Saturday, April 23, 2011

The House of My Childhood

The house of my childhood was very large. It had two stories as well as an attic and a basement. The basement was inhabited by a furnace and a cat, whose name I forget. I remember only that it was an enemy of my mother and participated rarely in the affairs of the household. He came and went, the black cat.

The basement was not done up. At the centre sat the furnace, like the abdomen of a giant insect. Around it a circuit was formed, each stop marked by trays of dusty jars, racks of screws and pliers, christmas ornaments, and the long stacks of firewood. The walls were hidden by terrible shadows.

Two events annually disturbed the evil serenity of the basement. My father raised bees and each year we would go down there to spin out the honeycomb in plastic barrels. The honey flew out to the sides (and all over our arms and faces) and dripped into the jars below. In the fall we stacked the wood that had been dumped in the driveway, for which we were served by an economy of logs to popsicles.

The house of my childhood also had a yard which we mowed. Sometimes I too would drive the ride-on lawnmower. I dreamed of jamming my foot underneath and cutting off my toes, or of driving over a patch of baby rabbits and watching them spray out through the cut grass. We also raised tadpoles into frogs in the kiddy pool. Each day they changed.

My brother invented a game in which we would dig a deep pit in the garden, fill it with dirt highways and dinky cars, and then cruelly turn the hose upon them. I thought he was a genius. My brother also once convinced me to eat a live goldfish. As a teenager this became a sort of parlor trick. In the garden we grew carrots and peas.

My two older brothers shared a room. They hurt me and forced me to pee myself, but still I liked to go in there. Once my best friend and I found a bag of gumballs belonging to one of them. We chewed up every last one and then deposited each sticky piece back into the bag. I don't know what we were thinking.

I don't remember much of my sister's room except that she had trophies. She also had a library of Uncle Remus stories and some dolls that I likely played with the most. My sister and I played real games together and made things up, but she also had friends in the neighborhood that were girls her age.

My parents' room was where my mother ripped the tape out of my hair that my brother had wrapped around my head. I thought she would have a better solution. On the bureau they kept a picture of themselves in which my mother had long, straight hair. In the closet there was an escape ladder that I dreamed daily of using but never did.

I had a room to myself, though I shared it for one year with my foster brother. I drew an invisible line through the middle of the room which he must never, ever cross. He never argued with me because he wanted me to like him. Once I lay awake at night, sobbing loudly. When my mother finally came I told her I wanted him to go.

We had a living room with a CD and tape player. We listened to the Muppets and James Galloway playing The Flight of the Bumblebee on the flute. We also had family meetings in there, during which time we memorized the Bible and presumably sang songs. It was also where we put up the Christmas tree.

It was in the living room that I played murderous, acrobatic games with my G.I. Joes. I had a rule. It was that I could only play if I was absolutely, perfectly alone. If someone came in or peaked through the door, I would scream one, long syllable: "Leave!" There was a big window but I never looked out of it.

By the kitchen we had a room with a TV and a piano in it, as well as some ornamental plates. I played the same stupid song on the piano over and over again for years. On the wall there was a rotary phone. I always answered it in an annoying sing-song voice, as fast as possible: "Hello this is Mark, may I help you?"

In the yard we had two cherry trees and a row of apple trees. There was a village idiot in our town, a dirty, frightening man who wandered around with a sack. Once he came to our yard to eat our apples. "Golden Delicious," he announced. Afterwards, my father often told this story with delight and admiration.

My father is the gentlest man I have ever met. After the rain he would pick up the worms off the sidewalk and throw them into the grass. I liked to cut them into successive pieces with the edge of my shoe. I believed they would grow into new worms. My father also hated to waste time and was always doing things. Once we built an igloo.

We also had a treehouse and a shed. In the fall the leaves fell and we raked them up. In the winter we threw the dog off the porch into the deep snow. In the summer we kicked the soccer ball endlessly against the neighbors garage. Our other neighbor had a giant fishing boat parked in the yard. It was a girl.

Our house was at the top of a very steep hill. At the bottom was the main street of the town, where parades happened. The neighbors' son used to drive golf balls down the hill over the rooftops, and once he smashed a car window. When I was very young I dreamed of biking down that hill. When I was older I did it.

Our house was a big white house. The front porch was the pantry, no one ever came in that way. You had to walk around to the back where we kept the inner tubes from the big trucks. Our best game was to all lie in the road at night and whenever a car came we would run to the back and dive onto the inner tube in a heap.

