katiclops

This is a very serious blog.

Month: July, 2012

Smoke gets in your eyes.

Today we awoke in dust.  It hung in the air, in the apartment, with a faint acrid smell. The weather has been unseasonably inconsistent for July.  We had gone to bed bundled in a down duvet, and migrated to the couch mid-evening, propping open our three huge wooden windows in spite of the traffic below, attempting to mitigate the warm front that had quietly rolled in.  Even now, as I retrieved my reading glasses a chemical burning-smell escapes from my glasses case, the way stale airplane air escapes from a waterbottle after a flight.  As we walked into the morning streets, filled with people doing their usual morning things–delivering orange juice, men with polished shoes and yet-to-be-tied silk ties draped over one shoulder–there was an odd “après” feeling hanging in the air. The traffic was gingerly circulating normally. There was a group of men in hard hats examining the fountain, and some others discussing the suspended dust, a wispy column beside the office tower in the square.

The smoke has gone unmentioned. The paper is jammed with Olympics coverage, a shooting on a local boat, and a death of a senior on a popular local walking trail.  The most recent mention of a fire was one on a lake 50 km north three days ago, a boat fire, that killed three people. The silence of the Times Colonist chalks another unmentioned event up on their score board.  Last summer no less than a half dozen cars had swarmed a neighbours property with no explanation in the press, and this year to date we had seen several parked on a pedestrian bridge as an RCMP boat and divers searched below, as well as a local restaurant owner carried out in a bust: no mention in the paper. Perhaps in part due to the silences, here, life continues normally.

We left the studio early, together. Waking on the couch anywhere is a little disorienting: waking up always leaves you unsure of where or when you are.  I was unable to gauge the daylight from the windows and without the sundial of bricks and bedroom paintings to tell the time of day. As we stumble out into the street a man in white painters coveralls, pushing a rolling ladder and assisted by two small children, a boy and a girl, dressed in matching navy and white stripes nods and smiles to us as they navigate past our heavy wooden doors.  “Push the button!” He instructs the little girl, who has run ahead to our ancient lift.  I do my best to smile warmly and before we catch which of our two floors they live on, the door swings shut behind us, hard.

I walk him to work in a shuffled, mis-buttoned sleepy haze, as though there had been some short-circuiting of my brain overnight, and I had re-woken into 2001, when westwardly winds had carried smoke from Québecois forest fires and filled the hills and inlets of the northern shore of Newfoundland with thick smoke, over 1000 km away. Walking out to get the mail, past the inflated kiddie-pool filled with lobsters and along the twisted road perched with houses and lawns populated with trucks and boats in various states of repair, tramping through the smoke sent out by a thousand Québecois trees on the other side of the Gulf of the Saint Lawrence, a hanging omnipresent connection to the outside world.

Siberian forest fires have been rumoured to account for unusual weather experienced this summer in BC. Canadian Space Agency

What it is to become Coupland.

I

 

 

n the midst of big projects, long road trips and epic movie marathons, there’s always a need for pacing, and for breaks (even if it’s just to pee and replenish your snacks). In reading The Pale King, somewhere between the horrific and delicious banality and the rapid devouring of the text, as I broached the landmark 100 pages from the end I slowed down: I needed a break.  Part of this was sheerly motivated by laziness: I also decided to go to Vancouver last weekend on a mini-holiday.  I’ve been a gypsy for so long I find change is often as good as a rest.  The lack of routine is less exhausting and more familiar than the expectations that have manifested themselves in the quotidian.  I left the tome at home; 550 pages is too much to cart around the city. Instead I brought with me a collection of Massey Lectures by Douglas Coupland: Player One: What it is to become one of Us. I have attended one lecture in the past (Stephen Lewis) and heard many of the other lecturers speak in different contexts.  When this series was announced, touted as “a novel in five hours” my curiosity was piqued: one of my formative literary influences, doing a reading from a new novel, however logistically it would’ve been impossible (or financially crippling) to attend. Nonetheless I couldn’t pass up a copy of the collection.

In addition to Microserfs I have read (or attempted to read) the majority of Coupland’s fiction work.  Life After God  was one of the most important books I read in the dark years of my angry adolescence, and could likely be pinpointed as the novel that brought me back from the brink.  I saw him speak shortly thereafter.  One of my parents took me, I can’t even remember which, because I can only remember their mystified silence as the ferried two of my friends home.  He remains one of the strangest and most memorable performances I have ever seen. Somewhere between a train wreck and actual genius he banally jumped from side to side of sanity.  He opened with remarks (which were quite funny), and followed by a reading of his latest novel (which was not), and then (perhaps to curb the awkwardness of the reading) proceeded to tell a collection of random (and equally awkward) vignettes.

He launched into the stories with a combination of charisma and desperation you would note waiting for the cheque during a terrible bad blind date.  One of these was a rant about the sensuality of bottles: that the whole idea and design of bottles was to be something entirely tactile, that they were to be something you wanted to pick up, to touch, to squeeze, to hold.  He described this day where he became fully obsessed with them, drove to a store, and bought every bottle you could imagine, poured all the contents down the drain and now had a shelf full of the bottles proudly displayed at his house in Vancouver.  He closed the evening by announcing that he was bored of answering questions, so instead he had decided tonight would end “Jeopardy!” style, where people could offer answers and he would invent questions around them.

