The Wandering Scientist

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Category Archives: Journal

Impermanence of music

Written: August 16, 2016, in New Orleans, LA

About: New Orleans, LA

There is a certain bar in New Orleans. It is a hole-in-the-wall with a short bar, a few small tables, and a band crammed into a corner. In this respect, it is like many other bars in town. This one just happens to be among the best.

Yeah.

So come here. Squeeze onto a bar stool, or screw yourself into one of the diminutive tables. Order cheap drinks. Watch Frenchmen Street flow in and out of the bar. Listen to some of the best electric blues you will hear anywhere. And remember – you cannot take any of it with you.

Even though the guys playing this spot have been doing it for years, they do not really seem to think of themselves as a band. They do not have a stack of CDs out front. No Bandcamp or iTunes pages. The outfit that has got your heart and your throat in its cool hands does not even really tour outside these stained and peeling walls.

You can never listen to this music again, take it apart phrase by phrase and bar by bar, loop it over and over on your commute, or thrust the earbuds at your friends – “Take a listen to this!” The only way to share this music is to drag your friends to New Orleans, find this spot, and be there on the right night and at the right time.

Once the strings and drum skins are still, their music is gone forever.

Then again, maybe this music’s impermanence and immediacy are part of its power.

There is no divorcing yourself from the moment. If you miss a note, there is no chance of coming back for it. You have to be there, plugged into every instant. You cannot be listening to it with half an ear. This music will not compete for your attention with the glowing screen of your smartphone. No, you have to be right here, right now, so shake off your drunken haze. I know this whole place got your head spinning with a deluge of lights, alcohol, and music, a carnival of wide-grinning inebriated strangers looking for an experience.

So settle down. You have found the experience.

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Midnight fog on Mississippi

Written: December 29, 2014, in Orlando, FL

About: New Orleans, the night of December 27

Fog rose up from the night-time Mississippi in tongues like ghostly flames. A low wind drove this fog, it slid over the levy and then lapped against the squat buildings of French Market. In places, the fog piled up, rising in a wispy columns. Gnarled and twisted, they rose up until they joined the low clouds, which themselves were held up by the glowing high-rises of the Central Business District.

The docks of Algiers, across the river, were but a disjointed collection of lights and angled roofs. Someone began to imagine them, but did not quite finish, and so they floated on, primeval and hypnotizing.

The wind picked up, and the fog grew into a shapeless behemoth that charged the shore. It moved fast, and almost instantly the levy disappeared, swallowed up. The lamps glowed weakly, like distant frozen comets. The massive wave of fog breached the flood wall, broke up into a legion of shadows and apparitions that rushed into the streets of French Quarter, growing ever more invisible with every step, every leap.

As the surge dissipated, it left behind a ragged sheath of fog, showing the water beneath. It looked taut, rough, grey, and wet, like the skin of some vast, languid animal dreaming under the fantastical cloak.

In all of this, Natchez, at her night dock, appeared as if behind a ward – completely free of the fog. The water around her sides was a pure, glistening black. Her light shone brightly, their clarity made more brilliant by the chaotic and unfocused world of the fog swirling around the ship.

The Christmas Mass, in three acts

Written: December 25, 2014 in New Orleans, LA

One

The façade of the Spotted Cat has been torn down, replaced with a mesh of bare plywood and sagging tarp. The only way you’d even know the place was by rote memory and the crowd of people busily stuffing themselves through the door. Let us go, out of the cold and into this temple.

Inside was warm and drunk and merry. Drinks came easy, and the jazz was laid back and smiling. Everyone – from the stage, to the crowd, to the bartenders – were friendly, and the shots of whiskey grew larger with every order. The Spotted Cat is an institution so deeply steeped in the jazz and the ghosts of a myriad musicians and travelers, that even if they razed the place, you’d still get a headful of swing just standing in the rubble.

Another whiskey and a grin for the road, then back into the cold.

Two

This act was unexpected.

Wandering around Jackson Square, a beautiful voice drifted from the top of the steps across Decatur. Her hands nervously grappling the banister and leaning forward over the vacant street, she sang Ave Maria. Halting, barely audible and shy, but unyielding and powerful in its sincerity, she lofted the vibrant notes in the clarity of the Christmas night. It seemed the very wind had stopped to let the song go on.

I stood, transfixed, at street level beneath the singer until she let go of the last night and retreated. I climbed the stairs to thank her, and found her overcome and embraced by her friends. She sang for her grandmother, for the first Christmas without her.

