Friday, June 10, 2005


I suspect that there's something about living in a city, any city, that leads one to forget about, ignore, and basically take for complete and total granted every car, corner and condominium that may or may not come into urban focus.

You live in a place. You work in a place. Said place has roads and streetlights and a postal box on the corner, shiny and red. You get used to it. It accentuates your life the way a sitcom's laugh track-does: always there, yes, but after awhile you don't even notice it anymore.

Same old story.

My third year Creative Writing teacher, a kind man and even kinder novelist named Richard Teleky, was trying to get at something like that when he assigned my class, for our first assignment no less, the altogether dreary and tedious task of describing a place in Toronto, any place, with as much detail and colour as we could. (I would give the same assignment seven years later, minus the 'Toronto', to my students in Cambodia.)

Me, not yet twenty-one, didn't see much of the point. I wanted to write stories, period, and so for the assignment I tossed off a philosophical and metaphysical exploration of my night at the Toronto Film Festival a few days back, arguing, when it came time to discuss my piece, that this was more than merely a 'physical' space, it was a mental one, a psychological one, this convergence of ordinary fans and legendary filmmakers that collided with angst and awe and raw, human sweat.

I remember him looking at me. Not buying it. Hell, I'd wrote the piece, and I wasn't buying it either. (Is there any feeling in the word like the one when a teacher sees right through you? There should be a word for it.)

The thing was, Teleky was a draft-dodger from the States, thirty years on. He'd come to Toronto from Cleveland; he saw the city, still, well past middle age, as an outsider. I viewed it as a kid from the (relatively) small city of St.Catharines who was in awe of any sort of town that actually had a subway system and more than one McDonald's in a three block radius. That spelled c-u-l-t-u-r-e to me, with a capital 'k'. His voice was the first to point out that, truth be told, downtown Toronto was, is, and probably forever would be, pretty damn ugly.

And I thought about it.

And I thought: He's right.

Every since, I've tried not to take a 'place', any place, for granted.

I still do, because I'm human, and that's we humans do with our lives, take things for granted. It's part custom, part ritual, part, I don't know, habitual. It's what we do.

Even the poverty of Phnom Penh, which awed me, I mean fucking AWED me when I first came here on a short trip, almost three years ago, has become familiar. The stink and the crowds and the street kids. I've allowed myself to become accustomed. Shame on me.

And I mean that.

I should know better.

There's always a building I haven't seen before. A street I haven't been down. A restaurant I haven't tried. (Jesus, I still haven't even been inside the National Museum or the King's Palace for Christ's sake, which is what most tourists pop off in a single afternoon, and here I am, two years later, still wondering when I'm going to set a date for these admittedly damn-close excursions.)

Maybe it's a good thing, though, this accustomization, I guess you'd call it. (Or I guess I'd call it -- not sure about you.) It's proof, of some silly sort, that we can adapt. We can lodge ourselves onto things and into things. We can take the obtuse and make it bla-bla-bla, whatever. We can find ourselves in something foreign and impenetrable. We can inhabit.

I'm used to the heat and the motos and the streetlights and chaos. I've seen it all here, yes, but there's still so much more to see. I have to keep reminding myself of that.

And what about you?

At some point in the really-recent future -- tonight, tomorrow morning -- you will leave your house and trod down familiar streets. You will see what you have always seen, or see what you expect to see.

But I implore you, as you get the keys out for the car, or do the laces up on your shoes:

Look closer. Before it's too late and you're too old.

Watch, linger, inspect.

You may find something new.

Something layered.

And you know that feeling, the feeling you get when you move into a new neighbourhood? The one that signals a comple and utter absence of any sort of first-hand knowledge of sushi joints, cinemas, laundromats and video shops?

It may, it might, it could come back.

Just think.

If you're aware, and alert, and try hard enough, you can become an amateur all over again.

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