Two pictures I took in Austin today, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. (As Rob Walker tells us, “Declare it art.”)
Two pictures I took in Austin today, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. (As Rob Walker tells us, “Declare it art.”)
“No one really says ‘get a life’ anymore,” @perpetua tweeted earlier this month, “and frankly people need to ~get a life~ far more urgently now than they did back in the late 80s/early 90s.”
I tweeted back, “I think there was more life to get.”
Obviously we were both joking, but the sense of exhaustion can be quite real, the feeling that we’ve depleted our inner and natural resources and we’ve explored what there is to explore.
This feeling is amplified by living in a city like Austin, Texas, where you’re constantly hearing about how much better it was before you got here. In a recent piece on Richard Linklater’s Slacker, Sean O’Neal writes:
Austinites carry a default attitude of “You just missed it”—as in, all the really cool stuff already happened. As Linklater pointed out in his post-show Q&A, that’s something he and his friends heard back in the eighties from all the hippie cowboys who’d seen the city’s “true” heyday in the sixties and seventies. Linklater pointed to the Slacker scene where local noise rockers Ed Hall played their song “Sedrick” to a near-empty Continental Club. Its lyrics, Linklater said, perfectly sum up the Austin point of view: “Things were so much better before you were here / . . . So much better in the past / I had myself a real gas.”
Again, this is a feeling, a feeling that can be alleviated by a single person saying, “You know, I lived here then, and it wasn’t that great.” (I think all the time about Patti Smith pointing out that the New York City of the 70s and 80s that we romanticize was filthy, bankrupt, and dangerous.)
This feeling that “it’s all been done” is amplified and exacerbated by artistic pretensions.
On a recent episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem was talking about reading Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence early on and how unconcerned he is now with being new or original. He recalled a speech he heard by Brian Eno about his early ambient work:
It’s hard to explain, but it was very easy to be new at that time…. He had gone and seen Cluster and the early Krautrock bands. And no one had thought, “I’m going to put all these things together…” At that time, there was still a lot of ground unclaimed. The time we live in now, there’s far less unclaimed ground.
“Which I think is normal, you know?” he throws in at the end, and yes, this feeling is extremely normal, and has been normal for at least 4,000 years. In the new afterword to the 10th anniversary edition of Steal Like an Artist, I point out that in addition to Ecclesiastes’ “there is nothing new under the sun,” two millennia before that, the Egyptian poet Khakheperresenb was already complaining that the good words had been used up.
In 1824, Goethe, who was always forthright about his influences, told his assistant Eckermann that he was glad he didn’t read Shakespeare at a young age because “Shakespeare has already exhausted the whole of human nature in all its tendencies, in all its heights and depths,” and “there remains for him, the aftercomer, nothing more to do.”
And how could one get courage only to put pen to paper, if one were conscious in an earnest, appreciating spirit, that such unfathomable and unattainable excellences were already in existence!
Goethe warns of engaging with work that’s too good in your youth. He says what’s important is to admire someone just a little bit further than you, and maintain a “standard of excellent” that is “not much higher” than whatever step you’re on and able to attain. Had he read too many masterpieces in his youth, he says,
..they would have overpowered me, and I should not have known what to do. I could not have gone on with such fresh light-heartedness, both should have had to bethink myself, and look about for a long time, to find some new outlet.
We celebrate the fact that most artists today have a huge portion of humankind’s output at their fingertips at any given moment, but we rarely think about the fact that exposure and abundance can also become a paralytic. Eno said he wanted to hear a certain kind of music, so he had to invent it for himself. Who feels the need to make new music, when you can almost always call up music that is completely new to your ears?
Sometimes when I watch my 8-year-old making music, I note how unencumbered he is by musical history and how free he is of any need to be original. He is happy, for now, to make music that is a parody of what he’s heard, and in the parodying, he comes up with his own thing. It’s new to him and that’s what’s important.
In fact, this is the great gift of children: everything is new to them, and so it can become new to you, if you let it.
Let’s face it: life these days is depressing. I sometimes find it hard to imagine a future. It feels like the GAME OVER screen could pop up at any time, and what is the point of raising children in an age like this?
And then I come to my senses and remember that it’s probably felt like the end of the world since the beginning of the world.
