Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy New Year, darlings!


I'll see you in 2006...

The life of the mind

I have noticed that, after reading several hundred pages of theory in one sitting, I develop a mysterious and insatiable need to listen to really dumb rock 'n' roll.

I have also noticed that, after reading several hundred pages of theory in one sitting, I become impossibly distracted by things like this:

Prick

(Hey, I’m being Foucauldian. Didja catch it?)

In other news, I received a package today which contained, among other books, a copy of Richard Klein’s Cigarettes are Sublime. It will be the first thing I read when my synthesis paper is finished.

And yes, I intend to smoke while I read it. Heavily.

Portrait

Thanks, by the way, to Mia for the pics. I’ll be referring to them often in the days ahead.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Immersion

This is how my days are.

I wake in the afternoon. I make a cup of tea and read the day’s news and horoscopes. By the time I have finished my tea, it is already dark. I do my household chores and then I take a long walk, picking up groceries as I need them. Then, I read until dawn, at which point the cycle starts again.

James came over for dinner on Christmas, and we talked all night. Otherwise, I have had no unmediated social contact since last Tuesday. Oddly enough, it’s working for me. I am burning through books at a remarkable pace, jotting down notes occasionally but only occasionally. I can’t bear the thought of slowing down--I need the momentum of the torrent, when each connection comes on the heels of the last.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this way.

Tonight, as I read, I caught a glimpse of what my dissertation will look like. There is a moment with ideas when the basic form comes into view, like an ultrasound image: suddenly, you can see the outlines of what the idea will become. There is a spine and veins and stubs of limbs, and with them, the suggestion of a thing.

I think I’ll call it Moe.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

The quietest day of the year

The neighbours have all left for their Christmas dinners, and suddenly, there is nothing. No footsteps in the adjacent stairwell, no television murmuring behind the living room wall, no clatter of cupboard doors closing or dishes being washed.

It’s eerie, but not in a bad way.

Earlier, I tried to read as the hipster couple next door listened to their favourite band, Coco Rosie. Their music falls in the higher end of the sound spectrum, and, thus, pierces through thin apartment walls with inescapable clarity.

Because of this, I will never like Coco Rosie. Which is a shame.

I can also hear the hipster couple next door having sex, though not very often because they are, in this regard, morning people, and I most assuredly am not. However, I have occasionally been awoken by them, usually when I am hungover and feeling not at all the écouteuse.

She does have lovely little love cries, though. He, sadly, does not. Grunt, grunt, done. I should devise a rating system for the vocal performances of my neighbours. One knock=Fair. Two knocks=Good. Three knocks=Can I come over?

Yes, this is how life will be for a while. Small.

Friday, December 23, 2005

So, Christmas...

I hear it’s all the rage this year.

The streets are lousy with last-minute shoppers, and with mountains of snow still waiting to be hauled away--and more listlessly falling--they are no longer streets but thin, clogged arteries. As each day passes, the mood of the city becomes steadily more frantic, and there isn’t an Ativan in sight.

I am, I have decided, sitting this one out. I have politely declined to visit my mother, who is, miraculously, still alive, and my brother, who is already going off his meds. My father, for his part, has elected to spend the holiday with his girlfriend’s family in a town I’ve never heard of. I did not ask for, nor did I receive, an invitation to join them.

It occurs to me that this is the first time my family will celebrate Christmas completely apart. I tell myself it is for the best.

Free of family obligations, I plan to spend the holiday season sequestered in my apartment writing my synthesis paper, a scholarly obligation I have avoided for entirely too long. Although hardly festive, I suppose it is one of the more productive things I could do with myself during this slow spasm between years. It is also, for me, akin to leaping off a very large cliff.

As every graduate student with a therapist knows, avoidance is a rational response to stressful situations. For example, when confronted with a cliff, it is perfectly reasonable to think, “Nuh-uh, scary, not gonna do it,” and not to proceed. In fact, you would be quite foolish to do otherwise. It is a cliff, after all, and you, being human, don’t much care for them.

