Marlon Brando Forever.

In the deep freeze of Toronto this winter, me and mine project movies on the wall.  The heat source not from the radiation of flickering lights, but from a pajama’ed fortress mortared with popcorn.

Recently, I have proposed early Brando films.  I had only ever seen him in  his later roles as a cotton-mouthed mobster, forest spook and butterfingered lover, all of which I unfortunately mashed-up in a weird-celebrity ball with his family’s murder-suicide scandals back in the 90s.  I had never laid eyes on the young talent he once was, who had apparently freeze-framed the movie industry in a mid-orgasmic paroxysm because no one like him has existed since.

So, we watched the movie that launched him.  A Streetcar Named Desire had the hallmarks of the 1950’s–it was very character-driven and gentlewomanly–an ancient formula by our standards now of half-thoughts, CGI and gun-drama.  So, it’s hard to express in today’s terms how it blew minds, mine namely.

Let me try.  [These ramblings have some spoilers].

First, incomprehensibly, the Oscars went to everyone BUT Brando and Director Elia Kazan on that film.  Googling that afterward made me realize that the Academy had chosen to acknowledge the exact negative of this celluloid cultural artifact.   It was as if the Academy, in its haste to develop the evidence of unimaginable beauty finally captured on film, fainted from the chemical fumes it had fumbled in the mixing; or fainted from the mere promise of this talent’s light etched in the dark.  Hollywood was clearly not ready for the full exposure of Marlon Brando and the incredible artistic partner he had in Kazan.

But that was just the awards.  Audiences knew.  They had known from the two years prior of standing ovations they had rained down on him on Broadway.  The film version was likewise flooded.

Upon researching Brando’s famed mentor from the Actor’s Studio, Stella Adler, it might best be said that it was Brando’s choices that comprised his talent.  The beat of a moment he took before whipping a cup against a wall, smashing it in a rage.  The way he would let the wet of the chicken he was eating, open-mouthed, mix in with his contemptuous words.  The low maximum of intelligence he was willing to afford his character, confining us to the claustrophobic world of common sense that Stanley Kowlaski, day labourer, would speak.  The raccoon-like rifling of Blanche’s dresses as if digging through garbage, impervious to femininity, to delicacy; his reactions to Blanche’s innuendoes were also of patent disinterest.  It was clear that the sexual magnetism would be one-way and it wasn’t he who ever had to work for it.  These subtle spells were cast with every movement and word, consuming our will and sympathies for his character.  Best Supporting Actress Kim Hunter’s Stella became not interesting enough to warrant the affections of her sex-god lout of a husband; Vivien Leigh’s Best Actress for Blanche DuBois was an annoying, flouncy git who got everything coming to her; Karl Malden’s Best Supporting Actor for Mitch was hardly convincing in his retributive angst against Stanley–because everyone but everyone just serviced Brando’s negative spaces; merely gilded the frame for him to walk into; were incidental fluffers; pilons in his mad course.  Near the end, I was in denial that Stanley could have ever raped Blanche.  “I never once touched her,” is what I chose to hear.  Stanley could do no wrong.  Not sure that’s what Tennessee Williams had intended…

I tell you, Stockholm Syndrome never knew of such devoted groupies as ones Brando harvested with that role, on and off screen.

I couldn’t stop there.  A Streetcar Named Desire had set my head on fire.  YouTube and video streaming, my partners in crime, helped me vortex into the life, mind and words of Marlon Brando.  His appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Wild One, On the Waterfront, Appaloosa, Sayonara, his yellow-face stint as an Okinawan, Connie Chung interview, Larry King appearances, interviews with his sister Jocelyn, interviews with his contemporaries, ex-wife, children, grand children…sure Stanley Kowalski and the young, troubled characters Brando first came out with had cemented his legend as the Manliest–and this was the chief fascination.  But, for some comet chasers like me, we wanted to know who this being found on earth was, with so-finely-tuned an emotional instrument as to make people feel as if they had finally seen human authenticity for the first time–in, of all things, an actor.

Truth be told, knowing that he lived and breathed in my era, gave me a hopeful sense that I might have some Venn Diagram overlap that would somehow put me in association with The Interesting and Emotionally Authentic, in the case that we might share the same views about issues of our time.  But what I found over and over, in my Brando nerd-out, actually, was simply a sensitive spirit, observant and watchful of the world around him.  He seemed to constantly struggle in the noise of his fame in order to sort out some quiet, clear messages.  His body eventually started showing his submission to indulgence and excesses that fame and fortune afforded him.  Or maybe just stress.  But then  in every interview there was the well-humoured man of constant lucid insights, so prescient, they seemed like they could be from today’s liberal socio-political zeitgeist, but said in the 50s, 60s and 70s!  He took public issue with racial equality; homophobia; global warming; indigenous rights; Palestinian statehood in the era of media paternalism and conservatism.  Long before the limousine liberalism of Hollywood became a cliche, he was there walking alongside native chiefs, even Martin Luther King Jr. at the Washington Mall, helping to bear the standard.

Particularly amazing is footage of people from the old days, from Brando’s twenties, who had seen him as a nobody stage-actor.  Astonished that his techniques were so real, some said it was weird, almost embarrassing to watch–that there had to be some mistake, that a strange man had walked into an actors’ rehearsal!  Or there was the thunderous applause for a bit role he had done–because of the anger he could so ferociously emote, as if he were living art, depicting mundanity so intricately and precisely, he had made it beautiful again.   There were the heaps of praise he’d get from protege actors he had worked with on The Godfather and Apocalypse Now citing the strange, time-consuming demands he’d make on everyone to get the script right and the nuances of his character and the scenes right, going millions over budget, driving everyone to the edge, until the movies won multiple Academy Awards and critical praise.  Actors and actresses who barely shared screen time with him circled back in their seventies and eighties, at the time of his biographies or his death just to say that they had stood back and watched him in fascination as he brought to life every scene through minute brush strokes of genius acting decisions.

Though, my favourite time-warp was into The Dick Cavett Show in the early 70s.  This short hour in TV history, made me realize Brando just didn’t give a #$%^.  Brando is deconstructing the celebrity interview as it is happening, questioning why more important issues can’t be discussed instead of gossip.  He can’t escape from having to explain, though, why just the previous day, he sent a Native American to accept his Oscar in front of 85 million viewers, with a prepared statement on Hollywood’s racist depictions of ethnic minorities in film.  He doesn’t seem to be a purposeful pain in the ass about it because Cavett obviously is complicit later in dedicating half the show to indigenous issues that Brando cares about.  Cavett, also intelligent and gracious, to his credit put forth this unconventional episode’s agenda despite clearly struggling with the light, sensationalist nature of celebrity interviews that his conservative network and audiences preferred.  Anyway, Brando is about 50 at the time and even in his criticism of the premise of the show’s celebrity scrutiny, a long dour issue in his career by then, his conversational steps are light and sensitive to response.  He is unable to conceal an easy smile and connection to his host, whom he clearly liked and respected.  As were true of all of his other interviews, he sits there and denies that he is any hot thing.  That acting’s a job, he has bills to pay, there are others with bigger problems, hence, WTF.  The iconoclasm of being anti-Hollywood could only be pulled off by a Hollywood icon.

To see Marlon Brando as an obese older man from the impossibly gorgeous 20-something within the span of a week was a huge insight into someone who survived the worst type of cultural machinery of our time, somehow able to still smile.  He was a spirit that suited, actually, the round comfortable man he ended up becoming.  In the end, he still had that soulful, emotive face that could distill clear thoughts; that somehow made things that we never knew were important or beautiful, all that ever mattered.

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Spiritual Puberty, A Shattering

Teenaged me checked her reflection in every car window on the way to and from school.  It was one part narcissism for sure, but at least two parts puberty, which was liable to produce new lumps and tentacles every week without notice.  So, dip, duckface and oil dab  was the OCD dance of my youth in high vigilance of life’s first world aggressions.

In high school, kids you thought you knew would walk into class on some days with a leathery adult trying to break out from their baby face!  Or with embarrassingly sudden boobs, but no explanation.  It was rumoured to be due to pinprick levels of hormones secreting in places we couldn’t see–but who could believe that?  Life was clearly just crazy.  It was a momentous time.

Myself?  I tapered off at 5’2, 100lbs probably sometime during Gr. 8 violin class, which I spent in the girls’ washroom, looking at magazines and then at my face in the mirror.  I felt very much the putty victim of some invisible genetic sculptor, who seemed much less concerned with a beautiful product, and more with how much I could possibly be made to look like my dad.  Sans moustache.  Or avec moustache?!??!  I was keeping tabs (and tweezers handy)!

