It was maybe 11pm, deep into a Northern BC January Saturday night. We were both falling-down drunk, and we were 17 years old. We were sitting on crusty snow, leaning back against the side of somebody’s car, gazing up into the snowflakes falling gently out of the pitch-black sky. Everything was muffled and peaceful in the way it gets when the snow falls after dark. Clean, cold, quiet, even though we could hear the distant thump of Hell’s Bells coming from the basement party we’d left a few minutes ago. Lazy Christmas lights were still twinkling here and there. Fifteen minutes earlier, she’d asked me to hold her hair back while she puked into the toilet, something that in my hometown was tantamount to asking a guy to go steady. After, she’d asked me to walk her home. I wasn’t anywhere near sober, but she was plastered, and her parents’ house was a good 3 blocks away. I was in love with her. I had been for years. I’d never told her.
[Crossposted from Full Glass Empty Clip] It’s 1977. I’m 12 years old. It’s a gorgeous Northern BC summer day, one of those glorious fleeting perfect days that are all the sweeter in the frozen north, because the memories of mud and slush barely fade before the leaves have already begun to turn again. Utterly pure blue sky, sun warm on the skin, grass a deep impatient green, a light breeze off the lake that is so invigoratingly packed with oxygen and piney perfume it might as well be aerosolized cocaine. I’m playing third base, it’s what we’d call little league if we called it that in Canada back then, I’m just beginning to feel the awkwardness of adolescence, but the sheer pleasure of being alive and standing on that dirt under that gigantic bowl of sky on that day is more than enough to let me ignore my self-consciousness. I’m a big, strong kid, and even if I’m more bookworm than jock, I enjoy sports.
One of the kids on the other team strikes out, and our gang begins to jog back to the chickenwire fence behind home plate for our time at bat, where there are a few parents hanging out, maybe drinking a beer or three in the sun. I get about three or four loping steps along the baseline before my left leg folds up, with no warning whatsoever, and I go down into the dirt. I try like hell to get up, but my leg just doesn’t seem to want to bend correctly. I don’t remember it hurting as much as I remember being confused, trying to figure out why my leg suddenly didn’t do what I told it to do any more, and then horrified and embarrassed, when my stepdad came out onto the diamond, picked me up, and carried me off.
Turns out that I had Osgood-Schlatter syndrome. I was just growing too damned fast, apparently, and bits and pieces of me couldn’t keep up. The dumbass semicompetent smalltown doctor told us that I’d have to have the left leg put in an ankle to hip cast for six months, and then the other leg — once again, ankle to hip — for another six months after that.
That was pretty much the end of sports for me, at least team sports. That was the beginning — after that long, itchy year, when my first my left and then my right leg emerged, atrophied, pale, and, to my horror, looking like a limb grafted on from a much smaller, sicklier young man — of my lifelong habit of riding bikes with my headphones on down empty highways. And that summer, when the doorway to baseball and swimming and many other things I loved closed, at least temporarily, that the door into computers and the games you can play on them opened. When I learned that it was possible to go places without actually going anywhere. That was the summer my parents bought me my first computer, a TRS-80 Model III.
One of my few brushes-with-famous-people was with David Bowie.
It was the second week of September, 1983, and he was playing at the Coliseum in Vancouver. I’d just started at UBC, and was drinking rather a lot, as was my wont. One night there was a mixer at Place Vanier with free booze, and me and a friend of mine who I’d graduated with and who was also a freshman at UBC took great advantage of the freebies (white wine, for some bizarre reason, as I recall, something I’d never really gotten inebriated on before).
It was pouring rain that evening, as usual, and when the mixer shut down, I was, in young wonderchicken style, just getting geared up. But being underage, finding more booze was going to be a challenge, so we decided to make the trek across campus to Gage Towers to find her older brother, the theory being that he could hook us up with some more grog.
As we passed in front of the computer science buildings, I got it into my head to do the Gene Kelly routine from Singing in the Rain, and sing and splash and swoop around the light poles a bit. Predictably, my blood-alcohol content rendered my swooping a little less graceful than it should have been, and I ended up breaking my ankle.
Next morning, I woke up in my dorm room in my clothes with a monumental wine hangover and a somewhat hazy recollection of the night before. Reeking, disoriented, with a throbbing right ankle that felt about the size of my head. My mother, who was visiting Vancouver to see I’d settled in, and her sister, who’d come to visit with my mom, were knocking on the door. I can’t say they were all that surprised. At least Mitzi — yes, my friend’s name was Mitzi — wasn’t there in the bed with me, too.
We went to the campus hospital, I got strapped up and given a pair of crutches, and we went to the Bayshore Hotel, where they were staying, for breakfast. I was feeling about as physically bad as an 18-year-old can.
