30 June 2013

The Œuvre of Edward Hopper: Day 30


I came to Edward Hopper's work in college, when I was working on an honour's project about the disappearance of my great-great grandfather in the fifties. John Omerza, it was said, disappeared from Ely, Minnesota without a trace, a whole series of rumours following after him. I knew the version of the story in which he drown in quick sand in the wilderness of the boundary waters where Ely is sat, on the edge of the American frontier.

Hopper's eye is drawn to people looking out of windows. I love how you can always see the sun in a Hopper painting, even though it is not in the frame.

I deliberately chose a few of the paintings I dislike of Hopper's (see Day 7 and Day 12); ones in which his people are embarrassingly bad. I understand the point: the figure as an idea. But I don't see the idea, not like I see the ideas in Rothko. I just see a mannequin.

I also didn't choose Hopper's most famous painting, the one I have seen the most in person at the Art Institute in Chicago with Bacon, and that Gustave Caillebotte painting that Heather and I sat in front of in the Summer of 1999. We were there with my parents and sister, I remember: I have a picture pasted in a journal from the day. These others I don't remember seeing in person, but there must have been one or two I have seen along the way, in New York or London.

Hopper, in my mind, is a great artist, but not all of his art is great. I hope this month has made that point clearly.

24 June 2013

Having an eternal prospective

A tweet earlier today reminded me of something I used to hear and say when I was religious: We must have an eternal perspective. Washing the dishes, looking out into the alley, I remembered this phrase verbatim: what a ridiculous, silly, arrogant thing to think you can do. Have an eternal perspective.

Taman Sri Minang woke in a haze, fires in Sumatra burning, reducing — as a friend and colleague noted on Facebook — an ancient rainforest to an acrid stench. Everything is covered in grey dust and you aren't supposed to go outside when it is at its worst. We cleaned for most of Sunday and then left to Auntie and Uncle's house for a going-away party. The smell is incredible; the whole world burning just beyond the horizon.

In the heat of the weekend (tasks: mopping and napping, waiting for the night to come), I told Yoko what I realised while she was gone: we are going to be here, in Malaysia, until something moves us. I've stopped looking for a job and being able to imagine going somewhere else. It's been six months now, and I've started leaning into the curve, rather than trying to slow down, to stop. The fundamentals don't change with changes in scenery: move enough and you learn that. Like a stain you wash and think you've removed, but reappears. Any problem you have will follow you wherever you go: the weather is not the problem, the salary is not the problem. You can exacerbate problems and ease them, but you can't solve them without solving them. A tautology, sure, but tautologies are always right. Perfectly balanced equations, perfectly true.

The world may be burning, but that doesn't mean the end of anything. As I left to pick up my brother and his family at the airport last night, Yoko followed me, reaching out to say, 'I love you' at the threshold of the house. I thought suddenly, morbidly, that if I died, that moment would hang, perfectly, a kind of brief summit in a year of valleys. Kisses under smouldering incandescent light, the moon coming closer and closer, touching the treetops.

A month of Edward Hopper: Day 24


21 June 2013

Blame it on a black star

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Walking up the road to Kajang station, I hear the sound and catch a glimpse of two bodies flung into the air from a motorbike. Ejected like from a catapult: they must have hit something in the road. I run out into traffic, my right hand flagging down a car to stop it. One young man on the ground, holding his right leg and wincing in pain, I tell him to relax and try to keep him from trying to stand up. The reaction of the body after falling is to try to stand. That's the reflex: get up and walk it off — it's okay, everything is okay. A woman behind me is asking if someone can call an ambulance; I give her my phone and the rider on the ground is now scooting across the blacktop on both hands, trying to get out of the way of the cars turning into the tadika car park that I just realise now we are blocking. Two others, Chinese Malaysians, come up and kneel down next to the rider; the woman who took my phone gives it back, saying that the headmaster has called the hospital. There's nothing I can do, really. I pick up my bag and walk away. 

A grey haze is floating on the campus, caused I'm told by open burning in Indonesia. No one is here, my colleagues are home or off to their home countries for the summer. I'm standing out looking into the palm trees, the plantation that surrounds the campus, and thinking of going home early. There is no momentum here: no energy. 

Momentum is a metaphor I employ to talk about relationships. This relationship has momentum. In relationships, you don't talk about concrete things, but put labels on feelings and try to explain what you want and need and pretend like it's something you can do: give any real sense of what you experience. I have a PhD in discourse analysis: it cripples me. At some point, the retelling of the past is too much of a burden, all the resentment that builds up in the course of being with someone over years and years. The past and present grinding against each other. Feelings are objects; movement is an object. Don't think too much about it.

