Monday, September 14, 2009


Before he had even had a chance to wipe away the sleep-drool that steadily leaked its way down his nose and onto his chin, Jeffrey Dunn woke up one July morning thinking of those words, his Papa's words, the stink of life telling you who was who and what was what. Even before his eyes opened or his mouth opened. His pecker still a little bit hard with pee waiting to exit, please, pronto. Papa's voice had crawled inside of his head and pulled him straight out of sleep and into the faint daylight peeking through the blinds. Poking him awake. When he finally opened his eyes that voice seemed to fade away almost all at once, like the radio in the car always did when they passed under Gerry Cheevers Bridge on the way to St.Catharines. He waited a second for Papa's words to come back, they didn't, and besides, it didn't matter all that much. Papa was just downstairs, probably eating his Cheerios and his drinking his pretty gross raspberry juice and getting ready to go cut the grass and rake the gravel over at the ball diamond. Wasn't today the last day of the tournament between all those companies who did stuff that Jeffrey couldn't quite understand, but were important for some reason he could never figure out? So if he wanted to hear Papa's voice for real, well, it was right on there in the kitchen inside of the old man's throat. Jeffrey liked the voice of Papa that came out when he went to sleep better than the voice of Papa's that waited in his mouth, the voice that had dodge all those Cheerios and all that raspberry juice that came crashing down his pipes every morning, snow or shine. The thing was, Jeffrey always knew what Papa's voice had to say when it came and piped up when Jeffrey was asleep. Always stuff he'd said before, either that day or the day before. He never knew what stuff, angry or happy, kind or cruel, Papa would say in real life.

Jeffrey sat up and scratched his crotch and padded his way into the bathroom to take that long-awaited pee, mostly because he had to piss so hard it hurt, bu also because he suddenly realized that he was always curious about what Papa to had to say about, well, whatever, anything, and the sooner the pee was done, the sooner he could get dressed and get downstairs and hear what there was to be heard. Half of the time, or more than that, what Papa had to say didn't make sense to Jeffrey, and half the time, or more than that, it hurt, Papa's words did, but Jeffrey's friend Kendall at school didn't have a father at all, so words that sometimes hurt must be better than no words at all, ever. Besides, it wasn't a Band-Aid-being-ripped-off-all-in-one-go kind of hurt. More like a purple-nurple kind of deal. Hurt so good you kind of liked it, though Jeffrey wasn't about to admit to liking a purple-nurple, at least not out loud. Nipple tugs weren't supposed to be a good time.

By the time he'd taken his leak and had his shower and rushed down the stairs while still wiggling his way into the Spider-Man shirt and the blue-jean shorts that they'd bought down at Robinson's last winter for only five bucks a pair, fished deep out of one of them metal bins in the corner of the kids' clothes section, the bins that looked like cages for fish, or prisons for lobsters, what with all the bars running up the sides, but instead were actually used to hold the clothes that nobody seemed to want all that much, Papa was almost done his cereal. Drinking the milk right from the bowl. Flipping through the Sports section of last night's St.Catharines Standard, which they had delivered just before dinner each night by Kenny Crawford, a short fat kid with bright red hair and a bright red face. Bopping his leg under the table, keeping beat to music that Jeffrey couldn't hear, Papa was.

"Morning Papa," Jeffrey said.

"Is for you," Papa said.

Jeffrey had just settled into his own bowl of Fruit Loops and apple juice, not raspberry, ugh, never raspberry, apple all the way, and Papa was already getting that look he got whenever it was about time to head off to work. Rubbing his left cheek with his left hand and lightly rapping the kitchen table with his right fist, like he was waiting for somebody to open up a little door from underneath. Soon he would be gone, vamoose, and Jeffrey wouldn't get to talk to him until later tonight, six or seven o'clock, maybe later, maybe earlier, who knew, and he knew he ought to say something fast because Papa didn't like to talk all that much in the mornings on a work day, and here he was, already off to work, practically. Jeffrey spooned up some Froot Loops, two red, one green, one almost black, which was weird, now that he thought about it, and probably not normal, and he tried to think of a question he didn't know the answer to that would force Papa to stop and pause and think for a bit. He did this almost every morning, Jeffrey did, and often he couldn't come up with anything, but today he thought of a good one.

"Why's my name 'Jeffrey'?" he asked.

Papa lightly placed the paper on the table, as if he was setting a placemat for dinner, which Jeffrey had seen him do exactly once, which was why he remembered it so clearly. Placemats were not a common sight in this house, and Jeffrey had not even known what it was, that green, square felt rectangle, but that had been a special time, soon after Mum had left for good, and his Uncle Darrell, her brother, who he had never met before, had come for dinner, and Papa had said that placemats showed class at a time like this. Now he was treating the paper the same way, but Jeffrey couldn't see how this time, or that question, was all that special.

"Why's your name 'Jeffrey'?" Papa asked.

"Yeah," Jeffrey said. "I don't know why. Lot of names out there you could of picked."

Papa looked at the paper, not at his son.

"Because you don't want a name like 'Herman' growing up in this town," he said.

Jeffrey thought about that while he ate the last of the Fruit Loops, even the black one, the one he probably shouldn't have been eating, but he'd never heard of anybody dying from eating an odd Fruit Loop. Puking maybe, but not dying. Papa wasn't moving, which meant he was thinking, too. Time for more questions, Jeffrey thought.

"But your name's 'Herman'," Jeffrey said. "You did alright with that name in this town."

Papa smiled, and Jeffrey could see his yellow teeth, even the metal fillings way in the back, but there was nothing funny about that smile. A smile without any humour was a scary thing, Jeffrey realized.

"Herman's a name for a guy who drives a zamboni and cuts grass," Papa said, and stood up. He hitched up the belt of his jeans, and ran a hand through his thinning hair and looked down Jeffrey.

"I don't get it," Jeffrey said. "You do drive a zamboni and cut grass."

"You want to do that stuff?" Papa asked. "You want to make money that way?"

Jeffrey stirred his spoon in the last of his milk, making little tiny circles and bubbles that bobbed nowhere much at all.

"Not really," he said.

"Then that's why I called you Jeffrey," Papa said. "So you can have a name that ain't going to sound perfect on the side of a zamboni."

Then Papa did something that Jeffrey had never seen anybody do outside of a movie.

He winked.

"Key's where it always is," Papa said.

He picked up his paper and headed out of the kitchen and out of the house before Jeffrey could say anything more. Not that he knew what he would say. Winks were supposed to be full of fun, just like a smile, but that wink was something else altogether.

Jeffrey sat at the kitchen table, heard the front door shut, and the shoes on the gravel, and the car pulling away, and the house and the day to come were once again his and his alone. Made him feel almost grown-up, it did. Or at least like a teenager. Also made him feel alone. Didn't hurt none, though. Not that much, anyways. Almost like a gobstopper stuck square in the throat for a second or two before it scooted free and went smooth down the proper pipe.

Besides, he was used to that lonely feeling, especially after he asked Papa especially hard questions. Kind of, in an odd little way, expected that feeling. The lonely one. Used to it so much, he wasn't sure what he would do if it wasn't there no more. Maybe good questions with strange answers made everyody feel lonely. He wasn't sure. Had never asked anybody that, because that would be a real weird question to ask, wouldn't it. He couldn't figure out how to ask most folks the kind of questions that he most wanted to ask. Maybe grown-ups knew how to do it. Jeffrey didn't. Loneliness like this, the kind that sat in your stomach like freshly chewed Doritos, was kind of sweet, he realized. It made him feel sick and satisfied at one and the same time. Like a tall, cold class of Country-Time Lemonade that he didn't want to finish.

Monday, September 07, 2009


(Note: The following is part of a piece of fiction I've been working on here and there, the opening section of a longer work that I'll excerpt now and then when the mood strikes. It will ramble and meander, delving deeply into the little stuff of characters' lives, and overall it may seem like it doesn't have much of a point to it, but that's kind of my point.)

