave me quite a few passport stamps and a bout of digestive distress (finally) worthy of the illustrious title of “food poisoning”. [1] Many memorable moments were had, but the most outstanding were the six days I spent in Myanmar. The Nation-state Formerly Known As Burma has been headlining frequently of late with Secretary Clinton’s visit and Aun Sang Suu Kyi’s decision to run for office; all the media attention's probably been causing thousands of geographically challenged heads to be scratched vigorously from sea to shining sea at every mention. Not that I should pretend to be so superior; here's an index of what I knew about the country before visiting it:
(1)   Jade, loads of
(2)   Freely elected government, absence of
(3)   Petite, steely-eyed Nobel Peace Prize laureate, name of
(4)   Villainous foe of King Mongkut’s Thailand in The King & I, appearance as

Thus I arrived in Yangon on a hot midmorning in December, formidably naïve. Despite my ignorance, I have had the dubious privilege of having lived in societies so publicly riddled with corruption that their people seem almost proud of the fact, as though nepotism and flagrant abuse of the law were unique facets of the national character. So I imagined all sorts of terrors in wait for me even as I biked, six weeks earlier, to the Myanmar embassy in Beijing to get my visa. The building was square-cornered and about as cozy as the backside of a bathroom tile. A lavishly carved sideboard in the lobby, looming  as one entered, is all I really remember of the place--that, and the subtly terrifying waiting room with over-high ceilings and bad lighting. The transactions with a kindly, roundish gentleman behind the window were pleasant enough (I spoke English, my go-to for when I am actually begging someone to "please be nice to me"), but for a small obstacle. I was supposed to turn in a copy of an invitation letter, even though I was merely asking for a tourist visa! After some parleying, I was given a sheet of white paper and a juicy black pen to write my own invitation letter, stating name, age, occupation, and intentions. My handwriting is evidently much better than I usually think it to be. One week later, I had my visa.

Cutting back to my arrival in Yangon: all around the airport there were fields. Inside it were the efforts of very diligent floor-waxers on display, and little else; the official money-changers--distinguished from the nice lady who eventually made the trade for me by sitting beneath a sign with a logo on it--refused to do anything with my Chinese bills. The airport and our hotel were so far apart that, by my eventual arrival in the lobby, I had taken a taxi-tour of the city. The town was bustling enough to have a few traffic jams, but the billboards plastered with very cheerful people endorsing suspiciously named vitamin pills (along the lines of Lucy's Vegetameatavitamin), 3-in-1 coffee mixes, and the odd piece of industrial hardware gave away the poverty, or rather the gaping canyon that split poor from rich. It was especially a shock to notice that the men and women selling fritters, clinging to the backs of tiny pickup trucks-turned-buses, or otherwise going about their business were uniformly thinner than their fairy-tale counterparts in the ads. Much thinner, maybe in proportion to the relative size of haute couture models to the average North American. A very shallow bit of first-world irony, perhaps, but a bit that, thanks to the ubiquity of those ads, never quite left me.

The remains of my first morning in Myanmar was spent at Shwe Dagon, an enormous complex of pagodas, shrines, and images that dazzled every sense and packed us off with raging thirsts and slight headaches from the merciless sun. 
Very, very shiny.
The apparent piety suggested in all the well-tended buildings and the wafts of fragrance from the flowers and fruits on altars was, I would later learn, rather more complicated: local spirits, sages, and ghosts had been thoroughly merged with imported Buddhism, though it's a wonder that some of them, transplanted into the Buddhist body of belief, weren't summarily rejected. According to an otherwise stodgily P.C. book on Myanmar culture I later borrowed from a hotel, sages who attained great wisdom would, as they meditated on remote peaks, seek out a kind of plant shaped like a woman's torso, animate a few with their wisdom-magic, and… well, have a bit of fun. Not what Lord Buddha was doing on his mountain retreats, if my feeble grasp of his biography serves.