Here is something Nancy Wallace wrote in 1983 — the year I was born — in her book, Better Than School:
I constantly have to remind myself: now is the envy of the dead.
There’s always more life to get, and more art to be made out of it.
I had made a significant change in my relation to the place: before, it had been mine by coincidence or accident; now it was mine by choice. My return, which at first had been hesitant and tentative, grew wholehearted and sure. I had come back to stay.
My wife and I took a magical little walk (just an hour or so after I had written this post!) in a part of town unknown to us and I thought about happy we were to be back here, in the place that suits us, walking and exploring and just living our lives.
“Some are born in their place, some find it, some realize after long searching that the place they left is the one they have been searching for.”
—Wallace Stegner, “The Sense of Place”
“Once you are in Texas it seems to take forever to get out, and some people never make it.”
Our Lake Erie Sabbatical is officially over, and we’re back home in Austin, Texas, living just a few blocks south of where we first landed a dozen years ago.
I find it annoying how the older I get the more the clichés ring true. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. (Luckily, you can always turn around.)
I never gave this place the credit it probably deserved. People would say to me, “Oh, living in Austin, that must be so creatively inspiring!” And I’d say, “Well, I don’t know about that. It’s just a nice place to live.” But all my books and sons were born here, and the minute I got back, I started itching to get started on The Next Thing.
Every morning walk in the past two weeks has made me thankful for our return. We visited the Blanton this weekend, and this Jeffrey Gibson piece said it all for me. (I didn’t even look at the title. Every year has its theme.)
Good to be home.
This photo of ruins in Antigua, Guatemala is one of my favorite images from the past few years of traveling. (Not shown: the picnicking teenage sweethearts. “Love among the ruins…”)
I’m back in Austin, Texas after several months away in The North, living not far from a city with actual ruins. What hits my eye and sticks in my brain are the cranes and the half-finished buildings. Maybe it’s just the dark mood in me, but the unfinished buildings all look like ruins-in-the-making. And some of the finished buildings, like the parking garage I walked past last night, already look like ruins.
The most recent issue of the Austin Chronicle has a rendered image of a post-apocalyptic Austin on the front cover. (On Twitter I saw somebody joke that it was a well-played “don’t move here” measure.) There’s a creeping feeling that this won’t last. There’s a “correction” coming. But how bad will it be?
Everywhere you go there are abandoned scooters littering the sidewalks, like scooter cemeteries. (Undead? Waiting to be reanimated?)
I still hold love for the place. There’s still some magic lingering here, just as there is everywhere in America. A sunset helps. I walked past that same parking garage a half-hour later and the ruins were glowing, with the moon overhead…
I love maps. I love looking at maps and I love thinking about maps and I love collecting maps.
When I was studying at Cambridge, I was writing essays for my tutor about Dickens and Dostoevsky, and they were just awful. I think my tutor thought I was a moron. (Or just an American student. Same thing.) Then one day I came in with a rough hand-drawn map of the London in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. He said my scribbled map was the best work I’d done.
I knew then, I think, that my talent was going to be for using pictures and words together, and maps would serve as useful inspiration. A decade ago, I published a blog post collecting a bunch of fictional maps, and I’m thinking of them again, thanks to a beautiful new book, The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands.
A few bedtimes ago, both the 5-year-old and I were just lying in his bed looking at maps and talking about him. A rare moment of bliss. (His book was entitled, simply, Maps.)
A while back I read an article about how to you have to get children to fall in love with the world before you ask them to save it. (Gary Snyder: “The first step, I think… is to make us love the world rather than to make us fear for the end of the world. Make us love the world… and then begin to take better care of it.”)
Part of the author’s research was looking at maps children of different ages make of their worlds. He describes the cartography of the different age groups:
From ages four to seven, children’s homes fill the center of their maps, and much of their play is within sight or earshot of the home. Children often describe the worms, chipmunks, and pigeons that live in their yards or on their blocks, and they feel protective of these creatures.
From eight to eleven, children’s geographical ranges expand rapidly. Their maps push off the edge of the page, and they often need to attach extra pieces of paper to map the new terrain they are investigating. Children’s homes become small, inconsequential, and often move to the periphery of the map. The central focus in their maps is the “explorable landscape.”
