11.14.2019

Travel Shmavel


Travel is one of those things that, in my socio-economic class at least, is an assumed good. All you have to do is peruse any dating app — at least in the Bay Area — and see that travel is this hallowed, revered act, an unquestioned good. Every woman, and I assume every man, proudly displays their pictures from exotic lands as they giddily inquire: Where's my next adventure? Jordan, maybe. Or Cappadocia! Let's grab our passports and go! This word, adventure, comes up a lot. I'll get to that.

All of this is unfortunate for me as, well, I don't particularly care for travel. And, in our world today, I'm the one who needs to defend this heretical belief. Such is the way of discourse: it establishes the terms of what can be said and the relative valence of those things. In the discourse of our times, travel is good. It just is. So as one who doesn't share this sentiment, the obligation falls upon me to explain myself.

The same goes for lots of things in my life. Take voting. Of course I don't vote. Why would I participate in such a conspicuously corrupt system and give the impression that voting mattered? (I've written about that here.) Yes, many of you are bristling as the usual mantras are paraded out. You can't complain if you don't vote. Which is funny as I feel the opposite: if you participate in this corrupt system, you can't complain! In any case, to most people, voting is an assumed good and so my refusal to participate is met first with a distinctly violent bile — so goes that liberal attitude! — and then with the burden of having to defend my presumed heresy.

Profanity is another area. I used to curse like a banshee in my lectures at Berkeley. Every semester, there would always be at least one student who'd ask me why I curse so much. This question really irked me. After all, why wouldn't I use any and all words at my disposal, especially ones that convey such emphatic umph?!? So I'd refuse to answer and put the question to them: Why don't you curse? The burden of defense should not fall to me. After their initial fluster, their answers never persuaded me to change my ways.

So, yes, travel. Let me be clear. I've traveled. I even enjoy traveling, sometimes. I've driven across the United States repeatedly, each time with great relish and delight. The rolling plains of Nebraska running into the towering peaks of the Rockies only to majestically descend into the salt flat desert before crossing the Sierras and meeting the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco: Oy! So good! And that's just taking i80! So, yes, I like seeing different skies and colors. I've even traveled all around Europe as people from my background tend to do. I feel like this needed to be said. I'm building my case. Bear with me.

Personally, I don't like traveling that much as it makes the most mundane things — water, food, bed, money — of the utmost importance. At home, all the quotidian nonsense is tended to: I know how to get water and food, where to pee, how to spend money. This allows me to focus on other things that interest me more, namely, ideas, words, my own sense of peace. Mind you, I understand that having the everyday become extraordinary affords its pleasure and, better, its pedagogy. But, for the most part, I'd rather have such things be taken for granted.

Language, however, is a more interesting matter when traveling. I relish speaking and speaking cleverly, eloquently, wittily, quickly. Being in another country strips me of all this. I always hated that thing that happens when I'm in another country and I'm reduced to the vocabulary of a toddler, at best, and so my native hosts and I giggle at my attempt to find a bathroom. It's humiliating. And yet I can see the value of doing it now and again, to be stripped of my linguistic scaffold, just to render me humble. So every now and again, yes, I can see that value of traveling.

But all the time? I have things to say, dammit! I want to be funny and witty. I want to make keen cultural references and not always have to explain them. I want to be able to discuss architectures of the invisible, topologies of the event, the nuances of an infinite gaze. I want to be able to flirt and inflect, emphasize and qualify, refine and explore. These are things I do here all the time that I can't do when I travel. So when someone tells me I need to travel to expand my boundaries, I tell them: Expand your vocabulary! Try to think radically differently!

Then there's this word I've noticed of late, a word travelers return to so readily: adventure. This is a tricky one as it's always relative. Travelers who seek adventure in Bora Bora more than likely don't seek adventure every day in who they are and how they go. In my experience, the people who talk the most about travel adventures are the most set in their ways. They have a salary job and always have had one; they own their place; they think and believe the same things day in and day out. Me, I refuse to have a job job so, financially, it's always an adventure. I try to think differently all the time, push myself — sometimes — to be different. And, yes, this might even involve traveling — but not because travel is inherently adventurous but because it takes me out of my comfort zone. I'd ask some of these Tinder travelers if they've ever considered the infinite curvature of space, the untethering of the ego, if they've smoked DMT and had their lives rearranged in ways they never thought possible.

I'll say this: the people I know who have traveled for adventure, truly, are the people who would never say they love travel and adventure. In fact, the person I know who's traveled the most extensively far and away, and the most adventurously, is the one person who rarely brings it up. In fact, when I met her through a dating app many years ago, I believe she never even mentioned travel in her profile. In my interpretation, she views thinking and being differently as continuous with travel.

