Houston, I’m sorry.

Houston, I sold you short for so many years. I let the haters define you, the skeptics doubt you, the snobs write you off. Growing up in Sugar Land, shitting on Houston, proper, was quite fashionable. To slam its unwalkable, sketchy downtown; to hate on the traffic, the alleged sleaze of the Richmond strip, to speak in hushed tones about the Fifth Ward. A friend who grew up in town once joked to me that kids from Sugar Land only ever drove to places just off highway 59, now Interstate 69. She wasn’t wrong; it was field trips to Houston Museum of Natural Science, Oilers games at the Astrodome and Rockets games at the Summit, sticky summer days at AstroWorld. Houston, a la carte.

Growing up around Houston, its unregulated expanse and culture of dependence on the energy industry brought me a great sense of shame. I left in 2002 for college in Austin and then left Texas entirely in 2008. I left with the certainty that there were better ways to live and think. And the further you get from Houston, the easier it is to buy into the idea — that it just doesn’t make sense, and is somehow beyond redemption.

But Houston never seeks your approval. It never goes out of its way to please you or justify itself. It accepts its flaws, its glaring imperfections.

I love it all: Its concrete endlessness, its energy industry, its obesity, its diabetes, its politics. The late, great, Westwood Mall, the KPRC Channel 2 station, the Toys R Us next to Southwest Memorial Hospital where I was born. Downtown — once-ghostly downtown. Massive George R. Brown Convention Center, built to look like a steam liner, with massive red steam pipes (they serve no nautical purpose) and a service entry along that looked like the deck of a ship. Now, it’s a massive shelter for Harvey survivors.

In the weeks, months, and years to come, people will talk of Houston’s sprawl and unregulated development, and its mighty energy industry. Without that sprawl, you don’t have the Sugar Lands, the Katys, the Kingwoods that immigrants like my parents moved to; without the energy industry, you don’t have their very thing that drew them to the area. This is a tension that’s hard to accept — the seemingly unsustainable nature of this megalopolis is what allowed it to become a home for us. Houston, with its concrete arteries, its pockets of Indians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipinos that have defined the city in its modern age.

We, the immigrant outsiders, squeezed ourselves into neighborhoods full of friendly Protestants, subdivisions peppered with baseball diamonds and churches. There were pizza nights on Tuesdays. Mediocre high school football and overrated marching bands on Fridays. Bayous snaking along the edge of golf courses and palatial country clubs, Boy Scout troops and booster clubs, cheerleading camp and ice cream shops, pictures of the soccer teams they’d sponsored hanging on their walls. I know it all sounds decidedly uncool, and weirdly in opposition to the idea of flourishing immigrants able to continue being just who they are.

This week, I’m thinking of places like Hillcroft. As Monica Rhor wrote in the Houston Chronicle a few years ago, it’s a part of town where you can see signs in Arabic, Spanish, Urdu, and stores selling saris next to ones selling quinceañera dresses, or pick up Guatemalan delicacies, pastries from the Middle East, meander through a flea market. I don’t know what these shopping centers, cafes, video stories, clothing emporiums, bakeries, and masjids, meant to non-brown folks. This place, where a good chunk of the city’s massive immigrant population could take up some version of its old life while building a new one, existing within the vastness of Houston and yet apart from it all, encapsulates so much of what makes the city irreplaceable. I don’t think I knew that then.

There are cities that boast of their multi-culturalism, that suggest they’ve discovered the utopian formula: the right mix of assimilatory enthusiasm with liberal open-mindedness, the courage to stick up for one’s neighbors and the fortitude to respond with kindness when greeted with ugliness.

The grief I feel for home is mixed with a deep sense of shame for leaving, and for believing that home had somehow stopped meaning something to me. At present, my worries remain, most chiefly, for family and friends in the Houston area who’re suffering. But I worry about the foundations of this great city. I wonder how I could’ve taken it all for granted.

 

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I have seen DUNKIRK

I have seen Dunkirk. It is a stunning achievement for all the typical Nolanian reasons. He fills every corner of the screen with something dramatic, terrifying, lovely, and unforgettable. His mastery of scope and ability to stretch out tension past the breaking point is unmatched — something he’s been perfecting for years, of course.

