katiclops

This is a very serious blog.

Month: September, 2012

I love Super Sad True Love Stories

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hen I first moved out west I found myself completely helpless at attempting to determine people’s ages. My first move here I worked with the Canadian Coast Guard’s summer student program, where university and college students are stationed at locations around the coast to provide additional support in rescue scenarios (think high-traffic tourist areas, or remote summer fishing locales). For the first two weeks of training I was struggling to determine the regular CCG staff (our team leads, i.e., men in their late 30s and 40s) from the 20-something students. I remember the next year when I realized my 37 year old co-worker was not, in fact, my age (21); or even better, when I discovered my room-mate (who I’d pegged at around 35) was in her mid-FIFTIES.

I began apologizing for it, letting people know ahead of time that if I was being presumptuous: I was from the east, and helpless. On the east coast I tended to low-ball people’s ages by about 5 years, but here I was bordering on 15. I would tailor my questions accordingly, asking people I suspected of prepubescence if they were married, or others I assumed penniless 22 year old university students if they had any children or previous careers (one turned out to be burgeoning on 60 and formerly a lighting specialist in the TV industry).

Friends tried to help me develop various explanations for it. The first was that by and large I’m a bit of an outdoorsy person, and although the outdoors ages you quickly (I had laugh lines at 21), and batters your skin, it also keeps you young and active. Most of my friends tend to fit this description and reach this generic healthy ballpark age at about 22 and don’t change much until their hair goes white. The second is clearly the mild weather. Where east coasters live in temperatures spanning 50 degrees or more (-20C to +30C), life in coastal BC is more akin to living in a giant fridge. Never too hot or cold, fluctuating only 10 or 20 degrees over the entire year (10C-20C); like veggies, BCers stay fresh. The final looming indication of youthdom (perhaps, completely unfounded), we pegged up to lifestyle. It didn’t take us long to realize the bar culture on the west side of Canada has some resounding differences from the east. My first weeks in Vancouver quickly found my Halifax and UK friends closing establishments at midnight, and feeling paunchy, foreign and pale compared to the sexy, tanned, rollerblading locals of the beaches. It was the first place I lived where smoking was decidedly uncool and a little taboo. Maybe it’s the aging and retired babyboomers who make us conscious and active in pursuing health, or the gorgeous in-your-face scenery that constantly screams EXPLORE ME but irregardless, there are certainly certain influences at play here that are toned down in the east.

It gives rise to certain lifestyle traits that become humourous (and then humourless) the longer you live here. Wheat-free, sugar-free, lactose-free, organic, fairtrade, local, are all common selling features (or potluck specifications) and comments like “It’s Victoria, everyone has a food sensitivity” are abundant. This obsession with youth is played out in my most recent reads, Gary Shteyngart‘s Super Sad True Love Story. I stumbled upon it’s distinctive cover in the large print section of the downtown public library. They had four, unread copies (unread since their purchase in April last year!). The thought of painlessly reading something glasses-free before bed was a delight-along with the sense of accomplishment in reading a 500 page large-print edition (compared to the puny 320 regular print) was also a delight, I opened to the first page, a diary entry from Lenny:

Today I’ve made a major decision: I am never going to die.

Others will die around me. They will be nullified. (…)

When I outlive the earth and depart from its familiar womb, I will take the memory of this building with me. I will encode it with zeros and ones and broadcast it across the universe..

Given my recent obsession with death, the large print and the funky cover I picked it up and brought it home.

Super Sad True Love Story is written in the future, perhaps about ten or twenty years from now. The timeline is deduced from references to “archaic” Mead Five Star notebooks (from “when I was a child”), insults like  “What is that, an iPhone!?” (when looking at an old äppärät), and comments like “I relished hearing language actually being spoken by children.”

The narration consists of alternating chapters between Lenny’s diary entries, and excerpts of correspondence from his lover, Eunice Park (emails, “teening” which is basically like instant-messaging).

I can’t understand why you’re feeling so insecure about him. So he’s brain-smart. Who cares??? It’s not like he’s some superstar Media guy or VP at LandOLakes. So he REALLY, REALLY, READS instead of scans. Big whoop. (…) Anyway, looking good is the new smart, and I don’t think you should have kids with him because you’ll have really ugly children.

Eunice is a recently graduated 20-something student, whose Korean-American  parents keep pushing to go into law school (so she can pursue a career in Retail), and Lenny is a 39 year old, paunchy Russian-Jew who works at an organization that sells immortality to High Net Worth Individuals (HNWI). HNWIs need to be super healthy to have their lives extended. Immortality the highest goal of most working for the organization, health is their number one obsession, drinking anti-oxidant teas, no elevators and low-stress lifestyles the culture of choice:

the blip board displayed the names of Post-Human Services employees, along with the results of our latest physicals, our methylation and homocysteine levels, our testosterone and estrogen, our fasting insulin and triglycerides, and, most important, our “moods + stress indicators,” which were always supposed to read “positive/playful/ready to contribute” but which, with enough input from competitive co-workers, could be changed to “one moody betch today” or “not a team playa this month.”

In addition to being obsessed with youth (39 is ancient), people have become hyper sexualized and hypersuperficial. Slang and informalities seem to be hallmarks of youth. Consumption and sex, the only two real things you can’t seem to do online (food has been reduced to pill formats, although cooking and cheap street food still exist). Women are 80 or 90 pounds, and a massive industry exists for undergarments, as see-through pants (“Onionskins”) are now in vogue. Similarly, in America the economy now focuses primarily on Credit, Retail and Media, the only three viable career streams.

