Monthly Archives: September 2019

Bereavement in their death to feel

Photo of Elizabeth Barrett Browning with her son Pen, 1860, Unknown
Background Image: Photo of Elizabeth Barrett Browning with her son Pen, 1860, Unknown

Very unusual poem about hearing the news of someone dying (perhaps Elizabeth Barrett Browning) but nevertheless still sharing an “Immortal” bond with that “stranger” even though their “Presence” has gone. And it’s the final line of the poem, “Absconded – suddenly -” which leaves us wondering about the nature of the soul after death – is it hidden? is it immortal?

A few words jump out at me as perhaps being key to this poem: “feel” in the first stanza, “paralyze” in the second, and “Presence” in the third. Perhaps Emily is attempting to describe the process of how death works to transform someone with whom we’ve had a “Kinsmanship” with to that of someone who is now “vital only to Our Thought”. But is she is speaking about the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning then this is an unusual transition because Emily did not know her personally other than through her writings.

Thus maybe Emily is also describing her relationship with other writers as being “Vital”, as if they are friends connected through language and writing and through which Emily does not see any difference between a relationship with someone she physically has been in contact with and someone whom she has only known intellectually. Emily’s penchant for letter writing in lieu of her engaging with society would seem to support her view of living a life of letters and it might be why she capitalizes the word “Vital” at the start of the poem to describe her relationship with the person before they have died and then does not capitalize the word “vital” when they have passed on. That “Vital” relationship has been transformed “In dying” from “Vital” to merely the “vital” “Presence” of our thoughts because she can no longer engage anew with this “stranger”.

This could also suggest Emily sees the act of creating art and writing as a living process – that art is a life force of its own and thus when the artist died it is as if their soul as “suddenly” “Absconded”.

‘Twas later when the summer went

The Persistence of Memory, 1931, Salvador Dali
Background Image: The Persistence of Memory, 1931, Salvador Dali

Maybe I just have a poor sense of keeping track of when things happen, but I’ve tried diagramming the order of events in this poem and can’t figure it out. Does the cricket come before or after summer, and does the cricket leave before or after winter? Of course I think this is part of her point about “Esoteric Time” only making sense to whoever winds that “pathetic Pendulum”.

Emily is referring to the pathetic fallacy in which we attribute human emotions to nature or inanimate objects, such as how Shakespeare using the storm in King Lear to describe Lear’s inner turmoil, but even more deeply in how Heidegger described how in the pre-modern era humanity’s relationship with nature was fundamentally different than it is now – he described how at some point we began to see nature as a resource and not as part of our own world which has led to humanity believing themselves to be outside of nature and not a part of nature.

Emily seems to be intuiting this relationship with nature in how it’s difficult to pin down when events are occurring in the poem. Perhaps a mathier person than me can apply a formula to this poem and explain it, but for most anyone reading this the first time through you’d be hard pressed to determine the order of events. And I think that’s on purpose so she can describe our unusual relationship with time and nature as being something we are in tune with but also hard pressed to actually understand. We know when we are supposed to be “Going Home” when a winter storm is coming on, but we do not know when we are “Going Home” as in the day we die. Thus nature is a “pathetic Pendulum” in that in one sense it tells us when the regular seasons are coming and going and that will affect our daily and mortal routine, but it’s a “pathetic” (excuse for a) reliable “Pendulum” in that it does not let us know when we are going to leave this world.

Thus our place in nature is unsure and uncertain and our ability to determine anything is unreliable at best since that “Esoteric Time” is kept by a clock maker who does not easily reveal their secrets to us.

One note from One Bird

Li Livres dou Tresor - F65 Knight Charging a Snail and a Bird, 1325, Brunetto Latini
Background Image: Li Livres dou Tresor – F65 Knight Charging a Snail and a Bird, 1325, Brunetto Latini

Interesting how she moves from the “note” of a “Bird” being worth more than a “Million” words, to the deadly image of a single “sword” being all that’s required to make a point. You wouldn’t typically equate gentle nature with violence, especially considering the old saying of the pen being mightier than the sword (which Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined in 1839), so perhaps she means something else?

