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My parents recently moved out of the house at 11125-23b Avenue, Edmonton Alberta and returned to England. I spent 1989 to 1993 at this address, as well as six months in 2005-2006, when I was unemployed. Well before my parents’ departure, I boxed up all the stuff I wanted from the basement and shipped it here to Montreal. There was a box of books and a box of my own writing. Everything else went to Goodwill. You can’t afford to be too sentimental about material possessions when shipping is priced according to weight.
Today I looked at a binder of my writing from the year 2000, when I would have been 25. I can see myself struggling in one story to write like my hero, Dostoevsky, and totally failing. I can see myself in another story affecting a hardscrabble tone, describing the life of people living in a trailer park. That one seems more promising, except it is clear I don’t know how such people talk.
Excerpt from “Hijackers of Desperate Hearts”
“I’ll get a nice cool one, Charlie.”
“Not until you clear up your tab.”
“Goddamit! Just one more, Charlie. You know I’m good for it.”
There is one long poem in which I have found a stanza that encapsulates a lot of the fascination I had at the time about the (possible) connection between religion and insanity.
Excerpt from a juvenile poem
a mind that’s come unstuck
from the pull of this heavy planet
and refuses to be bounded.
It lives in absolutes and eternals
every light turns on and it’s a sign from God
to walk his way
yet his way is everywhere
and you can only walk so far
before your blistered feet give up on you
and you collapse in a ditch like a derelict.
People mistake you for a bum that drank too much.
Mostly, my writing from this time reads like a plea for a girlfriend and to get laid more often. So much yearning! If I had to re-live my early twenties, I would read and write a little less and live a little more. But thankfully, I don’t have to go back to that time of life. I can use my writing more competently now as a way of embarrassing myself.
In celebration of National Novel Writing Month, I am writing about a novel that changed my life.
I first read Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles in 2004 when I was nearing the end of my twenties. The notorious misanthropist’s novel of big ideas had already provoked huge controversy in France; his follow-up, Platform, even more so. Houellebecq ended up in court, accused of hate crimes, of which he was eventually exonerated. So before reading him I had some notion of what to expect. Houellebecq’s major literary innovation had been to mount a sustained critique of advanced capitalism in the form of fiction, and in particular, to expose the sexual relations that arise in a society based on relentless competition and glaring inequities.
I was in France at the time of my Houellebecq revelation. One night I went to a nightclub in La Bourboule, a tiny town in the heart of the Auvergne. I was alone; I was a single man. Nightclubs are designed to frustrate the will of people like me. But no matter, there was a pleasant enough fellow, clearly learning impaired, sitting at the bar, and I had the chance to practice my French with him, while occasionally casting lascivious glances at the girls on the dance floor. An hour or so passed and a group of rugby players approached us and for a while made vicious jokes at the expense of my bar companion. When the rugby players turned their attention to me it was to ask if I was a homosexual who was sleeping with the learning-impaired man. They tittered at their own idiotic innuendo. When they left, my bar companion gave me the saddest and most defeated look I ever saw, as if this kind of thing happened to him every day, and announced he was leaving.
I thereupon started to drink heavily, and I approached a couple of girls to ask them to dance, but I was shot down unceremoniously each time. With a sense of rage building in my heart, I decided I’d have to at least do something reckless with my night, so I switched from asking for dances to asking for drugs, approaching the most gangsterish looking men I could find. After only five minutes I had “scored.” I left the club with a young guy who had driven up that night with a small posse from Marseille. He said he had cocaine for me. The cost would be eighty euro. I didn’t have that much on me, having left my wallet in my car.
“Go get the money, then,” he urged me.
I started walking toward my car.
“Run!” he yelled.
When I returned to the club with the eighty euro, people were spilling out onto the street and it was chaotic. It took me a while to find my drug dealer. When eventually I did so, he seemed agitated.
“There are police, let’s go over here,” he said. “Let’s make this quick.”
Sure enough, there was a squad car around the corner, its blue lights pulsing against the outside walls of the club. My heart racing at the prospect of closing this deal, I pressed eighty euro into the drug dealer’s hand, he pressed a white ball into mine, and then urged me, again, to “Run!”