People are obsessed with the internet. Media are bloggers and webcasters, who feed the constant streams of information that people are endlessly consuming from their äppärräti.

Four young people committed suicide in our building complexes, and two of them wrote suicide notes about how they couldn’t see a future without their äppäräti. One wrote, quite eloquently, about how he “reached out to life,” but found there only were only “walls and thoughts and faces,” which weren’t enough. He needed to be ranked, and to know his place in this world. And that may sound ridiculous, but I can understand him.

I found the descriptions of Shteyngart’s favourite books also somewhat hollow. I felt hurt by the way he name dropped some of my favourite Russians and Czechs (Chekov, Tolstoy and Kundera). Mind you, Lenny is Russian, and I have a penchant for that dark type of fiction, but when you read, so often you feel like you are being written to from the only other person in the world. That their story is just for you, and your eyes only. The idea of these authors being dragged into the next decade in all it’s inhuman superficial glory…it was  a gross and harrowing thought. Nice to know the Russians make it to the next century though.

Shetyngart extrapolates on the current era to make predictions that were already beginning to execute themselves when the novel was published in July 2010. Protestors took over Central Park. He describes Asia as a powerhouse (all dollars are pegged to the yuan), northern Europe a nexus of exclusive sovereign wealth, and northern US as “Stability-Canada.” He paints entrenching racism, emerging as recent immigrants see their new chosen country fall to the ground in tatters. He looks at the credit crisis: poles on street corners broadcasting people’s credibility to the world.

It alludes a little to background checks on people. Which I think is legitimate and I can see happening already. In 2010 I attended the Open Gov West conference, and I remember an ADM confronting me with “Would you want your landlord to have access to all your data before you signed  lease?” to which I replied with a shrug, saying I Google all of my potential landlords before moving, and I have nothing to hide, so why not?

In summary, it was a great, funny and thought-provoking read. With interesting predictions, extrapolations and concepts, made all the more harrowing by the events unfolding over the past two years since it’s release.

I leave you with a non-spoiler excerpt from the end, which captures perhaps my most haunting take-home of the book:

She is not a born writer, as befits a generation reared on Images and Retail, but her writing is more interesting and more alive than anything else I have read from that illiterate period. She can be bitchy, to be sure, and there’s the patina of upper-middle-class entitlement, but what comes through is a real interest in the world around her – an attempt to negotiate her way through the precarious legacy of her family and to form her own opinions about love and physical attraction and commerce and friendship, all aset in a world whose cruelties gradually begin to mirror those of her own childhood. I would add that, whatever one may say about my former love, and whatever terrible things she has written about me, unlike her friends, unlike Joshies, unlike myself, unlike so many Americans at the time of our country’s collapse, Eunice Park did not possess the false idea that she was special.

It offered closure. As if finally, despite all of the technology and advances to be as ‘evolved’ as possible, ultimately, we will revert to the natural, generic masses of the world. When everyone is unique there is relatively nothing telling us apart. And that might be okay too.

super sad dream (part 2)

Hamilton, Ontario, December, 2008

It was a dark night, the time of the evening where all of your acquaintances have gone home, to their real homes. The time of night where the bars are closed, solidly  closed and empty (even of the people that worked there), and the people who were in the bars are gone, gone from the establishments and gone from the streets. It’s not quite mo(u)rning yet, and it is in the very, very deep dark depths of night. Where the streets are actually really completely empty, and there are about two cabs in all of downtown, but that’s okay because there are no people.

We had been holding a party. We were in a familiar building (although not our own), and we were looking at a familiar city scape (although not our own). About the fourth or fifth story up, wide, high windows, a corner unit – a top one, not that we had any other indications of why it would be on the top. Remains of the evening around us. Maybe four or five of us left, two men, an older women or sick friend, someone who couldn’t walk far, maybe who was already asleep. Half-finished and mainly finished small plates of food and drinks strewn here and there. Candles burning down, partially from laziness and for our tired eyes, maybe also to avoid any black-out warnings (not that they would matter in this day and age). Blankets tossed here and there. The type of party that had happened slowly, but intensely, with conversations that were full of emotion. The kind of party that hangs in the air, even long after people have left. Thoughts and ideas suspended like balloons, taking their own time to leave and dissipate. A dark night, even for a city.

These windows faced north-east (ours face East). The city looked like Ottawa or Boston, more high-rises than here, but historical buildings still high and prolific enough to dialogue with the skyline. Like Paris, without any obvious landmarks. We were less than a kilometer from the downtown core, close enough to see that it was close from a distance. The Hamilton skyline from that park we would always go to behind St. Joe’s. The one that looked out at the Bay from the escarpment. A purply night with a large, dark, tense presence that would have sat across our chests, immobilizing us, if it hadn’t been so dog-eared and familiar. If we hadn’t been waiting and functioning like this for so long.

