Better living through plastic explosives

by katiclops




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.