Oblivion, waters of



[Eliot] did, though, behave with char­ac­ter­is­tic punc­tilio over the rent. This strange combi­na­tion of self-​distancing and finan­cial propri­ety was well caught by Bob Dylan in “Too Much of Noth­ing” (writ­ten in 1967):
Say hello to Valerie
Say hello to Vivian
Send them all my salary
On the waters of oblivion

r e s o n a n c e
Some­times what’s news is inarguable—the the outbreak of war, a head-​of-​state tran­si­tion, natural calamity—but very often it falls into the cate­gory of the reso­nant incident.

l o s t f u t u r e s
Furet valued the belle epoque partly for what it was—cultured and civilized—but also for the promises that it had seemed to hold. He was, like many disil­lu­sioned left-​wingers, nostal­gic for a vanished future.

e x a m i n a t i o n
Q: What did T.S. Eliot have to say about April?
He is think­ing of a song he heard on the radio this morn­ing: some­thing about the waters of obliv­ion. Send her all my salary /​from the waters of obliv­ion. What he heard, the rhyme he under­stood, was celery. Send her all my celery, he heard. Now he thinks of the tall green celery grow­ing there, the pale green stalks waving wetly in the murky deeps, in the waters of obliv­ion. He knows these waters well; he has seen the celery. Valerie, I’m sorry, you can keep the car, the furni­ture, the dish­washer, the chil­dren. And the celery, if you must. There are so many bodies here in the exam­i­na­tion room, and I am filled with desire.
The garden­ers wear flip­pers and masks, pale green, who go down into the waters of obliv­ion. Gently, they weed and prune. Their bodies are smooth, with the smooth­ness of damp plas­ter, in that light. They make no sound … the garden­ers use small, ivory-​handled knives, souvenirs of the Jubilee, to slice the celery, to sever the tall green stalks.
At the end, proofread.
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Goethe + Nazis; Surnames, Fate



Wahl appealed directly to Hitler—and met him in 1934—in an effort to obtain fund­ing for the new Goethe museum … Hitler assented … and the museum opened in 1935. A bust of Hitler was erected in the foyer of the museum along with a display show­ing Goethe’s family tree—intended to disprove claims that Goethe had Jewish fore­bears: a kind of “Aryan certifi­cate” … A plaque was put up to commem­o­rate the Fuhrer’s generos­ity, and a Hitler medi­al­lion rests in the corner­stone to this day. All of this is invis­i­ble to those who visit Goethe’s house and the museum today—more than 170,000 every year.

f a t e i s t h e s u r n a m e

The name “Pepys,” says Mr. Clark, emerged in 1496, when one of Samuel’s ances­tors entered Cambridge Univer­sity; but it remained rare, with no more than 40 Pepy­ses alive at one time, from the 16th to the 18th centuries. In 2002, there were just 18 people keep­ing the name from extinction.

For a popu­la­tion this small, we should expect, says Mr. Clark, no more than two or three Pepy­ses, over time, to have enrolled in those vener­a­ble British mark­ers of social pres­tige, Oxford and Cambridge; and yet there have been, to our knowl­edge, 58.

If your ances­tors made it to the top of society—whether defined as the aris­toc­racy or the profes­sional elites of doctors or lawyers—the prob­a­bil­ity is that you have high social status too, and, unless you make some poor deci­sions, your chil­dren will also inherit your status, and their chil­dren too. Random vari­a­tion over time will ensure that your descen­dants grad­u­ally do make poor decisions—they marry a strug­gling musi­cian or choose to study art history over finance. And the sum of these deci­sions, along with such random misfor­tunes as not inher­it­ing the family pool’s best genes, will ensure that, broadly, your class will regress toward the mean social status of soci­ety, but even then the regres­sion will be slower than expected and less than complete.

Mr. Clark proposes the concept of “social compe­tence.” The phrase doesn’t suggest a qual­ity that is directly observ­able; rather, it can be thought of as the unity of, genes, values, mate­r­ial advan­tage, and the talent or tendency to select a mate who has the same social compe­tence as you have. Its marker, Mr. Clark asserts, is the surname.

u r g e o n

This was the moment the surgeon chose to come downstairs.He was wear­ing a pale grey hat, and gloves to match.

r e f e r e n c e a n d e x i s t e n c e

How could a person orig­i­nat­ing from differ­ent parents, from a totally differ­ent sperm and egg, be this very woman?” Kripke asks. ”It seems to me that anything coming from a differ­ent origin would not be this object.” (113) Williamson responds that we have no choice but to acknowl­edge that a man as bril­liant as Kripke must be aware that the precise genetic makeup of Eliz­a­beth II could in prin­ci­ple have resulted from the fusing of differ­ent sperm and egg, as all of the genes of Eliz­a­beth II—or muta­tions thereof—are float­ing around else­where in the popu­la­tion. “It simply cannot be true,” Williamson concludes, “that it seems to Kripke, as he claims, that Eliz­a­beth II could not be born of differ­ent parents.”

b o l t z m a n

Some of my colleagues are busy argu­ing about Boltz­mann brains.

We’re living proof that atoms can be put together in an elab­o­rate pattern that subjec­tively feels self-​aware. So far, our physics research has turned up no evidence what­so­ever suggest­ing that ours is the only possi­ble path to conscious­ness. We there­fore need to consider the possi­bil­ity that there may be other kinds of atom arrange­ments that feel self-​aware as well, and that some life-​forms (perhaps even we or our descen­dants) will one day build such entities.

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Approaching Toronto, pre-winter

(having just read Erik Rutherford’s very inter­est­ing piece about Toronto in uTOpia, I recalled my own account of encoun­ter­ing Toronto, writ­ten some years ago for Geist 51. It was called Other City, Big City)

On the last day of Octo­ber in Toronto a man in an art gallery said: “Show­ers should be coming in around 4 p.m. They don’t always get it down to the hour like that.” He was talk­ing about the weather report on the radio. “The last real winter we had here was 1993,” he said. “Most people in this city don’t know what winter is. Ninety-​two was big, but it was noth­ing. No one has any idea.” I was not from Toronto and I had never been there in the winter, so I couldn’t be faulted for not know­ing what real winter is in Toronto. Never­the­less I could see that know­ing what real winter is would be a sign of belong­ing, of having a deeper claim on a city that lies open but veiled before the visi­tor or even the less well-​informed resi­dent. There could be no argu­ment with the man in the art gallery, who was profoundly a denizen of the city, an indweller of a place; his easy confi­dence allowed me to glimpse my own status as an outsider. In a new city, every­one you meet partakes of this qual­ity of the denizen, of the holder of a secret: they deport them­selves “natu­rally” with­out appar­ent self-​consciousness, cross­ing streets and walk­ing along side­walks, rather as chil­dren in Quebec are able (mirac­u­lously) to speak French with­out having to think about it. The man in the art gallery was also making a kind of promise: the city has a heart, he seemed to be saying, an under­ly­ing truth that can be imputed, inferred, derived, deduced, if not embraced.

