josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

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3 Jun '09 08:43:18 AM

Travel diary, 6 April 2009 to 13 April 2009 (part 1)

6 April
My train leaves from the Amtrak station on Transfer Road in St. Paul at 11:15 pm. I’ve been there once before, and I’m well ahead of schedule, but I’m a little on edge during the bus ride down University. The two bags I’m carrying make me feel foolishly underprepared to travel for a week and to leave the country. (Even if I tried to fit everything in only one bag before resorting to two.) When I traveled as a kid with my family, or with friends in college, I felt more prepared, safer. And the travel always felt more deliberate: a trip to the airport, planning out a route on a map, double-checking with everyone else that everything is packed. Now I’m alone, not carrying much more than I do on any day of the week, broke and waiting for the travel reimbursement from my department to kick in. And I feel as if I’m waiting to find out if all the agents and clerks awaiting me at all the trains and bus stops will let me through.

At the station I read Kafka for about two minutes before they start boarding my train. They don’t check my ID, just make me sign my ticket, and send me to the ‘second door to the right’. There’s no one waiting at the door, so I just get on the train and start trying to make myself comfortable; everything is spacious but seems slightly the wrong size for me. A woman about my age gets on with her daughter. They’re excited to be going on an adventure. I’ve just begun to get settled when an attendant comes in and says that most people sit upstairs, where the view is better, and it’s mostly old people who have trouble getting around that sit downstairs anyway. So I move upstairs. The view is better; there are already more passengers up there. But not so many that I have to share my seat; it seems like no one has to. (Which I guess means no one between Chicago and the Twin Cities wants to go to Fargo, Whitefish, or Seattle by train.) The conductor doesn’t come by to check my ticket until we’re already moving. He, too, does not check my ID. (I keep noticing this kind of thing the whole week, partly because air travel is hyper-controlled by comparison, partly because I had to get a new ID and a passport in preparation for my trip, and now no one seems to want to see them.) He and the other agent stick a card over my seat to mark my destination, SEA; the seats and cars are organized by destination and by place of departure, but there aren’t a lot of people around me going all the way to Seattle. The woman and her daughter are; I keep seeing her the whole way there.

To occupy myself over the course of the week I’m taking Robert Walser’s Assistant, which I’ve been not finishing for months; a Reclam volume of Kafka’s Erzählungen, a stack of papers by my fellow Wednesday night speakers, and, as always, Wittgenstein and my dissertation. Tonight, as everyone around me is going to sleep at midnight, I read two or three of the papers and comment on them. The paper on ordinary language philosophy provokes lots of reactions, since I know the literature the author cites and have lots of opinions. The other paper is more substantive, more original, so I’m not sure yet what I think. I look out the window a lot. I don’t know the suburbs of the Twin Cities well, even after 8 years living here, and the train seems to be moving slow, so we spend a long time in what seems like foreign territory. After a while I can’t even guess where we are. I listen to Ghostface around one in the morning. It doesn’t quite fit but it’s been a long time since I’ve heard the record and it feels familiar. Even though I eventually feel tired enough to sleep, it proves to be hard to get comfortable. I have sleeping pills but I don’t take one until Tuesday night. I sleep pretty badly, waking up a lot; eventually I give in and try to curl up lengthwise in my seats, since everyone else is doing it. The ride between the Twin Cities and wherever, North Dakota, is pretty rough, rough enough to make me wonder why more people don’t complain about trains. (It gets smoother after that. And on the way back the conductor remarks that our overnight trip from Fargo to the Twin Cities is slow because bad winter weather has been rough on the tracks.) The train makes a lot of stops, not all of which I notice; some of them are barely in cities and only last a minute or two. I hear the conductor roust someone around three in the morning who I then see clomping tiredly away from the station with his duffel bag. He looks cold; the whole train seems cold now.

7 April
I wake up too early, too tired. There’s sun in the windows and the Amtrak attendants are already making announcements over the PA; the dining car has been serving breakfast since 6 am, they say somewhat chidingly. People around me are already starting to act awake so by 8 am I listen to Dear Science, and stare out the window. I could maybe eat in the dining car but I still haven’t heard about whether my travel reimbursement has come through (I write messages with my little phone all morning, whenever we’re not in a dead zone, trying to find out what’s going on). So I eat a bag of trail mix (I bought two Monday night, along with a real bar of soap and some of those little travel toiletries, out of aspirations to be prepared) in my seat, drink some water, and eventually find the bathroom downstairs and try to make it look like I didn’t sleep in my clothes, which works out OK. I feel like I have prepared all my life to succeed at pissing while standing on a train. The bathroom is maybe objectively a little bit gross but I’ve been preparing for that, too, by going to graduate school and by being a man.

