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This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Friday
Feb172012

In Which The Dreams Of Jennifer Egan Come True

Internal & External

by SARAH LABRIE

Look At Me is a novel by Jennifer Egan about a model named Charlotte who drives her car into a ditch and wakes up with eighty titanium screws in her face. Dropped by her friends and dismissed by her agent, disfigured Charlotte makes a final effort to revive her career and lands a shoot with Italian Vogue. On set at a loft in Soho, she stops mid-pose at the “odd snapping noise” of a man pulling a glove on over his hand.   

      “Hold it,” I said, fighting my way to a standing position in the copious dress. “What’s going on?”
      Startled, Ellis turned to Spiro.
      “He’s going to cut you,” Spiro said, as if this were self-evident.
      “Cut me where?      
      “Your face.”
      “I don’t cut deep at all,” Ellis said softly. “You’ll hardly feel it.”
      “Does it bleed?”
      “Well, of course it bleeds,” Spiro said. “That’s the whole point.”

Egan has a habit of stretching everyday clichés until they circle in on themselves and become something else. If the fashion world is superficial, why not chip at the surface until the models bleed? If modeling is insular and elitist, why not have Charlotte’s understudy be a North Korean refugee? (The new fashion photography trend, Charlotte’s agent tells her, is “People in the news.”) If you’ve read 2011's A Visit from the Goon Squad, you know Egan's fiction sometimes doesn’t read like fiction so much as it does gonzo reporting from a parallel universe. But what separates her from other post-modern satirists like Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace is that sometimes the impossible situations she dreams up actually, creepily come true.  

The oddest example of Egan’s clairvoyance — and one the author doesn’t tend to bring up very often — involves a different character at the center of Look at Me, a shadowy Islamic fundamentalist working for a Middle Eastern terrorist cell. Pale-skinned  and gifted with accents, Aziz (a.k.a. Z, a.k.a. Michael West) infiltrates Charlotte’s glamorous pre-accident life disguised as a nightclub investor. From a payphone in New Jersey he calls his bosses in Iran to explain why he’s targeting Charlotte: 

“If the collective goal was to be seen — to saturate the airwaves with images of devastation that would serve as both a lesson and a warning — why not strike at the famous people themselves? Were they not at the conspiracy’s very heart, its very instruments? If the goal was symbolism, how could leveling a bridge or a tunnel or even the fucking White House approach the perfect symmetry of this idea?... Witness the World Trade Center fiasco [of 1993]; only seven people dead of the many thousands who worked in those buildings…Structural damage completely underground. In short, nothing to see!” 

Like a lot of people who didn’t live in New York at the time, the thing I remember most about 9/11 is the video footage that played over and over on CNN: the planes crashing into the Twin Towers, the smoke rising, the screams. I saw it on so many televisions in so many different rooms that the colors burned themselves into my dreams. But when Nan A. Talese/Doubleday released Look At Me to reviewers in 2001 shortly before September 11, it doesn’t appear many of them gave this passage a second thought.

Oddly, it's difficult today to find an original edition of this novel, which was repackaged and reissued in 2002 by a different Doubleday imprint, Anchor Books. If you search Amazon or wander into a Barnes and Noble, this 2002 version is the one that you will see. I found, and um, okay, stole, my 2001 edition off a bookshelf at an East Village café.

Egan’s political prescience is weird, but her technological prescience is weirder. Into the Manhattan of Look at Me, Egan inserts a countervailing force, a megacorporation that wants to profit from our image obsession instead of using it to destroy us. For the second time, Charlotte finds herself at the heart of a conspiracy looking to use her face as its pivot. Over lunch at a steakhouse that smells like “arugula and money”, a young Berkeley graduate named Thomas Keene explains: "It’s a database," he said. "A database for ordinary Americans. Each one of these folks will have their own home page — we’ll call it a PersonalSpace — devoted exclusively to their lives, internal and external."

When Charlotte asks what these PersonalSpaces will look like, Thomas replies: Photographs of the subject and his or her family. Childhood Memories. Dreams. Diary Entries — everyone was required to keep a weekly diary, and daily entries were encouraged. Future Plans/Fantasies. Regrets/Missed Opportunities. And people could add their own categories, too: Things That Make Me Angry. Political Views. Hobbies.