For is it not true that we wish to be loved by cities, to be claimed and to be wooed by them, as soon as we enter their precincts? (Is this not the danger of cities?) I had been in Toronto for a single day and could still detect the aura that clings to the merest details of cities when they are new (or is newfan­gled a better word?): street signs are cast in a pecu­liar type­face and placed in odd posi­tions at inter­sec­tions; corner grocery stores have a more crum­pled look than in the city we know as home; even cartons of milk are of an unusual colour and every­where there are elec­tion signs (it was Halloween and the civic elec­tion campaign was under­way) propped in shop windows and stuck on lawns: yellow, blue, red, green, a spec­trum of mean­ings with­held from the outsider, hidden away in banal slogans: A Strong Voice, Expe­ri­ence that Works, The City Needs It, A Proven Record: messages encoded in the local, inde­ci­pher­able to the outsider. Indeed, in new cities every­thing partakes of the exotic. The seats on the street­cars are inches lower than the seats on the buses at home: upon first sitting down, one falls into the seat, a clear sign to other riders that an outsider is among them (in Ottawa the esca­la­tors, which move at terrific speeds, force newcom­ers to fight for balance). In the new city, buses, police cars, taxi­cabs are all the wrong colour (you laugh at the solip­sism but remain uneasy: what obscure sophis­ti­ca­tion might these newfan­gled colours imply?). We are confused by the proto­cols of the subway, the ungen­er­ous trans­fer system that refuses to let you go back or get on where you like (with the result that your pock­ets are always full of loonies and toonies and quar­ters: you will not be caught out with­out exact change). At cross­walks you are required to thrust out a hand and point if you wish to cross the street: this is too much for newcom­ers, who refuse to humil­i­ate them­selves and so cross only in the middle of the block (for how many hours or days will they retain their dignity in this way?). Other cities are an oppor­tu­nity to put one’s being into question.

Walter Benjamin reminds us that the first glimpse of a town in a land­scape is incom­pa­ra­ble and irre­triev­able, made so by the rigor­ous connec­tion between fore­ground and distance: habit has not yet done its work. As soon as we begin to find our bear­ings, the land­scape vanishes; here we might say that the cityscape vanishes into the city as soon as it becomes famil­iar (and there­fore invis­i­ble); once we can find our way, the first glimpse will never be restored. On the first day the fore­ground is filled with partic­u­lars: the grime in the street, the gravel in the ravine through which a rail line has been cut, appear to belong only here, to Toronto: even the cracks in the side­walk are highly specific. The air is filled with light, but it is a thin light that reminds one of milk diluted with water.

These are partic­u­lars of the new city: the man in the art gallery has long ceased to be aware of them. I do not think of telling him this. I walk for miles along down­town streets and the down­town seems never to end: now I feel the great plea­sure of strolling in great cities, of observ­ing and being observed, of having no desti­na­tion, of submit­ting to the monot­o­nous, fasci­nat­ing, constantly unrolling band of asphalt. Now the new city has become a big city, and the promise of the big city carries its own exhil­a­ra­tion: look in any direc­tion and there is no end to it, no visi­ble edge. In Vancou­ver you can see out of the city from almost anywhere; you are never surrounded, ensconced; but here in Toronto there is no outside (in Saska­toon it is always a surprise to look down a street and see the prairie right there, a few blocks away). Here is some­thing more of the big city, then: the big city is everywhere.

Other cities, big cities: soon every­thing fades; the famil­iar approaches too rapidly. Street names devolve into hollow signi­fiers where for a moment lay mystery: Queen, King, Spad­ina, Bathurst, Ronces­valles, Carlaw, Logan, Avenue Road, Mount Pleas­ant, the long vowels of Bloor and the strange spelling of Yonge. An enor­mous over­head sign on the free­way demands the full atten­tion of all who pass by: DO NOT ALLOW YOURSELF TO BE DISTRACTED WHILE DRIVING SAFELY. Here too, for a moment, mean­ing is proposed: a vesti­gial trace of pater­nal­ism, of the Pres­by­ter­ian Church perhaps; soon you will not think of it again.

On my last night in Toronto, a friend who has lived there for thirty years drove me across the city to where I was stay­ing on the west side, and we drove and drove and talked and looked out at the street, and even­tu­ally we were driving up and down steep curv­ing streets that wound around and into each other, and my friend confessed happily that he was completely lost: this had never happened to him before. He contin­ued driving and look­ing at street names, none of which were famil­iar to him and nor were they to me; we carried on blindly in the strange, labyrinthine neigh­bour­hood, and for a time we were absorbed into the city, which lay all around us, unknown and unap­proach­able, a secret that we had both forgot­ten to be there, await­ing us.

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Poets, Occupists, NaNoWriMo-ists

(part 3: excerpted from a longer essay in Geist 83)

The moment from which poetry emerges is often a moment of crisis: in the Gold­Corp Centre for the Arts (where the confer­ence concluded), crisis perme­ated the air we were breath­ing. Poetry is the strug­gle between language and time, said one of the poets on the panel, and a moment later he asked: what is to be done? Poetry, which has so little purchase in the world, has noth­ing to lose; precisely for this reason, in poetry every­thing is at stake. At the close of the session, the city mayor entered the hall, along with four elders from the Coast Salish Nations, who offered a speech of welcome that did not over­look the unfin­ished busi­ness of history, and then performed a power­ful, almost over­whelm­ing song of welcome with drum accom­pa­ni­ment that in its emotional and formal power offered a chal­lenge of its own. Brad Cran, the Poet Laure­ate of Vancou­ver, whose brain­child, or brain­storm, the Poetry Confer­ence had been, read a splen­did “civic” poem writ­ten on the occa­sion of a gray whale swim­ming into the middle of the city via False Creek before the aston­ished eyes of citi­zens and chil­dren who thronged to the seawall to express their wonder. He had given his a poem an ambi­tious and risky title: “Thir­teen Ways of Look­ing at a Gray Whale, After Wallace Stevens and ending with a line from Rilke,” and the risk proved fully worth taking. When he came to the last line, I recalled the erasure poem from Shakespeare’s sonnet that we had heard two days earlier, and heard the two come together: noth­ing /​is more /​beau­ti­ful /​you must change your life. 

