Wednesday, August 17, 2005


Just imagine. A father and son, both Japanese, both seated on metal folding chairs in a small conference hall filled with people, both silent. The son drops his videogame console on the floor, a loud thwack reverberating throughout the tiny room. The father flashes his son a sidelong scowl. The boy picks up his game and resumes his game, nonplussed. Moments later, down goes the game one more time, slipped out from between the boy’s fingers yet again, wobbling for a moment or two before attaining an equilibrium of stillness on the floor. The boy reaches to pick up the game, while at the same time the father reaches out his left hand and firmly thwacks the boy upside the head. The father’s eyes remain fixed on the speaker at the front of the room. The boy picks up his game, again, and continues his play. The afternoon goes on, indifferent. I know this.

That game falling, its tinny, metallic thwack. Limited to the confines of that hall, that day, four years ago. It lasted only a moment or two, that moment did. I’m quite certain that neither the father, now approaching middle-age, nor the son, now entering adolescence, ready or not, remembers that incident. It approached, came, passed. It happened. It occurred. Simple. I realize this. (And believe none of it, because that sound, that thwack, echoes still, now, infinitely.)

Having read some of William Shawcross’s book The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust and Modern Conscience, I’m intrigued by his perplexity at a modern world in which two, three million Cambodians can be killed while, mere miles away, similar people of a similar age, people who love and laugh and run and write and shit and fuck as loudly and as humanly as their Cambodian counterparts, can sit in awe in a darkened theatre watching bright lights flicker on a silver screen, as Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford try their best to defeat an imperial army bent on their destruction. While babies were being whacked against trees, their blood and brains forming a red and grey mosaic distinctly, grotesquely at odds with the soft amber hues of Cambodian bark, others were stretching out multi-coloured beach towels on single-coloured sand, applying white lotion to whiter skin, thinking about grocery lists and tan lines and whether or not the lawn really needed to be cut twice this week, despite the rather raggedy length, because two lawn-cuts in one week was, well, if not decadent, at least a little ostentatious, if not anal.

If all of those events occurred simultaneously (as I’m sure they did), and all of them happened in parallel, if not tandem, streams of space and time (as I firmly believe to be true), then what does that signify, in human terms? If millions can go starving in Niger and the Sudan while the rest of us can shop till we drop for shoes and pick our noses and scratch our asses and lick nipples other than our own in front of plasma TVs on layaway, only sixty bucks a month, call now, well, what does that truly mean?

Parallel lives.

Like the Toronto Star article I recently read, detailing the alarming rise of gun violence in recent years in tee-oh, creating a Toronto that is becoming more segmented and divided, a Toronto that has black Canadian youths killing each other with handguns imported from the States, by and large, while white Canadian businessmen and their trophy wives check out the latest shows downtown, because it’s good theatre, affordable theatre, with production values rivaling, if not surpassing, their Broadway brethren in New York, and don’t even get me started on the cuisine around the Royal Alex theatre, which is simply to die for

(pass the ammo)

especially that new Italian place down by the Hummingbird Centre

(going to smoke his cracker ass)

which has a strawberry shortcake dessert type thingee that is, I swear, capable of putting weight on you just by looking at it

(fucking popped him two times, right in the face)

so help me God, it’s true.

Parallel lives.

Like the Cambodia that exists within and beyond the Phnom Penh that I inhabit. The one behind those half-open doors that slide shut when dusk starts to fall, leaving only a slice of light peeping through, with half-glimpsed girls wearing bright blue dresses and dark red rouge, their pimp, handler, owner, lifeline gently smiling my way, tilting his head. Or the police round-up I read biweekly via the Phnom Penh Post, a laundry list of drunken stabbings, enraged strangulations, violent rapes and out of control axe-attacks, all unleashed within the narrow confines of the tiny villages I pass through by bus on my way to that golden weekend beach, that pool-chalk blue sky. And the kids that sell me my morning newspapers, the young girls, already losing, almost daily, their spunk and spark, their cabbage-patch cuteness, who will, all too soon, enter another realm of existence, squalid and sordid, punctuated by bed-spring squeaks and early-morning memories, dim but sweet, of sunlight on skin, warm and soothing, a counterpoint to the stranger, sweatier feel of counterfeit flesh.

Oh, the temp0 of life that pulses and sways as I write these words, that lies beneath and above and between and within the sound of that father’s thwack, the lessons being taught, the roads being built, the knees being scabbed, the oranges being peeled, the cunts being fucked, the scabs being picked, the brows being wiped with cool white cloths, the faces being punched, the lips being kissed, the doors being shut, the dicks being sucked, the bullets piercing skin, the jobs being lost, the legs being broken, the nails being chewed, the arms being raised, the love being borne, the babies being born, all of it simultaneous, unique, unprecedented. Take away the labels: loving, heinous, crude, refined, virtuous, evil, redemptive, condemning. Take away anything but the acts themselves, and we are left with the human condition, period. Sights and smells and tastes and sounds. That sound.

Picture them, that father and son. I do. I still hear that thwack, even if they don’t. That sound, so eerily similar to the sound my own head made while whumping against my high school gymnasium floor, fifteen years ago, my body somehow flying free from the high bars and missing the large blue mat, followed by blackness, and the sound of my phys-ed teacher flashing me two fingers and asking how many, how many, how many do you see?

If I can still hear that sound, whether it be the father striking the child, or my head hitting the floor, then perhaps others can, too. Perhaps that father and son –Japanese, bland, suburban – unknowingly let loose a riptide of condensed emotion that caused a pinprick sized hole in the very temporal fabric of the space-time continuum itself. Not a gigantic hole, no, nor even a large one, but one big enough and wide enough to distort the spaces between us and them, between you and me, between then and now, one just big enough to allow all sights and all sounds to travel at maximum speeds with minimum delay. Everywhere.


Can you hear it?

A woman in Niger hears that sound, that thwack, and thinks it is the sound of her own stomach, its hungry, angry growl. A young black male in Toronto, alone in bed, thinking about the Geography test he will have in less than twelve hours time, wondering if he is ready, sure that he is not, hears that sound and thinks that it is a trigger being cocked, a gun being pointed, causing him to sit up straight, the drool from his mouth still stretching in one long, unbroken line of spittle from his bottom lip to his dented pillow, and he vows, heart thumping, to be better than his friends, his environs, his teachers’ expectations. A young prostitute in Phnom Penh, exhausted after her night’s work, slumps in the green-felt chair that sits beside the bathroom in the whorehouse she calls home, and for her that sound is the click of her grandfather’s fingers, the sound he would make while waiting for dinner to cook, and while she can no longer remember his voice or his face, she can remember his smell, dirt and cigarettes and rice, and the memory of his snapping fingers is too much for her, too real for her, forcing tears for the first time in a long time to slowly trace their way down her hollow cheeks. A young boy in St.Catharines, Ontario, falling to the floor, missing that mat, hears that thwack, and just before blacking out, thinks: The universe is folding in on itself.

A lover’s sigh in Belgium; a soldier’s shriek in Burma. The same sound? Emitted from a single source, merely altered and twisted by wormholes of time, emotion, memory?

I am not saying it’s likely; I am not even suggesting it is probable. But in the aftermath of a Cambodian downpour, in the smile of a newborn child, in the thwack of a stranger’s hand, I sense a commonality, a bond, that may begin as nothing more than noise, dissonance, aural and spiritual, but gradually, over time, reveals its true, rhythmic beat -- something akin to music, something lasting and melodic and soothing.

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