The thing about good stories is that you cannot know the ending before setting out. Or rather, you can know the ending, but you must become convinced in the middle of the story, that you were lied to about the ending.  I've been struck by this: a successful marriage always ends in one person dead. Dan Savage and Andrew Sullivan talking about marriage discuss the case of a couple married for 49 and half years and divorcing, finally. One of them, Savage or Sullivan — I forget which one, comments that if a day before the wife had decided to leave, her husband had died, the narrative of the marriage would have been one of success. 

Who can say really.

A month of Edward Hopper: Day 21


17 June 2013

Let us touch you

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The KLIA television station in the budget terminal plays a series of commercials about the greatness of the country and the airport on loop. One cheery song and dance routine includes the phrase, Let us touch you with ironic images of men greeting women and putting their hands across their chests. Quaint, polite, and foreign, but I hate this every time I see it: Shake the woman's hand: she doesn't have cooties. The video goes on and on with slogans that clean up Malaysian English into something more international, but are self-congratulatory: Malaysia is great, how nice the people are, how well run and safe everything is. Slouched down in a plastic chair at five in the morning, waiting, I'm less patient than I normally would be: something, please something make sense.

The family returned and suitcases exploded with things from Japan. Naomi and Mei — and Mia now too—  are full of stories and chatting, all the things they did and saw. Within hours I am mopping up pee and soy milk again, listening to criticism of my cooking and what I bought: only hours before the house was empty and clean and quiet. Mei sits closely to me on the sofa and finally someone says what I've been waiting and waiting to hear: that she missed me and cried once, when she was brushing her teeth, because I wasn't there.

Everything I write and experience is so predictable, so stereotypical. Every man with small three kids and a wife feels the same way: 80% of us. Just say what you're supposed to, then shut the hell up. If there is any truth, it's this: people say things that they're supposed to say, and your response should be the preferred response. 'It must be great to have everyone back' and the truth is not what people want to hear. Narratives of marriage and paternity are set and they are simple ones, uncomplicated ones. Say yes, that's all. Don't think too much about it. Say the right thing out of cowardice.

The women are all tired, particularly their mother, and then awake at the wrong times. I ended up kicked out of the bed in the middle of the night, as usual. I woke to sounds — not the azan, not the alarm clock, not the silence — showered, and hugged and kissed everyone goodbye, like the last month hadn't happened.

The multiverse simmers and bubbles. I don't know enough about the theory to make it anything but a sloppy metaphor for my own experience. In a Murakami novel, one can shuttle between two universes, but here, in this universe, the bus still comes at 5:15 and I must make it home in time for a dinner I don't think I should eat — I've eaten enough for the next three months. There are, after all, consequences to the choices that we make.

A month of Edward Hopper: Day 17


14 June 2013

The D in Detroit

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Mia kept telling me last week, from behind the glass, that fireworks are hot, pointing to her hand where she apparently got too close to a sparkler. She said it again and again, in a-matter-of-fact way, like it's not something I know. You too should be careful, daddy.

My time alone comes to an end early on Sunday morning. Do we need to reflect on this anymore. It's bad news when your own tropes are boring you. It's such a complex set of feelings. Luckily, there is no choice to be made: they will come back and we will all be together again. The Skype jail meetings have stopped for the week: I wait and wait with the computer window open at work and then at home, only to fall asleep. Yoko writes a short email: you don't need to know what it means to know what it means.

All my writing is stalled at the moment. This entry has taken me a week and I'm still not happy with it: the self-pity entry, who wants to read that again. Did nothing interesting, nothing quinissentially Malaysian, happen this week? Is there no metaphor that can hint at some larger meaning? I didn't even hear the call to prayer this morning.

I want to be a writer that doesn't look away, even when nothing is there. I want to be Rothko; you don't look at anything in a Rothko painting. You try to look past it. 

Still, the editorial voice is ruthless; my muse is a relentless critic. Did you really just write another passive sentence after teaching topic sentences for a week; you must be mad. I'm stuck in my article about communities of practice on YouTube. I want something to give, some breakthrough to happen, but it's coming very slowly. 500 words at a time, after a day of having the file open and tinkering with it. Why write this article anyway, why publish. I read something I wrote a year ago, citing Foucault and immediately hate it. Foucault: how original Stephen, really, who'd have thought of that. I need to start smoking. Instead I just eat and eat, the self-pity getting richer and thicker like being stuck in tar. You're not good enough, you're not original enough. Writing is self-loathing: it's not a metaphor. There are no positive voices when I write: I dismiss praise and latch on to criticism, some glimmer of the truth. I think of my PhD supervisor frustrated with me and my writing: she's the only person who ever told me the truth.

Why are we — we am I — so convinced that everyone is lying all the time. I don't even believe that anyone is really capable of lying. Even when I know someone is lying, I feel like they are only trying to do something; who can blame them for not wanting the truth to get in the way.

So one last day of waking in the heat just before 6. Wash my clothes, realise I'm out of coffee. Go to work, come home again: the dullness of not looking forward with anticipation. Whatever the future holds, it won't be any better or worse than this. At least I can, if I let myself, write about it.