After allowing the boob-fairy many last-chances, well into my 20s, I finally conceded that I must have my dad’s genes, if not natural heroin chic.  Well, good–I was an adult.  This meant that with the steep climb to physiological stasis accomplished, the gift of spiritual maturity must be at hand too.   I took comfort in knowing that people in the past died at age 30 having had 11 children, living through revolution and plagues.  Before 30, it seemed, life had enough to offer humans so they wouldn’t die green and spiritually unformed.

What horror then, to find out another type of puberty was waiting to overtake my freshly minted self!  Sure, the growing stopped–and according to science, even physical decay wastes no time kicking in.  But the palpable insecurity about everything; the “life-is-crazy” upheavals and unseen pressure that foist themselves anew meant that I’d yet to be free from that unsympathetic scalpel.  Free-willies and libertarians will insist that once we’re not children, it’s we who get to drive our own destinies and shape our own lots; that inner peace can be achieved with simply being in touch, through meditation, carpe diem and such fish.

Ok.  But I lay before you two giant waving tentacles that show we are no more in control of our spiritual puberty than our genetically hijacked teenaged selves were able to stem the flow of rampant hormones:

1. Consumerism: distorts what I’d really be

My god!  (=part exasperation and part small g deity).  There was a time in my 20s when I flew excitedly to another city with an empty suitcase itching for a massive haul that my area girls would coo over.  “I got it in Japan” would be as triumphant and exclusive as being able to say “it’s because my grandma had a superb figure”.  At my most anti-intellectual, I would even equate having a new outfit every day to getting in as many books and films as you can in life; that going shopping was no different than being a keen contemporary museum goer.  My friend even pointed out that when Madison Ave executives targeted stay-at-home 1950s moms with household appliance ads to boost a post-war economy with consumer crap–that that was perhaps the biggest boost to women’s equalizing effects coming to the fore in the 60s and 70s.  Women became a powerful economic decision-making body.  They controlled family budgets on top of their own personal spending in a national economy.  Soon, their men weren’t making enough for them to spend–so they wanted to work too–at equal the pay, at least.  What are you going to do?  Deny them that?

I think consumer product executives HAVE denied women that.  They’ve wanted their cake and to eat it too, by keeping women the biggest spenders at any mall and in any economy, but not have them join the real ranks of control–only 3% of C-level management positions are held by women.  So, what is the consequence of that?  Borrowed money.  Households put it on their credit cards.  Husbands become the workhorse.  Wives too, but at roughly 75% the income.

So, this realization about myself and about the world I live in is hard to spiritually digest.  It’s been hard to become my own spirit in this aggressive environs.  I am worried that in every reflective surface, I just see a person shaped by corporate strategies and I have no idea if that’s what I would have chosen to be.  I don’t trust I have any legitimate idea of what else there would be to choose from.  I know at least, that I want to be sociable–I want to be with others and participate–that seems a plausible anthropological thing to want.  But the particular time and space I’m in, that means being fashionable, doing fun things in the city, and not having a stink.  Is that possible without buying something?  No, it’s not.  Not when every moment is photographed and posted.  Not when getting from here to there requires, gas, tax and tip.  Not when it’s often the only way to find love in a city of millions.

Every decision I make to participate, makes me complicit in this system.  It is a system that has done me favours because my dad apparently, makes a good-looking woman.  It’s the system that will see me live until at least 83.  Even for the Zuccotti Park Wall-Street Occupiers, it is a system that placed them geo-politically in the 1% of humanity, with McDonald’s washrooms nearby and free wifi at Deutsche Bank.

2. Assholes: create shit wherever they stand

This is another class of problem that has too big a hand in my development.  Like zombies, they don’t seem to respond to gunshots to the chest.

Assholes are everywhere, literally and figuratively whipping out their dicks, uninvited.  This is the sense of entitlement that comes from the high of one-percentdom.  In the past, we thought this profile might be reserved for billionaire-heirs who OD in exotic 5-star hotels.  But, with the ghetto-ization of the world through our industries and the digital means to broadcast it, we, the middle class of the first world have assured ourselves of our position right at the top of the food chain too.  Some among us have taken it a step further to piss downward to see where the trickles go, giving a childish laugh of delight.

It’s really hard to date someone you realize is like this.  And it’s hard to work with or for people like this.  In Japan, for some reason, I met a lot of these people.  The expat community, in particular, has a higher concentration of assholes than in regular populations–I’d say 3 in 10, at least.  Maybe it’s often excused as a language or culture gap (there’s even a term for being an expat asshole, and getting away with it: “gaijin-power”).  This is sadly, in addition to the multitude of Japanese assholes who victimize foreign people.  Japan, despite its reputation for being “high-tech”, is a hugely paper-based, low-tech bureaucracy of legislature and law enforcement that still uses the FAX for crissakes.  Its staff routinely hangs up on you once they hear your halting Japanese (cute helpful website in English encouraging you to call them, notwithstanding).  Assholes, stalkers and other criminals take full advantage of this for said dick whip-out, sometimes literally.  My theory of the “low crime rate” in Japan?  Don’t get me started.

So, I spent some late-formative years in Japan, dealing with these people.  Every bite taken out of me, shaped me.  There was almost no time or brain space to recognize what my path would have been otherwise.  It was triage on a daily basis.

It was like a succession of worsening Fear Factor experiments to test your stomach-steel to deal with them.  If you survived the lawsuit with the snake pit of harassing employers, then next, see if you’ll come out of the shark tank with the sexual harassing and stalking caseworker assigned to your lawsuit!  And then, for the semi-finals, we’ll see how long you can stand the stench of the union executives who compromise their internal investigation of this caseworker by prioritizing a public showing  of solidarity with him for years against a company suing them.  Finally, the winner will be the one who can keep breathing among constricting journalists ironically “dedicated” to revealing bad labour practices, but who cut out the portion of the story which sheds an unflattering light on their long-time labour expert–your stalker and former caseworker!

These assholes made the public masturbators on the Tokyo trains, with their dicks literally out, relatively simple to deal with.

*     *     *

There.  I told you.

Seeking reflection of myself in the world around me has always been like looking down a hall of mirrors.  In adulthood, I guess I’m supposed to be wise to the distorted and haunted ones.  But, I’m exhausted being startled around every corner by something disappointingly fake.  Maybe this is my revolution and plague.  Spiritual forging in the 21st century–except we seem to have 60 more years of it…

Afraid of seeing what lies behind it all, I could allow myself to be enshrined in glass, unable to discern what’s real, if I’m real.  I could succumb.  Or

 

An Economy Martin Luther King Jr. Would Be Proud Of

I went to my first gay wedding a few weeks ago.  Incidentally, I learned that the term “gay wedding” is probably redundant.  It wasn’t so much that two men were getting married, but rather like most gay situations:

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there was fine catering

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fabulous mothers-in-law

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and colour-corodination

But as beautifully unremarkable as this event was, I realized that it is only recently that in quaint parts of the world, such as the USA, the fundamental civic relationship of marriage has finally become a federal right.  In France, this year, champagne flows for all lovers at long last; in the Vatican, the new pope actually uttered “who am I to judge?” when it comes to homosexuality, clearly having made personal notes in the margins of The Book like a good reader.

The fact that systems around the world are declaring a need for equality and compassion, is hugely momentous indeed.  On the 50th anniversary of MLK’s speech, too!

Russia, however, ever the buzzkill, continues to deny its support for such equality as it simultaneously tries to welcome the world to attend its 2014 Olympics–an event founded on sweaty naked men no less, stripped of title and ranking in the spirit of social equality, in order to compete on pure physicality.  This ironic situation has aptly given rise to a mishmash of leading world politicians, comedians, and drag queens to boycott humanity’s retreat into the Siberia of human rights.

In the momentum of this moment, I see an opportunity for Global Economics to examine its role in inequality.

Inequality in politics or society may be unconstitutional, but in the realm of the economy it’s somehow given much more latitude.   It’s still an acceptable Darwinian shrugging-off of Losers; a deep inconvenience to actually productive members of society.  Working hard to earn your own way in this economy is about as pure as the spirit of the original Olympics.  But every successive generation in our global economy seems to be plagued with rigged games, false starts, stacked odds against the many and doped-up advantages for the few.  Worse still, few of us living in developed countries experience this personally any more, to fight against it.   After all, we’ve passed numerous laws for upward mobility for fellow citizens  and we pay taxes within our nation states to support the social safety net.