Something new to me, though, was the discipline Nolan displayed here. In much of his past work, he suffers from occasional tin ear syndrome when it comes to writing words that actual people might actually say in moments of duress. There’s typically a lot of unprocessed idea-suggestion in his dialogue — something quite necessary but grating to explain the metaphysics and actual physics of an Inception or Interstellar, and weirdly thrilling in The Dark Knight. Nolan is an intensely cerebral artist, which sometimes makes it seem as if he doesn’t grasp that the problems of ethics he probes have very real physical and emotional manifestations.

Maybe the temptation to underestimate Nolan on this score is wrong. As far back as Memento, he was considering the ravages of an ambiguous moral space wrought on the body — that movie is about identity just as much as it is memory and time. In The Dark Knight Rises, his willingness to so graphically depict the physical destruction of Bruce Wayne, juxtaposed against the hulking brutality of Bane, suggested a filmmaker beginning to grapple with the physical as much the mental. Again, here, we see Nolan experimenting with conceptions of identity and duality.

Nolan’s pivot in Dunkirk, as others have written, is keeping dialogue at an extreme minimum, choosing instead to tell the story of his characters through their faces. When they speak, their words are explosions of fear and anxiety; their silence throughout the film seems the product of a shell-shocked muteness, a silence of horror.

Nolan’s camera stares intensely into their bruised, bumped, pockmarked visages. (Not even Kenneth Branagh, who plays an officer leading the evacuation, can escape the full-face treatment.) They are imperfect, indistinguishable, black-haired young men. I imagined how must have looked before being pinned down on that beach, their faces bright with handsome youth, now bruised, bumped, drawn sullen and desperate, evacuated of life. There’s a specificity about their look that, I imagine, Nolan could capture only after extensive photographic research. As they line up on the beach in hopes of rescue, there’s something zombie-like and numb to their movements. They are already dead. (Mark Rylance’s heroic civilian boat skipper says something quite like this about soldier just-escaped from the beach.)

The storytelling itself is quite tight and simple, yet laden with a profound complexity. That complexity is in the pacing and inter-cutting of the different vignettes, each of which occurs in a different time frame: the beach story, over the course of a week; the civilian rescue boat story, a day; fighter pilot story, one very tense hour. The brilliance of the decision is how it complicates the passage of time, memory, and history. We think of the evacuation of Dunkirk as a 77-year-old memory, of black and white photos and news reels and maps depicting troop and boat movements, or oral histories with aged survivors. Nolan’s narrative distillation breaks time out into discrete chunks, forcing us to consider the wages of chaos: how does the agony of one week, stretched out across nearly two hours, compare to that of one terrifying hour in the air, compressed? Or the day in the life of Rylance’s character?

The answer is all and none of the above. Desperation and the emotional imprint it leaves are not quantifiable, and defy definition. The deftness of Nolan’s movements between the different vignettes create something of an atemporal fugue that warps your senses.

Our histories must matter.

On November 8, my great aunt passed away. She was born on a tea plantation in Sibsagar, Assam, on September 11, 1925, the eldest daughter of a successful industrialist and Indian independence activist. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in economics from Benares Hindu University, and in 1945 married a man who’d served with the U.S. military in Burma during the World War II. After they married, they traveled by army transport to the United States, where she became a naturalized citizen. My great uncle earned his doctorate at Notre Dame, and in 1955 they settled in the Boston area, where she pursued a Master’s degree in education at Boston University. She loved gardening and tennis, even co-founding a tennis club with my great uncle in 1959. She devoted her life to education, teaching the third and fourth grade, along with a computer applications class, until her retirement. She was the mother of two, doctors, both, grandmother of five, and great-grandmother of three.

I learned of her death (of heart failure) on the morning of November 9, the day after the election of Donald Trump. I couldn’t shake the feeling that, suddenly, her entire narrative had suddenly been repudiated by what had just occurred. That the arc of history no longer bent towards acceptance, but that it had simply course corrected back to an immoral center of rejectionism.

I only met my great aunt a few times. On each occasion, I was newly shocked at the idea of an older relative, my grandmother’s contemporary, so thoroughly Americanized. No women of this generation that I’d encountered wore pants, talked so freely of their career, cracked jokes with such crackling, mischievous irony. Her voice lacked any discernible trace of accent, her daily wardrobe, any mekhela chadornone that I saw, anyway.