A game in which kiddies threw coins at a creakily rotating bowl for luck.
Anyway, insight into the sages' frolicking came later; initially Shwe Dagon simply overwhelmed with its sheer size and density of decoration, an effect amplified by the contrast with the shanties and mostly-pothole lanes in the neighborhood. Then, it felt odd. Odd in in the way that you might feel odd if you caught sight of an enormous, gilt, many-tiered cake daintily sitting atop an overflowing bin of (unsorted) trash, or a gold lamé party dress sized to fit a giantess on top of a hamper of dirty socks.

But then I realized that much of the country was like this, innumerable pagodas shining over landscapes of toil. On the first of two 17-hour train rides--the worse one, because it took up an entire day after rising at 5 o'clock--I could only think, repeatedly, of how medieval this was. Maybe it reflects on my shabby understanding of the European condition before 1250, but wasn't the ideal, at least, a landscape of agricultural productivity as far as the eye could see dotted with beacons of spirituality/sinkholes of resources in the form of churches? That was the Myanmar countryside, anyhow, and the view was especially striking at night, when many of the palm-thatched huts in villages past which we bounced were bathed in darkness while a nearby pagoda beamed, tawny under a few weak incandescent bulbs.
Sunset in Mandalay.
 Our train took us to the capital of British Burma, Mandalay. The city was big, but the electricity was unreliable; the streets stank of the gas-powered generators that shopkeepers posted before their establishments in case the lights went. (I gave one family a little entertainment when I showed up with my headlamp to buy crackers.) After passing out, my head still woozy with a phantom sensation of swaying, we woke to gawk at a colorful market and to rent bicycles to take around town. Having been in 2011 to a good number of picturesque places with ridiculously abundant produce, the stalls at the Zegyo Market were less notable to me for their unique wares than for the aesthetic of poverty, what Zoolander would call "derelicte" gorgeousness. Baskets balanced improbably on the heads of slight women, doorways jammed with coconuts, the smoke-belching mopeds that hauled away sacks of rice--all looked antique because they were. During our entire stay, one of perhaps ten cars had a third brake light. Apparently, back in the Days of Yore (i.e., before the mid-eighties), there had been no requirement for a third light-- a dire condition that I was too little to remember. (This is the kind of enlightenment you get in on when traveling with your father.) I've been suspicious before of my own lust for all things old or even merely old-looking, and in Myanmar this suspicion rose once and again. What brand of perversity could make me think the creativity born of desperate poverty beautiful? The answer, of course, is the perversity of privilege.  And that, reader, is why everyone who can afford it should go to places like Myanmar--to realize the depth of that privilege. It doesn't really lighten any spiritual burden, make me feel special or lucky; instead it supplies everyday life with a ballast by reminding us, "Behold, the bottom, where it has always been!"
Picking up a few things at the market?
 Before tapering off this far too lengthy post, I have two further reasons for visiting, both rather more positive. The first is the glorious ancient capital of Bagan, on the banks of the wide slow Irrawaddy--for consistency's sake I should call it the Ayeyarwady, to go along with "Yangon" and "Myanmar." Dotted with somewhere between two and four thousand stupas, pagodas, and shrines, the place is a marvel, especially for those who just can't get tired of temples. Far and away the highlight: remnants of beautiful frescoes from the twelfth century adorning some of the sites. These, along with the stucco columns and lacy embellishments on the outside faces of the buildings, had a distinctively Indo-Greek feel. 

Bagan, Land of Indeterminate Thousands of Pagodas.
But it wasn't all medieval treasures and glory. We saw that some of the frescoed interiors had been brutally whitewashed--though often only up to a height of seven or eight feet, above which the old, colorful patterns clung on. It seemed like an attempt to restore the paintings had suddenly lost the half-a-heart that it had begun with, probably to a new golf course. [2] And we had the answer to the question of why UNESCO hadn't made the city into a Heritage Site, namely the clumsiness with which the Orwellian government had rebuilt some of the buildings and maintained the city has kept it from the fame (and lucre) that status entails. 
I'm not at all sure of the justice in this sort of exclusion, but the trade embargo on Myanmar is at the root of the second reason for visiting: the virtual absence of American stuff. No McDonald's, no Starbucks, and hardly even any Coca-Cola--what few cans there were cost a couple times the average daily wage of a local adult and had been shipped from Thailand. When I tried to pay my credit cards online, I got the rare privilege of seeing a special error message about my account being inaccessible from a location under sanction. Inconvenient? Of course. But an utterly unique experience, to have no Wal-Mart squatting in the shadows of Mandalay Hill or among the Bagan pagodas.
It seems the changes ongoing in Myanmar will mean the reversal, soon, of the cultural and economic sanctions. On the one hand, maybe that would mean fewer villagers having to ride to town in ox-drawn carts virtually identical to those their great-great-grandparents used or work the fields with water buffalo and wooden plows; maybe that would mean more consistent electricity, education, better health, and all sorts of wonderful things that everyone deserves, as our domestic politicians always remind us. Maybe it would also mean that glass-and-steel bastions of the wealthy would come to tower above a country of smoke-darkened thatch along with the grand, golden monuments to Buddha.