But if I may point us to our lowly toaster:

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made up of 400 elements sourced from around the world

We are neck-deep in global consequences of our every purchase, every day!  Coffee.  Banana.  Fork.  Toothbrush.  The global economy crams into our mouths every morning, for example.  Thus, it’s gotten waaaaay past anything that our relationship with our single nation state can address.  Our entrenchment in the global network of people, societies, difficulties and fates requires that we address this new world as world citizens.  We are starting to do it socially, but not economically.

If we in the West are socially evolved enough now to throw down over the unequal treatment of Russian gays, a both super-niche and super-national equality issue, why aren’t we even discussing the systematic economic suppression of SO MANY GROUPS around the world that are regularly affected by our economic choices and the policies of our elected Western governments?  Unequally paid women, child-labourers, subsistence wage factory workers, trafficked workers, modern day slaves, civilians in warzones containing precious elements for our luxury products?  What exactly is the net effect of our “support of civil rights” around the world?

I don’t think we know.

Our capitalistic system, in which we swim as oblivious fish, cannot deny its origins formed in the era of subjugating and enslaving whole races and dominating sovereign countries for centuries.   These “free” labour and resources fed the expansionary addiction of the master or colonial power and have inevitably set the tone for what we have today.  Though, in the West because we have mostly sent off-shore the industrial jobs and all their Oliver Twist-era social ills, our everyday capitalism feels benign.  We may still have the rich-get-richer, poorer-get-poorer, private-profit vs. public-losses issues–but they’ve become hugely abstracted in the way:

1. labyrinthine stock market blips create overnight billionaires and crush others,

2. celebrity, speculation and branding all command absurd pay scales,

3. weak-headed regulatory agencies stare paralyzed into the election cycle, unable to affect a legislative bill

We just can’t explain it anymore.  And I’m not even about to suggest Karl Marx to the rescue.  Marx’s “solution” for capitalism never accounted for an upcoming 10 billion people, half of whom are going to use and be ad-targeted by Facebook.  It did not have credit cards, nor worldwide stock exchanges that traded in nano-seconds.  It didn’t have e-commerce, nor demonstrations organized by social media.  It didn’t have record student debt, nor housing prices 8 times the average household yearly income.  It didn’t have tourmaline mined from the Congo for 50 million internet devices, nor European banks leveraged at 56 times.  It didn’t have middle-class countries going bankrupt, nor 200% debt-to-GDP.  It did not have 17,000 nuclear warheads, nor nuclear power nor nuclear disasters.  Marx, nor anyone else bearded, moustachioed or shaven, in agreement with him or not, living in the era of rampant cholera and TB, had any tools to face what we’ve got now.

It doesn’t help that modern economists out there are still debating Marx, Hayek, Friedman and Keynes and John Adams for crissakes–long dead economic theorists.  Looooooong dead.  Economists are quoting Depression Era / post-World War 2  economic policy to recover from TODAY’S recessions; recommending raising or lowering interest rates as others have for the past 130 years;  wondering whether austerity or stimulus is the right policy; to print or not to print more money?  Like binary OCD for the past 80 years!  Or too scared to face today’s complexities.  With the speed and scale of the global economy, and the markets and consequences within it busting out exponentially, today’s economists are like pre-antibiotic triage nurses showing up to the ER with nothing but smelling salts and rusty extraction pliers.  The creak and rust of their “tools” almost guarantee a side-effect of economic tetanus for every problem solved!  And it’s they who advise our governments?  We are done for!

Unless.  Unless we all take the understanding of economics into our own hands, the way we have with civil rights.  Whaaa?  How?

1. Don’t depend on government to solve anything.  Individuals make the hugest difference.  Today, Consumers and Facebookers (etc.) have no boundaries.  They are powerful in this age:

Can we just say, “I’ve paid my taxes; that’s how I care for others” ?  Within our own nation states, the answer has become largely yes–as countries have a national interest in priming and promoting their human resources for the world market by using tax money to support them.  But our individual economic actions are actually so far reaching now, beyond the boundaries of our nation states.  We make global choices with everything we buy.  We have the power to spread our choices to our friends and influence them.  We can influence industries en masse with our values.   If you have money, insist on master products, over ones with quick obsolescence cycles.  If you don’t, take good care of your things.  Buy from micro-breweries, boutiques, local farmers, or multi-nationals who are getting it right.

2. Learn from history.

The main reason behind economic inequality is the ghettoization of cheap labourers to other areas of the world.  Rights that we value are withheld from them.  We may believe in universal healthcare in our own country, yet we bargain hunt for shoes glued together by a worker who has necessarily had to forego hers (meaning her Healthcare; and I guess her shoes too in some cases) in order to keep it cheap.  The sense of actively preventing another person from getting Healthcare (or safe working conditions etc.) is not real to us because many of us believe consuming is a harmless, even economically helpful activity.  We may recognize the patented creepy strategy of ghettoization as one used  to achieve single-minded political utopias in the past, but for the sake of the economy today, we figure, it’s just business.  Recognize this hypocrisy!

3.  Apply your thinking, and exponentiate it.

Could Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech 50 years ago be applied to the marginalized people of the global economy?  Is it asking people of Western countries to vote for real global leaders?

“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

“Negro” in his speech might have been a placeholder for anyone who has ever been systematically given the shaft in a society or global economy:

“There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.  No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.””

(I give you a global economics Mad Libs suggestion sheet here.)

During the Cold War 50 years ago, the plight of Russian gays was the least of our concerns.  Now we are fast tracking them for immigration to Canada.  50 years ago, nation states were just starting to see that a sisterhood / brotherhood, mutual respect, equal access and opportunity were necessary for civil peace; that one person’s well-being is tied to another’s; is tied to everyone else’s.  That your rights are my rights.  That your fate is my fate.

That the richness of your life is the richness of mine.

Where are we now?

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Obituary of a Long Dead Princess

The other week, I watched the 1980 Paris funeral of Jean-Paul Sartre on Youtube, wherein the streets were so densely lined with people receiving the procession, that I almost expected Princess Diana to make a rehearsal appearance in her poufy wedding gown.  This, having triggered some whiff of significance in my life, caused me to go rifling through my basement to unearth a copy of Nausea, written by the French philosopher, that I apparently knew I’d been borrowing for 20 years.  I remember after my best friend switched to a different high school in downtown Toronto, it was all I could do to keep our arms and psyches linked, by faithfully consuming every book she announced she was finished with.

“Existentialism” was a strange bat fluttering erratically around the echo-y cavern of literature that kids like me found ourselves tentatively walking into.  What creature was this, and why did literati keep talking about it in abstractions or some secret (pornographic?) language that wet lay-ears weren’t allowed to understand or something?  I remember I tried.  Despite getting in there with Camus, Kafka, and the Cure lyrics (deconstructing-like-the-only-way-like-a-teen-can), I just couldn’t understand how anyone could characterize life as such a bland, profoundly tiresome process, rife with chores and minutiae, tenuous and ultimately disappointing.  That, if anything, was nauseating.  Maybe that’s the point.  How could being a published and celebrated author or artist suck?  It doesn’t.  Life was good.  Boys were cute.  Snacks were yummy.  Things were interesting.  The future was big and bright.  The subtext of these salespeople’s success convinced me.

Fast-forward to 20 summers later.  I found that Douglas Coupland’s Barbie-sized Life After God fit nicely into my handbag.  So, I walked around town reading it, having just undergone some major life transitions dealing with Love lost, a nuclear fallout (in Japan) and the growing deep, hollow drumbeat of atheism in the zeitgeist, myself.  In the story, a man who had made a baby by accident with his wife went from “carefree penury to striving middle-class participation” and in the process, managed to have his love fall apart.  He realized that he had the median ability and intelligence to hack it in life, but there would be nothing that would be special, if not for this Love, he writes to his child.  And it wasn’t ever going to come back to him.  He was just going to have to deal.  What about turning to God?  What’s that?  We’ve only ever had TV.

At the same time I was reading this, I had set up an online dating profile.  Sometimes, single fathers would message me, disclosing, like responsible packaging, in the very first exchange, that they had a little person on the weekends, or two teenagers that were, respectively, their heart and soul, or they had a seven-year-old as their regular dinner date.  And I’ve written such funny things!  And my pictures were so pretty…but (they needed to know up front): did I mind?