Emily wrote this poem more than a decade after the end of the US Civil War, however the memory of the rhetoric found in the newspapers would have remained and tensions in rebuilding America would still have been high – much like how tensions in the US are still high nearly twenty years (at the time I’m writing this) after 9/11. So perhaps she isn’t necessarily equating the “note” of a “Bird” with violence, but rather she is making a distinction by saying that the “note” of a “Bird” is what we should be listening to because even a single “word” is like a “sword” ready to be drawn from its “scabbard”. A word can kill, and when those words are printed (such as in the newspapers) they can lead to violence.

And there is a slanted reference here to printing in her use of the word “scabbard” which up until 1787 was the term used for the “thin board used … by printers in making register” which is the tool used to justify text on a page, now known as the scale-board. This she might be alluding to how words can be used to justify violence – the raising of a “sword” – and this seems plausible since “word” and “sword” share all but a single letter.

There There: Read from September 11 to September 27, 2019

I had never considered this subject matter before. I had never seriously thought about what had happened to the Native Americans in this country other than once and while hearing about reservation casinos or visiting pueblos in New Mexico. And when I was aware of Native Americans it was always in the traditional sense with people wearing full regalia either on TV or during cultural awareness events on campuses.

This book, however, forced me to see Native Americans, and not as some people distinct from Americans, but as just simply Americans who have to deal with and struggle with all the problems of being American but who are also trying to figure how what it means to be Native American in this America. It’s an odd place to be in because just like the title suggests that there is and yet isn’t a there there, Native Americans are there (here) and yet they aren’t, they are Americans but they are also something else, something even more American perhaps.

One of the saddest parts of this book is how so many characters struggle with some sort of addition, be it drugs or the internet, and of course this is not unique to Native Americans, but it seems to be such a part of that story of being Native American. The stereotype is that of someone drunk on the reservation and in a way this book both supports this stereotype as well as examine the why behind it. To say that only Native Americans struggle with addiction is untrue – all people struggle with it – but in this book we learn the why behind it, and a lot of it has to do with just trying to escape while being surrounded by a culture that ignores Native Americans (or thinks they are Mexican). It’s an odd thing to try to escape from people who don’t want to see you, and there’s a sense of here of wanting to be seen while also just wanting to be treated no different.

And that’s the thing here in that the characters are not any different than anyone else except for the fact that they are Native American. They love each other, they are violent towards each other, they are artists, they are abusers, and they are every kind of person there is, it’s just that they are also Native American on top of all that and they live in the cities with everyone else and so it’s hard to stand out in any way since everyone is forced to live cheek to jowl with everyone else and so it can be nearly impossible to see Native Americans unless they are wearing their regalia like during the pow wow at the end of the novel.

And then once the Native Americans are seen by the end of the novel, that’s when the violence happens. And it’s a shame that American art now must deal with the reality of American violence in the form of mass shootings. These shootings are such a part of the fabric of our culture that there is no escaping it, though what Orange does in this novel is explain how these shootings are not new, and he’s not talking about how they started in the 90’s (Columbine) or the 60’s (Kent State), but how they go all the way back to Sand Creek and Plymouth Plantation. Mass shootings are as old as America, older in fact since they go back to when we were still a British colony.

And that’s the thread of the story of this novel in that violence, specifically gun violence is what Native Americans have been running from ever since Europeans first came here and that they are still running and so it’s easier to remain silent, head down, and blend in, but that this comes at such a cost in that culture and tradition is lost that Native Americans have to hang onto who they are as a myriad people yet when they do they have to go back to running from bullets.

I never hear that one is dead

The Scream, undated, Edvard Munch
Background Image: The Scream, undated, Edvard Munch

Interesting juxtaposition between hearing and thinking, especially in relation to the image of the “yawning” “abyss” and how that echoing fading away is like one’s life fading away. When we hear an echo we often try to see how long we can hold onto its sound before it’s finally gone, and so life is sort of like a fading echo we are terrified to lose.

