Monday, January 31, 2005

Weekend Roundup – now with links!

It was a terribly arty Saturday, which included a little Kiss My Cabaret at Sala Rosa, Alexis O’Hara’s vernissage Crotchacha at Casa, and an aborted attempt to get to the Belgo Building to see Mia Donovan’s Stripped. James and I were both dressed to the nines for our night out, and were joined at Sala by three older and outrageously gay professors who, disappointingly, were not.

As our group waited for the usual roster of strippers, belly dancers, and drag queens to hit the stage, one of the professors remarked upon a New Scientist article he had recently read about the burgeoning asexual movement. The professor seemed faintly bewildered by the concept; I, for my part, felt an immediate surge of dread. Knowing my generational luck, asexuality is destined to become the Next Big Thing.

Perhaps revolutionary asexuality is an inevitable reaction against the excess of sexual display that characterized this particular Saturday evening, and others like it. If sex is seemingly everywhere, then is it not conceivably more radical, and therefore way cooler, to renounce sex entirely? And not merely to renounce the sexual act itself, which would imply a repression of desire, but to valourize, even celebrate, the complete absence of desire?

This is about as far as I can get with the concept. Having come of age with AIDS, straight-edge punk, and Andrea Dworkin, the prospect of abandoning sexual expression entirely possesses worrisome shadows of been there, done that.

Sunday, by contrast, was spent puttering around the apartment, receiving visits from friends, and perusing interesting newspaper articles online. It’s not quite the same as getting the Sunday New York Times delivered to my door (*wistful sigh*), but I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I won’t be able to afford that particular luxury again until my student loans have been paid off.

Among the journalistic highlights: A Chicago Sun Times piece on Smoke: A Global History of Smoking, an edited collection published by the University of Chicago Press. (Hint: I am not politically opposed to accepting Valentine’s Day gifts.) Also, an L.A. Times article, republished in this weekend's Gazette, Pressing the Mute Button on our Daily Soundtrack, which surveys various institutional efforts to preserve obsolete sounds.

Entirely predictably, I have become suddenly obsessed with cataloguing my own sonic past. I think I feel a series coming on...

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Open Letter

To: Mother Nature
Cc: Environment Canada, Dave Duvall, God

I am writing to inform you that I can no longer abide the cruel and unusual punishment you call winter. My reasons are as follows:

- I am tired of being constantly, unremittingly cold no matter where I go or what I do. (Exceptions – e.g. the Metro, my overheated office – duly noted.)

- I am tired of wearing layers of clothing that bunch up at my ankles, knees, and elbows, thereby constricting bloodflow to my extremities.

- I am tired of hathead.

- I am tired of skin that cracks and bleeds at the slightest suggestion of contact with other objects.

- I am tired of having to blow my nose every five minutes.

- I am tired of walking like a penguin.

- I am tired of the mixture of gravel and road salt that is steadily accruing in my front hallway.

- I am tired of getting static shocks from my cats. My cats are tired of this as well.

- I am afraid of my Hydro bill.

- I am tired of smoking with numb, red hands as I brace against the wind.

- I am tired of not having a fireplace to warm myself in front of.

- I am tired of gray slush.

- I am tired of not being able to wear skirts, dresses, tank tops, or other items of clothing that intimate that I have a body.

- I miss what air feels like against bare legs.

- I am tired of not riding my bicycle, which has been covered in a sheath of ice since mid-December.

- I am tired of sunlight being a fleeting substance.

- I am tired of wearing pyjamas to bed.

- I am tired of shovelling snow.

- I am tired of hibernating.

For these reasons, I feel that I have no choice but to register a formal grievance against you. You have five working days to respond.

Yours sincerely,
Vila H.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Thinking out loud

As mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been thinking a lot about sound of late, which is, as it happens, my current area of research. Although I am loath to turn The Smoking Section into an academic blog (see below), I have decided to permit myself the occasional foray into work-related territory.

Before I begin, I will make three solemn vows to you, my loyal readers:

1. I will, whenever possible, refrain from using academic jargon; words exceeding seven syllables are expressly forbidden.

