Saturday, December 31, 2011

Information


"Information" (c) 2011 J. Ryan Williams

Diagram genius Ander Monson wrote a really detailed and thoughtful review of Checking In / Checking Out over at Essay Daily.

Speaking of our little book, there are only about 20 copies left. Besides the handful Mark and I sent out to reviewers and friends, we've sold almost all the other 500 copies from the initial print run. (Okay, maybe we also guerrilla dropped a few copies in various airport bookstores around the country...) But the point is that there are only a few left of the original boutique edition. The next edition of the book will likely lose the unique size and get a different cover.

Semi-relatedly, I'm trying to get a hold of Monson's first chapbook, Safety Features, as I understand that it takes place entirely in airports. I've collected so many airport odds and ends since finishing my first book that I'm starting to sense a sequel on the horizon...

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Some Recent & Current Things


Tarmac watching at O'Hare

Carolyn Kellogg wrote a very nice review of Checking In / Checking Out in the LA Times Books section.

And Nicole Sheets gave the book and Airplane Reading a kind mention at Wanderlust and Lipstick.

Meanwhile, I've been experimenting with Twitter as a way to draw people to Airplane Reading, and I'm quite enjoying the formal constraints, as well as the aesthetic and philosophic possibilities nestled within the form's forced compression. I know, it's not like it's a 'new' tool or anything; but it's often intimidating to start into new media forms, and gratifying when they start to feel like you've got the hang of them. I've particularly liked playing with the photo-essay possibilities granted by Twitter, and I've been posting photos at Twitpic.

I'm also starting to rework my long essay on airport/aircraft seating, which I will be sending out to a journal for review in March. I'm starting this essay with a reading of the psychoanalysis of flight in the opening Claude Sylvanshine chapter in The Pale King. I'll be presenting some of this material at ACLA in Providence this coming spring, in a seminar on David Foster Wallace.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Me & Mark at MSY


Nate Martin of Press Street's Room 220 put together a great interview with me & Mark, about our little two-sided book Checking In / Checking Out.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Time to Reconsider Air Travel

As long as we're in the mood for making open claims on behalf of sweeping change (if also without specific demands), here's my contribution:

It was a beautiful thing to see, aircraft climbing, wheels up, wings pivoting back, the light, the streaked sky, three of four of us, not a word spoken.

—Don DeLillo, "Hammer and Sickle"

In the above sentence from his new collection of stories, Don DeLillo aptly describes the sublimity of human aviation. But this story is about prisoners, who are on work detail cleaning up the tarmac of an Air Force base. Here, as in so many scenes in DeLillo's novels, DeLillo seems to be urging us to take the time to reconsider air travel.

With the announcement earlier this month that American Airlines will file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, it is time to reconsider air travel. On November 29 a New York Times article about the parent company of American Airlines, AMR, noted “AMR’s financial health has been eroding for years.”

Indeed, if we want to resort to metaphors of health, we are talking about an entire industry that appears to be afflicted with chronic financial problems. Based on the bankruptcy record of nearly all major airlines, it is demonstrably the case that flight is neither a sustainable nor an economically viable mode of mass human transit.

The accomplishments of flight over the twentieth-century were impressive, to say the least. The relative achievements over the first decade of the twenty-first-century have been regressive at best (e.g., multi-hour tarmac waits), and invasive at worst (e.g., full body scans).

Scott McCartney’s recent Wall Street Journal column “The Middle Seat” celebrated Singapore's Changi International Airport as “arguably the world’s most fabulous airport.” McCartney goes on to laud such features as “comfortable areas for sleeping or watching TV, premium bars, work desks and free Internet. A nap room is about $23 for three hours; a shower can be had for $6.” In short, what McCartney finds so alluring and “fabulous” about Changi are precisely the banalities of everyday life on the ground.

Why is it that we find this level of bare life so surprising (and valuable) in airports, as if we have lost touch with our showers and beds at home?