Having majored in Data Management, I understand a roughly 60% chance of divorce.  As well, having actively avoided pregnancy for all of my adult life and marveling at the prescience of Margaret Sanger’s for-fuck’s-sake-speeches about Planned Parenthood almost 100 years ago, I truly get how life-changing kids, not even counting the sometimes-failed relationships that spawn them, can be.  Thus, I have protected myself (er, perhaps a little too-well now), from the meaty hands of the Business of Life and its ensuing chokehold on cosmic possibilities and personal freedom.  [Yes, it’s drivel like this that is behind Why the Catholics Are Winning.  [Shut up.]]

So, did I slink away all-cyber-stranger-like, pretending I didn’t read the sincere queries of these people who had been ensnared in life’s twin rope courses of the mundane vs. existential?  No, I addressed them all, even though I had checked off the “I mind” box concerning whether or not a dude has kids.  I wrote that I understood what they were doing was balls-hard, that I admired them and that in all-probability, coffee wasn’t going to turn into an emotional ransom situation anyway, so, uh, relax lol.  I ended up meeting up with one who wrote like he was sharpening knives, and looked like a famous dead rapper (=hot).  Though, he serenaded me with hackneyed 90s spoken word.  I found out his divorce wasn’t final and he let me know that he needed to find himself first.  Then, I dated another one who looked like if Orlando Bloom were actually handsome and slightly Jewish, and punctuated his sentences like a 60-year-old lawyer (=hot).  He serenaded me with a patchy spot recital of William Blake’s Tiger poem.  Then I found out he was barely out of a difficult relationship and he admitted that he probably needed to find himself first.

Both guys talked about how having a kid in a dead relationship ends up being something like blacking out for years.  The grown child is evidence of life having gone on.  The love you have for him/her is proof you’re alive.  But one day you wake up and you don’t remember who you are.

Sartre and Beauvoir and their many lovers snarled that to be monogamous was to be dictated by some unnatural bourgeoisie expectation.  Instead, one needs to catch the wave of inherent personal freedom, dude.  I always wondered about those two (or ten?)—and about my own perceptions of needing to lock in My One True Love.

Picture 187

Damn you Shakespeare and your sticky cultural memes!

It does seem more plausible that we are poly-amourous for the sake of proliferation.  But then, the subsequent emotional, health and financial instability paradoxically disenables us from safely engaging in said proliferation!  [Yes, meanwhile, the Catholics…] [And meanwhile gonorrhea is now drug resistant! [*sigh* not secular logic too??]]

Princess Diana in her poufy gown would have to wait one more year for the famous philandering philosopher to decompose before she was able to kiss her prince, on the eve of her fairy tale ending.  Her first and last smile as princess.  And I will soon be the age she was when she died, speeding down a Paris tunnel in her little black dress, with her millionaire boyfriend, running away from people who wanted to scrutinize her life, down to the minutia.

She made the play for the ultimate bourgeois life as a teenager.  Then, she threw it all in the establishment’s face.  She was crushed by the lack of personal freedom, but died fighting to save it.  She was a graphic symbol of the insufferable excess and narcissism of the middle-class-ass West.  But she was also a premiere humanitarian and mother.  Millions lined the streets to receive the procession of her funeral.

Hmm…being one person is exhausting, after all!  Barf.

*     *     *

From Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartrepp. 6-7:

“[Anny] never says no.  I follow her into one of the big rooms on the second floor she rents by the hour or by the day.  I do not pay her: our need is mutual…we hardly speak.  What good is it?…

pg. 9:

…For the first time, I am disturbed at being alone.  I would like to tell someone what is happening to me before it’s too late and before I start frightening little boys.  I wish Anny were here.”

From The Cure’s “Killing an Arab”:

I can turn and walk away or I can fire the gun

Staring at the sky, staring at the sun

Whichever I choose it amounts to the same

Absolutely nothing

From Princess Diana:

“I think the biggest disease the world suffers from in this day and age is the disease of people feeling unloved.”

Dodging Drama: Tips on spotting b***** out to get you

Prologue:

Drama has been a fact of my life since a swimming instructor, Francis, roll-called my Vietnamese name, Thu, in my first swimming class in kindergarten and proceeded to ask “Three?  Four?”, chuckling to herself.  With a budding sense of dignity, albeit a shivery and skinny one in my yellow seashell patterned one-piece, I was determined not to cry in front of all these new kids.  If you recall, that peppery feeling in the middle of your face of wanting to cry has never felt so powerful as in those days of a new beating human heart in a tiny body.  For me, at that moment, the sensation at least succeeded to push out a centimetre-thick lens of tears coating my eyes.  I didn’t dare blink.  I walked slowly and carefully to the edge of the pool as if I were balancing two giant watery fish eggs on my face.  And I waited for the friggin’ eternity it took for her to instruct us to get in the pool.  Underwater, it was finally ok to let go where sobs were muffled and everyone was going to have an equally wet, puffy chlorinated face anyway.

*     *     *

I’ve since learned that people are just plain stupid and like to act out.  You find out in school in the decade of recess, the interminable cafeteria lunch hours, then you get a job and find out not much has changed.

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Elena cuts up a wig on her first day in Santa Barbara

I’ll admit people who like to screw you over don’t always do it because they’re stupid.  They do it out of jealous rage too.  The instructive love-triangle storyline of Santa Barbara, circa the late 80s can illustrate:  Elena Norris goes through a lot of wigs, cunning, personal expense, name changes, kidnappings of others and eventually her own death, just to win over Cruz Castillo, whom she didn’t like seeing married to Eden Capwell in the first place.  But in the end, we find out Elena was really just the puppet psychiatric patient of Eden’s ex-husband Kirk, who had elaborately tried to frame Cruz for Elena’s murder, to win back his ex. Great. Plan.

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Do-good secretary Krystle (left) was no match for bi-polar ex-wife Alexis (right)

80s prime-time extravaganza Dynasty, Seasons 1-9, proved that people who should have no cares in this material world (i.e. they RICH!) actually do because they have massive(ly fragile) egos.  As a consequence, if they could eat you as lowly cannibals, they would, if that might inflict a bit of one-up-manship on you.  In the world of the oil baron Carringtons, they slept with your spouse or frightened you into an induced miscarriage and did hostile takeovers of your life’s long work, just to get you back for the time you didn’t call when you said you would.  The show gained real momentum with the introduction of scheming be-otch extraordinaire, Alexis Morell Carrington Colby Dexter Rowan, who not only hogged every letter of the alphabet for herself, but had the wiles to marry her enemy’s enemy on his death bed with no pre-nup, thereby exponentially multiplying her power over everybody!  (Worse than any ex-wife Nintendo execs could ever dream up for Wario.)  The show peaked at a 60 million viewership and even attracted cameos by former first couple Gerald Ford and his wife, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, showing that even the most reserved of us are all pandering gluttons of melodramatic dish.  Ratings eventually tanked and the Möbius storylines never got resolved.

Dynasty.  Die nasty.

My last example of infamous motives behind middle-school-brained back stabbings is of course, money.  For those of us in the bland non-TV striving middle-class land of water coolers, there is no plausible enough tele-novella storyline for us to carry on every workday.  Passion just doesn’t fit in a setting of taupe wrinkle-resistant business casual.  And we all may have an ego, but that doesn’t weigh in so heftily when our title is at best, some euphemistic blend of the words “Accounts”, “Brand”, “Assistant”, “Area” and “Manager”.  And stupidity is always an underlying possibility, but if I had to pick a shine in the eye of enemy colleagues, I’d cite our universal concern for money as the psychotic voice of unreason in the crap we pull on each other.

If you notice, everyone around you is mortgaged, depended upon, and perhaps in the middle of some hot new mid-life crisis car payments etc.  Knowing this about your colleagues can be useful in informing you of the route they are going to take should workplace issues occur among you.  I give you real-life cases and the ensuing boomerangic karma that neatly wraps them up as instructional guides to drama-dodging; my presents to you:

Case A: Middle Manager A has two kids in private American universities, and an online degree of mystery value.  He’s a long time creep and someone finally calls him out.  Instead of just apologizing, he attempts to crush the other’s career in abject paranoia of losing his own position.  The other sues and gets a big settlement.

Case B: Co-worker B is waiting for her retirement bonus.  She has the opportunity as a senior among peers to speak up for changes that need to be made to better the workplace, but doesn’t and instead panders in her final years to ensure the bonus, to pay for an outstanding mortgage on a home that houses her granddaughter.  She wonders why after all these years, her last day wasn’t more celebrated by colleagues.