2. I will under no circumstances cite the works of Deleuze and Guattari.

3. I will endeavour to write about sex at least as often as I write about subjects of a scholarly nature.

Which brings me to my first musing: what is the aural equivalent of the term voyeurism? There is eavesdropping, I suppose, and overhearing, neither of which possess quite the same erotic charge.

Elisabeth Weis proposes the term écouteurism, which she helpfully notes is French -- uh, thanks -- but does not justify further. She also disses the hell out of M*A*S*H*, because she is, apparently, just that much more of a feminist than the rest of us. But I digress...

So, when we are not looking but listening, are we écouteurs, then? And, if so, does this redeem the practice of having sex with the lights off?

Monday, January 24, 2005

Sunday night

Walking home from Arit’s place tonight, at twenty-below and under a nearly full moon, I felt suddenly, inexplicably, happy. This has happened to me several times in recent weeks, and I can’t for the life of me understand why, but the little waves come and everything else falls away and there I am, grinning like an idiot as I make my way home.

I remember feeling this way when I was seventeen, as I walked along College Street on my way to Neil’s apartment. I remember the sound of the College streetcar as it went past, and the way the streetlights were, and how good it felt just to walk through the night by myself. I didn’t love Neil, but I loved the radius point he provided in a city I loved, then, above all.

When I spoke with my brother last week, he said that things were much better since he came into himself. Like the rest of our conversation, the meaning of this statement was logically imprecise, but it made sense at the level of feeling. Which is to say that I’m not at all sure what he meant by it, but I know what he means.

The next time he calls I will tell him that I’ve become my own radius point, and maybe he'll understand.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Spring or Bust

Some days are like pinball machines; Thursday, for example. In the span of one evening, I got pickpocketed, James lost his keys, we both nearly got frostbite, and I learned that Phil is engaged. In spite of everything, it was a good day.

James’ friend Molly joined us around midnight and made us tell sex stories until last call. I liked her for this, and because she’s a Gemini. I've always liked Geminis, but I should never, ever have sex with them. Hold me to that, will you?

Molly had a lot of stories to tell, but they all turned dark in the end, even the funny ones. James and I each told tales of unconsummation, which he thinks are more interesting than the other kind. I’m not sure I agree, though they are my forte. Perhaps it is time that I acquired a new métier?

On a related note, my father has started internet dating. I repeat: my father has started internet dating. Within twenty-four hours, he had hooked up with a 52-year old redhead from Belgrade. He sent me her picture today, and yes, she’s cute.

Question: Is there any way to make long johns sexy? Please advise.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Strange bedfellows

Alberta: Smoking bans useless
Montreal Gazette

Premier Ralph Klein called smoking bans "useless" yesterday - in the midst of a national non-smoking week - arguing people in provinces with restrictions on lighting up aren't healthier than those in smoky jurisdictions. Klein stood by his refusal last week to enact a provincewide ban on smoking in workplaces, saying Albertans choose where they work. "I was in Ontario and I didn't see a healthier Ontarian than I saw in Quebec, where they don't have smoking bans at all."

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The Full Story

Many moons ago, Maz and I played in bands together in Toronto. Yes, I am someone who used to be in a band. Two, in fact. Maz stomped into Band One sometime in 1992 (was it?), six foot tall and working-class and way more punk rock than you, thank you very much. Frankly, I thought she was a bit of a prat at first, but in spite of this fact we became close musical collaborators and, eventually, even closer friends.

After Band One imploded – you guessed it: “creative differences” – Maz and I started Band Two, which trundled along quite artily for a couple of years before it too imploded. In retrospect, Band Two was transparently the rebound band: i.e., the band you start immediately after the break-up in order to prove to your ex-bandmates that you’re still brilliant and fabulous and that you really don’t need them anymore and probably never did. Except, of course, you’re still all fucked-up from Band One so you inevitably bring your shit into Band Two. And when Band Two doesn’t work, you give up on music entirely for ten years. Or at least I did.

