Monday, December 29, 2008

JOHN

John D. was the man. We were thirteen and he was having sex. Actually, he was fourteen when we were thirteen -- that's how man he was. Failed a grade or two, bouncing from school to school, hanging out at Ray-Cam*, selling drugs, boasting faint 'stache, being all Portuguese and pudgy-faced and polite. That's why he got the girls: he did dangerous manly things while saying "please". He'd hold the door open for a customer coming into the corner store he just shoplifted. John D. was the nicest thug to ever take your sedan for a joy ride.

"...she wiped her mouth and then we fucked," he told me with a shrug of his shoulders and flick of his cigarette.
"No way!"
"Totally."
"You had sex?" I shrieked.
"Yup."
"How long?"
"Like, with making out or actually fucking or when -- "
"Sex."
"Sex sex?"
"Sex sex."
"'Bout twenty minutes..."
"TWENTY MINUTES!"


*Rough community centre in East Van don't front

Thursday, December 25, 2008

NEIGHBOUR

There are experts in the Indian family across the alley. They own a dump truck, a hulking pick-up truck that's too industrial-strength for consumers, and a Bobcat. And they fit them all in a driveway that would normally suit a Corolla and a Civic. Every evening is beeping when they back their giant machines into the squeeze. One of them stands in the alley as the guide, shouting in Hindi. They usually clog up this mid-alley and require some maneuvering in our driveway and another neighbour's, but no one minds because this is East Van and that's what we do. The shouts that I don't understand and the beep beep beep and the roar of diesel go on for five, ten, fifteen minutes... then silence. I look out my back porch and there are two trucks and a Bobcat neatly nestled like loaves at the baker's. The men say some more things in Hindi and I'm sure it's not "Good job veering to the left." They're probably saying, "Did you remember to bring the potatoes?" You see, experts don't need to congratulate each other or draw attention to their expertise -- they dust off their hands and get ready for dinner.

I've been amazed with their skill since they moved across from us about seven years ago. I would watch them do their evening machine exercise regularly as we ate dinner by our big glass patio doors overlooking the alley. Throughout the years and now still, my mom and dad and I like to utter our awe. It's entertaining.

When they first moved in I wasn't sure about them. They seemed to be two families -- linked by brothers -- who lived in one house, grandparents included. They had young children, including a kindergartening boy whose pipes were manly; my mom would footnote his shouting by saying to me, "Wow, that kid's got a mighty voice." The boy would often shout directions over the beeping -- he's got a practical voice. I liked that they were labourers. I liked that they had enormous machines. I liked that they were multi-generational. I liked that they had limited English. ...In this neighbourhood they would be one of us. But they seemed insular at first, as any family would be when moving to a new neighbourhood where we are familiar with each other's crappy underwear drying on laundry lines. And yes, some of those boxers and panties are home-made (or maybe it's just my family). The Indian family kept to themselves and their hard work -- we had little access to their personality and zero access to their history. And one night I called the cops on them. They had been living across from us for only a few months, so we certainly hadn't developed trust. They might have been throwing a party -- maybe it was a house-warming. Their driveway had cars rather than trucks that night, and some male guests were hanging out. Probably in their late-twenties. Probably drunk by the way they were jostling and laughing too loud. It was maybe 1AM and I'm not sure my neighbours -- the ones who lived there -- were in the scrum of men. Hard to tell and I didn't know them yet. Nonetheless, the gang of dudes were representative of my new neighbours. When they started arguing, I turned off all the lights so I could spy without my silhouette. When their laughs transformed into snarls, and jostling grew into shoving, I grabbed the cordless. When one of them waved a black object in the air with his fist, I called the cops. I made sure that our gauzy kitchen curtains didn't quiver when I parted them to peek. I kept a finger over the phone's red "on" light. I was kept on the line to describe what I was seeing: eight to ten men, maybe party, maybe drunk, definitely arguing, definitely about to scrap, definitely thing in man's hand. Most of the men were trying to calm down the adversaries. The operator told me that I would hear a knocking at the front door and then the door knocked. A female cop in plain clothes was there and instructed me to keep the front door unlocked in case they needed access through my house. She disappeared down the stuccoed side of our Vancouver Special to observe. No sirens rang and no cop cars drove into the alley. Pure stealth. The operator told me there were police in the vicinity and she let me get off line. I went back upstairs to spy some more from the patio glass. The men were tense but calmer. Lots of talking. More talking. Then I got bored. I'm not sure the cops ever confronted the men. I'm not sure they did more than keep watch. The men sorted themselves out. Good thing no one got killed.