Egan, again, is writing before 2001, years before Facebook taught college students to think of themselves as a bundle of tags, status updates, movie quotations and shares. Still, doesn’t Keene sound wildly Zuckerbergian when he tries to explain to Charlotte exactly why PersonalSpace matters? He says, "I see this product as being for people. I can’t emphasize that enough. I see us contributing to people’s knowledge of one another and connectedness — wearing down that weird divide."

Connectedness is, of course, a means to an end. What Keene really dreams of is book deals, movies, television shows, product placement deals, all based around the lives of Ordinary People. So while Zuckerberg chose Harvard and Stanford and Princeton and Yale as his vanguard, Keene targets early adapters more likely to have interesting lives — "an autoworker, a farmer, a deep-sea diver, a mother of six, a corrections officer, a pool shark."

Charlotte will belong to an upper echelon of Extraordinary PeopleTM, meaning people who are undergoing unusual experiences. The more interesting the lives they construct are, the more money they will make. By taking social networking to its logical corporate media hybrid extreme, Egan also prophecies the rise of the reality star. Or, as Charlotte puts it: "Joe Schmoe gets rich from being Joe Schmoe." "Well, I don’t know about rich," Keene answers. "The thing you really can’t put a price tag on, is how it’ll feel for Joe to know he has an audience, that people care, that they’re interested…I’d put money on the fact that Joe’s life will be enhanced in nonmaterial ways."

Unsurprisingly, Keene’s enterprise turns out to be wildly successful. Charlotte’s PersonalSpace gets its own spinoff in the form of a TV sitcom, a film, a doll, a video game, a book, guest spots on Letterman and The Tonight Show. Charlotte becomes a brand and winds up rich. This is years before anyone knew who Lauren Conrad was, and almost a decade before Bethenny Frankel’s name meant anything. 

Exploiting your own name for fun and profit is a concept that’s been puzzling me lately, mostly because I keep getting Google Alerts for another Sarah LaBrie with a much more active online life than mine. This other Sarah is an erotic hypnotherapist in Florida who recently expanded, I think, into full-on porn. She has a website (www.sarahlabrie.com), a Tumblr (sarahclabrie.tumblr.com) and a Flickr stream, where she promotes her services dressed sometimes like a "fallen angel" and sometimes like a "sexy nurse." Almost every day, I get a new e-mail alert in my inbox for an "intense orgasm mp3 download" by Sarah LaBrie that I, Sarah LaBrie, did not record.

I am admittedly lazy about keeping up my own Internet persona, and I’m beginning to feel a flickery concern about the pretty, perpetually half-naked web personality who shares my name. So last Tuesday, I took the 1 up to Columbia University to see Jennifer Egan speak as part of a lecture series called "Rewiring the Real." It felt important to find out what else she had to say about the future.  

Egan in person resembles a foreign correspondent for CNN, quick, witty, professional, the type of person who can travel long distances on short notice with little luggage. She talks the way professors talk, in full paragraphs that lead always towards surprising but inevitable conclusions. In the first five minutes of her lecture, she drove home points about Proust, nostalgia, the meaning of time, airplanes, cell phones, San Francisco and the rise and fall of punk rock, all ingredients that make up A Visit From the Goon Squad, the novel that last year won her a Pulitzer and turned her into a household name.  

Goon Squad, if you haven’t read it, is a novel made up of short stories about the fading glamour of the recording industry. In another, more important way, it’s about the way time moves in both directions at once, the past and the future both halves of the always unfolding present. Writing the novel, Egan told us, she came up with three rules: "Each chapter had to be about a different person; Each chapter had to have a different texture; Each chapter had to stand on its own." When the moderator suggested that the flicking back and forth between lives in Goon Squad mimicked the experience of using Facebook, a worried look passed over Egan’s face. “Well, no,” she said. “I had never been on Facebook when I wrote that.” 

