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Koyaanisqatsi, VA November 30, 2010

Posted by The Typist in cryptical envelopment, Dancing Bear, New Orleans, NOLA, The Narrative, Toulouse Street.
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McLean Virginia is an angry anthill of cars and conspicuous consumption, a dystopia of orange cones, the metallic skeletons of construction at rest for the night, car lights strung like animated pearls and rubies wriggling in disquieting, hallucinogenic frenzy through a Mobious strip of roads. I once lived not to far from here, in the District and later in close-in Arlington for a decade. My daughter was born at George Washington Hospital, on a snowy night when the car would not start and I learned you do not tell the cab company your wife is in labor if you expect them to show up. In day light there is a certain familiarity: I know this road, drove it many times on my way to Chain Bridge or if I had some errand in the neighborhood but the dark and the rain and almost two decades of unrelenting progress have transformed the once familiar roads into a suburban version of Tokyo, or the mythical city of Blade Runner.

I have been away so long from metropolis that I felt like an aboriginal confronted by a television playing Koyaanisqatsi, found myself dreaming of the almost deserted roads of North Dakota, the vastness of landscape punctuated by farmsteads with tree belts, the weathered remains of some barn washed brown by the sun and leaning precariously away from the unceasing winds, a water tower rising in the distance beneath which huddled a small town: grain elevators along the tracks, small frame houses with paint blistered by the roaring heat inside and the arctic cold without, a truck stop filled with an Odd mix of traveler kitsch and rural necessities inside which you could eat transcendent pie.

Humans are as social and predictable as a pack of dogs but I wonder what strange scent lead so many people to crowd themselves into these boxes surrounding the alpha males of the Central Government, to chose a landscape in which the highway is the dominant feature, how we came and conformed ourselves to its physical extremes like the inhabitants of Nunavut or Kalahari. We took all this land from people dazzled by glass beads and bright steel axes and we laugh at the thought at first but to people living with stone tools and with a millennium old practice of beading their clothes with animal quills these were not pointless things. We ourselves surrender to the dazzle of the mall, the gleaming trading cities of our crossroads, adorn ourselves with the pretty tags that make a pair of denim pants precious as Medieval silk and equip ourselves with impractical iPhones and gleaming espresso machines, and I wonder what and to whom we are surrendering in the exchange.

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Being There June 4, 2009

Posted by The Typist in Bloggers, cryptical envelopment, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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By way of Twitter, direct from the online site of New York Magazine, which I began reading on my Blackberry but finished on my desktop while a mail and file search absorbed my laptop, which never the less managed to chime and pop up ghost summaries of emails as the Blackberry pulsed to warn me of my next meeting, and topped like a cherry on a sundae with a picture pulled via Google from Flikr, comes this interesting article on what digital multitasking is doing to our minds.

I defy you (as the author does in his opening paragraphs) to read it all the way through, online, without stopping to wonder if someone has answered that email or topped your clever comment on Facebook. ——————————— Sorry, I had to stop and check the chime on my Blackberry, reserved for certain important messages. I’m back. I swear.

These are our Modern Times. We live in a world in which The Man has figured out how to speed up the virtual assembly line, and if we wish to maintain the lives we have grown accustomed to–pay the mortgage, educate the children, enjoy our few pleasures–we have no choice but to deal.

Our modern times–if we were to remake the classic film Modern Times today it would be a single, fixed shot of the eyes of Chaplin, the story told by scenes on his computer screen reflected onto the spectacles of our modern anti-hero, the only real movement would be by his eyes. Perhaps his hand would rise up to touch his Bluetooth headset or push his glasses back up his sweaty nose, but nothing more. We would tell the entire story of our modern times projected a few small pieces of glass to one man, alone, flashing by in a fragmentary mosaic. (Cue score of Koyaanisqatsi.)

Pistolette , who found this article, is rightly concerned with how this is all impacting us. I have not gone fully offline in a long time, but I used to envy a woman I shared an office with once who would take a week off every summer and go to a secluded cabin sans husband and children with a big stack of books. That seems idyllic to me.

I don’t worry too much about how all of this obsessive multi-tasking and media overload is impacting me. I work with a scattered team at work and having a rich set of channels to manage that life–email, instant messaging, wireless phones–seems to help enormously. It does require that I shut down some channels when I really need to focus. I moan that the firewall blocks Facebook and Twitter but its probably for the best.

I feel scatterbrained lately but that has much more to do with stress unrelated to my online life. Most people in New Orleans seem more scattered than people elsewhere, but living here where It’s After the End of the World seems to have that effect on people. It is not caused by a rich digital life but by the stress on the streets, in our daily life, not precisely post-traumatic because the emergency never seems to completely end.

In this one central piece of my wired life on Toulouse Street, the serendipity of the moment often informs what I write, and that is why this one paragraph in the long article jumped out at me. Read it and judge for yourself, but I think I will continue to both walk the streets of my city as well as wander the virtual channels of the Internet, drinking it all in and waiting for the intuitive flash of that bright moment in which we know our doom.

The prophets of total attentional meltdown sometimes invoke, as an example of the great culture we’re going to lose as we succumb to e-thinking, the canonical French juggernaut Marcel Proust. And indeed, at seven volumes, several thousand pages, and 1.5 million words, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu is in many ways the anti-Twitter. (It would take, by the way, exactly 68,636 tweets to reproduce.) It’s important to remember, however, that the most famous moment in all of Proust, the moment that launches the entire monumental project, is a moment of pure distraction: when the narrator, Marcel, eats a spoonful of tea-soaked madeleine and finds himself instantly transported back to the world of his childhood. Proust makes it clear that conscious focus could never have yielded such profound magic: Marcel has to abandon the constraints of what he calls “voluntary memory”—the kind of narrow, purpose-driven attention that Adderall, say, might have allowed him to harness—in order to get to the deeper truths available only by distraction. That famous cookie is a kind of hyperlink: a little blip that launches an associative cascade of a million other subjects. This sort of free-associative wandering is essential to the creative process; one moment of judicious unmindfulness can inspire thousands of hours of mindfulness.