At the extreme end of this line of inquiry, a front-page New York Times headline on Saturday December 3 stated, provocatively, “Hot on the Trail of ‘Just Right’ Far-Off Planet.” Scientists, it seems, may be on the verge of discovering remote planets that lie within the “habitable zone.”

But wait: we live on one of those planets! We have airlines filing for bankruptcy on one of those planets, and airports that simulate ordinary life on one of those planets! Perhaps it is time to really reconsider all of our air travels. It may very well sound like an outlandish question, but what would it take to stop dumping resources and energy into mass air transit, and instead to reinvest in our lives on the ground, on this planet? It is a question worth taking seriously.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Book ~ Alien


I saw my book for the first time today. What a weird feeling. It resembles an object from outer space. Vaguely recognizable, yet totally alien at the same time. Actually, it's rather like picking up a stranger in the baggage claim: the ambiance is completely familiar, but there's also the thrill of the unknown...

(I should say, too, that Continuum did a beautiful job on the book-as-object; in an age of electronic reading, it's very nice to hold a finely crafted paper book.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Reading Mark Alan Stamaty

I thoroughly enjoyed Mark Alan Stamaty's touching autobiographical narrative in the most recent cartoon issue of The New Yorker ("A Cartoon Legacy," October 31). Here are the last three frames:


Stamaty may just call himself a cartoonist, but I find his work to be rife with literary-theoretical significance. I remember as a child being mesmerized by Stamaty's book Small in the Saddle (1975), a story that I now appreciate as a revisionist history of the American West as shrewd as Annie Proulx's Wyoming stories or Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.


Then there is Stamaty's Who Needs Donuts? (1973), which explores ideas of solipsism, addiction, and connection in a consumer culture with as much ambition and layered meaning as David Foster Wallace's sprawling Infinite Jest.


As one more example, Stamaty's illustration of Frank Asch's story Yellow Yellow (1971) illuminates an urban ecology with an attention to detail and texture that now seems to have been anticipating contemporary forays into object-oriented ontology.


I'm drawing on memories from 30 years or so ago, but as I recall, this story is about a boy who finds a yellow construction helmet on the ground, and he puts it on and starts to walk around; the only problem is that it is adult-size, and so it partially covers his eyes—it gives the world a weird yellow hue, strangely magnified. Yet this obfuscation and yellowing of vision ends up turning the world magical and seen to be teeming with all sort of things, and complicating the barriers between living and nonliving, human-scale and frog-scale, built and organic. The conceptual boundary lines all become wonderfully blurry, and indicative of a flattened ontological plane replete with bricks and beetles and boys, nails and nuts and newspaper clippings, frogs and Formica, tangled string and two-headed turtles:


It's not that everything is jumbled and therefore matters less, or that the human character in the story becomes insignificant; rather, it's that everything takes on more meaning under the object-oriented spell of the construction helmet. And I won't give away the ending, but it involves the safety helmet having to be returned to its rightful owner...nevertheless, the boy discovers a way to stay in the vibrant realm of objects, anyway.


All images © Mark Alan Stamaty

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Textual Life of Airports



My book The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight will be available December 1.

The hardcover edition is $100—which I know might seem rather expensive. Look, it's an academic book; such pricing is fairly standard. More than that, though: it's worth it! It will change the way you experience—and tell stories about—airports. If you don't have a hundred dollars to spare, please request the book from your local or campus library. The much less expensive paperback edition will be out next year.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Book Review: A Meaning for Wife


My good friend and poet colleague Mark Yakich just published his first novel, A Meaning for Wife. Mark told me about this novel when we first met, at which point it was still forming in notes on the back of Mark's hands (sometimes both of them, well up onto his forearms). The novel begins and ends on airport taxiways, just before the two flights that bookend the story—so I had an obvious point of interest. Then I read a galley of the novel when it was picked up by the savvy independent publisher, Ig.

