Thursday, October 26, 2006

The American Experience I : Observation.

So I've gone to Portland, Oregon, and I'm finding it fascinating.

There is the strange feeling of connection I get from being here, in this landscape of asphalt, sycamore trees and concrete houses, like this is someplace I belong, or could belong; a feeling I don't get in any other country I've been to, except home.

There are the big, open streets, with wide sidewalks, that seem to open up a world of possibilities, and allowing people to breathe and move freely, filling my heart with joy and aspirations.

But there are also the lawns where dogs are forbidden.

There is the mad-woman crossing the street while cursing the falling leaves, singling out one of them, trembling on the ground, enduring her rant.

There is the flanell-shirt comboy cab driver who makes no effort to present his outfit as an ironic endeavour, for there is no irony there, it's just the way things are.

There are the barely-legal girls (some of whom also wear cowboy hats) strutting their new-grown shapes, forcing a grown man to look away, for legal or not legal, it can't be right.

There are the American flags unabashedly popping up everywhere, from giant textured flags hanging from the ceilings in malls, to the plastic stickers on the windows in the public transportation trains, quitely (but not that subtly) telling the story of patriotism and nationalism to the public every minute of every day.

There is the crew-cut security guard with a black hat standing importantly in the middle of the mall, his gaze unflickering, his back perched, his hands resting strongly on his buckle in a pose that is supposed to be powerful, but just looks completely ridiculous to someone spoilt by liberty and human rights, and you just have to wonder what makes this guy laugh.

There are people with old-school mullets; mullets that have weathered the storms of fashion for twenty years, and that now - due to the inevitable aging that follows the passing of time - look like the thinning manes of lions.

There are the 45 year old men with trailer caps, moustaches, vacant eyes, and mouths half-open with stupor, wearing glasses that must still be manifactured somewhere, still be available for purchase somewhere, but I do wonder where.

There are the 30 year old bald men with spare rib pot bellies and that neatly trimmed, circular moustache-and-beard thing that seems to be so popular over here, but that invariably evokes the image of female pubic hair in my mind.

There are the young, rugged hipsters, touting their portable Macs in offbeat cafes at odd hours, presumably creating interactive content for the new web, or maybe just writing emails to their moms, or chatting with their friends, which are perfectly reasonable things to do, and there's no reason for me to be overly cynic about it.

There are the hippest of the young hipsters, treating life as a cabaret and dressing accordingly.

Sadly, there are also young people who are filthy, with smeared hands and unwashed clothes, some of whose eyes' whites have turned a tainted, polluted grey, and I have to wonder how and why they ended up like that, and whether or not it's irreversible, if everything can still be OK.

There are the people sitting on corners, with no clear agenda, some homeless, some crippled.

There are the grimy-faced one-dollar bills, veteran footsoldiers of the world's strongest economy, unassuming yet relentless in their battle-worn attire.

There are the smiling, almost flirtatious waitresses using their feminine charms to try to coax me into ordering whatever oversized dessert they have to offer, forcing me to fend them off with ridiculously big tips. It is strange - I never before associated lust and food so directly, but here, it seems, eating is a pleasure of the flesh, just as any.

There are the people carrying their buckets of sugared liquid, often topped with whipped cream, that they suck on, as if they were on life support.

There are the hopelessly and shapelessly obese, whose skeletons no longer seem adequate to maneuver their bodies, making them look like sad, flabby marionettes.

There are kids already on that trail of physical degradation, hiding their growing bodies in brand-new, loose-fitting clothes.

There is the hilarious TV commercial for a giant dinosaur-bone-driven machine sucking up leaves from the lawn, big as a house.

There is the fact that it is problem-free to use medication as an amusing metaphor for curing boredom on the hotel TV entertainment program ("Are you showing classic symptoms of boredom? Try one yellow button [on the remote control] for immediate relief. Repeat as necessary!")

There are the ubiquotous commericals for actual medications, and an apparent tendency to regard normal deviations as pathologies to be cured by chemical therapy.