The driveway was where my mother killed the skunks we caught in the trap my father built. She would put a tarp over them at the back of the car and leave it running for half an hour. I learned later that people sometimes kill themselves that way. Listening to the radio. My father also had a motorcycle but he got rid of it.

When I was twelve we moved to West Virginia. The day we arrived it was so hot it felt like being underwater. Our house was on a golf course and all our neighbors lived in Washington, D.C. After supper the course was empty and I would bike from end to end. In the ponds lived poisonous snakes.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Green Room is a Bar I Went to Once that has Since Burned Down

There used to be a bar on St. Laurent Street in the Mile End district of Montreal called The Green Room. The only green wall in the place was covered with pictures of musicians performing at the Green Room. If you ever found yourself milling around the Green Room in an abstracted torpor, vaguely shirking a nebulous obligation to interact with strangers, you almost certainly learned to avoid standing in front of the green wall. There is just no reasonable excuse for pretending to closely inspect rock photography. The rest of The Green Room was painted red.

I went to The Green Room a few years ago for a celebration of the Green Room. The first thing I encountered upon entering was a tall man on stage eagerly trying to sell a cooler of beer. A shorter man stood beside him and occasionally leaned in to reiterate his quips verbatim into the microphone. An uneasy feeling spread throughout the room as this went on for some minutes. Finally the cooler sold for $37.50. I learned later that the two men were performing improvisational comedy. I’m sure this would have been apparent if I’d arrived on time, but I only caught their last, difficult, time-consuming joke about being auctioneers.

If you were an aspiring writer a few years ago, as I was, and miraculously found yourself On Assignment to cover a silly event at the Green Room, and if this task seemed to you insurmountably odious for no reason that you could readily articulate, you would have wanted to get drunk in a park first with your more socially-confident friend and then choose to walk instead of taking the bus. You would talk about many things, you and your friend, on your long walk to The Green Room. The good news is that when you finally arrived you would have missed most of the improvisational comedy. The bad news is that you would also have missed whatever else constituted your reason for going.

The night held several more surprises that are not worth mentioning in passing let alone writing about, now or then. First, the wine was free. Secondly, there was a man with an open shirt who made some startling quips about his participation in somewhat deviant sexual practices. This man had a son who used to shout something I didn’t understand about group sex every time the man had his friends over. I came to understand that this man was involved in promoting the event, but he had absolutely nothing to say about the wherefores and the whithertos. I denounced him to his face and moved away. Of course that's not true.

The only other thing that happened that evening at the Green Room was that I decided to stop writing and do something else with my life. Perhaps I was being a little dramatic, but at least something happened. Now that I revisit the memory and the few miserable paragraphs I wrote about it, that horrible evening stands out as an adequate symbol of how paltry my dreams had become in the exhaustingly depressive year after graduation. It was the moment when the hopelessness of my disoriented yearning to win the Montreal game became apparent. This is partly what propelled me to exile in a stained glass studio in London, Ontario. That's something I don't regret.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Assuming that I'm the archetype, miracles occur roughly every three to four months in the life of the average person. I mean real miracles, not childbirth or finding your keys. If you haven't observed any real miracles in your life it may be that you've already made up your mind and now you have to think with it. But more likely it is because when miracles do happen they are so arbitrary and meaningless that you don't recognize them for what they are: the arbitrary and meaningless acts of an all-powerful being who wants to entertain and disturb you.

The first miracle that I really examined occurred in the Old Port of Montreal, where my then-girlfriend and I were drinking a bottle of wine at a quiet place on the docks. When we finished, we decided to lob the bottle into the St. Lawrence. The cork was missing, however, so we stuffed the neck with bits of gravel wrapped in leaves. When we let fly, the bottle arced through the sombre, evening air, struck the brackish water with a splash and... sank. Neither did it bob nor float, not even once.

Was it a miracle? Yes. A bottle full of air floats, no matter what. It doesn't sink ever. Because air is lighter than water, it's that simple. That being so, we nevertheless decided to pursue the matter with more scientific rigor, so we repeated the maneuver under identical circumstances a month later -- the neck securely stoppered with leaves and gravel -- and of course the bottle popped right back up and floated desolately down river.

I asked Dr. Stephen Pollaine, a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, what he thought could have caused the first bottle to sink. He responded with mulish skepticism: "Yes, a leaky cork--or maybe the cork popped out." Unfortunately, he neglected to send me any hard evidence for the burr he keeps in his underwear. Otherwise I might have bothered to inform him that I've since thrown totally uncorked bottles into the Lachine Canal and they all floated for some distance before sinking. Honestly, who's ever heard of a leaky cork?