Case C: Team Leader C has a 30-year mortgage, a child and is trying to make management.  He actively listens to staff complaints about management and is asked to do something, but for the whole year, he tai-chis the whole affair so that he doesn’t appear to be an out-right management lackey, yet avoids actually having to do anything against them at all.  He doesn’t make management anyway and the staff doubts the existence of his balls.

Case D: VP D is a male in an all-boys’ club and surrounds himself with actually certified people to get the job done, but then takes all the credit.  He’s been given a salary he doesn’t deserve and due to poor math skills, he’s leveraged his net worth 4-fold to ride with the big dogs (big mortgage, nice car etc).  This of course, overheats the sweatshop at work to prove his worth and perhaps to get promoted to pay off said trappings.  Pissed off, the worker bees quit to lay bare his jig.

Case E: Administrator E has an ailing husband, whose health care will cost a lot to keep him alive.  Her yearly salary, if kept on cruise-control would help cover those costs.  Thus, she throws herself wholeheartedly, nodding in agreement to any and all awful ideas cooked up in the inbred groupthink swamp that the administration has become.  But one day, she over steps and proactively brings to life one of these terrible ideas.  Too bad there happened to be a preemptive court order against it and eyes had been on it.  Now, she has to represent the administration as the key witness for the defense.

*     *     *

Epilogue:

In the end, thankfully, Francis disappeared after her unpopular roll-call torment of Season 1.  Budget cuts?  A drowning?  Who knows!

PS: there exist a few who are able to transcend all this drama.  No matter how mortgaged or beholden to a job they are, there is little to nothing that screws with their moral compass or their intellectual navigation of life.  They do the right thing by others. To them:

I say, “Thanks for watching out for us!”

Calling Out Statutory Rape Where It’s Due

Earlier this year, I caught wind of a brilliant series of French Anti-Tobacco ads that set the embers of my heart aglow for intelligent humankind in Marketing and Advertising:

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These people have turned the machine back on itself by using the last bastion of non-partisan, areligious, humanity-unanimity gold: our collective wrath against harming children.  Who could disagree that these ads were right on the mark?  “To smoke is to be a slave to tobacco” [Read: to smoke is to be a slave to tobacco companies and their shareholders who don't care whether you live or die, just as long as this quarter, you were still jonesing].

And that generic white, middle-aged suit?  Ad exec?  Big business CEO?  Faceless shareholder?  Dad, who knows best?  Well, whoever he is, he seems to know even the young among us quite well enough to put his hand on our head and get us to assume the position.  We look up at him, uncertain, but full of trust, taking the funny-tasting stick in our mouths.  And after repeated belligerent thrusts of media campaigns to convince us that we want it; and the seep of addictive chemicals to ensure that we need it, we have long suppressed our gag reflex and succumb.

This ad makes fun of us by being so unnoticeably background-bland; non-nude, non-prettified.  Oh, it’s just a child sucking a…WHAT THE?!  That’s right, world!  Are you paying attention?  Tobacco is beyond fucking redemption.  Thanks for noticing.  Powerful PSA.  Though we could have easily replaced the word “tobacco” with crack, sex-trafficking, mindless consumerism or:

Investment and Commercial Banking.

Are these not often akin to Statutory Rape? The vast majority of private investors have no idea what / who they are “getting in bed with” when they are recommended some fund / index to invest in.  They don’t realize that management fees are secured regardless of their investments’ movements or that high-octane bonuses are rewarded expressly for unloading garnished crap onto them.  Or when students, families or small businesses take out loans–do they fully understand the labyrinthine terms of repayment and threat of life- servitude to this, even though banks often back the loans through government or private insurance, regardless?  Therefore, the disparity of knowledge / sophistication between these two parties getting into a deal together is no less horrific than in those back-ass-ward cases where 5-year-old Yemeni brides “marry” their old rotting horndog uncles.  Something gross is going down here.  One side has their entire future at stake in exchange for the other’s easy score.  One of the lives has a vastly greater risk of being shattered, while the other barely blinks.  Let’s stigmatize ALL of this, in all its camouflage shades of putrefaction, stat!

We have too long sanitized such a culture of abuse by putting it in a backdrop of friendly local banks with Chinese language pamphlets, or tall, inspirational glass buildings with dudes in bespoke tailoring.

Even large institutional investment banks have screwed each other.  LIBOR rigging this year caused long-time syphilitic lovers to hold off lending in miffed contempt for awhile!  But despite no assurances that all disease was clear, the level of testosterone couldn’t handle the withdrawal for long.

In the end, the issue isn’t just that banks do and will always have the the upper hand on their clients, it’s that the lubricant of Trust is gone.  And worst of all, Greed has evolved into a drug-resistant strain that rots every contract or covenant it underwrites.  Abusing clients is not just a matter of being wrong and gross, it is painful and life-shattering for them.

That’s a PSA worth putting out there!

Aside

Warrior Skills (Amendments from the First World)

I have poor to average physical coordination.  In gym class, I was too slow (witted?) to ever steal the ball from the other team, and I was never convinced that this was a truly necessary act in life anyway–this “getting the ball”.  The heady emotional cloud of hormones that hangs over a game among teens, won or lost, affected me none–I would be showered and dressed again with my nose in some Italian play, while girls were still screaming about unfair calls made by our middle-aged, bottom-heavy Ms. Gibson, who hardly made it around the court fast enough anyway.  I just didn’t care about competition in sports.  (“Sport”?)  Sports.  My body never called out to me to run faster, jump higher nor high five with a heartier, more collegial smack.

And I’m also astigmatic and myopic, which I don’t mind.  Glasses look good on me.  It’s a pretty low-maintenance affliction (?) in life.

We were hunters.  We were warriors.  And if it weren’t for the sedentary ass-cushion of comfort that physical skills are no longer really on the human genome’s soup list of main ingredients, I would feel badly about myself.  Clearly, I don’t.  Though, I also bear no grudge against sports, in the same way I bear no grudge against ideas like the US’s 2nd Amendment.  After all, you never know when the Zombie Apocalypse is coming.  In the meantime, it behooves us to work on our cardio and aim, why not?

I will admit that it’s a little lonely to think that I have NO deoxyribonucleic shared history of prowling and conquering.  So, upon thinking hard, I realize that whatever my latent instinctual gifts may be, they likely happen to be stuffed up in my brain, if not my glutes.

For example, I often find myself holding out my hand split seconds before something falls off the table into it or I have shielded my head split seconds before a projectile came directly at it, without seeing it or even knowing what I was doing.

Also, I have been in the middle of dealings with assholes in life where I only hear the sound of my calm breathing, still, with the clear vision of myself, victorious.  Then, if necessary, I pursue a cold and unrelenting (but socially sanctioned!) karmically retributive hunt and hold long and fast until my objective is exacted.  And I feel nothing.  I just note that it’s done.

I have had years where life’s routine landfill dumping rounds came by my door, repeatedly.  Ok, they were stupid #firstworldproblems like sexual harassment, eviction, unemployment, lawsuits, no clear future etc.  Those with me, were worried, sleepless, sliding into depression, hopeless, and worst of all, panicking.  But I felt none of that.  I watched movies like March of the Penguins and cried for their suffering in the cold (my poor circulation come winter being my real empathic thread here).  These animals would  waddle dutifully inland for tons of kilometres from a food run only to find their babies sometimes dead or missing in the impossibly vast monochromatic tide of penguinity.  Or I would read about how villagers in Tibet, forbidden to carry a picture of the Dalai Lama, would be arrested anyway by Chinese authorities for carrying an empty frame in peaceful protest.  How cheeky!  The first world country I lived in, Japan, in comparison, had clear channels of action for my problems.  Chances were, I was not a person or creature on Earth who would need to worry about the maw of nature dashing my dreams, nor about perishing in confinement of rules and walls no one I knew believed in, yet had the power to suffocate us at whim.

I think this galvanizing of my stomach went down when I was a 17 year old girl, when I suffered heavily, unable to enjoy any day of life for a year due to the TKO of love lost, sexual assault and a robbery.  I had loved high school and this is how it was ending.  I was trying to apply to good universities, keep up my grades and wrestle with regular teen bullshit all in addition.  Being the daughter of practical-ass immigrants, who measured the success of their parenting by my body weight and grades, there simply was no concept in our house of psychological issues.  Plus, they had brought me to Canada where there is education, the rule of law and hope.  Wasn’t that enough?  Sheesh.