It’s interesting that she talks about hearing of someone who has died because often she writes about seeing someone dead in her poetry, but here it’s second-hand, perhaps gotten from a letter or obituary or in conversation. Either way she’s not dealing directly with the dead, she’s already separated from them through physical space, and now she’s also separated from them across the “abyss” between then living and the dead. In both cases there is a distance between life and death, but what that distance is is something that would drive a person to “Madness” in attempting to comprehend. This distance is something we can’t access with our senses (such as hearing), but we are still aware of its existence because we intuit that “Consciousness” is no longer present.

But then what is “Consciousness”? Here she describes it as a “stranger” and that the activity of “Consciousness”, such as holding “Beliefs”, are “Bandaged” (tied-up or blindfolded) and seems to be a jumbled stitched together horror that no “man” would dare “face”, even though it exists within all of us. There doesn’t seem to be any unity in this “Consciousness” she is describing, but rather it is something perhaps random which could mean she is saying life itself is just a random occurrence without any real meaning.

And thus her use of “hear” and “Tone” might be way of describing thought which is the sound and echo of our “Consciousness” echoing out of some unknowable and infinite “Abyss” inside each of us.

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Calvin’s chapter here is basically the breakfast scene from Reservoir Dogs – even some of the dialogue is the same about the waitress and the tip. Structurally, however, this scene in the book is unnecessary, it could have taken place on the BART or whatever. The reason why the scene in Reservoir Dogs is so memorable is because the dialogue is sharp but more importantly it sets up the characters. It’s not needed here

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After Edwin tells his story about Phil’s apartment getting taken over by white hipsters, we learn that the prize money is all in Visa gift cards because a check won’t work since so many people don’t have bank accounts and don’t want to lose 3% to check cashing stores. A lot of people who are outside the system but still have to negotiate the landscape anyway.

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“He’s still letting the content direct the vision” is also how a good story is written when you don’t really know what you;re going to write next, you just put one word in front of the next and see what happens – so in that way life is like storytelling because we don’t know what we’re going to do next either.

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Edwin and Blue, huh? She says it’s just as friends, but it seems like an odd pairing, though it has been a year since Blue left her husband and I guess I could see what she’d see in someone who probably isn’t going to treat her badly, it’s just he seems like the sort of guy who’d go the opposite direction, even if she’s clear they’re not dating.

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“Indians dressed up as Indians” is interesting because up till now everyone has almost been invisible, visible as reflections at best, and so to be Indian they have to dress as Indians, but nobody is any more or any less Indian, it’s all how they feel. “He tells himself not to think” because he just needs to be “there there”.

These are the days when Birds come back

Autumn Woods, 1886, Albert Bierstadt
Background Image: Autumn Woods, 1886, Albert Bierstadt

One of the few poems she published in her lifetime. Here she enjoys a warm autumn day while understanding that summer is over and winter is on its way. Readers of this poem would probably have assumed Emily was quite devout since she relies heavily on religious imagery, but they might have missed how she’s really talking about broken promises.

In the first stanza, the birds who have begun their migration south have returned believing that summer has returned while only a “few – a Bird or two” are not fooled and do not look back to New England. I actually thought of Lot and Lot’s wife when I first read this since looking back to the past which she equates to the “sophistries of June” is a sign that you wish to return to your sinful ways and thus God will punish you (turn you into salt). And this is what is unusual about this poem in that she’s saying “June” was lying to us, that the springtime is a trickster almost akin to Sodom.

Yet it’s not just springtime she says breaks its “sacrament” with us, it’s every season because even though “summer” was the season of plenty, of “bread” and “wine”, all we can do in autumn is remember what times were easy, to eat this bread and drink this wine in memory of something that has ended. The life of leisure and abundance is slowly falling away like “a timid leaf” and the speaker of the poem wants to return to those “summer days” the way Lot’s wife looked back on her old life before God punished her.

Of course this is a very pessimistic reading of a poem that is usually read as being about someone daydreaming about summer during an particularly warm autumn (perhaps late October) day and that only the “Bee” and “a Bird or two” are wise enough to not be fooled by the temporary reprieve of impending winter. Yet the longing and yearning for a time when things were easier fills this poem with a melancholy of someone who believes that all they will be able to do is remember better times because hard times are coming soon. All the promises (“sacrament[s]”) that were given the speaker earlier in the year “Hurries” off the branches the way someone who grows old looks back at all the promise of their youth turned into a pile of leaves late in life.

