Sunday, September 16, 2012

Morning Walk Photo Essay II

It was about a year ago that I posted my first morning walk photo essay; I figured today that it was time to post a second one.  (I find myself telling students that things become so much more interesting when you do them multiple times—like reading, writing, etc.)  So here we go.

Loading up the stroller outside our house, I take a moment to capture the houses on our block.  I never tire of the block-by-block topography of New Orleans shotguns houses.  The colors and the decorative details, the rickety windows and crumpling stoops, the ferns punching out of the old brick piers, the geckos incognito or skittering across the sideboards...okay, my passenger Julien is eager to get going.

On our way, a few doors down the block we get to the house that has been raised entirely and beneath which a first floor is being constructed:

With property values increasing steadily in Uptown, I guess it makes sense to double the square-footage of the home while minimizing the construction and materials involved.  We were gone this summer when they lifted the house, but I wish I could have observed the effort that went into it.

Next we encounter a very pregnant mama cat who lounges and watches us with big yellow eyes.  I want one of the kittens.

On every block we see tremendous piles of debris leftover from the hurricane.

The sheer density and diversity of these piles is hard to capture with the iPhone camera: masses of organic matter the most obvious, but also telephone lines, plastic baggies that say THANK YOU with dog shit inside, putrid rodent carcasses, soggy mattresses, towels, and rugs, bird feathers....  Here's another pile a bit farther along the walk; look how the huge black garbage bags are dwarfed by the palm fronds and the banana tree stalks:

And one more for good measure:

By the way, this isn't just a banal account of my morning walk (but it is that, too).  In the "Literature & Environment" course I'm planning, I'm going to have my students compose walking photo essays, and so I'm actually thinking about the parameters and possibilities for such an assignment as I write this.  I want to teach my students how, in the spirit of Tim Morton's book The Ecological Thought, environment is "stunningly vast and disturbingly decentered."  Maybe this walk seems pretty small-scale and centered, but I think the point is to ratchet up the perception and awareness to the point where the seemingly ordinary becomes overbrimming with uncanniness, expansiveness, and ontological richness.

Take, for instance, the telephone pole that we walked under a few blocks later. This thing was making sounds that resembled a barely legible song or an alien language that compelled us to pause beneath it and listen as it chattered and bleeped, as if announcing its presence.

Onward then, toward the river.  Things always get weird when we get close to the river.  An omen of this is an espresso machine that somebody jettisoned onto the curb.  I almost want to take it, but I don't.  There's something daunting about it.

When we get to the river we hear a whir of machinery and the scrapes and clunks of forklifts moving pallets of stuff around.  There's a new food packing (I think?) facility that has twenty-some loading docks for semi trucks, as well as its own feeder railroad track where they are loading a line of refrigerated boxcars.  Two of the cars have faces painted on them, a motif that fascinates me—animated and leering cargo.

Now at the river, as we amble along the boardwalk I spot something in the water: a fin, and a tail—an enormous fish cruising right at the surface of the water.  It must be four feet long, at least.  I can't get close too it, so I try to zoom-in with my camera, but it gets pixelated.  Still, you can see it out just above and to the right of the center of the frame, leaving a slight disturbance in the current behind it:

This thing is huge, and I watch it for a while.  I'm tempted to trudge down the riprap and wade into the water to get closer to it, maybe even grab it—but Julien is getting restless, ready to get out of the stroller and do his own adventuring.  

So we move along, and soon we find another feline surprise: two of the wild cats that live in the riprap. There are dozens of these scrawny but beautifully shaped cats living in the ecotone between the river and the park.  They slink among the willows and the Chinese tallow trees, and usually dart off before you can get a good look at them.  But one of them, a young small black one, turned and looked at us, and I managed to snap a picture of it before it bolted into the vines and out of sight.  

We turn away from the river and head back toward Magazine Street, pausing when we get to the big live oaks in front of Audubon zoo, where Julien likes to play.  After a summer in northern Michigan foraging and playing the woods and meadows, Julien now looks for the pockets of wild vegetation around the urban landscape—and once he finds a good spot, he'll spend thirty minutes or so collecting, breaking, making, and jabbering to the branches, acorns, moss, and leaves.

Then we head home.

And there you have it.  A 90-minute walk, documented by fifteen photos and brief commentary (just under 1000 words).  This is a working template for an assignment in contemporary literature & environment.  I'm assembling a funky and unexpected reading list for this course (mixed in with some classics), and I'm excited to see what my students make of it.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Getting Back to Things

We made it home after a long drive back, full of anticipation and uncertainty, wondering how our home had weathered the storm and hoping everything was (at least mostly) all right.  The last hour of the drive was stunningly beautiful, cruising over the bloated wetlands as the clouds built and tumbled in the distance.  Beautiful, of course, with a post-sublime sort of caveat.

