…Aaaaand, we’re back!

Sorry for the little hiatus there. I was transitioning from WordPress.com to WordPress.org, and it took a little time.

I want to give a shout-out to WPBeginner, who did the entire transfer for me for free. Seriously. They’ll get a small commission from my hosting with Bluehost, and they handled the whole transition, except for the part where I had to transfer my domain from my own hosting service. I had to fix one or two little things, but they handled the process beautifully, and you can’t argue with the price!

Anyway, joshphilipross.com is back and better than ever.

Train wrecks and cancer

There are things you can only learn from being in a train wreck. Like how to survive a train wreck, what to do when you’re in a train car and it’s on its side and on fire and everyone around you is screaming or dead. Like what it feels like to be in a train wreck. And being in a train wreck is so intense and loud and such a big fucking deal that you start to think that there’s maybe nothing grander or sweeter or profounder than the things you learn from being in a train wreck.

The bullshit part is the thinking that all of life is like your train wreck. It’s not. Hardly any of life is like your train wreck, and your actual train wreck is boring. I once sat through an AA meeting up in Harlem where the speaker kept saying things like, “Remember zip guns?” or “Remember razor fights?” and the black men in their forties and fifties would nod, and I was thinking, Zip guns? Razor fights? I haven’t ever seen that shit in my life.

We are taught, however, to think of certain types of train wrecks as glamorous, even universal. I knew enough that in the seventh grade, when I went to San Francisco to do pot for the first time with Zorick and Tony the Russian car thief, and when they took me to somebody’s house where everyone was slumped on the floor, dazed and wasted and listening to thrash metal in their Megadeth T-shirts, that I was seeing the coolest fucking thing on the goddamn planet. I knew when I watch Sid and Nancy that I was supposed to want to be a suicidal junkie. There are a million rock songs about that particular train wreck — so many that you might start to think you haven’t really lived unless you’ve hung around Casey Jones and gone off the rails.

You know what else is a train wreck? Cancer. And it’s boring as shit. No one wants to read your cancer memoir. I’ve known too many women who’ve had cancer and written godawful poetry about it and cried when they read the poetry and been pissed as hell that I didn’t cry too. But it’s your train wreck, not mine, and no one’s written good songs about it — not even Bob Marley, who died of cancer while writing songs about marijuana and gunfights.

So yes, Michael Lally and Dave Hickey and Greil Marcus and Anthony Kiedis and a dozen other ex-junkies, I get a kick out of the way you jam. I was raised on it. Half the time I’m not even sure what you’re on about — maybe the drugs fuzzed a circuit up there, and now you talk faster than you think, or maybe that’s the particular skill that kept you alive when everyone else was crushed under luggage and broken glass. But don’t try to sell me on the golden glory of the old-timey railway and its switching errors. There are other ways of being alive, other ways of knowing. When you’re not so caught up on the trouble ahead and the trouble behind, you can light out and look all around.

Ways of telling tales

I like the way Owen Lattimore writes. He’s got style and verve, and he doesn’t shy away from bold statements, whether it’s comparing the Urga Living Buddha’s shopping spree in Shanghai to that of a drunken sailor or simply declaring this or that political action a disaster. It’s probably only my Asian studies friends who will ever end up reading Lattimore, but as I make my way through Nomads and Commissars: Mongolia Revisited, from 1962, it makes me realize how useful it is to have a plainspoken, amiable guide to obscure times and places.

Lattimore was a mid-20th century China Hand, to use a now-dated term. He advised Chiang Kai-shek during World War II, and he spoke fluent Mongolian when no one else did, and he wrote it as he saw it. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that he never earned an advanced degree, though he served in major academic posts. He never went through the seasoning — deadening? — process of learning to write only sentences that you can defend to a committee.

And if there was one thing Lattimore failed at, it was defending himself to a committee. His later years were damaged by Senator Joseph McCarthy, who claimed that Lattimore was “the top Russian espionage agent in the United States.” The charges mostly amounted to invented hearsay, and stemmed perhaps from what looks, in retrospect, like Lattimore’s eminently sane approach to Communism and Communists, which was to consider them carefully and write about this or that particular action or person on the merits.

So set aside the Communist nonsense. What strikes me is that I write a lot about foreign places, I plan to write a lot more about foreign places, and Lattimore is an example I like of how to do it.

There’s room to criticize. Lattimore’s breezy confidence smacks of a casual imperialism that was common among British writers of an earlier era and American policy experts at mid-century. Nomads and Commissars is written at almost the last possible moment before any serious thinker on Asia had to take into account Orientalism and postmodernism more generally. The best products of the new ideas — Laurel Kendall is a personal favorite — have found new ways to tell good stories without the narratorial remove of earlier writers.

But just as the earlier writing was (usually unintentionally) dishonest about the motives and power dynamics that underlay it, post-modern scholarship is often dishonest in the other direction, as writers strive to pretend that they don’t have personal opinions. Kendall, for example, always dodges the question of whether the shamanism she studies is “real,” and of course any good postmodernist can tear apart the whole concept of the real until the person who asked the question feels like an idiot for believing in reality.Another fine postmodern storyteller, Heonik Kwon, dodges questions by fictionalizing his accounts, putting them entirely into the voices of his informants. And yet I am sure that Kendall and Kwon have some gut-level beliefs about ghosts and spirits, one way or the other, and it seems somehow a little sneaky never to come out and say what those beliefs are.

Somewhere there’s a balance. As I continue to write on topics that interest me in cultures not my own, I’ll have to work on that balance. As I do, I should remember Lattimore and the pleasure of a bold assertion well stated.

[a space to fill]

So here it is, a new space for me to fill with words. We’ll see what comes of it, if anything.

For now, I intend to use it as something of a journal, never mind that no one in her right mind would want to read my journal, or at least not the bits of it I’d be willing to put on the web. But for those days when no grand essay is forthcoming, this is a place where I can let out the little thoughts, the small ideas, the notions that don’t quite lead anywhere.

For example, right now I’m stuck with a couple of writing projects, so instead of writing them, I’ll come here and write about them. First of all, I’ve been trying to formulate an essay about what it’s been like to return to the US after so long abroad. I feel like there’s something important in there, some kernel of experience that has value, and that it has a lot to do with September 11th. I feel like I missed America’s sense of organic movement from there to here, but that having watched it from the outside, I have a better notion of what the world thinks of us. I also want to get into the strange dislocation that I’ve experienced — to describe how weird it is to find myself homesick for Korea, or to feel at home in New York’s Koreatown. And there’s something else as well, the experience of being an immigrant and an exile, that I think is important and that I want to describe. But I’m not sure how to frame this all yet. Maybe as three separate essays, or three interrelated chapters? We’ll see.

The other project is my collected Korea essays, which need an introductory chapter to turn them into a book. I’ve been trying to work out how to explain how I ended up in Korea — possibly as part of my essay entitled “Kindergarten” — but that whole episode of my life was messy and complicated (the deciding, not the going), and I’m not sure how much of that I want to include in a book about what happened later.

In other news, MoveOn.org is holding its Democratic Primary today. Check in for very good information about all the Democratic candidates, including a lengthy question-and-answer sesion with each (except Lieberman, who is barely a Democrat anyway) and links to their websites. Where do I stand? So far I like Edwards, but it’s a long way to go yet.