Bands are eerily like relationships in most respects, except instead of dealing with one person and their various wounds, demons, and idiosyncrasies, you have to deal with three of them, or five, or in Band One’s case, as many as eight. At any given moment, there are multiple relationship partners who are feeling hurt or neglected or jealous; who are competing for power or desperate for understanding; or who need more attention or acknowledgement or space or something they haven’t quite figured out yet. Add to that the anxieties commonly associated with recording and performing and touring and doing all of it on your own, and you come to realize that it’s a small miracle that anyone ever makes any music at all.

Maz, to her credit, became an audio engineer and started still another band, but eventually she gave up on music too and sold off all her gear and moved out to Victoria to try to be a non-musician. But then her guitar started talking to her.

GUITAR: You still love me, you know.
MAZ: No, I don’t.
GUITAR: Oh yes, you do.
MAZ: No, I don’t!
GUITAR: C’mon, you want to play me again, don’t you?
MAZ: No, now fuck off!
GUITAR: I’m even still in tu-une – feel.
MAZ: Oh, God damn it!! (Sighs.) Okay, but just this once. . .

So, Maz is saving up to come back east, and I’m writing again and thinking about sound and the stage, and suddenly it’s ten years ago, only different. Better. Happily, we both realize that we’re too old and too smart to try to start another band, so we’ve agreed to make some Inter-Art instead. No expectations, no committments -- just process and play. And, unlike sex, you can get grants for it.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Breaking News

Fusion Wire Service:

"Today, mAzFuSiOn and Vila H. finally decided to get back together and have 'make-up sex' after 10 years of not 'speaking'. This time the sex will be right, and good. Yeah. . ."

Story at eleven.

Whither anguish?

According to today’s Gazette, women’s brains are distinctively altered by the experience of breaking up with a romantic partner. No, seriously.

For those who can’t be bothered, Jeffery Lorberbaum, the co-author of the study, concludes:

"In this report we speculate that the brain regions involved in emotion, motivation and attention are impaired with severe grief. If we can first understand the brain basis of grief then we eventually might be able to help those disabled by grief and understand how depression is triggered."

Ah, where to begin?

With the fact that being “disabled” by grief is apparently defined as experiencing sadness when thinking about the former partner sixteen weeks after the end of the relationship? (An eternity, really.)

Or with the fact that the scientists neglected to inflict the study upon any biological males? (Perhaps they were all watching Nascar at the time?)

Or with the suggestion that the entirety of human experience is “brain-based,” and therefore ripe for pharmaceutical correction? (Sales of Viagra have plateaued, after all.)

It’s really starting to feel like the twentieth century never happened, isn’t it?

Saturday, January 15, 2005

The Week in Review

Received call from Ada informing me that Open Da Night (aka Café Olympico) was on fire. Felt sad for remainder of day.

Spent hours at university library trying to find non-existent books. Quietly cursed university, library, and employees of both.

Woke up to Montreal Gazette headline: “Quebec Primed for Full Smoking Ban.” Chain-smoked five cigarettes in protest; blistering rant forthcoming.

Accepted Oblivia's invitation to join YULBlog.

Got blissfully drunk after day of unproductive meetings. Briefly fantasized about sleeping with obscenely young bartender; promptly cut myself off and staggered home.

Spoke with schizophrenic brother for first time in two years. Expect next call in three to four months.

Formulated psychoanalytic theory based entirely on Sesame Street characters Ernie and Bert with Arit. Embarked on project to reclaim my inner Ernie. Will begin by eating cookies in bed.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Academia: Part V

I’ve been coming back to it slowly, as after an accident. It still feels tentative, uncertain, like it could stop again at any moment, but I don’t think it will. After almost three years of paralysis, writing is starting to feel like what I do again.

Several months after Phil left, I began keeping a journal. At first, the entries were sparse – a paragraph or two every couple of weeks – but eventually I found a rhythm, writing a page or more at a sitting, two to three times a week. I kept this up for over a year, until James and I made our pact to start blogs exactly three months ago. The rest is in the archives.

I far prefer blogging to journal writing, which had started to feel like I was talking to myself. Here, there is at least the intimation of a reader—or better, an audience, since a reader remains a mute possibility, whereas an audience has the temerity to respond. I am, I have realized, intensely dialogical in my thinking and feeling: I need others to converse with, to empathize with, to argue and reach consensus with. Although I am learning the merits of solitude, I still require the fuel of relationship, with mentors and colleagues and lovers and friends and the ones in between. There hardly seems any point otherwise.