A week after the poets had gone home, and records of the poetry confer­ence had been lodged in the city archives, and the new Poet Laure­ate had been welcomed to her desk, a hundred or so aspir­ing novel­ists met for a NaNoW­riMo brunch at Moose’s Down Under Bar and Grille, a walk-​down joint that shares a wall with the Vancou­ver Bullion and Gold Corpo­ra­tion, two blocks from the recy­cled Bank of Montreal in which the Poetry Confer­ence had opened its delib­er­a­tions. The novel­ists, several of whom had visited the Occu­pists at the Art Gallery, were a slightly more homo­ge­neous a group: predom­i­nantly twenty to thirty years old, a sprin­kling of teenagers, one or two sexa­ge­nar­i­ans; a few were costumed (my young friend iden­ti­fied a “very good” Dr. Who, and a “wonder­ful Carmen San Diego”), and all were ebul­lient at the prospect of writ­ing a novel in thirty days. Included in the “dele­gate kits” distrib­uted at the door were strips of yellow crime-​scene tape for secur­ing privacy while writ­ing, a 30-​day calen­dar indi­cat­ing an accu­mu­la­tive word-​count at 1667 words per day; a lapel badge consist­ing of a large, elegant semi-​colon; and instruc­tions for making a “plot-​device-​generator” that resem­bled the bug snap­pers used by chil­dren as aids to prog­nos­ti­ca­tion. A woman with an air of expe­ri­ence sitting at the end of our table advised those who wished to hear to “simply start writ­ing and don’t stop for anything at all.” A young voice in the middle of the room rose above the hubbub to testify that there is “noth­ing cooler than having fifteen or twenty friends and writ­ers around when you hit the fifty thou­sand word count.” An infor­mal poll at one table elicited a sampling of novels-​in-​prospect: a Snow White remake; a post-​apocalyptic quest; a re-​look at vampires; crazy ass crap about Santa’s daugh­ter; stories of my mother and me; people doing stuff that could turn into adven­ture, tragedy, horror or scien­tific mira­cle. A young man in glasses gazed along the table and said, “I’m not convinced that Harry Potter is over yet.” I want to tell you some­thing: here is where the story starts.

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The Poets and the Occupists, part 2

The old Pulp Press office on the 3rd floor, 440 W Pender

(Part Two of an essay writ­ten for Geist)

Who were these poets who had appeared in such numbers? At a glance: women and men in equal numbers; youngish and slightly older, new poets and old poets; lyric poets, formal­ists, tradi­tion­al­ists, avant-​gardists, nature poets, and perhaps even land­scape poets and at least one geolog­i­cal poet. Those of us who are not poets (it seemed to me that we all resem­bled poets) wondered what it would be like to be a single poet among so many others.

The book tables in the foyers were strewn with poetry titles; just to see so many pris­tine volumes await­ing their first owners was an unex­pected thrill. Poets and non-​poets strolled in the hall­way, brows­ing through the books, confer­ring in twos and threes: every­one seemed to be surprised or delighted, at the very least to be on good if not best behav­iour; some seemed bemused by some perceived absur­dity. I could discern there to be no typi­cal poet or arche­typ­i­cal figure who could stand for all, a fact that was confirmed for me by A Complete Ency­clo­pe­dia of Differ­ent Types of People by Gabe Fore­man, a copy of which I picked up at the book table, and in which there is no Poet-​type to be found, although poets no doubt can be found within the types listed in its pages, among the wool­gath­er­ers, under­dogs, sweet­hearts, snoops, piano tuners, house-​sitters and adul­ter­ers among the lovesick, inno­cent bystanders, couch pota­toes, control freaks, door­mats, day traders, eulo­gists, frequent flyers, history buffs, late bloomers, opti­mists, optometrists, etc., etc.

Of the liter­ary disci­plines, poetry is the most econom­i­cal; it requires the least space, the fewest pages, the short­est dura­tion; it pays the lowest rates. Poetry lacks the focussed atten­tion of a large public; it is forever seek­ing an audi­ence with ears to hear; its prac­ti­tion­ers are dedi­cated to clar­ity rather than mean­ing, and the strug­gle for clar­ity is itself trou­bling and uncom­fort­able, and can lead into the arcane, the complex and the weird. The poets invited to speak on the panels were new enough to the art or craft to have had their first books published after 1990; older poets gave keynote read­ings; over the four days dozens of sonnets were read aloud, several rants, poems of love and loss and geol­ogy; one poet, a Cana­dian from Brook­lyn, plucked a thumb piano as he read aloud, a response (thumbs up or thumbs down?), he implied, to the avant-​gardists and their arcane atten­tions to constraints and controls, tech­nolo­gies of erasure, gram­mar, syntax, genet­ics, arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. A poet from Montreal proposed a tacti­cal rather than a proce­dural approach to achiev­ing clar­ity: that being simply to track every moment of melan­choly sadness. The poli­tics of the family was not much in evidence until a poet from Commer­cial Drive observed that so many present were parents as well as poets, and that for them the task of poetry was informed, surrounded, blocked, circum­scribed, by the task of parent­ing, the uncom­fort­able, diffi­cult gerund derived from the Latin, to bring forth. Some­one in the audi­ence proposed that poetry is a dialogue with the dead. I love this ques­tion, said one of the panelists. The border between yes and no is porous, observed another poet in another context (the context of poetry implies all contexts); the same poet spoke as well of my dear, diffi­cult, departed ones.

Poetry is inher­ently of the moment—the moment of compo­si­tion, of memory, of speak­ing aloud; the moment extends far from the present instant, from the poet’s desk, this keyboard, this podium, this lectern. A poem yearns for space in which to be uttered, in which to be received. At the Poetry Confer­ence such a place was staked out in these halls once intended for shop­pers and bankers, all of this, as we learned, on unceded land, land that remains in a profound way unowned. Poetry within itself is also contested: genre wars are part of the strug­gle for clar­ity; exca­va­tion and discov­ery are applied to the body of poetry, as well as to one’s expe­ri­ence of the world, and to conti­nents and subcon­ti­nents. A poet who applied an eraser to a sonnet by Shake­speare came up with noth­ing /​is more /​beau­ti­ful. On intro­duc­ing it, he said, this one is for Wall Street, and thereby reas­signed it to a moment in hand.

On the evening of the third day I walked over to the art gallery and observed the Occu­pists in the plaza using the wind-​it-​up signal in their general assem­bly; the human micro­phone was in evidence as well, and slow ripples of speech moved through the crowd. A reper­toire of hand signals had been drawn on a sheet of card­board, indi­cat­ing consen­sus, disagree­ment, point of process, repeat, block, clar­ify, but the wind-​it-​up sign was not there. Among the tents and the loiter­ing police offi­cers were signs of occu­pa­tion exhort­ing passersby to occupy their minds and hearts, to have hope, to $top corpo­rate power, to wake up and smell the oppres­sion, and citing, among other things, the contested status of unceded Coast Salish lands. The art gallery, with its ionic columns and vast central dome, is another recyled venue: it had orig­i­nally housed the Vancou­ver Cour­t­house and served as a point of public display for visit­ing kings and queens; after its conver­sion (when the city began post-​modernizing itself in the 1980s), it became a contem­po­rary site of protest and demon­stra­tion; it retains on its exte­rior stair­case a pair of enor­mous African lions carved en couchant from Nelson Island gran­ite and whose stern, sight­less gaze, fixed on the limit­less domain of Empire, disre­gards equally the demon­stra­tors, the police, the passersby and the passage of history.