And though Emily often talks about cycles and the return of things, here the poem seems to have a finality to it, as if there will be no more sophistic June’s to come, that all is ending, all the promises have been broken, and all that’s left is to remember the way things were when times were better. In the end she asks to become part of immortality, to be accepted into the ranks of He who has been resurrected, but this plea goes unanswered – God does not come down from the clouds to take her up to heaven, she can only stand and watch the leaves fall from the trees in silence and hope that things may get better.

Volcanoes be in Sicily

Neapolitan School Travellers At The Crater At Mount Vesuvius, 19th century, Unknown
Background Image: Neapolitan School Travellers At The Crater At Mount Vesuvius, 19th century, Unknown

I’m going to go way of script with this poem and talk about its meter because it’s a very fun poem to recite out loud, especially if you do it without pausing at the end of each line. I count 16 beats in this poem when I read it and it flows out like “Lava” flowing quickly from the “crater” and gives the poem an almost jump-rope beat, the way kids would sing rhyme a poem. It’s very fun.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading about Emily’s home life and how she spent most her of day working in the kitchen, or in the garden, or doing numerous domestic duties, that made me think that when she read that Vesuvius had erupted yet again, that she composed this poem as a fun way to pass the time.

The way I read the poem is like this:

be in Sicily
And South
America I
from my Geography
nearer here
A Lava
step at any
time Am I
inclined to climb
A Crater
I may contemplate
at Home

I thought of reading it this way because the poem (in both versions) does not contain any dashes, it just reads as a straight run, so when you get to the end of the poem you can start again and keep repeating it – which is why I thought of kids jumping rope and singing rhymes for the beat. And so I imagined her in the kitchen, perhaps mixing something in bowls or on the stove and it bubbles over and reminds her of the eruption and so she stirs to the beat of this poem over and over again.

I know this is a total stretch of the imagination and that I’m not really talking about the poem’s content, but there is such a rhythm to it that it’s impossible for me not to hear it and have fun reciting it over and over again.

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I wonder if the story of his dad is from the author’s father or from personal experience? Something about it feels a little more personal that other moments in the novel – maybe it’s because his father is 1000% Indian and proud of it and other than his bad knees seems to be otherwise free of the issues all the other characters in the book struggle with, like he’s the “perfect” Indian nobody else can live up to.

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“Voice can take a long time to come all the way out, brother”. Good line, especially in relation to the traditional drumming. He’s comfortable with the beat (even uses the word “triumph” but to add his own voice to it, to personalize the drumming with himself, to be something more than a beat is harder to do, it’s harder to speak up and not be silent.

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As a drummer I can relate to the need to always be finding a beat in everything, though it never occurred to me to also hear it in “gunshots and backfire, the howl of trains at night, the wind against your windows”. I wonder if what he’s saying here is that there is a rhythm that’s there for everyone to hear, not just a few people, but maybe we’ve forgotten how to listen?

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The rich people paying to listen to women scream probably would have sounded like fiction before that Epstein guy was busted and now it seems like a substantial percentage of very wealthy people in the real world are more fucking depraved than we realized. And in this example it’s not a race thing, it’s a class thing, and everyone, white, black, Indian, Latino are in it together against the rich.

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It wouldn’t drama if none of the characters had flaws, but it feels like everyone is either an abuser or damaged with only maybe Dene being the least scared. And it can be a lot to take, reading about pretty much every female character abused and or raped, everyone on some sort of drug or escapist fantasy, and nobody really happy. Is this any more authentic than what the characters are fighting against?

She rose to His Requirement – dropt

Roman Mosaic - Ship & Sea Life, 1st - 4th century, Unknown
Background Image: Roman Mosaic – Ship & Sea Life, 1st – 4th century, Unknown

I love the image she creates of a serene agitation building up like a “Pearl” in the secret place of her life that “He” can’t get to. She maintains her independence while also submitting to the mechanism of a relationship but she maintains that she does not belong to anyone. Wonderful wordplay of “she rose” as in she’s a rose and he’s a requirement.