The elevator stopped on our way up to my mom and aunt’s room. I could smell myself, and it wasn’t pretty. I was staring at the carpet, swaying, sweating, and trying desperately not to throw up, but noticed more or less in my peripheral vision two very large black-suited men and one much smaller blond man get on.
We got off on my mom’s floor, and as we did, I realized that the little fellow was David Bowie. The realization took long enough to percolate through my hungover brain that all I had time for was a double-take, wobbling on my crutches, enough to turn and meet his eyes and smile, and get a smile back.
I believe that he was a nice fellow because of that smile, ’cause man, if I’d had to stand in an elevator with my sodden, reeking self that morning, I’d have been rejoicing the moment I got off.
This first, memorable experience of my university career turned out to be emblematic of the next 5 years. UBC was a lot of fun.
I was tightly wound when I was a teenager. I’d been a fat kid in early days, which kind of ruined my self-confidence back in the days when that wasn’t as common as it is these days, and I had a step-dad who had his own problems and wasn’t really a subscriber to the self-image boosting regimen. And I had acne that literally scared people, I think, at least until years later, when the docs put me on accutane and damn near killed me with the stuff.
But I was big and strong and well-put-together, smart and funny and creative, sociable and athletic and geeky all at once. I really should have gotten laid a lot more than I did, looking back on it.
The men who planned and carried out the bombings in Bali in 2002, the ones that killed one of my oldest and dearest friends (but only after he suffered with burns over most of his body for nearly two weeks) along with 201 other people, were executed last month.
You’d think I’d be happy about that.
Let me tell you a little story that may not seem to have much to do with this, but does, somehow, in a way that’s not entirely clear to me. Maybe in the telling, I can work it out a bit.
It was the mid-70s, I think, another glorious short clean summer in Northern BC, one of the ones that stay with me in my memory, and my aunt, uncle and two cousins were visiting us.
We had taken our river boat ten or fifteen kilometers up the lake, up to one of the rocky beaches under the ridge of Mount Pope, inshore from Battleship Island. We set up our outpost on a long expanse of thumb-size pebbles rattling under a broad unclouded vault of sky, stands of jackpine and spruce at our backs clustered beardlike around yellow stone cliff outcroppings. Clear deep dark green water, hot dogs cooked on whittled birch sticks over a fire pit. It was the kind of day that makes you feel glad to be alive, especially when you’re 8 or 10 years old and all is right with the world.
I remember at one point my cousins and I were ranging up the shingly beach, just exploring, when we came across the biggest snake I’d ever seen. It was glistening and black and in the water, and it took off like a shot as soon as it saw us, undulating frantically as it headed along the rocky verge, trying to escape.
We were curious, or at least I was, and we started throwing driftwood and rocks in its path, trying to get it to turn around, or slow down, so we could get a better look. I’m not sure, of course, what my cousins were thinking, but I don’t think they had any more malicious intent than I did. We were curious. The missiles we hurled at the poor beast got progressively larger and we got more excited, and the inevitable happened. One of the rocks or sticks landed square on the snake, and killed it. It uncoiled and floated, light belly up.
As we’d been hollering and chasing the snake, my uncle, presumable alerted by our excitement, had come up behind us just as the fatal stone did its work. All he saw was hooting boys killing an innocent creature.
He wasn’t furious, he was disgusted, disappointed. I still remember, as clearly as if it were yesterday, the look on his face. I don’t think anyone had ever looked at me like that before.
Several people have sent me links to news items about the execution of the Bali bombers in the past few weeks, and each time, I’ve had to tell them that I just didn’t know what to feel about it, much less what to think.
I find as I grow older that every year I am certain about less and less.
I’ve said to some folks who asked that although I do not believe that more killing is a good response to killing, if I were handed the gun, or set down in front of the switch behind the one-way glass, or just put into a room with the bastards, I wouldn’t hesitate to exact vengeance for the death of my friend. Pull the trigger, press the button, beat them with my fists. I’ve said to my friends that I am an ape masquerading as a man.
I don’t know if that’s true or not, I really don’t. It sounds good, I suppose, and I’ve always been about the dramatic pronouncement over the measured interpretation.
Is the world a poorer place without my friend Rick Gleason living in it? Yes, it is, and the same is no doubt true for the friends and family members of each and every of the other 201 people killed in the bombings. Is the world a better place without their killers living in it? I think it probably is.
We tell ourselves a lot of stories about ‘the sanctity of human life’. We seem to mean the lives of those we know and love when we talk about it, and that’s not surprising or wrong. We find it hard to care about strangers, and harder to care about strangers whose tribe is different, and even harder to care about those strangers who would do us harm if they could, or leave us to die without compunction. People get all misty about their Jesus and his injunctions to love one’s enemies and turn cheeks.
