Tuesday, January 27, 2015

PILLOW TALK

Why do we so often want the cool side of the pillow? For sheets and blankets, we request and require nothing but warmth. We simply need to be contained for a few hours in their piled-up abundance of slightly stacked heat. Pillows, however, play by their own rules, and we have somehow all agreed that the pillow is boss. This is bullshit. Why should we let these little sacks continually mess with our heads?

Even on the coldest of winter nights, I will suddenly awaken and try to make sure that the pillow is touching the side of my cheek of with its own coolest face. Something must be going on, physiologically speaking, but I don't speak physiological, so I'm perpetually stumped. Does the cool side of the pillow counterintuitively react with the warm touch of my cheek, which in turn has been heatened and heightened by the protective covering of my sheets?

It makes sense in the summer, in the glory of your gotchies, in the buff of your buffness, to want that cool pillow to give up its chill. But why in the winter? Why do I still demand that silky-smooth coolness?

There have been times in the past few years when I've slept for months on end with nothing more than a glorified bean-bag for a makeshift pillow, and, even though I know I'm asking too much, I still toss that bean-bag thingee over and around and back to its first side while I try to get some non-existent coolness to come up to me. All for nothing.

Do bean-bags not, like, contain the capacity to harbor such cold? Maybe not. I'm no expert on stitching together the stuff of our lives. I just know that pillows -- both as an ideological concept and as a verifiable noun that exists as a thing --  seem to be these softly magical lumps of inert nothingness that nevertheless manage to quietly defy all biological norms. Pillows appear to have entered our universe from this other, alternate, ulterior mode of existence where fluffy collections of feathers have somehow gained the right to mess with our most intimate and tactile sense of our bodies and selves. The right side of my head and the span of my neck nightly longs for and requires their softly cold nudge of communion.  

Monday, January 26, 2015

An Intergalactic Balzacian: George Lucas and THE PHANTOM MENACE

Leave it to the French to stick up for STAR WARS. Specifically, THE PHANTOM MENACE, Even more specifically, Jar Jar Binks -- a character I will continue to vigorously defend, though the heavens fall. In THE PEOPLE VS.GEORGE LUCAS, a documentary that examines what led to the widening gap of appreciation between the filmmaker and his fans, a couple of French cineastes make some very acute observations, ones that counterbalance the widely held view that Monsier Binks is nothing more than a sad joke. What these dudes are really getting at is the interplay of tones that this film allows to bubble up, and it's this constant back-and-forth play between the serious and the silly, the mundane and the mystical, the action and the speechifying, that gives THE PHANTOM MENACE its curious shape and content.

People do tend to forget: THX-1138, AMERICAN GRAFFITTI and the first STAR WARS film all introduced brands of cinema that no one had quite seen before. EPISODE ONE's in-retrospect role as the first story of six is enough of an odd narrative ploy to necessitate a closer look, but it's the film's uneasy balance between the spiritual and the political, the alien and the royal, the upper-class and the grungy world of merchants, that makes this Lucas's own Balzacian world of galactical observation. Just as Honre de Balzac crafted interlocking novels that examined French society in all its various levels of exceptionalism and discrimination, so, too, does THE PHANTOM MENACE serve as the first part of a series of stories that examine how various species of being, whether they be crudely profane or religiously elegant, all somehow contribute to both the enforcement and destruction of an entire mode of life.

One of the French film critics in THE PEOPLE VS.GEORGE LUCAS points out that much of the dislike towards Jar Jar Binks probably revolves around the apparent incongruity of his presence -- what is this goofy, burlesque character doing in the midts of this fantasy space opera? Sure, the argument goes, C-3P0 and R2-D2 were comic relief in the original trilogy, but Jar Jar? Too dumb, too silly, too much. Yet this out-of-placeness is precisely what makes the character's role so important. While ultra-serious Qui-Gon Jinn is conversing with Anakin's mother, discussing all things potentially Jedi, Jar Jar is being a dink; this foolish Gundan seems to do nothing but goof off. The other characters treat him the same way they seem to always treat the droids -- as an annoying afterthought. (Think of the way that young Anakin so casually says goodbye to C-3PO -- a robot he practically CREATED -- when he leaves Tattooine, a shot  in the film that lets us literally view the encounter through C-3PO's eyes, as his master so indifferently takes his fnal leave. For the only time in the entire STAR WARS saga, we see through the droid's eyes, just as in REVENGE OF THE SITH we actually see through Anakin's point of view as Vader's dark mask is implanted.)

