Monday, July 25, 2005

A Bitter Moment

I was asked by a friend a few weeks ago exactly why I had broken off contact with another, mutual (at least at one time) friend. I didn't want to answer - my issues with said person aren't her business - but I did say that when it came to the mutual (former) friend, I'd finally realized that there wasn't much hope with this person as discourse goes (discourse implying a two-way conversation rather than an audience/monologue situation). She asked for details, and I said:

Some people have conversations, others hold court. I realized that the whole 'friendship' had been rendered moot by the frequent requests (if not commands) to attend a session in some other guise (most often a chat). I was raised in the Baptist Church, and I am intimately acquainted with the way that a so-called chat segues a sermon. This occurance does not happen by accident. Most frequently, the sermon would be about how awful things were for this person, or how much better things would be if this person was simply listened to since they had been so maltreated of late/over their lifetime/for the common good, etc.

And since I was so good, so decent, really, how could I not agree?

I got tired of that, and for the fact that it hadn't always been that way. But what I pegged as eccentricity gradually segued into outright listen-to-me-or-you're-insensitive manipulations. A tendancy to throw tantrums. And every question had a pre-programmed answer, expected. How do you answer 'no' to anything framed like 'you're a decent person and I'm a wretch who needs 300 bucks and will starve without it, but really, the choice is up to you...'

It is the hallmark of a manipulator, outward or hidden, direct or sideways, to pitch a fit. Somebody who has learned that if you scream, most people will do something to stop you from screaming.

So, there's the tantrum. As an observer of the tantrum there are a series of choices. You can endure the tantrum. You can evaluate the tantrum. You can estimate the length of the tantrum. You can consider the cause of the tantrum. You can schedule around the tantrum (a frequent step), or build tantrum-time into the friendship. You can pity the tantrum, resent the tantrum, de-value the tantrum or put the tantrum into its own box, accept that it's going to happen. You can even get used to the tantrum, accept it as that broken step on the way upstairs, the one that always squeaks no matter what you do to fix it. All these ways around the tantrum.

But the one thing you cannot do, despite the implication by the tantrum-ee, is prevent the tantrum. They will always have the tantrum. It is part of the schtick.

So all that said, once it is realized that the tantrum, like gravity and the firmness of the earth is inevitable, one can remove one's self from the equation in good conscience. Its not like one has lost a friend, that's already past. One has just disengaged from a figurehead. Posessed of tantrums.

All this I told her. She nodded and agreed.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Moving and the Karmic Boomerang


I'm moving. With very short notice. Put simply, my wife and I have rented a wide two bedroom floor of a townhouse which includes a finished basement (which simply isn't found in Toronto). Plus the upstairs couple have a child, which is a clever move on the landlord's part- one couple with a screaming kid is loathe to complain about another couple with a screaming kid.

And I am happy with the new place, incredibly so. Bigger. Surrounded by trees. Close to where my wife works. 5 minutes from two streetcars and even a GO train. It's even another 1920's building (I seem to have luck with them, having lived in 3 in Toronto), all corresponding to the right place, right price, with the added bonus that it is all comes together before said baby. One can move when the gift horse arrives and avoid peering between its lips.

So it's all good. But its one of the few times in my life, I want nothing more than to climb into bed, pull the covers over my head and pretend that none of it is there, that it will all...go...away. And I will wake up moved and orderly and posessed of laughter and ability and sighing. And all that crap.


Problem is- I am loathe to leave the building I'm living in at the moment. It's old and quiet and in a great area, and I've loved it for years. It's also too small for an infant for very long. I've given notice, not enough to match the lease. This isn't uncommon, and will most likely be a penalty rather than a gnashing of teeth. But I am fond of my landlord, she has been good to me. This building has. It has seen, even in 6 short years, a good deal of black and white in terms of good times and things lost.


My father built shelves in the kitchen, he's firmly gone. My grandmother wanted pictures of the interior, a handful of polaroids that were found in her top drawer and returned to me along with my copy of her will. Gone. It is normal and living and happens to the world, and still hurts in no uncertain terms.

And leads into uncertain terms. I'm operating without a net. But its a new place with more space, and with an infant en route...that imaginary safety net has already more or less been severed, correct? You can give up a job if you don't like it, take the hit and survive on potatoes and celery for a few months. Bad relationship? Give up your CDs and take a friend's couch for a few days. Marriage? Bite the bullet and pay a laywer. Parenthood? You stay. End of line.

(Robin Williams said that he gave up drinking when he became a father, understood that he couldn't lean over the bassinet and say "Here's a change little guy, today Daddy's going to throw up on YOU.")


Trying to spread my karma around carefully these days. The Karmic Boomerang cuts a wide swath. To wit: January 2nd this year, I wrote about a person from the past who sent me a specious article from a specious source:

"Incidentally, free advice for other bloggers. Cite your sources...So, proselytizers, waste less time of the passers by and learn to read, ok?"

The Karmic boomerang hits me. The ACTUAL Theodore Roethke quote from the previous entry should have been:
"What falls away is always. And is near."
(somebody mutters "Oh really, Mr. Poetry scholar, or would-be of same?")

Putting the boomerang down for a moment in a futile attempt at dignity, I could make a case for the transcendency of good poetry, that you remember the feeling of the piece, rather than the actual syntax, and thus stay faithful to the intent of the poet but...that would just be obnoxious.

Boomerang, One. Me, Zero. I also cited Joyce in my last piece, the quote about poems in Alexandria is actually from Ulysses not Stephen Hero, but I never said it was FROM Stephen Hero, I was just trying to make a point about taking the piss out of writers with too high an...opinion...of...their...abilities...