I had a similar reaction to this novel. It started off like a regular, enjoyable easy read. Then the satire-scale tipped over to horrific, but like a bad highway accident, it was impossible to look away.  In return Coupland offers a poor, confusing story-arc, stitched together with thoughts, half-formed,half-funny, half-incredibly memorable, relevant and profound, and leaves us with the sensation of accidentally stumbling backstage during the best magic show you’ve ever seen in your life: disappointment, relief, fascination, annoyance and delight. Also the sense that there is some type of intention, you were meant to read this novel atthis particular point in time.

 

 

Flags at the Richmond night market, July, 2012.
The weekend was brilliant.  It was hot and sunny, I was looked after and hosted with terrific friends and great hospitality. I danced to some great music and laughed my face off.  Aside from logistical, I was motivated to go for comforting things: being looked after and being totally anonymous. There is something so cripplingly sweet about friend’s hospitality, allowing you to inconvenience them. The tenderness of being up too late and seeing your pals with their hair down, retainers in and glasses on.  The extra warmth that grandma’s afghans and spare blankets hold. The soothing effects of hearing other people’s apartments late night noises.

At the end of Player One, Coupland leaves us with a “Future Legend:” snippets of definitions of words and expressions that will be important in the post-apocalyptical world he goes to great length orchestrating.

Achronogeneritropic Spaces: Nowhere / everywhere / timeless places such as airports.

(…)

A plane trip exposes you to situations and landscapes unthinkable until recent history, moments of magnificence and banality that dissolve what few itty-bitty molecules of individuality you possess.  After a plane trip, you need to rebuild your ego, to shore up your sense of being unique.

I love this feeling.  It was a huge part of why I went.  Airports are everywhere.  This clean, geographic-less freedom exists only in transit.  Exists only in music. It’s a form of escapism that bookends the majority of all trips that I have taken. The uniqueness of everyone else renders the differences to relatively zero:

“I bring myself into the song.  I am an artist.  People listening to songs are like people reading novels: for a few minutes, for a few hours, someone else gets to come in and hijack that part of your brain that’s always thinking.  A good book or song kidnaps your interior voice and does all the driving.  With the artist in charge, you’re free for a little while to leave your body and be someone else.”

Whenever you are lonely, go find a record store and visit your friends. Like dancing in a crowd of strangers, until you all dissolve and you’re just some crazy new amoeba of the music.  Some people look back and remember their favourite haunts and hangouts, I feel more at home in this feeling.  The feeling of being so anonymous you are yourself, or so lost you are actually here.  Being here in this city is the longest I have been anywhere in a long, long time. There are definitely days where I have feeling like the “Halloween Costume” version of myself. How every little thing I do that is somehow slightly different needs to be exaggerated, so that I can somehow be somebody, and that I can somehow create a personality for myself out of these exaggerated little veerings from normal.

Coffee rings and my coffee shop books, today, 2012.

There is more and less to say about this book.  He quotes himself no less than three times, which drives me crazy both in that it is incredibly vain and narcissistic and also that even in fiction, I find it maddening when direct quotes are not properly cited.

Please God, just make me a bird, a graceful white bird free of shame and taint and fear of loneliness, and give me other white birds among which to fly, and give me a sky so big and wide that if I never wanted to land, I would never have to.

There are alot of other thoughts, pleasant and kind of unsettling that are repeated motifs that run through the book.  I understand it is not a perfectly constructed novel, it can’t be.  It was designed to be read chapter by chapter to five different audiences nation-wide. This makes the repetition both useful as well as comforting and emphatic.

If you tell people stories it calms them down…if you tell people they look relaxed, they relax. 

Another theme was the pithy idea that the police were always coming, they were going to save the main characters during the apocalypse.  In a world of anarchy, chemical warfare and no oil, the police were going to remain the constant force of good, that they would continue to be this ongoing source of justice and salvation.  This idea (since it was offered by Coupland) could be both satirical or sincere, and probably offered some type of political commentary that was a little lost on me.

Everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die.

Human beings were probably not meant to think about time.  It’s that simple.  When people think about time too much, it always seems to cause bad feelings.  Infinity is the worst concept of all. What was God thinking when He invented infinity?

Despite the fact that I went to this book to try to take a break from The Pale King, I can’t help but see all the similarities.  Where David Foster Wallace attempts to illustrate desperation and humanity through the most mundane thing conceivable (national tax auditing), Coupland goes to the other extreme and uses a global apocalypse to shock us into embracing and seeking out the banality.  Both books illustrate our need to seek comfort in repetition, in the everyday, in predictability and relative indifference. This book was by no means a disappointment, but perhaps a testament of Coupland’s exhibitionist approach to the victimization of his success.

Next week…something lighter!

Lights @ Habit, July 2012.

Drop cap by Jessica Hische.

Discovering Coupland.

I

 

 

was incredibly plump as a child.  I tipped the scales at over 100 pounds when I was nine, and I’ve been the same weight I am now since grade seven. That’s not to say I was obese or immobile: I have always been happy, active, and a permanent bookworm. I’ve just long preferred reading to competitive sports.

Since we were old enough to go out at night alone, my best friend and I had a longstanding Monday night date. This was the night when the library was open late, where we would go out and borrow huge stacks of paperbacks we would attempt to devour before returning them the following week. Growing up our library had a Crayola purple carpet, a typical hushed quiet, the delicious slightly mildewy bookish smell and was only slightly larger than a generous family ranch home.

Outside The Library, August 2011.