The problem is, you are still standing on the edge of a very large cliff, staring dumbly down into the abyss. You are, ostensibly, safe, but you remain utterly consumed by the abyss. For some reason, you don’t turn back, nor do you avert your gaze. You could, if you really wanted to, but you don’t. Instead, you just stand there, like an idiot, scaring yourself silly as you endlessly ruminate on what lies ahead.

The strange thing is that, in time, you get used to it. You learn to live with the edge and all that it brings: the unsettled stomach and the jaw that aches every morning and the constant, nagging sense of guilt that pervades everything that you do and, if you’re not careful, everything that you are. You learn to live as a coward frozen to the edge of a cliff that wasn’t even really a cliff before you made it into one.

In any case, I think I have finally reached the point where I would rather fall ten thousand feet to the jagged rocks below than spend another minute contemplating the fucking abyss.

Wish me luck...


PS. James—I’ll see you on the way down.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Christmas gifts your single friends will enjoy

1. A date, preferably with someone you yourself would go out with if you were single.

2. A massage—Pass the hat around and buy your friend physical contact with a complete stranger.

3. A blow job—See #2.

4. Hard liquor—Your friend can use it to seduce prospective sexual partners and to drown their sorrows when it doesn’t work out.

5. Cat toys, or, for the newly single, a cat.

6. Porn, or, for pretentious literary types, erotica.

7. A new vibrator from Come As You Are. (Vila’s recommendation: the Hitachi Wand.)

8. A tarot reading—Helpful hint: when the Hermit card comes up, and it will, tell your friend that it means “sexual union” in the Crowley deck.

9. A friend with benefits—The gift that keeps on giving, at least until someone better comes along.

10. All six volumes of In Search of Lost Time—Because solitude is the harbinger of erudition.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

Last night, I watched the first English-language debate of the federal political campaign, which wasn’t so much a debate as a heavily moderated Q&A session with a carefully selected group of “regular" Canadians. It was, as you might imagine, a total snooze, except for one strange interlude.

Doris, one of the aforementioned Canadians, asked the candidates what they would do to control the “infighting” that has plagued the House of Commons since the last election. The moderator echoed Doris’ complaint, quoting a certain oft-namedropped “rock star” (I’m looking at you, Bono...) who apparently divulged that “he was appalled and shocked by the behaviour in Question Period.”

After a faintly lacklustre discussion about the importance of civility in Canadian politics, NDP leader Jack Layton pronounced, without a trace of irony, that his party would solve the problem of infighting by electing more women to Parliament. “Mark my words,” he intoned, “The tone of that House would change if we had a lot more women there!”

Not to be outdone, Prime Minister Paul Martin quickly agreed with Layton, adding that the primary reason that women declined to run for federal office was because of the “poisonous” atmosphere of the House. This was, I believe, the only time that the Liberals and the NDP expressed agreement on any subject during the entire two-hour debate.

As Carolyn Ryan remarked on the CBC’s Debate Blog, “Are the female MPs supposed to shush their male counterparts when they get raucous? Should they hold tea parties in the foyer? Will they bring in a "bad-word jar," with MPs having to pay a twoonie every time they heckle? Puh-lease!” The prospect of female politicians suddenly taking up the role of tight-lipped schoolmarms is as demeaning as it is ridiculous, yet the exchange speaks volumes about how little has changed in Canadian political discourse during the last hundred years.

In the early twentieth century, Nellie McClung and her colleagues in the Famous Five fought for, and eventually won, female suffrage in Canada. Given the provisions of the Election Act, which stated that “no woman, idiot, lunatic, or child” could vote, and the views of politicians like Premier Roblin of Manitoba, who blustered, “I don't want a hyena in petticoats talking politics to me—I want a nice gentle woman to bring me my slippers,” this was no small feat.

It bears noting, however, that like their contemporaries in the United States, Canadian suffragists were closely aligned with the Christian Temperance movement, which sought to “civilize” society by imposing prohibition and other social reforms. In the view of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and similar organizations, women were by nature morally superior to men, and were therefore duty-bound to protect the social order from the transgressions of the less spiritually adept half of the human race.