A month of Edward Hopper: Day 14


10 June 2013

The Pursuit of Happiness

The girls will all be back by this time next week.

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There has been no time for the silence since that first weekend. This weekend was another two nights in KL with a revolving cast of characters, all deserving of their own novel. I sat out on a terrace overlooking Bansgar and KLCC while the sun set: I smoked and drank cider and cheap Australian beer and we all went out to a restaurant with a parrot. We drank beer and ate crab and in the back of a car headed through Brickfields, stuck in traffic, I felt the serendipity of being swept up in something without having to plan or control or care for. It just goes on with or without me: I stand in the river.

But now, the slow descent into real life: I cleaned the bathrooms and got my motorbike fixed again for the fourth time. The house will be full again in just five days.

On Saturday, I attended an Indian Catholic wedding: our neighbour's daughter got married. I went directly from the station having spent the night in KL at a party and was hungover and sweaty, thinking I might just skip it. Given the importance of saving face in Taman Sri Minang, I decided I should probably go anyway. Of course, I arrived looking sorely out of place: beautiful, well-manicured Indians with a couple of well-dressed Chinese women in sun dresses, but certainly no other fat sweaty white men in pink shirts and bow ties. I made my way through the crowd with people looking like first I might be lost and then realising that I probably was supposed to be there and greeting me — finally Auntie, our Indian Auntie, came out of the crowd, beautiful and glowing, and shook my hand.

The wedding was, as you can imagine, both very Indian and very Catholic, two things I didn't know mixed until this ceremony. I sat in the back feeling both out of place, but oddly at home, as the Catholic narrative overlaps substantially with the Evangelical one I know so well. We all stood and sang a hymn that I knew by heart and sang loudly, a kind of duty to those around me: fat white man participates.

The groom was a convert, from what I could tell a convert for marriage, and looked like he had certainly made the right choice. All the pageantry of Catholicism contrasts with the starkness of Islam, but the Hindu temples, with their multitude of gods and statutes, look the same to me as the Holy Family icons. I imagined the conversion was less difficult, but only because I filled in all the connections with ignorance. This is how fat white men understand the country, after all: we see the connections that have meaning for us, in our experience, and then claim to understand the native experience. Incomprehensibility solved.

There was an odd moment when they were supposed to, I think, kiss. The bride didn't seem to want to, but the priest was insistent than something happen. Imperialism even in this most intimate of moments. In the end, the groom leaned forward, grinning awkwardly, and kissed her on the forehead. How perfect, how sublime: what futures are coming for them. They then came back down the aisle, husband and wife. Although I was immensely curious about the reception, there was another party in the city to attend to and I was going to be late — I snuck out the side gate of the church and bought a pork bun at the Happy Happy Cafe.

I want to stretch out this story more: really make it profound and foreign. Where was Vishnu, where was Genesha? Instead, it slipped away without any epiphany. The father of the bride saw me the next day and warmly shook my hand. They had wanted Naomi and Mei and Mia to be the flower girls: it was such a shame that it didn't work out.

The pursuit of happiness: this is one of our American inalienable rights. Here in Malaysia, this misadventure, I've not found time yet to really be happy. I think that's okay — I think I am starting to find my own happiness. All these in between moments suggest a bright future. That is only one truth of many. I start every blog with this much more important truth: I'm lying to you. Don't believe anything I say. But it seems that still, the truth seeps in. 

A month of Edward Hopper: Day 10


07 June 2013

A Month of Edward Hopper: Day 7


Morning Sun by Edward Hopper

03 June 2013

Ego me absolvo

Another weekend of silence: I hung pictures and took naps and rode my motorbike.

Rode my motorbike: yes, a return to the past. I kickstarted it for a couple of minutes before it took and suddenly, I was free again. The problem-solution cycle that I love and hate in Malaysia was beautifully demonstrated in two hours: the motorbike's front tyre was low on air, so I went in search of an open bike shop. The Indian store, guarded by Ganesha, was the only one open and they fixed the flat for RM10. I rode then to Tesco to shop, but when I came out, the tyre was flat again. I returned to the shop and Ganesha, and a new attendant was there. I tried to explain that the tyre had been fixed already, but had gone flat — he didn't seem to understand, but pulled it apart and fixed it and sent me on my way without asking for more money.

I rode to work this morning, feeling the same tension of freedom and fear: how good it feels right before you die.

Reading Yoko's blog, you get a sense of optimism about the future. All these pictures of the girls rejoicing in Japan: the world that time forgot. I feel the tension of this life we've created for ourselves, but I want to believe that Ganesha, on this side of the world, keeps us all safe in his many arms. We can't see it, of course, but somewhere, in all of these universes, convergence emerges.

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A Month of Edward Hopper: Day 3


New York Movie by Edward Hopper

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