In George Orwell's documentary novel, Burmese Days, the villain U Po Kyin dismisses his own conscience with "a careless wave of his hand that meant 'pagodas'." And while I agree, as I struggle through Orwell's brilliant but emotionally tortuous story, that there's something terrifying about a country being known as "the Land of a Thousand Pagodas" when each is a gilt-and-plastered black hole for wealth that very few have, at least the people hold something sacred. Neither U Po Kyin nor the military junta could tear down the pagodas; though watered down, some vague flavor of righteousness versus evil lingers on.  What will happen when the powerful, ardently embracing Globalmegacorp., decide that they can ignore their consciences, or at least trade out the dharma for Diet Coke and iPads?

Aun Sang Suu Kyi is revered like a saint, with her face in sticker form on the dilapidated dashboards of countless cabbies (including those driving not early-80s jalopies but horse-carriages). She might be on her way to Power at last. But the One Ring, as Bilbo Baggins taught us so well, corrupts absolutely; can she avoid its perils?

Go now to see this country, now, before the sharks of change circling it finally close in.
Sunrise on the Irrawaddy/Ayeyarwady.

(1) It is most shocking that I had never had anything more the matter with my innards than this, considering the sorts of things in poorly considered combinations that I routinely stuff down the hatch.

(2) The view from Mandalay Hill included one of these; though I never saw the Bagan counterpart documented by Mr. W. Pedia's site on Bagan, turfing that parched soil, which was beyond sandy, being actually sand--couldn't have been a very ecologically sound plan.


Rambling Notes from A Would-be Researcher, or, Two Months and What I Haven't Got to Show

Caveat lector: raw, uncensored straight-from-the-field action below!

Yesterday evening I made my second "month in review" list, and, as when I did so the first time, found that despite some misgivings, quite a bit was getting done. Numerically, certainly, I've reviewed a lot of dockets at the archives and gone through much digitized content, downloaded a lot of papers and PDF files, and made huge lists of books and call numbers.

I can say without too much embarrassment that I have been putting time to good use, especially this month. My roommate and I dutifully left the house at 8:30 or earlier to arrive between 9:05 and 9:15 at the archives; once or twice, I left before 4:45 pm, but most days I stayed right up until 5:00 (though the advertised hours are until 5:15, by quarter to five the place is very much in the "shut down" phase, the equivalent of the fifteen seconds or so when one's computer desktop turns black-and-white and the mouse stops responding). Then, after commuting home and visiting the gym like the exercise addict I know I am (admitting it--the first step toward recovery?), and often picking up some provisions for dinner or for the next day, I typically arrived at home around 8:30.

Even the days I did something different--visiting the National Library, talking with a contact's student about her application to American grad programs--I'd be out of the house for 8 or 12 hours at a stretch. Compared to the first month, which I mostly spent at home, this has been a very intense way of life. If I was getting weary and guilty of working at home after month 1, I think perhaps now I have reached a second "plateau." There have been a few "breakthrough" moments this month, especially regarding a couple of exciting possibilities about source materials. In one case, a body of rarely-used files that I thought would be totally inaccessible to me here in Ol' Peking and thus reluctantly left out of my project turns out to be available (though in what reduced form, who knows?) as a reprinted set of books in Taiwan. In another instance, a whole genre of folk performance art turns out to have had virtually no attention paid to it in Anglophone scholarship; what there is in Chinese and English is also mostly literary analysis and musicological studies.