They had put out a call for volunteers, healthy ones, strong ones. We knew something was anticipated. We weren’t sure if it was good or bad. Someone was listening to a radio-broadcast, or watching a news stream, or a media feed. The apartment had that cozy after-party/snowstorm/get out and meet your neighbours kind of feel to it. People were moving from flat to flat. I think The Hermit, the painter who lives in our building, with the huge, thick, black-framed glasses and plaid pants was over when he heard the news. He has a beard, and was too old. He had lived a good life, he declared. If they destroyed his art they would destroy him. He went home to be with it. I was drying a dish in one hand, and the three of us were discussing who should go. I was strong enough, although it hadn’t been long since I recovered. I could go but couldn’t run fast, my card still had permissions for me to stay, it wasn’t illegal for me not to go.

The men had to. We determined that it was either going to be really good, or really bad. They were either recruiting people to move forward, to start our new settlement and lives, or they were recruiting people to fight. Or worse, recruiting people for testing.

Finally we decided intuitively it was safest for us to split up and I would stay. Safest as determined by who?? Genetic pre-disposition perhaps? The passing on of our DNA? Not that we were all related. My brother, my partner and I. But the potential. The strength of the primal instincts to do this were alarming: distribute gene pool. We all intuitively, indisputably arrived at this conclusion individually. They would go, and if it was good, if they were relocating us they would somehow contact me and I would join them. And if it was bad, they would try to come back. They would go early and investigate, and come back. I needed to stay at the apartment anyway. Cleaning, preparing, waiting, hiding, listening.

And so they left.

Time passed. The sky began to lighten, gradually. You could feel the energy shifting in the city, people were getting up. Healthy ones were moving downtown, the mobile, the active, the informed. A shifting of strong energy, a shifting of youth.

More time passed. The sky was lavender. I began to wonder if I should begin packing my bags and heading downtown. If they would leave without me. If finally, after so many years things were going to be getting easier. Then suddenly, everything changed. An explosion above downtown, fire racing through the empty streets and a dark mushroom cloud racing upwards. They were all gone.

(Morning).

View from that park behind the Jolly cut, December, 2008

As dreamt during Super Sad True Love Story and after watching Lawless, night of September 25.

Animal, Miracle, Kingsolver.

I love fall.

I love absolutely everything about it. I love the weather, I love the colours, the crispness in the air, the bundley-type clothes. I love the ebb of the tourist season, the locals returning to their streets and beaches (or at least emerging from fullstop schedules in cruise ship season) timidly reclaiming their cities and homes.

I am obviously  not the only one with this infatuation.

It was my birthday almost two weeks ago. I’ve always thought of myself as a fall baby, although I suppose the ninth of September places me solidly in the final throes of summer. We went to the mainland, ate burritos on the top of a mountain and sauna-ed in the valley. The next weekend we had a proper party at our flat. I held off on posting for awhile afterwards…I keep anticipating some major life crisis (beyond my inescapable cycle of existential-woes and fervor that keep us all propelling forward). I also finished reading an incredible book, Freedom Climbers, that I thought would prompt some deep birthday thoughts: but alack, they are yet to coagulate.

Barbara Kingsolver has written twelve books, many of them well renowned and a solidly established creative nonfiction writer. At fifteen, when I was incapacitated with influenza for several weeks, I initially spent the majority of my bedridden waking hours listening to the recently released Radiohead‘s Kid A on repeat (the perfect record for illness-induced delusion) and staring at the ceiling. When I emerged (a newly devout Radiohead fan) and finally regained my ability to focus-to read, the novel I chose to peck away in my meagre bursts of lucidly was The Poisonwood Bible. I’d likely stumbled over my mom’s copy, lying unsuspecting and unattended in the study.

I was so moved by the opening paragraph it prompted me to climb up precariously and scrawl the paragraphs on my ceiling where I would see it in the mornings:

Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened. First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.

Much to my parents dismay (and my sister’s, who repainted and inherited the room after I left for college) this trend continued throughout the book, and throughout many others until I graduated two years later. In hindsight this probably has(/had) something to do with my long fascination of Africa.

Despite the fact that I devoured the novel ravenously, I was somewhat put-off by the fact it was a book I had somehow picked up of my mother’s. That it was a book club book being discussed in circles by women thirty years my senior. The Poisonwood Bible has a bit of an anomalous cover design, simple, papyrus type background, clear type, non-mushy title.  I was off-put by the matronliness of some of the other covers, and the pseudo romance-novel sounding-ness of their titles: High Tide in Tuscon, Prodigal Summer, or Pigs in Heaven. I began to avoid her in bookstores, despite my initial awe and draw to her writing.

But then this book came onto my radar:

It came on gradually, first I started noticing the memorable cover and clever title on friends’ Facebook and Goodreads reading lists. It appeared a lot. I picked up the book once or twice, a vegetarian of ten years I’m well aware of food politics. I’ve always had friends involved food production and politics, and my earliest memories of  learning to grocery shop with my mom was (after understanding the frugal principal of choosing the lowest price) was that for some things, we would also chose the ones that came from close by, like apples. Although for other things it didn’t matter (i.e., bananas).

As I’ve finally moved into an era of my life where grocery shopping does not always begin with the discount bin (albeit it is always included!), I’ve recently had many animated discussions on what to pick while shopping. Local, or organic? Imported or hot house? Organic with tonnes of packaging, or local, bulk and expensive? How much am I willing to put my money where my mouth will be? After one of these discussions, and a delicious morning garden coffee-time and plum-cake (under the plum tree of all places!) a good friend (and fellow bloggess) implored me to read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, pressing it into my plum-stained hands before I left. As it happened, earlier in the week a canning workshop teacher had raved about the recipes the book contained, so the timing couldn’t’ve been better. I pocketed the book, and biked home.