But we don’t really believe that human life, in the abstract, is sacred, even if we’re willing to go the extra mile and define what we mean by sacred, do we? Not really. We make war, we ignore the roots of violent crime and turn away, we spend millions on blood-fiesta movies and video games and tell ourselves that it’s about catharsis. The best we can reasonably claim to believe is that some human life is sacred.
We’re not bad people, of course, most of us. Actual, personal violence we find shocking, unacceptable, abhorrent. We are traumatized by the headless corpse behind the steering wheel sitting in the puddle of blood and piss in the twisted plastic and metal of the Friday night wreck. We’re dutifully frightened by the TV news items about violent crime that are intended to keep us dutifully frightened and at home watching the sponsor’s messages. But we do love our serial killers and the movies about them, we love our torture porn, we love our Schwarzeneggerian one-liners before the shotgun skullpop, even while we guard our vulnerable citizens against violence domestic and corporal and sexual and even emotional. We righteously and rightfully do our best to end the social conditions that allow such things to happen. And we support our troops. You know, if we have any. We compartmentalize.
I don’t think most of us are all that clear on these things, and I suppose I’m no better than anyone else. See, if we admit that by executing those bastards, and we accept that violence has its place in our attempts to make the world better, we have accepted that violence has its place. This has consequences.
And if we’re not trying to make the world better, then we’re just acting out another episode of the woeful old Jehovahriffic vengeance.
I’m not against vengeance, though I’d rather be a man than an ape. I have to admit that there are times when I want to bare my yellowed fangs and rip out a throat and feel the hot pulse of blood wash across my cheek.
Thirty years later, having returned to the memory many times over the years, I don’t think I wanted to kill that snake. But I’m not certain that that was actually the truth at the time.
When you grow up in the far north in Canada, if you’re at all curious about the world and the people in it, you can’t wait to get out. As soon as you’re able, you head out to the big city, for work or school or whatever you can get. It isn’t such a different story from kids growing up in the boonies anywhere, where it’s Montana or Gangwon-do in Korea, western New South Wales or the Cyclades.
I grew up, for the years that counted at least, in Fort Saint James, British Columbia. During those years — the early 70′s to the early 80′s — it was the End of The Road. Vanderhoof was the asshole of the world and we were forty miles up it, we said, recycling that old standby. The paved highway ended in the Fort, and to go further north meant logging roads and endless washboard and pothole gravel, dusty in summer, solid ice in winter, and slicker than snot the rest of the time. There were a couple of reservations further up there, and a few scattered fishing lodges and mines and logging camps. Wilderness, though, for the most part. Endless dense forest carpetting mountains, nap worn smooth in spots by crystal-clear cold lakes and rivers. Germanson Landing. Takla Landing. Leo Creek. Deese Lake. I’d like to say I hunted bear in these places wearing nothing but a breechclout and bowie knife, but with parents who were grappling with living on the frontier after moving from southern Ontario and a little shellshocked by family tragedy, the names of these tiny, isolated places were almost as exotic to me as Tokyo or Timbuktu. We didn’t stray too far.
But our own tiny town of 2500 or so was frontier enough for anyone, and, in what feels all these decades later like a deliberate, considered balance to the more bookish side of my nature, but was probably just imposed on me by the environment, I spent a lot of my time outdoors. In the summer especially, I’d spend 5 or 6 hours a day just behind our house swimming in the cold runoff-fed waters of Stuart Lake, or buckling on my first-gen Sony Walkman and riding my bicycle further and further out along the limited network of paved roads that snaked out along it, or to the south towards Vanderhoof, or the 10 or 15 kilometers north to the saw mills, after which the asphalt just stopped. Looking for something.
When I was a teenager, I thought a lot about the end of the world. In particular, the rain of nukes that always seemed just around the corner. I was fascinated and terrified. I suppose that’s not an unusual thing for kids that age, and might even have been the usual for m-m-m-my generation. I grew up in the 70s, came of age in the early 80s. I was convinced that nuclear war was near-inevitable. I had no doubt that doddering dimwitted Ronald Reagan (read ‘his handlers’) and whichever doddering Soviet supremo was currently being propped up and jerkily animated with electric current (read ‘his handlers’) were going to blow the crap out the world. I dreamed about it. I can remember a grand total of one wet dream from my pubescent years; I can remember literally dozens of atomic holocaust dreams.
I remember Helen Caldicott and her Canadian-made If You Love This Planet. They showed it to us in high school. I remember the TV movies Threads and The Day After. Two and half decades after seeing Threads, I still remember the camera lingering on the puddle of urine at the woman’s feet as the mushroom clouds rose. I watched The Road Warrior when it was first released. I remember reading A Canticle for Leibowitz. I sucked up all the ’50s bomb-shelter paranoiac sci-fi juvenilia I could get my mother to buy for me at the bookstores on our shopping trips to the nearest city. I read what little I could find about the growth of the Cold War arsenals. It was… a hobby of mine.