As typical for Emily, it is ambiguous who the “He” is. On first reading it’s easy to assume she’s speaking as a new wife, however she could also be speaking as someone who understands that in order to grow up they will have to follow someone else’s rules – even the wealthiest businessperson is still beholden to their shareholders. What she is exploring here, however, is the dual nature of this act of free will, free will as being the freedom to choose to submit to an authority, as what Milton was writing about in Paradise Lost. And while she describes this as being “honorable Work”, she describes the act as like an oyster that will “Develope Pearl” because something has agitated a tender, and private spot but instead of growing angry it grows something beautiful – though from the oyster’s point of view, a pearl might be just so much excrement.

The most difficult part of the poem is the second to last line, “But only to Himself – be known”. As I was reading this I first assumed she would say that “He” wouldn’t know “The Fathoms they abide”, in that “He” wouldn’t know her secret “Pearl”, but the way this reads seems to be that only “He” knows this pearl exists, that even she is unaware of what is growing in her. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the soul in that through the process of living, of growing up, of engaging on the free will to submit to authority, our “Pearl” soul grows out of the agitation of living until God is ready to dive into the dark “Fathoms” of the universe and extract the gift we’ve been growing without even knowing.

He fumbles at you Soul

A Storm with a Shipwreck, 1754, Claude-Joseph Vernet
Background Image: A Storm with a Shipwreck, 1754, Claude-Joseph Vernet

The “He” in this poem is ambiguous, it could be a public speaker, a preacher, God, her own father, or even Zeus or some male aspect of thundering nature, like a storm. Either way it’s an authority figure of some sort that begins with a fumbling (which seems almost careless), then leads to a sustained “Blow” (which feels violent), and ends with “still” (and firm and pause / “Paws”).

As in “He put the Belt around my life“, there is a violence embedded in the “He” character. In that poem “He” has placed a belt on her which could also be a sort of infliction and not necessarily the gift of poetry / art that she describes. To “Belt” someone is to hit them, and thus in this poem “He fumbles” which, though not quite as directly violent, still feels like a violation, like a young man whose greedy fingers won’t let go of a young woman.

What the “He” really reminds me of is a storm, such as a gale, or Nor’easter, or hurricane that would have been familiar to Emily in New England. These are violent storms that start off slowly (“fumbles”) then they pick up in intensity and until they deal “imperial Thunderbolt[s]”. Yet this is nature’s music, nature’s violent art that comes from the same clouds she describes as being a member of in “He put the Belt around my life“. Thus perhaps she is saying that creating art is like a storm, a violent confluence of emotions and energy whipped up and mixed up like an “etherial Blow” that destroys everything in its wake and leaves a devastating silence behind.

What’s interesting is that Emily usually associates nature with the female pronoun, but here nature is associated with the male pronoun, so perhaps she sees nature as having a dual personality, it has male and female qualities – which makes sense since life on earth is typically divided up into male and female – but this “He” has a violence about it that is unlike the nature which grows flowers and sees after gardens. Here it destroys, not builds, yet even in destruction there is renewal in the silence after the storm. So perhaps this is what the creative process feels like for her, in that inspiration comes on like an angry male God, throws everything in her mind into a whirlwind which she must weather, and only after she’s ridden it out can there be peace.

Thus could this be who the mysterious Master is? A male-centric force of violent inspiration? A storm of the imagination?

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William Gibson should read this novel because so much of his sci-fi is actually a reality in this novel. It’s odd to say a work of realistic literary fiction has sci-fi elements, but there is a quality to it that pays homage (perhaps intentionally or unintentionally) to cyberpunk culture: drones, 3D printed guns, VR, MMO’s, it’s all the there that isn’t there, the spaces Gibson wrote about that all came true.