When I write here, I imagine Arit reading, and Oblivia, and Atomic and D. Ada tells me go deeper; Maz tells me to be let myself be funny. (I’ll be funny again soon, Maz, I promise!) Lately, people I don’t know have been writing to tell me things, and I can’t help but wonder who they are and how they got here and what their stories are.

But the one who is always with me here is James, though I don’t always understand why or what we are to each other. I suppose that I love him anyway, because we’ve been telling each other stories for a long time now, and neither of us has stopped listening yet.

But what does this have to do with academia? Nothing, and everything, and maybe this:

Theory is not something that comes from on high: it is the (re)making sense of our own stories so that they make sense to ourselves and others.1

Or this:

And thus the circus, the transvestite, the clown, the acrobat and the stripper are returned to the centre of the world, so that representation is ultimately a game of the stage, the bedroom and the streets, all at the same time, but also funny. . . If this is a literate, intellectual happiness, it is a happiness, a laughter, which is possible only because one is literate, intellectual.2

So here’s to laughing our asses off. And to Ioan.

1. Davies, Ioan. Cultural Studies and Beyond: Fragments of Empire. (New York: Routledge, 1995), 4.

2. Ibid., 179.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Academia: Part IV

Well, I won the essay prize, graduated summa cum laude, and started graduate school. It was pretty much all downhill from there.

I decided to pursue a Master's degree in music, my other Grand Passion (tm). This was a sensible move in most respects, except it meant that I would not work with Professor Davies again. I’ve never been sure how much I should regret this decision, as Davies died of a stroke soon afterward – while snorkelling in Cuba, God love him – which would have left me mourning and advisorless mid-thesis. Then again, I would have had that last breath of time with him, to learn, to hear a few more stories, and to come that much closer to finding my voice. And just maybe, though I’ll never know, the next few years would have been different.

The music program was fine, and the people there really were very nice, but I realize now that I was already too much of a cultural theorist to quite fit in. I worsened the problem by inviting a communications scholar to sit on my thesis committee, who, in addition to having considerably less knowledge of music than originally claimed, was at least halfway to a nervous breakdown and very nearly forgot to show up at my defense. (He may as well not have since he didn’t bother to read the damn thing, but that is another story.) Also, no one in the music department smoked or drank or read poetry; nor, in fact, did they play very much music, although occasionally the Schaferites in the group would head off to the country to compose soundscapes that set off my inner cultural theorist in the worst way.

At the end of my first year, as comment on a seminar paper I had written for her class, one of my professors asked me if I understood the difference between academic writing and journalism. I was instantly and furiously offended by the question, but it had the intended effect: I began removing myself from my words, and writing from what I surmised was an appropriate scholarly distance. I stopped working through theory in narrative form; I excised all metaphor or allusion. In more rebellious moments, I parodied the omniscient scholarly narrator, but no one seemed to notice when I did.

Meanwhile, the Ex, Phil, began falling apart. At first he would just freeze up, usually at night, and I would quietly hold him until he came back to himself. Then he started going AWOL, wandering the city for hours as I waited for him to return safely home. Then he became suicidal, and I didn’t know what to do except brace myself for abandonment.

Writing became slower, harder. I would spend hours alone in my office staring at a blank computer screen, wondering if I still cared enough to bother. When I did manage to produce a string of words, I felt completely alienated from the results. It was like reading another language, or hearing one’s speaking voice on tape: unnerving, strange. Inevitably, the thesis spilled over into a second year, so I brought it, Phil, and a growing sense of dread with me to Montreal. It was, unquestionably, the worst year of my life.

