Wednesday, June 30, 2004

parasitic hour

Oh parasitic hour, feasting
on my evening with hollow mandibles

Ha ha, you thought I was going to feature poetry on my weblog. Don't worry. I wouldn't do that. I like you.

So don't go pissing me off or anything.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

lessons i've learned

#1: At the intersection

Mr. Gasrabbas paused at the intersection on his way to work. At the very last moment he realized that he had been about to step out into traffic, so preoccupied was he with a presentation that he was scheduled to give later that day. He smiled to himself and watched a Nissan X-Trail whiz by, thinking how lucky he was. The wind from the vehicle's passing flapped his tie.

As the light measured out its time, though, Mr. Gasrabbas wondered just how lucky he'd been. Was it right to hold a job and lead a life that had, however briefly and in however small a manner, put his life at risk? What had he sacrificed over the years to arrive at this point, seemingly satisfied but so distracted that he had forgotten the safety - and the sanctity - of his own body. A fine sweat popped out on Mr. Gasrabbas' forehead. From now on, he told himself, things would be different.

Then a plane fell on him.

Moral: As a young man, Gasrabbas had worked at an aviation assembly plant. One morning, hungover and a bit coked up to combat the depressive effects of drink, he made a small but decisive riveting error on an aileron. It was that very plane which he had unconsciously sabotaged that fell on him. For true. The moral is not to do that.

#2: During prayer

Salko knelt at the pew and prayed quietly to the Lord, murmuring his devotions in the empty church. He whispered: "Our father, who art in heaven..."

The Lord interrupted: "Hey, is that a moustache you've grown?"

Salko said: "Where"?

Moral: Moustaches only grow atop the upper lip. Christians should be forearmed with this knowledge.

accept these vegetables

Last weekend The Lotus' grandmother, who has never lived anywhere but in small towns, asked us about our neighbours: which ones we were friends with, which were particulary nice, etc. We took a moment to figure out that we knew none of them (except for one, a frightful stalker-robot of a woman who moved into our building in order to be closer to The Lotus). We explained that our friends and neighbours were not congruent sets - it would make for one sad and lonely Venn diagram - and she nodded, but I could see the grave pity in her eyes for us sad isolated urbanites.

Hard on the heels of reading Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities, I found the episode instructive. Cities, even relatively small ones, are, unlike towns, made of strangers. Having lived in a town of 1000 from the ages of eight to eighteen, I can attest to the difference. In the tiny blot where I spent my adolescence, the various families that lived there had spent the previous 250 years poking their noses into each other's business. Everyone who walked down King or Duke or Victoria Streets trailed a cloud of reputation that went back at least one or two generations. Even though you may have close friends from other parts of town or even in the city ('from away'), you knew who your neighours were. You dealt with them on at least a weekly basis: Mr. Rhyno wanted to buy the shed in your backyard; Mrs. Collicutt came over with something for your garden; Mrs. Bowser waved hello every day or so from across the street; Mr. Barkhouse was disputing a mutual property boundary. Sooner or later everybody in town had a reason to pull into your driveway, flag you down outside the pharmacy, stand around in your kitchen for a few minutes. It was alternately cozy and suffocating, but it wasn't really something you could withdraw from without making an incongruous island of your household. Besides, being a good member of the community buys you a measure of protection; a good reputation can leave you free to get away with all kinds of nasty things.

