Sunday, January 29, 2012

Train Story 1: Grade Eight

Train stories are brief snippets of people I encounter on trains - goes without saying, I know.  I started writing such vignettes about 12 years ago and have decided to dust off my dormant attentiveness for my commutes here in Calgary.

They board the train at Bridgeland.  He trudges under his backpack, the exact match to mine.  Is his adult or mine juvenile?  I never gave it thought before.  She has a feline lope, her Scienceworks 8 text arching with each swing of her arm as she sits in the seat in front of him, her right knee presses into the seat and her back pressed the hard plastic behind her.  An auto-graffitied denim leg bears the swoop of a purple-inked flower in flight.

The lines between acquaintance or friend or something more are tested.  The conversation is a continuation of something punctuated by the opening of train doors, the choice of seat and the text messages or or data that their phones have provided them.  His bearing is stolid and calm, a contrast to the hint at flighty as she brings the conversation to the subject of his hair: thick and straight.  She tells him he could so do a Mohawk or something with it.  He says it could be done, it's thick enough for that and obedient to whatever he commands of it.  She says he should so do it tomorrow.  A Mohawk, if they're using my definition, would seem a rebellious thing but he would be just switching his obediences to learn where the lines between himself and the girl have been redrawn.

The texts intervene and the punctuation forms an ellipsis of silence until she gets off downtown and he continues on with the train, his back to where he's heading as the sun sets and his view gradually fades into the dark.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Space Cadet Gingrich and The Temptation of Imitation

On a regular basis people are held in the utter thrall of someone who has accomplished something to capture our collective imagination, or contribute to it by doing something breathtakingly original. Whether it is in film, music, sports, or business there are pioneers and innovators who have altered our world or our culture in a significant way and have left a lasting impact. Whenever these innovators have appeared to make our first mark, there are two universal responses by the general population: adoration and an attempt to xerox the ineffable magic that sparked that feat or innovation.

Few things are ever as futile or as cynical as the imitation intended to cash in on someone or something else's success. Whether it was the original (and I use that term aware of the irony) Battlestar Gallactica following on the heels of Star Wars or the latest prepackaged series of books intended to ride Harry Potter's mantletails to mania status, the attempts to recapture the success of true originals have fallen far short because the vision that inspired the creation of the first has been replaced with little more than formula.

In politics, however, the futility or cynicism of imitation reeks a little more strongly. The authenticity or perfect capture of the mood or moment that allows a politician to ascend is quickly broken down and the imitators try to parse out the ineffable mix and often find themselves lacking in the charisma, timing or je ne sais quoi of their touchstone.

Newt Gingrich, in his campaign for the Republican Party presidential nomination said during the run up to the Florida primary that he would promise a permanent moon base, an audacious promise that echoed John Kennedy's 1960 promise of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Gingrich did not bind himself to a timeline, or many other specifics, of course. It is really hard to tell what the goal of Gingrich's plan would be. Was he looking for an opportunity to motivate Americans to commit themselves to a new technological project or was he eschewing a vague promise that the Republicans were aware of the threats that the 99% were posing to his desired constituency and wanted to assure them that he was on it and that under his presidency they would be able to escape the occupiers, jihadists, immigrants or anyone else that might be a target of his campaign to capture the heart of the Tea Party in his pursuit of the Republican nomination.

While Kennedy's call to take up the space race had a strategic motive and also appealed to a sense of national pride and a sense of adventure, Gingrich's promise of a moon base is merely puzzling. At a time when NASA is, at best, lying fallow between the end of the Space Shuttle era and whatever may come next and the American economy is swooning under the heavy commitments to the too-big-to-fail, the last thing the American public would have an appetite would be an enterprise as technologically and economically substantial as Newt's moon base. At a time when responding to the environmental demands that are prodding us all to wake up and take on another technological challenge, one that would encourage American industries to innovate and commit themselves to applying themselves to developing products that would reposition American closer to the front of the pack in the global economy, Newt seems intent to wander down a path strewn with $800 hammers and other means of corporate welfare.