(to be contin­ued)

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The Poets and the Occupists

Pulp Press Offices one block from the Poetry Conference

The old Pulp Press office is still stand­ing after 40 years, a block away from the Poetry Conference

(Part One of an essay writ­ten for Geist)

In the middle of Octo­ber 2011, some two hundred poets and friends of poetry from across the coun­try descended on Vancou­ver for four days of read­ings, talks, discus­sion, gossip and high-​level binge drink­ing. The event was the second Vancou­ver Poetry Confer­ence (the first took place forty-​eight years ago), the full name of which, to mark the city’s quasqui­cen­ten­nial was the Vancou­ver 125 Poetry Confer­ence, and it occu­pied three down­town venues in succes­sion: a recy­cled Bank of Montreal and two recy­cled depart­ment stores. Less formal venues extended to several east side bars and restau­rants, the Listel Hotel in the West End and the Arts Club in the recy­cled indus­trial park on Granville Island.

No one could remem­ber, or imag­ine, so many poets in the city, in public, at the same time. The first panel session (there were twenty-​five in all) opened in the ex-​Bank of Montreal on Granville Street—an Edwar­dian temple with immense vaulted and coffered ceil­ing, marble pilasters, bronze newel posts and “deco­ra­tive fire hose cabi­net.” One of the panelists—an “avant-​gardist,” I was told—presented a summary of Robert’s Rules of Order in place of a poem, or perhaps as a poem, and exceeded his allot­ted time while demon­strat­ing the “wind it up” signal (circling the hand in the air with index finger extended) employed by the Occupy move­ment to urge long-​winded speak­ers to a close.

The Occupy move­ment had coalesced on the lawn in front of the Vancou­ver Art Gallery two and half blocks from the ex-​Bank of Montreal, and over the next four days the flow of energy and ideas, confronta­tions and contra­dic­tions gener­ated by the Occu­pists flowed into sessions of the Poetry Confer­ence, where, as it turned out, Robert’s Rules, even in the modifed form devel­oped by the Occu­pists (described by a tweeter as “Robert’s Rules on ecstasy”), were not required, despite the misgiv­ings of orga­niz­ers (and some of the poets) who feared that poets in large numbers might get out of hand.

On the second and third days of the Poetry Confer­ence, I attended several sessions in the recy­cled Sears depart­ment store a block north of the ex-​Bank of Montreal. Several panel moder­a­tors in their open­ing remarks cited the unceded status of the Coast Salish terri­tory on which we were meet­ing and which the city has occu­pied since its found­ing in 1866, and one of them offered thanks for being welcomed onto that land by First Nations hosts at the open­ing ceremony)—sentiments that one might be tempted to dismiss as merely polite, but as the discus­sions unfolded, and more poems were read aloud, recited, and talked about, these polite comments began to take on an edge, for the range of subject matter, the scope of imag­i­na­tion explored in the poems and in the discus­sion surround­ing them, extended to the land and its occu­piers at many levels: economic, histor­i­cal, cultural, ecolog­i­cal, geolog­i­cal, tech­no­log­i­cal. Every moment of the Poetry Confer­ence could be said to be trou­bled or textured by occu­pa­tion; it soon became clear that every moment was in some way polit­i­cally charged.

(to be contin­ued)

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DM Fraser responds to Margaret Atwood in 1974

From 3–Cent Pulp, Vol. 2 No. 1 May, 1974

DM Fraser relaxing with a beer at the Inn Transit circa 1978

DM Fraser circa 1978, photo: John Reeves

D.M. Fraser offered one of the very few nega­tive responses to Margaret Atwood’s second novel, Surfac­ing, after it appeared in 1972. This piece appeared in the 4-​page zine published every two weeks by Pulp Press, and was appre­ci­ated widely for its scathing treat­ment of the stan­dard Canlit of the day, a critique that remains equally applic­a­ble forty years later.

By the time I came to read Surfac­ing, the novel had already estab­lished itself as some kind of Cana­dian Ur-​Myth, the Great Summing Up of All Our Seri­ous Themes. Enough to put anyone off, espe­cially some­one who suspects (as I do) that the themes Cana­dian writ­ers like best to take seri­ously are remark­able chiefly for their banal­ity, provin­cial­ism, chau­vin­ism: the awful hill­billy earnest­ness of the Offi­cial Liter­a­ture, so beloved of the Canada Coun­cil and people who write long poems about The Land and print them in sepia. It hasn’t been easy to escape Surfac­ing as the apoth­e­o­sis of the genre, the novel that finally, defin­i­tively, gets our national shit together, thereby—coincidentally?—demonstrating once again the perspi­cac­ity of Ms. Atwood’s famous Victim Thesis as expounded in Survival. Given such a context, I was prepared to be humbled—and bored.

As it turned out, I was neither humbled nor (in fair­ness) bored; it isn’t possi­ble to be humble in the pres­ence of the wilfully third-​rate, or to be bored by a book which infu­ri­ates to the point of frenzy. In fact, it was rather a lot of fun throw­ing Surfac­ing around the living-​room, defac­ing it with rude comments, pacing up and down mutter­ing curses; it’s been a long time—all the way since Beau­ti­ful Losers—since a Cana­dian novel had any effect on me at all. But I’m afraid my response wasn’t so much to Surfac­ing itself, as a piece of writ­ing neither more nor less inept than most of what gets subsi­dized and praised here, as it was to the climate in which a work of consis­tent and self-​congratulatory feeble­mind­ed­ness can be sold, bought and there­after glori­fied as an exem­plary achieve­ment, as some­thing major. This book, what­ever else it may be, is not major. It is so relent­lessly minor that you could play it at a funeral and every­one would fall asleep.

As just about every­one knows, Surfac­ing is the story of a young woman, lately city-​sophisticated, who goes home to the North Woods, in the company of some slick friends, to look for her father and ends up by Find­ing Herself, or some approx­i­ma­tion thereof, in a (pseudo-​) confronta­tion with Primeval Forces, one of which may or may not be Daddy. What an oppor­tu­nity to combine the worst of Ernest Heming­way and Doris Less­ing, and in an Authen­tic Cana­dian Setting, too! lrre­sistible .… Here are all the stan­dard contrasts: Effete City vs. Tough Exis­ten­tial Bush, Condi­tioned Sanity vs. Prim­i­tive Madness, Emerg­ing Woman vs. Oppres­sive Male, and best of all, our own very special local twist, Rapa­cious Amer­ica vs. Victim­ized Canada. Add a dollop of Post-​Hippie Coitus (see, we’ve come of age, haven’t we?), a dash of Endan­gered Scenery, a hand­ful of Hardy Quebe­cois (two cultures, right?), and several cupfuls of Grad­u­ate School lntro­spec­tion, and there you have it: yessir, the Great Cana­dian Novel itself, just the sort of thing MacLeans and Satur­day Night will lick up by the shov­el­ful. As, predictably, they did.