My great aunt and grandmother grew up together, spending countless days at the old tea house in Sibsagar, with its grand porches, high ceilings, creaky, haunting-yet-charmed stairways, and vast lawn, used as a campground by the Allied forces during World War II. At the age of nine, she met Gandhi at the house. Perhaps, as a teenager, she saw a union between the spirit of patriotism coursing through pre-independent India, and the rejection of fascism the soldiers embodied, knowing then that America (not Britain, of course), was in her future. Those endless summer days, running across the plantations, scanning the tea fields worked by imported laborers, wondering whether all of this, any of this, was strange or sad. I wonder, too, about her meeting a man animated by the energies of victory over unequivocal evil; we talk, now, of the loss of a post-war liberal world order. For him, then, that nascent order surely meant boundless opportunity and a place in a boundless, if harsh, world.

I imagine the shock of arrival in South Bend: Endless, blinding fields of yellow, the ritualistic rigors of a Catholic institution and communityshe knew missionaries, but seeing them up close and personal in their laboratories of faith surely allowed her to pull back the curtain on their mystical, severe ways. Then, New England, with all its attendant mythologies. Marinating in the brine of the American creation myth, assimilating gradually, year by year. The image of a young brown family coming up in middle-class, 1950s New England always provided me with a certain measure of comfort. Someone had done all this before: The arriving, the adapting, the creating of an identity and a family. My great aunt’s career decisions paid homage to my family’s tradition in education and civic betterment. There was a history there worth honoring and carrying forward. She and my great uncle would have children and give them American names, and come to know of the venerable Kennedys and the bright shining future they suggested.

In her story, there is possibility, the courage of someone forging ahead into the ominous and strange, only to be greeted on the other end as an equally ominous, strange, exotic artifact of an older, browner, yellower, mysterious world that had supposedly seen its best moments come and go. America took in the teeming Asiatic masses because, Why not, let’s see where all this goes?

Not long after her arrival in America, Washington would wise up to the realities of appearing like a horrifically, proudly racist empire, enacting changes to our immigration laws that ushered in waves of young engineering students, aspiring doctors, entrepreneurs from Asiafolks who, more often than not, kept their heads down, completed graduate school, found quiet, unobtrusive ways to insinuate themselves into the American fabric. They’d accustom themselves to being the curiosity, the diligent foreign-born who asked no questions, who kept to themselves, who reasoned that a certain kind of soft assimilation was the best way to quietly but assertively take what America had to offer.

I’ve lived my life assuming that stories like my great aunts were a thing of beauty. A confused journey, weighted with contradictions and sacrifice and pain. But a thing of beauty, universally agreed upon. Now, I know this not to be true.

We took it all too lightly. We believed that the machine of progress that brought us here, that allowed us to ensconce ourselves in prosperity, detached from the exigencies of civic life, would simply keep on keeping on. There had been enough struggle, just getting this far. Why push harder? Settling into our enclaves, encasing ourselves in the familiar. Our story could perhaps exist in parallel with the tremors shaking the world loose from its foundations, from the collapse of American industry, to the good times-are-here-again-ism of Reagan, to the utopian, capitalist triumphs of the Clinton years. We came to think of ourselves as untouched and untouchable by the rancid forces that sought to pull it apart. We were indispensable. We would vote, when moved to do so; prosper, and insulate ourselves from history. We had that luxury.

Of course, complacency is the brush that tars most all of us who are the comfortable and relatively unafflicted, immigrant or not (the joke being that the latter, of course, doesn’t really exist). For the former category, I wonder how quickly the realization has set in that no ideal of progress is ever safe or guaranteed. You must always fight. Remarkably, however, what you are fighting for is not just the right to be present and counted for, but the very right to have a story. After all, what you represent, in your very presence here, is a break with history, a cataclysmic disruption to a world order that, as far as you’ve ever known, will find a way to tolerate you. The extent of that promise now feels uncertain.

My confidence that her story, and all the stories that came after it, still have a place here has been shaken. Not beyond repair, I should say. There are still many who see us not as a disruption, but as a logical outgrowth of everything this country has to offer. But my heart bursts, if only a little bit, with rage.