Back at my car, I opened my clenched fist. Inside was a ball of Kleenex in cling wrap. This was an outrage! I marched directly back to the club. By this point, my drug dealer was locked in a passionate embrace with the most beautiful girl in the village. I called out, “Hey! You ripped me off!” The drug dealer glanced over his shoulder like I was a speck of dandruff, and then turned his attention back to the girl.
Of course, with police, gangsters and beautiful girls everywhere, I had no chance of winning my case. I went back to my car defeated.
So after having lived this very Houellebecquian moment, the following night I found The Elementary Particles, and suddenly saw all the most seemingly important themes in life – including my own life – laid bare in the most precise, funny, touching, poignant and daring prose. Here was a story that talked in a disarmingly frank tone about sexual frustration, about solitude, about shame, but also about the thrill in your chest of finally meeting somebody you care about – and about so, so much more.
The Elementary Particles follows the travails of two brothers, Bruno and Michel, abandoned by their hedonistic mother. Bruno grows up to be a moderate success materially but is perennially lonely. His attempt to find pleasure and meaning at a sort of hippy commune ranks among the most hilarious plot-lines of any novel ever written. Michel, meanwhile, is a molecular biologist, who is solving the sex problem in an entirely novel way, by developing ideas that will give rise to a race of post-humans – a perfectly harmonious new species whose members are of no gender but instead have erogenous zones all over their bodies.
The two brothers launch into protracted soliloquies about Aldous Huxley, the human genome project and consumer society. You get great memorable quotations, like, “If life is an illusion it’s a pretty painful one,” or “Tenderness is a deeper instinct than seduction, which is why it is so hard to give up hope.”
I dispatched the entirety of The Elementary Particles within 24 hours. To me it remains the most unputdownable book. It is a novel that has most definitely changed my life, teaching me that fiction isn’t simply entertainment or self-expression but a stage for dramatizing the most important ideas in the world.
Top image: Still from the 2006 German film adaptation of The Elementary Particles
It took me a while to get around to writing about turning 37. Slowing down with old age. Chortle chortle! I was reminded that I wanted to write about this, appropriately enough, during this week’s writing class, when my instructor said that according to some psychologists, adolescence lasts until you are 35. From a very cursory Google search, I cannot immediately find a reference to this. However, I do find plenty of evidence of it in my own life.
One of the adolescent things I remember doing when I was 19 was packing up all my worldly possessions at frantic speed, running out the front door and piling everything into a jalopy and then hightailing it down Edmonton’s 99th Street because I wanted to skip out on my basement suite lease and go live with my girlfriend instead. This operation had the feel of a heist, except that the items I was stealing were my own. While I did this, my landlord was out back in the yard, watering the garden. He never saw me.
A few months later, in the dead of winter, my arguments with my now-roommate and girlfriend had reached a very testing frequency. But, as often happens during such periods of life, we had some great make-up sex. One night, while basking in the afterglow, I asked her if she would marry me. She said yes.
Three months passed and finally my girlfriend’s patience wore thin. She asked me why I hadn’t told my parents that we were, you know, engaged. The truth was, the prospect terrified me. I wasn’t ready. So I broke the whole thing off. And I found myself moving again. One of the few consolations of my new solitude was going back to the jewelry store, where I was paying for a ring on the installment plan, and asking for my money back. A nest egg of six hundred dollars!
When, at 29, I first met the woman who became my true love and eventual wife, I was still very much living for the weekend. I had a Friday night habit wherein I would get blinding drunk at Remedy Café on 109th Street, leave, and dial Pizza 73 from my cell phone. Then I would walk along Saskatchewan Drive and gaze at the blurry lights of downtown. Arriving home, I’d lie down on my couch and listen to my favourite music and then pass out.
Moments later the doorbell would ring. Startled out of my drunken doze, I would run to the door and count out the twenty-five dollars and a tip. “Thank you, thank you!” I’d half-shout to the pizza man, because I’m always so courageously loud when I’m drunk at three in the morning. I would assemble the pizza-and-wings deal on top of my coffee table; always marveling at the little plastic jigger in the shape of a table that separates the top layer (greasy wings) from the bottom layer (greasy pizza).
