Date Night

It's the seed of the whole plot, but I'm sorry, this couple is not discontent. Which is to say I would have been quite content for them to continue lazily, guiltily going to the same dreary place for dinner every "date night", endlessly deferring sex for some other night, and becoming (god forbid) "excellent housemates". But for some reason or other--I'm guessing because there was a movie to be made--this was a nightmare scenario. You wouldn't know it, though, watching the two of them. They seem quite pleased with themselves engaged in what appears to be the foundational pleasure of their relationship: making up stories about the couples at the other tables. And I would be quite pleased to have such uproarious company. But no. There has to be a problem to fix.

There being to my mind no problem to fix, you can imagine that the build-up to its resolution was to me a declension. Everything, depressingly, slides into place: Carrel's character rediscovers his masculinity, and Fey's remembers how to supplicate. The comedians manage not to get subsumed into the genre action flick they poke fun at, but slip instead into the sad conventions of a romantic comedy. Their complaints against each other are just cliche mercenaries hired for their pointless arguments. He leaves drawers and toilet seats open. She does every domestic task because she doesn't trust he can do anything right. I find myself, unsurprisingly, on her side. When it turns out he's compotent at planning their escape from the criminal mess they stumbled into, I'm incredulous. He has to explain everything to her, twice, because "you know I've never been good with complicated plots." After his second explanation, I'm still lost.

It's noteworthy that the only way out of the ossification of marriage, in this film, is mortal danger. Their complaint is that their life together is too smooth, which is after all the advantage of having an income and a spouse, in theory. During the course of their crazy night, their motives get mixed up. They're trying to get out of danger, to "just go home", but they're trying to get in as many scrapes with death as possible to avoid the routine of their marriage. These two drives are crystalized in conflation when, after a half-frank, half-sappy discussion in which Fey's character says she doesn't dream of running off with another man, but of being alone, they pause at a window pane: "this will be our second time breaking and entering this evening, making us repeat offenders." "Better than excellent houesmates."

Oddest of all about this movie is its paradox: to reconstitute the dull, it must be shaken up. There are a lot of politically correct gender gestures in the shaking up (he's a better pole dancer, she has the balls to break into an office), but ultimately it's a shake-down. They go through all this so that their normativity might feel like it has more "panache." Which is the word the husband uses, comically, to describe the heroic drive to the city he's gonna--by god--take his wife on. They end up stuck in traffic.

24 September 2012

Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Backpacker

Backpacking is the journey from trailhead to lake. Yes, the destination could be any body of fresh water, but I don't want to complicate things. Besides, as a backpacker do you go for a line or a point on a map?

The backpacker must labor. Backpacking must be at least in part gruelling. Monotonous switchbacks are not absolutely necessary, but they are a fundamental metaphor for the experience of the trail. The trail is hot and dusty; the lake is wet and cool.

A vacation is a microcosm, or so you wish. The backpacker imagines that at the end of labor is sweetness. The trail is the arena of this imagination. It traverses uncertain terrain and arrives at the promised kingdom.

Vistas, like certain other fussed-over unveilings, must be conserved. To have a vista of the lake the whole way is obscene. Just as there must be labor, there must be blindness. You must travel under the sparse cover of millions of unremarkable trees. Continuing down the dreary viewless path proves your faith.

Not to worry. The backpacker gets a reward. You will round a bend to a revelation. That's what a vista is, no matter how many postcards you've seen. The revelation consists of three things: a lake, conifer trees, and vertical relief. You may be able to dissect these elements, but consciousness plays no part here. You will gasp. Make no mistake: this reveals no more nature than pupil dialation tests. Yet you will be equally helpless. The backpacker looks about in wonder: such a clear jewel of a lake, such bright stone, such green trees! Such a dramatic landscape!

If all the elements are in place, the felicity of the revelation is certain. The backpacker ogles rocks. The landscape beams right through you, undigestable. The backpacker often carries freeze-dried food, but doesn't have to carry Sublime Concentrate. The backpacker already inhales it through the eyes. It may be swarming with people, but we've yet to find a stronger dose than Yosemite Valley. Just look at it, and tell me it exists.

At small gaps in the trees where towers of exposed rock are visible, the backpacker stops and gapes, and exclaims. A seemly trail may tease discreetly.

Ideally, the backpacker is alone on the lake. The backpacker may smile at other backpackers, but backpackers want to avoid each other. More specifically, backpackers want to avoid seeing each other. The backpacker must imagine solitude at the lake. The backpacker is unique to the backpacker, and wants to be unique to the lake. Visible backpackers ruin it.

Sometimes, the backpacker's sense of obscenity transfers from the other backpackers to the lake. In this case, the lake is referred to as a popular spot. The backpacker seeks out less popular spots.

20 September 2012

Pini Fruit

My family always jokes--and joked--that we travel to eat. It's a tendency that has, according to us, been passed down to the younger generation (my brother and I). The family trait appears to install itself as a constraint in the scope of memory recall. When asked about the trips that our parents took us out of school and country for--to Bali, Mexico, Cuba, Canada, Borneo, and Japan (one of which I, I admit, is a lie I added to fill out the list)--we recount the food. More convenient, sometimes, than recounting the rest.

Likewise, the images from books that really stick with me--and hopefully you distrust me by now--are of food. This is especially true Ursula Le Guin's sci-fi, which are "safe trips"* to various worlds. They chronicle the intergalactic Ekumen's (a kind of postcolonial Federation) encounters with aliens.