I forced myself to keep writing, as Phil went AWOL again; as my father announced he had cancer; as my extended family was bombed from the air for seventy-eight days; as my brother slowly, agonizingly, became a schizophrenic; as my cat died. I kept writing as the distance between myself and my partner grew larger, and as I tried to hold my fucked-up, disease-ridden family together, and as I feared for my father’s life. I kept writing through the first numb semester of my PhD program and through the summer that followed, a beautiful, Montreal summer that passed outside my office window. I kept writing, even though I hated every moment of it and every word I wrote was dead and my heart was breaking the whole time. I kept writing until I had 145 double-spaced pages plus notes to submit to the music department, thereby fulfilling the requirements of the course of study appointed by the statutes of the university.

And then I stopped writing completely.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Academia: Part III

The closest I came to Harriet’s intellectual utopia was during my third year of undergrad, when I took a seminar course in cultural sociology with the late Ioan Davies. On the first day of class, he meandered into the seminar room, and, without so much as a glance at the students that had assembled there, began reading a poem by the Irish writer Seamus Heaney. As it turned out, Heaney had just been awarded the Nobel Prize for poetry and Professor Davies had been a member of the selection committee, but this was not explained until considerably later in the term. On that first day of class, he simply read the poem aloud to his puzzled students, paused, then commenced his introductory lecture -- which, on the surface, had absolutely nothing to do with poetry.

Of course I loved him instantly, not only because of this peculiar introduction but because he smoked cigarettes and drank pints with his students and told mesmerizing stories about his exploits with Joseph Brodsky and Vaclav Havel, and, most of all, because he was a writer as well as a scholar and was completely untroubled by the distinction. These traits did not necessarily make him popular with his colleagues, who called his cultural politics into question and grumbled about the smoke that seeped out from under the door of his office and occasionally whispered about his presumed alcoholism. Prof. Davies, for his part, seemed perfectly oblivious to the hissing that followed his movements through the halls, or at least it appeared that way to me, a lowly undergraduate student who had finally found a mentor.

It was, on balance, a very good year.

As April loomed, I nearly gave myself an ulcer agonizing over my final paper, so desperate was I to impress my instructor. In so doing, I missed the due date by several weeks, and full of shame I fell away from the course, determined that I would not show my face again until the paper was finished. When the essay had finally reached what I thought was a presentable state, I went by the department strategically late in the day and slipped it into Prof. Davies’ mailbox with a note of sincere apology. I imagined that he would hand it back to me at the next class with a few scrawled words of encouragement: “Good work,” or “Well done!” or something in that vein.

The following day, I received a phone call from Prof. Davies requesting my immediate presence at his office. My ulcer perforating, I was certain that I was going to be sternly rebuked for my tardiness, and worse, that the paper was actually no good at all and with late marks fully deducted, I would in fact have failed the class. I hardly slept at all that night; the next morning, I made my way to the university as a sailor walks a gangplank.

When I approached his office, I saw that the door was open and that he was sitting at his desk with his back turned toward it, and therefore toward me. I gingerly stepped inside, unsure whether to close the door or if I should sit down, so I just stood there, halfway between in and out, for what seemed like the rest of the semester. As I waited for Prof. Davies to acknowledge my presence, I noticed that he was flipping through the pages of what looked suspiciously like my essay.

In the midst of that ocean of silence, and without looking at me or uttering any form of greeting at all, he began reading my paper aloud. I stood there, flummoxed, and listened to him read my words back to me in his strange Welsh accent, feeling the whole time like I was going to crawl out of my own skin. Why was he doing this? Was he a sadist, and I a humiliated O? I wanted to plead with him to stop, but I had no voice in me. Finally, after reading several paragraphs he paused, and still half-turned away from me he said, quietly, “You’re a very good writer.” He then politely asked my permission to submit the paper for the faculty’s annual essay prize.

His words didn’t sink in until I left his office and hurtled outside, whereupon I laughed, danced, and may possibly have hugged a complete stranger with joy. To this day, no honour has ever meant as much to me as those five words, and I suspect that none ever will.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Academia: Part II

Like other pretentious and moderately fucked-up youth of my generation, I attended an alternative high school for a period of time in the late 1980s. There, I was thoroughly steeped in the discourse of romantic intellectualism, whose primary and most seductive exponent was my English teacher, Harriet Wolff. Harriet was a then middle-aged Englishwoman with just the faintest trace of an accent who supervised courses in twentieth century literature, creative writing, and other subjects that were perfectly suited to pretentious teenagers nursed on punk rock. Under her cross-legged tutelage, I learned how to write a proper essay, how to conduct scholarly research, and how to analyze poetry, the last a skill I have long since forgotten.