The "plateau" isn't really about what I've been finding, though, of course! It's a conceptual one, a matter of my limited mental capacity for variegated facts and figures and whose rickshaw ran into whose chickens. It simply feels like there is too much sloshing around in my head. My research topic is a huge, amorphously defined one to begin with--I was told that it might not be a bad thing to have it stay that way as I plunged into fieldwork--and now, it may be time to take some of the equally hither-and-thither bits I've collected magpie-like and look for something to bind them together. Unfortunately, not being an actual magpie, spit probably won't cut it. No, maybe it's time to open a .doc file an save it as "draft1.doc"!

Just a couple of more long-winded notes to myself about two narrower aspects of the sloshy-head problem: first, it's clear that I need to grab onto cases or events as exemplary instances to prove my point--or to put it more pragmatically, future chapters. Right now, though, aside from the obvious events from the turbulent political history, there aren't a whole lot of novel "events" to choose from. In a previous paper I had talked about some case studies-- cf my post on "Dr. Sex"-- but these feel so hackneyed and "done." The folk performance art certainly could be a source of case studies: they're a fixed, large body of material, and I could take a few very specific examples from the corpus to discuss in detail. But, how to bridge the gulf between illiterate singers and French-educated Ph.D.s? I have only the vaguest of inklings as of right now, but (overly optimistically) I feel like that bridge would practically build itself if I started actually trying to cross the river and put down something in "draft1.doc". But actually that bridge is the terrifyingly tenuous, controversy-ridden key to all historiography: the diffident bond between trend and exception, between environment and individual, between longue dureé and the cheese and the worms! It is a monkey bridge I am very frightened to even look upon, much less try to cross...

Another part of the sloshy-head problem is the constant anxiety that I'm "doing something I shouldn't," that is, bothering to read and take notes on materials that will prove ultimately useless. That's the huge pitfall of fieldwork, I guess-- on one hand, one is so very free to do anything and everything. On the other, one's only in the field for a purpose, and time, money, and The Future are all separate Swords of Damocles dangling over one's bared neck. I guess that, if trying to tell a big story with little stories is the One Ring to Bind Them All of historical writing, then the psychological and material struggles of the historical writer between her own "big story"--degree-getting, job-finding, becoming a Real Adult--and the "little stories"--the pure pleasure of finding the un-looked-for, the delight of acquiring knowledge--is the One Ring that rules historians' lives.

And we can't just lob these guys into a giant (vulva-like) volcano and "un-birth" them, either. (That'd be nice.)


Qionghua and the Technicolor Dreamshow

Last night a friend and I watched, for the first time, the National Ballet of China's production of The Red Detachment of Women. It's apparently what they showed Nixon when he came to hang out in '72. From the start, of course, we expected the experience to be deeply ironic: after all, ballet doesn't exactly stick out as the most proletarian of art forms. Though, in a pretty ridiculous tract published during the early 70s in MIT's The Drama Review under the heading "Documents from China," some defender of the production claimed that Detachment was deliberately designed to overcome the counterrevolutionary evils of classical ballet.Regardless of whether the ballet form is capable of transcending its roots in the muck of bourgeois decadence, the leading sponsors for the National Ballet were Mercedes-Benz, a luxury airline, and the Bank of China. Hmm.

