Sunday, February 27, 2005

An eye for the absurd

Something walloped my brain a few days ago as I waited for the subway. It struck me that this would make an excellent departure point for one of those non-sequentally plotted films: you know, where the camera zooms in on, say, the old lady pushing her wheel-bag just over my left shoulder, and then the movie traces out (discontinuously, of course) her story: from her graduation from Havergal Collegiate in 1963, to a scene where she throws out her trucker boyfriend from a seedy apartment building in Dallas-Fort Worth, to her pained browsing of the fruit market just a few minutes ago, to three hours from our departure point, where she is busy hurling racist insults at a Chinese exchange student in Tim Horton's. We then have a time-lapse scene of Steven Chang's life which compresses the death of his father from asbestos mining in Hunan, him failing to woo a pretty girl in his high-school Marxism class, him throwing up from turbulence, him trying to order a hot-dog from the Bulgarian vendor in front of Sid Smith and failing, him wandering the streets impassive but jealous of the group of friends laughing and joking. That night he will buy himself a bottle of wine and finish it. We fast-forward thirty years, as he tries to sell an ancient hybrid car to a skeptical couple. We then return to the subway station, where we see three (two female, one male) teenagers ascending an escalator. The guy is hitting on one girl, but the other one is playing interference. An argument erupts. In American Sign Language. At the top of the escalator, another teenager is distracted by the ASL exchange long enough for his "girlfriend" to save up the incident as proof of negligence. That night she throws a teacup at his X-Box. Shot of girl running down the street at 3 a.m.. He falls asleep masturbating. The next day, he forgets to check a 16-year-old's ID at the LCBO where he works. That 16-year-old turns out to be the granddaughter of the old lady we entered with. The 16-year-old's night of whiskey-guzzling starts a chain of events that culminates in a candlelight vigil at St. James' Cathedral for the speedy recovery of Esther Barthes, one of the congregation's great patrons. But the camera is not concerned with that: oh no, it is following a water-strider that somehow ended up on the church's eavestroughs. It is ejected down that tube that drains the eavestrough and ends up crushed by the Bulgarian hot-dog lady, who is running to try to beat the deadline on her sociology essay, and then she has to stop by her Annex apartment to feed Michael, her wolf-hound, then go grocery shopping, then she can rest for half an hour and then go to work. Across the street, a scrawny Chinese fellow is ogling her. That night, he and Steven are laughing hysterically from the JD at the subway platform, waiting for a last train that will never come, but the clearly Taiwanese station attendant will not tell them...

And so on and on.

Consider: "When listening to lyrics in a language you can't understand, the music is greatly enhanced, if only because there is the possibility that the lyrics are not trite, cliched, sentimental, or insipid. Take, for example, Jaan Pehechaan Ho by Mohammed Rafi. I have no desire to know what he is saying. But that's some quality Indian rock n' roll."

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Tales of the streetcar, part 1

The other day it (the streetcar) arrived unusually quickly, by which I mean it was going so fast that it was inconceivable to me how it could come to a stop on our stop. As it turned out, it stopped, but about ten meters further up the track than it was supposed to. Us weary commuters had to shuffle over with all our packs burdening us down. As we went around the turn, the driver warned all the people that were standing to hold on really tight. He proceeded to take the curve so sharply that it brought a smile to my face, it was so ridiculous. As we descended a hill, it was very much remniscent of a roller coaster. I am not exaggerating this in the least. I think thge reason he was going so fast had to do with the man up front holding a large bouquet of flowers. As we reached the subway stop, the driver said that he had two minutes to catch the subway. I suppose one could extrapolate a reasonable account of that back-story, and the ensuing gripping tale of love and betrayal, of frustration by public transit and the triumph of the human spirit over tunnels and iron and crowds and impersonal train schedules, but I will not. Probably because it didn't happen.

Consider: "everyione takes it as axiomatic that A is A. But what is not so obvious is how we determine that A is.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005


This has been a week of the strangest shifts in mood and circumstances. I've gone from ridiculous exuberance to formless anxiety, gone from feeding the cat to listening to interesting but uncalled-for facts from people's personal lives, gone from sitting in front of the TV like some exalted vegetable to scurrying up the steps of institutions feeling all jittery and sinister and successful.

Nothing but life experience can really make us interesting people. What most people miss is that the experience does not have to come from personal experience. Sometimes listening very hard and carefully is good enough. I have nothing specific to add to this--yet.

I've been considering adding an irrregular feature to this "blog", this organically growing electronic beast that runs me more than I run it. But I digress. I've been thinking of posting one-paragraph summaries of great works of literature I finish. It'll get me reading more and allow some people to comment on my interpretation. Ideally. Currently I'll see if I can compress all eight hundred monstrous pages of The Brothers Karamazov into 200 words.