I also learned the ultimate purpose of acquiring these skills, which was to one day arrive at the front gates of the university fully prepared to savour the delights of the scholarly life. These included instant camaraderie with a throng of like-minded souls, with whom I would form life-long and nicotine-fuelled friendships; sexual experimentation with a stable of lanky and bespectacled young men who were equally well-versed in continental philosophy and the arts of love; and, perhaps the most splendid delight of all, the assurance that as a humanities scholar, I would be everywhere surrounded by the intoxicating aura of Art (tm), which would breathe meaning into every fleeting moment of my defiantly godless existence.

Needless to say, when I finally arrived at the gates of the university, several years later than Harriet had hoped, I found none of these things waiting for me. Instead, I was greeted by an almost comically bureaucratic corporation whose profits derived from the production of increasingly redundant armies of “knowledge workers,” most of whom now knowledgeably serve lattés at your local Starbucks. To add insult to injury, the architectural centre of the campus was not a library or a commons but a mini-shopping mall, which sold everything from handbags to video games but could not manage to produce a drinkable cup of coffee. Feeling swindled, I promptly became a Marxist, which was both the most rational and the most romantic response to the situation I could muster.

To be fair, I did encounter a fair number of bespectacled humanities professors milling about the campus – one or two of whom had possibly been lanky young men once – but most of these were nearing retirement and seemed genuinely bewildered by the environment they worked in. One, an American-born philosophy instructor I was especially fond of, introduced himself to a class by announcing that he had been “mistrained in an earlier era” and that he felt pity for anyone sitting in the lecture hall who actually gave a damn about philosophy. “They’ll give you nothing but grief,” he said ominously, “I assure you.” Strangely, I was not.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Academia: Part I

The more attentive readers among you may have noticed a distinct absence of posts concerning what is ostensibly my primary occupation. Or, perhaps not. In either case, it is an inarguable fact that this space has until now been unsullied by commentary about my ongoing studies.

There are several reasons for this semi-deliberate omission. The first is that graduate students have a notorious and entirely deserved reputation for moaning endlessly about their lot in life, and although I personally engage in this activity more often than I care to admit, I have been reluctant to do so in mixed company. It is at least theoretically possible that someday, a coalminer or garment worker or Wal-Mart employee might stumble across this blog, and having encountered such drivel they would be perfectly within their rights to slap me silly.

The second reason is that most academic writing is not especially interesting, nor, frankly, are the vast majority of ideas that contemporary academics labour to express. They are, to be fair, sometimes useful or even intellectually necessary, but useful is a far cry from interesting, and neither can hold a candle to pleasurable.

The third reason is only slightly less flip, and has to do with my deep ambivalence about the university as an institution and my own tenuous place within it. What follows is, at its core, a tale of romantic disillusionment, one that is akin to other such tales but which almost certainly will never inspire a great pop song or any other object of cultural value. So be it.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Part Seven

I put away the dress I wore last night, which feels like last year. The new year begins tomorrow and it is a blank page.

Part Six

Arit calls and we talk for a while. I consider leaving the apartment but lose my nerve; I decide to make soup instead. My body accepts the offer but reserves final judgement.

Part Five

The ice melts, then freezes again; it is an indecisive winter. I open the window to thin out the smoke, then quickly pull it shut. Spring is four months away.

Part Four

In two days it will have been two years, enough time for everything to be different. There are no traces of him left, except for the way I guard against others.

Part Three

I manage two pieces of toast. Ada brings coffee from St. Viateur; we drink it slowly as the light fades.

Part Two

A pause between years. There are no trains or cars today; the alley is empty under a pale blue sky. I feel neither hope nor the absence of hope. The world is perfectly still.

The Hangover Notebooks: Part One

I tried not to but I woke up anyway, curled up in the space between drunk and hungover and knowing that sleep was gone. Conceding defeat, I open the blinds and put the kettle on.