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There has been consternation swirling around the issue of cats recently at my Verdun residence. The cats in question are called Ebene and Giroffle, and while not controversial figures themselves, they have generated no small amount of consternation on my part. My relations with both cats have been amicable, especially in the last few months. Giroffle, who was reticent at first, was slowly emerging from his shell and venturing into my bedroom with increasing frequency. This was not a problem. I like cats. I would never say, “Get out of here, Giroffle,” or even, “Get out of here, Ebene.” I mean, Ebene has been like a buddy to me in these times of relative solitude on the homefront.
However, the improved relations with felines became the very source of my later consternation. Antoine, my Quebecois roommate, had been leaving every Thursday morning to go ski and practice guitar in the rural quiet of the Laurentides. He did not come back until Mondays — sometimes even Tuesdays. This left me the sole custodian of the cats’ emotional wellbeing for 4-5 days at a stretch.
On day one, the cats were OK. By day 3, they would start to become agitated. By days four and five, they would turn into mad little monsters, tearing around the place, fighting and seething with resentment at their enforced loneliness. They would venture into my bedroom, hoping for me to engage them in some tummy rubbing, which would distract them from their emotional distress. But there is only so much tummy rubbing I can provide. By midnight, I’d be ready to enter the Land of Nod. But the cats weren’t ready for me to enter the Land of Nod. No. It didn’t matter to Ebene and Giroffle that I had assignments due the next day or presentations to prepare or what have you.
This sad state of affairs reached a boiling point after a particularly sleep-deprived weekend about 14 days ago. I told Antoine that we had to find a way to placate the cats. He was sympathetic to my cause. Maybe he noticed the bags under my eyes.
When Antoine goes away, he now takes the cats with him. And when weekends come around, I sleep in calm and quiet.
Every story needs a point of view. For a while, I have been struggling with the question, “Should I tell stories from my own point of view?” In my journalistic writing, I have normally answered “yes!” to this question. I then embark on a process whereby I attempt to explore an issue – psychogeography, photoromans, driving across Canada – through a process of discovery. I try to take the reader with me on a journey (sometimes quite literally) and as I learn things, the reader also learns things. This technique sometimes hinges upon self-deprecation wherein I cast myself as the naïve innocent who gets inducted into a strange new world.But sometimes I feel things are getting old. I need to shake it up. I don’t understand somebody like, say, the Edmonton Sun’s Graham Hicks who writes the same kind of column week after week, year after year, becoming a parody of himself. For many years, Neil Waugh was another example of the same tired cliché.
The bigger problem, though, is the very idea of a “self.” The notion of a “self” is arguably a fairly new one. It was constructed around the idea of individual freedom. The notion that there is a “self” that stands in contrast to the “state” or “society” or even the “family” is quite unique in human history.
Once we accept the notion of a “self” we are liberated to exploring what kind of self each of us wants to be. That’s a pretty heavy burden, and not one that a medieval serf toiling away in the fields all day would have to countenance.
Trying to figure out what kind of self to be is an exercise fraught with peril. It might, for example, lead one to fabricate stories for the purpose of looking better than one really is. Hillary Clinton pretending to have arrived on an airfield in Bosnia amidst a hail of bullets comes to mind. Or it might lead to one fabricating stories in an attempt to convince oneself of something. I imagine the Clinton example again: what if she has actually half-convinced herself that the gunfire-in-Bosnia story happened? What if she has half-convinced herself that she is a heroic leader and a safer choice in a time of war than Obama?
There are also stories that perform no apparent outward function at all. For example, I might walk around all day reliving an event from years ago, convincing myself that I am a loser. While I have this mindset, “I am a loser,” my inner narrative is ostensibly hidden, but it colours what I do and the choices I make. The longer I tell myself the same narrative, the more profound its influence will be.
Now, some people in recent years have helped me to form a narrative about myself that not only colours my own view of myself, but also colours my writing. Some people think I am funny.
Let me say this, I am not funny. That is to say, I am not a funny person. I am, in fact, deadly serious. It is very rare that in my private moments away from everyone that I’m smiling and having a laugh. There is nothing inside me that feels intrinsically funny. In fact, I think my spirits tend more toward thoughts of tragedy than the relief of comedy.
So when the question of how to write resurfaces, and what point of view to employ, this unfortunate narrative that “I am funny” taints my writing process. If I write as somebody expecting to be funny, then I employ a “self” that doesn’t reflect reality. It’s a bit of an act, to be honest. However, putting on an act is what we do all day, every day, because as liberated “selfs” we are aware that our very personalities are – to a certain extent – constructs. We are engaged in constructing our personalities whether we’re writing or simply talking to another person. Rare is the day when we’re truly raw and real. I’ve been raw and real with my bestest bestest friend, sometimes with my family, and often with my girlfriend. But I would not be that way here, and I certainly wouldn’t be that way in a story – especially one that I wanted to publish.