Well, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because formu­las aren’t themes, subject-​matter is not content (cf John Berger), and content is not a matter of painting-​by-​number on the grid of our supposed national neuroses. Stereo­types, as the Great Critic said (rightly, for once) aren’t arche­types. There’s not a single real­ized human char­ac­ter in the whole of Surfac­ing—only a crew of one-​dimensional clichés wander­ing around acting out the parts assigned to them by some Royal Commis­sion on the Mean­ing of Life in Canada. There isn’t a single insight, a single flicker of polit­i­cal reve­la­tion, that hasn’t been hammered into baby powder by every liberal-​bourgeois publi­ca­tion in the coun­try since 1967. There isn’t a glim­mer of self-​perception that isn’t corroded, deformed, by self-​indulgence, self-​pity, the cant and postur­ing of Pop-​psych. In place of feel­ing, we’re served a smor­gas­bord of left­over senti­men­tal­i­ties topped with cheap ironies like stale whipped cream; in place of thought, a cata­logue of lnfor­ma­tion Canada plat­i­tudes; in place of reasoned polit­i­cal analy­sis, an undi­gested lump of anti-​American rhetoric no self-​respecting para­noiac would lay claim to. And, at the end, we have a cop-​out even in terms of the novel itself: another of those weary recon­cil­i­a­tions in which, god help us, Revolt is snuffed out in the great damp blan­ket of lnstant Tran­scen­dence. Women take note: the message here, what Surfac­ing at last comes down to, is that Woman’s place really is, after all, with her Man, just as long as he’s a Cana­dian: “he may have been sent as a trick. But he isn’t an Amer­i­can, I can see that now; he isn’t anything, he is only half-​formed, and for that reason I can trust him.” Surfac­ing? Submerging’s more like it.

There’s more to complain of: secondary char­ac­ters (i.e., every­one but the narra­tor) treated with conde­scen­sion and/​or contempt, prose that must have been cut with a dull knife from a mound of melt­ing text­books (How to Write Groovy and lnflu­ence People), scene upon scene that sinks like a water­logged condom under the burden of enforced Signif­i­cance. As a poet, Margaret Atwood has shown that she’s capa­ble of inci­sion and lucid­ity ; as an editor (of Bill Bissett’s Nobody owns th earth), that she does have an acute liter­ary judge­ment. But there is no discernible inci­sion or lucid­ity in Surfac­ing; and the wisest exer­cise of judge­ment, in this instance, might well have been to have flushed the manu­script down the drain.

But the real outrage here is that we are, as a “nation,” so obsessed with our (nonex­is­tent) Cultural Iden­tity that we are will­ing to settle for, and embrace, any sort of preten­tious medi­oc­rity which offers itself for our consump­tion, will­ing to accept any serios­ity as seri­ous­ness, any topi­cal­ity, however triv­ial, as Rele­vance, any narcis­sism as self-​criticism, any thesis-​izing as evidence of intel­li­gence, any “Cana­dian Content”’ as actual content. Drivel like Surfac­ing gets touted in the press, writ­ers of limited gifts like Margaret Atwood get trans­mo­gri­fied into culture-​heroes (or hero­ines), bill­boards flog the New Canada (where dat?) as if it were a new brand of mouth­wash, while we remain the same back­wa­ter, the same breeding-​ground of pious kitsch, we always have been—and while we proceed, with murder­ous inno­cence, down precisely the same paths we’ve loved to condemn the United States for taking. If, as some suppose and Margaret Atwood appar­ently fears, this coun­try will even­tu­ally be swal­lowed up—politically and cultur­ally as already economically—by our more power­ful neigh­bour, we need have no regrets: having cham­pi­oned, encour­aged, infe­ri­or­ity for so long, we can scarcely consider it hard­ship, or change, to have another kind of infe­ri­or­ity imposed upon us. If a book like Surfac­ing is typi­cal of what we value, then it may be that we have no sense of value worth defend­ing, and no “iden­tity” beyond the empty ratio­nal­iza­tions of self-​aggrandisement.

In any event, I eagerly await Ms. Atwood’s forth­com­ing books: Simo­niz­ing, Sanforiz­ing, Sink­ing .…

— D. M. Fraser

Notes: Satur­day Night was a middle-​brow maga­zine of art and poli­tics, and the Great Critic was Northrop Frye.

Class Warfare, a collec­tion of short fiction by D.M. Fraser writ­ten between 1972 and 1974, will be published in a new edition this fall by Arse­nal Pulp Press.

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Mr. Tubesteak and the School Teacher

Mehrab Arbab

Twenty-​nine years ago in Fanuj in south­ern Iran, Mehrab Arbab, a high school teacher who today oper­ates the Mr. Tube Steak hot dog stand at the Broad­way SkyTrain sta­tion in Vancou­ver, escaped from the Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard of Ayatol­lah Khome­ini, when they took twenty-​six teach­ers from the school at which Mehrab Arbab taught English, his­tory and geog­ra­phy, and killed them all. Mehrab Arbab and five of his col­leagues were attend­ing dis­cus­sion groups in the nearby city of Iran­shahr; when the killing squad came look­ing for them at the wrong house, they fled into the foothills of White Moun­tain and lay low for three months among the sym­pa­thetic ­Baluch ­pop­u­la­tion before cross­ing into Pakistan with the help of a pro­fes­sional smug­gler. Since that day in 1982, Mehrab Arbab has never been back to Iran.

In early Febru­ary 2011, while he pre­pared an All Beef Smokie for me, with fried onions and a lit­tle extra toast­ing on the bun, he pointed out that of the exe­cu­tions in Iran, which had been tak­ing place at the rate of three a day since the begin­ning of the year, one-​third of the vic­tims were from his home ter­ri­tory of Baluches­tan, where the oppres­sion, which began under the regime of the shahs and inten­sifed under the Ayatol­lah, has never ceased. I went around to the other side of the stand to dress my Smokie with sauer­kraut, rel­ish, mus­tard, sliced pep­pers. Zahra Bahrami, the Dutch-​Iranian woman who had returned to Iran after an exile of some twenty-​two years, had just been hanged in Tehran after a far­ci­cal trial: she had been protest­ing the rigged elec­tions of 2009. That is why I never go back, even after twenty-​nine years, he said; they will kill me just like they killed her.