So, deal I did.  I surfaced.  I showered, got dressed and went about my day.

Oh, and I crossed each of the known assailants off my list, one by one.

The Algorithm of Depression

I’ve known now, several people close to me whose lives have been altered due to depression.  They all happen to be men.  And none of them seemed to be able to snap out of it after a sunny intervention, as I had done one notorious December when I escaped some darkness to Thailand.  For these men, depression precipitates like Chinese Water Torture for months, years?  Relentless.  Silently a flood draws around them, so that any surrounding footprints and traces of life are slow-drowned into murkiness.  As I stood with one man uncertainly in his waters, he no longer recognized where he was or where we were.  Even if it had been, that I was in his arms, in love with him still.  I hadn’t realized that I had drowned too, and the look in his eyes was of mourning.  Though, somewhere in the ether was a scream, my scream, that it can’t rain forever, that all our things are still here, just floating…away (?)  Couldn’t he see?

He happened to be good at solving Rubik’s cubes.  Applying algorithms to untangle any mess that a new cube might present.  It was a small act of heroism to defeat a 5x5x5 colour scramble, restoring order in a toy-form of chaos.  Naively, over his shoulder watching, in my bedazzled, still-mediaeval girl brain, I made metaphorical notes-to-self on such prowess, always touching his finished cube like a jewel of mankind.

But life always presents ever more dimensions of chaos, unsolvable, doesn’t it?  And I learned that it’s not always colour-coded for convenience.  The first puzzles come in childhood, which is always incorrectly portrayed in media and children’s books lit in full white light, revealing impossibly easy demarcations of emotion.  This here is happy, this is sad, this is angry.  What childhood really is, instead, is a blur of agonizing gray with no boundary.  It’s parents who are supposed to love you but fight all the time.  It’s being slapped until you see red, the colour of love.  It’s your body betraying you as it grows.  It’s feeling like you don’t fit in, despite the multitudes of labels available: boy, girl, popular, not, stupid, brainer, hot, loser, hated, loved.  Sunny days in tumult, smiles not returned.  Families broken forever.

Who among us has solved any of this before adulthood?  I remember in my twenties, black haired and beautiful by any standard now, sick with worry and sad sad sad that I had not what it took to become a finished cube.  A jewel.  And years later now, I’m not any closer to the algorithm that will tranform the chaos of life into something beautiful.

But I am beautiful.  Sitting in this black water rising able to remember the topography of home underneath, like a reconnaissance pilot, nostalgic but certain.  My self-esteem, as powerful as imagination, formed by what I wonder?  I somehow know that it’s going to be alright.  But where will the water reach?  My shoulders, my neck…before my tears betray me in a panic and cause the flood to rise faster still?

What defenses do I have?  There lingers in me the memory of having been conceived in a flood.  My mother’s ocean.

Hold your babies tight.

“Unconditional love will have the final word in reality” -Martin Luther King Jr. (Rubik’s Cube Art by Pete Fecteau, chaos made beautiful still)

The Immorality of Spring

Spring is something we all look forward to: its newness, its freshness and its vanquish of the tiresome, cold and persistent Zombie of Winter, constantly chasing us from indoors to indoors, forcing us to hide our faces and necks from its bite.  Spring is the hero of our lives, galloping in at the end of a near-tragic story of surrender to the cold and dark, rescuing us from our almost forgetting what warmth was like altogether.  Spring resets our cold misery as the prologue to a new year of sunny possibilities.

But Spring has a dark side.  It causes us to think that new is better.  Many animals give birth in the Spring.  Baby anything is always cute and favourable.  Spring Cleaning is when we throw out all our old junk collected, untouched, abused, useless.  The warmth causes all molecules to move more, making trips to the mall and out to restaurants and the movies easier.  We are out and about more, buying new outfits, driving our cars, fuelling the economy that has marketed this time of year back to us as a New Beginning: we need to start anew, with new things.

No one really thinks that Spring is actually a recycling of the old: dead leaves from the Autumn serve as fertilizer for the new growth of Spring flowers; the melted snow of the Winter nourishes the roots of new sprouting plants.  All the unsexy, old rotting sections of the cycle of which Spring is a part is always truncated off to isolate the new young beauty that Spring yields.  We don’t think cyclically.  And so this linear, even exponential graph of consumption that we are coasting on will cause real scarcity.

We relegate to undesirable mind-gnatdom, the Zombie factory workforce in China and the brown rot of upturned trees exposed in strip-mining and scourging for tar sands for fuel, with the launch of every new iPad or fashion season.

But maybe our obsession with newness is because we are an evolving species concerned with the hottest thing.  We can’t even imagine seeing a celebrity in a magazine wearing something, if not dating someone twice.

So if you are still gritting your teeth at Winter’s grip on you, know that it’s the torsion of turning the cycle so that you can enjoy the Spring soon.

Inside my bottle

Sometimes I wonder what underlies the foundation of my “adult” brain?  Thinking about it recently, there have been signs of spongecake.  

I teach a writing class at a prestigious university in Tokyo.  One day, I asked my students a question, and while giving them thinking time, I idly took hold of my pony tail, twirled it and laid it over my lip and suddenly said, “this is my Waiting Moustache”.  Often like this, before I realize it, my left brain has to PR-spin my childishness with some quip so as not to be found out by respectable society.

But, who am I kidding?  It’s like trying to keep a claustrophobic, muscular octopus in a box.  True story: once, about 10 years ago, I took out a kaleidoscope at the end of a job interview, at Cisco Systems.  And peered at the interviewer with it.  No shit. Great suit, punctual, intelligent answers and questions, ironclad marks, work history and references.  We had been talking for a good rapid-fire half hour about Procurement.  But a frickin’ kaleidoscope?  I actually think I thought that would be the Cherry on Top.  I had brought it along, “in case”.  Needless to say, it was more like the first loose chunk of dirt of an avalanche. Well, from that, and subsequent interviews at equally years-of-dirt-masquerading-office-carpeted, windowless soul-compression chambers, I learned that “Business Administration”, my undergrad, was a box.  A gray musty box.*

I grew up watching reruns of “I Dream of Jeannie”.  I loved the episodes where Major Nelson sent Jeannie to her bottle for being bad because then we could catch a glimpse inside it!  I think this, of all images in my life, and Jeannie’s 1960’s seductress eye-make-up blinking up magic, might have been more subliminal than already sublime…

Is it horrible if I confess that the inside of my adult apartment has been inspired by what I lusted after as a 7-year-old?

“- Pink leather loveseat, sat on by Loveliests

- Lamb woolly pillows, horrid in the humidity, but one must suffer for cloud fashion

- Dark purple velvet shade curtains with black fringe, stenciled with white mythological creatures

- Lavender iridescent balloon curtains on top

- Green iridescent and black lace table cloth

- Six 8m bolts of different coloured tulle criss-crossing across the ceiling, so that when you lie down on your back, it looks like you’re under a dreamy circus tent

- Turquoise brocade lanterns from Hoi An, Vietnam

- Hot pink silk rug from Beijing that I lugged home in a fever (wrestling with the green dragons on it)”

This was the description in an ad I put out a couple of summers ago to sublet.  The couple from France who stayed here commented “Victorian Brothel-Opium Den”.  Whorish colours notwithstanding, I took it as a validation of my plush textures.  My Japanese friends have said it is like the set of a “do-ra-ma”.  And I imagine that means the most (glamourous) thing they’ve ever seen.

These things in the photo are to me as proper as filing my taxes on time or publishing a research paper.

What about when I leave home?  How do I take the fabulousness with me?  Every day of my life, I wear eye glitter.  And work clothes.  Purple eye glitter and my work badge.  Peacock green for my video-taped teaching evaluation and aquamarine at staff meetings. Not to worry: Major Left Brain Nelson has read all the dress codes and appearance codes and has informed me that Tokyo universities do not seem to have a Glitter Clause.

Now if only I can create pink smoke every time I enter or leave my apartment.

* Did I end up getting a job?  Oh yes, and a crazy title: Executive Assistant to the Vice President of Regional Sales. Bless the VP who came in every day at 11 to my 8:30.  I’d already finished my delegated work by then.  We were on the 17th floor of a downtown office building.  The glass-trophy of every business grad.  But wasn’t I hells-bored when no clients called.  I kept a box under my desk and knitted a 3-metre long orange and green scarf when I had nothing to do.  I’d toss the knitting in and pull up a spreadsheet if anyone walked by.  But, towards the end (I quit), I’d invite people to check out my progress.  They were all impressed!  How cool was my boss? :

Me: “Can I take an afternoon off to audition to be in this reality show RnB band?”  **

Him: “Oooh!  OK, but if I let you go, you have to promise to let me be your manager if you get it, OK?”