In the city, those small-town rules don't really apply. It's certainly possible to make friends with a neighbour, but relationships tend to form around communities of mutual interest or work. If I want to buy a shed I'll go to Home Depot. If I grow something in a garden I'll take it to the office (if I worked at the office anymore, that is... Ah-hahahaha). Frankly, I think it would be a bit creepy if I banged on people's doors and offered them zucchinis. "Please don't call the police," I'd say, "and accept these vegetables". This is due in part to the neighbourhood I live in, composed of apartment blocks, senior citizens' homes and small businesses. As far as I know, there are no young families in the area with their attendant tangle of children to provide a means of getting to know the strangers on the block.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this state of affairs. By virtue of the nature of cities, there is no reason for me to know the people across the hall or even across the street. We exchange smiles when we see each other or make small talk in the laundry room. What possible reason could I find to stand around in these people's living rooms? The mutual web of interest that operates in small towns is directed outward in cities precisely to accomodate the fact that large numbers of strangers have to live together and get along. Nonetheless, our street still has a life. Pedestrians come and go all day, people sit out on their steps, a steady stream exits and enters the mental health clinic across the street. Senior citizens walk to the nearby park, play shuffleboard or sit on benches. On Sundays the deck at Pavlo's is crowded. Joggers and power walkers file up from Wascana Park during lunch hour. My neighbourhood is, in fact, one of the few places in town where you can watch pedestrians. It's the mingling of nominally friendly strangers, each sharing a common space to conduct their business, that creates a healthy city life.

Most of what I'm saying is pretty much an echo of what Jane Jacobs was saying in 1961. It is clear, though, that people still haven't caught on to this basic fact of urban life. City planners design weird little faux-neighbourhoods with curling crescents and inward-facing houses, apparently unaware that the various residents have no pressing need to know each other (Has it ever occurred to planners that all those curvy crescents and bendy bays are dangerous? On straight blocks traffic and pedestrians are readily visible, but crescents afford no warning if you swing around a corner and spot a kid on a tricycle). The people who live in Albert Park, say, may have a similar income bracket and range of tastes, but they get in their Subarus and Mercedes SUVs every morning and drive off to different parts of the city to work, where they spend the day with a set of people who may or may not live close to them. In the evening they stay indoors or take their children to sports or highland dance classes or whatever. Poor kids. The parks that accompany these neighbourhoods stay empty. The little shopping plazas languish. The streets are dead empty. By any measure aside from the income level of the residents, these places are failures, vacuums of city life.

I'm not saying that neighbourhood relationships in cities don't exist, or that zucchini exchange between apartment dwellers is impossible. I wonder, though, if we have yet to understand what it is to live in a city, choosing as we do to live in oversized mansions in imitation towns embedded in urban environments or walled away at the city's edge. Meanwhile the truly urban areas are ignored, starved of funds, left to flake apart and thereby confirm everybody's opinion of the area as being dilapitated or even dangerous. What amazes me most is that the city-wrecking ideas and attitudes that Jacobs described in 1961 are plainly visible forty four years later in the development of the place where I live. Most of the semi-suburban areas here were built years after Jacobs pointed out the obvious - that cities are suburbs or towns, and that to design them otherwise invites disaster. It's true that Jacobs had other kinds of developments in mind, but the basic principles haven't changed.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Where do all these people come from? Posted by Hello

Mr. Yellowstone suddenly saw me, just as I depressed the shutter. Posted by Hello

I waited for all four faces to appear in frame and make a sort of family Rushmore, but I figured that they were bound to see me only ten feet away, patiently waiting with my camera focused on them. Posted by Hello

I wish I had more time to photograph this family. Posted by Hello

monument exhaustion

Two more victims of America's newest disease. Posted by Hello

During the hour or so that I spent at Rushmore, no one came to claim that wheelchair. Posted by Hello

Saturday, June 26, 2004

rapid city V: dinosaur park

Probably the most recognizable landmark in Rapid City, aside from the Hotel Alex Johnson and the Video Blue on Main Street, is the apatosaurus sculpture atop Dinosaur Park overlooking the city. We made our way up there, figuring that the high vantage point would squeeze out a few good panoramic shots.

Dinosaur Park had more gift shop than park. Of the five life-size dinosaurs I only saw four - the apatosaur, a tyrannosaur, a triceratops and a duck-billed anatotitan. Whither the stegosaurus, I dunno (but note the weirdly vanishing tail on the stegosaur, as if the earth were slowly digesting it). A few kids played around the sculptures and ran up and down the steps, while harried mothers hoarsely commanded obedience.

