The Shape of Things That Never Came

And now we tried to be strong, and carry on
But somehow the party seemed doomed
There was a girl on the floor with the heart beat gone
And death so kills the room

And now we tried to be strong, and carry on
Throw our head back and howl
But the water is warm and the currents are strong
And its time to throw in the towel, little darling



Index Cards Yesterday, Today, and Forever

Though I have all manner of software available to me, I still prefer to keep a set of index cards related to dissertation research. Cards for all the people who I discuss, card for concepts I’m tracing, cards for this and that. It is easier for me to make connections when I’ve got an actual deck of cards I can lay out, play around with, flip through to jog my memory. Japan is a country that still loves stationery (and fax machines), so my usage of index cards seems less of an affectation here than it might in the States. But I was pleased to see that master writer John McPhee, who does use computers, also still relies on index cards.

McPhee gathers every single scrap of reporting on a given project — every interview, description, stray thought and research tidbit — and types all of it into his computer. He studies that data and comes up with organizing categories: themes, set pieces, characters and so on. Each category is assigned a code. To find the structure of a piece, McPhee makes an index card for each of his codes, sets them on a large table and arranges and rearranges the cards until the sequence seems right. Then he works back through his mass of assembled data, labeling each piece with the relevant code. On the computer, a program called “Structur” arranges these scraps into organized batches, and McPhee then works sequentially, batch by batch, converting all of it into prose. (In the old days, McPhee would manually type out his notes, photocopy them, cut up everything with scissors, and sort it all into coded envelopes. His first computer, he says, was “a five-thousand-dollar pair of scissors.”)

Index cards were, of course, critical to the foundation of information science.

Dewey’s wasn’t the only index card-based classification system over the years. The Library of Congress has its own letter-based system. The number-based Universal Decimal Classification, created by Paul Otlet at the turn of the nineteenth century, is a more detailed version of Dewey’s system. It had to be, considering it was created to catalog everything ever published.

Long before the verb “to google,” Otlet and his friend Henri La Fontaine set out to develop their own search engine in Brussels in 1895. They wanted to create the go-to place for everyone to find information on absolutely anything. It would work just like Google does today—you submit a query and get links to relevant sources of information. In the 1895 version, you’d send queries by mail or telegraph and get index cards with bibliographies in return.

“used emo”

At some point, maybe in my late 20s, shopping for records became an activity that was perhaps 15% searching for records I’ve long wanted, 5% hoping to discover something totally new and unknown to me, and 80% indulging in nostalgia triggers. Strangely, I find the most delight in stumbling across 7″s I already own. Somehow seeing a record I’ve long owned  in a record store with a bunch of different neighbors, not in its usual place in my own collection, brings back the strongest memories. And that’s how I experience most of my enthusiasm for subcultural music these days, through memory.

Over the weekend I went into a Disc Union in Tokyo and saw my early life flash before my eyes as I flipped through the “used emo” and “used 90s hardcore” 7″ racks. Two Frodus singles. I attended the record release events for both of them, both at the dearly missed Fairfax VA store Record Convergence.

Universal Order of Armageddon. The Make-Up. Chisel. Own it, own it, own it. Bought it in DC, in Richmond, on a trip to North Carolina. Overwhelmed with how un-hardcore I am now, I went down to the ‘indie’ floor and started flipping. Oh, a Black Tambourine single! This, I do want. It is 38 dollars. I have paid over thirty dollars for singles before, when I had some sort of ebay fever in 2003 and needed every screamo record I could find. Not so feverish these days, so I put the record back. Sorry Black Tambourine, may you plucked up soon by some Japanese indiepop connoisseur.

Pam, the singer of Black Tambourine, is also one-half of the zine Chickfactor. I read Chickfactor religiously in junior high school. I had heard of none of the bands but memorized all their names. Occasionally I mail ordered this or that and listened on my mom’s record player. Singles were only three dollars, plus postage. I got a little older. I got a boyfriend, he had a car. We could drive into Maryland, go to record stores like Vinyl Ink in Silver Spring, where I searched for Chickfactor-esque records, and Yesterday & Today, where I searched for dc hardcore.

Still flipping through “used indie new arrivals.” Ash, a single for their 1994 song “Petrol.” I saw them in October 1995, opening for Babes in Toyland. Also on the bill was a Minneapolis band called Dumpster Juice, who were burly midwest sludge slobs. I recall being kind of grossed out by them, which I think is exactly what they were going for. Then all of sudden comes Ash, who were whip-thin  young Irish pretty boys and extremely pop. I liked them well enough and bought their tape, which had only one song that really struck me, but it struck me enough that I kept the tape in my car and just rewound back and back again to the one song I liked.