Me: “OK!”

Him: “I’m serious.”

Me: “I’m serious!”

** Did I pass the audition??  Do you see an Asian?  Do you see glitter?  That’s right.  Well, come to Tokyo then!

Dad is drunker than we thought

The crushing loneliness of living in Japan is only made known because of its stark negative relief to the delirious highs. Having ridden this mountain range on the edge of the world for a while, I’ve gone entire weekends without opening my mouth except to yawn and eat. I’ve despaired at the blank faces that don’t smile back. And the stiff-as-brick hugs that can even make me pine for Americans. But, I’ve also fallen in technicolour love here: real, round-cut Love that refracts light at an impossible 200% all around and blinds any onlookers who dare not Believe.

Lately, I’ve been worried about Japan.

Everything on the news about the people here is true. They line up. They wait their turn. They don’t freak out. They hedge everything they say as not to burden the listener. There are entire art forms for honouring the precedence of the Other. And for this kind of population density, it’s the only way to go.

Though, because of this gentleness, the Japanese are like a de-fanged, declawed species of housecats. Or, literally, they are an entire population of good, grown kindergarteners (in the sharing & caring respect) brought up by over-doting stay-at-home moms.   This rule is only ever violated for good and bad when clutching a karaoke mike superstar-style, or drunk.  Or both.  How, then? Will this revolution ever be won by regular folk, sober?

I personally think the government and the management of TEPCO need to be tried and punished for criminal negligence. (Japan still executes its murderers, you know).  Not letting whole populations of towns know the extent of the hazards to their lives—when the information is available, is beyond Incompetence. It is beyond Disgusting to say “Well, the government is big, I can’t know everything”, when you should damn well know the most important thing! And simply raising the acceptable level of radiation exposure for children in the affected areas to the level of a nuclear plant worker, as an appeasing policy for how they might go outside and get an education, is FUBAR.

Are people idly standing by? No, not exactly. There are pockets of protests by anti-nuclear activists.  Communities of fishermen and farmers are suing the electrical power company for radiation pollution (and the company plans on hitting up the government for this bail out).  As well, there was a television celebrity who protested alongside the parents of those children, who got his pilot series cancelled because TV execs didn’t know how sponsors would like it if one of their stars went public with government criticism….

In my Princessdom of Tokyo, where the lights and trains are on and on time and the shops have long resumed regular business hours, it’s even harder to feel any sense of urgency. Yes, most of us have taken to switching off lamps and using appliance stand-by modes, but in doing so, we’re rather switched off and on stand-by mode. None of us has formed a long-term plan. It’s like the Japanese have recently discovered that Dad was a bigger Drunk than allowable, but don’t quite know what to do. It should have been a call for intervention, but the truth is, everyone has long known all along, at least within the family, but couldn’t bear to face it. And in ‘Mom’s’ silent dutiful suffering, she at least raised everyone to be healthy and kind. Dad has been the post-war bread winner and has done such a good job of it for a long time. But now he is burnt out and f#$%king up. The family is falling apart and is being embarrassed in public. Japan needs outside intervention and help, badly.

Calling all tomodachi! There is no shortage of friends. Japan’s friends need to deal with the Japanese government as if it were an alcoholic—just assume he is always drunk. (Don’t even make me cite the actual case where a member of the government had to resign for literally being drunk). Although the Japanese are loathe to accept outside help (the same pride that makes neighbors unknown to each other for years and the homeless never beg), there is no choice.  We need a designated driver. This country has recently committed human rights violations, by making children and parents have to choose between an education or their health and security.  Fundamental shit. Other states that know better technology or have experts that can help us sort out this colossal mess need to use this idea in all future economic and political dealings with Japan. Car importers from other countries need to team up with their own geothermal energy engineers, nuclear scientists and human rights organizations and make deals with Japan as a block. Other governments should ship more heavy machinery to clear the debris in exchange for the rights of the children being met.

These years of living in this matrix of compliance and unimpassioned beigeness begs to swing the opposite way, hard.  Hitting the drinks at night to loosen up and puking on the subway platforms hasn’t gotten us very far the next day.  We need help.

From a Lighting Expert

“Youth’s like diamonds in the sun. And diamonds are forever.”

I’m afraid of aging. Outwardly. I’m afraid of a crepe-y neck and sagging eyes that will never recover without surgery. I’m afraid of elective surgery; I’m convinced that I will be the 1:100,000; among the small league of unfortunate women who die during an unwitting, unlicensed butt-cheek implant or by freak septicemia; women who allow vanity to massage them into oblivion; who think that they are getting rid of imperfection, but instead this imperfect world gets rid of them.

And I don’t believe in the Look of the Knife: that super-stretched Aerodynamic Face–running away fast from reality! In the wrong direction! (What is the right direction?)

I’m not really afraid. More like, I have realized that there is no recovery of youth. And it is a bit like booking a one-way trip. Past that graph peak at 30 of natural collagen production in women, there is no turning back. Science and good children never stand up, turn around and climb back up the slide, do they? After that downturn, there are only tricks. Over-exposed photos, expert lighting, a mask of make-up.  Too much make-up: the freeze-dried coffee version of beauty. There is no trusty time-machine back-up system. No database or album of looks. Nothing that will allow you to sort through old profile pictures and wear the one from 5 years ago. It’s all face forward to the future. You are the carved wooden mermaid stuck to the bow of a Viking ship headed off into the horizon, destined to weather storms face first. Grimace or smile, there’s no turning back.

Anyone who knows me knows all about the human guinea pig I trap in the mirror. I smear her with sake-brown-sugar-coffee-grinds. My lab-x has yielded publish-worthy results, in kitchen chemistry. Possibly in facial skin care. For alcoholics.

“Let’s just die young or let’s just live forever”

I haven’t exploded wide enough to die young. The moderation that would have killed the beauty and talent of the Kurt Cobains and the Marilyn Monroes, has kept me alive thus far. Something tells me that they didn’t bother sticking it out for their masters degree. Shame really.

Every few years I come across some moving fan tribute to the late Ms. Monroe online and am vortexed into her made-up beauty for days. But also her natural beauty—that open-mouthed silent joy she radiated and burned into the public retina. Every photo, so alive and sweet. I love her character so much, that even the unmade photos are beautiful. She had said she hoped to be brave enough to stay loyal to the face she made when she got old. But of course, her old face lost the Battle of Destiny, and we have reveled in its demise for 50 years. Like small mortal Davids, continuing to fling lethal doses of barbiturates in the face of faded beauty, hoping to keep it down for good.

Growing up in the 80’s, like every girl, I loved the big-sister, healthy Italian-Americaness of Madonna. In her Borderline days, she even had the smooth baby-fat chub in her cheeks, so inherent of youth and eternal Roman marble statues. For 30 years, she was the Ammortal—making those of us voyageuses on this side of 50 feel we had nothing to worry about. But, in the past few years even she has succumbed—some sort of tautening procedure had hermetically sealed away some essence of her, that made her Gone. Though, her moves and her personal energy remain karmically aligned with everything I remember, her face, THAT face, is gone.

For the record, I believe in Vanity.  This is the only body / face we’ve got.

“Sooner or later they all will be gone.  Why don’t they stay young?” 

Somnia

A strong, bright ray of sunshine sliced through the dark of my room, cleaving me on my sleeping melon, spilling drool all over my pillow.  It was the high midday sun, standing at my window, challenging me to our daily duel with its sharpened swords a-gleaming and a-flashing.  I think it must have stood there all morning, waiting at the ready.  But inside, I was busy wrestling myself from the dark tangled rabbit warren of dreams; trying to bring resolution to the fourth act of a story hopelessly involving Marky Mark, a staff Christmas party and in-laws.  Finally at 1:30pm, I emerged in a belly-crawl tableau to the conscious world, disheveled and disoriented, allegorically pointing to a stuffed bunny with my foot. But by then, my adversary had lost all interest in me and had long passed my window leaving in its wake only a small disinterested smear of light.