The Library is always The Library when we are small, as it doesn’t become ours until much later when we realize these edifices are city, let alone nation-wide.  The Library was divided broadly into quadrants; a gradient of seriousness–staff sorting area in the back, followed by a community meeting room, adult non-fiction, adult fiction, and the children’s section tucked away in the final corner. Later, I realized this was probably because of the noise and bustle of the children’s section, but I think it was also a protection mechanism, to corral us all in the back corner away from the door and to create the longest lost path to the outside world. It also gave the rest of the library the strange effect of appearing dim and monochrome, with the children’s section at the end appearing bright and hyper-coloured; this could also just be bleary childhood memories.

The adult non-fiction section had long, wide wooden tables with many people quietly pouring over various consultation texts, and wide, leather armchairs with tiny metal studs holding the leather and padding in place.  Adults filled the seats, reading newspapers from all over the world, held together in long wooden rods.  Many of the adults wore glasses, which I found very serious and intimidating (we were a family of severely un-corrected vision).  On the occasions when there was some rare emergency that involved tracking down my mother in this section, or when we trekked through the area en route to story-time (particularly popular ones and puppet shows were held in the back meeting room), my mother would always rigorously coach us in adult behaviour and the imperative silences it required. Then, petrified of being asked to leave, we would remain stone-quiet until we were through, even miming our actions if needed.  Getting kicked out of the library would be The Worst.

When I was first learning about the different sections of the library, my mom explained where she would be, and where I could stay.  Since the children’s section was tucked away farthest from the door, there was no worry of any of us escaping while our adults perused.  My mom would normally hang out in adult-fiction right next door anyway.  Those books were written in “adult,” i.e., no pictures and big words. My mom described adult non-fiction as “books written about the real world”-in my hyperactive mind I actually imagined them as living breathing things, that they were a realtime version of whatever was happening outside, self-updating Encyclopedia Brittanicas and microfiche. A place where you could observe the wonders of Reality through a page, hovering delicately above another continent or a civil war, with nothing but Adult Reality grounding you back from falling all the way in. A very dangerous section indeed. This Real World section was also comfortably located as far away as possible from the children’s section, providing us with another layer of protection.

Back in kid’s land standardized cut-outs of storybook characters and kid-things covered the upper-halves of the walls.  A half-dozen rickety black spinning carousels contained the young adult section, with one, larger non-spinny one for fantasy and sci-fi. After spending a few hours leafing over the carousels filled with paperbacks, grazing through the stacks and scrupulously reading excerpts from dog-eared novels, we arrived at our agonized-over decisions and checked out close to whatever our limit would allow before carting them off to our local coffee shop, where we would order italian sodas, hot chocolate or tea and stay as long as the baristas would allow.

Second Cup painting by Sylvia Simpson.

Younger versions of ourselves, or nights when we didn’t have quite enough for a drink we’d read up in her attic or under the dining room (which had a massive wall of books and french doors and kind of emulated a reading room). At my house we would read on my porch, sitting on an old wooden chest that stored salt for the winter and gardening tools, and drinking pots of herbal tea from my mom’s oversized yellow pot.

Somewhere along the way I started running out of material.  Or not so much running out of material, but my interest in the kid’s section began to drop off. I had read most of the Young Classics (Bridge to Terabithia, Anne of Green Gables), most of the young series (yes, including Babysitter’s Club and the My Teacher is an Alien series). Gordon Korman drew me into the “young adults” section, where The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy caught my eye.  Despite being one of those archaic UK printings in a typeface that made my headspin, it made me laugh out loud and officially became the first book I ever read where characters had sex.  Mind you, in the Hitch-hiker’s guide, this consists of the two main protagonists floating up into the clouds, it was still the first allusion to sex as a part of healthy, normal adult relationships.  Yes, I realize you could analyze that statement in relation to Douglas Adams and normalcy, but seeing as it’s recently been made into a major motion film, I feel like I should get a little bit less flak over it.

It was during this section of time, now nearly unleashed to the adult world (the rack of “Teen Fiction” was quite literally the border, a barricade against Adult Fiction), that I began seeking external guidance in my literary quest.  One of my old karate Sensei’s, a recently employed university robotics grad, who was back visiting our dojo from Silicon Valley instantly recommended Microserfs. Unsure about what I was getting into I flew through the novel.  Albeit stumbling over the sections with intricately detailed descriptions of Java and C++, I laughed hysterically at a good portion of the others.  The novel was about people, and all our awkwardness.  The world he wrote about was one that I always imagined existed, if we all just acted out on our eccentricities.  One of my favourite sections described one of the most socially awkward employees locking himself in his office.  Throughout the course of the rest of the book, he survives on different flat foods the rest of the office slides to him under the door: kraft singles, unrolled fruit-roll-ups, saltine soda crackers and pop tarts.  It’s brilliant.  To this day I cannot look at a saltine without wondering if it would clear a door jam.

And this is how I was introduced to Mr. Doug Coupland.

Wallace whitens (part two and a half)

F

 

 

rom the whispers of the alleys, from the off handed comments slipped between “Can you pass me that cutting board?” and “When should I meet you?,” the secret is out: several of my friends have been considering moving to the States. In hindsight I realize it happened gradually, subversively, with subtle references to cities we were fond of. A roster that previously contained nothing more than Canadian and European locations began to hum with US cred. New York, Chicago.

Here on the west coast, Seattle worked it’s way into our trio of three civic stompin’ grounds, followed closely by San Francisco as our incomes and access to cars and cheap plane tickets increased. Next up, Pacifica darling: Portland. Sharing our timezone dropped all our old-school inhibitions about the cities, the states even. Washington, Oregon, California? Pretty much BC.

