June 29, 2009
I don’t really understand about aquariums and I never have. I was swimming in the ocean today and there were a lot of things to look at and I did look at the things, since looking is what I do and things are what I do it with. The ocean is clear here, clear enough that if it’s a sunny day you can see your individual toenails even when you’re chest deep, can distinguish toe from nail from ocean floor as well as see clearly and in great detail all the various shells, weeds, and tiny creatures that are bountiful and plenty all around. Waves are nonexistent in most weather patterns; light shimmers in the pockets of ripples; gulls land on the skin of the water and then take off again, fishless. On weekend afternoons, single-engine planes strafe the coast trailing screen-printed bottles of Patrón and strings of black text which read “PLAY LOTTO WIN A MILLION” and “2NITE AT MANSION: LLOYD.” Girls in bikinis turn striped towels in line with the sun; women in straw hats chase children and apply lotion to their wet backs. Illicit dogs draw occasional citations but mostly envy; from a distance, jet skis sound like photocopiers, slicing through sheets of surf. This afternoon, a helicopter flew right over my head from the south and a man sitting in the open door looked down at me looking up at him; he was wearing a helmet with a microphone and some kind of uniform but I couldn’t tell what kind. Later, swimming along a stretch of beach where there is no public access and so there is often no public, I noticed a group of teenage girls in the water maybe a hundred feet ahead of me, eight or nine of them giggling and splashing in a ring of froth and chatter. As I swam farther, a matching group of teenage boys on the shore began yelling at the girls, all of them jumping up and down at the edge of the water and waving their arms, screaming, “Shark! Get outta there! Shark! Come here!” The girls twisted and shouted momentarily and then made for the shore and fast, breaststroking and dogpaddling through the shallows and into the waiting arms of their sunbaked almost Romeos. The sexes reunited, I continued to swim the same line I had been swimming, up the coast in the direction of the supposed shark, personally thinking that the boys were likely lying about the shark and just wanted to see the girls rising out of the water in their dripping swimsuits but not particularly worried about the off chance that they were actually telling the truth its existence, maybe even a little excited by the prospect, to be honest.
When I’m swimming in the ocean and looking at things, I also think about things, or at least that’s what I think I’m doing. Sometimes I think about things I’m writing, like this paragraph, and sometimes I think about things I have to do later in the day, like go to the grocery store, and sometimes I think about precious and dear memories, like sitting outside a brick building with a girl at dusk, but most often I think about being attacked by a shark and what the ensuing media narrative would be like if I were attacked by a shark. Not killed, of course, not even maimed, no facial scars or complex internal injuries, god no, but I often think that I would probably sacrifice a hand or foot to go on the Today Show as a shark attack victim. I would really prefer to lose a foot, since I would hate to not be able to play the guitar or touch type and even though I’m also a runner, I think I could still run fairly agreeably with a bionic foot; you see people on television doing such things all the time, we have the technology. I imagine myself as a shark attack victim on the Today Show, me and Matt Lauer at the top of the hour, the first segment, me sitting on the couch opposite him and looking handsome and brave in a sharply cut suit with the rounded end of my missing hand or foot displayed in a prominent position for the camera, perhaps resting on some kind of clear glass stand. I think about all the possible postures I could play out in my interview and how they would affect the trajectory of my newfound fame — would I go all hemped-out and born-again beach bum, espousing cosmic love for the shark that had bitten me and angling for a Travel Channel series in which I visited various tropical locales, sampled exotic delicacies, and played whispery nylon string ballads amid the local flora and fauna? Maybe instead I would take the media critique angle, stopping Matt in the middle of an innocuous question about my pain to deliver an explosive Network style monologue about the fear mongering of “the media” and how rare shark attacks actually are and how there is more important news for everyone to be covering, dammit. This would, of course, not be a genuine reaction but simply a way to change my narrative from victim to attacker, to give myself the kind of agency that gets you an agent. Could I express a religious conversion, a water-logged version of the “cross in the dirt story,” some sandy Solzenhenitzen? Or maybe something more salty and Hemingwayesque? Perhaps instead I would go with performance art: Today could do a location shoot at MOMA where I would shatter The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living with a sledgehammer or pickaxe, the clear liquid and shards of broken glass running all over the gallery floor, the shark deflated like a plastic pool toy. Maybe I would be genuinely traumatized by my injury, waking up at odd hours after having seen in dreams the dark shape of the shark coming near, and maybe because of this genuine trauma when I was on the Today show I would just give the same dull, sad interview that most victims appearing on television talk shows do, the interview that they don’t in fact give but instead receive, but this is an unpleasant fantasy for me to think of and I don’t allow myself to think of it and if I do think of it, I just open my eyes and look at the various things in and around the ocean until my brain is as empty and clear as the blue sky above.