The notion of “being yourself” then, to me, is a bit of a sham. It’s not true that when we turn our hand to writing that we – as writers – simply need to find our voice, express ourselves, and be real. The “self” only has a meaning in terms of its relation to other selves. So I construct a self, as a first person narrator, that I believe will accomplish two goals:
a) relate to the audience
b) convey the content appropriately
In my most recent Edmonton Journal article, I simply removed myself from the story entirely. In a piece about the music industry, there seemed no point for me to be there at all.
Now, however, I face an exercise where I must write from the first person point of view. I must write a column. It’s only for class, but because I’m a deadly serious person, I take it deadly seriously. I have no idea what to write about. There are many issues and activities of interest to this self-indulgent “self” that I call ME. I’m just not sure which me is going to be writing today.
One of Montreal’s many charms is the opportunity it offers for wandering around vast areas of urban blight and decay without facing the risk of getting stabbed or shot on gangbanger turf, which is the risk you’re taking (so I hear) if you try similar walks in Detroit or Buffalo and other rustbelt towns of America.
Today I embarked on a totally aimless walk, starting from my home in Verdun, taking in Point St. Charles, Griffintown and Old Montreal. It was such a great walk it made me damn near euphoric. What a city! What surprises and marvels await the psychogeographer on almost every corner! Much of the route was familiar, but much of it was new — especially the parts through Point St. Charles. Let me reiterate how many churches there are in this city. In Point St. Charles alone I counted at least six. Several of them were tall and imposing, their stone facades elegantly aging from years of harsh Montreal wind, snow and rain.
Point St. Charles and Griffintown were Canada’s first industrial slums. Back in the 1800s, thousands of Irish immigrated to these neighbourhoods every year. The peak of immigration came during Ireland’s terrible potato famine. You can learn more about the history of these neighbourhoods here.
My walk reached its dizzying heights during the 15 minutes or so that was spent traversing part of Griffintown and then entering Old Montreal around McGill street. There are very few cities in the world — perhaps none — that offer such rapid and striking contrasts. In Griffintown there are wooden buildings literally collapsing to the floor, old brick factories in various states of disuse and decay, and then a few refurbished buildings converted into lofts, and just a few smouldering embers of community… The Darling Foundry… Some multimedia firms… An eatery here and there… But not a bus or metro in sight! Then, just a stone’s throw from all this, you enter the beautiful and well-preserved splendour of Old Montreal, with its sophistication and grandeur culminating in the silver dome of Bonsecours Market.
Oh yes, and back in Griffintown, there are old stables in the neighbourhood, did I mention that? And tiny little houses standing proudly amidst nondescript warehouses. Oh, and then the Bonaventure Expressway looming over it all, cutting the area violently in two… Yes, it’s ugly, but the sheer chaos of it also has its own kind of beauty.
Haven’t written for a few days because I didn’t feel like it. That’s right. For no discernible reason, I feel indisposed. I am angstful and a bit down on life. Maybe it’s the end of winter blues; maybe it’s because I’m missing my girlfriend so much; maybe it’s homework; maybe it’s getting a few bad grades; maybe it’s all of the above.
Whatever it is, that’s all I want to say for today.
The only thing I know for sure is that I will say one thing one day only to second guess it the next. Thinking about Saint Patrick’s today this sunny afternoon, I wonder, who am I to rain on their parade? 300,000 people let off some steam and to my knowledge, no one got hurt or maimed. Maybe it’s good just to let people blow off some steam every now and then. Why am I such a killjoy?
My second guessing is probably the reason why I would make a horrible academic. When I engage with theory, I get a strong emotional reaction to it. For example, I am wading through the feminist theorist Donna Haraway right now. I cannot intellectually engage with this material at all. All I know is that I instinctively disagree with her on the ability of people to think their way into an altered state of being. I instinctively disagree with her attack on the family. In reading the brief biography of her life, I learn that she married a man around 1980, thereabouts, and that he turned out to be gay. Then she ended up living in Healdsburg, California, with her gay husband, his lover, and somebody called Rusten. A commune of sorts. And I am left wondering about all the practical questions that the author of this Donna Haraway book left unanswered, and because they’re unanswered, maybe Haraway gets credit for being more trailblazing than she really is.
For example, was she ever sexually attracted to her gay husband? Was he sexually attracted to her? Did they have sex? And what about this Rusten person? Why isn’t Rusten’s gender ever identified? Were Harway and Rusten lovers?