My best friend went to a US university for her Masters, then her PhD; so did a growing number of my other college friends. Another friend ended up in Boston for an internship. One by one more cities began to creep up on the US map, emerging out of ambiguity: Minneapolis, San José, Boulder, Carrie. Accelerated by my TAL repertoire, the US became complex, personable and someone I would like to get to know better.

From a 2008 road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway.

America had always been something I have always regarded with mild curiosity and a bit of fear. Growing up, when cross-examining our parents about what lay on the other side of the river (we lived 45 minutes from Niagara Falls and the border) we were given basic the lexicon that they were just like us except with guns, and no healthcare. My parents strange aversion to the US entrenched my stigmas; squinting across the hazy horizon of Lake Ontario never yielded any interesting results and on closer land-locked occasions, I failed to see the enormous dotted line or patrolled fence I imagined kept us apart. The muddy, brown fields on the other side tended to look identical to the muddy brown fields on our own.

East-West roadtrip, Chicago, 2008.

In the past five years however, America has begun to hold an increasing allure and romance. The people won me over first: like Canadians with the volume turned up, the Americans I met while abroad consistently represented the polarities of all the personalities I had ever met. The were paradoxically the most kind, the most interesting, the most boring, the most healthy, the most unhealthy, the fattest, the thinnest, the most worldly, the most generous, the most ignorant, the most talented, the most rude, and the most polite. The list went on. How could one country be capable of producing such extremely contrastingly different people?

In college, a surprising number of my close friends were revealed to be American. A visit to New York in 2005, presented further food for thought: despite arriving alone at Penn station just after midnight, visibly Canadian and disoriented, saw me to my friends apartment, alive. I didn’t get shot, people bluntly gave me accurate directions; no one apologized, but people weren’t mean. New York just seemed like a busier, blunter, dirtier Toronto with unilingual packaging.

David Foster Wallace continues to enforce these ideals. The amalgamated snippets that form his memoir are interspersed with explicit and understated interpretations of US identity and economy. Gradually, you begin to see how such a vast, “freedom”-fuelled economy would be the ideal tabula rasa to create anyone. Like a pre-cambrian explosion of personalities and people.

In one particularly politically charged section (Chapter 19), which takes the form of a discussion between two unnamed, descriptor-less entities digresses into the downfall of the US, and the ascent of ego:

Corporations aren’t citizens or neighbors or parents. They can’t vote or serve in combat. They don’t learn the Pledge of Allegiance. They don’t have souls. They’re revenue machines. I don’t have any problem with that. I think it’s absurd to lay moral or civic obligations on them.Their only obligations are strategic, and while they can get very complex, at root they’re not civic entities. With corporations, I have no problem with government enforcement of statutes and regulatory policy serving a conscience function. What my problem is, is the way it seems that we as individual citizens have adopted a corporate attitude. That our ultimate obligation is to ourselves. That unless it’s illegal or there are direct practical consequences for ourselves, any activity is OK.

This is so simple, but also so backwards. Hiding in plain sight.

Center of the Universe, Idaho, East-west roadtrip, 2008

Spurred by the G8 summit/protests in Québec City in 2001, I have been deeply interested in globalization. Interests seated in Naomi Klein’s No Logo and Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree, (which I picked up thinking it would be funny-HA!) and supported by semi-political punk and folk-rock (rather than the other way around). In my mind, one of the seminal documentaries I watched in this span was The Corporation, which went on to great lengths to draw parallels between psychopaths and the socially, environmentally and ethically irresponsible behavior of corporations. DFW’s suggestion that this is fine, but that we just have to all stop behaving so corporately…this is the revolutionary part.

In this same chapter, he calls for change. Or at least ominously foreshadows the future:

… As citizens we cede more and more of our autonomy, but if we the government take away the citizens’ freedom to cede their autonomy we’re now taking away their autonomy. It’s a paradox. Citizens are constitutionally empowered to choose to default and leave the decisions to corporations and to a government we expect to control them. Corporations are getting better and better at seducing us into thinking the way they think-of profits as the telos and responsibility as something to be enshrined in symbol and evaded in reality. Cleverness as opposed to wisdom. Wanting and having instead of thinking and making. We cannot stop it. I suspect what’ll happen is that there will be some sort of disaster-depression, hyperinflation-and then it’ll be showtime: We’ll either wake up and retake our freedom or we’ll fall apart utterly. Like Rome-conqueror of its own people.

DFW ended his life in 2008, in September, the midst of the dragon-and-tail implosion of the American economy. After FYP, I can never omit context, and I can only help but wonder if he saw it coming….I also watched the new Batman last night (The Dark Knight Rises, yes, it was the midnight showing and yes, it was all that and a bag of chips) so this idea of impending anarchy is somewhat more vivid today than it was when I made these notes. In The Pale King DFW buries these insights within the most ubiquitous and boring milieu imaginable: the IRS. If the numbers don’t lie, is DFW setting us up for disaster? Is the Government as equally disenchanted with it’s People as the people with Power? Er, or the people with the People with Power? In a country of anyone how can a system fail everyone? Only postulating plot lines…

* * *

One other thing I am totally relishing about this novel are DFW’s totally obtuse descriptors of people and places. For example:

If I had to describe my father, I would first say that my mother and father’s marriage was one of the only ones I’ve seen in which the wife was noticeably taller than the man.*

This is the opening sentence of a nearly 100 page chapter detailing his father’s house, career, personality life and death. You know that DFW is mindful with his words and thoughts. This is opening sentence and descriptor is an entirely human detail that implies a subset of other characteristics. It’s graceful, obscure, and totally typical of DFW. It’s wonderful.