Consider: ""Nature does nothing uselessly", said Aristotle. Bullshit! I like calling bullshit."

Sunday, February 20, 2005


We live very regimented lives. (Actually, I just happen to live one, and I'm generalizing, perhaps beyond what I'm entitled.) The only thing I can really say is that I'm not regimented about is my writing. (My personal writing, not stuff that's read by others--this included--or essays and reports and the like. They actually make me angry and sometimes depressed.) When I'm hacking away at the keyboard, I can be anywhere. But there's a down side: my inspiration comes and goes at the strangest times, as is beefitting the only surely tempestuous thing in my life. Sometimes it is therapeutic, helping guide me with an outstretched hand away from anger and other such feelings. Sometimes it is self-loathing in the extreme--and it is very good at it, wearing me down with its relentless logic. It's nice when it can be witty, but that is rare. And there are weeks and days when it just up and leaves, and leaves me a panting mess of meat on the sidewalk or subway platform. On days like that a subway platform is just that; that raving lunatic three seats over is merely a nuisance, all my failures are nothing but ulcers waiting to happen, and all my stories just some slimy tongue restlessly beating about the confines of its mouth. There is no telling how long the dry spell may last. But my writing comes back to me, and we make up. Maybe I'm a chump; maybe I need to assert my needs--daily word counts, finish a story per week, etc.--or maybe I just need to let it continue being the great unregulated, untamed abode of the freedom the rest of my life dares not emulate.

I think I'm one step closer to understanding why the really good novelists ended up miserable alcoholic suicides. (Part of it has to do with the rise of the audio-visual generation and its strange drugs, but that's getting way ahead of myself and almost obscure. Maybe one day I'll actually end up on this topic.)

Consider: "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

Friday, February 18, 2005

Knicknacks for macaws

In our modern world--inundated as it is with internet auctions and credit cards, not to mention cold, hard cash--we lose sight of the very essence of reciprocity that governs all ouf our economic interactions. What made me write that was an unusual event yesterday which re-introduced me to the underground, and dare I say much more human, world of bartering.

I've already mentioned how they chopped down my tree, those demonic city workers. Well, today one of our neighbours talked to me and asked if we were doing anything with the wood. I should mention, just as filler, that he was an Italian, one of those fellows who is surely named either Luigi, Anthony or Gino, (It would be inconceivalbe that his mother woudl have named him anything else.) I said that we had no use for the tree, at which point he offered to take our wood. He would, of course, offer something for our minimal trouble: a bottle of whisky.

I guess it's not that unusal, what with the price of firewood being what it is (I have no idea). He decided to make the most of the resources he had to work with, to bypass the huge box-shaped stores and surly delivery drivers and whatever else.

So, I guess I'll mourn for my tree with that bottle of whisky. Funny how things proceed sometimes.

Consider: "It is better that a man should tyrannize over his bank balance than over his fellow-citizens. And while the former is sometimes denounced as being but a means to the latter, sometimes at least it is an alternative."

Monday, February 14, 2005


I've come to the very tentative conclusion that in order to write poetry, you absolutely must believe in some form of higher power. You must believe that the words you record or stay up into the night chanting have some significance beyond passing that very night, or tickling certain areas of your brain in lieu of human contact. The lovely poetic imagination is something that sustains, but if there is no higher power, it can have no more comfort to the individual than a hand placed on the shoulder tenderly (and uselessly) in the face of frightening circumstances. The suffering in poetry is kept a level above real suffering; even the grittiest poetry I've read romanticizes self-destruction or the event in question as something inherently beyond. You know: the trampled whore is a holy symbol of innocence lost, the drunk reeling in the gutter a spiritual seeker--a Buddha in his own right, and so on. If a realist brand of poetry ever chose to disregard that implicit Deism, or Pantheism, or whatever, it would become indistinguishable from journalism. I struggle with that on my pseudo-intellectual high horse, but if we just open up the neocortex and look under at the limbic system, there is no paradox at all. The unbeliever and egoist can enjoy the poetry and feel the music without interference from the Chaos Within.

Art will save the world. That is an intuitive claim. All forms of art push is in the direction of the more humane, whether gently or shockingly. And it will not do so by reason; reason will do the real work of saving the world, but without an emotional input--without the quiet intensity of a musical piece, or a funeral hymn, or an installation art piece, or a paly mocking the powerful--mediated by art, our science will turn entirely to weapons and money and shameless careerism withour concern for what is too far. Art is ritual in more acceptable form; since we can't abide religion (or choose exactly which one), we'll settle for the broad artistic approach. Maybe art will not save the world, but it must try.