It seems to me as though this novel is taking up David Foster Wallace's anticipation of a new kind of U.S. fiction. In his 1993 essay "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," Wallace writes:
The next real literary "rebels" in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of "anti-rebels," born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that'll be the point, why they'll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can tell, risk things. Risk disapproval.
A Meaning for Wife functions in precisely these ways. What follows is a version of the review I posted on Amazon:

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When I first read A Meaning for Wife it reminded me of the stories told in the films Garden State and Grosse Pointe Blank. Like these two movies, Yakich's novel has a similar theme of existential searching within the suburban banalities of late American life. Specifically, "A Meaning for Wife" explores the psycho-geography of Algonquin, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago), under the pretense of a 20th high school reunion, itself cast in the dark shadow of the sudden death of our main character's wife.

I was recently teaching Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises in a 20th-century American fiction course when I realized that A Meaning for Wife is actually participating in a longer lineage of American narratives of disillusionment and irony—irony so deep that "depth" isn't even the right way to describe it. The irony of this kind of fiction is through and through: there is no surface of sincerity that escapes its opposite meaning, and so you can never quite be certain how to take things. The characters who are rendered pathetic are in fact the most stable; the crazy ones utter startling truths from time to time; and home is both safe and claustrophobic for our main characters.

This constant uncertainty of meaning stems from the fact that the main characters of these narratives have lost something significant (Jake Barnes's "accident"; the sudden death of one's lover in A Meaning for Wife), and everything experienced thereafter is distorted and distended, marked by this loss. And neither does the surrounding world stand out as full or fully present: the world too becomes exposed as riddled with lack—even when it is apparently charged with excess. (One might consider Walker Percy's The Moviegoer as another text in this genre, and also Lydia Davis's Varieties of Disturbance.)

The main character of A Meaning for Wife is at turns humble and arrogant, despicable and admirable, hilarious and morose, wise and absurd. His witticisms often morph into lyrical mush over the course of a paragraph, and his mature (and indeed 'experienced', in the Blakean sense) perspective is continually undermined by the sniveling, "squawking" toddler son Owen who accompanies our main character like a parodic Yoda in the backseat of the grandparents' "dull beige sedan."

A Meaning for Wife is peppered with brilliant turns of phrases on every page, like a spontaneous decision to leave the past behind and drive all the way to California, an American Western trope cut short by the realization that Owen will doubtless get hungry and therefore they'll "never make it farther than the Mississippi." Or this observation, as the reunited high school chums drink their way through giddy (if at times awkward) conversation: "Swallowing—isn't it simply another way of marking time?"

The genius of this novel is that it bumbles along on a journey that is always just on the brink of happening, right up to the final sentence—while at the same time, the narrative keeps us wondering if in fact the very concept of 'the journey' is located irrevocably and maddeningly in the past, even as we (must) hurl ourselves into a future to come.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

More Faces & Figures, This Time on Autoracks

This morning I saw more faces and figures on "autoracks" as they passed—a great rat, a snowman, a mystery visage, and some sort of hooded ninja:





As I watched these faces roll by I was reminded of when I lived in Montana and saw similarly striking moving-canvases. My friend Greg Keeler and I would fish these weird parts of the Gallatin River, places where, to get to, you'd have to walk along the tracks—sometimes right between a vertical cliff on one side and the swirling river below on the other, and if a train came you had to sprint to where the cliff leveled off or the riprap became generous enough to climb down onto. It could be quite terrifying when the trains came bearing down suddenly from around a bend. Anyway, sometimes the trains would be carrying green-coated bodies of Boeing 737 airliners, like large alien phalli; other times, there would be long lines of boxcars palimpsestically spray-painted over with a thousand codes, signs, warnings, and other idioms known only to the secret painters. I'm thinking of exploring such scenes in a future course called something like "everyday aesthetics."

Monday, October 31, 2011

Faces of the Ordinary

Two faces seen on my walk this morning:



"The ordinary is a moving target. Not first something to make sense of, but a set of sensations that incite."

—Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects
"But always the face shows through these forms."

