Saturday, July 28, 2012

Petoskey Stones: Decorative Objects, Hyperobjects

Shortly into Ernest Hemingway's "Ten Indians," one of the Nick Adams stories, we read the following paragraph:
They drove along. The road turned off from the main highway and went up into the hills. It was hard pulling for the horses and the boys got down and walked. The road was sandy. Nick looked back from the top of the hill by the schoolhouse. He saw the lights of Petoskey and, off across Little Traverse Bay, the lights of Harbor Springs. They climbed back into the wagon again.
What is this place, Petoskey, that twinkles in the middle distance of this passage?  A sort of answer: a preferred activity in the region where I'm from is to rove the shoreline looking for the Michigan state stone, the petoskey.

The petoskey is an aesthetically pleasing, hexagonal fossilized coral from around 350 million years ago. When the stones are dry the fossil is nearly imperceptible, but when wet the pattern sticks out brilliantly. Here are a bunch that I found the other day:

Wading knee-deep in the clear water along the lakeshore, you can see these unique stones, fragments of a vast coral reef, mixed in with the various and innumerable other rocks that were ground smooth by the glaciers that made the Great Lakes.

Discovering petoskeys on the beach is fun and stimulating; I can spend hours wandering the shore looking for them and finding them in all different shapes and sizes, usually hurling them back out into the surf as I go. Sometimes I keep one or two particularly striking or unusual ones, and I have a small pile of them at home in New Orleans, on a bookshelf. (Geologic activity happens in funny ways in the anthropocene, with little rock chunks flying across continents in Boeings and Airbuses...)

This summer I've gotten into finding petoskeys in the woods, too. There's something weird and jarring about stumbling upon these ancient fossils lodged under massive beech and oak trees. While these rocks are known for being easiest to find along the shore, they're really everywhere up here, once you start looking.

The Wikipedia entry for petoskeys mentions that the stones are often made into "decorative objects." Indeed, in shops and farmers market stands around the area you can get all sorts of baubles and trinkets made from petoskey stones: bears, butterflies, turtles, fishhooks, crosses, wine bottle stoppers, ear rings, necklaces, even entire human skulls.

Beyond their use as "decorative objects," though, I wonder if these rocks might also be thought of as hyperobjects.

My mentor Tim Morton coined the term "hyperobjects" to describe things that are "massively distributed in time and space in ways that baffle humans and make interacting with them fascinating, disturbing, problematic and wondrous." (That's a particularly elegant formulation from one of Tim's blog posts about the Everglades.)

Remember, petoskeys are the remains of a coral that lived around 350 million years ago. In other words, these beached and subterranean stones that I can see and hold are traces of an aquatic, unfathomable life-form that existed so so long ago, in a world inseparable yet totally dislocated from this place that I recognize as home. It's completely uncanny to ponder.

Here are a few other pithy points from near the end of Tim's wonderful book The Ecological Thought: "Hyperobjects do not rot in our lifetimes. ...hyperobjects outlast us all. ... Hyperobjects invoke a terror beyond the sublime, cutting deeper than conventional religious fear."

The term hyperobjects is often used to describe things like pollution and climate change, things that are terrifying because they seem at once out of our control and longer lasting than us, yet intimately caused by and connected to us, too. But hyperobjects can also be things like petoskey stones, which by being merely apparent fossils can remind us of vast expanses of time, and can spur us to to think about how we shape our own fossilization.

Tim also says about hyperobjects that "suddenly we find ourselves surrounded by them." I think I've been feeling this lately with petoskey stones. Even when I'm holding one of these rocks, I get the strange sense that, really, I'm engulfed by something so much larger than me—and yet, bizarrely, it's in my hands, too.

Thanks to my sister Zane for the photographs in this post.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Airport Reading, Airplane Reading: Definitions & Distinctions

Airport reading, airplane reading. What's the difference? These two phrases often are conflated or used interchangeably. I use these phrases in fairly distinct ways, which I want to delineate briefly here.