Mehrab Arbab has five chil­dren, some of them grown up with chil­dren of their own. The youngest is in grade 9; the eldest have grad­u­ated from uni­ver­sity. He and his wife own a large house in Coquit­lam, where three gen­er­a­tions of their fam­ily live together. When he fled to Pakistan in 1982, he had to leave his wife and two chil­dren in Fanuj; even­tu­ally he was able to move them to Islam­abad, Pakistan, and then he had to move on alone to Dubai to find work, and to begin sav­ing money for for­eign travel papers. He was twenty-​seven years old. He had a younger brother of sev­en­teen, who was picked up by “recruiters” dur­ing the Iran-​Iraq war and put into uni­form along with sev­eral other young men from his neigh­bour­hood, trans­ported into the moun­tains and shot to death at the side of the road; pho­tographs of the corpses were exchanged for bounty money sup­plied by agents of Saddam Hussein. Mehrab Arbab’s eyes filled with tears as he told me this story. I searched sev­eral times on Google Earth for the city of Fanuj but failed to find it until I dis­cov­ered the cor­rect spelling, and even then I could never get down to Google Earth street view with­out the image break­ing up into pancake-​like frag­ments. Appar­ently there are no Google cam­eras work­ing at street level in Baluches­tan, which ren­ders in Google Earth as an undu­lat­ing sea of brown and grey moun­tains, ragged plateaus and what appear to be dry riverbeds. The web page Iran­TourOn­line names sev­eral winds of Baluches­tan, among them the sev­enth wind, the 120-​day wind, the south wind and the north and west winds, and the humid wind from the Indian Ocean; there is very lit­tle water in Baluches­tan, which seems from a dis­tance to be a coun­try scoured with wind and dust. Mehrab Arbab speaks warmly of the Fanuj of his youth and the nearby moun­tains: a very beau­ti­ful coun­try, he says; he has never men­tioned the wind. His attach­ment to his home­land is evi­dent in his face when­ever he speaks of it. His fam­ily and the extended Arbab clan had been farm­ers in Baluches­tan, he says, for more than three gen­er­a­tions, grow­ers of dates, figs, pome­gran­ates, mel­ons, grapes, rice and vegetables.

Google Earth pro­vides a hallu­cinatory ren­der­ing of the Broad­way SkyTrain sta­tion and the umbrella that marks the Mr. Tube Steak stand: a corona of red and white petals resem­bling a bull’s eye from the Google view­point in the sky; even the base­ball cap worn by Mehrab Arbab can be seen clearly as you zoom down in Google Earth to street level, where the Mr. Tube Steak stand reap­pears face-​on beneath its colour­ful umbrella. A small group are gath­ered before it and Mehrab Arbab can been seen tend­ing the bar­be­cue, but there are only a few passersby in the pic­ture, no sign of the thou­sands of pas­sen­gers mov­ing through the sys­tem every hour at the SkyTrain sta­tion; the nearby eater­ies can also be seen from the mid­dle of the street: McDonald’s, Quiznos, Fresh Slice Pizza, Megabite Pizza, Uncle Fatih’s Pizza, A&W — all con­joined by a few stretches of grey con­crete and black asphalt.

Mehrab Arbab worked at odd jobs in Dubai for ten years to raise the $4,500 he needed for papers and pas­sage to Sweden. When it was time for him to depart, com­pli­ca­tions led to the flight being can­celled; his ticket agent, or smug­gler, had taken a lik­ing to Mehrab Arbab, he says, and found him a replace­ment pack­age for Canada — which nor­mally would have cost $10,000 — at no extra charge. The smuggler’s route took him to Sofia, Bulgaria, and then non-​stop to Ottawa, where, in April 1992, Mehrab Arbab was awarded refugee sta­tus. Later that year he moved to Edmon­ton, where a friend from Fanuj, another exiled school­teacher, ran the Mr. Turtle’s Pizza near North­lands Coli­seum, where Mehrab Arbab found his first employ­ment in Canada. In Edmon­ton, his sinuses dete­ri­o­rated in the cold weather and a doc­tor rec­om­mended that he move west to Vancou­ver, which he did in 1994, twelve years after leav­ing his home­town of Fanuj, and on March 31 of that year, a day that he refers to as the happy day, he was reunited with his wife and chil­dren at Vancou­ver Inter­na­tional Airport. They found an apart­ment on Broad­way near Main Street, and then a house on Beat­rice Street near Kingsway. Mehrab Arbab worked as a gas sta­tion atten­dant and then at Johnny’s Pizza on West 4th. Sixteen years ago he moved into the Mr. Tube Steak fran­chise and went hard to work, some would say relent­lessly to work at the SkyTrain sta­tion. He can be found there today six days a week, rain or snow, a father, hus­band, grand­fa­ther, home­owner and entrepreneur.

Absent from the Google Earth view of the Mr. Tube Steak stand at the SkyTrain sta­tion are the street peo­ple to be found in great abun­dance on a sunny day such as the day in May depicted in Google Earth street view, who along with the usual stream of com­muters seem to have been removed or air­brushed out of the pic­ture: the pan­han­dlers and side­walk sit­ters with their large sleepy dogs; silent Jehovah’s Witnesses hold­ing up copies of the Watch­tower, elderly anti-​abortionists with their plac­ards and hand­outs, evan­ge­lists hold­ing out their tiny brochures, the ven­dor of used books in plas­tic bags set out against the wall of the Bank of Montreal; the Aborig­i­nal artist who dis­plays his cards and paint­ings against the wall of the Cana­dian Impe­r­ial Bank of Commerce, the skinny guy pac­ing up and down, rif­fling two or pos­si­bly three pack­ages of cig­a­rettes through the fin­gers of one hand as if they were play­ing cards, inton­ing with­out empha­sis: smokes five bucks a pack, smokes five bucks a pack. Some days a tall man strides through the crowd with a pigeon on his head; one after­noon I observed him break off a piece of a hot dog pur­chased from the Mr. Tube Steak stand and pass it up to the pigeon.

Mehrab Arbab is often vis­ited at the Mr. Tube Steak stand by fel­low Baluch, dig­ni­fied men who shake hands when intro­duced; Mehrab Arbab keeps a stack of All Beef Smok­ies at the back of the grill for his Muslim clients, who like them well done, he says. In 2009, dur­ing the street demon­stra­tions in Iran, he told me that he thinks of him­self as Iran­ian as much as he might be Baluch. Persian is my sec­ond lan­guage, he said. But I like to speak Baluchi. What will you have, dear, he says to all who approach the stand, and here you go, dear, he says when he hands over the Tube Steak in its bun and paper wrap­per, with a nap­kin. He sug­gested that I look into the life and death of Daad Shah, a promi­nent Baluch rebel who had opposed the Shah of Iran in the 1950s. Mehrab Arbab’s nec­es­sar­ily frag­mented accounts of the his­tory of his coun­try, which I obtained dur­ing many brief con­ver­sa­tions inter­rupted by cus­tomers buy­ing Smok­ies, Tube Steaks, soft drinks and fruit juice, or passersby ask­ing direc­tions, implied that the CIA had fig­ured in the fall of Daad Shah, whose death was ordered by the Shah after the assas­si­na­tion of a CIA agent. Daad Shah was killed in 1957 in a bat­tle between Baluch fac­tions strug­gling for posi­tion under the regime installed by he CIA in 1953, dur­ing Oper­a­tion Ajax, when Mehrab Arbab was one year old. Oper­a­tion Ajax was a botched inter­ven­tion that should have failed; its acci­den­tal suc­cess led the CIA on to fur­ther inter­ven­tions, as Mehrab Arbab put it, in Guatemala, the Bay of Pigs, Viet­nam, Chile, El Salvador and the more recent fias­cos that punc­tu­ate U.S. for­eign pol­icy. All of that began in Iran, he said. Mehrab Arbab was kin to the wife of Daad Shah, her­self a heroic fig­ure of resis­tance who lived into old age; one of Mehrab Arbab’s brothers-​in-​law was nephew to a leader of the oppos­ing fac­tion, who was killed in the open­ing salvo in the fac­tional bat­tle of 1957.