Yeah, this is some solid power pop right here.

I’ve just youtube’d Dumpster Juice and they are still at it! I’ve gotten a lot sludgier over the years, I get it now. I guess I have changed since the mid-90s, just a bit.


Whatever are we all training for

Sometime in 1994, I read a quote in Sassy magazine that changed my life. It was from Courtney Love, saying “I moved to Minneapolis to date Dave Pirner. But the real Dave Pirner, in the flesh, was a little disappointing. So I decided to be Dave Pirner, and that’s so much more fun!” (Whoever edited the Dave Pirner entry on this website appears to have read the same Sassy as me. I can’t find the quote anywhere else on the internet but it’s exactly as I remember it.) (Dave Pirner is the guy from Soul Asylum for those who you had better stuff to do in the 90s than to learn the name of the guy who sang Runaway Train.) As an excruciatingly self-conscious middle schooler who wanted nothing more than to be in a band, but could figure out no way to access the blithe confidence of all the boys who were inflicting all their shitty musical incompetence at every opportunity, this quote said to me- ‘you  might think that you can access that thing you are trying to get to if you go out with a boy who seems to have it, but that will never work and it will definitely not be any fun for you if you try.’ Unfortunately, self-consciousness and shame at my musical inabilities won out, and instead of just being in bad bands until I got better and started being in good bands, I did end up trying, again and again, to go out with Dave Pirner instead of being Dave Pirner.

But at least I had the luck to be born toward the end of the 20th century, instead of the end of the 19th. I listened to Rosemary Hill read her review of a new collection of letters written by Ida John, first wife of father-of-many painter Augustus John, yesterday morning while I washed the dishes. I did and still do struggle with some infernal combination of inner voice and outer expectation of ‘be perfect or hide yourself forever,’ or ‘maybe it would just be easier to be a muse,’  but I’ve also got feminism and birth control and the ability to support myself. Ida Nettleship, on the other hand, married her Dave Pirner, gave up her painting practice to care for the children he constantly impregnated her with, tolerated his new beguiling mistress as a constant presence her life, before dying at the age of 30 from childbirth-related infection. Christ. If only she had stayed a single bohemian lady, wandering the streets of Paris… if only that were a path open to her.

That the voice of Ida, painted out of the portrait, unmentioned in her husband’s memoirs, unremembered by her own five children, rises now in a book, a hundred and ten years after her death, is astounding.

‘Wouldn’t it be lovely to be free … just be a beautiful mind growing from outward impressions. I think self-consciousness is like gin – it stops the growth.’

‘I think to live with a girlfriend & have lovers would be almost perfect. Whatever are we all training for that we have to shape ourselves & compromise with things all our lives? It’s eternally fitting a square peg into a round hole & squeezing up one’s eyes to make it look a better fit – isn’t it?’

In Praise of Libraries and Night Herons

Recently a new library facility has opened in my neighborhood in Tokyo. It is five stories tall, full of windows and terraces, ample workspace with plugs for laptops, children’s play areas, space for older school-age kids, tables for eating, reading nooks. There is wifi. There is an small, interesting selection of books in non-Japanese languages (but strangely almost nothing in Korean or Chinese, which is shameful.) I’ve been coming almost every day to write. In the past few years, I mostly squandered the ‘freedom’ of graduate student life to do my work when and where I pleased. Squandered in the sense of not getting as much work done as I probably should have, squandered in the sense that there were countless mornings wiled away in trying to figure out where I should go. Sometimes I would try to be adventurous and go to an area I’d never been before, only to get out of the train station to find it, on the surface, the same as any other place that I’d been in Tokyo, except for I couldn’t find any chain coffeeshops to settle in for my working day. Recalling all these train trips and walks from stations in search of somewhere I felt like working, I feel again the heaviness of my always overloaded backpack. Not only was usually unable to decide where to work, I was mostly unable to decide what I was working on that day, and thus I carried many books with me at all times, just in case. This is an old habit of mine. In college I was profiled in the student newspaper for a weekly column called “That Girl!” or “That guy!” depending on the week. Readers were informed they could find me on campus as “the girl carrying the most stuff.” I’m still carrying too much stuff every day, but now it’s on a five minute bicycle ride to the local library, and I can put much of it in the basket.