(In fact, the Temperance movement saw women’s suffrage not as an inalienable human right, to be won for its own sake, but as a means to a far more important end: increasing the number of voters who would support their broader program of social reform. The strategy worked: by 1919, the sale of liquor was banned in all nine of Canada’s provinces.)

The admission of women to provincial legislatures, and later to the House of Commons, would likely not have been achieved were it not for the reassuring tenor of Christian Temperance discourse. Even when engaged in the rough-and-tumble sport of politics, it was promised, women would retain their “natural” maternal virtues and bring a more sensitive and feeling influence to statecraft. They would, thus, tame the masculine excesses of the political sphere, from which “the whole race suffered.”

It is hardly surprising that such views continue to hold sway among both Canadian and American conservatives, whose political ideologies are firmly rooted in traditional Protestant values. As columnist and Rush Limbaugh fill-in Walter Williams recently opined:

“Men and women have different psychological make-ups. Women tend to be more nurturing, sensitive and submissive. They demonstrate greater feelings of love and tend to exhibit grief to a greater extent than men. On the other hand, men tend to be more competitive, aggressive and hostile than women. Female characteristics are vital to a well-ordered society, for they exert a civilizing influence. I'd never want to live in a society where women didn't have a major role in the rearing of children and management of the household. However, sensitivity, nurturing and a capacity to exhibit grief are not the best characteristics for political leadership.”

What is rather more surprising, and also deeply disheartening, is that a comparable view was advanced not by Stephen Harper’s Conservative party, but by the leader of Canada’s “progressive” party, the NDP. If not the others, shouldn’t Layton possess the intelligence and, frankly, the balls to challenge commonly held assumptions about gender? Or, is the notion that women are perfectly capable of playing political hardball with their male counterparts—or, at least, that nothing in their “nature” prevents them from doing so—now so dangerously subversive that it is anathema even to progressives?

To be, I suspect, continued...

Friday, December 16, 2005

Winter has arrived

Today, I shovelled snow. Forty-one centimetres of snow.

In case you're wondering, that's a fuck of a lot of snow.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

5:03 AM

Why can’t I fucking sleep? I am tired beyond words, but here I lie, writhing and twitching like a hooked trout. A hooked trout that has to be up in four hours.

Caffeine, fuck your god, your goat, and your mother.

Okay, Vila, don’t panic, and do not under any circumstances look at the clock. You are resting, which they say is almost as good as sleeping. Rest, Vila. You remember how to rest, don’t you? Sure you do.

Okay, I’m resting. Actually, it does feel kind of nice. Ah, and here come the cats, who will lie down beside me and purr quietly. Come on, cats, lie down. I said, lie down. No, Ivan, please don’t attack my toes. Ivan, NO! Oh, for fuck’s sake...

Great, I’m not resting any more. I am, however, jonesing for a cigarette. Fine. I’ll get up and have a cigarette. And check my email.

Oh look, it’s an email from James, who isn’t sleeping either. Write back to him while you smoke your cigarette, and be sure to whine. Done. Send. Hey, maybe he’ll write back again? Hmm... (Drumming fingers.) He isn’t writing back. Fuck, you’re asleep, aren’t you, James? Bastard!

Fine. Finish your cigarette and go back to bed, Vila. Maybe it’ll work this time? I know, I’ll fantasize about the cute bartender at the Café. That way, when I drift off to sleep I’ll have fabulous sex dreams. Yes, that is exactly what I should do.

Okay, there he is. Damn, he’s cute. Okay, now get rid of his clothes and give him a couple of tattoos. Perfect. Now, will it be fucking or a leisurely blow job? Hmm. Fucking will tire you out faster... Right, fucking it is, then. Mmm. Okay, so this is where I start drifting off, right? Right?

Nope, still awake. Except now, I’m awake and horny. Shit. Okay, stay where you are, Vila—just reach under the covers and grab your vibrator, which is all plugged in and ready to go...

Um, no it’s not. You put it away when you cleaned the apartment, you dumb bitch. What the fuck did you do that for? Now, you have to get out of bed, turn on the light, walk across the room, open a drawer, retrieve the vibrator, find the extension cord, plug in the vibrator, turn out the light, and get back into bed, by which time you’ll be bolt awake and not even in the ballpark of horny anymore.