In real life Egan is a Luddite, it seems, her interest in new media just an extension of her fascination with words, like a photographer’s interest in light. She doesn’t use Twitter and she bought an iPhone only recently, sick of going home all the time to check her e-mail. She writes in longhand, like Proust, reclined. The most famous chapter in A Visit From the Goon Squad is written from the POV of a little girl creating a PowerPoint presentation. But when she wrote it, Egan has said, didn’t know what PowerPoint was. She’d only heard about the program thanks to a few corporate friends and her sister, an executive at Bain. She drew out the slides manually, tracing rectangles and pie charts and bullet points on a yellow legal pad by hand. 

What Egan is interested in, she says, is the question of whether or not “the impulse to construct ourselves from the outside in” — that is, as a collection of Tweets and Tumbls and Flickrs and Facebook profiles — “has changed the way we see ourselves and who are.” The conclusion Egan came to after writing two critically-acclaimed novels on the subject, is  “no, of course not.”  

In the epilogue of Look at Me, Charlotte is a reclusive millionaire, happily divorced from her online persona (maintained now by a team of animators), and paid well for her time. I sold Charlotte Swenson for a sum that will keep myself and two or three others comfortable for the remainder of our lives, although not (I’m told) for nearly what she was worth. I dyed my hair, changed my name and walked out the door of my twenty-fifth floor apartment for the very last time.

Charlotte has the privilege of starting life under a new name, financed by profits she earned by allowing a social networking company to use her. While all of this is nice for her, the rest of us won’t be so lucky. Later this year when Facebook goes public, Zuckerberg stands to make five billion dollars in salary (plus twenty-three billion in stock) off the data we give him for free. Meanwhile the rest of us will keep using fb to stalk our high school frenemies and procrastinate at office jobs we sometimes don’t like and never get paid enough to do. The fact that Facebook makes some people rich but doesn’t seem to make anybody (besides Zuckerberg and his execs) happy is old news, written about before here and here. Less written about is a different problem, an issue Egan touches on in Look at Me, but never fully explores.  

There is another central character in Look at Me, the older brother of Charlotte’s childhood best friend, whose name is Moose. Moose starts out as a popular teenager but grows up into a fanatical academic who may not suffer from schizophrenia. His psychotic break manifests in the form of “visions”, like this one: Moose had sense that a terrible reversal was in progress, a technological disaster whereby the genius of the Industrial Revolution would be turned on people themselves; whereby human beings would be assembled from parts just as guns and boots and bicycles had been once.

At first, this paragraph reads like your typical paranoid robot uprising wolf cry, but if you look closer, it dissolves into something else. I mean, what are Tumblr posts and YouTube uploads and status updates and Flickr albums and texts and Gchat conversations and Facebook messages and E-mails and Tweets and Wall Postings and Blogspot blogs and Comments and Notes if not pieces of ourselves? And what makes this fragmentation possible if not the machine descendants of the Industrial Revolution?  

Rachel Silverman explains in the WSJ that there's no need for resumes because employers at some companies would rather Google you, and decide whether or not to hire you based on the results; what the Internet has to say about you now carries more weight than what you have to say about yourself. This worries me, and not just because I'm pretty sure Sarah LaBrie the erotic hypnotherapist and I have vastly different professional goals. 

Egan might be right that our "creating our selves from the outside in," doesn’t have any fundamental impact on who we are. But what she didn’t bring up is whether "who we are as people" will matter anymore when employers (not to mention banks and mortgage companies) are this deeply concerned with our Google search results. What if, as Moose suspects, rather than us determining the parts, soon it will be the parts that determine who we are? What if this is already the case, a result of decisions made on our behalf by the companies with whom we feel increasingly compelled to share all our basic personal information

Last week I got rid of my iPhone, unfollowed all the people on Tumblr whose feelings I didn’t think would be hurt, and locked myself out of Facebook. I wrote the first draft of this essay out long hand, leaving my laptop at home so I wouldn’t be tempted by the screen. I wrote in the 8th floor quiet reading room in the NYU library, taking breaks to stare through the picture window at the view of Washington Square Park. The buzzy static in my brain receded and left behind a clarity I hadn’t experienced since high school. On the F train home I thought about two things: how lovely it felt to be free for a day, and how strange it was that this feeling had become so unfamiliar. 