—Emmanuel Levinas, "Ethics as First Philosophy"

Monday, October 24, 2011

Small Houses

Alec Wilkinson had a great article on "tiny houses" and the psychology of small home dwelling in The New Yorker last summer ("Let's Get Small," July 25). Wilkinson focuses primarily on a movement that builds and resides in homes built on trailer platforms: they can be moved around to different plots of land, and thus the homeowners can live "off the grid," in a sense.

Yet for all of Wilkinson's insights as to the motivations behind tiny house dwellers, he misses an important point: it is not just that tiny houses allow people to live "off the grid"—small homes also are a way to make less of an impact on the grid. In other words, it is not just a matter of living beyond or under the radar: it is also a way to live on the radar, using far fewer resources. While it's true that building codes now do not support such structures, Wilkinson's article illuminates a trend that might (wisely) be taken up more broadly, and thereby affect changes to the very codes that now make such choices seem untenable.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I really like small houses, and believe they offer so much potential for rethinking living space and human relationships to what we call 'property'. I glimpse such places occasionally around New Orleans, where incredibly narrow homes are nestled into alleys and situated on surprisingly tiny lots. Certainly there is a complex history to such dwelling spaces in New Orleans; but I think there might also be lessons for the future, particularly as we learn to modulate our consumption of resources and perhaps even decrease the human 'footprint' on this planet. Here is another small house that I see on my walk to campus each morning:



I don't know the story of this structure—likely it is an unofficial guest house or studio space at the back of a larger lot. But I like to imagine it as an actual home, replete with a scaled-down economy of practices and things...

Monday, October 17, 2011

Morning Walk Photo Essay

Most mornings these days, I go for a walk to the Mississippi River with my small roommate, Julien. This morning I decided to record my walk by taking some photos that show the things we encountered along the way.


Julien doesn't walk yet, so I push him in this three-wheeled device.


In the humidity of New Orleans, the electricity lines buzz and crackle overhead.


This is one of my favorite houses in the neighborhood, designed and built by Chuck, who also lives in it. I love the juxtapositions of new and old architecture in the city, the traditional Victorian flourishes alongside modern angles and minimalist design.


I also have a thing for small houses, and I keep track of the small houses in the neighborhoods around town. (I generally think of a small house as under 1000 square feet, though I know this definition is debatable. But when dealing with New Orleans typologies, 1000 square feet and under makes for a useful measuring stick.)


Someone threw out a printer—including the paper.


Something about this house feels very Lynchian, to use a term coined by David Foster Wallace.


Perhaps it's that across the street from the Lynchian house there is a nameless, brick-walled compound with a subdued screaming generator somewhere inside, and a sign on a metal door that says WARNING: 13,800 VOLTS.


Here is another small house; note the toilet on the front porch.


I'm thinking about tennis a lot these days because I'm teaching a seminar on David Foster Wallace, for whom the tennis court becomes an intense ecotone, and the human player a migratory species.


Finally we reach the river. We pass an empty Abita box. There's a guy with his fishing rods set up on the old skeleton of a barge below the rip rap. The other day we saw a dead catfish on the river bank; it was the size of a cinder block. The wild roosters aren't around today. Sometimes they are pecking at the remains of crawfish boils from the night before. It's quiet this morning—no boats go by.


Usually we see tankers and tugs pushing barges. This morning as we pass, the water is flat and empty. Upriver, boats are loading.


We cross over the railroad tracks just as a freight train approaches.


Julien points out each car as it passes.


One car carries what appears to be an important message.


Walking back down Magazine St., now. I like how this company is called "Pothole Killers": as if they conceive of potholes as vibrant things that can be killed...or, on the other hand, maintained & cultivated. It is an ordinary, found example of what the philosopher Jane Bennett calls "vital materialism."


Speaking of ecology, the sunlight looks liquid coming through the big oaks festooned with Spanish Moss in Audubon Park.


Julien likes to feel the stringy bromeliads that hang down to where he can reach them.


A mysterious new boutique is about to open on Magazine St.


Interesting headline on the front page of the USA Today.