A his­tory of the CIA in Iran writ­ten by James Risen and pub­lished in 2000 in the New York Times con­firms the frag­men­tary account that Mehrab Arbab pro­vided me dur­ing my vis­its to the Mr. Tube Steak stand over the course of a year. The skep­ti­cism that Mehrab Arbab and his friends felt toward the like­li­hood of democ­racy ever emerg­ing in Iran were founded in recent his­tory: the CIA, the Mossad, the agen­cies that invented the tor­ture squads and the secret police under the Shah of Iran, would never allow democ­racy, he said; they want their own strong man. The oppres­sion in Iran today is as bad as or worse than ever; the only hope that Mehrab Arbab feels for his home­land these days is in the Iran­ian proverb “There is fire beneath the ashes” — the power is still with the peo­ple, he says, and he points to the bar­be­cue. Under the layer of ash, the fire waits to break out.

Mehrab Arbab dri­ves into the city every morn­ing in his Nissan van, haul­ing the Mr. Tube Steak trailer, which con­tains the bar­be­cue, side burner, propane tank and dis­tinc­tive red and white umbrella; a few days a week he stops at Costco to renew sup­plies of condi­ments, buns and hot dogs; the other sausages he picks up as needed from spe­cialty sup­pli­ers. He unhitches the trailer and pulls it into posi­tion in the shade of the SkyTrain tracks at about ten and raises the umbrella; by ten-​thirty or eleven the battery-​powered refrig­er­a­tor and the cooler filled with pop and dry ice are in posi­tion beside the trailer; the condi­ments are set out: ketchup, hot sauce, three kinds of mus­tard, chopped onion, rel­ish, sauer­kraut, mixed sliced pep­pers. He switches on the bar­be­cue, lays out sausages on the grill, spreads onions in the fry­ing pan. He plugs his iPod into a fur-​covered speaker designed to look like ET. The iPod is loaded with pop music selected by his old­est son, who refreshes the selec­tion every cou­ple of months. Mehrab Arbab will still be there under the SkyTrain sta­tion at seven or eight in the evening, as long as the demand lasts. When he gets back to the house in Coquit­lam he puts in a final hour clean­ing the equip­ment and the uten­sils. Then he is ready, he says, for another day.

Parti­sans of the Mr. Tube Steak style of hot dog can be found on the I Love You Mr. Tube Steak Face­book page, which lists three “offi­cers” in Vancou­ver and one in New York City, and a “cre­ator” in Victo­ria. Many are devoted to the Smokie filled with cheese and jalapenos: “the great­est jalapeno and cheese sausage hot dog on the street,” writes one fan; another says, “Oh I love you Mr. Tube Steak.”

Mehrab Arbab takes his own lunch to work every day: veg­eta­bles, cheese, flat­bread made at home on the stove. But he too is a par­ti­san of the jalapeno cheese dog; every two weeks he allows him­self one Spicy Smokie smoth­ered in fried onions, sauer­kraut and pep­per slices. In Febru­ary this year he watched a Persian-​language doc­u­men­tary of an Iran­ian engi­neer who fled from the Revo­lutionary Guard and landed in Germany, where he is now a ven­dor of hot dogs on the street. Mehrab Arbab was pleased to report that the title of the doc­u­men­tary is The Engi­neer and the Hot Dog Man.

—also published on geist​.com

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What is a cultural magazine?

I have started a new blog over at blog​ger​.com devoted the ques­tion of what consti­tutes a cultural maga­zine. Many arts and liter­ary publish­ers are strug­gling to adopt or adapt to the stan­dard maga­zine publish­ing models as exhib­ited by enter­tain­ment, news and lifestyle publi­ca­tions that thrive in a world of peri­od­ic­ity and renewal (ie: a consumer world). Liter­ary and arts maga­zines do not thrive by follow­ing this pattern.

Some of Rowland Lorimer’s find­ings in his study of the Alberta maga­zine indus­try have become part of the discus­sion.
See: What is a cultural magazine?

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Word Cloud

Here is terrific summary of a story in Geist, from www​.wordle​.net:

(thanks to Lauren Ogston)

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Father, dinner, spiritual machine, excremental

I am prepar­ing to adjust the spir­i­tual machine under the floor­boards at the publish­ing office, which is some­where out of town, east and south (a large upstairs space shared with other oper­a­tions). The floors are made of squares of stiff compos­ite of some kind, which can be lifted up at the corner to reveal a support­ing struc­ture of boxes about 4 or 5 feet square and a foot deep. I lift up a couple of corners and there is noth­ing in the boxed spaces below. Dad calls and says that he will be coming along to give a hand on his way to visit others in the family. It will be a while before he arrives. The office manager and another man–I am their superior–say the spir­i­tual machine is work­ing fine and shouldn’t be taken apart until later in the week. I wonder if I should call Dad and tell him not to come: he may have been bring­ing dinner with him as well. As I think of Dad I keep seeing glimpses of Richard Nixon, but I know that it wasn’t Richard Nixon’s voice on the phone. I have the formula for fixing the spir­i­tual machine on a disk labeled with a list of its contents: I have forgot­ten what was in the list except for “files” and “formul”–the misspelling seems signif­i­cant when I see it in the dream and then I am aware of another dinner coming up, and I hear a voice say “Guess who’s coming to dinner,” and I think of Sydney Poitier, and remem­ber or fore­see an upcom­ing dinner with three friends in waking life, on Thursday.

Early in the morn­ing I woke up and read more Jung: a sentence describ­ing the dangers of untram­melled intu­ition, float­ing away from the earth. The dream that followed was stark and to the point: I was putting on my good shirt, and real­ized that it was inside out and that it was smeared with–as they say–excrement! It was disgust­ing but neces­sary, and quite odour­less. I consid­ered turn­ing the shirt inside out so that no one would see the shitty side but that would mean it would be next to my skin. I was look­ing into a mirror as this was taking place.