As for the show itself, I am totally an outsider when it comes to dance and performance art generally. But here's what I did notice.
(1) The colors made me feel like I was watching a bunch of Legos onstage. Fierce, unyielding primaries for the leads and villainously pastel for the main landlord, "Southern Tyrant." Subtlety is not the name of the game for the "Model Operas" of the Maoist years. Red blazoned on arms and waved in the form of a huge snapping flag. Deliriously bright backgrounds ostensibly depicting idyllic Hainan Island ("the Hawaii of China").
(2) Speaking of the lack of any pretension to subtlety*: there are lots of revolutionary poses struck, firm, determined revolutionary nods made, and (on the other side) lots of sleazy bowing and old-fashioned handclasping. The music is (unsurprisingly) militant-folksy-cheery and major-key when the Good Guys are on and cool-cat jazzy when the Bad appear (the latter also get much dimmer lighting for an extra bit of "Bad Old Society" smarm).
(3) One innovation I found actually appealing was the fight scenes that drew heavily upon the physical vocabulary of martial operas. (Of course, it was also pretty...unique to include masses of company dancers wielding their bayonets en pointe, but that element of Red kitsch is given away right in the posters for the ballet--it's downright iconic.) If there had been a gong, clapper, and eight-cornered drum instead of a full symphony for some of the battle scenes, it would have felt a lot more like some clip from Romance of the Three Kingdoms than a struggle of the oppressed proletariat against landlord depredations.
(4) The interesting lack of a prima ballerina, and the similarly interesting sexual dynamics among the principals. While Wu Qionghua is certainly the protagonist, there's also Hong the party advisor to the Detachment and the commander of the Detachment. With the latter, Qionghua dances half-a-dozen pas de deux and exchanges several dramatic embraces; with the former, zero on both counts. It was all very Anchee-Min-Red-Hot-Lesbian-Tension** or Sexy Iron Girl (-on-girl), and it made me wish I were doing work on gender and sexuality of the Maoist years.

Anyway, it was a technically superb production and so worth the $30 to go see it at the bombastic National Opera House. If any of my gentle readers are intrigued, I believe there are various clips scattered about the usual places on the Internet for a glimpse of the action.

*Subtlety, as we all know well, is the first sign of counterrevolutionary corruption.
**Not intended to disparage Min's book or lesbians, of course!


A Month in Old Peking

 It's frightening to realize that I've now been here an entire month. I spoke with an acquaintance at some length earlier this week, and made the customary protests of "oh, no, I've gotten so little done in all this time," but in actuality I think it's been a month fairly well-stuffed with activity! Here are a few of the things, recorded in anticipation of dark moments of self-loathing in my future, that I've managed somehow to pull off, research-related and not:

-Locate, rent, move into, and make "home base" an apartment that, for its flaws, is a quiet, comfortable, convenient one at a very reasonable cost
- Keep healthy enough to enjoy the briefly delightful burst of autumnal Peking weather with some long runs (a luxury I will never forget to take for granted again)
-Organize and begin follow-up work on nearly all the material I had already gathered and begin work on a digitized archive of all sorts of sociological, legal, and memoir-y goodness
-Get back in touch with all my closest contacts from previous expeditions and obtain letters of entry to archives
-Had my first bicycle stolen (every denizen of Old Peking has to have this happen to them--surely it is a rite of passage when estimates of bicycles pilfered run to over 9 million a year?)
-Apply to go to Taipei in the winter
-Visit a new city (Tianjin--more on my fleeting impression of that town in future)
-Pay filial visits with regularity to grandparents
-Meet up with colleagues and friends, some of whom I had not realized were living in town
-Meet up with--heavens forbid!--entirely new people, some of whom I hope might become friends

Maybe the most important conclusion--certainly the most heartening one aside from the larger realization that this month has been anything but idle--is that I like the city I have chosen. On bad days, its murky, acrid air and endlessly oppressive piles of dull-faced people blur into a bleary Monet fogscape. On a beautiful day, or even at quieter parts of the bad days, I think I love this town.

 Yes, it's the city into which I was born, but I have spent perhaps a total of a year and a half in it--I come to Peking quite unpickled in her brine. On top of that, I have spent most of my life in various spacious, unbelievably safe, and brightly-lit suburbs. It's somehow intrinsically romantic to return to my birth-city for my longest stint urban dwelling, ever, and for my longest research stint, ever. It's like going to live in the house of the birth mother you, the adopted child, only just relocated and about whom you are also planning to write a biography!

Will I leave an old soggy salted Napa cabbage-stalk? Will I leave with another case of imminent pneumonia lurking like a spot of quicksand in my lungs? For now, I relish the transient glory of the Pekingnese autumn as I run around manmade lakes in which emperors once punted. I stare at the tawny streetlights over my head during quiet nighttime bicycle rides home along the twelve-foot moat. I inhale deeply the delightful smell of roasting chestnuts, corn, and sweet potato from vendors' tricycles and carts clogging the mouths of subway stations.