Okay, fine. Don’t think about the bartender. In fact, don’t think about anything at all. Just let yourself be tired. Ah. There. Hey, I think I’m resting again. Excellent. Oh yeah, just don't forget to respond to that email before you leave for work. (Blinks.) FUCK!! You thought about something! Stop it!

Ah shit, the sun’s coming up. Don’t look at the clock. I said, DO NOT LOOK AT THE CLOCK...

7:16 AM

(Sighs.) I told you not to look at the clock.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

My Blog Fantasies

In the world I envision when I really should be doing other things, Nick would be the editor of a magazine. This magazine (as opposed to This Magazine) would be so mind-bogglingly good that it would turn up its nose at both advertising revenue and government grants, and still kick Maisonneuve’s ass. In fact, this magazine would single-handedly revitalize Canada’s moribund publishing industry, thus proving that our scant population and unforgiving geography have nothing whatsoever to do with our true cultural potential.

Alas, since the world is not even remotely as I envision it, we will have to content ourselves with Sightings, the consistently excellent sidebar to Nick’s blog, The Eponym. I recommend starting with the most recent addition, The Semiotics of Smoking, which is a work of genius. Follow this by reading Nick’s post, When Two Dogs Go to War, which is also a work of genius. Then, write Nick a comment encouraging him to post more often, because once a month isn’t nearly enough.

Next in the series: Why I think D. should quit her job and become a postmodern romance novelist.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Julka

My aunt Julka died this week. My father called to tell me last night.

Julka was 78 years old, and lived with my cousin Steva and his wife Mira in an apartment on Mišarska Street, right in the middle of Belgrade. She had worked as a maid for most of her life--“looking after rich people,” as my father puts it--which is how she came to live there.

Before the start of the Second World War, Julka worked for a Jewish man who owned the apartment. When the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia in 1941, reducing great swaths of Belgrade to dust, the man fled, leaving the apartment to his young Serbian maid.

After the war, Julka married my uncle, Žika, and had two children by him, Steva and Jovan. Žika had fought with the Partisans during the war, and, according to my father, he was the never the same since. He drank heavily and flew into violent rages, which Julka was often the target of. His sons grew up watching this and seethed.

When Steva was a teenager, he confronted his father, beating him to within an inch of his life. Steva then ordered Žika to leave the apartment and to never come back. Žika did as he was told. No one in the family has heard from him since.

Steva did a stint in the Yugoslav army, then became a taxi driver. He married Mira soon afterward, and they had a daughter, Jelena. The three generations lived together in the apartment, as did, for brief periods, my father and his sister, Ljiljana. Ljiljana would go on to live in her own apartment in Banovo Brdo, a suburb of Belgrade, while my father made his way to Canada.

Whenever I visit Belgrade, Steva comes to pick me up at the airport, and we drive to the apartment on Mišarska Street. Steva is my favourite relative, with his shock of thick, white hair and armsful of pale blue tattoos. He smokes like a chimney, swears like a sailor, and laughs like a hyena, all proudly and often. His taxi is falling apart but he knows every vein of his city, which he navigates by feel.

Julka would be there when we reached the apartment, tiny and frail but still very much at its helm. Already, Turkish coffee steamed in small, white cups on the kitchen table, beside plates heaped with sausage and cheese and thick slices of bread. As soon as we had finished eating, a crystal ashtray waited for our cigarettes, which instantly filled the tall room with smoke.

I always felt welcome there.

It’s been three and a half years since I was last in Belgrade. Steva is still driving his cab, but Mira lost her job when the state-owned company she worked for was privatised. Julka never received a pension because she worked “privately,” so the family gets by on Steva’s cab fares and the money Jovan sends from his job in Greece. It’s hard for them, my father often says, as it is for so many others there.

To save money, they stopped heating the apartment with electricity, which became prohibitively expensive after Milošević fell. Instead, they use the coal stove that Julka learned to oil and clean before the Second World War. My father says that she was really good at it, a perfectionist. No one else could clean things like she could.