The fact that Gingrich chose to echo Kennedy's 50 year old call to arms is significant in that for all the distinction the Democrats and Republicans or left and right seem to insist upon, neither of them have come up with approaches to governing or tools for guiding a nation that are very different from the other. They may speak different languages about their aspirations, but they rarely govern with a uniqueness or a command of the powers of state or grasp of issue that distinguish themselves from one another. The rhetoric employed rings hollower each time they demonstrate the inability to act upon a broad vision of how they can serve their constituency. Newt's recycling of a 50 year old dream shows that he is not a man who can lead his nation through the future that lies ahead.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Our Foolish Rush to the Electric Archive

There has been little hue and cry to mark the closing of Blockbuster Video in recent months or the similar fate looming for music retailers. There has been acknowledgement of one last chance to plunder the shelves of these stores for bargains. If the fates of these retailers indicates a consumer consensus we have decided that we would rather the convenience of digital downloads that we can squirrel away onto a hard drive rather than the clutter of DVDs, CDs and especially cassettes on our shelves or the passenger seat of our cars. If we haven't already, it won't belong before we forget the 11pm negotiations we had with a half dozen friends upon congregating from the sundry aisles of the video store with our choices of video for the night. We will have less and less opportunity to gaze through someone's music collection on that second or third date while having one of a very small handful of conversations where boy or girl are fully engaged with what the other is saying despite the multi-tasking. Those talismans of mass culture will gradually disappear and what they say about us will be muffled and stowed away in the menus of our hard drives. Life will go on, that step in the pursuit of efficiency and convenience given as cursory and passing a mark as any other we have taken before it. The crosshairs of progress have been focused on books for a while now and it seems that there are still enough readers who treasure their bound-between-covers books to extend the battle there. The pursuit of efficiency and convenience has gone on unimpeded and has for good reason. Over the last few years, however, whispers about resilience have increased in frequency and volume. Many of us are as interested in backing up those new digital downloads as we are in reading the Conditions of Use for the software we buy or the websites we log into. All of those ephemeral downloads that we possess could disappear so easily from us, or escape our possession entirely with some failure that shuts off the electricity or wipes out our hard drives. One errant press of the cancel or escape key and... gone save for the snatches and fragments of tune or movie dialogue that have embedded themselves in our memories and our memories alone because it would be hard to pass down those disembodied fragments without the context that we can recall but not recount in its entirety.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Tip of the Cap

When I was teaching junior high school I used to muse that half the kids were trying to audition for a sitcom. Today, however, those same kids might be more focused on trying out for their own reality show or attempting to distill whatever alchemy it is that gets a YouTube video to go viral. The performance of life and the sharing of it has not been the consequence of social media and the internet, but a component of literature and performance that has always been with us.

No matter how confessional or self-deprecating one may choose to become today via social media, few people would achieve the high art that Spalding Gray created in the telling of his story.  Throughout his life, Gray disclosed his flaws with an unabashed honesty and commitment to story that few people today, with an eye for splashy wealth or celebrity, would dare.  Ironically, today's celebutants present themselves as more flawed and notorious than Gray could ever manage, despite their efforts at image management and Gray's no-holds-barred accounting of his life.

Spalding Gray, raconteur, actor and author who passed away in 2004, remains a reference and a paradigm for the confessional writer/performer. Gray is best known for his work Swimming to Cambodia which was the most widely known of the monologues he performed throughout his career. He performed other monologues about his childhood, acting career, writer's block, relationships and the tragic consequences of a car accident that hindered him throughout the last few years of his abbreviated life.

I never knew what drew me to Gray when I first heard of Swimming to Cambodia, which is an account of his experiences working on the 1984 film The Killing Fields. (Having seen both movies, I was surprised by how small a role Gray had and wondered why the auditoon process was such an involved and lengthy one. I also pondered how the film could have been made more cheaply with the smaller roles shuttled in and out of Thailand in short order rather than keeping them lingering around for weeks and months at a time. Thankfully the producers kept their eye on something other than the bottom line.)

No word-of-mouth buzz about Swimming reached me during university but there was something about him and the concept of his monologue that resonated. I must have sensed that only a perfect execution of this performance would have raised even the modest ripple of attention and acclaim that I'd noticed. I've watched the movie several times over the years and seized the book when I found it in a remainder bin. Whatever there was about his observations about the experiences he had while he traveled abroad and within, the essence of what he shared with his audience and preserved for his own reflection and consideration for either performance or self-examination, which may have been one in the same.

When I recently found Gray's face staring back at me from a bookstore shelf there was a rare thrill of anticipation at the opportunity to read his journals. Having completed them, my mind is still sparking with the depth of what he was willing to disclose about himself and the relationships he was in. He also had an attention to detail that made me as a writer more conscious of the potential in my surroundings for observation and contemplation and enhanced my own awareness of my moods and the thoughts that would probably drift away from me if I did not take the time to pause and reflect on the moment that I was in. Having devoured the book and renewed and forgotten acquaintance with the life and work of Spalding Gray I am grateful to have observed his art and had a glimpse of the life and process that was behind it. The Journals will likely remain near my own desk whenever my own writer's block or sense of self get a little difficult to penetrate.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Flaw in the Silence

The following is an excerpt from the journals I kept while teaching in the Arctic. I am in the process of polishing them up for an audience of some sort and would appreciate any feedback you might offer. The following is from my first full day in Ivujivik, Quebec, where I taught for two years.