After that night the family returned to routine and wove their way seamlessly into our neighbourhood's fabric. I moved away before getting to know them, but whenever I was back home I would rejoice that their young children were tricycling and playing basketball in our alley, as I had. Their youth had been missing from our block for years, as all the kids I grew up with traded in hockey sticks and rollerblades for compact cars and degrees. They were the new blood, the kids across the alley, alternating between shouts in English and in Hindi. On one spring visit I recall the boy with the pipes kicking a ball around with my two-year-old nephew. The boy and his little sisters were likely among my nephew's first friends. Every time I visit I find myself standing at the patio glass watching the men's expertise, their beep beep beep signalling to me that I'm home. A few days ago I was watching and my mom said to me, "They're really nice."

Today I saw my neighbour come out of his garage holding a beat-up broom. I wondered what the hell he was gonna do with that dinky thing when our city was completely whited out with impossible snow. Moments later he and two men -- one was probably his brother who lived there -- were digging their monster vehicles out from the snow with diesel pumping and Bobcat scurrying. I had just spent over an hour with my Dad digging out our Sentra -- which I had got stuck only ten metres from our house -- simultaneous to a mini van up the alley that eventually freed itself after thirty minutes of burning rubber. And here were our neighbours, Bobcatting that snow away like my mom parting flour to make cake. Amid our blank white block was this black patch of asphalt that was their driveway. Then the patch of driveable land grew as they cleared the bit of alley that we shared, and then they cleared a neighbour's driveway. The boy with the pipes joined them. He's now thirteen and man-sized. They loaded the Bobcat onto the truck and re-arranged their vehicles back into their de-snowed yard with much beeping, all items once again tidily organised with a white dusting on top like icing sugar. At this point my mom was admiring our alley view and said, "Look at the roofs, so white, so beautiful. Let's take a picture," which of course means a picture with her in it. She darted to her closet to pick out an appropriate hat. She came out with a beret. With glowing smile she chimed, "Make sure you get me with all the rooftops behind." When she got to the patio glass, her smile became mixed with frown and her cheeks hummed red. She slid open the patio door and shouted, "Thank you!" and waved. Our Indian neighbours were clearing our driveway with shovels. My mom turned to me and mused bashfully, "We can't be taking pictures right now. That would be rude."


Monday, December 8, 2008

CONVERSATION

At the stag last Saturday I found myself standing next to our hostess. She seemed a foot taller than me, was lithe and probably getting her Bachelor's. With her black miniskirt and black boat neck she could have been spraying perfume at The Bay or bringing out my cheekbones at M.A.C.. We stood by the wall outside the washroom, me being drunk, she watching us dudes, making sure our fists were never without an $8.75 bottle of Blue. The dancers pranced in and out of doors, leading dudes by the hand. I glanced at our hostess and noticed a moment of lucidness -- or maybe it was fatigue -- emanating from her blank face. "Do you ever differentiate between being a server or dancer?" I asked upward to her ear. Her blankness crumpled at the brow. "Like, some of my friends who've worked at these clubs, they made a point of like saying, 'I work at For Your Eyes Only. But I'm a server, not a dancer...'"
She paused as a dancer passed. "...Well... I don't have a mortgage and no kids to worry about, so I'm in a different situtation..." Her eyes never left the table of booze and she didn't intend on continuing my interruption. Even in the champagne room, or especially in the champagne room, it's best to never discuss opinions or anything requiring honesty.

Must keep it lite. Ten minutes earlier a Pink look-alike strode up to us dudes on the couch, arms akimbo, announced, "So I heard you're a bunch of rock stars."

Um. Maybe.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

MAUDE

I just saw some photos of hott things in Vancouver. They're wearing lots of flowing silk-sheen fabric, all Gucci and Pucci. Purple explosion. Delicate but ostentatious necklaces that reach their navels.

They're hott. For real. But they're also probably underaged when in America.