Sarah LaBrie is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find her website here. She tumbls here. She last wrote in these pages about Rubber. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"The Rainbow" - Ben Kweller (mp3)

"Time Will Save the Day" - Ben Kweller (mp3)

"Justify Me" - Ben Kweller (mp3)

Thursday
Feb162012

In Which The Dalkon Shield Has A Paralyzing Effect

Way of Control

by ALICIA PUGLIONESI

People invent things for a lot of reasons. Oral contraceptives were invented because in 1951 the founder of Planned Parenthood asked a renegade Harvard biologist to come up with a “magic pill” to prevent pregnancy. Margaret Sanger had seen a lot of bad devices during a lifetime of battling for women's reproductive rights: ineffective douches, shoddy condoms, snake-oil powders and tablets that exploited people's ignorance or desperation. She envisioned a modern, scientific tool for controlling fertility, something (short of sterilization) that would take the guesswork out of women's hands.

When the Pill received FDA approval in 1960, it was supposed to sweep the contraceptive market clean of confusing and antiquated options. Women were largely enthusiastic about this; 1.2 million of them were taking the Pill by 1962, when reports of side effects began flooding the mailboxes of Searle Pharmaceuticals, the Pill's manufacturer. The earliest Pills contained a lot of hormones – roughly five times the amount used in today's oral contraceptives – and the industrial-strength dosage caused problems ranging from nausea and depression to blood clots and strokes.

ms. sanger

If the Pill was supposed to be the cutting edge – another magic bullet brought to you by modern science – the intrauterine device, or IUD, was a primitive stone arrowhead. Doctors weren't sure how it worked, but throughout history various cultures had recognized that foreign objects inserted into the uterus could prevent pregnancy. Drug companies and researchers were learning some things from the saga of the Pill: first, that millions of women wanted convenient, invisible birth control and were willing to suffer some pain to get it; and second, that hormonal contraception was vulnerable to attack on the grounds that a ten milligram daily dose of progesterone can really mess you up. Entrepreneurial researchers decided to dust off the IUD and make it new, safe, and modern.

By 1969, journalist Barbara Seaman had collected enough Pill horror stories to write a book publicizing the risks of oral contraceptives, The Doctor's Case Against the Pill. The United States Senate called a public hearing in which, notoriously, no women were invited to testify and female critics had to shout from the audience. Even so, things were looking bad for the Pill as a parade of experts confirmed its tendency to cause life-threatening blood clots. Among the medical experts summoned was a Baltimore gynecologist named Hugh Davis.

United States Patent 3856016, Hugh Davis' laparoscopic occlusion clipHugh Davis was obsessed with inventing things. By the time he landed a job at Johns Hopkins Hospital, he had already created thirty pioneering laparoscopic instruments (used to operate inside the body through a single small incision), establishing the type of minimally-invasive surgery that patients expect today. He had worked with the best doctors and surgeons in the world. They reported that he was a real whiz-kid with an ego of troubling proportions. Davis' enthusiasm bordered on the manic: he would put his twelve-year-old son, Bruce, to work testing surgical tools, and then work until four in the morning tweaking the designs.

Birth control was the hot topic in elite medical circles when Davis arrived at Hopkins in the early 60s – not so much because of the Sexual Revolution, but because this was the heyday of The Population Bomb, when demographers were pretty sure that humanity was headed for apocalyptic global famine due to overpopulation. The Pill seemed like a talisman against a peculiar fear of certain American policymakers, namely that too many poor, dark-skinned people were having too many babies. Davis prescribed it to patients at his fertility clinic serving the East Baltimore neighborhood around Hopkins, a low-income area where many people depended on free health services. The vaguely sinister subtext of “population control” wasn't on Davis' radar, though; the problems that interested him were the concrete ones. He was dismayed by the Pill's negative side-effects on his patients, and because Davis considered himself an inventor first and a doctor second, he decided to invent an alternative to oral contraceptives – a new, safe, modern IUD.

United States Patent 3782376, Dalkon Shield

Plastic casts of the female uterus started showing up on the Davis family mantlepiece. One problem with previous IUDs was expulsion – the body's natural mechanism for getting rid of foreign objects. To keep his IUD from being spat out, Davis fitted it to the shape of the uterus – the eponymous “shield” form. For extra security he gave it prongs, like a barbed arrowhead. The shield stayed in, even when women wanted to get it out; doctors would soon realize that the prongs embedded themselves in the wall of the uterus and in some cases pierced through it.