There was never a question of tending to other things beforehand. Never. Whether it was a primal sense of territory or the mystical allure of the tundra or the land as it was more often referred to – in hushed reverence – I was compelled to get out. The camera may have appeared to others as the main reason for heading out, but in reality it was a guise for my attempt to get my own sense of connection to the land. It would be much easier to say I was just out taking pictures, for the folks back home or what have you rather than an attempt to ponder the wilderness I was living in. The first walk was about attaining horizons other than those beyond my windows, which merely afforded me a view of the harbour, the runway for the airport and the rest of the houses in the village. Behind my house, there was a small chapel and a tumble-down pile of boulders that were assembled or knocked over by a force beyond my comprehension. That would be my portal to whatever the tundra contained.

I exited and went around to the back of my house to ascend the boulders and set out for the land. After a scramble up the boulders, the allure of the land started to unveil itself. The sky was a cloudless, deep blue and the land a dark grey stretch that went as far as I could see. There were patches that glinted with large puddles that caught the sunlight and there was moss, lichen and small plant life for me to ponder. I continued walking east and further away from the village, heading toward new rises in the land until the village was no longer in sight when I paused to take in the panorama that consisted of the Hudson Strait, Hudson Bay a few remnant islands of (what was then) the Northwest Territories and the expanse of granite that stretched as far east and south as I could see.

I took pictures along the way, far too many failed to capture the experience I had then and each time I returned to the land. The images just portrayed the elements of rock and sky with the ocean water occasionally added in. Perhaps images of the landscape are better favoured by cloudier skies for the sake of reinforcing notions and anxieties about the harsh barrens or an addition of texture to the skies. Another possibility might have been that the flatness of the land denied me that dramatic thrust or angle of a mountain rise to fill the picture.

Photographs never sufficed. There was no way that they would communicate the options that were available in a place with no trees or well-worn animal paths to guide me in one direction or another. I never chose to run, or skip or react to the landscape with the levity that one would indulge in the privacy of one’s own home. Privacy, however, is not solitude. The land instilled in me, at least, a sense of sanctity that ensured I respected the land. I had no intentions of racing back and forth on the land, or screaming at the top of my lungs to test the acoustics of the place for echoes. I refused to lie down on the rock to feel whatever pulse there was in the land. It would be months before I considered sitting and only then it was if there was a rock situated as an obvious seat with a view.

The ineffable reality of the tundra was the silence that I discovered there. It was never long before I was far enough from the village to not know of the run of ATV tires on the gravel that covered the roads there, the rumblings of the sewage trucks bringing water to the houses and sucking away the sewage. Even the high-pitch hum of the electricity coming through the wires was beyond the grasp of my ears. Over time I would realize that silence is not something that you happen upon when all sound is absent, but something you have to dedicate yourself to discovering and maintaining. Whenever I was out there and I found myself conscious of the silence I concentrated intently on some sound that would break in on the sonic calm. I am not sure if the flights of thought that occurred to me as I stretch my sense of hearing to find something that would break that silence. I sought the possibility of my own pulse as my blood passed through my carotid just below my ear. I thought about the possibilities of the wind making a noise as it moved over me and over the offer of Aeolian cracks in the granite to make some sort of whistle or the softest of applause made by the Arctic cotton as its stems collided in the wind.

I was not setting my heart on ruining a good thing. None of the sounds I was looking for would have shattered silence but humbly stand in relief to deepen my awareness of a place that I could never possess but only acknowledge more deeply and with greater command of the nuance. The pictures failed but the ears, however, were more appropriate for this task.
Time passed at whatever pace it chose and eventually I headed west for the village and regretted every step back. I would look back regularly to pause and reflect on the silence and try to find something in the rock, sky or patina of tread-high sedges to give me some meaning of the place. Instead I probably found a sense of self and clearness of mind that would help me get through the task ahead.

Before I got back to the village and my house I came across the odd plastic bag hardened into a knot by the remains of a bottle of nail-polish. For some, likely the teenaged students who remained at the school, or the dropouts who were slightly older, the land was a place to hide out from their parents or whoever else might question their behaviour - the equivalent of the spot behind the supermarket amongst the dumpsters. Was the tundra a tabala rasa that morphed to whatever one brought to it? There was a time when it nourished the people of the village and ensured their cultural, spiritual and physical health, enlightened them with the profound alertness that I engaged in as I sought a flaw in the silence.