The dinosaurs of Dinosaur Park, with their enormous scale attempting to dwarf an amateurish execution, carried expressions of sadness and defeat. The tyrannosaur was caught in a pose not of aggression but supplication. The triceratops wore a look of combined terror and embarrassment at the tyrannosaur's behaviour, The brontosaur watched over the scene with an attitude of sheer despondence. The anatotitan was the only one who seemed to be enjoying himself, separated from the rest and overlooking the parking lot, although what pleasure can be derived from watching disappointed tourists is anyone's guess.

From the vantage point of the sad dinosaurs Rapid City turned out to be a flat plain interrupted by a big bump of a hill with frat characters shaved into its side.

Friday, June 25, 2004

rapid city IV: the time of killing

The latest issue of Harper's features an interview with Omar Bakri Muhammad, the head of London-based radical Islamic group Al Muhajiroun. Much of it is depressing fundamentalist tosh, the sort of stuff you can't believe adults are capable of spouting. One answer is instructive:

Is terror the only way to make people aware of [the disparity between the value of Muslim and non-Muslim lives to the Western media]?

Terror is the language of the twenty-first century. If I want something, I terrorize you to achieve it. To support George Bush is a kind of terrorism. To support Al Qaeda is the same. Everybody is involved. Every Muslim is a terrorist, every non-Muslim is a terrorist. This is the "time of killing".

I thought about this at Mt. Rushmore, watching the tourists take their photos. Men in wheelchairs, women strolling with oxygen canisters, old geezers in straw hats, bikers with leather chaps and long braided hair. I took photos of children with Rushmore T-shirts and disposable cameras. I took a photo of some asshole posing with a bunch of adenoidal Eagle Scouts. I kept imagining a jet plane slamming into Jefferson's face.

rapid city III: whither the good ideas

At the end of my last post I promised to tell you about the good idea I had at Mt. Rushmore. I'm not going to tell you yet. I'm listening to Devo, and that's way more fun than going on about an idea that, while fantastic in theory, proved unfeasable and possibly malfeasable in practice. And a little bit humiliating. Yeah, I thought that if I approached people at Mt. Rushmore and asked if I could take their pictures, they would respond enthusiastically. For those with similar ideas, I give you fair warning. This is no way to make friends with strangers.

I made only one attempt. I picked a family who looked friendly enough, approached the mother with my most charming, most dimply face and said something like, "Excuse me, can I take a photo of you and your family in front of Mt. Rushmore?" The woman, barely bothering to make eye contact with me, muttered "No, we've got plenty of photos already, thanks" and tried to slip past. I realized my mistake: this being the United States, it's a fair assumption that any approaching stranger wants to sell you something or hit you up for a donation to fight the Wars on Poverty, Drugs, Terror, Impotence &c. I adopted a different desperate and more disastrous tack. "No, you don't understand. I'm not looking to sell you a photo. I'm... I'm an artist". That was just about the dumbest choice of words I could have come up with. As far as this woman was concerned, I had just lumped myself in with the vast sea of homosexuals, atheists and drug users, along with all the members of that vast alien army of perverts that roam the world. She probably thought I was going to masturbate over a photo of her children as a climax to a ritual goat sacrifice to Karl Marx or Bill Clinton (This Way to Neo-Pagan Communist Orgy Fun!). "No thank you," she repeated. Her family glided past, carefully avoiding eye contact. I'm sure I gave them the best anecdote of their lame vacation: "This little man actually wanted to take our picture! He claimed he was an artist, but I can guess the kind of art he likes to make. He's no Thomas Kincaid, that's for sure!"

I discovered on that sunny afternoon on federal U.S. parkland that I could be a charmless freak. So instead of asking, I simply walked up to people and took their picture without a word of explanation. Nobody called me on it. The pictures turned out great.

rapid city II: the shrine to democracy

On my last day in Rapid City we went out to Mount Rushmore. The route to the monument is littered with distractions intended to filter out as much tourist money as possible: Reptile Gardens (Now Featuring Maniac, The Largest Croc in the Western Hemisphere!), Old MacDonald's Petting Zoo (This Way For Family Fun!), Bear Country U.S.A, Cosmos Mystery Area (See It. Feel It.), Museum of Woodcarving (See Wood Come Alive), and even the Presidential Wax Museum (From George W. to George W.). As you drive past Keystone (turn left for Historic Keystone!) a roadsign makes one last desperate grab at your wallet: "See the Two Rushmores... The Monument and The Caves!" I felt like a piece of krill in the caverns of baleen.