When Julka finished cleaning the stove last week, she opened the door to burn the oily leaves of newspaper she had used. The fire caught her sleeve. When Mira rushed in, Julka was covered in flames, which blackened the ceiling of the apartment. Mira seared both of her arms trying to save her.

Julka died in hospital the next day. My father sent Steva money for her funeral, which the family could not otherwise afford. My father always sends money home for funerals.

I asked my father what will happen to the apartment on Mišarska Street. He said that the Jewish man’s son is still alive, and that it will return to him when Steva and Mira are gone. I wonder how it is for them now, living in the apartment where Julka died. And I can’t help but wonder if they still use the coal stove.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

There are places I remember

I was sitting in the back seat of my father’s car. It was a 1978 Grand Le Mans with an AM/FM radio and speakers in the back. The radio announcer’s voice was shaky and sad when he said that John Lennon was dead, even though it was the next day and my dad was driving me to school. Then the voice stopped and they played “Watching the Wheels,” which sounded even sadder.

Yes, I am a Beatles fan. Hey, I never said I was cool.

My dad gave me a cassette tape of Beatles songs when I was six, which I listened to all the time. I don’t know why he had it—my dad’s more of a fifties guy, if anything—but he gave it to me and I never gave it back. When I was seven, I got a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for my birthday, and by the time I was ten, I had every studio album the band recorded.

I still know the lyrics to all of them off by heart.

In Popular Music in Theory, Keith Negus writes: “(T)here is perhaps a children’s history of The Beatles at the same time as the world-wise counter-culture version.” There absolutely is. The Beatles were as much a part of the dream world of my childhood as The Narnia Chronicles or The Cat in the Hat. They were my best friends and my first boyfriends, the family I wished that I had instead of the one that I got. They were the place I would go when I put on my Radio Shack headphones and made the real world go away. They made me feel happy. They still do.

So, when the radio announcer said that John Lennon was dead I felt shaky and sad too. Someone had murdered one of my friends.

A year later, I wrote a poem about it. Egged on by my mother, I sent the poem to the city paper, which published it in the Sunday children’s section underneath a picture of Lennon. It was a silly little poem, the kind a ten-year old writes when she is trying to be wise, but still, I was terribly proud. I had paid public tribute to my friend, and a lot of other people's as well.

So, this is the poem.

John Lennon

He was a loving, caring person,
He was fun to be with too,
This bright and friendly man,
Who so many people knew.

But he was still a human being,
Not some kind of super-man,
Yet he took heart-breaking tortures,
That not many people can.

But one day this went too far,
And the moment we had to dread,
Had finally come upon us,
He was Officially Pronounced Dead.

A year after this happened,
People are still in a trance,
So please do us a favour,
And Give Peace a Chance.

Hey, I was ten. And I never said I was cool.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Revenge of the nerds


Unless you've been living under a rock for the last couple of years, you've likely heard about the ongoing efforts of graduate student assistants at New York University to form--and retain--a union. University administrators have fought them every step of the way, and grad students are now in the fourth week of a strike.

You can do your bit to support the strikers by signing this letter, whose authors include Judith Butler, Frederic Jameson, and Slavoj Zizek, among other intellectual luminaries. You can also consult the GSOC website, or, for some quick background on the issues, this handy Village Voice piece.

Up with nerds! Woo!

The day after the Great Purge

  • Go to bank—check
  • Buy toilet paper—check
  • Pick up dry cleaning—check
  • Renew library books—check
  • Catch up on work emails—check
  • Do dishes—check
  • Clean bathroom—check
  • Do laundry—check
  • Clean cat litter—check
  • Take out garbage—check
  • Buy beer—Ah, shit...

If I had remembered to buy beer, I’d be drinking one right now. Damn, when was the last time I had a drink? Thursday, I guess. Wow, I haven’t been out since Thursday. I should go out tomorrow.

Fuck, the apartment looks good, though. Well done, Vila. Shame you don’t have any beer to celebrate your accomplishment with. Hmm, there is that whiskey that James brought over when you were sick... Ah, but I don’t feel like whiskey. I feel like beer.