Several years into the Healdsburg commune, both Haraway’s husband (by now, ex-husband) and his lover were dead from AIDS.
I am not attempting to say anything here. I just can’t come to terms with theory books when — even in their attempt to provide helpful biographical material — leave obvious questions unanswered. Because the thing is, people don’t generally think of their lives in conceptual terms. They think in tangible realities.
They think, for example, of all the orphans in Romania who were emotionally stunted because they never had the physical love of a mother or father. They might think of their own life — of being denied the love of a parent or another family member — and it might well effect their comportment for the rest of their mortal days. These examples illustrate to most of us that families are pretty important. Then Haraway comes along saying this:
“I am sick to death of bonding through kinship and ‘the family,’ and I long for models of solidarity and human unity and difference rooted in friendship, work, partially shared purposes, intractable collective pain, inescapable mortality, and persistent hope. It is time to theorize an ‘unfamiliar unconsious,’ a different primal scene, where everything does not stem from the dramas of identity and reproduction. Ties through blood — including blood recast in the coin of genes and information — have been blood enough already.”
I peruse that and then I think, “Who the hell are you? How dare you conclude that it’s time to theorize anything? Based on what evidence?” Just because blood has been spilt, you think we need to try something else? There is plenty that’s noble and beautiful about the family. Indeed, let’s read about one of the biggest tragedies in recent history — the Holocaust — and see whether the sacrifices people made for their wives and children were examples of “bonding through kinship” that could justifiably make someone sick. I call a whole load of bullshit on this theorizing, Dr. Haraway!
Yes, there are many things that I do NOT know for sure, but I know that one of the most important and enduring human qualities is the love for a partner, a child, a mother or father, and that this love is often the only thing that fortifies us against the many miseries of daily existence. You will rarely find a human behaving more altruistically than when he or she is doing something for somebody they love.
When I was growing up in England, no one celebrated St. Patrick’s Day. Now it seems that everyone celebrates it, including, apparently, the English. Here in Montreal, a massive parade has laid seige to downtown for most of the afternoon. Despite being half Irish by blood, I must admit that I don’t like St. Patrick’s Day!
I’m not sure what there is to celebrate about men and women stomping around yelling, screaming and getting drunk at eleven in the morning. And I’m not sure what is so special about Ireland. I can’t think of any other country that has been singled out in such a way. I’m also not sure how it’s supposed to be flattering to the Irish that they get depicted as a nation of drunks.
St. Patrick’s strikes me as one of the most loutish and fruitless holidays on the whole calendar. It is the only holiday that has drunkeness as its prime objective rather than a by-product. Far be it from me to decry drunkenness, but should there be a day devoted to it? Moreover, should it be acceptable behaviour to be drunk in the middle of the day?
Bah humbug on it! That’s what I say.
While young people stormed the street outside (and one even threw a snowball at a window) I was inside the printshop trying to get my project, Captain Mylander, into a presentable form. For reasons unbenownst to me, some of the photos have not printed out correctly. I changed image quality and tried reprinting, but this did not correct the error. This is a quandary, given that the very same photos printed just fine on lower-grade paper about a month ago. Tomorrow, when the good-for-nothing Concordia Graduate Student Association reopens its computer lab, I am going to try printing from there.
Thankfully, most of the images turned out OK. Overall, I am happy with the project. I am happy that I finished it. Lord knows I sacrificed a lot of time that could have been spent on school.
To start with, I served myself a Yoplait vanilla yoghurt cup and a banana, washed down with a glass of water. Thus fortified, I had the strength to make myself some coffee, using my roommate’s Italian espresso maker. While I savoured this coffee, I could not resist also tucking into two tasty slices of toast and cherry jam. A sheer delight! Polish jam is exquisite, and I’m indebted to my girlfriend, Monika, for introducing me to it.
During my morning class, there was a fifteen minute break. As I hovered in front of the cafe on the main floor of the communications building, I debated whether or not I should buy a large chocolate chip cookie. This debate was resolved in favour of the cookie. I also enjoyed a cold Ocean Spray Cranberry Cocktail. I like cranberry juice, make no mistake.
For lunch, I had almost an entire head of brocolli — just like that. That’s because maintaining healthy iron levels is important to me. I also devoured two small sandwiches, both of which were made up of cheddar cheese, cucumber, and tomato. I had prepared these at home earlier. It’s good to be prepared, foodwise, for a long day on campus.