Airport reading can mean just the trashy stuff that you buy in the airport and maybe read while waiting for a flight. Magazines, thrillers, newspapers—it's trashy either for its content, or for where it ends up when you board the aircraft or deplane. Airport reading can become airplane reading, or be relegated to the dustbin of the departure gate.

But airport reading is more than this: it's also the profusion of message, screens, information signs, and wrapped marketing that requires air travelers to navigate and negotiate space, time, and consumption while in the airport. You have to read your way to the gate (likely buying something along the way).

The way I use this phrase, it's also airports in texts, or how airports read as particular types of narrative settings (whether in literature, films, advertising spots, or TV shows), where predictable and recognizable things can happen to characters. Airport reading is one of the key topics of my book The Textual Life of Airports. In that book I also use airport reading to stand for a kind of method—a way to be aware of (and interpret) what goes on inside and around airports. It's a sort of heuristic device that allows certain types of scenes, sensations, views, and events to mean more than simply another day at the airport. These include:
  • Feelings of "dead time" (Don DeLillo's phrase), or profound boredom
  • Existential dread or deep loneliness when staring at choked or empty runways, depressing departure gates, or rubble strewn horizon
  • Encounters with strange art—especially installations that may seem incongruous with air travel
  • The whims of sudden cancellations or unexplained delays
  • An overwhelming sense of arbitrariness (who get selected for further screening, who gets to fly First Class, etc.)
  • Notions that progress has stalled, or has reverted to a brutish state
  • Wondering how it all works—marveling in all the systems and chance involved
These are just a few of the things that can prompt analysis or reflection, and that I consider airport reading. You can see some of the meanings of airport reading at work in a still from David Fincher's 1999 film Fight Club:

This is the scene where we get the first sustained view of the elusive and illusive Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt (the subject of my next book project). The nameless main character, played by Edward Norton, is in the midst of a voice-over montage detailing the tedium of ordinary business air travel, and this particular shot shows him zoning out while being moved along a moving walkway, conceivably on the way to his gate. Pitt's character passes in the opposite direction, on the background, oblivious yet oddly relaxed and flamboyantly present.

This scene evinces airport reading by relying on a host of familiar oppressive architectural motifs and directional forces. The airport is rendered as a gloomy place, with its low ceiling and people who appear automated and totally cut off from one another—even though, in the parlance, they are in fact in the process of "connecting." The normal operations of the airport showcase automation, disconnection, and malaise. As we watch this scene unfold, we read the airport as a heavy place, in which the characters themselves read their fortunes in the dreary patterns of predictable affects and repetitive acts. The voice-over concludes with Edward Norton intoning glumly, "This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time." Dead time, indeed.

While airport reading can overlap with airplane reading, the latter phrase also comes to mean a different set of things—and we actually can use a later scene from Fight Club to unpack some of these meanings.

This is the scene where our main character actually meets Tyler Durden for the first time. They are seatmates on a routine commercial flight. Brad Pitt mutters the safety instructions in a barely audible voice, and chuckles at the cartoonish briefing card diagrams of emergency evacuations and crash bracing positions. We follow the two characters' awkward introduction, their exchange of innuendos and jokes, and flippant storytelling. This is airplane reading: it all starts with someone reading while sitting in an aircraft. It then turns into casual conversation about flying a lot, and the stirrings of intimacy—or at least its potential. How people interact on the plane, then, can also a be part of airplane reading. (Think of the storytelling that can spontaneously take place between seatmates.)

Mark Yakich and I called our site for nonfiction about flight Airplane Reading because we wanted it to be able to reflect the range of stories, interactions, meditations, and epiphanies that can happen while sitting in or around airplanes. Then there is the feeling of actually reading while in-flight, which can produce an odd sort of alertness: attention can be at its most acute, or at its most distractable—and it is often hard to gauge what state you'll be in when you actually sit in your seat and try to read. Beyond seatmate scenarios and absorbed reading during in-flight transit, there's also a geographic register: views out the airplane window that can be exhilarating, sublime, and humbling. This is the valence of airplane reading that Marit MacArthur considers in terms of "the poetics of passenger flight" in her recent PMLA article on air travel and perceptions of the global.