Jeffrey Dunn's father, Herman Dunn, drove the zamboni at Pete Peter's Centennial Arena Monday to Saturday during the winter, cleaning the ice between shifts of the pee-wee and midget and Junior B hockey games, and in the summer he cut the field over at Hawksley's baseball diamond three times a week, making sure that the grass wasn't too high way out there in the outfield. Hated hockey, hated baseball, Herman Dunn did. Jeffrey knew this for a fact because Papa always came home in the winter rubbing his hands, red from the cold, and in the summer he always came home rubbing his neck, red from the heat, looking even redder compared to the all-white Niagara Parks and Rec shirt he had to wear every day, and he'd never watch hockey on TV or listen to baseball on the radio, even if the Leafs or the Jays were in a pretty good playoff hunt. Sometimes he'd sigh and look over at Jeffrey lazing around on the couch and say: "You keep on doing that. That's why they all call it 'work' and not 'fucking around with your friends and then lazing around on the couch', I guess."

Jeffrey never could figure out what that was supposed to mean, but angry or sad, happy or tired, he liked the sound of Papa's voice all the same, no matter what he was grumbling or grinning about. Like the ice you jangled around in a glass just before the Coke was poured in, Papa's voice was. Sweet beneath the clanking, or something like that. Jeffrey also could never get why, if Papa hated sports so much, the two of them could sit there in the cold of the arena under those tiny old heaters hanging from the ceiling that never seemed to heat much of anything, and watch the game go whatever which way it wanted to go, and Papa always seemed to know exactly what was going to happen with each player on both teams on every shift. Like he wasn't watching the game for the first time like everybody else sitting beside him and freezing around him, but instead was seeing it all again after he'd already watched the highlights on SportsDesk on TSN the night before.

"Watch seventeen, the Hurtzel kid," he'd say. "He's gonna make like he's gonna pass, but he don't pass the puck in the third period, almost never, not when they're down two, three goals." And Hurtzel wouldn't pass the puck, he'd try to score, even from a weird angle way out past the blue line, out where nobody good ever shot the puck unless they were trying to ice it and kill time for a line shift.

Or they'd be sitting on the faded green bleachers out under the yellow sun on a bright August afternoon watching ladies' softball, Papa chugging a Molson down in big gulps as it stayed safe and cosy tucked inside of those foam coasters, kind of like it was hidden, because you really weren't supposed to drink at the ball park, it being public, and especially with Papa being a public employee, which probably make it worse, and Jeffrey would be drinking a 7-Up, never a Sprite, though he liked both, only 7-Up he liked better, he didn't know why, sipping it slowly to make the drink last unlike Papa, who would drink three or four beers but would only buy Jeffrey one pop, and Papa could tell you which pitcher would throw like a girl and which was halfway decent for a chick, considering it was, you know, softball, and not the real thing. He could tell you which batter most likely had celluite creeping down her thighs due to the awkward way she stood beside the plate, or who couldn't make it from first to second in time because her boobs were too big for running. "Can't run with boobs like that," he'd say. "Not my rule. Nature's." One day while watching another boring ladies' softball game Jeffrey just flat out asked him how he seemed to know so much.

"About what?" Papa said.

"About baseball," Jeffrey said. "About hockey. "

Papa turned away from the game and looked down at his son. He wasn't a thoughtful man, Jeffrey thought, because he sometimes forgot about birthdays or Christmas cards, but he thought about stuff a lot. He could even tell when Papa was thinking real hard by the way his eyes got all glassy, like he was trying to focus on something real far off. He'd wipe his nose and scratch his stubble and stifle a Molson beer burp before it could sneak its way out, which meant he was most definitely serious. Usually the burps just flowed like music from a tape deck.

"You see enough shit," Papa said, "and sooner or later you can just smell what stinks and what don't. Simple as that."

Saturday, September 05, 2009


He looked pretty much like what every taxi driver in Manila looks like on a Tuesday morning. Pushing sixty. Tired. Haggard. Simultaneously frazzled and bored. Waiting for ten, twelve hours of screeching jeepneys and homeless kids knocking on the windows to sell cigarettes and rich kids coming back from the mall climbing into his cab to spill lattes on the already stained and split seats. Sweating already. No tolerance for chit-chat with the foreigner in the back. Getting by.

Five, six channels on the radio flipped by before he settled on the one with the Christmas tunes. Have yourself a merry little Christmas in stinking, putrid Manila. The steady rise of the gleaming skyscrapers matched in their off-kilter garishness only by the slums that lined the streets two and three blocks over. So why not add some Christmas tunes to add to the strangeness?

Only I forgot, for a moment, where I was. In Manila. In the Philippines. Where, if the month ends in a 'ber, then it's Christmas time. And this was September 1st. And so obviously some Christmas music was in order. Nothing was strange at all about this scenario. Except me, and what I thought about it. The air was hot and the pavement was sizzling but Rudolph with his nose so bright was on his way. It made me feel somewhat happy. Ashamed at inwardly mocking Christmas carols in late summer.

Why shouldn't the taxi driver be listening to yuletide songs in September? He looked old and craggy and waiting patiently for his next heart attack, and he had probably come to Manila ten, twenty, thirty years ago from one of the provinces, Benguet or Tarlac or even the Mountain Province (which I had been surprised to hear was actually the name of the one of the mountain provinces), and he would die in Manila, after spending his life sitting in a taxi twelve hours a day driving people like me around.

He didn't look like the type that would want Christmas music at six in the morning on September 1st, but it's lonely inside those doors, all day, cigarettes and a bottle to piss in so you don't have to stop the car being your only buddies. Kind of deflating, without Bing Crosby for company.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


Theoretically, we can be born anywhere, at any time, but in actuality, we're born in one place, at one time. There will forever be a precise moment, and an exact location, where we entered the world. (And where we'll leave the world, too -- but only the former do we know about, unfortunately. Or fortunately, depending on your point of view.)

This simple concept occurred to me the other day when I read that St.Catharines General Hospital would soon be replaced by a bigger, better, shinier place, one fully equipped with lasers and light sabers and all kinds of cool stuff.

I suddenly thought: The place where I entered this life will soon be no more.

Not that I spend all that much time thinking about St.Catharines General Hospital. Aside from being born within its walls, the only significant amount of time I spent there was as a teenager, getting rehab from an athletic injury. (And the therapist in charge of my rehab? My main opponent's mother. Hmmm...) Recently, the only time I ever thought of it at all was to note that comedian Dave Thomas, of SCTV fame, was also born there. I found that kind of cool. Me and him, coming into our own via the same brick and mortar. Other than that, I haven't given it a mental glance in quite some time.

Still, I always knew it was there, that hospital. It was a real place with definitive, solid stuff that helped me gain my initial balance. There was an exact operating room that served witness to my birth. There was the room where my mother spent the night, me lovingly wrapped in her arms. (And puking on her chest, and shitting in my new, miniature diapers, but hey -- I'm trying to be, like, eloquent here.) My first breaths were taken inside of that concrete building. Everything that came into my life started there.

And soon it will be kaput.

Which is fine. Seriously. The new should give way to the old, and it's only a building, after all, and a new, more advanced facility will help more people, save more lives, allow other babies a better shot at surviving the first few hours of the difficult but joyous existence that awaits them.

I am having thoughts, though. Strange ones. Evocative ones.

I want to find out the number of the operating room I was born in. I want to locate, precisely, where I slept my first night. I just want to be there, in those places, to complete some kind of strange, circular loop. I want to look at those walls, the same ones I looked at for the first time ever. I'd never seen walls before, being, like, five seconds old and all, and yet those were the very first ones I witnessed. I'd never breathed air before, either, and yet I breathed oxygen there, in that place.

I would like to occupy that slot again, if only for a moment.

Not to remember (because I can't), and not to reminesce (because I won't), but just to be there, in that place, as I once was almost thirty-four years ago.

To crudely connect the baby to the man.

I will stand there, and watch the nurses, and smile, and feel silly.

And then I will leave.

I won't actually do it, of course.

Actor John Ritter, whose work on Three's Company provided pretty much the highlight of my childhood years, was born and died in the same hospital, and, as tragic as his passing was, I always thought there was a morbid yet appropriate symmetry to that act, as if that was how it should be for all of us, and yet almost never is.