*N.B. Personal note of interest: my mom is also noticeably taller than my dad (much to his dismay).

Books like this, books that speak with this kind of unabashed openness about all sorts of social taboos and social awkwardnesses make me feel happy and delightfully un-alone. In the beginning of Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, he speaks of the lead female protagonist being completely in love with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and carrying it around with her everywhere, tucked under her arm, like some secret signal to fellow book-lovers who would understand her secret code and kinship. It makes me want to carry The Pale King everywhere. I already find myself laying it down on counters when I go to pay for coffee (instead of wedging it under my elbow), or carrying it in my hands (instead of tucking it in my book). I want someone to notice it, or at least ask me about it. For example, the following quote about those who are able to focus on tax audits:

One sensed that these were people who did not fidget, who did not read a page, of, say, dull taxpayer explanation about the deduction of some item and then realize that they’d actually been thinking about the apple in their lunch-bag and whether or not to maybe eat the apple right here and now until they realized that their eyes had passed over all the words (or, given the venue here, perhaps columns of figures) on the page without actually having read them at all- with read here meaning internalized, comprehended, or whatever we mean by really reading vs. simply having one’s eyes pass over symbols in a certain order. Seeing this was kind of traumatic.

We’ve all been there. It’s books like these with glaring, painful human details, the things you are supposed to confess to no-one, or when he devotes immeasurable pages to the things that you are not supposed to value, the boring things, the true things. John Steinbeck’s musing: “can you honestly love a dishonest thing?” could not echo more truth into my growing love for this book. It’s honesty and discombobulation are completely winning me over.

One hundred pages to go…

Pretty drop cap from Jessica Hische.

This is Wallace (part two)

I

 

 

nevitably, part of my motivation to return to David Foster Wallace (DFW) came after reading a friend’s not-so-recent blog post on DFW’s address to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College.  You can read the blog here (which contains links to online versions of DFW’s essay).  I was pretty shook up by my initial reading of the essay, but the second run through I found much more liberating, even optimistic.  Echoes of this essay run through The Pale King:

The memoir-relevant point here is that I learned, in my time with the Service, something about dullness, information, and irrelevant complexity.  About negotiating boredom as one would a terrain, its levels and forests and endless wastes.  Learned about it extensively, exquisitely, in my interrupted year.  And now ever since that time have noticed, at work and in rereation and time with friends and even the initmacies of family life, that living people do not speak much of the dull. Of those parts of life that are and must be dull.  Why this silence? Maybe it’s because the subject is, in and of itself, dull…only then we’re again right back where we started, which is tedious and irksome.  There may, though, I opine, be more to it…as in vastly more, right here before us all, hidden by virtue of its size.

Perhaps appropriately, I have been thinking alot lately about death. This comes to me most often in the summer. Not so much about death, but this looming feeling of mortality.  I don’t know if you are supposed to be this conscient of mortality when you are in your twenties, maybe it’s a sign of aging. But it’s always when life takes it’s simplest, most natural state that I am most aware that I am incredibly happy right now: this is all there is. Lying in the sun on a lazy afternoon, plunging into a lake, sweat lodges under a starry sky.  This is probably as good as it gets.  And I am happy. But this could very well be it.

Classic webbed toes at said lake, (Kennedy Lake, BC), circa 2009.

Tonight the moon is a deep auburn, redder than the sallow orange street lights that line our downtown.  There was a small earthquake earlier that shook the lilies in the milk jug and sent me to NOAA in a frenzy.  The belly-lit seagulls that nest on our roof (and all the roofs of downtown) look like doves as the glide home.

Today was a day where the whole thing is a do over. This morning we overslept our yoga alarm (i.e., the crack of dawn), so naturally, after waking enough to rejoice in the inevitable need to sleep in, I unwittingly tumbled down the rabbit hole of semi-lucid dreaming…I am pleased (and perhaps slightly embarrassed) to apologize that the rest of today’s post has been devoted to my first published (rather long) writing exercise.

In the interim, rejoice in summer mortality and sun! Regular book review posts will return shortly…

*         *         *

dream exercise #1

The procedure would last less than an hour.  It would happen during the day, they’d pull me out of my job at the forgery.  I guess you can’t really call an internship a job, especially one that’s as imposed and as mundane and backbreaking as what I was going through. It was another one of those hot, smarmy days, where the the dust and soot from the coke furnaces stuck to the oily grime of the exhaust and fumes from our machines.  The trip had started out so well; optimistic, bright eyed and bushy tailed, a half-dozen of us were assembled for volunteer community service for several months before being shipped overseas on cultural exchange to do similar work abroad afterwards. We ran the rote of team building exercises, the touchy-feely cross-communication workshops, the open laughing over our differences and (as if on principal) assembled a small collection of inside jokes.

And then somehow it dissolved. Despite the war efforts scaling up demands, up the forgery began to disappear. Gradually the shop floors became spacious.  What used to be an intricate navigation of heavy machinery between steel rolls waiting to be packaged up and shipped, and constant negotiation of men taking smoke breaks, standing idly, all machines moving, whirring–melted away.  At first I thought it was because I was becoming more skilled with the forklift, but as I began to note the lonely cars in the parking lot, I realized it was more than that.