I like working in my local library for so many reasons. I love my academic library here in Tokyo, but I’m always wandering off to look at their insane collection of very old books. Certainly there’s a time for that, and I’ve definitely become a historian because of my love for the ephemera of the past, but right now is a time for sticking to my desk and writing about what I already have. I like how easy it is to go to the same place every day. I like learning about the people who live in my neighborhood and also frequent the library. I like that this library has space for everyone in the community, from the very young to the very old.

Yesterday morning I read this online version of a talk that the artist Jenny Odell gave recently. It is called “how to do nothing.” It’s about work, and how the idea of work has changed along with technology, about allowing yourself to be in a specific place and to really get to know that place. Jenny Odell lives and works in the Bay Area, it seems. She writes about a rose garden in Oakland she goes to, and the bird life she has gotten to know in her neighborhood. There are lots of roses in my neighborhood in Tokyo, because the local tram line (the last extant tram line in Tokyo, actually) plants roses along the tracks, and in parks near certain stops. I enjoy these roses almost every day. Across the street from the new library is a nature park, full of roses and other plants, a pond with a swan. To get there I walk through another park, a sculpture park in front of city hall, which has a small pond for fishing. This park is popular with people who sit at the pond with fishing poles, and with the old guys playing go and Chinese chess. Occasionally water birds will make an appearance at the fishing pond, elegant long-necked creatures wading slowly through the murk. But a night, a different type of water bird sometimes appears. Hunched up, kind of awkward, almost immovable looking. I only ever saw them at night, and I laughed when I finally learned that they were called “night herons.” The night herons in Oakland seem ok with showing their face in the light.  I wonder where the Tokyo night herons spend their days?

I loved Jenny Odell’s piece. I’ve written a few draft blog posts over the past few weeks that have surprised me with how angry I sound. I’m ok with anger, but I’d like to write about things I like too. I like birds, I like doing nothing, I like surprising feeling of actually enjoying a post. I’ll close with a little quote within a quote from Jenny Odell’s piece:

I found this necessity of doing nothing so perfectly articulated in a passage from Gilles Deleuze in Negotiations:

…we’re riddled with pointless talk, insane quantities of words and images. Stupidity’s never blind or mute. So it’s not a problem of getting people to express themselves but of providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say. Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves; what a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying. (emphasis mine)

He wrote that in 1985, but the sentiment is something I think we can all identify with right now, almost to a degree that’s painful. The function of nothing here, of saying nothing, is that it’s a precursor to something, to having something to say. “Nothing” is neither a luxury nor a waste of time, but rather a necessary part of meaningful thought and speech.

I never thought about love when I thought about home

What does it mean for the city to be a character in a narrative? I’ve often wondered about that phrase. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single novel where the city feels like a character. I’m not really that well-read though. It does seem to be a thing with certain contemporary tv shows, though. High Maintenance and Master of None both come to mind, at least when it comes to New York. I watched the HBO show High Maintenance, ostensibly about a weed dealer in the city,  for the first time on a plane back to the United States. I was on my way to spend several months in New York, after years in Tokyo. Nothing I had ever seen captured the texture of New York quite like that show, successfully conveying the diversity of New York without falling into some kind of ‘colorful background for the petty dramas of bourgeois white people’ trap, but rather the sense that everyone you pass has a rich life, all equally worth exploring, and that any small point of contact between two residents could veer off into a fascinating story. It is done so well, so naturally. It’s one of the best shows I’ve ever watched. Master of None attempts something similar, and basically rips off High Maintenance in the second season episode ‘New York I Love You.’ It connects three stories: the Latino doorman of a fancy building full of white assholes, a deaf girl who works at a bodega who has a public fight with her boyfriend, and a Rwandan cab driver who gets a hit movie spoiled for him by two basic Beckys (what is the plural of Becky? Beckii? ) in the back of his cab. They are all well-done, showcasing easily the best acting on Master of None, and even the show’s trademark heavy-handed THIS IS THE MORAL OF THE STORY vibe was sorta chilled out.