The prongs led to another design modification. Removing Davis' IUD required so much force that it needed an extra-strong string, one with multiple filaments wound together. The multi-filament string was a fun-slide for bacteria to invade the uterus. Davis realized the danger, so he covered the multi-filament string with a sterile sheath. The sheath was open at both ends, however, exactly like a pathogenic fun-slide. It's hard to say what made him decide that bacteria would not creep up the open pathway and cause infections. He wanted to move quickly and produce and sell his IUD, but he also seems to have sincerely believed that the problem was solved – or that he was not capable of solving a problem badly. In the late 1960s Davis started switching patients at his free clinic from the Pill to a buggy-looking plastic device that would become known as the Dalkon Shield.

This brings us up to 1970, when Davis testified before Congress that the Pill was too dangerous and women deserved a safer alternative. That same year he started manufacturing Dalkon Shields and sold the rights to A.H. Robins, Co., a Virginia pharmaceutical company, for $750,000 plus a share of profits. Millions of women who were suspicious of the Pill or had experienced its hormonal roller-coaster began clamoring for IUDs. Because he didn't disclose his investment in the Dalkon Shield, no one had any reason to be suspicious of Hugh Davis when he published studies demonstrating its safety and effectiveness.

Of course, he stood to gain a lot. But nothing in his prior life suggested that Davis was a striver after money and fame. He never applied for promotions or full professorship at Hopkins and never went into lucrative private practice. It may well be that he wanted the Dalkon Shield inserted into uteri across the nation because he genuinely believed it was the best contraceptive choice for women.

Then something happened that the people who do corporate damage control call a mishap or an oversight. You could see where this was going with the prongs and the multi-filament string of doom, but millions of doctors and patients were completely unprepared for the Dalkon Shield's side effects. The resulting injuries and deaths could have been prevented by experts in positions of public trust: drug company officials, journal editors, the FDA. Whenever one of these mishaps occurs it raises serious questions about trust – how much should you trust the government, or a corporation, or an expert – but it reaches a whole other level of acrimony when the mishap is inflicted by profiteering men upon the vulnerable bodies of women. The picture is more complicated, of course, but that's how the the Dalkon Shield incident has been remembered in America, if it's been remembered at all.

It's hard to fathom exactly what trust meant back then, and how deeply embedded it was in the American psyche. You would go to the doctor and he would write you a prescription, you would go to the pharmacist to have it filled, and the pharmacist would hand you a bottle of pills. Nowhere on that bottle would it say what kind of pills were inside, because you simply didn't need to know. That went doubly for women. If you walked into his East Baltimore clinic, Hugh Davis would tell you that the safest and most effective form of birth control was the Dalkon Shield, and there was no reason to imagine he might be wrong except that it really hurt.

Most of the victims' stories follow a similar narrative arc: it hurt but the doctor said you'd get used to it; it didn't stop hurting and the doctor said it was all in your head. Women felt sick, but the testimony of their own bodies wasn't sufficient to overturn what scientific research had established as a safe practice. Eventually women started dying, which provoked expert scrutiny into Davis' completely inadequate IUD research on a small sample of clinic patients. The onslaught of Dalkon Shield lawsuits wound up in the hands of A.H. Robins, which pulled all the typical dirty moves to avoid accountability.

the "Flying Uterus" ad

Here the fate of the corporation and the fate of the inventor diverged. A.H. Robins would declare bankruptcy and sell out for a profit, fighting all the while to deny compensation to women injured by the Shield. It was nothing personal, just the kind of mishap that can occur when you manufacture medical devices. While this litigation churned on, Hugh Davis thoroughly lost his mind.

It's hard to say whether the Dalkon Shield ruined Davis' medical career, or whether he ruined it himself by refusing to move on in the aftermath. He stopped showing up for work, and Hopkins let him retire quietly at 55. Before the Shield, his children hardly saw him; post-Shield he holed himself up in their family home, fending off lawyers and complaining of a malicious plot against him. Fearing retribution by plaintiffs, he hired a bodyguard. He devoted manic episodes to inventing new devices that he imagined would redeem his reputation. Paranoid and erratic, he terrorized his wife and two children until one day he disappeared altogether.