The factory, when it is full, is alive.  The metal machines take on a life of their own.  Metal making metal, small human beings precariously scrambling over their moving parts, or hiding in corrugated boxes not only seem irrelevant, but also powerless and superfluous. Knights and dragons, our plastic goggles, plastic hats, and steel capped boots an insulting excuse for production against the tonnes of steel whirring, flying overhead.  Huge sections of the warehouse roof are movable cranes, and red stripes on either side of our hard hats would distinguish us (albeit very tinily) to the driver five stories overhead as unpaid interns.  As rookies not only were we less aware of the intricate, lethal choreography of the mill, we were also far less predictable in our actions–likely to wander off the chalked out walkways in an underpaid, underfed, exhausted stupor, and more likely to wonder why those sirens suddenly sounded so URGENT.

Since the beginning, the floors were now quiet.  The cranes rested, respectively on either side of the cavernous roof.  We were shipping out steel as quickly as it could be finished. There was hardly any need to move large shipments to trains, most went straight to ammunition, and could be moved by conveyor of trolly.  Let alone a lack of people to drive. Guessing from the amount of harbour traffic, most had relocated to the shipyard.

We no longer had anytime for team building or “activity” days.  We used the old forum (an abandoned stage, presumably once used for shop meetings, where elite owners would address throngs of men).  Now we would use the stage  for lunch-when and if we got it, let alone if we had the food to warrant actually stopping to sit for a moment. Our cynicism and desperation had also pushed us far beyond anything that could conceivably be a team. While initially we would rotate through the remaining stations in the shop, a caste system had developed, where moving between the dustier “pit” and the rest of the shop floor became impossible.  One afternoon when my bunkmate didn’t appear, I ended up at the other end of a broom, and never made it back onto the floor.  Shortly after that my breathing started to go again, and my position on the wrong side of the divide was cemented.

Our supervisor, whose days of giving me time off to clear my lungs were long over, had been made aware of my situation. His jeering and callousness, naturally also increased, but a caught a glint of concern in his eye as he gruffly motioned my direction when the medical attendants arrived.  He had the stocky wiry-ness of a hardened man who had been here for too long, and tended to wear stained green coveralls, rolled down in the heat, a stained white short (he would never be enforced) and a wool cap paradoxically perched on the back of his bald head. Icy eyes cut into you. Talking to him felt akin to scaling a cement wall unassisted, there was some distant aura of softness hidden in the deepest recesses of his frozen irises: he might have had a daughter or a wife once. In any case when they arrived I saw it.  And it was touching.  It reminded me of when I had a father, that he worked in a place like this too.

“Slacking off again?” he barked as I put down the broom.  More taunting from the others on the floor; my fellow broom-mate smirked.

“Prissy lungs get you out of work again?” I shoved my broom in his face, and allowed the technicians to flank me as we stalked away to the medical quarters.

It goes without saying that war changes the face of a country.  I waited, alone, past lock-down security to be attended to in a converted elementary school gym.  I only guessed this from the ripped out drinking fountain across from me, no more than two feet off the ground.  The fact that dozens of little five and six year old feet would have lined up against the wall, on top of the enormous bootprints on the thick dust lining the old marble hall was almost inconceivable.  But the energy of decades of small children takes time to dissipate.  I absently flecked more saffron paint from the chipping wooden bench, before realizing it would probably land me in more trouble than it was worth. I sighed, looking past the enforced glass to the stained white coats on the young overworked physicians inside.

He was annoyed.

“You’re here for what exactly?” he scrumpled his face over my dog-eared chart, an orphan of coloured sheaths of paper and iterations of spelling my last name, until eventually it was just replaced with a number. “A pulmonary recalibration? You’ve had one of these before?”

Clearly a problem that predated the war.  The mismatched arms of his glasses indicated they had only recently been issued; I hoped they were an appropriate prescription.

“Yes, they told me initially that it would require three rounds of treatment, but with good health I might get away with only one.” I explained.  He nodded absently.

“Right, well. Step one, we give you another one. Hopefully that’ll be good enough.” He shot one more forlorn look at my charts, as he scribbled on a post-it and shoved them back to another intern (this one looked no more than 16) and waved them off.  If my chart was completed it would be returned back until the next raffle drew my number again. I nodded to calm myself (a nervous habit that had only become exaggerated in recent months). I lay back on three desks (one wobbled) covered in a stained sheet, and waited for the anaesthetic to take affect.

*         *         *

“You’re the oncologist?” I blearily asked the girl on my right. The world was jolted into focus by the erratic stop-starts of a repurposed city bus in traffic, lurching over potholes and switchbacking up the side of a hill.  I blinked several times and looked around the faux-leather, ripped and tattered seats: all full.  A mix of regular workers in various states of shift and health, with several dusty soldiers grumpily installed in the front.  We were sitting in the three centre seats in the back.  He hair was long, blond and curly.  I was mesmerized by how clean it appeared. As the anaesthetic wore off  I could even smell shampoo.  Her skin was clear, and she was the type of slim that indicates an academic life rapt with absently forgetting to eat.  Judging from her age and youthful enthusiasm she had tumbled into her speciality early and I was one of her first patients.  She was thrilled.

“Are you my oncologist?” I asked, as if it was the most normal thing in the world that a girl two years younger than I would complete the seven years medical training requires and four of specialization without glasses, let alone successfully.

“Oh no!” she laughed, “I’m a sexologist actually, just finishing my second year of my program.  But I want to be an endrocrinologist.” She corrected, brightly.  Gesturing to my left she affirmed: “and she’s my intern!”