The lounge car is several cars away from mine; in between a couple of the cars are totally empty. It has bigger windows and skylights but it doesn’t really deliver on the promise of being ideal for window-watching. It’s good, and different, nevertheless. There’s a snack bar downstairs; I buy $2 coffee that’s not terrible, but everything else is relatively more expensive than the corresponding non-train food. I sit in a little booth where I read the last paper and work on re-writing a section of my dissertation in light of my own paper. We go through a lot of rocky areas and a lot of towns while I’m sitting there (is this where we stop in Minot?), so I take lots of pictures out the window. (Most of the pictures I take on the train are no good.) I listen to Bitches Brew and the new Juan Maclean record once I get distracted by all the people in the lounge car. As far as I can tell, most of the passengers are a little poorer than plane passengers might be; which makes sense since passage is a little cheaper. They’re more white, middle class (at the lower end, though: students, retired farmers’ wives, people educated to be useless, rural families), than corresponding plane travelers. Sociologists analyze people’s life careers; the people I see on the train seem more like the people from my high school milieu (rural co-op town, mixture of farm families and distant suburbanites, graduating class for 54) than those from my college or graduate school milieus. But that may have a lot to do with where we’re going. The bulk of the passengers get on and off after the Twin Cities and before Seattle—that is, they make shorter regional, even in-state trips somewhere in North Dakota, Montana, or Washington.

Parts are compelling, but mostly, out the window, by the train tracks, North Dakota is ugly. I grew up in Iowa, whose horizons and green fields comfort me (Schopenhauer: ‘This is the species of the sublime for which the sight of the boundless praries of the interior of North America is renowned.’), so it’s not that I find it boring: what’s there is just ugly. The look of the ground cover, the clouds and the color of the sky. The plants seem left on the ground; everything seems left on the ground, machinery, broken-down cars (it seems like everyone in this part of the upper midwest collects them, or just can’t be bothered to get rid of them), in fact anything whether it still works or not. It all seems to have been left exactly where it was last being used or last worked. And there’s a lot of garbage, enough that I become irritated and wonder who wouldn’t just walk out there and pick it up and throw it away. This continues from the North Dakota border (and probably just before that, but I feel too much pride for my adopted state to besmirch Minnesota, and anyway it was dark outside for that part) to the eastern part of Montana, where the grazing land then starts to look organized and cared-for, despite still being strewn with glacial rocks like North Dakota. In Western Montana, the hills start to look like mountains, and in the same way I feel I’ve always seen mountains: at first, I think, oh, mountains, and am a little unimpressed, a little impressed, and I look a lot, and eventually let them be; then later I find that I am amid the mountains and everything seems completely different, almost as if I had never seen mountains before. The latter comes late at night, but when it’s still bright enough to see. Earlier at night I listen to the new Junior Boys (too far in advance of the Canadian border) and the new Lindstrøm, without satisfaction; in the mountains I turn to Walking Wounded and it’s ideal, floating fast and slow at the same time, with the same upward motion of the train’s path through the mountains. There is still snow here. Later, Königsforst, but I don’t hear much of it. I take extra sleeping pills, find a new way of stretching out, and am unaware of most things until morning.

8 April
In the morning I again do a version of my routine, adjusted for the train. My second bag of trail mix is gone so I make the last call for breakfast in the dining car, where I’m seated with Katie, a photographer, artist, and teacher who got an MFA at the U in the 70s and seems to have been bouncing around the midwest to find work ever since. I try to explain my impending talk to her; it doesn’t sound too bad. Breakfast is eggs, croissant, grits, coffee, orange juice, six bucks. They chase us out of the dining car and I gladly accept the escape from forced interaction with strangers, though it was pleasant enough. My arrival in Seattle is scheduled for 10:20 am. Even though there’s a lot of time left until then (and we run late), I’m not sure what I do during the remaining time; stare out the window a lot, listen to records, and wait as if it makes the end come sooner. There are more mountain views. They’re impressive but never terrifying, and I wonder if maybe the eighteenth-century philosophers who wrote about the sublime had a different perspective due to doing more hiking, maybe having rocks fall on them. But if not terrifying, the view still encourages a feeling of peace.

The mountain towns are neat, practical in their use of space, surprisingly modern-looking for places full of pickups and lumberyards. Every house not immediately surrounded by its neighbors seems nestled in natural surroundings; I imagine that the people living in them wake up every morning to the feeling of being totally surrounded by a nature which is above them. (In Iowa, in many places the preposition is different; and it is never ‘above’.) The train stations here have money.