Almost back home—but first, a quick stop at the best espresso joint in town.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

J-House, New Orleans

The other day I met the architect Ammar Eloueini at his new project site, where he gave me a tour of the J-House:




(These images are from Eloueini's AEDS site; more images of the actual construction process can be seen here.)

The building is designed to minimize the footprint (flood zone thinking) while maximizing the use of the geometry at hand. The house is situated on a traditional narrow New Orleans lot, 30-feet wide by 150-feet deep. The views from the upper floors—the main living area—are striking, with the wide windows ten feet above ground framing the surrounding neighborhoods in effortless, frayed panoramas. There is a stunning sliver of light that cuts gently into the midpoint of the roof. The design makes use of the two overhangs for a carport in the front and a shaded outside area toward the back. To me the covered spaces had the curious feel of a Zen garden that you could hang out in. It reminded me of walking around a Gehry building, but the difference was that the J-House seemed to be inviting me to pull up a chair to the curvy side and open a bottle of wine: to sit down and enjoy the structure while in very close proximity to it. (Gehry's buildings, on the other hand, seem to facilitate movement. This is not a critique at all: they do it really well, for all kinds of movements.)


When I first walked by the J-House a month ago (the house is mid-construction), my partner Lara remarked that it felt like a huge shell you'd find on the beach: startled by its size, perhaps, but familiar with its whorls. Indeed, there is something about the structure that appears accreted, then etched away over time, literally lived in. This is interesting given the fact that the house is not yet finished. But it goes to show how much thought has gone into the space: already lived in while yet uninhabited, as it were.



When I went back to the house a week later and stood outside it for a while, just watching the clouds move by overhead, it occurred to me that it also resembled the eroded smoothness of slot canyons in the desert southwest, those little flash-flood grooves that you can stand in and look out of, watching the clouds and sky fly by. In this way, it was vaguely reminiscent of standing within James Turrell's "Three Gems" at the de Young in San Francisco. The difference here, though, was that unlike one of Turrell's carefully curated skyspaces, the J-House was just there, intermingling with myriad other shotgun and creole cottage style homes. In New Orleans, you get these fractured views of the Gulf Coast sky walking down any street, as the staggered roof-lines intersect and morph into one another, occasionally collapsing in on the structures beneath. New Orleans shows off its erodedness. The J-House is like a re-mark of this common experience: it reminds you to take the time to see it.

Frank Lloyd Wright obviously wanted to evoke the power of erosion with Fallingwater, which suggests the very foundation of the home as ephemeral, moving, almost Heraclitean in its constant relationship to dynamism. Eloueini seems to be balancing this impulse with the always-already submerged feeling of New Orleans: we're under water, and there's no getting around it. Better to build with time and levity both on the mind, aware of radical flux and the reliable comforts of a home-space, at turns and at once.

I had planned to start this post by quoting Wallace Stevens, from his poem "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven." Now, it appears, I'm going to end with it:

These houses, these difficult objects, dilapidate
Appearances of what appearances,
Words, lines, not meanings, not communications,

Dark things without a double, after all,
Unless a second giant kills the first –
A recent imagining of reality,

Much like a new resemblance of the sun,
Down-pouring, up-springing and inevitable,
A larger poem for a larger audience,

As if the crude collops came together as one,
A mythological form, a festival sphere,
A great bosom, beard and being, alive with age.

Ammar Eloueini is building a house that is truly "a larger poem for a larger audience." His J-House sends my mind rushing with ideas for what Lara and I might do with our tiny house (the lot is 15-feet wide by 90-feet deep!) when we start to renovate it in a year or two...