Another girl, Chinese and this time one no more than 14, was on my other side. Long straight black hair, hung down by her wide investigative eyes. “Hello,” she spoke quietly, raising her hand, half in greeting, half out of fear.  I was clearly one of the first people she had met outside of the medical program.  I offered a brusque nod in return, taking pride in the authenticity of my filthy, faded appearance. My endocrinologist-to-be was unphazed.

“I normally see an oncologist.” I pressed. “Dr. Malcolm…”

She laughed again, “Oh yes, well fortunately they’ve identified your imbalance to be hormonal, so we’re going to start you on medication once we visit the specialist. Your case will be handled by endocrinology from now on.”

I replied through a half-nod, half-shrug.  Drugs at this point in the war were the equivalent to a death sentence.  I had at least four months left, unless I became sick enough to warrant a true release. Or the war ended. Or the lottery. I looked down at my lap, which I now noticed, was holding a shallow rubbermaid container, the type that would’ve held plastic dinosaurs or been the camp wash basin outside the compound.  I choked back a wave of nausea as I realized not only that it was attached to me, but it was filled with organs: my organs.

My lungs, my sad little choked out lungs, tattered and drying leaned up against what I identified to be a large cornucopia of a gallbladder, and a huge, crumbly brown, blood soaked liver.  The lungs were pulsing slowly, and a large silicon tube attached them back into a small slit above my sternum.  Another tube emerged from the liver and snaked left into a box the quiet one was sitting on.

“Oh don’t worry, we’re going to put them back!” Intern #1 comforted, gingerly touching my forearm clutching the tub.  I visibly had turned green.  “What with cutbacks and all, taking them out was easier for analysis. And then we just have to take public transportation to the doctor who will have them re-installed! You’ll be back at work this afternoon!” She smiled, as if it would be helpful.  My head became weightless. I was carrying my internal organs.  We were on public transportation while I carried my internal organs. My life was being supported by a cooler carried by a 14 year old.  If I hadn’t felt three seconds away from losing consciousness I would have laughed. Medical cutbacks…!

“This is us!!” She sprang up, motioning for us to do the same. I staggered behind her as we positioned ourselves to leap from the slowing bus.  No sooner had we gathered ourselves on stable land when the cries of “TORNADO!!” rang out across the compound.  Both girls bolted into the facility.  The box carrying my life support crashed to the ground, and as I lunged forward to grab it, my tub filled with organs bounced out of my hands and tumbled onto the dusty, yellow earth. I gasped.  The tube connecting me to life support was ripped out of my stomach, I had seven minutes, seven minutes at best.  All around me, doors were slamming shut.  The wind was picking up. Life support was no use to me now. Organs, I needed organs.  Still attached I now had my lungs back in the box.  The gall bladder.  Grey began to creep in along the edges of my periphery…My liver! I needed my liver..it was missing…I just needed a piece. I looked back, I was standing, suddenly I was on the ground, my tub in one hand, clutching a piece of liver, totally encased in dirt in the other.  I needed to keep moving, just to get inside the door, six meters away.  There they had life support.

There were no colours anymore.  My left arm was wrapped around my tub, I was dragging myself on my belly.  My legs had no feeling.  I needed my hand free. My hand free to open the door.  I shoved the dust-covered piece of liver in my mouth to keep it warm, to free my hand.  It was crumbling into pieces.  My mouth felt like it was too full of paper towel. I reached for the handle as the wave crashed over me: I was about to die.

Then I woke up.

*         *         *

Pretty dropcap props (as always) go out to Jessica Hische!

 

DFW ramblings continued here and here.

The Pale Wallace (part one)

A

 

 

nd so it begins.

I have begun again, David Foster Wallace.

I’ve been carrying around a copy of Infinite Jest for months.  Like all too many of my books it’s become slightly dog-eared and ratty looking, despite my best attempts at keeping the slightly-larger than life tome pristine. Over the past year the book has logged over 12,000km and over 320 miles (that’s four ferry-rides, for all you east-coasters).  It is not an easy book. Heavy, floppy, your hands will ache after no more than a few pages.  Further to not being the best travel book ever, my accessibility factor (read: poverty equals paperback) leaves you with copies of the novel that threaten to tear at the slightest jostle of a bus or other large mode of transportation.

Odometer aside, my bookmark in Infinite Jest has not advanced past p.47 in months.

Friends have received the novel with rave reviews, telling me it’s totally worth it, not to skip the footnotes (of which, there are hundreds), and despite taking months to finish (my last friend’s journey spanned February till yesterday), found it incredibly rewarding. The bar has been set. I’m confident that if I can withstand the urge to grab a racquet/hold off repeat viewings of the Royal Tannebaums, the book will swallow me up into the cult with the rest of them. It must be just like Les Misérables, I keep telling myself, make it past page 150 and you’ll be good to go.

All this to say, for the time being I’ve resigned myself to not reading Infinite Jest. After having a similar experience with José Saramagio’s Blindness, I’m fully prepared to come back to the book later.  I’ve left it safely pressed in my book line-up for weeks.  All that to say, the past few weeks I’ve had a mounting suspicion David Foster Wallace (DFW) will be the next author I tackle. Suddenly his book recommendations jump out. Interviews catch my eye.  Everyone suddenly seems to be devouring him. I want to be in on the club.  I’ve been messing around the past few days dabbling in my large stocks of Canadiana and huge reserve of second-hand fiction. I’ve been tearing my way through my latest non-fiction (Emperor of All Maladies) which is incredible. But I have yet to settle on a really decent fiction book.  Nothing has fully grabbed me.  After re-reading the opening chapters of The Finkler Question three times I resign myself to one indisputable fact: it’s bookstore time.