In brief, the book is written over the course of the year that Kingsolver and her family decide to relocate from Arizona to “live off the land” on their family property in the Virginian Appalachians.  Kingsolver sketches out this project as an experiment: one year to be spent shopping only at local farmers markets, buying local wine and flour, tending to a massive garden. Naturally, there are a few exceptions (some imported spices, coffee), but by and large, they make it; in part thanks to massive freezers, foresight and squash. There is an adorable website of the project, with exerpts, pictures and recipes available here.

The book begins with new life, in the spring:

April is the cruelest month, T.S. Eliot wrote, by which I think he meant (among other things) that springtime makes people crazy. We expect too much, the world burgeons with promises it can’t keep, all passion is really a setup, and we’re doomed to get our hearts broken yet again. I agree, and would further add: Who cares? Every spring I go there anyway, around the bed, unconditionally. I’m a soul on ice flung out on a rock in the sun, where the needles that pierced me begin to melt all as one.

Kingsolver is a kind of nauseatingly gifted writer, taking you through these arcing passages that are just dripping with description and poetry that are just too much and then she’ll completely redeem herself by her unabashed self-awareness of her geekdom. I felt almost tricked into identifying with her insecurities, letting my guard down until I realize it’s too late. In one paragraph she waxes “October ceded to us the unexpected gifts of a late first frost” and then four lines later she is confessing that she is ” a sucker for seed-catalog prose.” You can’t make fun of her or criticize her…she is a WRITER for pete’s sake. Living on a farm. The exact same age as my mom. My mom is allowed to be cool, heck she can even have fun too!

I read the book in two fell swoops. The first, regular daily doses for three or four days in row, and then one final push to complete the book from September on. By and large I thought the book was excellent, although perhaps it could have been organized slightly differently. Posionwood is about a missionary family living in Africa, with different voices narrating each of the chapters. In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle Kingsolver writes a new chapter (or two) for each month. In addition to her own observations, there are also short essays from her daughter (an 18-year-old aspiring nutritionist/food activist/yogi) and her husband (an environmental scientist specializing in bioacoustics). These interjections were interesting however would have been better suited to haave placed them in between chapters, or with more regularity.  The way they ran, kind of magazine style, splitting pages, or mid-chapter, takes you out of the flowing narrative that Kingsolver is so famous for. Also, the absence of Lily, the five-year-old, was painfully obvious, and if they were only going to incorporate two family members, drawings or photos of Lily would have been an appropriate addition.

In part, my initial aversion stemmed from the faint religious undertones of the Poisonwood, it was, after all, about a missionary family. However God was never mentioned (barely alluded to in fact) during the 350-page read. I was also nervous that the book would be a shade too preachy or unrealistic. But again, Kingsolver redeems herself. She never tries to convert or preach, but rather to approach the experiment from a more scientific point of view, offering research on the biology and economy of local choices (granted some of Camille’s essays are a tad righteous, but she’s eighteen!). Nor does the family pretend to be morally pure: they own and use an oh-so-controversial microwave, and in the middle of the book (where my reading took a lull) they take an extended trans-Atlantic vacation to Italy in September.

I did love this book because it reinstated all of our efforts this year to eat seasonally. We’ve been getting a veggie box from an association of city farmers so it’s been fun (and interesting) working through a glut of green onions, chard, snap peas, green onions, plums and zucchini. But not boring in the slightest!

Eating with the seasons feels *right*. I went to my acupuncturist this week and she (again) chastised me for (get this) eating too much salad. Yep. That’s right. Not everyone is well suited to a raw foods diet. “Salads are really a southern Ontario thing,” she patiently explained to me (again). “Think hot weather, when things are in season, here, hot weather, July, maybe a bit of August. By now we should be into warm foods: lots of soups, squashes…” With great delight I promptly went home (via securing a large stock pot and pretty new teapot) and cooked up not one, not two but eight liters of curry-miso-butternut squash-chickpea soup and a giant loaf of home made bread (yes, choc-full of all it’s gluten-glory, goodbye cleanse).

I always seem to harbor a childlike hope through the berry-stained months of June and Juy that summer will be for keeps. But then a day comes in early fall to remind me why it should end, after all.

The last part of the book, the part of the book I read in my second, fell 24-hour swoop, is largely about death. Part of this has been inherent since the harvest turned from fruits to whole entities (plums vs. carrots), but it becomes explicit as they host a graphic (yet educational) turkey-harvest.

People in this country do everything to cheat death, it seems. Instead of being happy with each moment, they worry so much about what comes next.

The book does go on to describe the winter, living off the harvest, planning for the coming year, but for me the true resolution to the novel was death, the death inherent in fall. Death is at the end, the change of seasons, the need for highs and lows to cause the natural cantor of life. One of my friends once told me he always associated people’s with seasons: winter for truth, spring for life, summer for romance, superficialness, hopefulness…and fall, fall for death (and romance).