The monument itself was suitably turned out for our visit. Bright sunshine cast sharp shadows on the rock, children ran circles around the pavillion, and tourists snapped photo after photo. After a few minutes it began to resemble the scene from Delillo's White Noise in which the characters visit The Most Photographed Barn in the World:

here is the spot where, had The Lotus not lent it out, you would find the relevant passage from White Noise. As an aside, The Lotus cannot believe that she bought 60 perogies for only $3.40. That, my friends, is a steal.

It didn't take long for the glory of Rushmore to wane. After all, I'd seen the image a million times, even if this was my first visit. What held my interest was the crowd of tourists who'd come to see Rushmore and pose with the presidents in the background, each one wearing the same rictus as a relative or stranger snapped a shot. How many photos of Rushmore actually exist? How many temporary smiles? Logos from defunct companies on T-shirts?

It gave me an idea. Which I'll tell you about after I have lunch.

rapid city

My God. Is this a computer? Am I on the inter-net? Am I actually typing? I've spent the last week in a third world country, a pre-technological wasteland where grim savages patrol an empty land in armoured vehicles, receiving what meagre money they make from travellers who've come to see the gigantic Easter Island-like grotesques these people have erected to their ancient gods. They call this land South Dakota.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

jet laggier

On the third day home I have entered the Drug-Assisted Phase of Jet Lag. Sominex, Advil, red wine, all in the name of getting a solid night's sleep. Even so, my eyes snap open at 12:30 and want to stay open until eight in the morning. Horrors.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

jet lag

The trip back home took 24 hours, from the walk down the sleeve to the 747 to the buzzer on my apartment door and my wife in the hallway, wearing her cat's eye glasses and short moppy hair. She'd made supper, somehow timing the whole thing perfectly with my arrival. I'd slept 3 hours out the last 29. How was I walking and thinking coherently? After too short a time awake we were dead asleep. I woke around six AM with a fully assembled fantasy in my head, a clear memory of having spent extra days in Australia, filming waterfalls and losing equipment and taking Elan along with me for the whole thing. Once the fantasy cleared itself and I remembered that I was back in my own bed, I felt good, I felt more relaxed than I had in months. Even now, at four in the morning, unable to sleep, my body still tuned to another hemisphere, I feel unnervingly good. Maybe a fortnight in the Antipodes was all I needed to realign myself. Or maybe, once the dial swings around to North American time, my parade of anxieties will start marching to the familiar frequency.

This time around the return home has been deeply satisfying. Sometimes I come back with nothing to look forward to but days in the office and a dirty apartment, but with my new position, nobody wants me in the office. The producers look nervous when I show up, as if I'm about to angle for more money or about to launch a lawsuit over hours spent at the office. I chat for a bit and they nod politely at first. Then they lean in close and say, "You should get some rest". And I should. I should. But it's more satisfying to see the fear in their eyes.

It could be I just look a little crazed with fatigue. Or I'm boring them with tales of getting lost in rush-hour traffic in Sydney. Don't ever drive in or to Australia.

Thursday, June 10, 2004


I keep on meaning to read John Ruskin's The Stones of Venice, but every time I pick up the book my brain starts going "ruskinruskinruskinruskin" and I want to dance around like a gorilla. Or in the manner that I imagine a gorilla dancing. You know, hopping to one side and another from one foot to the other with your arms held out on either side. All the gorillas of the jungle danced that way when the explorers introduced 19th century aesthetics to them, right?


anti-darwinians in darwin

Tonight I'm in a Kinko's in downtown Sydney, but I've spent the last five days or so in the exceedingly weird city of Darwin. I spent a lot of my childhood in Bermuda, and so am used to palm trees, scorching pavement and strangely Anglophilic customs, but Darwin is pure tropics, a wet-and-dry season odyssey of heat and humidity, spear grass and mudwasps, ibises, crocodiles that jump from the water (when prompted with buffalo meat), and cockatoos whose call sounds like a high-speed car accident. Darwin is also a tourist trap for Australians who want a bit of the safely exotic. Mostly what they get here is a bit of surfing and long nights of imported beer and overpriced food.