It seems easier to capture something of a city’s ineffable essence in film or television, the background that is not really a background. I thought about this problem as I read Emma Straub’s 2016 novel Modern Lovers, which (spoiler alert) I fucking hated. The novel follows two married couples, one hetero, one lesbian, who live in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. Three of these four went to Oberlin together, where they were in some sort of indie band. The fourth band member went on to have a solo hit with one of the band’s song, before dying at 27, leaving the surviving three with mixed feelings about the deceased girl who became a legend. Two of the four main characters come from a tremendous amount of family money and live lives free from any type of financial strain, and enjoy the kind of existential crises that really only get to fully bloom with the presence of a really secure safety net over the void. Each couple has a teenage child, these two teenagers end up sleeping with each other. Minor marital crises are overcome, someone stupidly loses one hundred thousand dollars but no one cares, youthful exploits are reexamined from the perspective of middle age, everything returns to status quo but just a little better, the novel ends.

There are plenty of glib ways to dismiss this novel. “White People Problems” or “First World Problems,” for example. They are both apt ways to sum up the absolute lack of stakes. (Should also mention that one character and her daughter are not white, though their Blackness is mainly invoked to describe their coolness and sexual allure to white people, so.) But right now I’m thinking about cities, and I’m interested in how a particular neighborhood, Ditmas Park, is flattened and flattened until it is only street names on a map and the metrics of a real estate agent.  And yet, somehow, the reader gets the feeling that Straub really thinks these small details (the tiny playground on Cortelyou Road, the streets one crosses walking north to the Parade Grounds, how much one of the more run-down Victorian homes is now worth) recreate the feeling of Ditmas Park. Straub lives in Brooklyn, I’m sure she walked around, and the boutique real estate firm that one main character works for is modeled to a tee on the neighborhood’s most famous real estate company. The characters refer to themselves as ‘pioneers,’ the word all bougie people love to use to describe moving to an area where their every whim is not yet catered to. One character, a chef, says she loves “living in the only neighborhood in New York City that felt like the suburbs,” which is both monstrously unfair to Ditmas Park (there’s a lot more to the suburbs that stand-alone houses and lawns) and also, clearly no one’s ever been to Queens, let alone Staten Island. (Side note: would love to read a novel about the ‘pioneers’ of New Dorp, or Great Kills, which probably has better possibilities for double-entendre book titles.) The real estate agent considers which of her clients would make good book club members, once they buy into the neighborhood, because god forbid you hear a renter’s thoughts on the latest Emma Straub beach read. (Meta!)

I lived in Ditmas Park for four years, so clearly I have a lot of specific thoughts and feelings about what its characteristics are, the small and large details that make it different from Park Slope, or Prospect Heights, or Fort Greene, or wherever. There’s the houses, of course, and the trees. It’s not nearly as rich and white as Modern Lovers would lead a reader to believe, the homes are owned by families of all backgrounds, although of course with gentrification ramping up this will change. There are prewar apartment buildings all over. The area is a junction between South Asian, West Indian, Russian, and Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. I used to walk by a barber shop with a sign in the window that said “We Speak English Russian Yiddish and Urdu.” My city councilman sent out fliers in English and Haitian Creole. I celebrated the 40th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence with a local shopkeeper. But I wonder if any these details were woven into the text of Modern Lovers, if they would make any difference or not, or just add to the feeling that everything in the neighborhood, in the city, in the world, is to provide interesting backdrops for the dramas for the type of people who (spoilers, I guess) can lose one hundred thousand dollars or have their restaurant burn down with literally no consequence beyond minor inconvenience. The novel reflects, pretty accurately, I think, the worldview of such people, and how the city must cater to them- the restaurants they like, the architectural details they prefer, the yoga studios they enjoy, private schools for their children. They sass cops for not paying them or their offspring enough respect. They don’t need, nor care about, public transportation, public schools, affordable housing, etc.

In lieu of a conclusion to this post, I post instead a video from Ditmas Park’s most famous musical export, the National. They were around every where when I lived in Ditmas, as much a part of the neighborhood as the Bengali shopkeepers, Russian cobblers, and hipsters of all races at the coffeeshop. This song came out in 2010, and though this kind of sad-dad indie is exactly the kind of adult-contemporary music I pretend I never listen to, the chorus of “I still owe money to the money to the money I owe/ I never thought about love when I thought about home/ I still owe money to the money to the money I owe/ the floors are falling out from everybody I know” struck me then, as it does still, as a profound piece of post- housing bubble poetry, the cry of someone who is going to be killed by his mortgage.

Eleanor Marx

Ha, what is the point of a secret blog if one never writes in the secret blog? In the olden days of online diaries and livejournals, I did have readers. Just a few, but enough. Turns out, having readers, even if just your roommates and three random people on the internet, makes a difference. Today I’m going to post a few things from the drafts folder, maybe a few new things, try to get some momentum with this project.