Jar Jar's role is that of a subservient goofball, one who provides the comic kick that young children adore, but he's also key to understanding Lucas's thematic intenet when it comes to these films. As another French film critic points out in the documentary, Jar Jar's presence serves to combine the burlesque and the serious in the same narrative flow, a tone and contrast which was not appreciated very much by true fans of STAR WARS. In my mind, it's this very incongruity that highlights the societal critique that Lucas is undertaking.

THE PHANTOM MENACE introduces us to various life forms on different planets, among them: the most distinguished royals and government officials occupying the same territory as the oversized underwater creatures on Naboo; an array of esteemed Jedi Council members in the hallowed halls of Coruscant; Jedi masters and apprentices and junkyard scavengers on Tattooine, in addition to a slave woman and her son borne of a divine birth. This is not one society, but several, each unknowingly interlaced with the other.

We thus have an extremely odd mix of societal strata -- the solemn, suitably stiff exterior of the Jedi and Queen Amidala; the nutty silliness of Jar Jar Binks; the focused discipline of the Master and Padawaan Jedi on their appointed task; the directly exuberant joy of children at play; the scheming scavengers and their practiced deception; the version-one Stormtroopers and their basic mechanical movements, devoid of advanced armor or strategy. This is a film that allows all of these extremely divergent styles of characters to ineract with a kind of controlled abandon. Lucas is exploring a universe in which the political, religious and peasant/serf classes (and their adjacent capitalist ilk) co-exist within the same frame of an SF fantasy epic. That their presence -- embodied by the varying acting styles employed to represent their different economies of expression, from the dry matter-of-factness of the Jedi council, to the rather stoic delivery of the Jedi, to the gee-whiz stylized exclamations from the children of Tattooine, to the exaggerated mannerisms and vocal ranges of the Gundans, all wrapped up in a straight-faced sense of grandeur appropriate to an overblown serial's delusions of thematic grandeur -- makes for an uneasy alliance within the same frame is illustrative of how this universe operates, how it allows such contrasts. We witness the highest and the lowest of the universe, their parallel  stories constantly cross-cutting, while the characters themselves often occupy the same scene of engagement. That these aliens come in different forms of audienceendearment is to be expected; that they embody different thematic and narrative purposes might take a little sorting out.

Much of the criticism directed against THE PHANTOM MENACE has to do with racial stereotyping -- that Jar Jar Binks is a black-slave stereotype, that the junkyard merchant Watto is an Arab (or even Jewish) caricature, that the trade-envoy aliens are Asians in blatantly shoddy disguise. (That last accusation I still can't see for one second, and thus won't address further.)

 One can't deny that Jar Jar is a goofy servant of some kind, or that Watto is unsavory and suspiciously not-to-be-trusted, but rather than see these as emblematic of grotesque caricatures swiped from real life, I view them more like archetypal  representations of familiar storytelling tropes. These (extremely) other-worldly beings come fully equipped with exaggerated features, strange voices, ungainly shaped bodies, but to reach out and apply these distorted physical representatios to real-life racial groups seems, for me, to ignoe key aspects of what the characters embody in the ultimate function of the narrative.

Do Jar Jar's people, the Gundans, resemble African tribesmen? Perhaps, but only partially. Does Watto's voice sound distinctly accented? Yes, but with good reason. These particular examples of aliens repesent characters who lie at the heart of their own worlds, but nevertheless live and are relegated to the societal fringe. It takes the triumph of their final battle to give the Gundans' some above-water recognition, and Watto's role as a junk-dealer (and slave owner) has relegated him to where the buisness is most brisk -- the dusty, seedy markets of backstreet Tattooine. In this univese, whether it be on Naboo or Tattooine, it is the marginalized aliens that, for good or for ill, cause the most ruckus and reform. A critique of modern-Earth cultures, or an examination of science-fictional realms of exclusion?