I don’t understand about aquariums, though. I like looking at things in the ocean but that’s because I’m in the ocean to swim, I’m already there; I don’t go to the ocean for the looking at things, it’s a bonus, value-added. I understand aquariums as a place to take bored or fussy children, I guess, since if a child is bored or fussy you move it around to different settings in order to make it less bored or fussy, that is parenting, I understand that, but what contemporary grown adult person chooses to visit an aquarium of his or her own volition? I can’t imagine such a person. Even children these days seem to be weaned on screens sufficiently enough that some of their requisite changes of setting might be better achieved as virtual trips rather than actual ones. To me, aquariums are completely irrelevant in the age of large screen high definition televisions and Blu-Ray players. What do you do at an aquarium? You look at things through glass. You walk around on carpet with other people through a darkened space and you stare through different panes of thick glass at different things floating around in blue water, things which are alive and which sometimes do amusing things for your enjoyment and other times just float there being themselves and not entertaining you in any particular way. Sometimes the things come close to the glass, making it easy to look at them, and other times the things swim away, making it hard to look at them. If the things do amusing things or if they come close to the glass, sometimes people take pictures of the things and their camera flashes echo off the glass through the dark room and bounce into your eyes, making it hard to look at the things. There are often rules posted against this but people are too busy looking at things in water through glass to read them. Stray children run about the carpet, squealing, and sometimes there are corn dogs and sometimes there are ice creams in the shape of a whale and often there is vomit. That’s basically the experience as I know it. I don’t understand about aquariums, I really don’t. In this day and age? What I think is someone should take a top of the line HD camera package and a good lighting rig and go around getting video of all the very best fish in all of the very best aquariums all around the world, putting the big lens of the camera right up against the panes of glass and shooting things through them at a high frame rate. This way, people could buy the DVDs and have the experience of the aquarium from the comfort of their own homes. If the people have multiple televisions in their homes, they could even put different discs from the set in each television and walk their children through the dark house in sock feet to visit all the fish in their individual wide screen habitats. What would the difference be? What would be lost? Aquariums aren’t like roller coasters or other amusement rides, which are about wind and force and noise and so would lose a certain something in DVD form, and they aren’t like museums, where the focus is always on learning and facts and edification — aquariums are about looking at things through glass, just like television. There has never been a more realistic computer screensaver than the aquarium. What could be lost in the process of digitization? I think the films would actually be an improvement over real aquariums, where the lighting is often awful and the fish aren’t even color corrected.
I understand that my beliefs about aquariums are atypical, which there’s a medical excuse for, maybe. Since I was born, I’ve had problems with my left eye, problems with looking at things through it; it’s a lazy eye, is what you call it. I’ve worn glasses as long as I can remember, always looking at things through glass my whole life, but by the time I was walking and talking, a doctor proposed patching as a possible remedy for my problem. The idea was for me to wear a patch over my strong right eye for extended periods, making it so I could only look at things through my lazy left eye. By not looking at things through my strong eye, the idea was, I would make my lazy eye less lazy, as if all the looking would convince my eye that there really were things in the world worth working hard enough to see. I didn’t wear a black pirate’s patch with a strap as you might imagine; instead, disposable flesh colored stickers were adhered to my face every morning. On each day’s patch, my father would draw an image of an eye — often realistic and painterly, occasionally abstract, in pencil or ink or magic marker. The representations of good eyes stuck over my bad eye didn’t make seeing any easier but they did make being seen somewhat less traumatic. In terms of improving my vision, though, the patch experiment was a spectacular waste of time and energy and self consciousness and to this day I can’t see particularly well out of my left eye and live in constant subconscious fear of anything ever happening to the right one that would prevent me from looking at things in the future. The fact that my lazy eye doesn’t see well, has, I think, predisposed me to privilege the image over the actual in some fundamental ways. My lazy eye and its marriage to my good eye means that my depth perception is hazy and I have some trouble gauging where exactly things are in space. This is not drastic or life-affecting and mostly manifests itself in me bumping into things. When the space is not actually space, however, but is a simulation, a representation of space contained in a flat plane, like a screen of glass or a piece of paper, I have no problem perceiving it perfectly. When I was trying to learn to drive, I (literally) hit the broad side of our house with a station wagon but later in life I was able to destroy anyone at Mario Kart even through multiple layers of intoxication and with my glasses off. The only other thing I really missed out on because of my eye’s laziness, besides the ability to catch small balls, were those paper and cellophane 3D glasses given out for special comic books and movies. It may seem stupid, but that was so crushing as a child, the idea that the magic glasses that worked for everyone else to make images real wouldn’t work for me, that I couldn’t see the world in 3D. When I put them on, all I saw was one color.