What have I read recently?

A few weeks I finished Rachel Holmes’ Eleanor Marx: A Life. (No links!) I had been ‘spoiled’ by reading all the goodreads reviews and publicity for the book for the ‘plot twist.’  Eleanor Marx killed herself after the double whammy of finally coming to terms with what a shitstain her partner Edward Aveling was, and learning that her father, not Engels, was the biological father of the son of family maid/friend Helen Demuth. It was so joyous to read about her unconventional upbringing, how fun it must’ve been to be around Marx and Engels and Jenny von Westphalen and all their friends, spending time at the reading room at the British Museum. Holmes, too, does a superlative job of weaving in real considerations of Marx’s work, and later debates between socialists. A few of these types of biographies I’ve read over the past few years have really done poorly at dealing with politics/theory within the framework of lived experience (At the Existentialist Café comes to mind, as does Ana Siljak’s Angel of Vengeance on Vera Zasulich), and this book exceeds at it. Mary Gabriel’s Love and Capital, on Eleanor’s parents, also seems promising on this front although I haven’t read it. So I just plowed through this book, delighting in Eleanor’s hard work for the socialist and labor movements, her friendships, her love of literature and especially the theater, her refusal to wear a goddamn corset. I was bereft at the end, and almost immediately after I finished it searched online for the location of the grave of Freddy Demuth, her half-brother, who was so faithful and hardworking and sweet, despite the fact he got the raw end of so many deals. I would like to go to London and bring flowers to Freddie’s grave and spit on Aveling’s.


Tough Girls Part I

It’s Women’s Day! I’m in the library and wearing red socks. I may make a brief appearance at the rally later in the day, but it’s counter-revolutionary for me to delay finishing this dissertation any longer than I already have.

This morning I finished Kate Zambreno’s Heroines. I probably would not have a read it, but a friend of mine is translating it and she wants someone to ask questions to, an authentic American feminist, maybe? (If I can even be called that.) Zambreno’s writing is hard for me. I read a review of her novel Green Girl when it first came out, maybe in Bookforum? And it sounded so intriguing, I went way out of my way to obtain a copy. It has now been re-released by a major publisher and is probably not such a pain in the ass to get ahold of now. And then, I could not finish the book. I could sense what Zambreno was doing, she was saying “here is this girl that the whole world says is vapid and toxic, spend time with her and think about why that is.” And in theory, I loved that idea, craved that literary challenge. I haven’t had much trouble in my real life befriending women in general, or women deemed toxic and/or vapid specifically. Literarily, this has been more of a challenge for me, even when these characters are written by women, but I figured the fault may lie with me?  Yet, the novel did not work for me, it felt hostile and also boring, I gave up and sold the book to the Strand, did not miss it.

Heroines often made me furious. It was, first of all, condensed white privilege feminism. Which, white middle-class ladies with college educations have it hard too! I  know, I know! Sadness! Cosseted by access to mental health care, even shitty sexist mental health care! But, still, perhaps not the exact book for this climate. And the focus on the wives of the modernists- OK, they should be read as a group. But it felt as if Zambreno were collapsing them into one ur-wife, she was claiming for her purposes, making paper dolls of them and their lives, and clearly she’s less of a fucking asshole than F. Scott Fitzgerald, but still, didn’t feel good. And god, what a book obsessed with men. For all her rage against the canon, there’s still a sense in this book that you are nothing if you are not acknowledged by men. And, if this were a materialist claim, I’d agree, but this is supposed to be a more transcendent claim, I think. Men still are the arbiters here. In addition to this books overwhelming whiteness, it was so hetero. And, though I have some serious issues with it now, at least Chris Kraus asked some interesting questions in I Love Dick about the position of the straight woman. Here, in Heroines, it was just the default position. We are all straight women, obsessed with our husbands. The last two pages of the book are a call to arms, great, fine.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this fissure in feminism, between the Tough Girls and the Wounded Girls. I became a tough girl earlier on, it’s been a part of my image since I was 14, or even younger than that. Zambreno has such a hard time with the Tough Women, the de Beauvoirs and the Hardwicks and the un-sisterly women who didn’t coddle their damaged sisters. I take her point but I also think Zambreno is operating with a tremendous blind spot. Not all women are Ophelias, and that’s just the way it fucking is.