 It is themtatically telling that the final battle features so-called 'primitive' tribes, like the Gundans, defeating the electronic battle-droids, and that Watto must make a living trading slaves and selling junk to survive on his planet. Any real-world racial similarities to these alien characters, one could argue, might actually have a point, one of cultural commentary  -- that these various planetary societies only allow certain kinds of lifeforms to gain entry and exit to various chambers of power and legislation.(We see that the Jedi Council is comprised of various odd-looking aliens, but the universe is vast, and perhaps it's discrimination of some kind that's kept Blotto in the illicit world where he resides, and forced the Gundans to remain under the sea.)

In EPISODE II, Jar Jar, so instrumental in the final battle of EPISODE I, unknowingly casts the vote which allows Senator Palpatine to take power. The innocents of society, brave in their good intentions, are often abused by the process and exploited by the wicked. I see these filmic depictions of alien servants and illegal money-makers as examples of how various strata of society delegate, abuse or ignore those who might actually have something to add to the culture as a whole. Jar Jar Binks is a hero at the end of the first film, and a dupe by the middle of the second; Watto is a slave-trader who merely fulfills the role that all around him -- including visiting Jedi and merchants -- expect those of his ilk to embody. Do Jar Jar and Blotto hint at real-world racial types? That's debatable, and perhaps worthy of debate. I'm simply arguing: These aliens and their visual broadness identify them most clearly as 'other', and it's this 'otherness' that the so-called 'noble' characters like the Jedi and politicians take note of and dismiss. For me, these widely-sketched beings are less of a 'racial' stereotype, and more of a subtle depiction of 'racism/alienism in action. (Not unlike the droids being excluded from A NEW HOPE's cantina, with nobody else 'normal' around giving much of a shit.)

You can definitely argue that the aliens in the STAR WARS films do, in fact, have some kind of specious relationship to real-world miniorities -- although that's a a charge that I'm not altogether inclined to accept, seeing them as less of an allegorical commentary on current or past racial relations (a la STAR TREK's style of current-times storytelling) and more as an example of how, along with the droids, it is the marginalized groups on various planets in these movies who often have the most wit and facility, and are thus penalized for such skills. The droids, the Ewoks, the Gundans, Watto, the Wookies -- all of these supporting characters ultimately play essential roles in the fate of the universe. The Jedis and royalty constantly overlook the importance of the so-called 'lesser' classes, but the narratives themselves continually look to them to stitch together or unravel the fabric of their times.

It's ironic that the CGI-effect oriented nature of the prequels is often looked on with disdain -- all that glossy sheen on the screen, those too-crisp-and-clear-sparkling worlds.These episodes are designed as the first three films in a story that depict the ultimate disentegration of a carefully orchestrated galacatic reign of Jedi and government; thus, this necessitates a kind of glittering scope that then allows Episodes Four through Six to appear all the more gritty and base. A shining republic will fall, giving to underground rebel hideouts and makeshift battle plans. The prequels illustrate a staticly rigid society, and the visuals reflect that detailed confinement.

As Lucas states in one of the first production meetings featured in the official documentary on THE PHANTOM MENACE, Anakin's final space battle purposefully calls out to A NEW HOPE, its call-back structure like that of a poem -- the first stanza rhyming with the third, and so on. Episode One gives us a look at intersecting societies filled with goofy aliens and dead-serious Chancellors, stoic Jedis and scheming junk-merchants, a motley of 'people' from different worlds endlessly interacting and colliding with each other's intentions. Rather than a botched mess, THE PHANTOM MENACE is, instead, the first carefully orchestrated chapter in a story that establishes all that will fall in the two films to follow.