Quote from a seven-year-old: "Love is when you tell a guy you like his shirt, and then he wears it every day."

Friday, February 11, 2005


Here we go again: more tortured literary allusions relating to some aspect of the day-to-day existence of a fairly well-to-do Western human. Too often we think that we live at the end of history, that all we can do is sit back calmly and reflect somewhat dispassionately on ages past, and cultures we believe to be stuck in ages past. I, at least, don't realize how much of what goes on can be given in terms of cultures and modes of thought that should be dormant. (Honestly, how often do we see fire and brimstone raining on gay villages? Or wives turning to pillars of salt? No, our disasters tend to involve watery death from below or flesh-wasting viruses.)

Anyway, back to the main tack. They took my oak tree. This morning, city workers came and I was woken up by the sound of chainsaws. I ignored those and tried to sleep, but I could not ignore the hollow thumping when the branches came crashing down. What's worse, they didn't finish the job, leaving the once robust (now admittedly sick) tree an emacated trunk with three or four branches sticking up. It looks like one of those beach umbrellas that's been inverted by the wind, and then had its cloth covering stripped away. And tomorrow they will come and uproot it. They will reach down to the very base of the tree (to a place not even the Gods themselves have power over) and leave my yard with a crater.

What kind of tree should follow? I don't think I'm ready to make that kind of decision.

Consider: "I hung on that windy tree for nine nights wounded by my own spear. / I hung to that tree, and no one knows where it is rooted. / None gave me food. None gave me drink. Into the abyss I stared / until I spied the runes. I seized them up, and, howling, fell."

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

There is no "tree" in "amygdala"

All right, I adimt it: I've lost it just a little bit. A few too many nights of light sleep and a few too many coffees and a lack of social interaction combined with too much fretting about the existence of God (thanks for nothing, Dostoyevsky, you bastard!) have me at just a little bit ofa disadvantage. But I won't complain. My cognitive functions are running smoothly; I want to overclock my brain, but I find I have just too much processing capability. Of course, all kinds of unsaved applications are erased as a matter of course, but whatever.

I do not wich to disturb the gentle reader with the utterly ordinary story of my fears, so I offer up to the altar this somewhat (read: not at all) allegorical story.

We begin with a sweeping panoramic view of a hill overlooking the alluvial drainage plains of the Euphrates. An eastern-themed stringed instrument plays an uplifiting tune, speckled with harmonies, sustained notes, arabesques and trills. The names of the main actors flash toward th bottom of the screen. We ar last come to a hilltop, where a fair-haired man with curly hair and deep black eyes is entering the field of vision, holding the reins of his donkey, who is loaded up with canvas bags filled with provisions and trade goods. He is obviously tired. Upon raching the summit, he pauses for a moment to gain his bearings. He looks at the brown-grey buildings of Ur in the distance, and curses under his breath. He is behind schedule. This pottery must be at market before sundown or the fat merchant will scold him, and may withhold his payment entirely, save a pittance for "lodging", which in Ur meant a night of debauchery to take one's mind off troubles...

...then the television loses reception.

Consider: "the constant parade of unfamiliar faces in the streets of any major city is an alomst imperceptible mood-destroyer. Silly as it is, each stranger who ignores us is an insult to our pride. And for once, I don't blame society. I could blame some obscure brain structure, but that's not helpful. What would we do? Lobotomize it?"

Monday, February 07, 2005


Up until last week, I would begin my journey home by walking down College St., which durin my walk is surrounded by Institutes, Research Centres, minor Museums and generally monolithic-looking buildings with their names dispalyed prminently on blue university boards. Then something snapped. I couldn't walk that street again, and so I've been taking a different route, one that involves waiting for the streetcar in an area where low, squat buildings with peeling paint and almost-crumbling facades line the street. Homeless people like this area, and for some reason it seems a good deal darker than that other area described above.

What is significant here is one building in particular. They run a welfare office out of there. I remember coming there when we just cem to this country. And since that period of struggle ended, we haven't been back. I don't know what the significane of this building sitting in front of my face every day now. If there is some purpose to coincidences, maybe it's there to remind me that no matter how many spacious atriums I see and how many marble floors I walk, my childhood, my most formative years were years of falling plaster, rusted fences, rubbish heaps, blinking streetlights and backed-up toilets. There are lessons from that childhood that need to be remembered.

Of course, the building does not exist to send me on a reverie. It is there to serve the needs of the freezing homeless and the luckless drug addicts. If they ever close down its services, I'll be sure to light a small candle.

Dystopian Rambling: "Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself."