As the train comes in to Seattle, it seems like the most futuristic place I’ve seen in years, because all I can see are the stadiums and office buildings and highway exchanges. (The return trip looks completely different.) I’m half an hour late for my bus to Vancouver, but I go right through the station (there’s nothing inside it) and find a bus with the right number on it. The driver greets me, says he’s been waiting for me, takes my ticket and lets me on; there are only half a dozen people on board and they’ve been waiting just for me.

(Getting off the train is like getting on, but with even less supervision: you can leave once they open the door, and just walk away.)

Along the coast, everything in Seattle is on a hill, and the hills are covered with houses; everywhere looks like a place to live. You can’t look far without being reminded of all the life and people around you. In the Twin Cities, the terrain hides detailed reminders of the lives of all but the closest people.

The bus is clean, new, quiet. Outside the city, the terrain seems like that outside any city I’m used to, once the coast, mountains, and climate are factored in: the use of the land, the rhythm of towns and businesses, the things for sale. On the bus, I have to fill out a customs form. I think, this is all they want? When we stop at the border, the bus gets to go through separately (which seems like it saves us a couple of hours on the time advertised on the signs). We all get off, carry our bags through, and talk to the Canadian border agent, who sounds Canadian. The guy in front of me, a paralegal from somewhere in California, is also going to the conference, and he made his plans spontaneously. This makes the border agent a little more suspicious, apparently, especially since the guy hasn’t arranged his return passage yet, doesn’t quite know the names of the places he’s going, etc. But they let him through. A hispanic couple is looking for work by way of Kansas by way of the southwest by way of Seattle; the border agent asks them more questions, too. He barely asks me any. (Suggested questions: ‘How much money do you have in your bank account?’ ‘Whose floor are you going to sleep on?’) We’re through in well under half an hour and back on the bus. Immediately on the other side of the border, things seem different, but not that different. The signs and the traffic lights are a little different. There are lines, power or telephone, stretching across the road at an odd angle. Off in the distance the land seems different, as if nature is different in Canada or they have made it different. But it’s hard to say how. I watch and wait much as I had at the end of the train ride. I had thought it would be tedious, tiring, frustrating to have to board a bus for the last few hours of my long trip, but I don’t feel anything like that. Maybe the pace of the train has helped me adjust. I’m just doing this until I reach Vancouver and can do other things (like get on another bus).

Once we’re in Vancouver proper, I at first feel I’m seeing nothing new. But as we’re driving down what seem like major thoroughfares it starts to feel like there are an awful lot of people walking around or waiting for buses (at very conspicuous bus stops, their signs are much better than ours, with buses grouped together according to where they go, and a distinctive yellow and blue design unlike the other street signs), even for such a residential area. We pass streets and streets of nearly identical homes—it looks like the results of some housing initiative many years ago. But the houses look quaint, not fabricated. The neighborhood seems to be very slightly poor, the bottom end of middle-class, maybe, but not benighted by it in any way. A lot of the people I can see are Asian, maybe the majority of them. As the areas we pass through become more commercial, I start to see scores of Asian restaurants of all sorts. Lots of sushi already. I make a point of remembering the streets and major intersections so I can tell J. and W. that we should come here to eat, but once we keep going for a while I realize the city center is so far away that we’re not coming back over here. The bus makes its way through a little district populated with carpet and tile dealers, wood floor brokers, that kind of thing. It seems a little excessive, and I wonder if maybe there’s something about Vancouver that makes people really want to redecorate a lot.

When we disembark at the bus station I look around for a cash machine. It’s easy to get money there, said P., said J. too, you just go up to a cash machine and do it that way. And I do need the cash—I came up with almost no American money in my pocket and now it’s gone. I do have, thanks to P., a $5 Canadian note. I have a plan to catch a city bus across town to the hotel—I don’t know how people managed this kind of thing before the interweb—with enough time to spare to clean off a day and a half of train ride before my talk this evening. I kind of think I should find a way to break the $5 or get some extra money, so that if I have trouble getting to the hotel I’m not left without means. But the cash machine thinks I don’t have any money, at all, or that something is wrong with my card, both of which are a little troubling. I do notice the strange symbols, and lack of familiar symbols, on the machine, so I hope maybe I can just get lucky later. I think to buy a bottle of water, or a cheeseburger or something (there’s a McDonald’s tucked away in the bus station; I for one would relish the perversity of going to Canada and then eating at a McDonald’s), so that I have some coins to use on the bus and can possibly buy more than one thing, but then I think that would be dumb, because the bus ride I want could cost me my whole $5.