Yesterday morning we drove out of the city along the Stuart Highway (the only road out of Darwin) to see a man who had turned a bare plot of land bordering the Adelaide River into a kind of mangrove sanctuary. He dug out a water hole in the back, which fills up in the wet season and slowly turns to a pit of dust by July. A floating fence along the back keeps dogs out in the dry season and crocodiles out in the wet. His house is built to a set of unorthodox standards for withstanding the cyclones that periodically crawl along the coast of the Northern Territories. Most of the house, which was really one gigantic room with a few half-walls defining bedroom and bathroom, had walls of strong mesh wire and louvered windows. Even when he closed the doors you felt as if you were outside but sheltered, which is a curious but relaxing state. I wanted to sit and drink coffee there until late afternoon, when I could get up and jump into the watering hole out back.

Regrettably, we had to pack up eventually and head to another house nearby, built to an entirely different set of standards by a family of Seventh-Day Adventists, who had survived Cyclone Tracy in 1974. Their neighbour had been decapitated by a flying sheet of corrugated iron, which at the time was the prime building material in Darwin. They were of the opinion that they had been saved by the Lord, but were not sure why their neighbour, who seemed nice, had escaped the watchful eye of God when that big sheet of metal zipped out of the darkness at 200 miles an hour. They gravely informed me that the bad things of this world were attributable to Satan and the good to God. I also found out why good people suffer and die: first they are tested, and then God deems them ready. Or ripe, or something. Sickness and decay must be like fine perfume to that Seventh-Day Lord.

The 7th-Day folk owned what was perhaps the most grotesque dog I had ever seen, a bizarre cousin to a pit bull with a serious snorting problem and what appeared to be gigantic nipples along with the regular set of male dog genitalia. He snorted so loudly that we had to stop the interview whenever he licked his testicles, which was frequently. I refrained from pointing out to a family who didn't believe in evolution that they lived in the city of Darwin and owned a pet that was surely an evolutionary anomaly. It may have actually been a platypus.

reagan's dead

Oh finally, finally, finally.

Friday, June 04, 2004

botany bay road

I can't tell exactly how slummy and run-down Botany Bay Road is. On the one hand, the storefronts are tiny and every single sign seems faded and peeling. On the other hand, the merchandise in the stores is frighteningly high-end without appearing to be illegal. Or maybe it is and I'm a naive jet-lagged young man wandering the streets of far-flung suburban Sydney, thinking: what am I doing here?

Jet lag is like constantly coming up to a cliff edge. I feel like I'm in a sunny desert-like Van Helsing.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

it's LAXative

I'm in the International Departure Terminal at Los Angeles Airport. I've been here for hours. In a few hours from now, I'll still be here. I am fated to spend the rest of my life at LAX.

I recommend the Sushi Boy at the Tom Bradley International Terminal and discourage you from presenting customs agents with documents detailing the 300,000 dollars worth of equipment you're carting through their country. If you follow my advice, you'll be guaranteed a long peaceful life.

I'm entertaining myself with Dan Brown's Angels and Demons. Holy crap, does it suck. How do people sit still and read this without jumping up and running off a cliff? If I weren't paying by the minute for internet access I'd quote all the risible passages, which so far is all of it.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

neurotic waiter update

I ate at the Restaurant of the OCD Waiter again. This time he had three different messages with four distinctly different smiley faces (one scratched out) on the back of the bill.

He's one of two Neurotic Waiters at ROCDW. Multiple Smiley is tall, rail-thin, and walks like someone has just cracked him with a whip. The other is Tolkeinesquely short and shaggy-haired. He actually bows when you order.

justice & mercy

My notion of hell is to end up there by mistake.

lost cooking methods of 1958

Headlines from page six of the Regina Leader-Post, June 18, 1958:

Modern market thing of beauty: "True to the Cinderella story, they have not forgotten their humble origins and, despite their radiant appearance, they cater to everyone on an equal basis".