The last shot of the film obviously parallels that of a A NEW HOPE, with a slave boy and Jedis, royalty and sea creatures, politicians and common folk, all standing as one to enjoy their great communal triumph. This seemingly celebratory moment of rapture is both a) on a broad, galactical level, the first (and final) visual integration of all these disparate societal strata into a single frame, and b) on a personal level, an eerie portrait and foreshadowing of all the main players in the saga, those who will soon enough fiercely love and quarrel and even kill one another, unravelling and destroying forever the fragile bond they've just formed, and this single tableux provides a moment both warmly inclusive and inevitably chilling, an interplanetary society finally coming together for one shining moment before it's brutally dissolved with great force by their own greed and ambition. That's all there in this final shot (and this film), depending on long you look.


Sunday, January 25, 2015

JAPANESE COMPANIES = THE SCHOOL THAT YOU CHOOSE (OR THE ONE THAT CHOOSES YOU)


The riff on Japanese universities: Hard to get in, easy to get out. You have to study an ungodly amout of hours during your middle and high school years to make sure that you know just enough to pass the ever-looming entrance exams, but once you're in, whoo boy. Join some clubs, show up to class, and you're pretty much set for the following four years. There's some truth to this, but there's also the reality highlighted in the current issue of AERA magazine (a Japanese newsweekly that's akin to TIME or NEWSWEEK), which is that the arc of one's life can be pretty much determined before you even enter that school. Meaning, getting into a good school equals entering an equally good company; accepted by a mediocre school, and you'll find yourself doing overtime in a ho-hum corporation; matriculating at a terrible school, and guess what? You can figure out the rest. Japan has a hiring system that's still rigidly systematic, and which classrooms you slept in as a sophomore matters quite a bit.

One of the articles in this week's AERA is titled: "Job-Searching Power Resides In The School That You Choose'. (Or something like that.) One of their graphs shows -- I think -- a listing of eighteen top universities and the leading companies to which their recent graduates entered. (Another series of graphs lists a number of jobs -- cabin attendant, lawyer, government worker, etc, -- and the particular schools whose graduates entered those chosen fields.) Corporations like Sony, Mitsubishi, JR (Japan Rail) Japan, NTT Telecom and Canon are greatly represented in almost every university's list.

The implications are pretty clear. When you go to a good-to-great school, good to great companies will hire you. Of course, this is true in Western countries as well; you have 'Harvard' or 'Yale' on your CV, and the odds are pretty good that you won't end up scooping ice cream. Yet there's still an enormous amount of other personal and professional factors in England or America or Canada that can sway a company to take a chance on one's skills or attitude. You might even email random people at the top and might even get a look if you have a bit of luck. In Japan, the hiring process is enormously rigid. Students in their third-year of university will buy their first suits and business-style skirts and begin attending numerous job fairs put on by various companies. (Unlike Western universities, in Japan, it's pretty much understood by all that most students are too busy looking for jobs in their third and fourth years to bother with all that academic stuff.) You usually choose which company you enter a year before you graduate; young Japanese are thus not just sent out into the world with a 'good luck!' and a smile the way that I was. Everything has a process, and you must follow it, period.

And part of that process is understanding that the university you choose to study at has either drastic or ecstatic implications for your future. If you go to an average school, the odds of you entering an above-average company are sort of pretty slim. This is not to say that it's a life-sentence; people do switch jobs with more and more frequency in Japan, but the system is still set up in such a way that your academic pedigree will play a large part in which place you will settle for. There are those who buck the system, becoming 'neets' ('not in education, employment or training'), or those who subsist on a diet of numerous part-time jobs, but for the great majority of ordinary people who want to earn a reasonably living in an extremely expensive country, the university that accepts you will also in some way make your life.

Of course, if this current issue of AERA is any way prophetic, the whole issue may be moot soon enough. One of the articles is about the 'robot revolution' that is occuring in Japan, with robots beginning to become more and more part of mainstream employment, not to mention domestic existence. Who needs young human workers when a robotic one works just fine?




Saturday, January 24, 2015

HENRY MEADOWS (fiction -- part VII of VII)


Listening to someone in person is mostly a matter of watching. You are undeniably hearing the words coming out of their mouth, true, but you are also gazing at that mouth, and their eyes, and the wrinkles aligned in an unsteady row at the top of their forehead, and their sudden hand motions that deflect attention away from the content of their speech. It's a game of absolutes. Both the aural and physical are unknowingly demanding your attention. Rituals are being enacted.