Dr. Brandt Kehoe, a physicist at California State University in Fresno, was less terrified by the prospect of having his shaky world-view crushed by the facts. He wrote, "Without examining the bottles I can only guess. Wine bottles come in very different weights. If the bottle is heavy enough, it will sink even when corked full of air." Here is a scent of open-mindedeness, but I have to wonder where one finds these uncommonly hefty wine bottles he's referring to. I can assure you, we weren't drinking out of a stone jug. It was good old depanneur wine and the bottle was of a modest weight.

Since that time, I have experienced several other miracles. Once my toilet exploded without any provocation as I was brushing my teeth. Another time I was chasing a cat and it disappeared. These are true stories that must be accepted on faith, or if not faith, at least a small measure of good humor. Faith is the assurance that we don't already know everything. Humor is the victory of reality over banality. Together they form an antithesis to cynicism, which is itself a kind of miracle. But not a real one.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Soundtrack to the Stars - December Mix

Aries (March 21 - April 19)
Air - Kelly Watch the Stars

You're in no mood for details, Aries, but the question remains: what do you plan on doing with that army of skeletons? Not taking the bus, I presume. Roller skates? However you do it, this is for getting there.

Taurus (April 20 - May 20)
Radiohead - Pyramid Song

Taurus, you're broke like dry spaghetti. You've got snakes for hair. You've got hair for brains. That's why you're so scary and crazy. But you're not scared and you've got nothing to do. This is what animals sound like.

Gemini (May 21 - June 20)
The Kinks - Sunny Afternoon

You left the oven on, Gemini. You burned the damn kitchen down, you donkey. You're smoking, you're on fire, you're crispy, you're delicious. I want more. This is for okay not okay.

Cancer (June 21 - July 22)
Oasis - Wonderwall

Kiss me, Cancer. Actually, never mind. It's pretty late. I should probably get to bed. I don't know though, maybe we shouldn't sleep anymore. We'd have so much more time. Anyway, I'm really glad we're friends.

Leo (July 23 - August 22)
Brazilian Girls - Good Time

Oh my god, Leo. You look good. Damn. You're like a sexy time machine. You put the fuss in coconuts, you turn bicycles into tricycles. Somebody get me a straw, I'm thirsty.

Virgo (August 23 - September 22)
The Sonics - Psycho a Go Go

You can do better than that, Virgo. You've got options, you're the librarian of your dreams. But this isn't driver's ed, you've got to flap your wings. (And other things.) Your mantra is: up top!

Libra (September 23 - October 22)
Gladys Knight and the Pips - Midnight Train to Georgia

Saddle up, Libra, they're taking out the cacti and the volcanoes. You just brought your bare ass to a cooking show and now you've got to go. This is for when you've spent your last silver dollar.

Scorpio (October 23 - November 21)
Greg Street ft. Nappy Roots - Good Day

Holy shit Scorpio, you finally ditched the metal exoskeleton! Here you are, raking the leaves in your moist, translucent skin. I'm sorry, I called the cops. I guess you'll be going away for a while. This is for when you come back.

Sagittarius (November 22 - December 21)
The Strokes - Someday

Don't move a muscle, Sagittarius, the man in the back seat wants to tell you a secret. He says, "You talk too much." Okay, no, that was me. He says, "It's a long way down." This for when you're not there yet.

Capricorn (December 22 - January 19)
Mississippi John Hurt - You got to walk that lonesome valley

You keep trying to sit on strangers' laps, Capricorn. Your only friend is the neighbor's cat. The lights turn on when you arrive. You're drunk and this isn't even a bus stop. This is for when it's time to move on.

Aquarius (January 20 - February 18)
Sleeping States - Rivers

Cry me a river, Aquarius. Cry me a river of caramel. Make that Crystal Lite, I've got a weight problem. It's you. You're so heavy. You know what's nice? Dolphins. This is for when you're floating away.

Pisces (February 19 - March 20)
Devendra Banhart - Foolin'

I have news Pisces: you've got a twin, and you're the one with the wild eyes and the rubber boots. Now you're rubbing your face off. Anyway, let it go, drink your milk. This is for when you're rolling up a broken window.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Old Man Lost in the Plant Conservatory

I often go to the Allen Gardens on Carlton to recline among the flora and perm my emotions. Today I chose to sit on the wrought-iron bench in the middle of the central courtyard where sometimes they display plant sculptures. Very small children tottered around the outskirts in loosely packed bunches with flat-faced handlers corralling them along at even intervals. Strange women paced from end to end in slow solitude. Others carried cameras close their chests, defensively.