Around this general period of time, I had a Whiskey Night with a few friends of mine. I don’t know about my friends, but that night got me as pickled as a gherkin. Dave and I departed after midnight in a taxi-van. The driver dropped Dave off at his apartment tower and then headed to Blue Quill where I was temporarily living with my parents due to some fiscal problems. As the taxi-van lurched around the corner of 23rd Avenue, I felt my tummy wobble ominously. When the van jerked to a halt in the drive way, a hot wave of puke cascaded from my lips. My reflexes were too slow to open the van door more than a few inches. Most of my belly-effluent ended up inside the taxi-van and only a few token chunks made their way out into the snow.
Clearly I had not acquitted myself very well. But still being of an adolescent frame of mind, I had to try and make things worse.
“Extra fifty dollars charge for me to clean that up,” said the poor, disgusted cabbie.
“Outrageous!” I shouted. “I am not paying fifty dollars!”
“No sir, you make a mess, you pay.”
“No way!” I insisted. “I will pay you the full fare, and a generous tip, but I won’t be paying a cleaning charge because I will be cleaning this puke with my own bare hands.”
I thereupon handed him all the money I felt I owed him. I hauled open the van door and watched a few more dribs and drabs of my alcohol artshow drip onto the icy driveway. Suddenly I was moving very quickly. I ran to the house, fought with the key in the lock, won that battle decisively, and trooped through to the kitchen where I filled a bucket with piping hot water and some Mister Clean.
Back outside, I began my cleaning operation.
“Your van is going to be as good as new!” I called out to the cabbie.
I always enjoy a bit of manual work.
“There, see?” I called out, a minute later.
The van and the driveway were steaming from the hot water that I had poured liberally all over the place. I doubt the cabbie could actually see my handiwork. He probably wanted to get back to his wife and children.
What a spoilt, suburban shit muncher I must have seemed to him.
Two weekends ago, Monika sprung my surprise birthday present on me – a night at a bed & breakfast in the Eastern Townships – and we departed on a perfect, cloudless autumn day, arriving at the head of a trail called Le Diable Vert at 3pm, and we hiked into the trees, surrounded on all sides by mountains, and after a respectful rest to take in the sound of nothing more than the mooing of a cow, we drove into Sutton and went for dinner at Bistro Beaux Lieux. I got overconfident with my French and ordered Rognons de Veau, thinking Rognons were medallions, and so I ended up eating calf kidneys, which taste how I imagine eyeballs tasting, and the old Bohemian Saint-Emilion-quaffer next to us had a full-throated laugh at my expense, but I didn’t mind, because I knew I’d learned a word I’d never forget. I get off on that kind of thing. Our bottle of wine was very good, and because I was feeling decadent, I ordered a cheese plate. I knew that another bottle of wine was waiting back at the B&B, and not only that – a sauna, a clawfoot tub, a sumptuous bed, and – I’m just warming up to the best part – a night with somebody I want to share my whole life with.
It would be a boring and predictable conclusion if I talked about anything I’ve learned. Mostly I just feel very grateful to have made it this far and to have not exhausted the patience of the many people I care about. I like being 37. I like it a lot. I don’t miss adolescence. The adolescent is alive and well in me. He’s just not puking in cabs any more.
I have been a very reticent blogger. I maintain my sporadic outbursts of political cynicism over at the Paltry Sapien, but here I’ve been silent. Today I’ll briefly interrupt that silence to announce that I have a new job. After 2 years and 2 months of doing some of the most interesting work of my life at McGill, I’m off to pursue new opportunities and fresh challenges at the university just down the road here in Montreal — Concordia University. Also in the “new” theme, I have a new story that I’ve put online. It’s called “The Snapping Turtle,” and it is the shortest short story I have ever written. It isn’t as short as it is because I have become lazy. This story started out nearly 5,000 words, and is now under 1,200. It isn’t at all the same story as the one I started with. Characters and plot utterly transformed by my megalomaniacal self!
I posted a brand new short story here called Fourteen, I’ve posted the Monthly Review’s excellent critique of the Internet and capitalism in the old readin’ room, and I’ve made my first blog in months at the Paltry Sapien, joining the conversation about Occupy Wall Street.