To exit where we began, as it were.

Not that I want to exit exit, you understand.

I just like the poetic symbolism of it all.

Soon St.Catharines General Hospital will be gone, however, and yet I will still be here. Me, and the thousands of others over the decades who came bursting and bawling into Earth from behind its doors.

We all start at one place, and one place only, and that was my place.

Buildings can't feel a thing, but we can. If I were there, now, I would touch the main door, softly. I would slowly walk across the floor, careful not to stamp too strongly. I would search for that first room of mine, where I slept my first sleep. I would silently say thank-you before I left, and take the bland, efficient, hospital silence as a weary, worthy 'you're welcome'.


I stumbled up out of sleep and away from a hazy dream with one strange, resonant phrase ringing in my head: "Just out of sheer curiosity..."

Still stuck somewhere between slumber and wakefulness, it took me a moment or two -- but no longer -- to suddenly recall, with a force like a kick to the balls, its source.

Mad Magazine, probably twenty-five years ago.

As a kid, I subscribed to any number of Marvel Comics (but never DC, no, never, because Marvel Comics and DC comics were fierce competitors, warriors waging battle for the hearts and souls of young tykes across North America, even the world, and you could like one company and love one company, but only one, not the other, for that was the way it worked, so while I had numerous copies of G.I. Joe and Spider-Man, X-Factor and West Coast Avengers sent to my house, I had to secretly, almost in shame, prowl the turnstiles at the local Avondale convenience store searching for the DC stalwarts of Superman and Aquaman, Batman and Justice League, Hawkman and Green Lantern, but it was never constant, never regular, for to admit to such a propensity for the dreaded comic book competition would be betraying the oath taken by Marvel Zombies everywhere), and I also subscribed to Mad, one of those comic magazines that parodied everything under the celebrity stars -- movies and books, tv shows and politicians. It gave me my first hint that the serious adult world outside my door was also one to be laughed at and scolded, deflated and prodded; before SCTV and SNL, it taught me that even the things that I loved were worthy of good-natured scorn.

Mad also produced paperback books featuring any number of topics sure to strike hilarity in the hearts of pre-adolescents everywhere, and one of those books consisted of nothing but questions to the editors of the magazine -- followed by their suitably rude, inappropriate and inane answers. (Were they real questions sent by real readers? Ah, but this is one of those mysteries, like the impossible construction of the Egyptian pyramids, or the real nature and composition of Dolly Parton's breasts, that are doomed to remain unsolved, I'm afraid.)

One of those questions from some long-forgotten reader asked: "Just out of sheer curiosity, how did Alfred E. Neumann lose his front tooth?"

The answer was provided in a full page picture. Neumann, if I recall correctly, was perched on a ladder outside of his neighbour's house, peering through a bedroom window, binoculars in hand, watching a very naked lady take a shower. Neumann is smiling his shit-eating grin at us, the readers; but, known to us and unbenownst to him, the naked lady's husband is rounding the corner of the house, heading towards Alfred with his fists clearly clenched, an ass-whupping ready to be unleashed.

So, how did Neumann lose that infamous front tooth?

The caption below the picture read: "Out of sheer curiosity."

I found that witty beyond belief.

(It took a moment or two, but then it clicked: "Oh, I get it!" I thought. "Because he's curious about seeing the naked lady!")

It was a play-on-words of the original question, to start with; in addition, it provided an answer to something that had always puzzled me; it created a backstory before I even knew what the word 'backstory' meant. It gave Neumann a history, a life, beyond the monthly cover of MAD magazine. He had once been a boy living in a neighbourhood not unlike my own, spying on a nude lady taking a shower, and he had been ass-beaten accordingly.

And, above and beyond all that, there was that carefully drawn, almost pristine image that looked so strangely out of place -- Alfred E.Neumann without his missing tooth. It was like seeing Rocky Balboa without his porkpie hat, or Superman without his cape (or conversely, Clark Kent without his glasses), or Captain America without his shield, or your teacher in casual clothes shopping at the supermarket. It just didn't fit. (Icons become icons for a reason, so I think the makers of the new Sherlock Holmes film featuring Robert Downey Jr. are freaking crazy not to include Holmes's pipe or hat as part of the character. "Ah, but those were never part of the original stories," they say, and that might very well be true, but Sherlock Holmes has cemented himself into our collective consciousness for a reason, and to deny the character the hat and the pipe is to deny us our own pop-culturual history.) That single sketch seemed to open up and shatter any number of boundaries -- artistically and comedically.

I always felt bad for characters in tight spots, and at times I wanted to warn poor Alfred: "Look out! Get down from that ladder! Your tooth is about to be lost!"

And yet, he was supposed to lose that tooth. It was his destiny and his karma; the tooth would be gone but his anarchic spirit of rebelliousness would fill in the gap.

All of these thoughts, all of these memories stormed through my brain as I finally awoke.

I hadn't thought of that particular panel in decades, and yet there it was, nudged into the sunlight by some spectre of my sleeping self.

"Just out sheer curiosity," I thought.

That sentence took me back.

Making me wonder: What else have I forgotten that I don't even know that I've forgot? What have you forgotten from your wonder years that is waiting to be remembered? What other random remnants of our childhoods are waiting to disovered by our ignorant, sleeping selves?

Perhaps tonight we'll find out.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Am I the only one out there who feels almost completely overwhelmed by the onslaught of the Internet in the past five, ten years?

It's not like I'm old -- I'm 33, which is, you know, old, but it's not old old, if you know what I mean -- and the Internet has been part of my life for the past, what, ten, twelve years or so, and yet I still feel increasingly like the old fogey who comes late to the party empty-handed and is not quite sure what everybody else is so heatedly discussing in the corner on the couch, drinks in hand, plates already full.

My roommate in university in the fall of '94 was the first person I ever saw using email, and I literally asked him: "What's that? Are you, like, writing your friend a letter? You're going to print it out, right?"

Ever since then, it's been all downhill.

Meaning, I can't keep up. No sooner had I found out that Twitter was the cool new thing, the next thing I know, literally the next week, I'm reading an article in Time or Newsweek or somewhere that Twitter is actually becoming somewhat old hat. What the fuck? I'd just discovered it, and it's already considered old news? What else is out there that I have yet to discover, and yet has already become obsolete?

What scares me is the rate of acceleration with this baby. I've often told students that vocabulary that is now a given in the English language -- email, the internet, surfing the web, blogs, links -- literally had no meaning in a computer context when I was in high school. And some of this shit is only two, three years old, and the language has alread adapted it into the linguistic family which we all distort, corrupt and enlighten on a daily basis.

Not that I'm against all of this development. Of course not. There's only way to go in life, and that's up, baby, up. Forward. Onward. I just keep thinking: My grandfather was my age in 1953. When television was just getting groovy. And think of all that's happened since then. What do the next forty, fifty years have in store? I imagine video email is the next big thing, but I already suspect that it's already here. Somewhere. With somebody cooler, hipper and 'more connected' than I am.

Perhaps that's the thing. All this connecting is actually making me feel unconnected. It's like Norman Mailer said all these years ago, when discussing the snarky, snide, increasingly acerbic tone of sportswriters, who are 'faced with the burden of being clever'.

I think about that phrase all the time -- 'the burden of being clever'. Meaning, when you write in small, encapsulated doses, everything has to be funny, and sarcastic, and insincere, and strange, and offbeat, and oh-so-very-clever. Longer writing -- like short stories and novels, essays and even editorials -- allow you to develop your ideas slowly, carefully, methodically. They are often humourous, yes, of course, but they also, invariably, have at least the potential of being deep. Of touching us and moving us through sustained rhythms of language and emotion. We have the chance to delve deep and see if we can find something of ourselves at the end of it all. Browsing the Internet, I become exhausted, mentally and spiritually, and I find myself, at the end of five, ten years, facing an extreme case of cyber malnourishment, for lack of a better term. Will this be a permanent psychic condition, I wonder.

I fear (and this is the old fogey part of the 33 year old speaking up) that everything is becoming linked and connected and emailed and commented upon, and that, at the same time, so little is being said. We're so busy blabbing that we're not really listening, and we're all continuously trying to be very, very clever, without trying all that hard to be very, very sincere.