I wonder how James is? He’s probably hurtling through his dissertation like a complete madman. Or playing internet chess. Hey, I bet he has beer! It’s probably too late too call, though. Yeah, it is.

Oh look, Frank just posted a comment. What the hell is he doing up so late? I quite liked his post about industrial music. I should comment on it. I keep meaning to comment on people’s blogs more, but then I forget and it feels like the moment has passed. The story of my life, that.

Hey, I should go vote for Bob’s blog again. He should so win a Canadian blog award. If he does, it’ll be like one of us winning something. “And the winner is... the smoking, insomniac slacker from Montreal for Best Blog!” Go, Bob!

Next year, I will definitely nominate g-pi. I wonder if we’ll have met by then? We really should all go to a YULblog meeting together. We could be like Bob’s trashy entourage. (Giggles.)

Ohmigod, did K. really ask me tonight if insomnia was contagious? (Laughs.) Man, he’s really gotta lay off the weed. It’s too bad we didn’t get to hook up for coffee today. I’ve been such a flake lately. I hope he understands.

Damn, it’s late. I think I’ll take a bath.

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Great Purge

Sometime around late August, I let things get away from me. I can tell this from the detritus I have allowed to accumulate since then: email messages, post-it notes, meeting minutes, bank statements, unpaid bills, grocery receipts, torn-off bits of cigarette packs with phone numbers on them, newspaper clippings, unread magazines, borrowed books, frameless photographs, dust, cat hair, cat litter, cat toys, foul-smelling sweaters, holey socks, unlabelled CD-Rs, IKEA catalogues, election pamphlets, empty prescription bottles, aborted blog posts, dead lighters, itinerant business cards, and still more dust.

So, today, I decided that it was well past time for me to get my shit together. Seventeen hours of sorting, filing, deleting, tossing, recycling, cleaning, rearranging, and otherwise purging later, I think it is safe to say that I have made progress. (Surveys apartment.) Yes, most definitely.

Now, the rest of my life...

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Alone time

I’ve been craving alone time in recent weeks, which comes as something of a surprise. I’ve always needed it, to be sure, and I am inclined to become cranky when I don’t get enough of it, but since I’ve been on my own it has rarely been in short supply.

For a while after I moved out of the apartment I shared with Phil, it made me slightly nervous to spend too much time by myself. Knowing this, I tried to arrange my days so that each one would include at least one cup of coffee, one drink, or, if all else failed, one phone call with a friend. On most days I achieved this goal easily, but every now and again I’d have no choice but to resign myself to my nerves.

When you live with someone for a long time--and by this I mean a decade or more--you become physically accustomed to co-presence in much the same way that you become accustomed to smoking. The person, like the cigarette, is always near at hand, and even when they are not, you know that it is only a matter of time.

In the days after Phil left, there were strange, almost hallucinatory moments when I felt his absence as amputees must sense a ghost limb. He was palpably there and not there, a physical habit suddenly broken but not forgotten by the body. It took months for me to learn how to sleep in the centre of the bed, which is to say it took months for me to learn how to live alone.

Yes, I needed to learn this.

Still, it is one thing to learn a lesson, and it is another thing to live as though one has always known it. Today, while walking across a skin of ice to the supermarché, it occurred to me that solitude doesn’t make me nervous anymore. In fact, on a day like today, when the apartment is impenetrably warm and the cats take long turns on my lap, it is a special and entirely necessary pleasure.

Remarkable.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Get out the vote

Okay people, it’s time to stand up and be counted. This year’s Canadian Blog Awards finalists were announced today, and no less than three Montrealers and fellow YULbloggers have made the cut! They are:

Metroblog captain Andre Nantel of Digital Apoptosis for Best Photoblog

Blork of the legendary Blork Blog for Best Blog Post Series

My buddy Bob of waydownhere for Best Culture Blog, Best Progressive Blog, and—wait for it—Best Blog! Yeah!

The polls open on Saturday, December 3rd, and will remain open until Friday, December 9th. You are allowed one vote per day during this period, so use ‘em, folks! Not sure how to vote? Well, just head on over here and start clicking.

Right, now let's kick some fucking ass!