Dinner… well — no messing around with a fancy dinner — I just made myself a gigantic spinach salad. It was so gigantic that it filled the entire salad bowl. Complimenting the main ingredient (spinach) were onions, red pepper, feta cheese, dill, and parsley. And of course, olive oil and red wine vinegar. So as to entirely satiate my demanding tummy, I also had a few slices of toast along with some Vegepate. For dessert, I helped myself to another Yoplait vanilla yoghurt cup.
Before coming to the computer lab just now, I had another encounter with the infamous chocolate chip cookie, with which my conscience must wrestle often. Not one large cookie this time, but rather, four small ones, accompanied by a delicious glass of cold milk. These were baked by Teena. It was very nice of Teena to make these for Ed and me. Food bringing people together — that’s what life’s all about, eh?
All in all, today constitutes a fairly enjoyable day from a food standpoint. True, there have been better days. But it behooves me to remember that there have been vastly inferior days, too. Roughly fourteen years ago, I was living in the Arlington apartments in downtown Edmonton when I was foolish enough to leave some ground beef out on the counter for several days. After the ground beef had aged appropriately, I came home from work one evening and made chili out of it. After eating this, I became very nauseous. I proceeded to vomit about twice an hour for the following fifteen hours. I had a high fever and slipped in and out of a delirious doze.
As one can tell, the diversity of one’s potential food experiences is no less than the diversity of life itself.
Have you met Emily the Bell Mobility Robot? If you have any problems with your Bell mobility service, questions about billing, or want to make a payment, Emily will help you out. She is articulate, diplomatic, and never swears. It was only mildly annoying that she mistook my words “FAB FIVE” for FAX NUMBER. This has not severely impaired our longterm relationship. But I must admit, talking to Lisa the Live Human Being was overall a more pleasant and less frustrating experience. Has Bell done some market research to determine whether customers respond better to Emily as opposed to an unnamed robot? And what made them choose the name Emily as opposed to Gertrude? Or Heinrich?
Yesterday was a busy school day. I gave a presentation about my favouritist magazine EVER. Later in the day, I gave yet another presentation, this time about reasonable accommodation in Quebec. Then I enjoyed Tofu Tuesday, a tradition established here in Montreal several months ago by Teena, Ed and me, and other people who join us on a revolving basis. Then I went to the Miami on St Laurent and had some drinks with my buddy Cyrus. Then I took the last Metro home and retired to the comfort of my bed.
Today I typed an email in French. It was addressed to my future employer! I only made two mistakes according to my friend Selin. I missed two accents, one over the word preciser, and one over the word deuxieme. Thankfully, we caught these mistakes before hitting SEND.
Right now I am goofing off, writing this, while oodles of work waits patiently to be attacked by me.
The fair city of Montreal has almost entirely ground to a halt. Cars are spinning their tires uselessly in all of the fresh snow. In Mile End this afternoon, I saw a large bagel delivery truck and about 10 cars stuck at a four-way stop. They were trying collectively to figure a way out of the standstill. Normally the street would have two lanes, but today it barely has one. The snow is piling up on the sidewalks, on the streets, and into huge snowdunes, some of which are craggy, some of which are swept smooth by the wind.
It is as if we’re going through a small crisis. There is an air of bemused consternation in the air. If you can’t laugh at it, you’re going to be very frustrated quickly. Of course, I have the luxury of laughing more than most. I don’t have a car. I’m not getting stuck on a regular basis and having to conduct a mini-marathon snowclearing session every time I want to excavate my means of locomotion.
My car is thousands of miles away in Edmonton! (But not for long).
Another entity grinding to a halt? Me. At least yesterday. I was recovering from the previous night’s celebratory drinks. I lazed around almost the entire day and marvelled at the weather. Today, I don’t really regret a thing. Nope!
I’ve got a job! I will not have to forage for food in dumpsters! Starting in mid-April, I will be a communications coordinator for a company in St. Eustache, 40 minutes out of Montreal. I will be paid decently. I will be able to continue sinking roots in this great town. Yeah!
My girlfriend celebrated her birthday yesterday. She took delivery of my gift and called me today to say she loved the gift and she loves me. Yeah!
I will be back in Edmonton in one month and will see friends and family and my girlfriend and life will be blissfully happy for a few happy carefree days. Then I will put my little Golf on the road and turn it towards the east, for an epic cross country trip back to Montreal. I am looking forward to this trip. It takes about three days. I’ve done it twice before. It’s pretty overwhelming to see the enormity of this great country. CBC radio sure helps pass the hours and hours and hours spent alone. I like CBC radio.
I am swamped in school work, even more swamped now that I know I have to finish it all in exactly four weeks. But I don’t mind. I’m a Montrealer now. It’s official. I am a proud resident of what I consider to be the best city on earth.