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Lady Gaga and Today's Modernism

Amid the numerous allusions and references to past musicians, actors, and styles in Gay Talese's recent New Yorker article about Lady Gaga recording with Tony Bennett ("High Notes," September 19), I was struck by a more subtle aesthetic echo: the uncanny, Hemingway-esque dialogue that unfolds between Gaga and Bennett. The exchanges of "I'm having a good time." "Good."—and "We can do it until we're very happy with it." "Everybody's happy...Happy faces!" (with accompanying whiskey, for Gaga)—could be taken right out of The Sun Also Rises. As is well known, such language in Hemingway's narratives usually hints at the presence of malaise—even terror—right under the surface of any given scene. In terms of Gaga and Bennett in the present moment, their dialogue is curious because it suggests a return of modernist anxieties. Given the upcoming elections, the stalled economy, nostalgia for an earlier (fantasy) moment of the nation, and the boisterous lack of confidence in the current administration, it is no wonder that such ambient tremors would find their way (if unconsciously) into the production enclaves of commercial art and culture.

Of course, strains of American Modernism were also trying to make things new. Would that were the case for today's modernists. One dreams of an alternative New Yorker article in which Lady Gaga decides to collaborate with the Obama re-election campaign rather than on a Tony Bennett duets album. In this dream article, instead of drinking whiskey alone, Gaga would have a beer with Obama and then get to work, gearing her talents and mass appeal toward real change—which takes time, patience, and sustained collective effort as well as dynamic individuals.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

On Airport Food

I'm quoted in an article on airport food in The New York Times this week. When Joe Sharkey originally asked me the two questions—1. Do you have a strategy for dining in airports? and 2. From your perspective how has the airport dining experience changed over the decades?—here was my full response:

1. My strategy for dining in airports can't quite be called "eating local," because the word local doesn't exactly fit with airports. But let's call it thinking regionally. So, in San Francisco I always eat at the sushi place in the International Terminal. In Minneapolis, I go for the walleye in the mezzanine restaurant between the C and B concourses. Charles de Gaulle: baguette au fromage. In my own Louis Armstrong airport, a bowl of gumbo and some red beans. As for Detroit? Well, I hear there's a great new wine room in the McNamara Terminal. (Regional? Maybe not. But good wine always wins out.) Wherever you are flying through or to, study the airport maps before your trip: there's usually at least one restaurant of regional value in every airport, and you'll tend to get the freshest ingredients in those establishments.

2. I am interested in how airports appear in a range of cultural expressions, from literature to movies to the visual arts. What I find curious is how the figure of airport dining has been somewhat constant over the recent history of air travel. When I look at Arthur Hailey's 1968 pot-boiler Airport in which the main character has a hurried coffee in the airport restaurant; or at Garry Winogrand's airport photographs from the late 50s through the early 80s with waiting travelers looking haggard and bleary-eyed over lunch tables; or at Don DeLillo's characters killing time with cocktails before their flights (such as in the 1977 novel Players)—in all these examples I see a reoccurring theme of palpable tension, of people not able to relax enough to enjoy their sustenance. Sometimes one hears nostalgia for a time of flight when travelers were less rushed, and airline and airport employees were formal and treated travelers like royalty. But from my research, it seems as though air travel has always involved a certain malaise or a core of anxiety that makes dining a vexed enterprise. This might explain the success of Starbucks in contemporary American airports, those ubiquitous and recognizable facades where travelers can buy a sandwich or a scone, and a coffee or juice, at any time of day just to get it over with and go wait at their gates for their flights, nibbling or munching and sipping their drinks lest there be a delay. Somewhat against its traditional sensuous coffee-shop image, Starbucks manages to peddle airport dining without any illusions of relaxation or enjoyment. Not that one necessarily has to follow this model; one can try to find the regional food nestled in a nook further down the concourse.


Saturday, September 17, 2011

On Videogames & Memories


I recently wrote an Amazon review of Ian Bogost's sprightly new book How to Do Things with Videogames. I want to extend that review here in order to think through some related things.

This book's form makes it incredibly accessible and inviting: 20 short essays or occasions through which Bogost invites his readers to think (without any heavy imperative to 'think critically') about how videogames have become a "mature medium."