Fall is not created everywhere equal. Out east it comes with a chill, a bite to the air, the first promises of snow and frost. The bright shocks of colour in the leaves, that smell. The past week I have felt myself battling back-east-(home)sickness. Here it happens all at once, the days are shorter, but the temperature stays more or less the same. We wake in darkness, the evenings are chopped in half. I don’t mind the deaths, the winter. Ever since moving here I feel  bit like an onion or a transplanted vegetable, without appropriate temperature or light regulation:

Other root crops are triggered by summer’s long days to start banking starch, preparing for the winter ahead. In fact, onions are so sensitive to day length, onion growers must choose their varieties with a latitude map.

I never thought I would live in a place where a chilly day in July could be mistaken for a warm day in January.

Maybe my lack of garden and temperature at this time of year has left me stuck so surreptitiously on death. Two weeks ago I left dried-up, dead dalias out for days. And in the week since my fête, instead of removing the sixty-odd balloons from our ceiling, I’ve taken pleasure in watching them shrink in the autumn light, and fall, like leaves.

 

The Weekender Effect (and the end of tourist season)

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have moved upwards of 32 times in the past nine years.

Ferry crossing Vancouver-Nanaimo, May, 2009

The first four or five years I actually just slept in my sleeping bag. Gradually I became a little more civilized; I started stuffing my sleeping bag in a duvet cover. Six years ago I started hauling around a nice pair of sheets (15 moves and counting). Three years ago I bought a small foldable Ikea paper lamp that started travelling with me (it’s unbelievable what lighting can do). A pottery cup appeared about two years ago, spontaneously purchased as a momento of a sunny, crazy road trip with friends.

Many other things have come and gone, but gradually, I am amassing the things that make a space a home, and slowing down. For the first time in nearly a decade, I have spent over 6 contiguous months in a single province.  I know now is the time that people move, being blown about for opportunity, intrigue, love and family, but I also am feeling the increased need to put down roots. To build things: spaces, relationships, communities. I am conscious of the need to begin laying a foundation for whatever comes next.

Deep and meaningful connections to place are a fundamental element of what makes us human.

Robert Sandford, The Weekender Effect

A good portion of my meanderings have taken me to ridiculously beautiful tourist locations. When I was thirteen my parents rather intrepidly drove my sisters and I on the Canadian rite-of-passage journey West. It was a six-week saga of epic proportions and endless kilometers on the road. After returning I could not stop raving about British Columbia (BC).  The immense presence of the mountains, the pink sunset glow. The deep sense of perpetuity and the solace you have when being in the foggy wet coast of the Island. Just being there was intoxicating. It was filled with adventure, promise and possibility.  The weather had been impeccable (unlike the 2400km of torrential rain we encountered upon entering Ontario); it wasn’t too hot, or crowded and best of all-there were no bugs.

By 2006 I had started spending my summers working in BC.  My first year room-mate was a French Canadian from Timmins and just as star-struck by I was with the West. She told me there was a big magnet under the province, and that now that we were here, we’d keep coming back forever. And I have been. But consistently, I’m always pulled east again, for family, school or work.  I would work long seasons on the Island, broaching local status (I eventually even was awarded a PO box in Ukee!), but never truly seemed to make it. It required too much stuff. The winters are hard. For these reasons I was especially keen to read another instalment of Rocky Mountain Books’ series: The Weekender Effect.

The Weekender Effect is another one of RMB’s slim little manifesto series.  It is narrated by long-time Canmore resident Robert Sanford, who I later found out, is a prominent ecological activist and environmental steward from the Rocky Mountain Parks area.  Much of the manifesto is exactly what one would expect from a small, idyllic, mountain-town resident who is seeing his community erode as giant influxes of weekend residents arrive and snap up investment properties–he’s not too happy. Surprisingly however, he provides a well researched, discourse on the metaphysical aspects of place, which he attempts to balance in a non-whiny way as he paints the somber evolution of the town.

I was anticipating a pedantic analysis of urban migratory patterns, coming from a small-town biased “we were here first” type narrative. Instead, I was taken aback by how many of the nuanced steps in the development of sense of place he was able to pick up on. Such as naming:

Naming helps people witness themselves and reflect on what they’ve seen. It’s the beginning of talking to ourselves, that most primal business in which we invent and reinvent ourselves all day long, incessantly thinking and feeling, talking ourselves into being.  Saying local names and reinventing our stories is an endless , non-stop search for ourselves.

When I first moved to the West Coast I wanted (and needed) to know the names of everything. I worked in tourism in a National Park and people were endlessly coming in with bits of things they picked up off the beach, pictures they’d snapped on their cell phones of various birds and barks, or vivid descriptions of scat they found left in the middle of trails. I was surprised that within a few weeks of beginning work, suddenly what used to be a blurry green bike ride become blocked out in sections of fauna: through the patch of salal, around the bend with the foxglove right before the scotch broom, passed the bog with the crowberry.  Within a few months trees also emerged out of the woodwork. The change is profound, it’s nearly biblical in nature. The sense that with each name you learn, an entity comes into being. Fortunately west coast rainforests make up the diversity they lack with size, so there are a limited number of species to know. Regardless, the sense of appreciation and consciousness as everything  around me developed names and ecosystems felt a little like Helen Keller’s W-A-T-E-R moment. Even the surfer’s had dozens of names for the different waves, breaks and wind. Let alone the need to preserve Nuu-chah-nulth.

To preserve what is essential about where and how we live, we must preserve this language.  The loss of words can lead to the loss of the things those words stand for.