More later as time and enthusiasm permit.
The very, very good news is that I am engaged to be married to the girl of my dreams, Monika Sawka. After more than five years with someone I love more than I feel comfortable expressing on a blog, one morning in early September I gave her a diamond ring. We were in Hawrelak Park in Edmonton, the city where we met, and the plan is to return there next summer for an August 27th nuptial ceremony with oodles of friends and family.
I am among the luckiest men alive.
Further late-summer adventures included a brief trip to Los Angeles, where the matrimonial theme continued for the wedding of my dear friend Teena Apeles to the man of her dreams. It was a splendid long weekend; I enjoyed it and will in all honesty treasure my memories forever, even the memory of finding myself on L. Ron Hubbard Way!
The company of good friends gathered for a festive occasion is something that gladdens my heart every time.
The other news is that my blog is on hiatus. That all sounds pretentious and stupid, as if somehow the blog had been hard at work all this time! Or as if my blog were cool like Fugazi, and believe me, my blog is not even one iota as cool as they are. But it has entertained me writing this thing, and at least two people have stopped by on occasion to watch the tumbleweeds float by, or to hear me yak on about Karl Marx or some stupid idea I had about something. I will return with my Marxist project, I just do not know when.
I am currently up to my eyeballs in work; over the summer I successfully balanced shit, but now I just can’t anymore. Also, I have been working with increasing dedication on another novel. This here is sort of a sign of what is to come, although believe me, the finished product is going to read very differently from this scrap.
I think I might be able to get back to blogging next summer.
For now, here are some photos from the last few months. They capture a certain moment in time so it seems appropriate to leave them up here for posterity for a while. It is a nice opportunity to leave something positive instead of all my usual grumblings and cynical snarks!
After the kind of week that I would hope not to repeat any time soon, I needed some time to myself. So I hit the road yesterday and went back for a solo hike up Mount Mansfield, Vermont, the same peak that Matt and I conquered last week. The morning border crossing was easy as 1-2-3, as Michael Jackson would have said — if he’d braved the countryside in preference to his oxygen tent, that is — and then it was onwards into verdant and lovely Vermont. I reached the Underhill State Park by 10 a.m. and was on my hike shortly thereafter.
With this climb, the fitness level of North Americans appeared to have bifurcated into two very different streams since just last week: the superfits and the supersloths. I even saw one group of men puffing on cigarettes while they moseyed along amiably. Then there was the woman of approximately forty years of age who was literally running along the trail; her walking poles striking the stony ground with the hectic rhythm of a speed addict on a snare drum.
Reaching the very pinnacle of Mount Mansfield (and realizing that Matt and I had been about 10 minutes short of it last weekend), I found a multitude of daytime amblers relaxing and picnicking, and, in many cases, loud-talking in Quebecois. I wanted to yell “Get off of my mountain!” because like every selfish, hippie nature-lover, I wanted that view to myself.
Oh well, I sighed, let’s see what that long ridge over there is all about. So I progressed along the ridge and discovered that it was primarily the preserve of cheats and sloths who had taken the gondola up to the mountain’s other flank. Here were entire families, grumbling ankle-biters included, who wanted all the glory — but none of the gruellingness — of conquering a mountain. My cynical side enjoyed watching a young girl berating her father. “You promised you’d bring food on our next hike… but you didn’t!” She was prostrate on her side, clutching her torso, as if she were about to die.
On the descent, there was one moment — one blissful moment — when the trail entirely cleared up, and I stopped, realizing that I could not hear a single word of conversation, nor even a squeak of a hiking boot or the click of a walking pole. In front of me, New England was laid out like a map. There was a profound and total silence. Aahh, that’s more like it. That’s worth its weight in gold. That is, in fact, priceless.
I’ve never been any place that can rival Montreal for the sheer delight people take in simply being themselves, and Villeray is about the pinnacle of Montreal’s achievement in this regard. At first glance, it’s street after street of brick duplexes and triplexes with the standard winding staircases and rows of maple and Siberian elm and ash trees; very comfortable and completely unpretentious.