Great segue to discuss Roethke, tho. Or poets in general, since one influence always leads to another.
I saw a young snake glide
Out of the mottled shade
And hang, limp on a stone:
A thin mouth, and a tongue
Stayed, in the still air.

It turned; it drew away;
Its shadow bent in half;
It quickened and was gone

I felt my slow blood warm.
I longed to be that thing.
The pure, sensuous form.

And I may be, some time.
-From 'Snake'
Roethke. A holdover from high school and university poetry classes. Like the best of Robert Frost, but distilled. More cautious. If you try to imitate Frost, and you read like a Hallmark card. If you imitate Roethke, you read like Hallmark through a hangover. Both comments are intended as compliments to Messrs Frost and Roethke- often imitated. Never duplicated. The man writes about snakes, like D.H. Lawrence did, but Roethke wants to be the beast that Lawrence regretted expeling. Conclusion- we all hang out in Eden, for a bit? Or at least Et In Arcadia Ego? We'll always have Paris?

My favorite Frost poems were always the weirder ones:


May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
-From 'Birches', Robert Frost
...but I digress. It's a hot muggy night in Toronto. So with the weight of responsibility and a yowling cat at my feet (doesn't care for the humidity, or the fact that my wife has gone to bed early, he likes the place to himself in the evenings)...I'm back to Roethke, in a circuitious fashion.

(the reader thinks "circuitious...big word for somebody who doesn't check his sources before publishing")

(the author thinks "At least I came clean")

Why Roethke then? Out of Lawrence, Eliot, Frost, Nowlan, Cohen, Auden, Dickey, etc? Association and resonance, a big question- why remember one thing, not another?


It's 1984 and high school and one of the utilitarian green textbooks that our English classes dispenses features Roethke's 'Elegy for Jane'. I read it and admire the flow. A year later a classmate of mine swallows two bottles of sleeping pills and a large glass of milk and the aftermath of that is something that is not mine to recount. The act itself was ill-advised at best. The response from her so-called friends, on several levels, was nauseating. I found the poem and it hit me with an ache that echoed:
Elegy for Jane
(My student, thrown by a horse)

I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;
And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,
And she balanced in the delight of her thought,

A wren, happy, tail into the wind,
Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.
The shade sang with her;
The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing,
And the mould sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.

Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth,
Even a father could not find her:
Scraping her cheek against straw,
Stirring the clearest water.

My sparrow, you are not here,
Waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.
The sides of wet stones cannot console me,
Nor the moss, wound with the last light.

If only I could nudge you from this sleep,
My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover.
There's no deep confession hiding behind my fondness for this poem, or any long story behind my classmate. I liked her. I thought she deserved better than the aftermath of her death. That story rolls onto itself without resolution. I come back to this poem because Roethke had lived in the same place for awhile, different world different context different time, didn't matter. Something...clicked. The mark of good poetry (and damn is it rare). This hits me in the prelude to a move. People die. All things change.

And before I come across all sensitive and stuff...the latest wave of 80’s nostalgia is getting me down, partially because I don’t want to be stuck in a room full of people who weep at a chorus of Alphaville’s ‘Forever Young’ and mostly because I can’t stand the idea that I saw ‘Sixteen Candles’ 21 years ago. I think admission was $3.50.


(somebody mutters "21 years ago? Wow. Did the Lumière brothers sit behind you and fling spitballs?" and they can go to hell)

And in interest of full disclosure before I sound too high and mighty with the Alphaville crack - Don Henley’s ‘The Boys of Summer’ will make me stare into the middle distance and have flashbacks of a skinny Rumanian girl with big brown eyes, long lashes and very soft, pouty and infinitely kissable lips who treated me terribly when she wasn’t kissing me (which was most of the time around the mid 80’s)…but I digress.

‘Sixteen Candles’ remains the only John Hughes flick I can stomach years later, partially because it’s harmless fluff and mostly because Hughes was much better at nailing adolescent boys than girls. Molly Ringwald’s dream date angst looks to be what a director in his early-40’s believes a 16yr old girl wants, and it obviously worked for some (the flick has a fiercely loyal cult). The dialogue is sub-Archie comics quality, with the high point being the kindly dad assuaging his daughter’s heartbreak by saying “That’s why it’s called a crush, honey. If it felt good, they’d call it something else.”


Then again, a retreat to the Archie comics approach to life works for some. I used to know a woman who, when stressed out, would drink Diet Coke and read Archie Comics digests under her bedsheets, pretending to be 12. She was 30 at the time.


There’s a great tracking shot along a gymnasium wall that I can’t ever forget- the camera glides along a lineup of tall, short, geeky, disinterested, transfixed and gadget laiden boys camped out against the wall at a high school dance. And even at the time I thought “Yeah, I’m in there somewhere.” Any movie that brings out a sense of self awareness in the viewer tends stick in the mind.


That said…I developed no sense of self-awareness from the Anthony Michael Hall character (idenfitied only as ‘The Geek’), who does a frighteningly good impersonation of ME at the age of 14 or so. All the parts were there. The Lauren shirt (in homage to Richard Gere, who got all the babes). The reversible jacket (tied around the waist in the best GQ style). And the undeniable self confidence and absolute faith in one’s own ability and sophistication without ANY basis whatsoever in reality.

There’s something to be said for the enthusiasm and guilelessness of the young and horny. They are driven by an honest impulse. They are honestly horny.

I take some relief in the fact that Hughes didn’t take the easy way out and have his character ‘grow up’ through some invaluable life lesson. By the end of the flick, he’s learned nothing and gotten the girl. I also went through that non-learning curve at around the same age and, against all odds, even got the girl from time to time.

So…there’s hope.

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