After a while an old man in a tilly hat approached me and politely asked me a question that I didn't understand. He asked me again and still I didn't understand, though the words were English and the tone was friendly and intelligent. I stared at him silently as I tried to decode what he was saying. Another old man approached smiling and invited his friend to look around some more. A few minutes later the first old man came back and again asked me something that I couldn't grasp. "Do you want a plant?" I responded, a little stupidly. "No!" he shouted, suddenly enervated.

His friend arrived quickly to intervene. He explained to me that they were looking for a place to get coffee. I pointed in the direction of the nearest diner and explained how to get there. He thanked me but by that point the first man was pacing off in a different direction. After a while I heard them walking along the path behind me. The first man was moving quickly, hunting for something that wasn't there and speaking in a language no one knew. His friend walked calmly behind him. When I left they were still there.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Story of Jesus

At a certain moment in the evolution of the species the God of the whole universe decided to visit planet earth as a human, so as to solve the problem of evil. Being a plural entity, God commissioned one of his personalities to be born as a normal living person named Jesus.

Having chosen a small tribe of desert people called Israelites to be his special worshippers several millennia prior to this, it made sense for God to become a Jew, because they had a relationship. But Jesus wasn't a real religious guy. Instead, he began creating a lot of intensely awkward situations at public events, and this made him famous. Then he said something people really hated. He said that God had changed his mind.

Before God had been saying, "Humans can be a little soulless, but I'm going to really work on you guys in particular to make you more spiritual." Unfortunately it was a big disappointment. It turned out the Jews were the same as everybody else. So God wanted to try something new. Jesus said that God wasn't going to play favorites anymore. God doesn't like some people more than other people.

Jesus actually went so far as to say that God doesn't even prefer good people to bad people. In fact, the people who think they're good are the worst of all, because they are the most likely to treat other people as though they are bad. Jesus said, You have to treat every person you meet as if they are God.

Jesus said that if you want to stop secretly hating yourself, you have to stop secretly hating other people, especially the ones who hate you. Jesus said that you should give all your stuff away, everything, because owning things is a sad farce. Jesus said that society is not a pyramid, it's an organism.

Jesus was popular with poor people but unpopular with rich people. In the end he was executed for political reasons. In order for the normal world to keep going, people who think they are better than other people eventually have to get rid of the people who point out how wrong that is. Jesus said, Don't be afraid.

When he died, Jesus demonstrated that judging people is the same as killing them. First because you make yourself part of the killing machine. And second because you pretend that God doesn't live inside of the people you judge. So judging people is like killing them, and killing people is like killing God. When you kill God you get rid of your love.

Everybody does this, we can't stop ourselves because we're basically wild and that means being really scared of each other most of the time. Fortunately, several days after his death God brought Jesus back to life so that no one would have to feel bad about killing God. And then forty days later Jesus floated into the sky. He went home. Jesus said, Don't be afraid to go home.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Whom Does the Grail Serve?

For a few years I've been haunted by the tale of the Fisher King and the Holy Grail. I think the Fisher King reminds me of my dad, maybe that's why. The Fisher King was pierced through the hip by a spear and his wound could never heal. He sat every day on the banks of the river, fishing and waiting and dying, though death would never come.

As the Fisher King went on endlessly dying his kingdom was wasting away too. The land itself was suffering, there was a sickness in the earth. It was like ET and the flower. Leaves rotted on the trees, the air was grey. People felt uncomfortable. This went on for a long time.

But the Fisher King had a secret, for he was the keeper of the Holy Grail. He knew that when the right person came looking for the grail he would be healed. It was hard for him to feel too hopeful though, because he could only give the Grail to the person who asked the right question. Many came searching but all they ever asked was where to find it. He sent them away and continued fishing.

"Whom does the grail serve?" That is the required question. Of course no one ever asked it. Does any searcher stop to wonder if they can have what they are looking for? What if the thing you want you can't have? Would you continue searching?

The knights believed that the Grail was magic and that it would reveal itself to the worthiest person. Their quest was really a quest for their own identity, to discover their class and valorize their entitlement. They searched in vain because this is not the service of the Grail. Who knows what the Grail does? And who's asking?