On the other hand, I had a hilarious date once in which this exact subject came up. I knew the date was a disaster so, rather than playing my predefined role within the discourse, I turned it on its head. I told her I don't like traveling and why did she? She became flustered and said, I shit you not, "Travel expands my boundaries." To which I replied: "And yet you can't understand why I don't like travel (not to mention everything else about me)"?  The irony was so glaring I couldn't stop laughing. Needless to say, there was no second date.

But it's pretty obvious that the squarest people are the ones who talk about the adventure of travel the most. What is square? As I've said, it's the people with a job they think they love with desires and aspirations right out of Hollywood drivel. Meanwhile, I've met — and loved — women who love to travel, love adventure, who are not square at all. And they don't assume travel is a good; they travel because they like it as a pedagogy and existential delight.

So why do the squarest people insist on travel adventures so insistently? Because they're miserable! This is the logic of people who live for the weekend: they accept that their time is owned by their capitalist overlords that they're grateful for the weekend. Eeesh! But I get it, I do. People are so unhappy as their vitality and well-being are drained from them in a systematic fashion. And rather than question this oppression, they take whatever slivers of life their owners dole out. Two weeks vacation! So of course they want to go hang gliding in Bora Bora! It's their only chance to be free.

And, yes, seeing the desert in Zion National Park, the Maasai in Tanzania, hiking the Himalayas are all of course amazing, even life changing, boundary extending adventures. But other things are amazing and life changing, too, that many "adventurous" travelers never indulge. Which is to say, just because travel can be amazing doesn't make it a mandate. More often that not, I fear, travel is a treat thrown to people by their colonial overlords to get a whiff of existence before returning to their cubicle. By having all the banalities of life rise to the fore, these people are forced to focus on things besides their life draining job and depressing search for a mate. It's a vacation, not an adventure — a respite from the fray, a way to quash any desire to leave or smash the system.

This is why travel is considered an inherent good in our popular discourse: it's become the opiate of the masses. To be as clear as possible, this is not to knock travel per se. It's to knock the widespread assumption that travel is an inherent good while masking deep existential malaise. I just wish this declared will to expand one's boundaries and experience adventure were a greater part of everyday life. Of course, maybe I'm just a homebody who enjoys his comforts (or so I've been told; I don't disagree). The more likely scenario, however, is it's all of the above.

11.04.2019

Space Taught Me Everything




On the eve of my 50th birthday, I found myself blissfully alone at ocean's edge — Stinson Beach, to be precise, just north of San Francisco, a slice of the coast tucked behind some earthly swells at the end of a stretch of windy-as-fuck Highway 1. Which is to say, while it is a well known beach, it is not so casually visited. There were no lit high schoolers with bonfires, no toddlers shrieking, no families arguing. It was just the infinite and me — and a freakish number of pelicans. I love pelicans — they're pterodactyls! — and they were kind enough to put on a show just for me.

Anyway, it was hours before the near full moon rose and, as the sun set, the sky became denser and denser with this and that. As I reckoned it and it, in turn, reckoned me, I could feel the cosmic embrace, the fullness of it surround me. And I realized that the key realizations in my life have been about space which, while seeming to contradict each other, actually conspire to offer a view on existence that informs my life at every turn, in every way.


My step father was an astronomer who studied the atmospheres of other planets. Perhaps this is what had me looking up at the night sky at a young age. But, unlike him, I wasn't interested in planets. Nor was I interested in stars, galaxies, asteroids; I never cared for the names on moons or constellation. I still don't know which way is north. No, I was interested in space itself, that infinite regress. (I wrote about that here).

And this, the infinity of space, is what transformed me starting at a very young age. To quote myself (what an odd and beautiful thing to do, to quote oneself, to see one's writing for what it is, fodder out there, no more mine than yours): "Lying alone at night tucked into my safari sheets, I'd track the movement in my head from the bed outwards — past my ceiling and roof, past the trees, through the clouds, past the everyday blue sky and moon, past the sun and planets, past the stars. What I loved was that the movement didn't end...." I found this experience at once intoxicating and erotic in a pre-sexual way: my nine year old body would quiver, the limits of my mind giving way as layer after layer of existence vanished in the rearview mirrior — past the ceiling, clouds, atmosphere, past the solar system, past all those stars — woosh, woosh, woosh until my mind and body became one continuous woosh! I became  verb, a will to infinity, pure becoming.