I gave my brief and embarrassed words of gratitude and retreated.

Three

The hall of St. Louis Cathedral is large, pure, dressed in white, accented with gold and candlelight. The holiday crowd overfilled it, with every pew full and people standing along the walls, in the back, and even in the atrium. The people were silent, only daring to impinge on the choir with only the politest of whispers.

The choir was on the balcony above the entrance, so it remained invisible for majority of the people in the cathedral. Its presence, however, was inseparable from the experience of the place. Its unassuming, unpretentious voice filled the hall with the potent, sourceless voice of the divine.

I find it very moving to see people of faith perform their rituals with simple, earnest genuineness. A countless number of people in the cathedral hall prayed and sang the hymns with expressions of genuine peace and quiet joy in their eyes, even those who found difficulty in the physical acts of standing and kneeling.

The sermon spoke for the need of peace, for the whole world, nations, cities, communities, and individuals, of the heartbreaking violence that takes people away from us daily. Peace means different things in different contexts, but there is an underlying desire for harmony and kindness. It also spoke of the need for silence and reflection.

Epilogue

I walked home feeling wonderfully, thinking on what I had seen and heard this night, and how it all fit together. Life is rarely if ever neat. Sometimes we need to get drunk on sin, and sometimes we need to pray for grace. Sometimes we need the humanity behind us, and sometimes we need the solitude of a cold night. Neither one makes sense without the other.

New Orleans is a city that looks in the dusty corners of your heart to find what you need, rather than what you want.

PS The sin link is NSFW. Of course.

California sun

June 11, 2014

San Jose, CA

The evening light change is gentle in Southern California. There is a sense of the sun rolling into the ocean even if you are miles from the coast. Everything is bathed in soft orange light. The sky is clean and taut, stretched like an aged cotton shirt.

I walked back to the hotel along the First, with the evening trains and buses occasionally trudging past. Elsewhere, the end of the day is hot and dusty, it feels done, a day that just wants to make it home, pull off the tight shoes and the strangling tie. This evening was wearing a linen suit, and it stopped by the cocktail lounge for a cool beer and to say hello.

Unknown bands and unknown people

Written: October 5, 2013, Gaithersburg, MD

About: live music on H street

Last night I went to see a friend’s band play at the grungy Rock n Roll Hotel on H Street in DC. My friend’s band was playing, along with two more that I have never seen before. Between the black walls and under the struggling speakers, they tore the air apart. No one does the jubilant, mad wall of sound quite like punks and gypsies mixed on the same stage.

The Unknown Bands rock the stage, their fame emblazoned on bathroom walls and small-run posters that will disappear before the next sun is out, a carnival of outfits and unrelenting commitment to outlandish antics. Their brilliant voices bust the speakers, and their instruments pound the amps, hanging on by the last strand of exposed wire. There is a throng of them up in the holy altar, wringing every last drop of sweat and wine out of the night.

The Unknown People fill the hall as a tumultuous sea. The waves of humanity crash about in reckless, beautiful dance, leaning toward the lights and the musicians, no longer tired, no longer poor, no longer alone. The crowd boils and steams and breathes fumes of fuel into the bands, jumping, dancing, hands stretched high, voices hoarse and unified.

For these hours, no longer Unknown, they are Royalty, come to pray in the Hall Most Hallowed.

I despise air travel

I despise air travel. I’m writing this while sitting at the Orlando Airport. I am delayed by about five hours because my flight was oversold, and I took the bullet (and the generous travel voucher) so that some other poor soul wouldn’t have a meltdown in the happiest place on Earth. If you ask me, overselling flights during the holidays season is an insidious practice.

Mind you, I am not afraid of flying. I am not afraid of heights and confined spaces. I actually enjoy that kick from the engines at takeoff. Flying is, in no uncertain words, magical. Common air travel, however, stabs, tramples, and poisons every bit of this magic.

Security. I still giggle when I take off my belt and shoes. It feels like a bad dream where you end up naked in front of the gym class, everyone laughs, and you want to die from embarrassment. Everyone else is either annoyed or takes it too seriously. I guess if your day consists of hunting and eliminating a stray shampoo bottle, those are your only emotional choices.