I care about fashion. I care about style. I'm certainly not involved in the fashion world but I do keep my eyes open to what people are wearing. And I do advocate impracticality for the sake of looking good -- I got mad blisters from my favourite Rieker boots and split them at the seams 'cause my feet were too wide for these women's boots and yes, they do have a prominent square heel I said too much...

Those hott young things look great, and I applaud them for wearing whatever the hell they want because I believe in wearing clothes with confidence whether or not you are in fashion. Actually, as has been the trend among the youths (I desperately want to say "us youths" but I think my membership has been revoked), the surest way to be in fashion is to look horribly unfashionable. I applaud the youths' attention to clothes (carelessness in dress is a shame because it means laziness) even if they end up looking like the textile version of the opening credits to Saved By the Bell. So, I'm not saying those girls in the photo are unfashionable -- therefore, fashionable -- I'm saying that their influence is so ironic, their source so unexpected, that I want to be the first to encourage them.

I won't show you the photo of the girls because I don't want anyone to mistake me for dissing them. I'm totally not. I like what they're wearing. For you to get a visual understanding of the style I'm talking about, just check out a party photo blog. Or go to any bar where the cool kids are listening to The Cool Kids. Or maybe you already know what I'm talking about, and you've noticed that, recently, 20-year-old girls look like 62-year-old Upper West Side ladies named Lynda and Babz.

In completely related news, I hereby declare that I used to have a hardcore crush-on for Rue McClanahan, god bless.



Friday, December 5, 2008

MEAD

April 24, 1999
I phoned someone today on the cordless telephone. As soon as the receiver's line rang, I got connected to a conversation between two women. I listened intently, nary breathing aloud (so as not to alarm them), obviously waiting for details of sex. I listened until their conversation ended. Their conversation was quite ordinary.

May 4, 1999
I wonder how many times a day the security controllers, viewing through the cameras in the ante-room of the parking lot elevators in the downtown library, get the middle finger from bored patrons, waiting, for no reason at all.

June 2, 1999
Guy has enormous amount of work to do, but he distracts himself: He eats, finishes eating, and stares at his empty bowls, rather sad. He phones his friend and complains about the amount of work he has. He distracts himself by being on the phone talking about being distracted.

October 20, 1999
Taking one's medicine with Guiness. I mean, Guinness.

January 18, 2000
There is nothing worse for a highschool kid than getting beat up publicly by another kid in a lower grade.

January 30, 2000
Aunt Number Two: "You must marry a Chinese girl. Who are you going to call on when you want to eat a bowl of rice? Who's going to cook for you? Not a white girl. A white girl's not going to cook you rice -- she'll make you a sandwich, or serve you a hot dog."

Monday, December 1, 2008

BITING

I used to bite. I tried not to. Maybe I still do. I try not to. In the quest to find our own style, we usually start with someone else. We can't help it. That's how style grows.

I don't mean style like do you rock your knotted shoelace loops on the outside or tuck them behind your tongue -- I mean style as in voice. Authorship. Every time we hear a "fresh new voice" we have to remember that voice came from an earlier place that might now seem stale. And that earlier place? Well, it was also fresh and new in its own time. Voices are echoes. Style is regenerated. Where would Mamet be without Pinter? Interpol without Joy Division-or-The Smiths-let's-not-argue? Picasso without Africa?

We all have to be influenced by another. No idea comes from nowhere. Even when a synapse occurs that seems completely random, say like, I dunno... you see a married couple being violent to each other at Carl's Jr. and you get inspired to make a film about it, what form would best communicate your idea? You could, I dunno... ask yourself, "How would Cassavetes do it?" So you go and jerk the camera around and say you were influenced by Faces. Even if you refuse to admit having watched that film, other people will admit for you and accuse you of biting Cassavetes. Or Lars von Trier. You can't hide. It's okay. That's how you find your voice.

Biting is a rite of passage. It's also a right of passage and you deserve amnesty for being unoriginal. Biting is good when you are young. Biting shows respect for those before you; it shows an understanding of lineage. It shows that you are learning. But A: don't be a Xerox and B: don't do it for too long. If you bite too long you'll commit an unforgiveable sin: being derivative. You'll get accused of being all up on someone's jock and who wants to feed on someone's jock forever? You will suck.