On a night lit by a tallow-colored moon and the haze of fluorescent lights scattered in the dirty taupe sky, if I squint in the direction of the old Inner City as I ride along the moat, I can pretend that the ugly concrete pillars of the elevated Second Ring Road are the dark red City Walls, their gates shut after the evening drums began the night watch.

(Deshengmen, or Virtue and Victory Gate, c. 1880s. One of the few survivors among the city's many gates. I enjoy cycling or running--hobbling more like--past it and imagining it in its imperial glory, but the stink of the public toilet that's been built near it and the burden of avoiding the cabbies pulling out from their break hour--they have claimed the underpass near the Gate as their own--makes it tough to keep up the illusion.)


Southeast Asia Whirlwind: Part I--Blitzkrieg Overview

From mid-August to early September 2011, my friend A and I ventured fearlessly forth into the balmy climes of Southeast Asia for a three-week tour. Our breakneck itinerary: 
two days/three nights in Bangkok, one night in Ayutthaya, two days/three nights in Siem Reap (the town nearest Angkor Wat), two days/two nights in Phnom Penh, one night in Chau Doc, one night in Can Tho, two days/two nights in Saigon, two days/three nights in Hoi An, one night in Hue, one night on Cat Ba Island, and two days/three nights in Hanoi. 
I shall let the reader briefly catch his breath here.
This is how we felt a lot of the time. Hnnngh!
These nights do not add up to the proper number because we, the intrepid duo, spent 2 nights on Vietnamese trains. These were, as far as we could tell, relics only a couple of years younger than us and likely purchased on the cheap from mainland China. (They were given away by telltale Chinese labels on a few bathroom doors and hot-water machines.)
Speaking of trains: to make our way between this formidable array of places (and hostelries, quality assorted), we placed ourselves in the hands (paws? maws?) of the perhaps even more formidable following array of vehicles. 

In rough order, and omitting some of the less interesting repeat entries: 

taxi, legal
mini-bus (secondhand smoke + exhaust) 
bicycles (no brakes but nice baskets)
crummy local train 
coach bus (free flimsy plastic bottles of drinking water)
shifty Poipet tuk-tuk (somehow patched together out of wires and thin steel rods stuck on top of a motortrike)
more coach bus (with loud pop music and flashy party lights!)
more bicycles (brakes, 3 gears! what more to ask for?)
yet another coach bus (bus itself = not bad, road = so pocked with potholes that it was 1/4 the necessary size) 
speedboat (well, sort-of speedboat…speedish-boat)
even more bicycles (I think one was a very nice shade of yellow)
back of scooter, more back-of-scooter (terrifying) 
hand-rowed ferry (shortest ride ever: creek was about 10 feet across)
outrigger-propellered Mekong riverboat (as romantic as it sounds)
a second and equally brief sway in the ferry
taxi (illicit, 25 x the proper fare)
Reunification Express train (leg 1) soft sleeper (hellooooo China in the 1980s)
our OWN scooter
Reunification Express (leg 2, central highlands) soft seat (still locked in the 80s somewhere in China)
still more bicycles (we rode these poor things to death; one tried to kill me in retribution by bouncing me right off it in front of an oncoming mini-truck) 
Reunification Express (final leg) soft sleeper (I thank thee, melatonin pills)
local hard-seat train to Haiphong (they are not joking about the hardness of the seats)
rip-off ferryboat that was supposed to be a speedboat
rip-off tour boats (cheating honest people of a lunch they paid for? a crime that warrants the lowest pits of hell)
taxi (private, minivan, silver-gray)
...and finally, an airplane again.

In later installments I will write more about the many places we visited/dashed past like madmen. But the particle count today in the pearly haze above Old Peking warrants a reasonable bedtime, so here I bid the reader  good night!


The Bright Lights of Midnight

Yesterday I went with a pal from high school days to see Woody Allen's not-so-new release, Midnight in Paris, about which I had heard only hints and rustlings of praise, my devotion to the wonderful weekly "Filmspotting" podcast being a very novel development. The movie isn't exactly the most profound piece of cinema I've ever seen; next to the other film that I recently found to be touching and uplifting,  Tree of Life, Midnight is certainly of a much more modest scale and scope of ambition.