Airplane reading can also connote feelings of enjoyment, desire, or expressive pleasure while seated in an airliner—or even just thinking about it. Our site has become an archive of hundreds of stories trips, flights, connections, delays, near accidents, deaths—and most of them are memories, people thinking back on flights they took earlier in their lives, and recounting these stories. I keep hoping that someone will 'live blog' or 'live tweet' a trip and then submit a transcript of it to our site. The closest thing to this has been Randy Malamud's wonderful account of his attendance at the simulation run for the opening of the new Maynard H. Jackson Jr. International Terminal in Atlanta.

Twitter is a dynamic forum for airplane reading. Alec Baldwin's infamous flaming of American Airlines on twitter created a multiplex venue for airplane reading, from the live site of the aircraft to the thousands and millions of followers who read about and responded to the situation from afar, on different planes, terminals, and screens.

For twitter's ability to trigger, accommodate, and route all sorts of flights of fancy; for tracking people's trips, aviation stories and tidbits, and the daily grind of air travel; for the weird ways that these two technologies coexist and collide—these are a few of the reasons why my own twitter handle is @airplanereading.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Status Unknown: A Local Airplane Mystery

Admirable researchers currently are working to determine the fate of Amelia Earhart's final flight.  Meanwhile, I've got a local airplane mystery of my own to ponder.

This morning another business jet roared overhead, banking just over the treeline to the south. It made a low pass over the nearby landing strip, then arced up and circled to make another approach. Pilots often do this here, making a preliminary flyover if they have never landed on the short skinny runway before.

Around that time we were on our way to a farmers market in a town down the road, and so we took a small detour to see if we could spot the plane. Sure enough, it was taxiing down the runway as we drove past the field.

There was nobody on board except the pilot. He looked out at us blankly as he taxied by. He wore a crisp-ish looking white button-down shirt and a black cap. The plane came to a stop and powered down its engines—waiting for its passenger(s), presumably.

A quick search of the tail number N560CL revealed that it is a Cessna Citation 560, built in 2008 and owned by a corporation in Schaumburg, Illinois. Beyond that, I couldn't find out much. I don't know what I was expecting; but the way it cut in over the trees, the anticipatory emptiness of the waiting plane...there was something just weird about it.

Flight Aware records the registration details of this plane as "Status Unknown."

When I tried to track the plane's flightpath, to see where it had come from and maybe where it was bound, I was met with a message that stated: "This aircraft (N560CL) is not available for public tracking per request from the owner/operator." At the same time, I was invited to "upload photo now." I hesitated, and considered uploading one of my pictures.

A few clicks away, on the site Planes and Choppers Photos, one contributor had snapped a picture of this plane back in 2010, and beneath it commented: "Couldn't quite make out the artwork on the tail, but it is owned by International Aviation out of Schamburg, [sic] Illinois."

I saw the artwork on the tail up-close: it was a yellow pictograph of a tree and some dancing people next to it, and the words "Celebrate Life" beneath.  What sort of blandly positive imagery and language is this, on the tail of a private plane whose status is unknown?  Here again I was invited (and tempted) to "upload a picture."

I understand that this is a private plane, and that therefore public information about it is limited, or even decidedly screened. And I understand that websites like "Planes and Choppers Photos" are all about collecting images and information and making these things available. I understand that the jet I saw this morning was probably banal, an ordinary object of contemporary charter air travel.

But still I'm intrigued, maybe even a little obsessed. Perhaps it's exactly the ordinariness about it that intrigues me. The fact that for the pilot, it's just another day at work, another anonymous passenger or family to ferry to one place or another. The fact that the sudden roar of the jet engines as the plane descends is almost immediately swallowed up by the proximate woods, wind gusts, and bird sounds.