You notice just how at home people feel in their streets. They act as if the streets belong to everyone; as if everyone is equally welcome to them. With apparent effortlessness, they enjoy the streets but don’t impede others’ enjoyment.
I still get a kick out of the rough-looking skinny guy who walks up the street with the most exquisite classical music waltzing out from the radio that is either held in his hand or – when he’s not alone – mounted on the back of the wheelchair in which his wife sits, getting pushed along.
I’m a fan of our neighbourhood homeless guy who is always holding the door open for customers at Jean Coutu pharmacy. I think he’s been making money this way for years and years. He has a dodgy leg, a walking stick, a nicotine-stained beard and always a smile on his face.
Today as I walked home from the gym, a boisterous black kid came running down the sidewalk with his arms held out like he was an airplane. He ran a few metres and then turned around and passed me again. He announced this proudly. “I overtook you!” Then his significantly older brother came out of his duplex and walked to his car. “Au revoir, Vincent,” said the little boy to him. “Au revoir, mon petit frère,” said the brother.
On several of the lightposts on the same street, a mysterious message has been taped up – crafted, I think, by a child. It reads (spelling mistakes and all):
Les gorilles ons été menaser en 2008
Une famille d’humain ons adopté une gorille
Lui apprendre à conduire une voiture et autres choses
Les gorilles sont un des plus intelligent des animaux
The gorillas were under threat in 2008
A human family adopted a gorilla
Taught him to drive a car and other things
Gorillas are among the most intelligent of animals
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Villeray
I enjoy the crazy guy who sits outside his apartment on Drolet and conducts all sides of a conversation, replete with peals of laughter, at high volume. Passersby just smile at him. He smiles right back.
Then there’s the guy who sits two blocks down on Berri, always on his porch, drinking beer, wine, or pastis for hours on end – any time of day except for the very earliest hours of the morning. He seems to know a lot of people. One time somebody passed by and said, “Not drinking yet?” To which the guy replied, “No – it’s still too early.” You can see him there Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday and he doesn’t even take weekends off.
I marvel at the old women working in the patisserie on Jarry, two blocks west of St. Denis, who will take five minutes to wrap a three-dollar slice of cake, tying on a ribbon and bow unless you explicitly ask them not to. What a company policy – present every slice of cake like a present!
I love the cat who looks like a bigger version of Banchi, sans tail. The cat doesn’t seem perturbed to have no tail. I also really get a kick out of the cats belonging to my neighbours Marie-Ève and James, all three of whom are fat. The white and grey one likes to climb up the stairs to my balcony and stare at Banchi. He used to slip through my open window and take a nap on my couch or on my bed, but I put a stop to that. Now I leave the window open just a sliver; a waif like Banchi can get through but old fatty can’t! I think that made him cross for a while but now he just accepts it. Just a few minutes ago he was asleep on the balcony with Banchi a few feet away keeping watch over the Villeray alleyway. There’s always something interesting going on there, whether it’s just the breeze rustling the grass, or bumble bees like Zeppelins coming into land, or the neighbours across the way coming out to sun themselves, or children hurtling past on bike or on foot, yelling and laughing.
Three hours south of Montreal by car is Black Mountain, the tallest of the Adirondack Mountains overlooking Lake George. I arrived there yesterday at 10 a.m., parked at the trailhead and embarked on the Black Mountain trail loop, a walk of seven miles. The initial climb through the woods gets steeper and steeper until you burst into the blazing light of a midsummer day and you can see the enormity of the landscape stretching into the distance. The lake is 2000 feet fellow, etched with the white trails of boats, whose movement at first glance is imperceptible; further afield, you see the mountains of Vermont – each successive ridge turned ever more shadowy by the haze of humidity.
At the peak of Black Mountain, a hundred or more dragonflies are dancing on gentle eddies of wind. There is a now disused fire ranger’s tower, adding about another 20 feet to the mountain. It looks like an oil derrick. Did that tiny grey cabin made of wood at one time serve as the ranger’s living quarters? Beside the tower is a much newer addition – a wind turbine. As the breeze ebbs and flows, the turbine’s blades make either a loud slapping sound or turn quiet and sometimes even stop silent.