From 12 to 15, the maps continue to expand in scope and become more abstract, but the favored places often move out of the woods and into town. Social gathering places such as the mall, the downtown luncheonette, and the town park take on new significance.
As Michael Chabon once put it, “Childhood is a branch of cartography.”
Maps are ubiquitous in one sense, and completely missing in another. A lot of younger people don’t own maps and atlases and don’t have the knowledge a map gives you. We call things like MapQuest and Google Maps on your phone interactive… but are they? Are they interactive? It’s a system that largely gives you instructions to obey. Certainly, obedience is a form of interaction. (Maybe not my favorite one.) But a paper map you take control of — use it as you will, mark it up — and while you figure out the way from here to there yourself, instead of having a corporation tell you, you might pick up peripheral knowledge: the system of street names, the parallel streets and alternate routes. Pretty soon, you’ve learned the map, or rather, you have — via map — learned your way around a city. The map is now within you. You are yourself a map.
Many of my favorite artists use maps in their work. Saul Steinberg is famous for his view of New Yorker provincialism, but he drew tons of other maps, including the one above, which was never actually published in his lifetime. Beautiful.
Years ago, I found this online migration map that shows you how people move in and out of different counties.
Three maps that tell three stories.
The top map is Cleveland, where I used to live. Everybody’s leaving. It looks like an explosion.
The middle map is Austin, where I live now. Everybody’s moving here. It looks like a black hole.
The bottom map is Pickaway County, Ohio, where I grew up. Hardly anyone leaves. Hardly anyone moves in. It looks like a puddle.
I’m interested in how maps can move beyond geography towards mapping other things in the world. Here’s one of my favorite maps of all-time, from a 2005 Harper’s:
I love looking at those diagrams and thinking about the stories behind them. (For example, where is the single dots, depicting the virgins?)
Around the same time I got interested in maps, I discovered “mind mapping,” and started making my own mind maps of the books I was reading:
When pictures and words are laid out in the same space — broken out of the linearity of normal type — you can see new relationships between them and come up with new ideas. I find this kind of drawing with pictures and words to often be way more powerful than simply writing longhand.
Years ago, I read Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination, and it had a big impact on me. (I later got to interview him about his work.) Turchi suggests that writers are cartographers, in a sense: they help people figure out where they are in the world.
I continue to be taken with this idea. I think of my books as way-finding devices: they show you how to get from where you are to where you want to be.
When Jane Jacobs’ sons were in danger of being drafted into Vietnam, the Jacobs family emigrated to Canada and eventually became Canadian citizens. An interviewer at Metropolis later asked if this was disruptive. Jacobs answered:
Well, it would have been disruptive if we had thought of ourselves as exiles. People who think of themselves as exiles, I find, can never really put their lives together, really. We thought of ourselves as immigrants. And it was an adventure and we were all together.
“We wanted to be a part of where we were,” she said. “Being an exile is having it fixed in your mind that you’ve just come to a place as a stop-gap measure.”
Exile worked for me until I had children. I could be in the city, but also apart from it. I could detach whenever I wanted to. I could hide out. Make my own world.
Even with babies, exile still worked. I was home with them. No need to send them anywhere. I could swaddle them up and keep them close. Pull the shades down and stay in.
Now they are growing up, and they want — they demand — to be a part of the world around them. They want to go outside and turn over every rock. They want to meet and befriend everyone on the sidewalk.
I never resent my kids, but, in my darker moments, I resent the way they have made me vulnerable to my surroundings. Suddenly, I am at the mercy of my street, my neighborhood, my city, my state, my country.
My children are natives, but I am still in exile.
It’s time to immigrate… or return home.
“Summer gets to be an old story.”
—Henry David Thoreau
T.S. Eliot called April the cruelest month, but in Austin, Texas, it’s September. Summer is winter here, and summer isn’t even officially over until September 22. The cursed sun pays no heed to anything official. You’re not out of the A/C until Halloween at the earliest. September here is just a cruel joke. When Northern Instagram fills with scarves and pumpkin spice lattes, your only solace is shorts in February. (Awful in its own way.) “Hot and sunny every day,” Bill Hicks mocked. “What are you, a fucking lizard? Only reptiles feel that way about this kind of weather.” It’s nothing right or natural. Nothing to be celebrated. Only endured.
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