Thus began my uneventful day already fully describable if I were to reveal its binary core of youtube and snacks.  There are days like this where I could put mononucleosis to shame.  Where my green blanket could double for moss.  Where somniac would not have a red squiggly line under it in Word.  Minor overstatements aside, it is fact that years have passed and I have not seen the dawn.  I have overslept many weekends into almost-Mondays.  I think it’s because my youth has so often played out during the PM, it could rerun as a film noir, or chronicle of an Asian vampire.  Perhaps I’m just a creature of the night.  But that can’t be true.  I actually envy early risers and count just being able to wake up bright and early among my life’s greatest ambitions.  People who wake up early seem so much more…purposeful.  They get stuff done during business hours!  Perhaps it’s some latent pre-industrial fisherman or laundress gene that acts up once the nightclub youth gene is switched off that I’m having to answer to now.

I blame this on my parents.  They cultured lumpy pearls of sleep in my childhood.  Yes, they bought me a bed.  But, they weren’t strict enough about bedtime enforcement.  Bedtime was around ten-ish to midnight-ish.  There might have been a few cursory glances into my and my sister’s room to check for two quiet child-size mounds of blanket.  But, after the fading footsteps, there were no real consequences of un-sleeping.  Plus, as a very young child, my mom told me vivid, colourful bedtimes stories that only served to adrenalize me into raging world conquests into the still and dead of night, conveniently, while the village of my enemies (and my sister lying next to me), were sound asleep.  Though, I myself would end up sleeping somehow.  But I would never remember the circumstances of how.  And inevitably wake up in the arms of some bear.

Second, in my youth, all the exciting things happened at night.  City night culture is most definitely aimed at those who do not have any following-day responsibilities or don’t care about them.  Such were my glittering constellation of friends and I!  Student-y we were.  Stimulants: liquid, audio and visual, circulated through our young indomitable bodies like veins of night traffic, heading somewhere fast and unknown, causing electric blurs when a camera flashed.  We were primeval life forms that didn’t need light to thrive.  Sea-bottom dwellers, who drained the water for a basement club night on Saturdays.  Dancing to jacked up circadian rhythms.   Society, at this late hour somehow dispensed with every Day norms.  Extraordinary things could happen to ordinary people under the cozy blanket excuse of night, like singing at the top of your lungs in public, blue eye glitter, and 3am pizzas.  Tribal rituals really, of terrible morning people.

Vitamin D is good!  And business hours are useful!  As is photosynthesis, if I were a plant.  But I haven’t seized the day enough, have I?  I have routinely let it run clear off into the night having stolen my time in the sun.  I am a darkness enabler.  I’m saddened by this.  By never having experienced the dawn in my 20s.  Sober.  (But still.)

To do:

- dawn

A Photograph Worth Taking

It’s been over a week since the historic earthquake off the east coast of Japan, where I live.  I should say right away that unlike the unfortunate many, I did not suffer any loss, except for that of complacency, which is always welcome.

Like all foreign residents in Tokyo, living an arm’s length from the coast, I spent the news-cycle eternity of these past 10 days in a kind of fight or flight mode. Fighting mostly against the worry of the world—media, moms, and embassies crushing us into their sweaty, panicked, hyperbolic bosoms; fighting the nausea of the swaying aftershocks that have only now spaced themselves out enough to be considered daily. Flight came to the table uninvited, as numerous faraway news outlets cast giant Godzilla-like shadow puppets over Japan, confusing the real options available for the non-nuclear scientists among us.  I have elected to stay in my apartment all this time, observing a voluntary curfew, should the lights black out–seeing that was the only real “problem” in my area.  Ever since, I have had ample time to stock up and take stock.  I have mined the depths of my refrigerator, restlessness and rationale and have tried to sort out what some of this might mean.

Upon watching the news like everyone else, one of my biggest regrets for the people living on the northeast coast, was that everything of theirs: Every Thing…was gone. I fixated, in particular, on lost photographs.  Sometimes there have been video reports of lost photos sticking up in the muddy plain that the tsunami left behind. A newborn’s homecoming, a Sports Day photo finish at a school, or aunts and cousins arranging themselves to capsize a dinner table for the sake of an inclusive family portrait. A Fujifilm Last Supper about as precious now as the original, but about to be left behind by rescue workers more interested in finding survivors instead. The family in this photo had the common cultural savvy, knowing that they were being observed, to pose for this moment of 2D encapsulation of smalltime immortality. Even more, this photograph has now been enshrined in the worldwide news cycle in a multi-dimensional, mini-universe of history with multiple camera angles, music scores, interviews, editing and commentary. Though, whether the photo was meant for a sentimental aunt’s side table or the stratospheric multiplier effect of  news satellites, no one knows with any clarity anything about the lives of the people in that picture. It is all we have left of an unidentified family’s life, which makes it extremely valuable and insignificant, at the same time. In one report, an older man had picked up a dirtied kindergarten class picture. He commented that he would save it for the stranger one day, who would surely appreciate its value, if he should ever meet him or her. He called it “precious”, put it in his coat pocket and continued to sift around.

Last month, I visited Italy and witnessed the astounding body of evidence of culturally sophisticated ancient civilizations whose activities and lives echoed in the numerous, comprehensive, timeless stone monuments. In museums, incredible commissioned paintings preserved, if not realistic moments, a real sense of ideas and people back in those times.  There were many precious portraits of “A Young Man” or “The Dwarf “, unidentified people and sometimes unknown painters, but still made significant by being displayed in a museum. But, of course, the realization that these things only represent the wealth or war booty of emperors, senators, and bankers—not the vast majority of the population whose real lives came and went ashes to ashes—made me feel disappointed that I would never really know about real ancient Romans or mediaeval Florentines; that all this was like being trumped by Trump Tower-like re-enforced concrete to withstand the erosion of human memory. Actually, most of the while, in the exhaustive tourist machine that is Rome, I spent my days wading through crowds of South Koreans, American high school-trippers, H&M shoppers, street hawkers and Italian lovers. Elbows on il banco, I stared into the baggy eyes of many an espresso server. I was ignored, followed, pushed, helped, smiled at, solicited, robbed and served by these modern-day Rome dwellers. I kept receipts of dozens of sales interactions I had made each day with them. My body sank heavily into my bed every night from having marinated in the same dense daily soup with them. Upon coming home, I posted 80 pictures on a facebook album.  Of cats, scenery, the colosseum, stone angels and my boyfriend. Not one African immigrant selling fake handbags. Not one carabinieiro. I had gone on vacation and had seen Italy, evidenced. And I really had, although my edited selection of photographs could never come close to proving it.

A few months ago, in non-tectonic Toronto, my dad happened to have created an effect of a tidal wipe-out by accidentally reformatting a hard drive, erasing years’ worth of vacation photos, reunions, and weddings not to mention thousands of hours of posing (knowing my mom…), battery-charging, and uploading. While that was maddening for Mom especially, she has since forgiven him and life has waltzed relatively easily back into its 3-step. After the charged cloud of irritation dissipated, there was a realization that even without the photographs, they had still greeted long lost friends, feted brides and walked the streets of Paris. Best of all, they have the good fortune of being able to do more of the same going forward, with digital camera in hand or not.

After all this, I am thinking that the value of a monument or simple photograph depends so much on life: someone to have lived in its moment, someone to look back on it and cherish it, or if it is lost, someone to make a new one. But what if, there is nothing and no one? On the northeast coast of Japan, sometimes entire town records have been lost, whole families and neighborhoods have perished with no one left behind, not even an acquaintance, to identify a recovered photo, or even to recall a name. There remains not a trace of many individuals: of thousands of real Japanese citizens; the same way it was with millions of ancient Romans. Thus, the rounded off death toll announced every hour on the news, flashing in the corner of the screen is liable to blink away like loose tears, whole lives and identities of people who were thriving just a short time ago. Did they ever exist? Of course they did. How will they ever be remembered? Perhaps this is a limited question to ask. But we can’t help but ask it being a species constantly aware and afraid of death and its unimaginable scale.

And I’m no exception. More than ever, I realize that life really is but an hour upon the stage. Life is now. It exists in a series of moments worth recording, but need not be and cannot be. Yes, we can later say, pointing to the evidence, we were this young and this happy, but it’s enough to have been that and carry on. Photographs, stone amphitheatres, or big-budgeted programs will never capture it all anyway. Town records, mementos, monuments, Every Thing will very well disappear. It only matters to be happy or aware each one of us, right now. Beyond the burden of memory.

I was glad to see people smiling in the photos. I was glad to have been served by the waiters in Rome. I will never know who they are, but I wish them well.

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on.
— John Keats (Rome dweller)

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