I remember the pini fruit from Four Ways to Forgivesness, a "curious orange-brown" globe that falls into perfect little radial segments, like a mandarin or a mangosteen. Consumed almost entirely by the slave-owning class, its smooth, finely textured flesh seems almost artificial. The Envoy from the Ekumen is treated as an "owner" (rather than an "asset"), and thus is given these fruit. She eats them--popping out the segments delicately with a small knife--with a mixture of guilt and delight.

True to our familial mythology, my memory of the fruit glares out all others. I have mentioned it many times in conversation--a strange habit, ass even those who have read the book don't remember what I refer to--always with a reverent stare into nowhere, mouth watering for a fictional fruit. And that's what it's for--to be desired and consumed. Even for fruit it is oddly suited for civilized consumption--the segments bite-sized and so neat, eating them not at all messy. Even for an inanimate object, it lacks otherness. No spines, fuzz, juices, seeds, or pits. It doesn't even bruise easily. It's completely purposive, the asset qua asset--what the assets (slaves) can never be. Having no incidental qualities, no ontological leftovers, it is pointless to consume it (though inevitable). Being so well suited for consumption, it is nothing to consume. Nothing about it can be had because everything about it is to be had, a priori. As its whole purpose is to be eaten, to be had, to be taken pleasure from, and therefore, in its relentless felicity, utterly fails--passing through its owners, as it were, and leaving nothing but another dim desire for another--it is, more than anything, viral. A benign virus, it doesn't threaten its host with death, or even give rise to any unpleasant sensations.

This is what the owners dream of owning. But if they did, their world would fall into silence. No energies would need be expended upon elaborate systems of opression and suppression. There would be nothing to be better than, to own. The lifeblood of aspiration and delusion gone, the culture of the owners would wither. In this sense the fruit does leave behind one thing: It gives the owners an ideal to strive for, one which is actually their destruction.

Generally, however, the food in Le Guin's fiction is more Eros than Thanatos. It posesses a presence that food, in my experience, never does. There is a bottle of fruit juice in The Disposessed (on Annarres, the anarchist planet, of course). While the pini fruit is the epitomy of Capitalist object relations, Le Guin seems to elsewhere wish for the healing of that relation. The fruit juice is precious in a way that things can never be in a well-oiled, affluent consumer society: One gets a tiny ration of fruit juice, per the limited amount that can be produced on dry Anarres. About a liter a year. So this stuff that's so mundane (because plentiful) to us on the receiving end of industrial agriculture's boon is transformed by scarcity into something to be savored. They save it for a special occasion, and sip it in tiny cups. The liquid becomes luminous. While Le Guin calls this world "an ambiguous utopia" and is as interested in finding its faults as its idyllic qualities, here she seems to salivate. Life on Anarres may be hard, but it is very real. The scarcity is romantic. Anarres has not solved material ills, but seems to have solved the ills of the soul. This is the end of Capitalism as imagined in Capitalist terms: Things are precious and full of substance because rare. In this, the people of Anarres sound more like bohemians--who quest ever for authenticity, i.e. an escape from consumerism--than socialists.

19 September 2012

The Final Solution

It doesn't matter that the political motives are not immediately discernable in the plaza redesign. In Ashland, politics and The Homeless Problem are inseperable. To say that the plaza redesign is at heart an attempt to reorganize the homeless population is not jumping to a conclusion or going out on a limb. Before knowing anything, it's a reasonable assumption.

This is true because the reactives whom this assumption is a reaction to carry the same assumption: everything is about the homeless. When the Oak Knoll fire happend, the man who allegedly started it could not simply be homeless, but a part of a larger problem. The psyche of this town is such that before he was even named, the problem was waiting for him to become evidence. For the same reason, the problems of downtown businesses are not the problems of downtown businesses. Businesses are persecuted by the homeless, so business owners say, who in turn are persecuted by the bleeding hearts who defend the homeless. It's rather cozy, really--a warm blanket of infinite scapegoats.

Behind the words "plaza redesign" a whole unspoken rhetoric stands ready. The plaza is a problem because the homeless hang out there. Their presence scares off tourists, and therefore reduces the money they spend in the surrounding shops. The plaza must be made somehow unappealing to the homeless. It must be cleaned of the stain.

Imagine what kind of plaza would dissuade homeless from loitering. (The rows of metal spikes that keep birds off come to mind, personally.) Find one of those St. Vincent de Paul donation boxes put up recently downtown, and read it. Imagine, if you can, the mechanism by which the presence of or donations to these boxes could reduce panhandling downtown. If you're feeling particularly brave, try to imagine what the mastermind behind these boxes imagines panhandling to be.

On both sides of this divisive and all-subsuming issue, it appears, we await a solution. The business owners wait for the law to push the problem away, and the bleeding hearts wait for reform to address "the root of the problem" (that elusive thing to which one can always eliptically refer). Whether it's a beautiful moment of guilt-dissolving healing, or a righteous sweeping away of "the bad element" we seek, something golden awaits us at the end of our labors.

The root of the problem is the ground on which we stand. Or at the very least, on which we shop for organic produce. Not that this is the end of history, but were Capitalism to dissolve, we wouldn't have to win the aesthetic purity of downtown Ashland to lubricate the flow of tourist dollars. However, those are only the particulars of the problem. Contrary to our utopian hopes, there's always someone to agonize over.

13 September 2012