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Much better image of the broken votive candle in the kitchen as opposed to the broken dish earlier in the story (p 35). I don’t know why that one detail sticks out to me – maybe because this is otherwise a fantastic novel but because it’s a first time author there are a few clunky images floating around. Doesn’t detract from the novel at all, I just want to see Orange keep improving as a writer.

He put the Belt around my life

Dante and Virgil before the Angelic Guardian of the Gate of Purgatory, 1820s, William Blake
Background Image: Dante and Virgil before the Angelic Guardian of the Gate of Purgatory, 1820s, William Blake

The opening image of this poem is hard not to read in the 21st century as it being almost violent, as if the gift God has given her (to write poetry) isn’t just a simple “Belt” she wears, but is almost a form of oppression. She equates “He” with royalty and power and she wears that same belt they do and so she is both victim of oppression and a practitioner, too.

John Ruskin writes in On Modern Landscapes about how modern art, unlike medieval art, focuses on “things which momentarily change or fade” (V3, Ch16), such as how modern artists depict clouds in great detail, unlike the medieval artists whose art depicted a world of “stability, definiteness, and luminousness”. Much attention is paid to “the service of the clouds” and thus modern artists are quite unlike Aristophanes who saw clouds as “great goddesses to idle men” and “that they are mistresses of disputings, and logic, and monstrosities, and noisy chattering”.

What Ruskin (perhaps inadvertently) illuminates is an embedded sexism. Aristophanes describes clouds as female and employs the tired tropes of women who argue, lack the capacity for logic, gossip, and turn men idle. Ruskin also seems concerned with our modern penchant for “speaking ingeniously concerning smoke” and that we are preoccupied with our “ignorance respecting all stable facts”. And so what Emily is doing in this poem is addressing these issues by taking them head on.

Emily has been accepted (in this poem) as “A Member of the Cloud”, she sees herself as part of that great tradition of artists and perhaps even philosophers who try to understand and appreciate the fleeting beauty of life. Yet she is also beholden to the powers that be – men – and nobody is more male than God, but she is also referring, perhaps, to the publishing world which in her time was overwhelmingly male. And so she exists in a weird transition phase in which she is modern in her desire to consider the clouds, but also attached to the old, medieval worldview of rendering all things in exactness because God is stable and therefore so must the universe and all of human experience be stable (somehow) too.

In Emily’s time she was expected to “do the little Toils” which were considered ‘woman’s work’, a life of domestic servitude in which the best a woman could hope for was to get married, something she explores in “I’m “wife” – I’ve finished that“. Yet Emily has been gifted the talent to create art, to contemplate the clouds and see in the most fleeting and insignificant corners of the universe the forms of beauty. And she doesn’t want to be stuck having to perform “little Toils” because, like a member of royalty, she’s better than that, unlike those of the rest of us “That make the Circuit of the Rest” (of us commoners). Our days may be dull, but her’s are filled with a beauty only she can see in the clouds while we still hold onto the medieval thinking in which the clouds are just the road to idleness.

Thus Emily is not content to “deal occasional smiles” like a good girl who is expected to do the housework for a man, she “must decline” the authority of the stable world and live for the clouds because God himself has accepted her into the ranks. Though the irony that only God (a man) could grant this to her is probably not lost on her either.

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“We gotta pay for what we done to our own people”

“We got this old thing that hurts real fucking bad, makes you mean”

“It’s some old dark leftover thing that stayed with our family”

Blood, stories, the past, superstition, curses, violence, a lot of people carrying around a lot of baggage, just like the father whose clothes are stuffed into a bag and told to get out.

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Are Manny and Daniel who Sixto got killed while drink driving? (No, it’s his mom and brother p.181 – why was this unclear)

Is it strange to hear a mourning dove in the city? I’ve never heard them anywhere except in the country, but maybe they can be in the city too? Or is this Orange playing with what we think of where Indians live (rural as opposed to the more urban reality of Oakland)?

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Not to condone stealing cars, but it is a nice image of them in the stolen Lexus living someone else’s life in someone else’s car, smoking someone else’s smokes – like being part of the larger society for awhile, blending in as if they were white so being invisible in a different way, in a way nobody thinks about, not in the way that Indians are invisible in the city because nobody says anything.