When he surfaced in a downtown Baltimore church, his family committed Davis to a psychiatric ward, where he did stints for the next ten years. He agreed to medication and stabilized in time to die of pancreatic cancer in the comfort of his home. In the Baltimore Sun's retrospective, Brian Davis suggests that it wasn't exactly guilt that drove his father over the edge, or remorse for the pain he had caused. Hugh Davis just couldn't believe that he was wrong. For a long time he insisted that the Dalkon Shield incident was an act of sabotage by his competitors; eventually he wouldn't talk about it at all. If he felt regret about hurting others, it was filtered through the lens of his ego: to apologize he would need to face his own fallibility, and that pivot point was where psychic paralysis set in.

Davis had a similar paralyzing effect on the IUD. After the Dalkon Shield, IUDs were not okay in the United States. No one would sell them, no one would make them, no doctor would recommend one to a patient because it had the savor of consumer safety disaster about it. In the rest of the world, IUD research continued apace. Enough time has passed that maybe the German makers of Mirena, which is very safe and advertised incessantly on daytime TV, can afford to ignore history. The regulatory take-home lessons have already been enshrined in policy: do long-term randomized trials, don't let inventors test their own products. The puzzle of Hugh Davis remains. Is it inevitable that someone who needs to invent so badly be blind to the ways in which the things he has created can hurt?

Alicia Puglionesi is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Baltimore. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about the douche. She tumbls here.

"In A Mess" - Kleenex/LiLiPUT (mp3)

"Dolly Dollar"- Kleenex/LiLiPUT (mp3)

"Turn the Table" - Kleenex/LiLiPUT (mp3)


Wednesday
Feb152012

In Which We Anticipate A Western Breakfast

Elsewhere

by KAROLLE RABARISON

Yak butter in my hair, yak butter on my skin. Not the actual thing but the smell of it. Sweet then sour then sweet then pungent. We were back in Lhasa for the evening with dinner as our first stop. A buffet in two lines: one labeled "Tibetan food" and the other "Chinese food" which, as far as I could tell, were the same bold dishes consumed in Sichuan the week prior. I opted for the former and assembled a humble plate of curried potatoes and tsampa porridge before collapsing into a seat. There was more to this fatigue than sore feet.

Even as a kid I fantasized of elsewhere. Do you know that place? Daydreams of some grand journey to some undetermined locale that guarantees some life-altering experience. My brother and I drummed up adventure games and explored the neighborhood as if we didn't know each alley's crooked lines and every kink on the sidewalks already. We didn't invent treasure to seek, only that we were seeking, and spent afternoons tramping about collecting clues. Riddles on notebook paper and keys long separated from their respective locks. Yes, the same clues we ourselves hid.

This fantasizing, it's a hard habit to break. It isn't unhappiness with a place, a home, but knowledge of other places with potential to be other homes. When we weren't outside running along like video game characters, we conjured plots of running away to places learned from books and color-coded maps. I am sure Tibet was one of them. Little did I know that years later I would make it there.

En route to Samye Monastery one morning, my eyes lingered on every scene as if they'd go blind at the trip's end. Prayer flags and khatags like cobwebs clinging to mountain passes. Riverside, the rolling hills faded into more rolling hills that weren’t rolling hills. In villages visible from the road, families emerged from flat-roofed dwellings to begin their day. A pair laundered linens in a basin; another gathered on small stools with morning bowls. A few miles further a girl biked through dirt, glancing back every two seconds or so at the older girl chasing her. When the older girl caught up, I thought I heard the two giggle — impossible through the bus window.

I drank yak butter tea in slow sips to delay the second round, one I knew to be gesture of hospitality yet wished to dodge anyway. What if I hid the cup under the table between my knees and out of reach? I aborted the idea by the fourth sip and replaced the cup on the table instead. Another pour, a quiet thanks.

In Lhasa's Barkhor a shopkeeper pulled me aside to ask where I was from. The Barkhor, the area that encloses the Jokhang Temple, is a pilgrimage site where Buddhist devotees from all over Tibet come to perform the kora — or circumambulations. It also includes a cat's cradle of a marketplace crowded with vendors shouting prices for thangkas (paintings), knock-off North Face jackets and other mishmash.