Atlantis July 9, 2008

Posted by The Typist in Toulouse Street.
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The rocket stands on its launch pad like mythical Babel, a pointer and a reaching out towards the heavens. A triumph of modern technology, it lifts itself by an alchemy of the ancient elements, the composite pieces of water and air joined to make fire, to lift men above the earth. A trembling in the ground and a roaring in the ears and it is away.

We watch its arc, the contrail cloud left by as it climbs into the sky. Men in white shirts sit nearby and below ground staring into computer screens, reading out their ship’s progress in numbers. Some figures climb as does the rocket–altitude, speed, the g-forces of acceleration, tracing their own mathematical curves that mirror the rocket’s. These men have built this marvel and monitor the operation of it hundreds of thousands of tiny composite parts, willing it to defy gravity and rise into the sky.

The music of this film is perfect, an analogue in sound of the complex mechanical systems we are watching, Phillip Glass’ electronic transmutation of organic music into the electronic space: crescendo and diminuendo replaced by attack and fade, the symmetries of the baroque distilled into the circuitry of the sequencer, the natural sounds of voices and pipe organ channeled into the sequencer’s inexorable logic.

We have reached in this space faring ship the apex of man’s upward climb, have tried to realize that reaching into the heavens symbolized by Babel and the pyramids. We are God’s new Chosen People. He has willed that we will master not just this one continent but an entire world. Now we reach up into the space beyond this planet so that men might walk upon the moon, someday journey to the stars.

And then it happens, as if an invisible bolt of lightening was sent down from the heavens. The vessel of all our modern hopes and dreams disintegrates in a cloud of flame and shrapnel. It is the old story again, Babel confounded and the landscape littered with gruesomely dead Greeks who had set themselves up against Olympus.

As the rocket explodes and the burning remains of the rocket slowly tumble down, following gravity’s rainbow arc back to the earth, the voices take up the refrain again: Koyaanisqatsi, a Hopi Indian word meaning variously ‘crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living’.

Here in New Orleans we do not erect towers to the heavens. We build a city where men have always built, on the fertile flood plains of a convenient river, and close to the bountiful sea. The first temples were reared in places like this, inside those first cities on the flood plains of Tigris and Euphrates. If it is an act of hubris to be here then gods have made a terrible mistake in creating man as they did (or worse, have created him to fail for their entertainment).

Here instead of towers we build levees, low mounds of dirt and clay by which we would defy the flooding river and the ocean. Where hubris and engineering intersect we find politicians peering over the engineers’ shoulders and asking, can we do this cheaper? Faster? Better? There is a rule in projects such as these, called the iron triangle. Simply stated the rule is: better, faster, cheaper–pick two. We squabble with the government for levees that would withstand a 100 year flood, and dream of the 10,000 year protection of the British and Dutch, and hope for the best.

Time has shown we did not build well enough, or perhaps we built too well. Left untouched by man, this delta would eventually be abandoned by the river, and the land sink into the sea. We are victims of our own progress, of the channeling of the river for navigation and the containment of its nourishing floods, and of the extraction of the liquid mineral wealth beneath us. By doing so we have destroyed much of the buffering land around our levees, and so accelerated the time span of our drowning from the geological into generations. The levees we built were not enough to stand against an immense wall of water running downhill in time.

Atlantis is not a myth. It is a prophecy. Someday it will be our history.

At the beginning and end of Koyaanisqatsi are shots of pictograms left behind by the desert dwelling natives of the American southwest. These simple pictures made from materials at hand have lasted the better part of a millennium, stand as the mute testament of people who have come and gone. What will we, the people of New Orleans, leave behind as our testament? The computer that holds these words, made of plastic and glass, copper and steel, will last long enough to bump up against an archeologists trowel if it is not too far beneath the sea, but the words it contains will be lost forever. What you read here today will not stand up through time as those simple drawings go

For all of our foolishness of dredging channels and building levees, digging our city’s own grave with every shovelful, we have a good life here. In spite of all the problems we have made for ourselves, amplified times over by the inevitable flood, New Orleans is not Koyaanisqatsi, not in the sense the filmmaker intended with his endless scenes of ant-like Metropolis. We manage a life here measured not by the speed of our machines or the height of our towers but instead by the music and the food and the ritual, by the way we live with and inside of those things. While we cannot completely master time any more than we can the land or the river or the sea, we have managed to bend time to a different tempo, one more in balance. It is something worth sharing with the world, and will someday be worth remembering.

I am left to rely on the hope that the music and food and ritual have so imprinted themselves upon the world that they will not be forgotten, that the word Creole (and its close cousin Cajun) will be spoken in kitchens long after the city is gone; that as long as Carnival is celebrated somewhere New Orleans will be remembered as one of its great centers; that the sounds of jazz will someday be played not only on a reproduction coronet by scholars–the way early European music is remembered today–but as something as vital and as ineradicable as language: somewhere in the future in something like a nightclub people hear the music, and rise up and dance.

That is the image I would scratch on the wall by torchlight and leave behind us, if only such a thing would not be drowned: a man raising a trumpet to the heavens leading a parade of figures, some bearing heaped platters, who dance to his music.

Koyaanisqatsi April 3, 2008

Posted by The Typist in cryptical envelopment, Dancing Bear, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street, We Are Not OK.
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So much I want to write about and do but right now my life is just too crazy, too much out of balance, too much Koyaanisqatsi.