 Hearing what Henry had to say, it seemed as if he were disconnected from himself, his agitaed speech and its uneasy rhythms offset by the equally jittery manner in which his upper body bobbed and distracted me from his words. And always the ebony occupation of that black patch over the surface of his eye, the sight of which had once come across as so compellingly opaque, but which now seemed like nothing more than an arbitrary affectation. I knew that it wasn't; I understood that his actual eye was damaged, and that the patch was necessary to keep out unwanted dust and grime from a sky that was steadily growing more and more black with the dark bulge of pollution. Still, as the conversation wore on, as he nattered on and gesticulated with his own sense of smug glee, I knew that I was losing something. Mostly my belief in some kind of whole truth.

I wish I could tell you. For I heard of his tales of dangerous travels in backwoods India, in villages so remote that these Hindu peasants were not even aware that white people had existed; I listened to what must have a twenty-five minute monologue on the difference between the texture and durability of Swedish and Finnish ice in the darkest of winters, a distinction he discovered for himself after cracking through the surface of ponds at some point in both of those countries, almost drowning in both, a frozen death deferred. (Twice.) I watched as he grew ever more excited as he told salacious tales of professional Chinese paramours and amateur Indonesian concubines; I did my best to let his attention hold me with narratives of African riverboats hastily pieced together from the barest of twigs. How many countries he claimed to have visited (or lived in) I can't even say, but a curious effect made itself known the longer the convesation extended. With each new place spoken of, every exotic experience uttered, my mind would start to imagine, not the contents of his explorations, but instead would begin to graphically paint a portrait in my head of my own office at the department store downtown. My trusty gray stapler; my metallic pencil sharpener  firmly bolted to the right side of my desk (one of the first in Toronto, so far as I know); the slightly withered emerald plant in the corner that I suddenly remembered needed to be watered in the morning; my phone, gleaming black and expectant. Of course, I would mutter the approprtate words of sheer surprise and delight when he paused in his talk to let me utter these mandatory exclamations, but even while stating these obvious interjections, I would visualize the picture hung over the door of my office, the one featuring a fawn in the woods bathed by a sinking sun's crimson light . Trite, but moving to me. I got moved even then, while Henry Meadows rattled on. Moved to tears, almost.

"Old chap, I've said enough," Henry said, beaming, finishing the last of his beer. Smacking his lips. Slightly belching, but only slightly, as if he was self-conscious of the fact that he could have been more rude, but chose not to be -- for my benefit. He leaned back, made a grandiose decision to scan the bar and nod, and for all the world look like he had somehow come to occupy a higher residence of respectability in this place compered to these other said patrons.

And all the while, I thought: He's lying.

What a simple, likely scenario. He was lying, Henry Meadows was. He had gone nowhere. Done nothing. A dozen years is a long time, yes, but he had most probably spent it somewhere in Ontario, in small towns like Barrie or Sudbury, possibly further north in Kenora. Doing the odd mining job, or working in the kitchens of saloons, rinsing beer suds from old mugs. I can't say for certain why I believed my theory to be true, but I knew it was a sudden statement of fact, even if no verification would ever be possible. I felt like, at last, by acknowleding his own silly lies, I had grown up. Released myself from the shackles of my wondering all these years where the hell he had been. Knowing this, believing this, I could hardly ask himself to explain himself further, to justify his own life.

"What a tale," was what I said at the end. "My lord, what a tale."

"Isn't it, though?" Henry said, delighted at my own delight. "Isn't it all just the damnedest thing?"

It was.

We left the bar soon after, with a lengthy handshake and repeated backslaps. I did not see Henry Meadows again for another five years, when I happened to spot him while waiting in line one brisk autumn afternoon to see a  matinee at the Royal Theatre off of Spadina Street. My wife and the twins would be shopping downtown for most of the afternoon, and I decided that a good Hithcock picture would be quite the time killer. There was a substantial line, so I had time to let my eyes wander, and I noticed Henry right out front as the lengthy que gradually crept closer to that towering marquee.