The Citation nags at me similarly to the way that Raymond Carver stages his story "Nobody Said Anything" in creepy proximity to a mundane regional airport, with indifferent planes taking off and landing while smaller tragedies play out on the ground. Here is the main character, playing hooky from school and going fishing in Birch Creek, located "below the airport":
I went up the embankment and climbed under a fence that had a KEEP OUT sign on the post. One of the airport runways started here. I stopped to look at some flowers growing in the cracks in the pavement. You could see where the tires had smacked down on the pavement and left oily skid marks all around the flowers.
It's this kind of intrigue I'm trying to track, this askance sense of something important happening nearby that is also entirely unrelated and disparate. I want to know what the seats look and feel like in that plane; how much the pilot makes per hour; the strangest trip the plane has ever taken; and also the accumulation of unremarkable flights, all the minutes and hours of being that have taken place in that small fuselage. But these details are all inaccessible to me—status unknown. That's what makes it a mystery worth pondering, local at least for an hour or so.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Abandoned Resort, Active Airfield

Back when I was in college, when I'd be home for winter break I would work at the nearby ski resort as a lift operator.  It was a relatively easy way to make a few hundred bucks in between semesters, money to buy books with when I returned to school.  But they were long cold days sitting in a shack at the top of the 'mountain' (elevation: 1,100 feet), watching skiers in bright suits file past, occasionally stopping the lift to untangle someone's equipment from a chair or extricate a dragging child. 

I remember one day when the wind was too fierce and we couldn't run the lifts, but we were required to stay at our stations in the event that the wind died down; the skiers were waiting, in the lodge drinking hot chocolates and hot toddies, eager to use their new goggles and gloves. That day I sat in that shack and read Jack Kerouac's Big Sur for the first time, thrilled by the somewhat parallel experience of feeling alone while totally entrenched in a weird cultural zone.

Now the resort is closed, the old red lifts drooping and overgrown around the hill.  I drove up to the resort the other day, as I wanted to see the landing strip; there's an airfield next to the hill that is still in use.  I parked the car and walked over to the field. A few small propeller planes were tied down to the ground on a grassy field next to the asphalt runway.  No business jets were in sight; they tend to fly in, drop off mysterious passengers, and then roar off again, maybe Netjets on to other lucrative routes.

But I didn't expect to be taken with the sight of the defunct resort: the hotel with its creepy dark windows and heavy curtains drawn, and the columns of the grand entrance I used to pass through on the way to the lift operators' break room (more of a closet with a permanent micro-plume of marijuana smoke lingering by the ceiling panels), where our uniform parkas hung and where we punched in and out of our shifts. I was caught in a sudden trance, barraged with memories and residual sense perceptions. I turned back to the planes, but the eerie feeling stayed with me.

The airstrip is still in use, though it isn't monitored by a control tower; aircraft simply communicate with one another to make sure no one is in the way when a landing or takeoff is imminent. It's a very short runway, and I'm often startled by the size of some of the planes that cruise in for landing as they arc in over my parents' land, a couple miles away.

After snapping a few pictures of the gang of planes, I was drawn back to the parking lot and I just stared at the derelict assemblage of buildings. Every time I'm home I hear things about the resort, and read angry letters to the editor in the local paper calling for its demolition or rehabilitation.  There was one time when it was rumored to have been bought by a wealthy Scientologist, and that the resort would become one of those infamous compounds where celebrities are secreted away and forcibly de-toxed and re-educated. And who knows? Maybe it is. That would certainly explain the business jets that swoop in and scream off again periodically, extraordinary renditions of the rich and famous.

Then there was some Las Vegas mogul slated to buy it, but the deal fell through because of a scandal of one kind or another.  Small communities thrive on such tantalizing tales and unresolved landscapes.

The hill is actually a natural topographical feature, one of the highest points in the county where I'm from—making it unlike other terraformed ski resorts of the Midwest, where people play on sculpted piles of dirt or trash.  I've always thought it would be nice to see the hill reabsorbed by the surrounding terrain: first sumac, creeping junipers, and wild grape vines...then gradually pines and oaks...and then the huge beeches and maple trees that make up the climax forests of the region.  It will probably happen eventually, one way or another.

I'm writing this as the sky changes from the darkest purple to a faintly glowing slate gray, and innumerable birds are sounding off, reminding me of other flyers.  Somewhere, a private plane is likely filing a flight plan that involves a landing at the airstrip by the ski hill, and the abandoned resort will wait for their arrival.