Sans belt

Forgetting belt was the worst thing to happen today
Sans belt, there’s no marking off the upper from the lower. No tucking, no denying of the sloppy shirttails. Sans belt, you can’t lock all that in.
Slovenly, undermade, unkempt. Never a composed, definitive self. What is torso sans belt, even? What’s being defined, separated? You know where you begin and end; where do you middle?

With belt, though, there are the midsweats, the waistline sweats, greasing up the tummy rolls you’ve got going on there. You’ve got them going on. At least two.
But it’s the sweat of creating Your Self of the day. You lock that buckle into place — hole 2, maybe 2 if you’re having a good week, if you’ve been doing your crunches — you stand, and there’s torso.

Always remember belt.

Quick ‘Atlanta’ Post

I’ve been thinking about the jail waiting-room scene in episode two of Donald Glover’s Atlanta. There’s a lot at work here, from the worn, uncomfortable-looking chairs, the dim light, the scrape of the chairs, the coughing. You can smell the burnt coffee, urine, the BO, the unceasing, mundane theatrics of law and order at work. Earn, Glover’s indolent-with-a-heart-of gold wants to sleep; he just wants to be processed, jailed, and bailed, but perchance to sleep for God’s sake. It’s the banality of fatigue under low-level duress, constantly threatening to erupt into life-ruining cataclysm that takes things from the level of simple Sartrian numbitude into something sinister and scary. Indeed, there’s lots of boring nothing at work, a nothing pregnant with menace that never quite arrives, until something suddenly and grossly does happen (no spoilers, because toilet water). Something that robs everyone of their dignity, as it breaks the loose bonds of fraternity that’d settled in.

Oftentimes in extended scenes and sequences like this, we’re primed to look for the object of menace, or the signifier of dramatic tension that’s about to raise the stakes. On several occasions in this sequence, it seems like that menace is approaching. It never quite does. Glover’s broader objective here seems to me to show the normalization of this bureaucracy, without forcing an opinion or judgment. It is what it is.

There’s a lumpen, slow-moving quality to the pacing and emotional trajectory of each exchange. Earn snuggles confidently and desperately with Van, Paper Boi lumbers down a street, weighted, awed, a little scared, and intrigued by who his world thinks he is or wants him to be. This writing really cares about contemplation; these characters worry about who they are, and who their world thinks they are.

None of this seems to foreclose a feeling of dramatic completeness, however. Perhaps because it’s more important to Glover, a comedian, to punctuate every sequence with humor. I don’t know that that’s exactly right, because I don’t know that I’ve quite figured out the rhythms of this show. And I’m so, so fine with that.

What brown people heard

The morning after Khizr Khan delivered his stirring speech at the Democratic National Convention, he surely knew what was to come. He had, after all, managed to both honor his fallen son while rebuking Donald Trump, the World’s Most Perpetually Uninteresting, Aggrieved Man. The notion that a man—a Muslim, of all sorts—had the gall to call him out, to shame him, before all the world, was an unimaginable offense.

Trump responded in kind. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos over the weekend, Trump insinuated that Khan’s wife, Ghazala, who stood silently by her husband’s side during his bracing speech, “wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.” Then he equated his own sacrifices as a businessman to the Khans’s. Mrs. Khan, in response, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post, in which she defended her choice not to speak—America, she  asserted, felt her pain—and reminded readers that Trump “doesn’t know what the word sacrifice means.” Trump has continued to insist that the story “is not about Mr. Khan…but rather RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISM and the U.S.”

There’s another set of optics to consider here: is this—both Khan’s DNC speech and the follow-up interviews and responses to Trump in recent days—the first time that many Americans have ever heard a brown man talk, at length, about patriotism, war, and sacrifice? (More churlishly, I wonder whether this marks the first time most Americans have ever listened to a brown man talk at any length, ever, about anything). For me—an Indian-American, not a Pakistani-American like the Khans—the sight of a still-grieving, middle-aged South Asian uncle and auntie, channeling their hopes, dreams, anguish, and rage, as they take the stage in one of the most nakedly revealing moment for brown people in U.S. history, was overwhelming.