He was sweeping leaves away at the base of the box-office window. He looked heavier than before, and sunken, as if he had lost a few inches. A sparse beard speckled his face. His clothes appeared worn and shabby. I wanted to approach him, to tap him on the shoulder, to tell him that I would never forget the afternoon he left me in the pub, nor the afternoon he returned (as I never have, at some reliably standard level of my soul), that those days had did something to my life, had aligned my own fate into a moderately modest sense of proportion, that he nevertheless still occupied a heroic slot in my heart, that I remembered the way he had reassured that sad boy on the ice when we were both children. I wanted to say all of that, and whatever more I might find.

I said nothing. I watched him finish sweeping his leaves into a black garbage bag. He picked up the sack, slung it over his right shoulder, and hurriedly rushed into the cinema. (I thought I might have glimpsed that trusty old black eyepath, but I can't be sure.) I quietly stepped out of line, muttering apologies to the strangers surrounding me, and I and walked the other way up Spadina, not looking back. I wasn't sure where I was going, but there were a few more hours left in my afternoon before I would meet up with my family, and I wanted to fill that small space, make some good use of my time.

Friday, January 23, 2015

HENRY MEADOWS (fiction -- part VI)

Certain conversations can only be recollected, never reanacted. What I mean is: We talked at that bar for a good three or four hours, over beer after beer, one Heineken and Labatt's mixing freely with the next, and I could not even begin to tell you in detail the exact words we exchanged. This not merely a matter of time; of course everything fades sixty years, especially something as ephemeral as mere words in the air tossed back and forth between two old friends, but there is also a sort of sensory protection I believe my brain is now enacting. Images from that afternoon still highlight themselves in my mind, but after our initial awkward greetings, I'm left with a sense of the conversation, but not its concrete dimensions. Stuff has been veiled.

You might well say (and you could very well be correct): "Why would you remember a few hours of talk a good six decades later?" Yet I'm not playing linguistic games here; I'm attempting to parcel out the process by which my head does its thing. When one reaches my age, the simple fact that there is any awareness of individual acts of cognition in the first place is a pure celebratory bonus. (I've always stayed sharp, but the rise to one hundred years old will dull any blade.)

What I'm getting at is something deeper, linked to memory, and feeling, and the flutery vagueness of sensation. I can offer you the scent of those beers, the way that they filled up that pub and spread like blue smoke, as if they were the most pungent and fragrant dark ales that had ever been poured. Each sip and swallow seemed to heighten what I most needed from myself at that time. Had I any artistic talent, I could literally paint you a picture of the way that the light outside the slightly-cracked window slowly shaded, then inked the small lulls of our conversational ebbs, the sun almost waiting for any pause in the chat before another tint of the night was dabbed here and there. Our talk tempered the mood of the oncoming evening and the boozily kinetic vibe of the patrons that milled all around us like frantic fish in a tank. They were letting their afterwork lives dwindle down -- smoking their cigs, ordering another round of crisp fish-and-chips, slightly soggy with oil in some spots, Jurgen's stove-style small tic -- but our words seemed to encapsulate Henry Meadows and myself in our mutual pod of the past. I can no longer hear what someone says on the other side of a room, but I can still hear the bouncy sound of the clunky bar radio's big band music floating through the gaps in that closed-in small crowd, all those high and low notes somehow circumventing the bubble of the table we shared. It was like the universe had decided to augment the sensory aspects of this place and this time, because the cosmos somehow sensed other speaking opportunities would lag, or vanish altogether.

What I'm saying is: Conversation is a substitue for communion. I'm not sure that Henry Meadows and me ever achieved such a grandiose state, but I am certain that my mind has attempted to codify and preserve its visual essence and tilt, and I suspect that the words we bounced back and forth have receded with time to somehow compensate for this extravagance of compressed emotion and mood. I'm left with the essence of the essence, which is not diluted nostalgia per se, but something darker and denser and altogether more sad. I have to fall back on the depressingly tacticle reconstruction of words to reassemble what happened next. Mood might not be enough. Such a modified attempt to convey what we said will not offer up any kind of real truth, but it might be something like it.  