Post sunset surf, Florencia Bay, BC, June, 2010

I was a little hurt by Sandford’s mountain pride. As much as I love the mountains, I’ve never been able to be far from the ocean. However his mountain pride could easily be extended into the coast:

The mountain West is different from the rest of the country – and from most of the rest of the continent – in that it is not what we constructed out of the landscape that most deeply and enduringly defines us as a people.  It is not what we built that truly makes us unique as a culture, but what we saved…what we built only serves to make what we saved meaningful.

Perhaps the coast is then what we have forgotten. The mountains present a tangible, grounded challenge. Surmounting them has constitutionally been a part of Canada since 1871(ish); rails have been criss-crossing the mountains since last century.

But the ocean, the giant swath of deep blue, is a port that is nearly forgotten.  Vancouver meekly striking out as a foray into a seaside town. Our main port of entry into the province, a rail connection to the mainland, is still hidden behind Vancouver Island. BC’s capital, located on the southern tip of the Island, is south of much of Canada, and the balmy, temperate climate is nothing like the hundreds of kilometers of coast rolling out to her resource-rich, isolated North.

I remember the first time seeing a clear cut from the water.  We had driven up island to Campbell river (about 3.5-4 hours), then on gravel roads west out to Gold River (another 1-2 hours, leaving cell reception far behind). Then we boated down out, and around Nootka island (1.5 or so hours, in a fast boat, ~35 nauts/hour). There, up passed Tahsis near Kyuquot, hidden up where Europeans made first contact centuries ago: totally isolated, totally remote, and (swaths) totally clear cut.  It felt completely untapped, untouched, and then you see an entire mountain face, bald from heli-logging. Giant logging camps with satellite and speed boats, still searching for riches.

Another day I was out reading on our deck near Friendly Cove, watching humpback whales in the straight and an unmarked black helicopter landed on our helipad out front. A half dozen men filed out, crossing in front of our house and down to our dock, where a boat had quietly appeared (you don’t need to be too stealthy under the helicopter-chop) and whisked them away.  You can be so far away from society on the west coast, and you are only ever found by others who are trying to escape, and those with a radically different agenda.

*        *        *

Sandford also has a certain reverence for National Parks, and our Parks systems:

Recasting our history against the backdrop of such an extraordinary intergenerational public policy achievement gives our culture some room to manoeuvre in a time when natural systems everywhere are under great stress and are changing rapidly. We have not spent all our natural cpitl…What we have saved keeps the doors open …ecology is economy: the gift of true sustainability.

Tourist economies are just as volatile as the bust-boom of the resource cycles, and should be approached with a degree of cautiousness.  As described in his essay, the mountain parks are fortunate enough that they have a huge swath of territory conserved and set aside, making true preservation and conservation of megafauna possible. After seeing the challenges faced by Parks in the face of resource and land developers on the coast, and the delicate strips of coastal park that have been protected (at times no wider than 1 km–hardly sufficient territory for a bear), it was impossible for me to truly embrace his admiration without a green tinge of envy.

Sanford also because paradoxical when describing the successes of tourism. He proudly touts the 7 million vists a year to Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks and then is quick to criticize the “wealthy urbanites from around the world who have decided that living in this largely protected landscape is preferable to living in the often corroded and dirty places they helped build.” Travel inspires people. There is always a first time, a first visit to everywhere. I think he also forgets that out here, people are tough. Really tough.

Road up Mount Ozzard, BC, June 2009

Moving is also hard, travel is hard. Seeing the changes, even over the past five years at Pacific Rim National Park Reserve (PRNPR), I can tell you that “little” things, often done for the safety and comfort of permanent residents (like the highway adding more passing lanes, rumble strips and pull-outs), also facilitates an increased amount of traffic, and definitely erodes barriers of migrants into the area. Want to increase the caliber of schools in a small town? You may have also just removed a deterrent for young families looking to relocate. Want high-speed internet? Say hello to freelancers. Seven million visitors a year also indoubtably plays a huge role in the caliber of life mountain residents enjoy. Do you share a road with a major resort? The major resort will help you get your road plowed.

Foxglove Farms, freak snowstorm in December, 2010

In closing, I don’t necessarily agree 100% with Sandford’s essay and approach to mountain-town development. It kind of reminded me of the internet même I’ve seen around a lot recently:

I really grappled with this piece, because it was thoughtful, and it really resonated with me. The world is a crowded place. And Canada is (relatively) empty. The mixed motivations of migrants from the east and west all bring with them their own cultures and motivations: inevitably, they are going to clash.

Newcomers forget that the people who moved here before the boom cherish the town not because it offers good investment opportunities, but that it is the one place in the world that permitted them to be who they wanted to be.

Visit any gulf island, or small town and you will see this in action. They can attract and breed characters. You may be escaping constraints that may have been formerly placed on you in your previous home. But there is also a hypocrisy in his statement. As much as it is beautiful and noble to have gone somewhere isolated to escape, there are also people who wanted to be rich: resource or land development will help them do that. Every time I have moved it is because it is helping me become the person I want to be: but sometimes that person is someone who is employed, someone who is close to her family, someone who is receiving a certain type of education. It is a difficult argument to make in the way he has couched it.

