Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Airports, the Monkey Egg, Missoula

For the most art we are not where we are, but in a false position. Through an

infirmity of our natures, we suppose a case, and put ourselves into it, and hence

are in two cases at the same time, and it is doubly difficult to get out.

––Henry David Thoreau, Walden

When I am on my computer, particularly when I am on-line, where am I? Oh yeah, I’ve already answered that: on my computer. So, this morning I was sitting in the Sea-Tac Airport and where was I, Oh yeah, on my computer. But then I got to thinking, where am I really?

Seattle is a city that has enormous emotional resonance for me. I lived here for three years in my early twenties and these were heady days, intense days somehow disproportionately more formative than any other three-year period n my life. I started a business, made life-long friends, climbed, met my wife (Note: this list is chronological, not otherwise hierarchical), climbed, finished school, and climbed. I launched myself, right here in the Pacific Northwest. But Sea-Tac Airport? I’m not feeling it. The Seattle vibe: it’s not here, even if there is an Ivar’s (keep clam!). There are two problems: first of all, the airport is in neither in Seattle or Tacoma; secondly: it’s an airport. An airport isn’t really a discrete place. It’s like an embassy of the country, Airport. When you’re in an airport, the word airport can easily be interchanged with the word nowhere. You’re in the waiting room for the next non-airport place.

Reading is not dissimilar, except that it’s generally pleasing as opposed to disconcerting, although sometimes reading is disconcerting, but in a good way. You’re in the book, but usually you’re in the world, too. In fact the measure of greatness in writing is the proportion of you it occupies: 90% in the book 10% world is a very good ratio (for the book). A book is good if we are absorbed by it and the time during which we read it we have been transported from our quotidian world. “There is no frigate like a book . . . “

Then there are stories that themselves occupy two worlds. I’m thinking of the Kelly Link story, "House on the Hill," in the new Tin House that I just picked up at the airport. A new Kelly Link story is endorsement enough to pick up a copy of Tin House, even though Tin House is reliably good in general. In this, as in many, Kelly Link story we begin in the real world, that is, a linguistic representation of the everyday world. On the middle of page two: “He held it out on his palm; one of Fran’s old toys, the monkey egg. ‘Now you know I don’t like these. I wish you’d put ‘em away.’”

We don’t have to know what a “monkey egg” is to continue reading. We know it’s a toy that hasn’t been put away, and structurally that works . . . for the moment. We’ll read for six more pages (big Tin House pages of about 500 words) firmly, we think, rooted in Fran’s world, new to us but recognizable, until the monkey egg reappears and Ophelia, an outsider, like the reader, is welcomed into the strange world that makes a Kelly Link story a Kelly Link story. As a reader you occupy two worlds simultaneously within the story. In a Kelly Link story this balancing act is pleasing.

When you’re in an airport—not so pleasing––the environment is so conspicuously manufactured and the air is stale. The best thing you hear in there is the question: “Add a shot to that for three bucks?”

I like small airports, like Missoula’s. When the plane lands, a staircase is wheeled to the airplane door and upon exiting the plane you descend to the ground. You’re in one place. You’re in the world.

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