In recent days, I’ve come to wonder whether Khan’s decision to move from the private sanctuary of grief to the most public forum conceivable was directed at their fellow South Asians just as much as it was at Trump and the Republicans—an urgent, at times uncomfortable call to the aunties and uncles of America to rethink their notion of sacrifice. The children of immigrants—people like the late Captain Khan—often hear about the lives unlived their parents gave up to come to the West, the pain of cultural and racial dislocation, the ominous uncertainty of an Otherness imposed, all for them. We’re used to bearing their burden, and feel obligated to do right by them.

What the Khans have done, I suggest, is radically re-define the foundations of the immigrant sacrifice. One can, and should, be deeply skeptical of the purpose of the war, particularly war circa 2004. But supporting it, taking part in it, remains one of the starkest ways of expressing a very muscular sort of patriotism. It’s not, in my experience, a sort of patriotism I’m used to seeing and hearing extolled by men like Khizr Khan. But hearing him speak last Thursday night, I heard him shattering the illusion that brown people can sit by idly in their comfortable suburban neighborhoods outside Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, as if the world and its problems stopped being their concern once they made it to their McMansions. Nothing in this immigrant dream, even after that dream is realized, is impregnable, he seemed to say.

Trump, his instinct for self-preservation-via-tweet triggered, sees nothing wrong with attacking the Khans. Meanwhile, most right-thinking people—Democrat or Republican, hawk or dove—seem to have heard in Khan’s words a call for America to assert the best possible version of itself.

 

A messy note of gratitude

When I quit my first job at a semiconductor company, my boss gave me some advice: “Make sure, in your career, you really show that you want to be there,” where there is defined as “whatever your job is at the time.” Her point, in the end, was that I’d done a miserable job pretending I could get excited about editing technical manuals written by angry French engineers the rest of my life.

From day one at that job, I’d been applying like mad for out-of-reach gigs like “broadcast writer” at the AP. But as it turns out, a couple dozen columns and film reviews in the college paper don’t really get you in the door. Especially circa 2007-08, as the entire industry was in meltdown.

So I left Austin. My next “job” was a voluntary gig, helping a buddy with her research on domestic workers in northeast India. It was mind blowingly redirective. My life could be about a Something. I thought journalism could be that Something, so I wrote a lot, and published a little.

So, naturally, ignoring that impulse, I followed all that up with an internship at an NGO in DC. Loved the people; doubted the mission. And I began to wonder why I was wussing out on storytelling. I resolved to stay in DC and force my way into something journalistic.

What followed: Canvassing for the Dems via a pretty scummy grassroots campaign group. Processing early voting data for the Dems by night, interning at VOA’s Afghan station by day. Desk assistant at the PBS NewsHour. Freelance TV production work at Al Jazeera and elsewhere (like the AARP). Web and video production and reporting at National Journal. Then a nice long stretch as a fact checker, reporter, and various-etc. man at Mother Jones.

I was making *some* money. All of those places paid me, and did their best to take care of me, which is way more than you can say for a lot of shops. But in an egregiously expensive city, you never really feel like you’ve achieved any sort of financial escape velocity. I constantly felt on the verge of burning out and giving up — not because I didn’t think the work was worth it, but because there’s only so long you can feel like you’re just barely getting by, while transitioning into a respectable adulthood.

There was also the anger and gnawing doubt. The possibility that I wasn’t interested in the right stories and personalities. Didn’t know enough about the people and histories from which those stories and people emerged — that my sensibilities were poorly formed and flaccid. That I didn’t go to the right college, or grow up in the right part of the country. I wasn’t right for the business, and had nothing to show for it.

But after a more years of reporting and a thinktank stint, somehow I wound up back in The Game (I don’t intend to leave it voluntarily, ever). I see now that that time in the wilderness was about concretizing my values: learning about power, the abuse of power, the corrupting nature of power, and reporting out narratives (with varying degrees of success) that showed my growth as a thinker. I also had to remember that my cultural and intellectual DNA — that of an Assamese-American obsessed with film, television, theater, and literature — is core to who I am and the work I produce. Rejecting it, de-emphasizing it, does me no good. This process is messy. But it has been essential and legitimizing.

I know now that I wasn’t interested in the wrong things. Maybe those several years of relentless self-flagellation were what it took to refine my bad habits while somehow honing back in on what really mattered to me. Plenty of people helped me find my confidence again, and let me know my opinions and attitudes mattered. That’s something I intend to pay forward, wherever I go. Folks took a chance on me, and I’m forever grateful.