In closing Sandford cites over and over again that “communities should not rely on intellectuals to save them,” but instead people should build up their own communities and save themselves. He explains:

[in] Canada we have a habit of leaving places when they no longer suit us. We realize our world has changed when we can no longer relate to ourselves by way of where we live. Instead of staying and defending what is important about where and how we want to live, we pack up and leave….In order to preserve even the possibility of an enduring sense of place, [Wes] Jackson contends that we have to slow down our aimless, wandering pursuit of upward mobility at any cost and find a home, dig in and aim for some kind of enduring relationship with the ecological realities of the surrounding landscape.  Jackson believes we have to somehow reverse the Western frontier tradition of picking up and leaving the moment a place is no longer what we want it to be.  We have to learn to stop running away. We have to stay and to stand up for where we live.

I could not have read this at a better time.

Sandford opens the book by mentioning that Hippocrates first identified homesickness (nostalgia-to return and to suffer) in 400 BCE. This essay will definitely ring your mountain cowbells, stirring up your personal deep connections to place.

Thanks to RMB and Bob Sandford for a great, thought-provoking book-highly recommended.

Kennedy Lake, Summer 2009

Better living through plastic explosives

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very so often I can’t stop dreaming about the end of the world.

In these dreams volcanoes are often involved, and earthquakes almost always.  Floods are occasionally featured, but more often than not they are (rather predictably) depicted as an after effect of a tsunami.

I’ve read about what these types of dreams are supposed to mean; which I think does hold some relevance, especially if you are having recurring dreams about something. I mean, besides meaning that we live a few hundred kilometers outside of a subduction zone.

Image from The Oregonian, October 2009

We had an earthquake earlier this week. Not a big one, but big enough that people had bets in offices over whether or not it actually occurred (it was about a 3.2 on the Richter scale for any of you tectonic nerds).  The epicentre was less than 20 km away, in a little provincial park; a park you could bike to. This also directly preceded hosting company from New Zealand, friends who work in disaster management and who are moving back to Christchurch…Definitely have earthquakes on my mind…

But dreaming about the apocalypse is also an indication that you are feeling out of control of your life. I can’t help but wonder if my recent reveries are indications that I’m feeling that way again. Or if I’m just subtly absorbing the tectonic aftershocks and concocting the memories in my mind.

We live in an old building.  One that partially burned down fifty or so years ago.  It is a veritable death trap vis-à-vis earthquake stability, although the spotty earthquake hazards map might indicate otherwise.  The building is brick and not-so-safely over a hundred years old; an amalgamation of about 10 units running the length of the city block.  It’s at the outskirts of Chinatown (i.e., a major shipping route), and across from a large garage that prefers to work with all their doors open in the hotter months (i.e., loud, starting early).  Every time a large truck goes by all the panes in our ancient windows quake, and the wooden slats in our ceiling creak and shift about a bit.  If the truck is large enough (or it actually *is* an earthquake) bits of dirt and atrophied pieces of carbon from the fire actually will shower down into our apartment from where they were previously jammed and crammed in the ceiling.

We’re only on the third floor, so I have my fingers crossed that if anything does happen, and I happen to be home, *and* I happen to wake up (ha!), I will be coherent enough to drop myself out the window….surely a drop of 20-30 feet can’t be that bad, I have loose expectations that I will manage to remember to throw some couch cushions down first, and miraculously dexterous enough to land on top of said cushions.  Hopefully if I survive the fall I will also be able to drag myself far enough out of the way that I will survive the building crumbling all around me.  If we had a cat I know I would remember to shove it in a backpack, but we don’t, so at least that’s one less thing to think about. I shudder to think of our lack of tenants insurance…Naturally, an earthquake will only occur if I am here alone.

Sometimes I like to imagine that I am way more in control of the world than I actually am.  I like to imagine that the instability in my own life, the lack of control is actually triggering the tectonic rumblings.  That the weather is some kind of pathetic fallacy I actually have some type of control over, that I hold some fragment of its hidden inner meaning. Poseidon is having a bad day, let’s whip up some typhoons.  There is also the notion that the earth is rejecting us, in some type of auto-immune response. Like in Investment Results May Vary (one of Zsuszi Gartner’s stories), where the mountains in North Van begin to swallow up the best real estate investments in freak landslides. Land rejecting it’s owners, because a=b, the house is mountain. All those real estate agents are crazy anyway.

When we travel, books take on currency. Space becomes an amenity.  It’s like that old joke about material wealth: you can take it all with you, but when you go, you have to carry it all there yourself.

Needless to say, I oh-so-stealthily traded my 600 page, ginormous, hardcover, first edition copy of Why Nations Fail to my dear friend in Toronto, who in turn swapped me for this sleek, 208 page collection of short stories by Zsuzsi Gartner. The cover is gripping, and the inside liner is completely black, giving it an edgy feel. Way, way cooler looking than Nations and about two pounds and 200 cubic inches less to boot.

Better Living through Plastic Explosives promised exactly what I was hoping for. This drôle repartée of dystopian utopia and utopian dystopia is narrated through what I am becoming to identify as the satirical signature ramblings of Vancouver authors.  Seamlessly knitting reality with fiction, Gartner creates some kind of horrific-hilarious magic realism. One that instead of escapism, forces us to laugh at our own tragic existence, all underlined with a spooky shadow of accurate soothsaying.

…he should’ve known better. He’s walked into the Occupation.

