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.