I'm anything but a film scholar. Nor am I even a very consistent watcher of movies (frequently I skip forward to juicier bits; often I am glazed with sweat and exertion while viewing from the stationary bike or, even worse, the bobble-head torment of the "dreadmill"). There are torrents of reviews gushing (and a few not so gush-y) about Midnight, and I have zero pretension of adding to that deluge. It's personal: lately I've been very sad at the state of the world, both in the earthly sense (solar explosions, terrifying climatic changes) and in the more abstract and man-made ones (poisonous interracial and interfaith hatred, murder, the continuing, incomprehensible absurdities of global finance). All my doom-and-gloom made watching this movie a genuinely memorable experience, my thoughts on which I'd just like to record for my future self.

I've always found Woody Allen movies kind of...creepy. No doubt part of that is an (unfair?) overlap between his screen explorations of his psychic issues, especially regarding women and sex, and how he's chosen to live those issues out. Sure, I enjoyed Hannah and Her Sisters and Love and Death, but The Purple Rose of Cairo, for instance, just made me so uncomfortable that I'd had to stop a quarter-hour into things.

Midnight has a lot of the familiar Woody Allen elements. It's a movie that, in the space of less than ten minutes, unleashes doppelgangers of Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, and Cole Porter on the audience in a frantic onslaught that, for some reason, makes me think of dueling Pokemon.*
Don't pretend you didn't see it coming.

In other words, folks, the forecast is for a veritable hailstorm of name-dropping.  Moreover, there's a good dose of the same je ne sais quoi neurosis that has so irked me. Actually, no, I do know what that neurosis is--a panting, sweaty-palmed lust for beautiful, mysteriously charismatic women who for some reason or other always seem to  fall for the typical Allen protagonist: brilliant, hopelessly romantic doofuses. I mean, I'm all for panting lust and beautiful women and all, but what starts getting weird about the Allen brand of this lies in, I think , two factors:

(1) Woody Allen playing "Mary Sue"** and using his film as art-therapy for his Issues...as himself
(2) Disguising the deeply earthy core of those sexually charged Issues with a heavy varnish of romanticism and jokey self-deprecation, a vast Freudian bonbon

And Midnight was so much more appealing than Allen's preceding variations on this theme precisely for its revision of these elements. For one, Owen Wilson does a great job replacing the Allen Marty Stu, especially with the way he produces his lines, speaking as if with marbles in his cheeks, lumpily and artlessly.  Seeing Allen hit the replay button for his own benefit again and again, living out his erotic fantasies, an eternal (though not ever-youthful) interloper--why buy a movie ticket (or more likely, waste bandwidth streaming a movie) when one can get more than enough of that kind of psychological masturbation in the Fanfic-verse?

Second, Midnight turns the chocolate bonbon inside-out: it's all about, ultimately, the need to recognize and deal first with the thick, difficult, and disturbing outer shell of earthy, physical desire before hitting the core of idealism, higher purpose, and spiritual love that is--and should, and must be-- at the center of everything.


In breaking off his relationship with his fianceé,  in his "minor revelation" that there is always a more halcyon past to imagine returning to (then bidding the woman of his love/lust farewell), and in choosing at last to reside in and make do with the present world first, instead of giving priority to fantasy, this is a perfect movie for dark days.

In a world of fleshly desires doomed to remain forever unsatisfied, of pain, of fear and regret and guilt,  Midnight tells us that more fulfilling choice is to refuse to give these things up for a fantasy of perfection. We have to put the world, if only slightly, ahead of our dreams--because without the world, what can dreams really mean? It would be a self-satisfied illusion, a perennial quest for a golden age that never was. There's nothing really wrong with that quest, because that is what being human is about, but we can't afford to forget that we have edged the past in gilt and glamor ourselves.

And that's where the historians come in. (cue heavy metal anthem)

*"I choose you, T.S. Eliot! Use your Mystical Oriental Allusions Attack!" Oh what I would not give to see such a thing.
**Or rather, a Marty Stu (as the diabolically delightful TV Tropes sinkhole-of-productivity explains, there's considerable controversy about the term, but poor Mary/Marty is basically an authorial avatar injected for purposes of wish fulfillment, most frequently in the black, bleak depths of the Fan-verse).