The airports are just sped-up, anxiety-driven malls. There are two states of being at the airport. The first is madly racing through the crowd to catch a connection. The other is a slowly creeping stupor of being trapped in a glass cage for an indeterminate amount of time. If a connection is more than an hour, it might as well be some sort of slow mental torture. Simple decisions become awkward exercises in mathematics. Are forty-five minutes enough time to get a hamburger? Use a restroom? Sit down in a restaurant? Everything is gaudy and fake. Reality devolves into something shapeless and weird. You are caught in a loop, where the reality replays itself every five minutes. Every repetition is somehow both more boring and more terrifying than the last. There is the constant fear that you have somehow missed your flight, even though it’s still two hours away. The concept of “hour” has stopped making sense a while ago, though. It may have become a negative unit of time. You may become trapped here forever.

I’d recommend stranding someone in an airport for a day or two as a means of “enhanced interrogation,” but by this time they may lose their self of identity so completely, they will be of no further use. At best they’ll be able to recite the standard public safety announcement and guide you to a Cinnabon.

The airplanes are cramped. I half-expect a sturdy stewardess to put a put a booted foot squarely on the chest of a patron in the first row and push, just to see if the passengers can be compressed just a bit more, and another sweaty family covered in suitcases and Goofy neckpillows could be squeezed on board.

I am not a man of excessive frame, at 6″ and 190 lb. Not diminutive, but surely not of unreasonable proportions. Yet I still feel like most airplane seats are a prank, and somewhere, someone is giggling hideously while I try to arrange a folding tray, a book, and a scampering bag of pretzels. I’ve given up on trying to use a laptop. I just end up curled in unnatural ways, stabbing myself with hard plastic, at mercy of the person in front of me who might decide to lean back slightly at any moment and crush my delicate arrangement completely, with grievous consequences to my person and property.

Air travel is overwhelmingly pedestrian and offensive. I may extend my policy of “I’d rather drive” to about twelve hours. If I have to have another six-hour stint at an airport, I become temporarily rabid.

I hate flying. Someone, for the love of all that is good and holy, get me out of here. My flight is boarding in an hour, and I don’t know if that’s enough time to safely get a hamburger.

Uncanny New Orleans

New Orleans has uncanny powers. Things and events touched by this city seem to become more heavily symbolic and meaningful. It produces coincidences that are charming and mischievous.

It was two years ago that I fell in love with New Orleans. It’s odd to know the exact date, but I do. On December 24th, 2010 I walked into the Spotted Cat and saw Meschiya Lake perform, and my heart was marked ever since. Though I did visit it again soon after, I have not had the opportunity to go back there until just recently. I have been trying to go again, but nothing worked out. Until a peculiar sequence of events conspired to bring me back.

The first was my college friends having a combined birthday and end-of-the-world party at the end of December. Lake City is about thirteen hours driving from DC, which is reasonably manageable. The drive from Florida to New Orleans is even shorter. The drive from New Orleans to DC, however, is much longer. While I was trying to figure out how to complete this route, a friend of mine mentioned that she was staying with her parents in Knoxville, TN for Christmas, and that I would be welcome to stop over. Knoxville is almost exactly half-way between DC and New Orleans. It could hardly be located more perfectly. At this point, I simply could not refuse the trip. As scheduling worked out, I arrived in New Orleans on the 23rd of December. On the 24th, I was again at the Spotted Cat.

Preparing for the trip, I messaged my friend whom I had met that first time on Frenchmen St. While she wasn’t going to be in New Orleans, we were going to overlap for a night in Tampa, FL. So we met and had dinner.

The above coincidences are not that unusual, given that everyone travels around during the holidays, I have friends in many parts of the country, and I think everyone has parents in Florida. However, the last touch was much more precise.

A couple months back, my dryer viciously attacked most of my dress shirts, ripping off many of their buttons. I have only repaired one. So when the time came for me to pack for this trip, I only had two shirts suitable for dancing – a black one and a blue one, the latter being the shirt I wore two years. I brought both, then lost the black one in Tampa.

I have two black vests I like to wear to dances. The newer one turned out to be in dire need of cleaning, so I had to pick the older one. The same one I had worn two years ago.

While I did recently buy a new pair of dance shoes, they did not work out very well, and I had to revert to my old pair.

So when the time came for me to dress to go to the Spotted Cat, on the exact two-year anniversary of my first visit, I was down to a single choice of outfit. The exact same one.

Carless in the Midwest

For two weeks, I am living out of a hotel in Urbana, IL, visiting lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Since the hotel is only a ten-minute walk from the lab, and car rentals are kind of outrageously priced, I don’t have a car. I am carless and foot-bound.