Evidently an army of career activists along with a number of the genuinely dispossessed took over the streets around the city’s historic Woodward’s Building in 2002.  And here they still are, seven years later.  It’s become a holy site for some, like Benares. Pilgrams come, drawn by ethical tourism and the revolving red W up on high, and are allowed to pitch their tents after making a donation.  The country’s poorest postal code now has its own official designation, sort of like the Vatican, a sovereign city state.

The squatters are sponsored by Roots and equipped with the latest in leather backpacks and Che caps.  The Dalai Lama has visited, as well as Richard Branson, who arrived in a Virgin hot air balloon.  Buffy Saite-Marie even tried to adopt half-native triplets whose mother had OD’d shortly after giving birth, but the children were deemed better off being raised in their own culture.  It takes a village and all that jazz. Kakami told him this over beers in some atrocious hole with terry cloth slipcovers on the tables that the director lauded for its authenticity.  Patrick was excited about the movie possibilities, but negotiating with the actual squatters was brutal.  Their people had people. Syd’s convinced he could more easily bring the Taliban to a heel.

Gartner reels us in, through accurate descriptions of vivid images we have seen and experienced for ourselves, and then takes a twist and turn. Extrapolates from the glimmer of light that flashes through our eyes, catches one of our fleeting thoughts, and then instantly projects a tangent a million miles off into space, to show us what it would look like if we had run with it.

For example, in the fifth story, Ancient Chinese Daughters Rebellion, she describes the adoption process and rearing of several Chinese girls in her neighbourhood. She explains how the families have allowed the girls to continue with their heritage, including “appropriate” Chinese names, Chinese holidays, language classes and foot binding. Gartner describes how the biological daughter of the family is caught pretending to have a Chinese name, and taping her eyelids back into slits. They forbid Christmas celebrations, and encourage chopstick usage, all the while having the girls hobble around with bound feet.  She takes a situation, finds the hypocrisy or paradox, and then untangles it, holding it up for all to see. Kind of like when your landlord proudly marches back into your living room holding an enormous clump he’s pulled out of your drain: “THERE! That’s why it was stuck!”

And then you just kind of have to continue staring at the clump, horrified and embarrassed, and, if you are like me, probably laughing, because there isn’t really much else you can do in those situations. Learn, and hope to do better next time.

Gartner also goes to great lengths to describe what would happen if we acted on our impulses. If we overcame the staunch little invisible cubicles that keep us divided in cities. What would happen if we befriended the hairy, giant truck driving new neighbour, if we spoke our minds or cut in front of the check out line.

It’s an uncomfortable satire. It’s so painfully Vancouver.

It’s the leaf blowers that undo her every time. They’re the reason she’s trapped in this sauna-hell of a mascot costume in the first place.  That day in late August, as Nina hurried along Napier to her shift at the food co-op, there was a woman out in front of the new heritage-style infill that towered over its neighbours; she was blasting a blower back and forth across her lawn as if she were diving for water.  With her tidy silver-grey pageboy and batiked sarong wrapped around her sturdy, late-middle-aged body, she exuded an obnoxious serenity. The grass, smooth as a green sheet yanked tight over the yard and tucked in with hospital corners, appeared spotless save for a few stray leaves from a Japanese maple.  Nina stopped, ignoring the warning in her head that was whooping like a car alarm, and stood on the sidewalk with her hands on her hips.

“I thought you might like to know,” she said loudly over the ear-splitting roar of the blower, “a leaf blower causes as much air pollution as seventeen cars!” The woman didn’t even glance her way.

The dear friend who lent me this book actually had it as one of their book discussion choices. One of the big questions that came out in their discussion was on where Gartner was to offer political commentary, or mock it.  Whether she revered this west coast set of morals and ideals, or whether she was trying to reject them.  Or if her mockery was making a mockery of mockery–a commentary on cultural commentary itself. I think that ultimately, Gartner was trying to do none of those things, but rather was trying simply to hold up a mirror. Like the banter of a little sister, pointing out the good things and the bad. Saying some things that aren’t true, just to see how they resonate, to gauge our reaction.  Tossing out insults and fantasy, and the odd thing strikes home and cuts deep. Leaving you with an unintentional wound to mull over. One that leaves you pondering how accidental it truly was.

When I was 18 I was offered a position in an exchange program to Sub-Saharan Africa. It was going to involve leaving my university program, the city I was living in and all my new friends; it was probably going to involve massive sunburns, parasites and loneliness. I had 24 hours to think about the decision (in the middle of exams no less) and leave only three weeks later.  During this frantic period, I rang a friend.  She told me that if it was going to be hard it was also most likely going to be incredibly rewarding. That without work, there is little return. (How’s that for industrialist of you?) But lately I am realizing that this is how growth happens.  It is rarely in the kind moments, when you are getting along happily with other people that you are forced to push yourself to overcome stigmas and communication hurdles and really grow. It’s when you are clashing. I’ve always thought that having two sisters forced me through a lot of personal growth, but it was our fighting and arguments that really give rise to personal development.  It is when you are arguing over the last cookie, the pink bike, that you learn to share, to compromise and empathize, to heal.  And it hurts. Growing hurts. Fighting hurts. Learning hurts. But ultimately they are the most rewarding things in the world. They are imperative in life. And so, although the mirror that Gartner holds up for us is ugly, living through plastic explosives is sometimes necessary.

A tragically hilarious read.