Ah, well. As I said earlier, there's no going back. And yet perhaps a happy medium can be found. I want the web to feel like my hometown library did, for some strange reason I can't quite articulate. I want a place where I can sit down and block out the world and browse through the shelves and grasp randomly at something unknown, but possibly perfect. Or at least perfect for that moment, when I need something the most.

Back then, in that library, between those long rows of metal shelves, I never knew what I needed until I found it. When I did, it was a cold glass of water shutting out the sun. I could drink and drink and drink until closing time. Coming back, the next day, I found I was still not full.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


This song always takes me back to a specific time and place:

Back to precisely where, and exactly when, is irrelevant to my point (as is the message of the song, whose mysterious, haunting tone bewitches me still), which is that music accesses different parts of ourselves than movies or books, text or images. We hear something, a song, and we're doing something else, profound or trival, or both at one and the same time, and then later, ten years or twenty years down the line, the song emerges from inside of ourselves, or out of the radio, and it's as if time and space have collapsed in upon themselves. We are twenty again, or perhaps we have always been twenty, even at birth, and we will be once again at death. Faulkner knew that the past isn't even past, but it's also not only present. It points towards a future we can't yet glimpse, or sense, or imagine. A cold wind blows upon our necks as the song sings its glorious, nostalgic, mournful chorus. The sky in stasis so far above is grey and distant, almost mocking, and yet: no matter. From my past my younger self declares (or I hereby order him to proclaim): "I will remember this moment, dread this moment, savor this moment, fucking feel this moment when fate or chance decides to play out its tune for me a last and glorious time."

Thursday, May 28, 2009


News of Steven Page leaving The Barenaked Ladies was big news in Canada a few months back. It wasn't the Beatles breaking up, no, but for Canadians, it was close enough.

BNL has come to represent everything fun and heartfelt, goofy and socially conscious about Canada. When I was in high school, the band broke free from Scarborough with word-of mouth copies of their debut 'yellow tape', a homemade cassette sold at concerts and passed around Ontario. My brother would stick it in the tape deck as we drove for running workouts in and around St.Catharines. I remember how proud I was of them when their first CD came out. And when they played Saturday Night Live. And when they then hit number one in the States with 'One Week'. (Their second CD provided the soundtrack for my freshman year of university. The cold and windy North York winters were soothed by endless repeats of two or three songs on my CD player. Knowing that Steven Page and Ed Roberts, the lead singers, both attended my university made the sounds even sweeter. Even now, fifteen years on, I can clearly picture my dorm room in Winters College, and my roommate, Nathan, out and about somewhere, and me lying on my back, listening to the wind and the Barenaked Ladies battle each other for sonic supremacy.)

And now Page, the big guy, is on his own, and the others will continue on in their own specific way, shape and form.

I'm sure the newly emancipated Page will do good stuff, as will the Ladies, but still.

Some things shouldn't end.

Here's my favorite BNL song, with Page on stage singing lead vocals:

And here's my second favorite (technically a cover, but what the hell):


Early this morning, while hustling in and out of the 7-11 near my station, I found myself humming along to the muzak bubbling forth from the convenience store's speakers, and it took me a second to recognize the tune, and then I realized that it was the theme song from Welcome Back Kotter, and the fact that it had been converted to muzak, and that I was listening to such a bizarre rendition of a beloved seventies' sitcom from my early childhood in a convenience store in Yokohama, provided a much needed early-morning boost to a rainy day in May. I am now in Japan, reasonably adult, but somewhere, in some other realm, I'm still seven, on the couch, and Mr.Kotter is still trying to get Epstein and Washington, Barbarino and Horschack to sit down and shut up.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


Should you ever find yourself at Shin-Yokohama station, you'll have two ticket gates to choose from in order to exit the building. Coming up the stairs, turning left will take you to the larger, swankier, busier bullet-train platform that most of the commuting hordes are heading towards. Coming up the stairs, turning right will lead you to the smaller gate that leads towards my apartment. Not many people are headed towards this gate, but it's where I end up each and every day.

Me, and the mourners, and the lovers.

The building kitty-corner to my own, more or less, is a funeral parlor. A Japanese kind . A Buddhist kind. I'm guessing. For weeks after I first moved in last semester, as I left my apartment for the five-minute walk to the station, I would often notice large groups of men and women, usually older, almost always solemn, filing towards this building wearing blacks suits and even blacker dresses. It looks like an ordinary office building, but occasionally a siren will sound, and a hearse will slowly emerge from the underground parking garage (can a hearse even go fast?) and a serious-looking man will halt traffic as a group of mourners bow deeply, almost the ground, as if they're looking for lost change, until the car has rounded the corner and continued on its way. If I'm near the building at around this time, I'm forced to stop. And watch. Death, in all its mundane, every-day anti-glory.

That's what happens if I turn right out of my building.

If I turn left, however, and mosey up the streets a little ways towards the Family Mart convenience store, I'm confronted by two or three 'love hotels', which are designed for, well, you can guess. Japanese folks often live with their families, or even extended families, so intimacy is difficult, if not impossible. To fill the gap, love hotels blanket the urban cityscape. They often look like little castles. Other times they look like, well, nothing known to modern architecture. One down the road is named, in English, 'Hotel Chapel Coconuts', and has a vaguely jungle theme, with a billboard adorned in monkeys, and tiki-lamps sprouting real, full flames, and outside TV monitors endlessly replaying what looks like Malaysian dancers bopping to their foreign, supposedly romantic, beat. (I haven't figured out where the 'chapel' part comes into play.)

Some nights after work, heading home, softly whistling under the Japanese moon that is identical to the Canadian, Cambodian and Philippines moons I'm intimitately familiar with, I imagine a couple entering one of those love hotels. Fresh, smiling, the man carrying the plastic bags full of beer and instant noodles they've purchased moments before at the 7-11. Ready for action, so sto speak. Nine months later they have a child. The man gets a job near Shin-Yokohama station, so they decide to settle in the area. The child grows up here, goes to school here, finds a job here. Fifty years later, he suffers a heart attack at home while watching the Tokyo Giants defeat the Hiroshima Carp on TV. He is given a funeral at the funeral home around the corner from where he was conceived. His life has ended where it begun.

There is an odd kind of symmetry to this morbid fantasy. Life and death, conception and extinction, forming an inevitable loop against our collective will. Not likely that such a scenario could play itself out, but it also wasn't likely that John Ritter could have been born in the same hospital that he died in, and that happened, so I suppose something like this could, too.

Whenever I have such morbid, oddly comforting notions such as this, something absurd will spring me back to the sunshine of reality. Just yesterday, while walking past the east exit of the bullet train platform at the station, I noticed a middle-aged black man with a young Japanese female on his arm, accompanied by an elderly Japanese couple. The black man smiled and nodded at someone looking at him. His Japanese admirer smiled back. Why would he nod at a stranger, I wondered? As he got closer towards me, I realized that I recognized him, one of the most famous foreigners in Japan, and he was wearing a black shirt that read TEAM BILLY on the back.

So whenever I'm thinking too much of life and death, birth and survival, turning left and turning right, I accidentally run into Billy Blanks, inventor of Tae-Bo, and I'm reminded, again, that the cosmos have, if not a sense of humor, at least a sense of proportion.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009


I had forgotten all about Red Rover. The game. The one we used to play as kids, on dusky summer nights when the sun was gradually setting, and the air was getting cool, and in this hint of night the mesh soccer shirts we all wore suddenly seemed far too thin, the sleeves much too short, the sweatshirts our mothers advocated only hours before suddenly seeming like missing, hidden talismans. Two teams faced each other across the field. One person would shout: "Red rover, red over, I call Brendan over!" And Brendan (or Chris, or Tracey) would have to attempt to make it across the wide and pungent grass without getting caught. Or tackled. Or touched.

But that's wrong. Because I seem to remember different rules. Contradictory ones. Ones where we were all running across the field as one, our entire team, and if somebody was caught, anybody was caught, then they automatically became part of the other team.