Bogost describes myriad videogames along the way, and his scene and scenario descriptions are precise and nuanced, yet always concise such that even non-gamers will follow and find solid points of attachment and interest. (I haven't played a videogame seriously since 1992: Metroid II on Game Boy.) In other words, the book is not only an astute and scintillating argument; it is also educational in the most satisfying sense of the word. Speaking of education, I can definitely imagine teaching this book in an undergraduate digital humanities course, as it demonstrates this emergent field at its best: in grounded, lucid, and layered investigations.

In short, How to Do Things with Videogames will be of great interest to all sorts of people: everyday gamers and game makers, certainly, but also to non-gamers as well as to scholars and students of contemporary culture—which is to say the book is media studies for the world.

(That's the end of the Amazon review.)

It really is a wonderful book, and I'm planning to teach it next semester in my "Interpretive Approaches" course at Loyola. Foregoing the standard theory reader, I'm going to organize the course around a handful of short books that reflect how the lessons of critical theory (conceived broadly) are being adapted, expanded, and otherwise put to work in contemporary contexts. (Other books on the syllabus might include Kathleen Stewart's Ordinary Affects, Elaine Scarry's On Beauty, and Graham Harman's Circus Philosophicus.)

But back to How to Do Things with Videogames. As I read this book I found myself thinking more and more about the world of that Game Boy game Metroid II that I spent so many hours immersed in after school days. I even found a longplay recording of the game on YouTube and watched it, totally mesmerized for a while.


For me, the murky world of Metroid II was linked to another murky world: it was the fall of my freshman year of high school and I was in a new school, my dad having taken a new job and moved the family to a new town (near Detroit). I wasn't playing sports (I would start wrestling that winter), and I hadn't made any real friends yet. What I had done was babysit for a neighborhood boy a few times, though, and I used that money to buy a Game Boy. The devices were only a year or so old at that point, and they were still cutting-edge feeling, like handheld portals to other visible worlds. Since my parents didn't allow television in our house (long story), it seemed like a clever alternative way to play videogames—somehow I convinced them that it was nothing like a TV videogame console. Metroid II was one of the first games I bought, and I remember concentrating on it solidly for...some time. In my memory I played the game for weeks or maybe even months before I beat the final level. But this can't be accurate; it probably took no more than a week of obsessive afternoon sessions for me to finish the game. And yet the game is lodged in my mind, affiliated with an assemblage of associations related to that time in my life.

I guess my point is that this is another thing one can do with videogames: find clusters of memories bundled around particular games and acts of play. Later that fall, I sold my Game Boy and all my games and accessories (including that awkward but cool magnifying lens for the screen) to a schoolmate (no memory of who it was), and I used the money to buy fishing gear. I was entering the obsessive fishing phase of my life—but that's another story for another time.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Airplane Reading


My colleague Mark Yakich and I just launched a site called Airplane Reading. Airplane Reading is an online, ongoing anthology dedicated to people's ordinary and extraordinary stories of air travel. The site features creative nonfiction, anecdotes, and observations about everyday experiences and misadventures of modern flight. New pieces are posted daily, and each week we select one to feature. Submit your own story here.

Our two-sided memoir about flight just came out, too: Checking In / Checking Out is about Mark's lifelong fear of flying, and about my time working for United Express/SkyWest Airlines between the years of 2001 and 2003. An excerpt of my side of the book, about working at the airport when 9/11 happened, is featured today in The Millions.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Shopping with Zizek, at Walmart

This is a pretty good story, and yesterday as I was telling it to a student I realized I should write it down.

It happened a couple years ago when Slavoj Zizek was in town. Before Zizek's talk at Loyola, I went out to dinner with him and two of my colleagues, John Clark & Josefa Salmón. For some reason John or Josefa asked me if I could drive the group to dinner. I don't really like to drive, or even be in cars. But of course I said yes; maybe that's the only reason I'd been invited, after all—so that I could drive the rest of them. In any case, I picked up Josefa, then John and Slavoj, and we headed to one of our wonderful restaurants on Magazine, Lilette. Travel and Leisure had named Lilette the "sexiest dining room in new orleans"—so where else would we have taken Zizek?