This was my first awakening: space is infinite. It's not just so-called gods and ideas, morals and concepts, that are temporally infinite. The stuff of this world — the world itself! — is infinite. Extension, which everywhere seems limited, has no final limit. Oh yes.
 
And as space is infinite, there's no fixed position, no final orientation of anything — no center, no up or down. This radical decentering of my existence was exhilarating. I never found it upsetting or disorienting: I found it liberating, ecstatic — the ecstasy of vertigo as I imagined myself hurling through the cosmos. In such a vertiginous world, you're always where you are, a relative position that is nevertheless absolute precisely because you're not closer or farther from a center. You are the center just as no one is ever the center. 


But then there is this second realization I had about space much later: space is shaped. It is relentlessly inflected, bending this way and that. We can see it when we look up at the sky and see the curvature, see the bends. Space, then, is not a neutral backdrop in which planets and other things move about. Space is itself something — a fabric, a flesh, so much stuff. It doesn't take an astrophysicist to see this. Just look up. You can see the shaping of space, its bends and curves, its swirls. I could sure see it, feel it, know it that night at Stinson. I could see, feel, and know the very texture of the cosmos — not as black abyss, not as a nothing, but as an all this

A few days later, I was talking to my parents, sharing this very couple of insights. And my mother replies: "Well, that's a contradiction. Shapes have limits so can't be infinite." This, I'm willing to bet, is a common perception of both shape and infinity: shape is bound, infinity is unbound.

But that's confusion born of a series of interconnected mis-readings of things. We assume infinity is a generality, a concept rather than a function, an operation, or a trait. I knew as kid that there must be difference between the infinity that exists between numbers 1 and 2 and, say, the infinity of space. Sure, conceptually we can say they're both infinite and be done with it. But this disregards a very strange aspect of infinity: it's particular. There is not just one infinity — except as a concept. There are infinite infinities.

Consider the number Pi. It's infinite. And not only is it infinite, it's non-repeating (which means it's not 3.14141414...). It's an infinite number that is absolutely particular and unknowable before experiencing it: it is infinite along this trajectory and this trajectory alone, according to such and such rules that are continually playing themselves out. There are teams of scientists dedicated to finding the next number in Pi. So Pi is, indeed, infinite and has limits. After all, it doesn't sprawl in every direction as it becomes every number. No, it stays very much itself — unto infinity. It is a becoming, much like me lying in bed, my mind moving towards the infinity of space. We're all wooshes. Or, better, we're all wooshing.

This is all to say, there is no neutral ground, no backdrop, no nothing. All there is is something(s). The world is full of itself, a plenum. There is no vacuum per se. And everything is in the mix. We may look at the planets and stars but we look at space, too. And space is not nothing; on the contrary, it is something — the interstellar and intergalactic medium of plasma and such. Space is not a tablecloth on which we set the table. It pushes and pulls, it careens and swirls, bending light, gasses, bodies, moods, and minds.

We know this as we make our way through the world, walking down streets. Every moment is something, full and rich, brimming with sense, affect, light, gas, smell, dreams, dust. We tend to focus on ourselves and the petty nonsense that defines us — job, shopping, dinner, dates. But despite our best efforts to act like actors on the backdrop of the world, this backdrop is nudging us this way and that. All these swirls of mood. (The first three "Pirates of Caribbean" films perform this well: in the first, there are actors on a boat; in the second, the boat is alive; in the third, the ocean is alive until the whole thing is a gaseous mess, beautiful and unwieldy.)

This double whammy of ideas that came to me looking at the sky has informed everything I think and am:
  • Infinity is a dimension of extension as much as a dimension of thought.
  • This means there is no fixed orientation, no up or down. We are all free floating, the ecstasy of vertigo.
  • I am the center; there is no center; everything is the center; nothing is the center.
  • There is no such thing as neutrality; everything is inflected.
  • The infinite is inflected; there are infinite infinities.
  • A thing, including each person, is a particular infinity: Pi(n)
This is how I see the world: all these becomings becoming unto infinity, all these Non Terminating Non Repeating Decimals, all these inflections of space, all this stuff I'm swimming in and swimming with, all these eddies and streams of affect and thought and gas, all swishing every which way as we hurtle and plod and saunter through a shaped cosmos that is always becoming along an infinite trajectory. It's a messy every-which-way world and it's confusing and beautiful and asks very different things of us than perhaps we'd previously  thought. Sometimes, we may even have to, together, turn the whole damn thing upside down.




­­­

Travel Shmavel

Travel is one of those things that, in my socio-economic class at least, is an assumed good. All you have to do is peruse any dating ap...