Monday, August 24, 2020

Infinitely nonchalant

Traveling to another province has a postapocalyptic vibe. You see everyone wearing masks and you wonder what happened here. And then you realize that it's the same as at home, and you wonder why you thought it would be different.

My mother's basement has yielded up all its dead bodies — its yearbooks and Polaroids, record albums and memorabilia, documenting lives we'd forgotten we lived.

I find an ad mounted on plexiglass (the germ of an art project?). I can't decide if the colours have faded or if time has emboldened them.   

I wish Café Blasé were a real place, where everyone wears creamy pastels and has big 80s hair. A place where copywriters gather to pool their adjectives. An utterly worldly, other-worldly place. As if one day, we wake up fresh as daisies and collectively decide to stop caring. And we look beautiful as we go about it.

Yesterday morning I stepped out of the chaos of the house to go for a walk and get a coffee. Stupid town where pedestrians are looked upon as freaks and the only coffee option is Tim Hortons or Starbucks. I haven't lived here in 37 years. I don't think I'll miss it.

I haven't cracked a book in over four days, since before the long drive. I'm currently not reading Ottessa Moshfegh's Death in Her Hands.

Reading was different, of course. I liked books. Books were quiet. They wouldn't scream in my face or get offended if I gave up on them. If I didn't like what I read, I could throw the book across the room. I could burn it in my fireplace. I could rip out the pages and use them to blow my nose, or in the bathroom. I never did any of that, of course — most of the books I read came from the library. When I didn't like something, I just shut the book and put it on the table by the door, spine facing the wall so that I wouldn't have to look at it again. There was great satisfaction in shoving a bad book through the return slot and hearing splat against the other books in the bin on the other side of the librarian's desk. "You can just hand that to me, " the librarian said. Oh no, I liked to shove it through. It made me feel powerful.

Friday, August 21, 2020

The basement of joy

We're packing up my mother's house to move her to Montreal. I'm finding joy scattered throughout her basement. 

  • My father's typewriter (deceased)
  • A nugget of fool's gold
  • A box full of Polaroids my brother (deceased) took while bored, drunk, and/or inspired
  • The album I loved that I thought he'd sold
  • Several books to learn German
  • A note from my cousin (deceased, age 36) to tell me about the Smiths and his turntable

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Music will still do to people what it does to us now

"Songs do not change the world," declares Jasper. "People do. People pass laws, riot, hear God and act accordingly. People invent, kill, make babies, start wars."
Here's a novel that's mostly fun, if a little long (what is it with men shamelessly throwing hundreds upon hundreds of pages of their excess verbosity upon you?). Utopia Avenue, by David Mitchell, is the name of a fictitious British band in the late 1960s, fusion folk psychedelic rock 'n' roll, their struggles and adventures.
"Songs like dandelion seeds, billowing across space and time. Who knows where they'll land? Or what they'll bring?" [...] "Where will these song-seeds land? It's the Parable of the Sower. Often, usually, they'd land on barren soil and not take root. But sometimes, they land in a mind that is ready. Is fertile. What happens then? Feelings and ideas happen. Joy, solace, sympathy. Assurance. Cathartic sorrow. The idea that life could be, should be, better than this. An invitation to slip you into somebody else's skin for a little while. If a song plants an idea or a feeling in a mind, it has already changed the world."
We get to know three of the band members quite intimately, while the drummer remains aloof. Each of them standouts in their fields, the manager brought them together with the goal of forming a genre-spanning supergroup. So it was a little less than organic, but on the whole, they're hardworking, decent people who make respectably good music; they pay some dues but find some level of success. And they at times succumb to the lifestyle excesses that come with the job.

The guitarist's story thread veers off into the paranormal. This makes me roll my eyes a little, even if I can't turn the pages fast enough; it's also classic Mitchell territory and fodder for late-night weed-fueled conversations about life, the universe, and everything.

The characters do not get equal airtime, and this felt unbalanced to me. The manager also stars in a story a two, but it's impossible to ignore the cameos. David Bowie, Brian Jones, Leonard Cohen, Syd Barrett, Janis Joplin, and others. Gimmicky to the point of tiresome. It irked me that Cohen mentions Toronto but not Montreal. 
"Once, I took the elevator up there." Leonard nods at the Empire State Building. "I looked over Manhattan and was seized by an absurd desire to take it. To own it. Do we write songs as a substitute for possession?" 

"I write songs to discover what I want to say," says Elf. 

"I write 'em 'cause I just bloody love it," says Dean. 

"Maybe you're the purest artist here," remarks Lenny.
Cue music. It just feels a little cheap.

Although, I thoroughly enjoyed the extended scenes with Francis Bacon, one of a few non-musicians on the London scene at the time to make their way into this novel, but likely I responded to that only because he's been a topic of conversation around here lately, his art grim and eerie and visceral. His art is not on stage here, only his lifestyle.