Did we have two different sets of rules? How could something so simple, so rudimentary as the rules that once defined a good portion of my hours suddenly be missing from the space inside of my head? I used to know this stuff the same way I now know the combination to my mailbox. That routine, boring click that opens the way to flyers and bills.

I only ask because David Mitchell's extraordinary novel Black Swan Green, about a twelve year old British boy's entry into adolescene, adulthood, life, in 1982 contains a scene featuring Red Rover, but while reading the rules struck me as different. Familiar, but English. And yet when I tried to remember the rules from my own youth, I was left with nothing but vague, wispy images; the mad cackle of childhood, multiplied; sweaty, smelly t-shirts grabbed by the neck, almost torn, as punishment for being caught.

The best fiction takes us back, not forward. It reminds us of who we were and what we lost. And since we all lose our childhood, slowly, then ultimately all at once, it doesn't take a genius to recognize Mitchell's extraordinary ability to immerse us in the vivid present of those awful, wonderful early years.

How fresh everything was! Life can become so mandatory. Even me, having lived for almost exactly a decade in three unceasingly foreign countries, having straddled multiple languages and impenetrable cities, having continually borne witness to cancer and its insidious, extended grasp on everyone around it, can become numb with the nagging, cloud-grey repetition of it all. Sometimes we need the imaginary to plant us back in the technicolor savagery and grace of the past. Of the madness of childhood.

How could I have fucking forgotten the rules of Red Rover? It's almost obscene. There were days and nights in those dead and distant days of 1980, '82, '84, when games of Red Rover, kick-the-can and hide-and-go-seek seemed like sensational means of ordinary elevation. The stupendous was so routine that we didn't catch sight of our soaring imaginations. We would simply rise through our play. Effortlessly. A blue rubber ball became the focus of our obsessions. A hockey stick with shoddy tape remained a weapon, an instrument of ego. The sandbox at my school was vast, a potential entry into quicksand and oblivion. I played marbles at recess every day without fail, shielding their prowess in a deep purple wine pouch, the steelies being the most valuable, round and shiny and globe-like in their immensity. After school, there were five or six kids in the neighbourhood around Bayshore Crescent who were more than happy to indulge again in extended versions of G-Force and The A-Team. A few years later, we could play army and First Blood, Chuck Norris and Uncommon Valor with green machine guns to the steady, insistent beat of the waves softly lapping Lake Ontario's shore, whose waters almost reached my bedroom window, where on dark and chilly November nights I could see an infinity of stars keeping watch on Toronto, the CN Tower stretching upward, somehow reaching out and towards me, leaping the gap across that glorious lake, willing me away from my childhood and my city. Soon I will leave all of this behind, I thought. I will go there, to that place. Not knowing if it was a threat or a lament.

How long has it been since I had grass stains on my shorts? Scabs on my elbows? As a kid I fell down a slide and bonked my nose, the blood flowing freely, my brother and my cousin coming back with me to my grandmother's house to make sure I wasn't dead or damaged beyond repair. Sometimes I can still taste that stinging, invigorating blood in the back of my throat, reminding me of a different time within myself. Always autumn, this time remains. Blackboard clouds bringing winter. My comics in my room -- cloaked in plastic backs, backed by cardboard, safe and protected -- and the closed chambers in my head begged to be opened so that they could let imagination work its wonder. Even lead me, if lucky, to a mental spring and summer whose sunshine would help stain the endless February to follow.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Being ignorant of all things science, I've never understood why it is that potato chip bags are always only half-full, or why fizzy drinks in plastic bottles inevitably have that little gap near the top that leaves you with less liquid than you thought had to begin with, and I realize that the explanation has something to do with air pressure, and volume, and things settling near the opening, and I've never completely bought that scenario, truth be told, figuring, instead, that it was all a carefully prepared ploy by the potato chip companies and soft-drink manufacturers to rob us, the 'valued' consumer, out of our rightful junk-food due, and now I have proof, visible, sustained, observable proof, that such does not have to be the case, that there are companies with the guts and the dignity to fill it all the way to the top, corporate bigwigs and bosses be damned.

Of course, it might not be entire companies that are paving the way. It may, in fact, reside in the hands of one determined, dedicated individual.

Recently I've been buying Magnolia Orange Juice drink, in a bottle, from various convenience stores in the Baguio area. The first time I twisted the lid, I spilled a little bit of orange drink all over my pants. As this is not exactly a rare occurrence in my life, complete klutz that I am, at first I blamed it on myself, but then I noticed: the bottle was full. I mean, filled to the top, full. There was no gap between the lid and the liquid; there was no space; there was 'room for settling'.

I thought this was an isolated incidence.

I was wrong.

For I've now bought half a dozen of these 335ml bottles, and in every case the same thing happens. I twist the lid, and I see, smell, taste that the liquid is filled up to the neck and over the top.

How could this be so? How come I've never encountered such a surprising, satisfying phenomena with any other drink I've bought in the last twenty years?

I soon realized: This is no accident.

Most likely, it's the work of one man. A dedicated worker, yes, but one who serves a higher calling. He knows that it's a crock of shit, this 'leaving-room-for-settling' in the container that the companies keep proclaiming is the reason why they rob us of one sip of liquid in each and every drink we buy from the bottle. It may be only one sip, but one sip added up over millions and millions of bottles shipped world-wide amounts to millions and millions of dollars saved at corporate head-office, money that is undoubtedly being used, even as I write these words, to fund fox-coats for slinky mistresses and posh private schools for bratty kids. There is a worker on some assembly line, in Mumbai or Manila, Tokyo or Toledo, who understands this injustice. He is a good man, a family man, not prone to breaking the law. Not looking to risk his life and livelihood for a better social order. And yet he recognizes that all this waste need not be the case. I'm not sure exactly how drinks are put into plastic bottles at the factory level, but somehow this anonymous man, who wants nothing more from life than the roof over his head and the food on his table and the sun up above which all too rarely shines on his face, given that he has the night shift, has always had the shift, ever since the age of eighteen, and this man, he decides, on a daily basis, to buck the system. To put that extra sip of orange juice into each and every bottle. I don't think he has been caught, this man. And I don't think he craves glory, so I hope I'm not violating his privacy. And yet I cannot let this brave and noble and selfless act of his go unnoticed. Each day he risks dismissal, and jeopardizes the lives of himself and his family, and yet he will not beaten. His pay is meager. He needs the money. His family is relying on him and him alone to keep the wolves at bay. He persists, nevertheless. Always looking over his shoulder. Always keeping one eye on the assembly line, the other looking out for his boss. I don't know if he fills these bottles by hand, and I 'm not able to ascertain whether or not he has reprogrammed the automated machine that does the dirty work. All I know for certain is that he is there, in some darkly-lit factory, sweating, doing what he can to make our juice-drinking lives a little better. When his shift his over the sun is already emerging moment by moment, up, up and away, red and full in an ash-grey sky shifting from dull black to brilliant blue, and he will miss most of the day and most of this sky, asleep on his cot in his hot, cramped apartment. His children are at school. His wife is at work. He smokes a well-deserved cigarette before plumping his pillow and collapsing on his make-shift couch. The day is just beginning but his is already ending. But while the rest of the world chases ever more shallow dreams, vain and empty wisps of pride, he has carved out of life a small crest of dignity that is his and his alone, that he hides, almost hordes. When the moon begins to rise, so will he, and the half-mile walk to his work will seem all the more sweeter because he knows that there is something waiting for him a few minutes away. Something pure that he protects. A bottle, a splash of juice, a space. Endlessly repeated. He will stand all night and imagine the surprise on the faces of those who open his bottles, the shock followed by joy that only comes when something sweet and unexpected lands right in your lap.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


While waiting for the Baguio Immigration Office to open up again the other day after its one hour lunch break, a big, jovial British bloke started to chat me up, asking where I was from and what I was doing here, sounding almost relieved, if not genuinely excited, to hear that I hailed from Canada, and he mentioned quite casually that he had an aunt living in Canada, somewhere in the, where was it, the western part of the country, he believed, Vancouver, perhaps, though one could never be sure, and he smiled contentedly as he talked about how he had lived and worked for many years in Saudi Arabia, and how he had been rather nicely settled here in the Philippines for fifteen months or so with his sweetheart, and he was quite friendly, this chap was, embodying that kind of instant intimacy that seems to unite fellow strangers in a foreign land, and yet all through this short but pleasant conversation on this warm and sunny afternoon, sitting on the newly-painted blue benches next to the Korean restaurant, I couldn't help but think of this friendly, Santa-shaped Englishman as anything other than an undercover C.I.A agent, sussing me out and hoping to recruit another possible asset to his growing portfolio of underground, illicit potential.