Gallivanting about Gotham

I've been to New York City many times, but during my recent visit--after an absence of about three years--I was able to make pilgrimages to places previously unexplored (the lovely Cloisters, for one). Thanks to an energy level that has been compared favorably to that of a certain pink bass-drum-beating bunny, I mostly made it from point to point on my own feet (now nicely criss-crossed with the unmistakable badge of Chaco tan-lines). Certainly traipsing about in the kind of ridiculous "heat bubble" that has entrapped the City in the last few days is not for everyone, but I must advocate an ambulatory (or perhaps bicycle- or scooter-based) mode of exploring New York as by far the most rewarding.

(1) Hoofing it assuages the "I'm-not-a-tourist-I-swear-but-I still-want-to-take-a-picture-of-the-sun-glimmering-on-that-lovely-Beaux-Arts-facade" guilt for those of us--who really must be most of the people walking about Manhattan at any moment--who are familiar enough with the place to qualify as a cut above those nice folks packed onto the double-decker Gray Line buses, but are nothing approaching "locals." Especially as the qualifications for being a New Yorker are higher than a busker on Venice Beach.
Walking (particularly in frigid winters or insufferable summers) seems partly to soften for me the conundrum between pulling out the cam and stashing the damned giveaway a little deeper in one's pack, walking just a bit faster and looking a bit more bored. Then again, perhaps living more "in the moment" would be not such a bad lesson for the good folk of the East Coast to learn...

(2) Funny that this post is making me seem such a New Age-y Leftcoaster, but, building on the last bit, walking allows one to fully engage all of one's senses. I love running as a mode of exploring new places as much as any nutty Runner's World subscriber, but walking, fast or slow, is vastly easier to maintain while remaining immersed in the smells and sights all around. Something tells me that's how our long-ago ancestral hominids managed to make it through savannahs and glacial mountainsides. Attentions otherwise demanded by the exigencies of survival can be turned easily to sucking down the greasy fumes of mystery-meat hot dogs, as there's probably nothing stalking you for supper in NYC, but I guess that is no certain matter....
Here's someone getting her supper by hunting (your recyclables, anyway).

(3) While staring at things with unusual intensity thanks to the mental alertness granted by walking steadily, one comes to notice the kinds of things that help one achieve that all-important sense of a place, the essential bouillon that can be subsequently dissolved to excellent effect in the simmering water of any conversation.
This time, as in the past, I of course saw the diversity in which New Yorkers rightfully take such pride, but came further to realize that it isn't merely all the different varieties of humanity that happen to be represented in Manhattan that makes up this diversity, but how closely said varieties live, walk, eat, sleep, work. Now, for me, it is the sheer density of humanity and its encrustations upon an environment that, though nearly hidden by the anthills built by people, still pokes through in awesome ways that makes Manhattan so devastatingly alluring.

Flowers in Highline Park.

And writ large, I find myself agreeing with a hypothesis I first heard on a podcast a few days ago about the gravitational field of big cities: imagine, as in Stephen Hawkings's tableau of the universe, a soft stretchy sheet upon which marbles were put. The heavier the marble, the more deeply it sinks into the sheet, pulling other marbles inexorably toward it. Manhattan is a quasar. The only reason I have for not immediately trying to move there as that pinnacle of Romantic Delusion, a Would-Be Writer, though, was made as clear to me in the few days I was just there as was the City's attraction: my oh-so-svelte graduate-student wallet. I'm doomed. I could never become naturalized as a citizen of  the City. On top of my skinny funds, there's my lust for seasonal produce and organic teas over 99-cent pizza slices and Oriental-flavored Maruchan and my preference for a dwelling-place not larded with vermin, traffic noises, or raucous roommates. Not infrequently I long to breathe something other than the indolent perfumes of the nut roasters' carts.
No way I could afford THIS on a regular basis if I lived nearby.

I wonder how I will feel after a couple of weeks in, first, farmburbia, then what must be one of the most perfect strip-mall-McMansion paradises of a suburb in the nation. Probably considering whether it would not be wiser after all to mutter "fuckitall," pack a bag, and start scanning Craigslist New York for a day job...