To be sure, there is actually public transit here, and the bus traffic seems to be pretty busy. But for some reason, I’ve never felt comfortable with buses the way I am comfortable with subways. (I can see where the trains go. There is only one tunnel. But when a bus leaves that stop, it’s free to roam the whole infinite grid of a city.) In any case, after arriving here I decided to embrace the fact that I will have to walk everywhere. I have good feet and good shoes, and walking is what our ancestors did, right?

Fortunately, Champaign-Urbana seems to be a fairly compact city. Downtown is within a thirty-minute walk, and Green Street (the obligatory collection of cheap booze and food within a close proximity of a college campus) is less than twenty minutes. The weather is tolerable – the afternoons are on the warmer side of things, but that’s just an excuse to get the second beer when I get to wherever I was going. The nights are outright pleasant.

Having a car always at my disposal had grown into such an attachment that at first I felt rather unsure about how this was going to work out. The possibility of walking for thirty minutes instead of driving for five was a bit uncomfortable, especially in an unfamiliar city.

However, two things. First – smart phones and Google maps make it almost impossible to be lost. I can easily estimate the route and time before I leave, and I can always reassure myself of my location and direction when I am out. Second – there is something incredibly liberating about getting to my destination and being able to simply walk in and enjoy the spot. I don’t have to scour the place for parking or worry about getting tickets or towed. Living in DC may have traumatized me in this respect.

Not to mention that experiencing the city – any city – on foot is radically different from experiencing it from a car. Doubly so if you are the one driving. As a driver, you live in a tunnel until you park the car. As a pedestrian, you are completely free to examine every oddity, enjoy every bench, and pull into any bar just because it has a cool sign. I’ve come across street art, beautiful scenes of classic urban abandon, and the spot where wild flowers are growing furiously around a railroad bridge. In a car, these things wouldn’t even exist for me.

And there is the breathing.

I feel like I can inhale these streets. The hot gravel, the dusty grass, the peeling paint, the half-century-old cars, the lived-in neighborhoods. I feel like I can take a bit of Urbana back home with me, in my lungs, in my every fiber.

The Black Keys at Merriweather

Date: May 18, 2012
About: Merriweather Post Pavilion, near Baltimore, MD

From the moment They came on the stage and touched those holy string and drum skins, no one sat down in the whole place. Everyone was up on the feet, their very toes, reaching for the roof and the skies. The music performed a miracle. It made the seats disappear.

They played a few songs where it was just the two of them, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney. Just two guys set against a huge stage, a wild array of lights, and a mad crowd squeezed into every inch of the place. Yet in this picture of fame and rock glory they still seemed like two guys playing a tiny stage in a no-name bar back in Akron. It must take a mile of humility to maintain such a delicate balance of presence. On the one hand, it is just two dorky guys doing what they do because they love it, come fame or mortal obscurity. On the other hand, it is such fire, such intensity that it blows you right down like a hurricane.

They came up to every single one of us, opened our chests, and politely rifled through our hearts until they found that string, that memory, that feeling that rang true. Then they plucked it and let it sing the whole night. What happened on that stage was the raw sound of love.

A wandering letter

Written: April 11, 2011

About: Portland, just now

As some may know, I collect a rather special sort of graffiti. I collect the sort that consists of messages left in public. Notes, abstract ideas, thoughts, conversations, words of love and wonder left on the public surfaces. You can see of these here. There is something rather magical about discourse that is once so anonymously private and so loudly public.

So whenever I walk around, especially if I’m just wandering about with not much to do – and I think we’ve established that I am fairly given to wandering about with not much to do – I scan the sidewalks and the walls for more such messages.

Tonight, walking around downtown Portland, I found not just a stray word or sentence, but a whole letter. I found a whole page filled with a heartbreaking monologue of one lover to another, a girl writing to a guy, feeling in pieces over how the two of them were slipping apart. In large letters, the word DRAFT was scrawled across. Yet, a magazine clipping (“Remember: be more thoughtful,” a short article on the importance of minding the little things in a relationship) was carefully taped to the page. The letter was dated two days prior. It was sitting on the ground, abandoned, next to a trash can.

While both people were identified in the letter, I’ll withhold their names. Though I’d still like to quote from the letter. I can’t help but think how often I’ve asked these same questions of myself before.

Yet we are not connecting – “different worlds,” I don’t know, keep us apart? Wheels and all – we are in a different time from so long ago. Does that balance we are so close to hitting between the past and present slip away the closer we get? What bridges are we not crossing?

Well now I’m here by unfortunate circumstances in Portland, Oregon, without much myself! What would I need to do to be myself with you?