Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Transgressing space

Practicing to transgress social space in the Army: In the combat arms part of the Army you learn how to violate off-limit social spaces. This can include blowing, kicking or otherwise forcibly pushing into someone else's home or work place. It can also be done in checkpoint searches when patting down and physical searching another human being. While on deployment, it mean a constant moving in and out of those public and private spaces that society normally forbids transgressing.

The aerial traversal of inter-boulder space, Nevada during the 1980s: As children on the outskirts of the desert and not far from the foot of the mountains, we learned to jump from boulder to boulder over gaps ranging from three to twenty feet deep. The most fun was when heavy equipment operators lined up or clustered boulders in nearby neighborhoods under construction. There was a joy in bounding from rock to rock as quickly as possible, and this aerial traversal of space was not something that neighborhood parents smiled upon.

Also fun: inner tubing in the four-foot deep irrigation ditch that cut through the sage-covered desert not far from home. Two or three miles of drifting under barbed wire and across property lines in the company of friends.

Transgressing private space, Korea: During an exercise out in the countryside on a frozen January day I sneaked through a tiny South Korean village unseen by the people living there. It was the first time that I had ever done anything remotely like that, and it was an utterly foreign experience to be moving through the places of other persons' private lives and having no interactions at all with the physical or social environment.

Just be another patch of air.

Moving through public space: I walk everywhere these days and spend much of my out-of-door weekday time in the public spaces of downtown Portland. That means my internal map of the city is completely different from people who drive. Remembering which streets are one way and which direction these roads run on takes an effort when I am riding in a car. It also means that my life is far less hectic within that same volume. I am entirely and peacefully oblivious to the rhythms of rush hour traffic despite being surrounded by millions of people. Then there are all the personal interchanges that need to be mastered when passing others on the street--how to blow off panhandlers and proselytizers; how to eye flirt politely with well-dressed or pretty girls and evoke a pleased smile or look. For some reason the latter seems to work best with a day or two's worth of beard growth. Also, it takes some effort to make sure I do not walk blindly past acquaintances while on the street: people from the coffee shop around the corner, former co-workers from the Primate Center on the Max, classmates while in the neighborhood grocery store or in Powell's Used Books.

Transgressing cultural space: Germany during the summer of 1992 and I am just out of high school, unable to speak the language, and outside the States for the very first time. What the hell am I doing here, and why the fuck did the travel agent think that this was the shortest way of getting to Sweden? Or standing in Bulgaria three years later. Wait, weren't we supposed to fly into Sofia, a city in the mountains? How did we end up landing on the coast? And the writing is all in Cyrillic, so we can't even read the signs. The next morning at 0430 we find ourselves in a chartered taxi and wonder why we are cutting through farmer's fields in this hour just prior to dawn? A few days later I ponder if  it's really the accepted custom to rent rooms in people's homes on the coast of the Black Sea. Free to come and go into other people's private residences, wandering in through unlocked doors after midnight and trying not to step on the cats underfoot.

Vertical violations at Fort Knox: I never even came close to learning that trick of running headlong into a wall and then somehow be running up it in unholy violation of all the laws of physics. I still get angry thinking about how spontaneously the instructors did it. And they didn't jump either. Apparently that was the whole trick. Don't jump. Just run into the wall then run up it. Well. Fuck.

Heading into void spaces as a kid: Just go out the door with friends and up into the mountains. Sure there had been logging camps inhabited by Italian or Chinese laborers up there seventy five or a hundred years back, but now those long ridges to the west of Reno were a largely abandoned and adult-free space. And so we went, often with no trails or paths to follow. Just cross the open desert and then up the unmarked slopes. Rather than being channeled by the engineering and architecture of grownups, by their sidewalks, hallways, or highway lanes, it was all about allowing your eyes to trace out the route of least resistance. Either that or plow through the rough straight-line route to whichever wind-beaten tree or shiny bauble had caught your imagination while going up the steep draws and spurs.

Lingering: For the first time today I sat on the brick steps of Pioneer Square and nursed a coffee while watching people go by. Now I'm seriously wondering why I never did that before. Why live in the middle of the city if you never linger in all of these beautiful public spaces?

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