It was another stupidly gorgeous day.

A cloudless blue sky gave way to a stunning sunset, with the Olympic mountains emerging from the misty-strait.  The streets were packed downtown, and after a lazy evening coffee (one of our favourite spots is open late on the weekends) we somehow stumbled into Munro’s books, a few blocks down from our flat.

Munro’s is one of those magical downtown bookstores that has become a bit of a legend. It moved to this gorgeous old building (formerly Royal Bank) and maintains that sacrosanct silence demanded of such places (banks, churches and bookstores) and that kind of ethereal buzzing holiness a collected group of engrossed people generate.  I was captivated.  Something about walking from back from Ogdin Point with the throngs of cruise ship port-of-callers had given me that travel-lust for a new book. The kind you get when you absently wander through the Virgin store at the airport when your flight is delayed-or better yet-when you’ve finished all the reading you’ve taken with you.  For all my stacks of second hand copies, the thrill of a new one (the smell of freshly pulped paper, crisp pages, uncracked spine) is definitely an indulgence I reserve for the special-ist of occasions.

I was instantly drawn the The Pale King , which was one of the books in the glass display cases in the foyer. The proportions…the size (about half as many pages as Infinite Jest…and I could swear more generous margins and a notch up in type size). And the matte cover. Matte. It just does it to me everytime…

At first crack, The Pale King is far more accessible than Jest, albeit doubtlessly (depressingly?) I find tax policy an easier medium to digest than professional level tennis.  I also found the sweet introduction by DFW editor, gently explaining the process he and the publisher used to produce the text (from notes, polished chapters and drafts) far more welcoming than the lofty praises David Eggers heaps upon you prior to Jest. Michael Pietsch (the editor) speaks with such tenderness about DFW you are given a beautiful picture of what he must have been like, and his meticulous writing style.

Somewhat intimidating, I actually find the shattered style of Pale King easier to digest, and have devoured the first hundred pages or so since the weekend.  I provide for you the opening chapter by means of stylistic example:

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spine cabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch.  The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day.  A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys.  All nodding.  Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-coloured sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so so high they cast no shadow.  Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land.  Look around you. The horizon is trembling, shapeless.  We are all of us brothers.

It is incredible, the way he invites us in. Each little snippet of phrase like a brush stroke, taking us deeper and deeper into the scene. The following chapters (which range in length from a few paragraphs to upwards of twenty pages, and vary in content to include: a list of ailments most commonly suffered by auditors, to short unrelated vignettes and asides). This range of mechanisms effectively assemble a memoir, far more comprehensively than a consistent narrative would.  As with the frenetic voicing, so are our lives.  No one wakes up everyday the same person. No life is singularly or consistently experienced.

A few years ago I was in New York, visiting friends. It was a happy accident: I happened to have some extra time before Christmas and friends in the city finishing their exams the same time I was.  Consequently, I was on an exceptionally tight budget, with nothing much left over after a weeklong subway pass and a small reserve of funds set aside for art.  Near the end of my trip, as I was assembling receipts, postcards in the process of condensing my life (which seemed remarkably full despite the brevity of the visit), I came across my MOMA stub, to find that my admission into the satellite gallery, PS1 was included. I had been told to check out Five Pointz if I had a chance, so I tried to scribble down some directions on a sandwich wrapper in the Apple store and set out.

Naturally I got off at the wrong stop in Queens–saw 5 points only from a distance–and ended up walking well over a mile to the gallery.  It was one of those instances where you get out onto the street and realize you are very, very lost and that things could get very, very ugly fast. On the upside, I definitely saw alot of stellar graffiti. Fortunately, I was coming directly from -30C weather in Montréal, so (naturally) was decked out in my (only) winter coat: a vintage Albertan knee-length wool parka, complete with leather appliqué flowers running down the front of the jacket, and men catching beavers on the back. The enormous hood was lined with ancient white wolf’s fur and had the effect of making me look like a total crazy person.  I was obviously foreign (although people consistently identified me as Swedish or Aussie), or obviously crazy.  I chalk my survival of the jaunt through Queens entirely to the latter.

PS1 was incredible. I can’t recommend it highly enough.  It’s in an old retrofitted public school (hence PS) and tends to feature local artists.  The shows were short, tight, and focused on single ideas.  One show particularly stood out in my mind: Talent Show. My favourite piece was from a French artist named Sophie Calle.  In 1983 she found a red leather bound address book, and upon discovering the owner was traveling in Scandinavia for several weeks Mlle. Calle decided (rather than to return the book right away-where is the fun in that?) would instead at random, contact entries from the address book at random, and interview them on the identity of the owner, to create a comprehensive picture of the person, without ever meeting them.  Each interview is published  daily in a Parisian paper, beginning with an inventory of the books entries (27 Britons, 87 French, 67 women, etc.). Reading The Pale King feels like unpacking someone’s life, walking through their house, leafing through their photo albums and speaking with their friends. So far I feel as though I am receiving a more accurate idea of the protagonist than if it were to be put squarely in front of me right away. You have the sense that DFW is going through a similar journey with himself, dissecting one year of his life in the 1980’s where he worked for the IRS.  And he is externally reconstructing a portrait of himself.

Like the book itself, this post will be fractured and in several parts…for now I leave you.

 

Continued here and here.