Shopping habits affected by car: "If the automobile has caused so much change, what will the transportation of the future bring. Who knows what cheap air transportation will mean in deciding where you will live, where you will work and how you will shop".

Friendly courtesy stressed: "Self-service's greater efficiency created lower buying costs for Mrs. Housewife and won her cooperation".

And my favourite, Braising is simple: "Braising is a simple method of cooking by moist heat which is known to all housewives. But perhaps you don't get as much variety out of it as you should".

Like most of the mainstream media of the fifties, the Leader-Post was relentlessly forward-looking and optimistic about the future, with its ever-increasing edge of efficiency and consumer pleasure (and as a counterweight, there was some scrotum-tightening Cold War terror). I figured that if braising were simple in 1958, it must be child's play for the advanced minds of 2004. So I conducted a survey of various people. I chose mostly women for my survey because a) I don't know any men and b) I don't know the phone numbers of the ones I do know. I phoned, emailed or personally approached a representative sample of seven people. Here are the results:

The Lotus didn't know what braising was exactly, wanted to know what I planned to braise and when I'd be home to braise it. I explained that my question was so-see-oh-logical and not practical. She sent me a definition of braising by email. The link made it sound extremely simple. She and I agreed to braise together in the future. Because the future is our most valuable resource.

Friday didn't know what braising was either, but knew that it was connected to cooking. She offered to come over with her boyfriend (one of the men that I know) and eat whatever it was I was braising.

Jamie was patient with me. She doesn't cook, but she found another link to braising with butter that included some helpful tips, such as "it's best to find a pot that's almost too small for the food you're attempting to braise". That sounded a bit pornographic, and frankly, I envisioned braising as not only a simple technique but a pure one as well.

Jennifer's husband cooks and brews beer, so she, I reasoned, would be in a good position to tell me whether or not braising was simpler in the 21st century. She knew how to glaze but not to braise, and when she googled "how to braise a ham," Google asked her if she meant "how to raise a ham," which confused me, since they're not born that way.

Helvetica was happy to hear from me but taken aback by the question. Apparently nobody in her 26 years had asked her this question. She told me that she'd just seen The Day After Tomorrow (my ramblings on the movie can be found here), and that her flatmate had been an extra in the film. She lives with Ian Holm.

Craig, who is one those men that I know, sounded as if he were at a party or a bar when I called him. His reply to the question was a succinct and highly contrary "No". Braising, according to Craig, is a monstrously involved task requiring the GDP of a medium-sized industrialized country. It is easier to get tritium-3 from the moon than to braise pork and potatoes. You are better off, he continued, trying to gather all the sand from the ocean floor with tweezers. Go to hell, he said. Go there, and may you braise for all eternity, and may all your roasts be dry.

My mother, who hails one generation back from the rest of us sorry losers, knew exactly what braising was and how simple it was, which is: very. It turns out it's not tough to put something in a pot with liquid, turn up the heat and cover it. We discussed how some fairly basic domestic skills were being lost, and how cooking, once an integral part of the domestic skillset, has been given over to professionals. This may be a consequence of increasing gender equity in the workforce. I worried that we may be in trouble if all the chefs, sous-chefs, short-order cooks and pastry chefs die suddenly. My mother was cordial and friendly throughout the conversation, considering that her eldest son should have better things to with his time than conduct surveys on braising and generally make a mockery of sociology and conversation in general. I believe she gave me the benefit of the doubt because I am her child. And children are our most valuable resource.

What I discovered was that, in my generation, the question of whether braising is simple is moot, because nobody cooks habitually anymore. This is bad news. Even though domestic food preparation has traditionally been bound up with patriarchal power, it worries me that our meals are increasingly becoming a paid service handled by professionals. Once food has left our kitchens, what more is left for us to outsource? I predict that one day the very act of spending money will be handed over to a group of professionals who will spend it for us and charge us a premium for the pleasure. We will sit in empty houses eating from take-out boxes, wondering how to respond when I ask whether buying a television is simple. Or maybe I'll pay someone to do that for me.