So I wander around outside for a while until my map lines up with my view of reality. I find my bus, the one promised on the interweb. There several people waiting, some of them from the bus station. When a bus stops, the driver turns away the couple in front of me, who are from the bus station. He turns me away too, and says I have to buy a ticket up on the bridge by the Skytrain. This seems preposterous to me—maybe he thinks I want him to break my $5 and give me change, which I’m willing to forego if I can ride on the fucking bus? Anyway, like that I’m off the bus and up on the bridge trying to buy a ticket from the machine. It takes cards, so first I try my card, thinking, I’m so prudent, I’ll use my card and keep my Canadian $5. This machine also thinks my bank account is broken. So I part with P.’s $5. This machine is kind of like the bus driver, except in reverse. It doesn’t seem to want to do anything except sell me a $5 fare. So I take it and go back to the bus stop down on the street. The couple from the bus station makes it back too before the next bus. Not a block down the street we pick up a mustachioed drunk in his 50s who cadges a ride across zones without paying the whole fare; he does it quite openly, maybe even performing a little for the bus. He knows he’s in the wrong zone but it’s just down the street, he says. The bus driver doesn’t bat an eye and lets him on, which irks me after I was rejected by the first driver for wanting to pay extra. There are some drunks in the back of the bus who pick up on mustache’s story and take the opportunity to praise the good life, ah, drunk already.

The bus is pretty crowded for a while, and the passengers seem to deal with it in an uncomfortable way. The back door is enormous and pushes me out of the way when it opens. The hybrid buses in Vancouver run off electric lines above the street, and when they stop at lights they hardly make a sound inside or out. This is unsettling for a Twin Cities habitue without his headphones on. There aren’t that many people talking and the ones who are, you can hear real well but would rather not, not because of any egregious violations of propriety, but because you’re used to being shielded from that level of (other people’s) banality by the familiar noise of a bus.

As we turn in toward the city center everything becomes denser and taller, newer, gleams more. (Everything in this part of Vancouver seems to gleam.) But the mix of passengers on the bus, even as people have been getting on and off, doesn’t fit the scene as I expect it. The casual people are too casual: you want to tell them to straighten up a little. The poor people don’t seem like urban poor. I don’t know—things are off. There are eventually some businesspeople, but that doesn’t help any. At one point, the bus picks up two women in their forties (their dress seems off but I won’t realize until later that they look just like most of the women in downtown Vancouver) who, just as openly as the drunk earlier, say that they’re only going a few blocks and they’re too lazy to walk. My ire grows and I think of M. and his respect for rules and quiet fury at their infraction. People are cut breaks on buses in the Twin Cities, sure, but at least they work a little shame and covert negotiation with the bus driver in there. I figure it must have something to do with Canada’s reputation as a socialist haven. Or the niceness. (Robin bumps into a patron at Little Canada. Patron is taken aback: ‘Ooo, sorry, I must not have seen you there! Would you like a donut?’)

I get off, it turns out, when I’m more or less supposed to. I walk around a little, I peer at things, I find the hotel. J. and W. are waiting in the lobby (I texted J. from the bus station to tell him I was on my way), sitting there for all the world like nothing is going on. I feel like I have suddenly come not from the Amtrak bus station but immediately from Minnesota, and wonder why J. and W. are not more impressed.

1 Jun '09 08:36:30 AM

A special use of the conditional: the one where any definite consequent goes completely unspoken. 'If something happens to her…'

30 May '09 09:30:26 AM

If everyone reviews an artist's new records by saying that they are returns to form, the best record since such and such past arbitrary zenith, then to truly assert that the artist's new record really is a return to form, and that you're not just saying so because that's what everyone always says, it's not enough just to say that everyone always says it. But then what else do you say?

29 May '09 11:17:57 AM

'Why do you think your music appeals to American Indians?'

'I would hope that it appeals to everybody.'

'I know suburban people who can't stand it.'

'Well, I wish there were more I could do about that.'

29 May '09 10:56:50 AM

I still think Dylan is saying (something like) 'choostinate' and am in no hurry to gain a clearer understanding on this particular point.

28 May '09 10:43:15 AM

'Do your fucking job.'

28 May '09 10:20:48 AM

Deerhunter records are better when the words are indecipherable. I mean this as praise.

28 May '09 09:13:57 AM

O for a record review without a narrative in it.

28 May '09 09:03:54 AM

If there is something that could be called purely musical, I usually feel like Simon Reynolds ignores it as it suits him.