On the way down there are a few ponds – Black Mountain Pond, Round Pond, and Lapland Pond – as well as patches of marsh, a couple of old wooden bridges, and the reassuring plastic trail markers hammered into the trees at regular intervals. At one point those markers ran out; I spent about 20 minutes by one of the ponds wondering where on earth my trail was supposed to go next. Fortunately there were two young men fishing from a boat in the pond who were able to tell me I’d made the wrong turn about a quarter mile previously and I’d need to go back there and take a different trail. I did this and found the rest of the way unaided.
A particular highlight of the descent was an encounter with a lizard. He/she was merely an inch and a half in length, ambling along as if on a Sunday stroll. My presence was, happily, no cause for alarm. The lizard stopped for a breather and we contemplated each other’s respective existences for a couple of minutes.
By two in the afternoon I had returned to my car. Many more hikers were parked there than in the morning and I didn’t envy them because they’d picked the hottest time for the climb. It must have been over 30 degrees, and very humid. During my walk I had drunk one and a half litres of water – everything I had – and could easily have drunk more.
I took zero photos. Had my camera but the batteries were dead. Typical me. I don’t care. It was pretty much unforgettable with or without photos.
Over here there is a short article about American psychologist and philosopher William James’ wanderings in the Adirondacks over a century ago. He tackled Mount Marcy, which is 5,343 feet to Black Mountain’s 2,646 feet. At the time, James was reportedly seeking a brief reprieve from academic life. He was about to deliver a series of lectures at the University of Edinburgh, with which, according to the article “he hoped to cement his reputation — and that of American philosophy — and demonstrate his belief that the psychological and philosophical study of religion should focus on the direct personal experience of numinousness…”
That night, after summiting Mount Marcy, he could not sleep, and he went outdoors and looked at the stars and the moon, and had – you know – one of those moments that only Nature can provide. After that “he understood spiritual reality not as a concept, or as something privileged, but as an unexceptional property of human consciousness and a fact of life.”
I’ve not read a single page of William James (but I sure like The Turn of the Screw by his equally famous brother, Henry!), nevertheless, this is one of those nuggets of revelation that stands out like an epigram to me, from which in my quintessentially pretentious way I can find all sorts of meanings for my own life.
Whenever I spend months and months – even years now – living apart from any sort of experience of the sublime, something troubling is going on in the soul, but I find I can’t put my finger on what exactly it is until I’m there again, on Black Mountain, experiencing things that are not just sublime but surprising (who knew there’d be a small swarm of dragonflies; who knew lizards don’t always run away) and I become aware that no matter what I’ve learned over the years, my mind still labours in predictable ways, and its labours become burdensome to me. Only that assault on my senses (and I mean assault non-violently) achieved by Nature can wrench me out of the trap of my own self.
What if the spiritual really were “unexceptional” and a “fact of life”? What if it were just as important and as central to my existence as breakfast cereal, my apartment, and a day in the office? Leftists like me have a highly ambivalent relationship with spirituality – despising the bigotry and cruelty seen too often in dogma, and equally reviling New Age mysticism, and hugging trees and similar bullshit – and so often spirituality seems like something to phase out of life altogether, or to just be indifferent about. But what if I could be seeking something that is not some affirmation of myself – “I am one with the tree, hence a more advanced being” – nor a prescribed moral code, per se – but rather the oxygen of outside forces? I knew in my soul yesterday that I needed to go up Black Mountain alone; I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Talking and reading and writing – which I do all my goddam life! – are sometimes so tiresome. You find yourself predicting your own next sentence sometimes. And the Metro is predictable, even when it breaks down, and the city streets in their grid constantly corral us left and right. All of these things are well and good – we need them – but speaking only personally here, I still end up feeling trapped. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the countryside. Whatever spirituality is, surely there is an aspect to it that resides only at the tops of mountains or in the vastness of oceans, and defies comprehension. And that is exactly what is so freeing. At the top of Black Mountain, here is something I do not have to understand, I do not have to solve; I do not even have to converse with it.
No wonder there is a fellow who chose to be buried there. A wooden sign tells passersby that Black Mountain is where his heart belongs.