We had a narrow window for dinner, because Zizek's talk was scheduled to begin at 7:30. Our dinner reservation was for 6:00, but we got to the restaurant at 5:30 thinking we'd get a drink first or just eat early, playing it safe to have plenty of time to return to campus for the talk. But when we got to Lilette it wasn't open yet. We started meandering along Magazine to find another venue where we could kill 30 minutes, when all of a sudden Slavoj semi-blurted, "Can we go to a Best Buy?!" I remember looking frantically at John and Josefa in the rear-view mirror, like "Did he just say what I think he said?", and I started racking my brain to conjure the nearest Best Buy store, but couldn't think of where one was, so I asked, "What do you need to get?"

"An ee-pod!"

"What?" (all of us asked simultaneously)

"An EE-POD!!"

"Oh, an iPod!"

Josefa just then remembered that there was a Best Buy out in Harahan, but there was no way we would have gotten back to dinner (much less the talk) in time. So at that point I suggested Walmart. Then John got excited, because the Walmart on Tchoupitoulas was where some of the infamous looting had taken place after Katrina, so he thought it would be the perfect place to take Slavoj pre-dinner. (Apparently, Slavoj was supposed to get an iPod for his son, or a friend of his son, or something—and they were far cheaper stateside.)

So next thing I know I'm driving down Tchoupitoulas, the street that makes a sound in the car like going over an infinity of miniature cattle guards, headed toward Walmart.

As we walked toward the store, perhaps exuding a bit of guilt or shame, Slavoj launched into an expostulation about the sheer visibility of consumerism, and how the warehouse-y, cavernous-feeling Walmart was so much better than high-end places, like for instance Dolce & Gabbana stores that conceal consumerism behind a sheen of glamour and minimalism. We were standing on the threshold of the store, taking in Slavoj's tirade and watching him gesticulate and begin to dominate the space, when I remembered that we were on a tight schedule. So I grabbed Slavoj's arm and I led the way back to the electronics department, because of course as a human raised in the U.S. in the 80s I have a built-in sort of GPS that automatically kicks on when I enter any big box store.

The iPods were behind one of those glass cases that have locks where the doors slide open for employee-only access. So first Slavoj had to peer through the little doors and select which model of iPod he wanted, and then we had to flag down a blue-vested worker to open the case and dutifully hand Slavoj the slim, plastic-wrapped Apple box. We all stood in line behind a couple buying pirate-themed earbuds; and then it was our turn, and Slavoj paid for the iPod with cash. Our conversation had turned from cultural critique to recent Hollywood movies, as we were surrounded by DVDs marked down to $3.99.

As we left Walmart the sun was setting, and the sky was that empurpled milky orange unique to the Gulf Coast. The dinner was good. And so was the talk. But the highlight of the night was shopping with Zizek, at Walmart.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Recollections of a Frank Lloyd Wright home

My grandparents lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Okemos, Michigan. The house was my grandfather's pride and joy. After my grandparents died the house was sold, and I was worried that the new owners would have it bulldozed, and have the lot subdivided for three or four new homes. But instead, the new owners apparently fell in love with the quirks and character of the house, and they have done a beautiful job restoring and modernizing it (in the funny way that 'modern' can refer to a retro aesthetic). Here is the great room of the house, as it looks now:


I have such vivid memories of being in this house. When my cousins and I would spend nights there we'd often sleep on the floor, but this involved a bit of technical finesse. The house had radiant heating, and so you had to have just the right configuration of davenport cushions and only a light cotton sheet over you, or else you'd wake up drenched in sweat, with that awful taste of microwaved Schwan's chicken sandwiches in your mouth. (If you could sleep through the night, the salty residue got somehow absorbed.) The radiant heating made the house always feel cozy, which was rather paradoxical given the panoramic windows that, in winter, also invited the frigid Midwestern ambiance inside. In the summer months, the house felt almost like a large tent, with the cedars and white oaks at the edge of the yard, just a short sprint away...