These walk-on parts add nothing to the story. But in a sense, they are the story. This is Mitchell's love letter to a bygone era of music that I can only assume played a significant role in shaping him.
"In fifty years," said Jasper, "or five hundred, or five thousand, music will still do to people what it does to us now. That's my prediction."
So, what does it do to us now? Music is our balm, our panacea. It can encircle you with your people, it can shut out the entire world. I think it is used more often as a distraction than as a connection. It blares everywhere, but who really listens? 
Hundreds of people pass by. Reality erases itself as it rerecords itself, Elf thinks. Time is the Great Forgetter. She gets her notebook from her handbag and writes, Memories are unreliable . . . Art is memory made public. Time wins in the long run. Books turn to dust, negatives decay, records get worn out, civilisations burn. But as long as the art endures, a song or a view or a thought or a feeling someone once thought worth keeping is saved and stays shareable. Others can say, "I feel that too."
It transcends language and creates an illusion of oneness; one person responds to a beat, another to a melody, another to the story the lyrics tell, but it taps a harmony of being. It's much more complex than a shared feeling.

Utopia Avenue is not about music, it's about its creators. It explores the inspiration for the music — love, loss, drugs, schizophrenia, otherworldly experience. Sometime the art comes about because it's a better option than not trying to make art. Sometimes it pays the rent. Art can come equally from hard work or divine luck or happenstance.  

Super entertaining and full of flavor (though some not always to my taste), but a little short on substance. It took me to some unexpected places, dramatically speaking, and it was not a terrible way to spend midsummer evenings on my balcony. Even if I can reel off better band names in my sleep.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

I water her every day

About this time last summer, my espresso machine clogged up. After several failed attempts to clean it, I gave up the double espresso filter basket for dead, and resorted to drinking singles. This week, out of the blue, as if I was waking from a stupor, it occurs to me that I might find a replacement basket online without having to replace the entire machine. Twenty-four hours and twelve dollars later, I resume double-espresso mornings. It's a productive and creative week, and also a happy week. I can't help but wonder if all my breakdowns and tirades, my crises of faith in myself and in others, my angers and resentments, and even the desperate explorations into myself — all my emotions — were simply the result of not enough coffee.

It turns out that my tomato plant is cherry tomatoes after all — pluck one, pop it in your mouth, and it's gone. I'd wanted something more substantial. After some initial disappointment, I find I am able to harvest a couple dozen at once after all. This balcony garden yields meagre offerings, though I am grateful for the herbs. I will plant more and better next year.

After 141 days of working from home, I return to the office to retrieve some personal effects. I had a scheduled entry time, with specific instructions about arriving with my own PPE, not arriving by public transportation. I walk the eight kilometres; I arrive early and wait. No one is there to verify my protective gear. No one is there to make me sign a waiver or to attest to being symptom free. No one is there except one of the porters, who looks mildly shell-shocked, like working in isolation has driven him slightly mad — the graveyard shift in broad daylight, with only the ghosts of employees to clean up after.

I recover two pairs of shoes from the cloakroom. I pick my Fluevogs out from amid several dozen sneakers, all neatly lined up expecting their owners to step into them at the start of every workday. The last time I went to the office I was still wearing winter boots.

There are no laptops on the desks, but there are monitors and wires, pens and notepads. Sweaters on the backs of chairs swiveled as if abandoned mid conversation. I am reminded of the pictures of Chernobyl schoolrooms, only this feels more invisible, less organic.

There is an uprooted plant on the floor of the cafeteria. The weeping tree in our studio looks as if it might crumble if I stroke its leaves — it's cried itself dry. Remarkably, my happy bean plant still looks happy — its arms are straining toward the window and it's thirsty, but I swear it twitched for joy as I approached, my every step sending tremors through the bones of the building.

I sit the bean in my bag atop the reference books I came for, padded out with my hoodie. I grab the office-issue headphones. I empty my drawer of instant soup packets and handcream — I may need those.

The rest of the day feels weirdly decadent: hanging out with my sister on her terrace, window shopping, lunching out at an open-air market. Is life normal again? How come I didn't get the memo? Ich will in die Zukunft reisen.

At home, one of the indoor plants continues to have the company of mushrooms. One sprouts and dies, another takes its place. 

Since lockdown, there are now four novels I have read that I have not (yet?) written about here. I continue to read essays by Didion and stories by Carrington ("A Man in Love"):
We went through a door at the back and reached a room where there was a bed in which lay a woman, motionless and probably dead. It seemed to me that she must have been there a long time, for the bed was overgrown with grass.

"I water her every day," the greengrocer said thoughtfully. "For forty years I've been quite unable to tell whether she is alive or dead. She hasn't moved or spoken or eaten during that time. But, and this is the strange thing, she remains warm."
We are overgrown — by masks and gloves and viral effluvia, by our metaphorical mushrooms — but somehow we remain warm.