Of course, it didn't help my paranoia that the paperback book nestled inside of my blag bag slung over my shoulder was titled: America At Night: The True Story of Two Rogue C.I.A. Operatives, Homeland Security Failures, Dirty Money, and a Plot to Steal the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election -- by the Former Intelligence Agent who Foiled the Plan.

Written by Larry Kolb, who spent twenty years in covert C.I.A. operations all over the world (including the Philippines), the book is an absolutely fascinating account of how he accidentally discovered that two possible C.I.A operatives were planning to somehow link one of John Kerrey's campaign managers with a telecommunications firm linked to Al-Qaida, and thus decisively tilt the American election in the Republicans favor once and for all and forever.

I've always loved a good conspiracy theory; I just like them to be plausible. (I finally abandoned my decades-long belief in the J.F.K.-assassination-conspiracy-industry because I no longer could find it credible, possible, or, yes, plausible.)

This book is plausible.

It's also riveting reading, because it kind of underlines what I've slowly learned for myself, living in Cambodia and the Philippines -- that the government can be corrupt, that powerful people will lie, that money rules the roost, and there's so much more going on underneath the placid surface of public life that to actually uncover the truth is not only disheartening and disillusioning -- it's also somewhat frightening.

This story also pulses with the implausibility of life itself. Months after actually having helped unravel this whole dastardly scheme, the author actually bumps into John Kerrey in New York City, as Kerrey steps out of a hotel. What are the odd of this? Check the tape, Kolb writes. Somewhere, in some forgotten canister in the corner of a dimly-lit room, there would be video tape of a certain day in December (or November, or whenever it was), tape taken from surveillance cameras on New York City intersections, or video from the hotel security camera. Quoting detective writer Dashiell Hammet, Kolb notes that since matter always comes into contact with other matter, there will always be a trail. Anybody and anything can be found.

That's the essence of the book, essentially --- the boring necessity of following random or shady leads, checking mind-numbingly arcane legal documents, sifting through dusty, moldy files. That's how conspiracies are discovered and uncovered; that's how facts are found or forgotten.

It reminded me of Bob Baer's book Fear No Evil, a similar account of an underworld that few of us even imagine, let alone acknowledge actually exists. (George Clooney's C.I.A. character in the film Syriana was modeled directly on Baer.) Both books essentially paint a portrait of a secret world controlled by people doing things we'd really rather not know about, lest sleep itself becomes a cherished, nostalgic memory.

This is not to say these authors are advocating a secrety society covertly running the planet. (Or, as David Icke insists at, a secrety society of lizard-people covertly running the planet.)

No, it's more subtle than that.

It's a world where deals are cut and plans are made that are, quite simply, not told to people. Where different people in different departments of different government agencies do not trust each other and do not trust themselves, and are willing to do whatever it takes in order not to fail, and where simple human, moral concerns are suspect and irrelevant in the cutthroat realm of commece and politics.

Where author Larry Kolb can sit in a meeting with the first George W.Bush and Kolb's close friend, Muhammed Ali (!), and Bush can enlist Ali to secretly go to Iran to talk to the Ayatollah to help close a deal that would release American hostages, with nobody in the political world, the media world, the real world, being none the wiser.

No grand conspiracies; no massive modes of deception and deceit.

Just guarded conversations in brightly lit rooms, and agents being briefed in dark expensive cars as they circle around the city so as to make detection and observation all the more difficult. Just fake names firmly stamped on counterfeit passports.

All very orderly.

And yet nobody is truly looking at the whole, the big picture, the intersecting point where ambitions collide and outcomes are determined.

As Kolk points out, in my favorite, most astute line of the book: The people who are bringing you the War On Terror are the same people who brought you The War On Drugs. And look how that turned out...

The essential point being: There are people in charge, yes, of course, but each individual has their own agenda, usually separate from that of their ostensible employers, and when these agendas collide, as they essentially must, chaos reigns.

Because people are nothing if not chaotic.

Which brings me back to my original point, that of being possibly recruited by the C.I.A. in Baguio.

Absurd, of course.

And yet...

As I wrote in this space a few years back, a Canadian gent the same age as myself I met while dining with other folks at a cafe in Cambodia gradually inquired about my Japanese ability, and then smoothly tried to recruit me into the Canadian version of the C.IA., specifically its international-eavesdropping division. When I emailed the contact person's info he provided, just for the hell of it, just to push the process as far along the path as it could possibly go, the man wrote me back and literally asked: "How did you get this email address? Here's the application information, but don't tell anyone you know who I am or that you've been in contact with me."

After that odd encounter and its aftermath (which my Social Studies class at Pine Grove Public School in St.Catharines most definitely did not adequately prepare me for), and after reading America At Night, with its constant cavalcade of undercover agents, contacts, people-who-are-not-who-they-claim-to-be, can you actually blame me for suspecting the true intentions of a kindly fifty-year old British gent who tried to strike up a conversation with me in Immigration office of a middle-sized city in the northern part of the Philippines?

After all, another middle-aged teacher I worked with here recently informed me that he did a lot of work in Virginia, for a government agency, though he wouldn't tell me which one, and that he had lived on various islands in the Caribbean that I'd never even heard of, doing work for the 'space program', and that Baguio was positively filled with C.I.A. folks, but he wouldn't say why. (There's a substantial terrorist outfit working alive and afloat down in the southern islands, but I thought Baguio was pretty safe. I thought.)

I'm probably being overdramatic.

The day is warm, and the sun is bright, and why not simply let the light of spring guide my way. To dwell in the shadows of life is a dark and lonely business.

And yet.

As I left the Immigration Office, I noticed that the rather large British gentleman I'd talked with a quarter of an hour earlier was stilling waiting for his passport to be processed. In the meantime, wiping sweat from his brow with a white handkerchief, adjusting his black-framed glasses, he started striking up a conversation with the two or three Somali men sitting beside him. Where were they from? How long had they been in the Philippines? Africa, you say? Splendid!

I put my passport in my bag and hurried home.

Sunday, February 01, 2009


How much do you really know about your family?

I'm not talking about the sordid little details that we'd rather not know, but the good stuff, the real stuff, where you come from, and how, and why.

Most of us know very little about the lives of our ancestors, but researching your roots is not as hard as you may think.

Here's a fascinating site that can help you begin to trace your family's history, with an engaging host to guide you along your journey step-by -step:


There's a house at the corner of Santo Rosario Drive in Baguio that I walk by every day on my way home from work, and every day, glancing at the home, at the empty yard that lies to the left of the main entrance, I imagine a group of kids goofing off on a jungle gym that is no longer there.

A couple of years back I taught some kids there for a few months. A winter camp for ESL students from Korea. I remember one specific day in particular. I left work around five to walk home. I glanced at the set of make-shift metal climbers the kids were lazily, languidly draping themselves around. They all looked so young and happy and goofy and great. All the time in the world, they had. They waved good-bye. I waved good-bye. They went back to playing. I headed towards home, hurrying against the quickly falling dusk. I glanced back and told myself to remember that moment.

I often do that: Remember this moment. That's my miniature mantra. I use it to focus myself, to harness my faulty memory so that a particular slice of life will not fall through the creaky cracks of my subconscious. Some moments are so clearly revelatory that there is no need for a forced reminder. Those are usually the monster moments, the life-changing moments, super-sized, the made-for-TV-revelations that soon give way to the inevitable commercial break which constitutes most of our routine lives.