A couple weeks ago I wrote about how the smells of New Orleans seep up from the ground.  I've experienced this in a whole new way on returning, after hurricane Isaac slowly organized, sat and spun for a while over the city, and finally blew through.

The garbage around town wasn't picked up for days, in some cases a week, and to walk the blocks now is to rather swim through pungent scent clouds of slimy plastic wrappers; collapsed cardboard boxes; dead rats and mice that crawled into the garbage cans and could not get back out; stale beer, orange juice, milk; rotting paper diapers; decaying chicken and ham bones and ribs and shrimp heads; moldy bread; waterlogged plywood; dead name a mere few of the recognizable objects festering on the street post-hurricane.

Driving back into town I was struck by the bent road signs, ripped up billboards, and piles of debris in the neutral ground.  The lights at intersections were either blinking red and yellow, or altogether dark—cars chaotically stopping and going, traffic somehow moving along.  People ambled down the streets in what looked like a semi-daze.  Utility trucks could be seen in every direction, cherry pickers raised and men with fire-proof gauntlets hard at work, in the balmy afternoon temperature of 95 degrees.

Our small house made it through okay, no major damage on the outside.  An old crape myrtle tree in front of our home was snapped off at the base of its trunk, and is now lying in the street right where our car would have been parked had we stayed.  And part of our front room ceiling is ballooning with old rainwater, cracking in some places.

I had left a plastic bucket beneath this spot before we left town (it dripped a little during the last tropical storm a couple years ago), and I'm glad I did: there were about four gallons of yellowish water in it when we got back.  The house has a peculiar smell now, wafting down from the cracks in the ceiling; I need to crawl up to that point in our attic to check it out, but I'm procrastinating—it's not going to be pretty.  I know we'll probably have to have significant work done on that part of the roof, termites are attracted to it, etc.—but we want to put a metal roof on the whole house, which is going to be a major endeavor, so I'm delaying for now.

And anyway I'm busy getting back to things, trying to reclaim something like everyday life.

The semester began, just a week late and with everyone slightly frazzled.  My class this semester seems full of bright and excited students.  This will be the fourth time I've taught the class called "Texts & Theory" at Loyola, and I like it more each time I teach it.  It's basically an introduction to literary criticism, but it's also a class that expands and explodes what we mean by text, and shows how theory sometimes weirdly means practice.  I tell my students that our goal is to get really confused by texts and theory—and then to articulate and explain this confusion as clearly as possible.  I've never really taught the class the same way twice; I design it with enough wiggle room that it allows us to toggle between literature, culture, and philosophy—as well as linger on surprise topics and go down unexpected paths.

This year we started with some Lydia Davis and the first two pages of Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, all by way of easing into discussions of what the heck 'literary theory' might be.  We're going to work our way toward Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology, or What It's Like to Be a Thing which we'll finish the class with, corresponding with a visit from Ian.  I'm conjuring an unusual final project for this course; it's going to involve something that the students 'make', or some kind of 'paper' that might not look paperish at all on first glance.  We'll see.

In other mundane news, I was very happy to see my essay "Flying Objects, Sitting Still, Killing Time" published in the journal Transformations; it's about the shared sensations of airport seating and airplane seats.  I started working on this topic back at Davis in 2006, presented it at ACLA a couple years ago, and it took on several different forms before finding a place in this issue dedicated to "hyperaesthetic culture."  I'm grateful for the astute suggestions from the blind reviewers who read my essay—they helped it become a piece I'm really proud of, an essay that draws from my airport book while also moving in new directions.  This photograph taken by my old friend Ryan Williams sort of sums up the topic of the essay:

Another offshoot of my continued interest in air travel, I thoroughly enjoyed reading and reviewing Peter Adey's excellent Aerial Life: Spaces, Mobilities, Affects—a book which will bend your mind and reorient your sense of the history of flight. My review will appear in the inaugural issue of the journal Interstitial, whose advisory board I'm honored to be on.

My current book project Deconstructing Brad Pitt is gradually coming together; I've got a range of fascinating chapters from an eclectic array of scholars, and I plan to work my way through each piece over the course of this fall.  At some point in the near future I'll post the working table of contents.  I'm eager to meet with my editor at Continuum and talk about the cover design of the book.  (The cover on the righthand side of this blog is just a stand-in that I whipped up.)

I also started another book this summer, which I'm tentatively calling Notes from the Sleeping Bear.  It's going to be a book about ecological thinking, written from (and largely about) the area where I spend every summer, the Leelanau peninsula of Michigan.  I'm conceiving of it as a 21st-century Walden, of sorts.  I realize that sounds grandiose, but Thoreau's book is grandiose—and yet so aware of its grandiosity, at the same time.

That's my fall update.  I've got a couple other projects in the works, and some new courses I'm planning—but I'll stop rambling on, for now.  There's still some cleaning up to do around here.