If you are young and biting, you will get dissed. That's okay. You have to get dissed. Welcome the dis. Check it out: Even if you are trying hardcore to be original, you will still get dissed. You can't win. You will be a dis bullseye. Getting dissed builds callouses. If you persevere, the skin of your confidence will become rough, and eventually, you'll be so good at what you do that you will become ruff. And when you become ruff, you will have found your voice. As your newfound ruffness grows, your voice might become the standard. People often say a play's dialogue sounds like Mamet when they could dig a generation earlier in their analogy and just as accurately say the dialogue sounds like Pinter. It's cyclical, the idea of influence: How he did it becomes how I do it becomes how you do it. You too could become influential. Welcome to their club. Prepare to get ripped off.

Style is an amalgamation of many influences, and if the influences are disparate, the resulting voice could be so much stronger. Monarchs learned a long time ago to mix up the blood so their precious heirs don't end up looking like the Prince of Wales. Diversity creates strength and originality. You'd better believe Mad Lib wouldn't re-gift the hott new gamelan album you crate-dug for his birthday. Would David Byrne refuse to listen to a recording of Inuit throat singing? Imagine if Robert LePage experienced no noh. The more diverse your influences, the greater chance that you will be unique -- no one can replicate your complicated alchemy. A singular voice is composed of a Lead Belly song, The Old Man and the Sea, Gangstarr's Hard to Earn, the Koran, Miuccia Prada, pork bone soup, L.A. Gear, Zach Morris, Emilio Estevez, Max von Sydow, Chan-wook Park, Talladega Nights, Bell Biv Devoe, Toblerone, Patti Smith, getting arrested, surviving a divorce, Chrissy Snow, a miscarriage, Chungking Express... If you allow yourself to be influenced by myriad experiences, if you pay attention to how unrelated events shape your sensibilities, if you respect others' tastes as being legitimate and valuable and learn from them, then your voice will become fresh and deserve our attention. You will excite us with your uniqueness because your roots are from everywhere. Hello, Mr. Obama.

In my own lofty quest to paint dope shit on walls (as opposed to becoming President), I used to bite. I looked to older, more experienced graffiti writers as a resource. How should I connect my letters? How can I kink my "S" to give it more flavour? How can I be more avant-garde so I'll get noticed? By studying the work of others. I didn't want to bite, but how else do you learn when you don't have enough of your own experience to adapt? Graffiti writers have a blunt way of calling your bluff and accusing you of biting: they cross you out with "Biter". I stayed committed nonetheless and after four years of being insecure in public (such is the masochistic thrill of painting in the street where you will be judged by everyone), I finally started painting stuff that felt comfortable. A few more years of growing comfort and I finally felt confident enough to say, "Hey, I think I've got my own style now". But the street-life of a graffiti writer is short and the learning curve is quick, so it's common for graffiti writers to find their style well within a decade. I've never heard of a novelist finding her own voice in a mere ten years. [When I started out, I had access to only two graffiti magazine titles and one VHS, and you couldn't talk about modems without saying "baud". I got to witness an international explosion of slippery glossy magazines, innumerable DVDs and websites, and the strange phenomenon of a graffiti industry; we now have over-exposure to the work of graff heads from everywhere. It's no wonder that younger graffiti writers today find their own style in a few years]. After half my life shaking spray paint cans (I admittedly regrettably paint seldom now) I've learned that it isn't even about finding your own style -- style comes to you. If you keep speaking, your voice will find you.

I'm not a biter in graffiti anymore. But to this day, when I grasp for inspiration, I return to the same source I've been relying on since I was thirteen -- opening Subway Art is like stepping back into grammar class -- and I ask myself, "How would Dondi do it? How would Seen flip his 'S'? How would Lee speak politics?"

Biting is the pattern of humanity. How do babies learn to speak? How does an apprentice learn to build a violin? By doing what the mentor does when the mentor says, "Do what I do." Take the mentor's lessons and run. After years of trudging down the path paved by your mentor, your legs will have grown strong enough to veer you off on your own direction, cutting a fresh path in your own gait. And as your calloused feet tread grass that had never before been trampled, as you dash miles upon miles away from where you started, you'll still be able to hear your mentor's voice echo: "Now you're dope!"