I realized the other day that I haven’t really been in an art museum since I was in the seventh grade. In college, I went to openings at galleries and group shows and parties where there were objets d’art sloppily tacked to the walls and et cetera but everyone knows those sort of things aren’t about art for anyone except the artists or people who have no one attractive to talk to at the moment. I’m a person who’s read The Tradition Of The New and On Photography and who at one point or another wrote on 3X5 index cards the artist, date, style, and medium of seemingly every masterwork from Lascaux to Lichtenstein, who knows Manet from Monet, so to speak, but I haven’t been to an art museum in the daytime for learning and edification and looking at things since I was in the seventh grade. This is not a thing I did on purpose, like last year when I realized I hadn’t ever been in a Starbucks and so stubbornly stood outside in the cold while the people I was hanging out with bought hot and elaborate coffees that smelled like love; I just haven’t felt the need to go, I guess. Susan once talked about the necessity of an erotics of art and I thought it was sexy when she said it, or at least when I read it, late at night in a worn, borrowed library book, but I guess I’ve always been pleased enough by the pornographics of art, reproductions printed in miniature on glossy pages in thick books or projected giant size on screens in dark classrooms, images of images and representations of representations. When I was in the seventh grade, we took a class trip to Washington DC and my visited, among other locations ,the National Gallery. I think I saw a Van Gogh there, sunflowers or stars, I’m not sure, we didn’t stay long and mostly went for the gift shop, to buy postcards of Old Masters. The only thing I really remember from the trip is eating lunch at Planet Hollywood, having a big cheeseburger there at a round table in the midst of the memorabilia, all the famous things to look at while I ate.
Last night there was a thunderstorm over the ocean and the dog came into my room around midnight, looking for me. I was in bed, looking at a book. The dog is supposed to sleep in the living room, on an improvised bed made from an ottoman cushion and a leopard print blanket which sits next to the entertainment center. She does this most nights but when there’s a thunderstorm, things change. This is because the dog is afraid of thunderstorms. The last dog we had wasn’t afraid of thunderstorms, but this one, who looks almost exactly the same as the last dog we had, is afraid of thunderstorms. Appearances can be deceiving. When there’s a thunderstorm, the dog nuzzles open my door and comes to my bed, hooking the crook of her neck over its edge so that her entire head rests on my fitted sheet. Her eyes look up at me, begging. I don’t let the dog in my bed because I think boundaries are important and also she smells. When the dog first started begging in thunderstorms, I would rub her head for a minute and then, whispering in a soft tone, would walk her back out to the living room to sleep. This didn’t work, though, and this is because the dog is afraid of thunderstorms and so by the next crash of thunder, before I could even get settled again, the dog would be back at my bed, hooked, begging. This was annoying because I’ve always liked falling asleep to the sound of storms at night; I never dream better than when it’s terrible outside. When I was a child, my parents had tapes of sounds from around the world on top of the boombox in their bedroom. They had a tape that sounded like the rainforest and they had a tape that sounded like the ocean and they had a tape that sounded like a thunderstorm. The tapes were designed to help my parents sleep by replacing the sounds of the actual world with the sounds of virtual worlds that were more peaceful and serene, more natural, places where things did not honk or slam or clatter. The tapes didn’t work for my parents but sometimes my brother and I would use them as aids to play, to better create the illusion that we were in the rainforest or the ocean or a thunderstorm, fighting some imagined evil. The dog is afraid of the sound of thunderstorms so the tape wouldn’t work for her, of course, it would be virtual torture, except as a dog she doesn’t understand distinctions between the virtual and actual, so it would just be torture, plain and simple. One night, half-dreaming, I thought about making her a tape of the sounds of the average evening, the muffled tones of television hosts and forks scraping against plates and pages turning and occasional laughter, a recording of domestic calm that could mask thunderstorms in its veil, but I don’t think my microphones and speakers can capture and reproduce the right frequencies to soothe her adequately. Perhaps earmuffs would work better, but my dog doesn’t like wearing clothes, as is natural. Sometimes I think it would be nice to be my dog, to just be able to look at things without thinking about them so much or trying to understand them or writing a long essay about them, but then I realize that I would also have to be afraid of thunderstorms, which would be horrible, so I guess it’s kind of a trade-off. Last night, as is now procedure, I dragged the dog’s bed from the living room down the corridor to my bedroom, stray hairs shooting off the cushion like sparks from a broken muffler. After settling her down and telling her that everything was going to be okay, I turned off my lamp and closed the two layers of thick curtains around the windows, the curtains that I always otherwise leave open. I closed them so that the dog wouldn’t be able to look at the lightning strikes or connect them in her mind to the crashes of thunder that she was hearing, in order to shield her from the sights since I couldn’t stop the sounds. In the dark, there was nothing to look at so I went to sleep.