It's the other moments that I tend to stress to myself, to highlight and put in italics, the ones that are ordinary and completely unoriginal in the context of my life, but that nevertheless seem to somehow hint at something wonderful or unusual, ecstatic or gloomy. If I forget this, I will think, then some small part of me will die.

Like those kids on the jungle-gym. They were friends, doing what friends did: fight with each other, laugh with each other, punch each other in the gut and then cry for mercy or forgiveness. I would watch them, and quite often I wanted to take them aside and say: "You have to remember these moments. These silly moments. Because soon you will go back to Korea and you will not see these friends again, perhaps ever. They will go to their city, and you will go to yours, and all you will have between you are these moments of sunshine in the mountain city of Baguio in a country far from your own. There will be moments post-adolescence when you will wake up in the pitch-black midnight dark during a restless night of non-sleep, and you will suddenly recollect the faces of these friends, but their names will be gone, and part of your twelve-year old self will also have been carried away, and so it's crucial that you imprint these moments somewhere inside of you. You are twelve, and the air is warm, and the breeze is cool, and you will never be with these group of friends again. It's important that you link yourselves to them within yourself. Time does not linger."

Of course, I never said such things.

Why would they listen to an old man like me? I think.

And why should they understand? Age eleven, age twelve, have their own sets of rules, most of which I've forgotten in my rush to adulthood.

Almost every time I walk by that house and see that empty yard I think of that moment, though. The jungle gym is gone. Those kids, whose names I can no longer recall, are scattered somewhere across Korea, strangers to each other.

At thirty-three, I sit and type these words. Often I imagine an older man, fifty or sixty, seventy or eighty, wrinkled and old, counting the days of his life. He watches me go about my simple, daily life. Eating dinner and browsing through bookstores and typing in my blog at this Internet cafe on Session Road. He is watching me, this man is, remembering what thirty-three was like so long ago. Skeptical and disheartened by my seeming nonchalance about life itself. He wants to buy me a coffee, and lean in close, and tell me to look around, and take a mental snapshot, and force me to realize once and forever that this is as good as it gets. I imagine him hesitant to approach. "It's okay," I want to say. "Come closer. Tell me what I need to know. Show me the moments I need to remember. I will listen, and I will not laugh."

But he always hurries off without saying a word.

Who would listen to an old man like him? he thinks.

Leaving me alone with my own selfish thoughts, I imagine him leaving my sight, slowly fading with each hesitant step into the soft, tangerine dusk as he shuffles towards the long and uphill incline of Session Road, and I'm somewhat startled to realize that, from this safe distance, he looks almost exactly like myself.

Monday, January 26, 2009


While much of the world (myself included) is going ga-ga for President Obama, I think they're doing it for the wrong reasons.

Yes, he's the first African-American president in history, and yes, he's a welcome antidote to eight long years of Dubya, but everyone is intentionally overlooking the most important aspect of this extraordinary individual:

His left-handedness.

As a fellow left-handed specimen of humanity, I'm thrilled that the Oval Office continues to provide a vibrant, living example of how much us southpaws can contribute to society.

From a young age, we're made to feel like the mutants of Marvel's X-Men. Given 'special' scissors with green handles. Forced to use pencil sharpeners, gear shifts and water fountains callously designed for the right-handed majority. Having no choice but to watch as the side of our left hand smudges blue pen across each and every word we write on line after line, page after page.

And yet, the irony is, lefties have ruled the world for the past forty years.

Whoever sits in the Oval Office is, unarguably, the most powerful person on the planet.

So, let's look at the list:

Gerald Ford?


Ronald Reagan?


George H.W. Bush?


Bill Clinton?


George W.Bush?


That speaks for itself.

Four lefty presidents (sandwiched between Jimmy Carter) and the world did just fine.

And then a righty was once again let into office, and boom! We had eight disastrous years of mayhem.

(And even if Obama had actually lost, I still think America would have been absolutely safe and secure; after all, John McCain is a lefty, too.)

With left-handed President Obama now in office, balance has been restored to the Force, and the universe is once again properly aligned, and lefties everywhere can rejoice.

Although, truth be told, I fear for the future, especially 2012.

Sarah Palin, by all accounts, is right-handed.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Are we really meant to be up there, aloft, afloat?

I think not.

It's a conspiracy, I say.

In fact, I don't think anybody actually hurtles up into the sky at all.

More on this startling realization, but first:

Hearing about the airliner that dived into the waters around New York City, all my anxieties about flying in general (and crashing in particular) bobbed to the surface.

Not that I have all that many hesitations about flying. Some of my earliest memories revolve around flying with my father (who had his pilot's license) in that little plane he steered so skillfully into the skies from the small airport in St.Catharines, Ontario. We would soar in the little two-seater above the streets of my hometown, as he pointed through the window at the little Fisher-Price house that he assured me was my real, actual home that we had left only an hour or so earlier.

Flying that young, in a plane that small, seems normal when you're four or five. (Of course, everything seems normal at four or five. "Eat snot? Let's do it!")

It was only later, years later, that I started to get a wee bit uncomfortable about the whole hovering-above-the-earth-thousands-of-feet-in-the-air thing.

What freaks me out the most is: it never feels like you're moving. In a car, or a bus, or a train, you can look out the window and see cows eating grass and children playing catch and mothers hanging laundry out to dry in the fresh spring air, and you zoom on past them, and your brain starts to wonder who they were and what they were doing, and whether they are happy, and whether they think the same things about you as you hurtle past, your face for them a one-second glimpse-through-a-window.

In a plane, you usually get none of that.

Once the plane takes off (the only really mobile part of the journey, in my opinion), everything after is simply shaking. Jostling. Yes, you can look out the window, and see clouds, and mountains, and various bodies of water bobbing next to each other, but it's all in the abstract. ("That's Alaska? Cool...")

You can't see the frozen breath of a forest ranger as he walks through the woods. You don't catch a glimpse of a little girl's sarcastic roll-of-the-eyes at the latest warning from her mother as they stand on the edge of the highway, scouting out traffic. All sense of proportion is reduced, narrowed, diluted.

The plane shakes, and four, eight, ten hours later, you're in another country. As if you stepped into some kind of science-fictional contraption that bashes you around like fruit in a blender. Like you are not moving at all, in fact, but everything around you is shifting and altering its molecular state.

Perhaps that's what's really happening.

A car-wash world, in which the illusion of movement is necessary to perfect and uphold the illusion itself.

Planes do not lift off at all, I'm thinking.

The universe, instead, rearranges itself, physcially discombobulates its quarks and neutrons, its atoms and cells, folding in on itself until we emerge from the plane, thinking we have moved a great deal, when, instead, the air and space around us has accomodated itself to our geographical desires. A constant, unending Rubik's Cube of a planet that contorts itself to fit our moods and whims.

Which would mean my cherished childhood memory of flying in my father's plane might very well be an illusion. Authentic, yes, yet nevertheless a ploy designed to make a child feel safe and ennobled.

I may never have actually been up there, between the clouds. I was granted the perception of flight, and yet the truth was more mundane: that little speck of a house, which I was told was mine, had been an untruth concocted by my dad, a picture painted outside the window, designed specifically to give me a sense that the world was both smaller and bigger than I could imagine, that I could elevate myself, and yet still see my home from such a great height. That the world could simultaneously be viewed from a vantage point both high and low. We could go from here to there and remain intact; we could see where we came from, even though we were so far away (and above).

How intricate such a plan was!

I did not go up. The world rearranged itself for me and me alone.

An adult's scheme to make a child feel comforted in a vast, cold and disproportionate world.

So that's what it's all about, I'm thinking.

I've got it figured out.

All of these airports and airplanes were designed by adults to make kids feel that they were actually going somewhere.

I mean, come on: who actually believes that thousands of planes are above us, daily, hourly? It's absurd. Much easier to acknowledge the truth -- that when we step onto that plane, and settle into our seats, and fasten our belts, we remain immoble.

I'm waiting for when the truth is finally revealed, via an email, or a midnight phone call, or a knock on my door on a late-winter's morn. The simple message will be delivered by men in black suits and somber ties and silver shades when they've judged that I'm ready for its impact: It's a vast conspiracy, this whole flying thing, something grown-ups have invented to reassure kids that we can move from left to right and yet still maintain a sense of ourselves. That we can somehow control all of our flights and our falls.