There is all of this and more, a mixture of sanity and madness, and - like I said - I feel strangely connected to this place. There's something at work here that resonates with me somehow, although I can't quite express what it is. It feels human.

In some alternate reality, perhaps, this could be my home.

The American Experience II : Introspection.

Aye, I've gone to Portland, Oregon, and it has got me thinking.

Indeed, being away from home has my brain running in high gear, thoughts whirling about, evoking strange emotions all over the place, some getting traction and spurring some insight, some simply spinning off to infinity, not to be seen again.

Maybe it's the jetlag, or the caffeine I have consumed in order to fight it. Maybe it's the relative isolation of my brain, the lack of my spouse, with whom I share all things, to help in the processing of events, major and minute, which causes it to think up crazy things to fill its idle time, or maybe just the homesickness in general. Or maybe it's something larger, the sense of time passing, of irrevocability, age and thinning hair, of ultimate mortality.

But of course it's all of these things and more, in particular my own innate propensity for these kinds of thoughts and emotions, I'm just being coy about it, playing the game of rhetorics with whatever tricks I know, phrasing everything to please myself, and conjuring up all kinds of strange, romantic images in my head.

Feeling profoundly present and distant at the same time, I sit at some random cafe, sipping coffee, with far-away eyes, putting on my best intellectual pose, musing as if there were some giant distance between the world inside my skull and outside that my eyes must strain to overcome. To my defense, I actually think as deep and meaningful thoughts as I can.

As real as the actual moment may be, I can't help but thinking about the frailty of it all. It is hard to fathom that both Portland and I can be real at the same time, in the same place, that not one of us simply an illusion - that either I am indeed myself a ghost, or my surroundings a mirage that I could dispel at any moment. It seems to me that the fact that I'll be taking a long flight home tomorrow is more a result of me refusing to wake up from this strange dream than some physical necessity of actually having to transport my consciousness-hosting body from here to there.

Rational thought will have it that my flesh is no doubt as vulnerable here as it is at home, perhaps more so. But it is hard to convince myself of that, for my steps feel light and ghost-like in this foreign land (If I were to cross the street, could a car really hit me, or would it pass straight through me?). My presence here is like some stray, renegade neuron striking out at random, an unpredictable, improbable impulse or thought wandering off into unchartered territory. I am threading a thin line of experience, and with the lack of repetition, the memory of it will flicker, falter, and become unstable, like some dream-like event that you cannot quite make out if ever happened.

But what if the path I walked today, through the streets, under the sycamore trees, crossing the asphalt, skipping in some foreign rhythm, surprisingly light, almost animal-like, to this cafe, and later on, back on the streets, to something else, beyond; what if that path were not trodden once, but a thousand times over, creating a neurological connection in my brain as strong as any, turning it into a heartbeat of my life, a habit executed as easily as breathing, for which no senses were necessary, requiring only the presence of my self?

It has me thinking about the myriads of alternate me's living in their own worlds, similar to mine, yet unsurmountingly different. Still I feel the worlds intertwining, blurring into one another, as if I should any moment meet one of my ghostly twins on some corner, or suddenly looking at me in the window-glass through which I have been staring.

There's a certain sense of loss, of inexplicable sadness and melancholy, that for a while feels so infinite, tossing me recursively into myself.

I resort to various self-constructing acts, repeating my favorite incantations in my head, relaying the old familiar mosaic, and sorely missing the artifacts that somehow seem meaningful to me (How come I left 'Leaves of Grass' at home?). Yet even thinking of them seems to invoke some of their power.

And then, like some mirage-shattering dawn, I feel the counter-force of happiness and belonging, the connection to who I really am, to my wife and my daughter, my life at home, the realization that this unstable presence is indeed temporary, that there exists a well-established pattern somewhere that belongs to me and mine that illuminates everything, and makes it deeply meaningful, whereever I might be.

And so I return to my body, and feel at ease.

Tomorrow I'll be going home.