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Short day, long night

Today is my father’s birth­day. We always called it the short­est day of the year: he said it was an easier birth­day to get through than other birth­days. We ignored the fact that it was also the longest night of the year.

My father took his own life two years ago, a few months before his eighty-​fifth birth­day. He was unable to find happi­ness or peace, but he knew how to find the end.

This tiny publi­ca­tion is a memo­r­ial of sorts, writ­ten after dispers­ing his ashes one year after he died.

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In the mail today a copy of Read­ers Digest arrived contain­ing a cheque and a story of mine published ten years ago and collected in 2007 in an anthol­ogy called Body Break­down. The orig­i­nal story appeared on www​.open​let​ters​.net, the epis­to­lary venture under­taken by Paul Tough after his tenure as editor of Satur­day Night, the general inter­est maga­zine of some renown that Conrad Black buried a few years later. Open Letters published a new letter every week for six months, and displayed them with an epis­to­lary flour­ish in mono­spaced courier type, which reminded us in 2000, of the not-​yet-​so-​lost-​age of writ­ing with typewriters.

Paul Tough has since worked as an editor at New York Times Maga­zine and Harpers. He has kept Open Letters alive for read­ers, who can find it at www​.open​let​ters​.net.

My Body Break­down story in its orig­i­nal form can be found on Open Letters under the title on getting sick, and well. Along with another story that I think is more success­ful, called on stig­mata.

Read­ers Digest claims to connect to 9 million Cana­di­ans. To appear in its pages is surely to arrive (somewhere)!

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The Coincidence Problem

I was walk­ing north down Commer­cial Drive when I began to think about a friend I hadn’t seen for some months. I crossed Grand­view High­way as the Skytrain passed over­head, and there was the friend I had been think­ing about stand­ing at the corner with his wife, and he was look­ing at me in some surprise, for, as it turned out, he and his wife had been talk­ing about me in the same moment that I had been think­ing of him, and so we congrat­u­lated ourselves on having arrived at the corner of Commer­cial Drive and Grand­view High­way at just the right moment for these facts to be revealed to us.

None of us referred to our meet­ing as a coin­ci­dence, which is what it was, of course. Coin­ci­dence is a word too easily distrusted, a label employed by grown-​ups to dismiss the marvel­lous: “only a coin­ci­dence” is what grown-​ups say, thereby limit­ing the real world to non-​coincidence only, for a world that includes coin­ci­dence is compli­cated and weird, and, like the world of quan­tum physics, entan­gled in our own perceptions.

A few months ago I met with some new friends from out of town in the bar of the Sylvia Hotel and in the course of the evening I recounted several anec­dotes about an old mentor of mine who had been an art critic and was once the direc­tor of the VAG. We noticed that the music play­ing on the sound system had become morose and rather dirge-​like, and when we asked the bartender why, he made a lame joke about funer­als and drink­ing. I came home late and picked up a maga­zine from the stack of read­ing matter in the bath­room and it fell open at a poem writ­ten in memory of my old mentor, the same man I had just been telling my friends about in the bar at the Sylvia, and I under­stood at that moment that my old mentor was no longer alive.

In 1972 my old mentor gave me his 1958 Pontiac in return for a small favour that I had done him; I drove the Pontiac for six months before sell­ing it for a dollar in the Cecil Hotel beer parlour when I didn’t need it any more. The Cecil I should say, was a liter­ary beer parlour at that time. That summer I used to go to the Hast­ings Park race­track with my brother to place bets on the advice of an astrologer who had worked out a way of predict­ing winners based on the posi­tions of the plan­ets and the timing of the start­ing gun. It took a few weeks to adapt to his system, and when we were ready and had chosen our day, the astrologer, whom I had befriended during a grave­yard shift at David Ingram’s tax prepa­ra­tion company, calcu­lated that the first race, if it started on time, would bring in horses 6 and 3, which, as I recall, were controlled by Mars and Mercury, and after that the follow­ing races would come in accord­ing to the pattern that he wrote down in the margins of the horo­scope. My brother and I set out in the Pontiac with our astro­log­i­cal charts and my girl­friend, who became unpleas­antly nega­tive as we drove along Hast­ings Street; even­tu­ally I had to pull over across from the Waldorf Hotel and ask her to get out of the car. She had no money so I gave her cab fare from our supply of gambling cash. The astrologer had told us that every­thing depended on our being there for the first race. A few blocks from the track the Pontiac ran out of gas and we had to push it into a gas station and pour a few gallons into the tank; we got into the park­ing lot at the track but it was full, so we had to drive onto the street to park, and then run back through the park­ing lot to the gate to pay the entrance fee. We were within a few feet of the betting window when the bell rang, and the first race went off before we could place our bets. Mars and Mercury came in, back to back, just as they were supposed to do.

We could see then that the astrologer’s system worked, but we didnt under­stand that it might not work for us; we followed up the result of the first race as the astrologer had directed us, and broke even in the second and third races. The fourth race was a big one, the astrologer had warned us, and Mars and Mercury would play a part in it. My brother took our money to the wicket to bet on 6 and 3 both ways. I looked out at the track as the horses came up to the post; among them was a white stal­lion, a rare sight at the races, and it carried the number 4 on its back: four was the number of the moon, which accord­ing to the astrologer always played a role in the fourth race. It was also an extreme long shot. I looked out to the east where the moon, nearly full, could be seen hang­ing in a blue sky. I said to myself: white horse, white moon, 4 in the fourth race, and then I said: it’s only coin­ci­dence, and manfully, ratio­nally, I resisted the impulse to call my brother back (I was the eldest, and perhaps the more addicted to the unbend­ing lever of logic). The white stal­lion won the race hand­ily, sepa­rated from the pack by 6 and 3, who seemed to be running inter­fer­ence for it, and my brother and I failed to win several hundred dollars. Thirty years later, I read in a layman’s book on quan­tum mechan­ics that what we expe­ri­ence of the world is not the world at all, but only our inter­ac­tion with the world.


Last Friday night, after present­ing this 5-​minute version of the Coin­ci­dence Prob­lem to a gath­er­ing of inter­ested people at an event called Inter­est­ing Vancou­ver, I found a copy of the New Scien­tist in my mail­box bear­ing on its cover (by coin­ci­dence) the follow­ing spuri­ous claim:

We wouldn’t be here with­out a chain of coin­ci­dences that’s led from the big bang to our big brains.

The New Scien­tist is forever confus­ing the process of cause and effect with its outcomes (such as evolu­tion and coincidence).

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Marilyn enters Banff

Banf­fol­o­gists around the world are hard at work exam­in­ing new evidence of Mari­lyn Monroe sight­ings in the Great National Park. More foren­sic samples are avail­able at Global Leth­bridge.

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