"The U.S.," I answered. She had judged that my skin tone meant I was visiting from South or Southeast Asia and hesitated before continuing.

"Oh. Oh, your face reminded me of a school friend. Long ago."

"Really? Here?"

"No, no, no, in India. My father sent me to India. When I was 11 but I returned soon after my schooling." A pause before she added, "To the family's disappointment. Ever been to India, miss?"

I shook my head no. "Why weren't they happy to see you? Why did you come back?"

We were chatting but she did most of it, and always in this tone like she was sharing secret wisdom. To interrupt is to go hungry.

“They say the city has lost its soul. Or, that only greedy ghosts turn its prayer wheels.”

Then: "But why wouldn't I come back? This is my home. This Lhasa, it's different. Bigger. Louder. More people like you, less faces like mine. But this is my home."

And this: “There is no place or fortune that could tempt me to leave again. Not even your America, you see.”

A man then approached the stoop to wave trinkets and incense at my face. "Special price just for you! Special for you!" This I took as cue to leave, and the woman and I exchanged last words over the vendor's various discounts. Be well, take care, tashi delek.

Growing up in Antananarivo I was used to tourist encounters. We lived in the neighborhood perched just below the Queen's Palace, the city's highest point, so it was common for backpack-laden Europeans to interrupt our play asking for directions. Tiny, eager fingers pointed upwards as if granting novel information, as if there were anywhere else for them to go but up and up, and now I imagine we must have mocked their worried faces for thinking themselves lost. On one such occasion, a couple asked to take our picture. We were surprised, confused even, but agreed anyway. We posed on steps leading up to the pink house that overlooked a small convenience store. Smiled. Months later my mother would recognize that house on a postcard while at the market and would bring home a copy for us to see.

Alas, how strange to think of my own image mass-produced to collect tourist moneys. At special prices! Just for you! Stranger still to grow up to be a backpack-bearing tourist, elsewhere, taking pictures of every little thing while children eyed me out of mockery or curiosity or both. The last evening in Lhasa, I went back to the Barkhor for a stack of postcards and chose the ones of landscape or architecture only, none of faces. The latter made me uneasy.

In letters and phone calls, I never mentioned that uneasiness or this fatigue — head weary, heart rootless. And I didn’t confess feeling guilty over stints that allowed only a scrape of a place. Paint chips, really. Instead I wrote of sleeping mountains and red geraniums in window planters and butter tea. Instead I described — what was that sound? — the clack of wooden planks against stone as pilgrims kowtowed again and again.

A Western breakfast prepared us for the trek back to the east coast: scrambled eggs, toast, and coffee aplenty. Anytime I was in transit, whether in flight or chasing trains or as bus cargo disconnected from the landscape, I took advantage of the limbo to update the mental list of Things Experienced I Might Write Home About. The list for Tibet was handwritten in a notebook and started off like this: 

We adapt familiar words to describe familiar things.

We collect code words for everything including toilets.

"western" - it flushes; available only at the hotel.

"tree stop" - a roadside scramble for trees.

"the roof" - two toilets on the roof of a restaurant (on the roof of the world).

"deep pit" - exactly what it sounds like and the only facilities at the Potala. "Only in an emergency," the guide said, meaning only if you can't wait till the group left the grounds. Some of us couldn't wait.

Within 12 hours we were in Shanghai, another two and in Suzhou. I didn't know Suzhou's streets well then, but they were familiar enough that I could tell when the shuttle was within 15 minutes of campus. We, luggage and snacks and all, made it into the dorm lobby just in time for the 11 p.m. curfew. The concierge secured chain locks around the door handles. I hauled 70 lbs up five floors to my newest homebase.

Karolle Rabarison is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in the Carolinas. This is her first appearance in these pages. She tumbls here and twitters here.

Photographs by the author.

"For You In Confidence" - Chris Rubeo (mp3)

"Ships of Sticks and Twine" - Chris Rubeo (mp3)

"Brave" - Chris Rubeo (mp3)

You can download the full EP, Ships of Sticks and Twine, here.