Thursday, January 22, 2015

HENRY MEADOWS (fiction -- part V)


"I thought I'd find you here," Henry said, that wry grin of a badge still intact and shining.

I should have shot back a witty retort, but such perfectly-timed lines of rebuttal don't exist in real life. (That is to say, they quite possibly could, but surely not in any of the interior lives that I've lived up to this late point in my place.) The very act of speaking itself seemed an unreasonable goal. My mouth was connected to my face, and my tongue inhabited a space in the reasonable vicinity of my assembled teeth and two lips, but somehow synching these disparate parts for an audible purpose was a task that I couldn't even begin to approach. In front of me was a symbol of something I thought I had lost -- what you could call a facsimile of a life that might have been mine, had I stepped out of myself at some point in my past, and not embraced what I later realized was my present, period. Instead of my friend, I keenly understood that I was looking at a mirror, darkly; I saw my own status as a man in the wearied glare that he gave as he sized me up.

What could he see? Nothing but the steadily-approaching-mid-thirties man that I was, one who had spent the previous dozen years or so building a settled life of some sort. Embedded in a city so eager to let the war find its space in the cozy history of Confederation that something vital in my cranium had been psychically buried along with that whole bloody era. A kind of resilience, perhaps, sunk in a grave of good will. A boldness, deferred. 'We'll get back to that bravado in a bit, but first let's not raise too much of a fuss' -- isn't that the meekly Canadian way? Or maybe I was merely reading into Toronto what I most feared in myself -- an acquiescence to civility, and all its mundane minutia. The quivering need to solidly plant myself in this town had allowed me to steadily rise in the hierarchy of the Eaton's Department store chain.

No lack of ambition in this chap, right?

That was my line as I nightly lay in bed before the dark became deep. It was what I silently whispered to my soul when the lights were all out. My own monologue, mute in its shout. Henry Meadows had escaped into oblivion, but I would soon be managing the whole of Men's Wear at both the flagship store on Bloor Street and the new John Street location. Take that, globetrotting ambition! One can find contentment in tasks that allow us to refine and mature. Henry Meadows can take a flying fuck.

Oh, if only I had said that to him! I was regretting my cowardice, but I also understood that it would be futile and absurd. I uttered nothing of the sort, of course, because this mysteriously tactile and accusatory mirror-image of myself quickly shattered in my vision, and I was left with my friend, Henry, now a middle-aged man like myself, and boy did it show.

The patch was still there, and in its brightly black sheen I could almost believe that it was the same one he had worn on the day he had left, were it not for the spider-web of wrinkles that stretched out from its edges and crawled down his cheeks. His entire face seemed to have slightly cracked, as if it had merely been an egg shell that had shattered at life's every tap. His chin was scraggly, his build a little more bulky, yet despite all his newfold creases, he was still nothing but Henry Meadows, and the smile that he wielded with such force let me know that he knew it too. He had left, but not divided.

"I don't know what to say," was what I finally said.

"Ha!" Henry spat, more of a bark than a laugh. "Good call, my old friend. What can you say at a moment like this? At the very least, order me a beer, and that will be fine for a start. I'm pretty parched."

I did as I was told, he the schoolmaster, and I his pupil. I raised the index finger of my left hand, waggled it a bit, cleared my throat with a cough, all in an almost-vain attempt to get the minimal attention required of Jurgen, the portly German barkeep, who seemed to reluctant to let his gaze wander from his folded-up newspaper that lay splayed on the counter from morning to night. He gave me the briefest of glances as I pointed at my beer, motioning for another, and I wondered where the waitress was, and why he had hired her if she would not come around.

"You look well," I said, which is what you say to everyone who you've not seen for some time.

"'Well' is a relative term," Henry said, taking off his scruffy black coat and letting it slide to his side. "I'm broke, and weary, and shell-shocked to be sitting across from you in a bar, but I suppose, compared to many, maybe most, I could even be called, shall we say, exemplary."