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Critically abstract

It amazes me how obvious it is that I don't know very much. And the more I learn, the more I realize how much depth there is to my supposed expertise which I can 't plumb in ten lifetimes. It must be like what was going through the mind of that guy who discovered the red shift in distant galaxies. It meant that everything in the universe was flying away from everything else, and that there would come a point (pehaps it has already come) where we could (theoretically) not know the entirety of the universe. Ever. Cosmolgy is humbling, and scary if one considers all the ways instant death can come to this entire planet. And here we are fighting for fractions of its surface. But I digress.

I'm not very perceptive. That is not saying that there is something wrong with my perception, I just don't make it a career goal. I can be perceptive when I want (friends and family can attest to that), but most of the time I'm either fixated on some ludicrous fragment of an idea or "spaced out". I wonder if there's any correlation between eye problems (the simple ones) and these tendencies.

Third related point: philosophy needs to be taught with a profound sense of humour, simply because looking for The Answer is a frustrating task. Laughter makes it easier, and makes it easier to accept the inevitable disappointment. This is particualrly important in abstract endeavours, like logic, where one little problem can bring everything crashing down. So instead of defending the formal rules, just chuckle and shrug it off, and keep going.

For example: "some would argue not-P, on the grounds that we know Q. But in my view, no-one knows anything whatsoever. Therefore P."

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Jesus--The hobo--Lesbians

It is not very often that I experience a feeling of thematic unity in daily life, but that happened today, and I feel compelled to write about it. It's a bit of a stretch to say this experience is unified, but there is a definite moment of "aha!", as my twelfth-grade english teacher would have said. Bear with me.

I was in Taco Bell gorging myself on what I realized, half-way through the sordid ritual, was too much food. I was also reading my psychology textbook in a vague attempt to minimize the guilt of not working through the day. All of a sudden, the paragraph I was reading was occluded from view by a callused hand, which appeared to have not been washed in a long time. My eyes traced the path up that hand, up the arm, up the neck and to the face of the person to whom this hand belonged. He was ruddy-faced, bearded and one of his eyes was so bloodshot that there was no white showing. He began mumbling inaudibly. I just sat there for a few seconds, unsure what course of action to take. Finally, I just shrugged and he went on his way, but not before he shouted "Canada!" in an inappropriately loud voice. The three guys at the table next to me snickered. He sat down next to someone else at a four-seat table across the restaurant.

I finished the required reading as well as the platter of greasy meat and spicy cheese and was preparing to leave when I saw the cashier lady approach the presumably homeless man. He was smoking and she asked him to put out the cigarette. He did not respond. She stood there for a few moments, and then turned back and told her co-worker to call the police. I left before the police arrived; I wanted to get back to work.

Instead of getting back to work, I ended up in a coffee shop, sipping on a too-expensive coffee while reading the Deaths, Memorials and Births section with a metaphysical focus. Apparently, on the date of one man's death, God himself was in Sunnybrook Hospital. Moreover, God was in the room when he died. I'd have liked to see that (with all due respect to the deceased).

At this point I looked around, and saw that the table next to me was occupied by two women who were lening in and having a regular time-passing conversation about work, how tired they were, how school/work was etc. Something ineffable in the substance of that conversation told me they must have been a couple. But this was very much like the conclusions drawn from the average psychology study: you know deep down that the same data could explain a thousand different scenarios, but you push your point of view to get exposure and prestige.

A few minutes passed in quiet contemplation of how much work I had to do after I got back, and how I was just putting this off with feeble excuses that ran "caffeine will get my stregth back up, so I'll be more efficent...". That was interrupted by a shout at the back of the restaurant. We all turned to look. I heard a tenor voice yelling, but it was a very one-sided shouting match. I went back to my coffee when the shouting resumed. I saw two figures emerging from the back, and one of them was, of course, the homeless guy from the Taco Bell being nudged out of the establishment by a chunky yet well-groomed fellow. I turnd back to my coffee, which was near done. As I finished, I turned putting on my jacket and saw that my suspected lesbians were definitely lesbians: they were making out across the tiny table. Not shocking. What was shocking was the backpack under the tiny table. It was painted in the image of Jesus. He just stood there, staring at me benignly (and more power to Him). I had seen this backpack as I was leaving the library to go to lunch on someone else, and had thought to myself "wow, I've never seen one of those before"; it brought a smile to my face, and that rush of endorphins motivated me to get to Taco Bell. That was my moment of "aha!", a mini- or pseudo- or quasi-apotheosis. It was as if the entire last hour and a half had folded into itself and could be explained entirely in terms of the three images in the title.

Consider: "the job interview process teaches bad people mildly bad skills, and teaches good people mildly bad skills. Those skills are embellishment, sucking up, rampant insincerity, shamelessness (not the good kind) and a complete disregard for the here-and-now."