The truth is, as we all soon learn, we never truly go anywhere.

(We think we do, yes, and we feel we do, certainly, but the world cannot truly be that wide. Such lateral and horizontal mobility cannot tangibly be that simple.)

The world comes to us, and we make do with what we have before us. Bending the world, for good or ill, to suit our needs, hopes, heartaches and longings. Going anywhere changes nothing; only that which comes towards needs to be confronted, and comforted, and loved. The shaking we feel on a plane is a shoddy replication of what trembles within us on a daily basis, but it invigorates us, this jostling; it makes us feel that we have the power to withstand tension and emerge, more or less, intact.

But: shhh!

Keep it yourself, this knowledge, as you would your mother's secret or your sibling's sickness.

For right now, at this very moment, somewhere in the world, a child is in a small plane with his father, staring down at their family's house, believing that the world can so easily be divided into up and down, large and small. Not understanding, as no child possibly can, that the true journeys we take are always stationary. That the world does with us what it will, and we have to be ready and open to embrace all that stands before us after the shaking subsides, when the final illusion of landing fades away like morning mist.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Have you touched anyone today?

One of the things that infuriates me about modern mass-media and its relentless focus on celebrities' personal lives is the fact that actors are rarely asked anything at all about what they do on a daily basis -- namely, act. How do they do what they do? What choices do they make when preparing a character? Why this or that particular reading of a line? Instead, the reporters ask about the stars' personal lives, and the stars dutifully answer, instead of saying: "Next question." (Of course, if they actually said "next question", they wouldn't appear on the cover of the magazine, and their movie wouldn't be shoved down everybody's throat, and their per-picture salary would go down, and they wouldn't be stars anymore, so they give in and give up and decide to play the game and talk about this or that aspect of their friendship/courtship/marriage/divorce, and then have the audacity to be pissed off at all the media attention, when they've spent the last several years letting everybody know about their girlfriends/boyfriends/wives/daughters/sons/exes etc.)

But I digress.

Michael J.Fox, appearing on Inside The Actor's Studio, actually bucked the trend and mentioned an honest-to-god acting tip, one that I found startling in its simplicity, one that could be applied to all arts, and, indeed, all life, if one so chose.

One of his first gigs after moving down to the States from Canada was a TV movie he made with veteran actress Maureen Stapleton, and she advised him, in every scene, to touch someone. "Physically touch someone?" he asked, and she said no, no, it didn't have to be physically, although it could be. Just touch someone. With your words, voice, intent. Touch someone. It was advice he subsequently thought about in every scene he ever did from that point on.

Touch someone.

I kept thinking about that thought.

I had never been able to articulate what was bothering me about the internet in general, and blogs in particular, and life in even more particular, but that comment kind of crystallized a couple of things for me.

The internet is designed for such high-speed, quick-read access that it sometimes seems so impersonal and glossy and slick and superficial that any real focus, any real meaning is inevitably buried beneath a blizzard of blogs and links and websites and homepages, until the whole ungainly mess begins to appear, more and more, less as a source of information and inspiration and more as a repository for all our half-baked, ill-thought out thoughts and conceptions. Our venom, spite, sarcasm and self-embellishment.

Thinking about the stuff I read, the newspapers and websites, I realized that very few, if any of them, touched me.

Made me think, yes. Made me laugh, certainly.

But moved me?

Actually moved me?

Thinking about life, too.

How we wander day to day through our family and peers, co-workers and strangers. A joke, a wave, a sigh over here; a good-morning, what's up, not-too-much over there. Everybody looking like they're so contented and ready to face the day. Or else visibly pissed-off, barely holding on, suffocating with real or imagined stress. (Which ultimately are one and the same thing, I guess.)

One of the few spiritual gurus that I actually find a) insightful and b) practical is Eckhart Tolle, whose first book The Power of Now I kind of, sort of think is somewhat profound, especially in its focus on the present moment being the source of all power, hope, life. This moment is all we have, and since life is lived in an eternal present -- the past erased, the future never arriving -- the fluid continuum we inhabit becomes all the more precious.

Isn't it depressing that we have to describe athletes and writers as 'being in the moment'? As if it's a rare thing. As if living in 'the moment' can only be attained through monumental diligence, and enacted only under extreme situations of competition, concentration, or duress.

What if we focused on 'the moment' constantly? What if we were conscious of the who we are and what we're doing and who we're doing it to at all times?

It's something I try to do, more and more.

Be present.

Be aware.

Not become caught up in things that are gone, and things that may never be.

Focusing on what is before me, and not judging it, and not cursing it, and not blessing it, and simply allowing it to unfold.

The person serving you drinks at Starbucks. The boring wait-in-line at the immigration office. The mind-numbing traffic jam that inches along, inch by infuriating inch.

All of these receiving equal attention.

A little abstract, I know, but I find it can actually work, this focus on the present.

You start to become more and more aware of not the stuff of life -- the things and the roads and the people and the weather and the ground and the lights -- but the space in which all of these things exist.

And by being comfortable in that space, simply, I don't know, resting in it, you can be aware of how subtly you can manipulate it.

Mostly by touching someone.

Giving them their attention. Deflecting away from yourself. Smiling. Letting the ego descend within. Being conscious of the fact that you can actually alter a circumstance by your words, gestures, actions and comments. You can sometimes bring a miniscule amount of joy, or contemplation, or solace, or levity, merely by allowing others in.

Too often we trudge through life as if we're wearing snowshoes and the whole earth is thick with deeply packed snow. We carefully glide along the top, worrying about falling. Getting stuck. Careful not to press too hard against the ice, fearful of cracking its fragile surface.

Who shall I touch today? I sometimes think. A student? A friend? The person taking my pizza order? Will they notice? Will they even care?

Outside this internet cafe, on this crisp January morning, Session Road is humming along. I can see the KFC across the street, the endless array of white taxicabs slowly driving by, patiently scanning for passengers. A generic pop song floats through the air.

A minor life moment, it would seem.

And yet, I am, as you are, exactly where I'm supposed to be.

Waiting to touch, and be touched.

Saturday, January 03, 2009


"There's obviously a good aspect to competition -- the development of the mind, the body, creativity," Mr.Vanier says. "But there's something where we can walk very quickly on
people -- I want to prove I'm better than you. How to find a world where the essential thing is to work for peace, to work to build something together?" He notes that the United Nations has recommended that the study of non-violence be included on all school curricula.

"I'm amazed that this is not being done. What is more important is that I should go back home and show that I'm better than others...The pain of parents comes when children don't seem to be doing as well as others. Everything becomes competition."

If humans -- part of a strange and immature species that is still only a little more than 100,000 years old -- are still evolving, then what's the next step? We have now reached the level of consciousness, something that dinosaurs, in all their millions of years on this planet, never did.

We know we're going to die, and that troubles us. And so we mask that anxiety in the veil of anticipation, hoping against hope that we will someday be better than those around us. We will become strong because others we will remain weak. We judge our success based on the fact that we are doing better than the person before us and behind us.

But what if we surrounded ourselves continually with those who have no vested interest in that struggle? Who aren't playing that game? Who are what society calls 'weak' to begin with, but who may, in fact, be the metaphorical finger pointing to the destination we as a species have to eventually reach?

If the collective human ego is still morphing over the millieniums into something larger, which I think it is, then the next step must somehow involve an acknowledgement that we cannot continue to judge our own worth as human beings based on how much higher, faster, stronger and smarter we are than those beside us and below us that breathe our same air.

Some kind of symbiosis may be in order, a necessary, mutual realization on the part of all of us that life exists for its own sake, and has not been designed or accidentally developed so that we spend years and years trying to prove our self-worth to indifferent others who are immersed in their own cocoon trying to prove their self-worth to us, with neither side watching the other yet each flank nevertheless futilely trying to impress an invisible, future mass of spectators who could care less.

The meek may not, eventually, inherit the earth, but they certainly can, at the moment, enlighten it.