He laughed at that, and so did I, a genuine chuckle that felt authentic and welcome. The past and the present had suddenly tied themselves into a finite loop of completion with our mutual laugh of great cheer, as if a warning shot had been fired, an icy puddle dissolved, and I felt less than enamored with the thought of continuing to torture my spirit, wallowing in my life's lacks. We were two old friends about to share a drink, that's all, and our lives had been leading to this moment of plainspoken kinship. I told myself that our experiences were compatible, perhaps even adjacent. And I've been repeating this to myself for a good many years.   

      


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

HENRY MEADOWS (fiction -- part iv)

Nostalgia is almost always a sly form of disdain.

I can confidently state this -- with such blunt assurance -- because I am unspeakably old. Disgustingly old. Creeping fairly confidently up to a hundred, and at this age, one is filled up with memories, the present moment, unweighted, and the memories in the end do nothing but win. 'No contest', as folks much younger than me used to say back in the day. I'm not pronouncing that the past is better; I'm not even implying that I would rather be back there, permanently. (I'm not a lunatic.) I'm simply asserting that there is no force like the past, that ever resurgent, perpetually toxic tonic of lore. It will always come back, and will never lie down.

Of course, I'd always had distinctly declamatory thoughts like this, even as a young man, perhaps even as a boy, so it's no surrpise that I was thinking about something similarly melodramatic and portentuous the day that Henry came back into our lives with all the casual ease and bravado of a thirsty traveling cowboy shoving his way through the swinging doors of an old-time saloon. (Or at least the movie version of such a speakeasy.)

If this were a story, you would not believe the next detail, nor would I expect you to, but since there's nothing fanciful going on here (at least not on the conscious level; I am, bear with me, almost one hundred, after all, and the mind does tend to fold in on itself when you hover that close to a number so vast), you can rest assured that what happened is true, or at least as true as I can make it. He returned, is what I'm saying. He returned, to the same bar where I had seen him last a dozen years in the past. He returned, and I was in the same spot, drinking quite the same drink. He returned.

Just before he shuffled his way over to my table, I had been thinking about an image from my past, (still in my thirities, yet obsessed with what I had once been), brooding on its broad dimensions, on  a hazy picture of light, one that seemed to consist of disparate, fizzling sensations that built up in my chest and seemed to starburst themselves through the rest of my body, from torso to toes. It's odd to imagine an image as such being mostly bright light and shattered nerve-endings, but as the decades have dwindled, that seems about right. We feel before we see, and we remember what we sense, and in that moment a pure flash of childhood decided to make itself bright.

There was a darkness, enclosed and binding. My finger felt around the thin wedge of a hole. The inside of a hole. The boundaries of the hole. There was just enough space to squeeze one of my nails straight on in to the left. I somehow understood (no more than two, possibly three at the most) that if I lingered too long, something bad might ignite. I knew (then) that sensing was much more than seeing, and I understood (in the bar) that this could very well have been the first memory of my life.

A sense, almost erotic, of a current leaching itself out of the hole on its way to my heart. Briskly blue and diverging. I tried to poke my finger closer, further, into that hole, until my finger was knuckle-deep, and then the feeling, that static sqawl of electricty that orgasmed into pure joy, was offset by a shriek, an aural assault, and I realized that my mother was pulling my digit out of the white wall's socket, and it wasn't the electric buzz by itself that ignited my screams, but my mother's wail of panic, her purehearted moan.

Suddenly, I was no longer 'feeling' or 'sensing', but allowing my sight to seize hold, everything visible, my blind instincts abandoned, and I belatedly saw it as just a wall, a bad hole in the wall, and the smack of her palm on my cheek shook my gums like green jelly dessert, and it was thinking this thought, this after-three-beers blend of wistful and tragic spare pyschic parts, as I wondered if that childhood  moment was the exact one when the pain shifted from the sting of my face to the imminent sludge of my foot, soon to be useless and void, when Henry Meadows  slumped across the table from me with a sigh, the simple act of his presence popping my reverie, my mental splatter its wake, like a pimple that's burst after extended build-up.