Not that I was the archetypal Weird Kid or anything, muttering head-down through greasy locks about the ‘end of the world’. I had normal hobbies, too: comics and computers, swimming and biking, booze and friends’ fast cars. Girls. I showered regularly. But I did dream a lot about the end of the world.
And they weren’t all nightmares by any means. See, I grew up in a tiny town more than 1000 kilometers north of Vancouver. I was completely confident that when the bombs fell, we’d be safe and secure. When I was in Grade 5, my gifted-group teacher had had a meteorologist boyfriend who’d lent me (and the other smart kid they’d cut from the herd to study what and how we liked) his weather maps. I’d learned about the prevailing wind currents of north-central British Columbia. We’d be all good when the balloon went up. The nearest mushroom cloud might sprout and rain its deadly ash 500km away, at worst, accidental mistargetings notwithstanding, and leave us basically unscathed.
We had moose and squirrel salmon, we had farms and ranches, we had endless forest. Fruit might get a little scarce, but hell, I didn’t much like fruit anyway. My house had a deep well, and the lakes and rivers were sweet and clear. Nuclear winter? No worries. We lived through -45°C spells every damn year. We’d get by. Let the mad bastards down south kill each other off en masse. We’d be the inheritors of the earth, us hardy northern canucks, ululating our diesel-powered ways down out of the arboreal wastes, antlers strapped to the hoods of our Barracudas and pickup trucks, to rebuild things in our own Royal Reserve-powered image. Proud Canadians. There’d finally be some kind of payoff for living 40 miles up the asshole of the earth for so many years.
Armageddon didn’t seem like such a bad thing. Not the best result in a lot of ways, sure, but Ouroboros the world-turd was spinning at the bottom of the bowl, anyway. Time for cleansing holy nuclear fire! It’d be a shame, all those innocent people getting torched, but we kept reading how overpopulation was going to kill the planet even if the nukes didn’t.
So talk these days of a coming economic armageddon with Ground Zero in America’s bubble have actually put me in a nostalgic mood. Headlines like China threatens ‘nuclear option’ of dollar sales take me right back to 1982. Media tidbits like Jim Cramer’s recent howling monkey-boy histrionic meltdown — ‘It’s Armageddon out there!” have fascinated me in the kind of way that (metaphorical) nuke-porn did back in the day.
It’s far from certain, of course, that the blow up is going to happen, or even that things will fall apart. But I’ve been watching the whole thing for years now, after decades of conditioned ignorance about economics, and the New Great Depression feels as likely to me as nuclear tennis did back in the early ’80s.
Then again, that didn’t end up happening, did it? There’s some comfort in that, I guess.
A comment from the sometimes-overheated Malor in a recent Metafilter thread (among many others about the subprime mortgage mess, the yen carry trade, the liquidity dry-up, and all the rest) lays out genesis of the worst case scenario pretty well, I think. Is it a Minsky Moment? Yeah, probably.
We should have gone into a horrific recession after the stock market bubble popped in 2000. The size of that bubble was far bigger than the one in 1929, so the consequences should have been even more severe… something on the order of severity of the Great Depression, although I think a 1970s-style stagflation writ large was the likeliest outcome.
What happened instead is that the Fed panicked and hit the liquidity button, flooding the system with incredibly cheap money. New money chases inflation, and causes more of it, so it went into housing, and then people started leveraging themselves up into massive debt to buy more of it.
Bubbles have been called the fiscal equivalent of a nuclear weapon; the only way to avoid the fallout is by not having one in the first place. The stock market bubble was a huge deal, though probably survivable.
But the Fed, which set off the original bubble with easy money, tried to fix the fallout with more of the same medicine that got us sick in the first place. To stop the fallout from one atomic bomb, they set off two fusion weapons instead…. and we didn’t even dodge the fallout from the first bomb, we just delayed it. The explosion of the other two bombs just sent the fallout into orbit, but it’s still up there, and we’re still gonna eat every rad.
At the very least, we’re going to have a full generation of very hard times, tougher than anything in living memory. I think we will be exceptionally fortunate if the United States continues to exist as the same legal entity.
In terms of likely outcome, my operating theory is that we’ll go into a short-term deflationary crunch, but the Fed will open the floodgates and send us into an inflationary death spiral. Not just nasty horrible stagflation for two decades like we would have had from the Y2K pop, but an actual hyperinflationary death spiral for the dollar.
With fiat currency, I just don’t think a true deflationary collapse is possible… although with the unbelievably massive leverage in the derivative positions, I suppose it could happen. Money could be destroyed from debt default faster than the Fed can lend new dollars into circulation.
There’s one name you should remember in the coming crisis: Greenspan. This is all his doing. His refusal to ever allow a recession, ever, led us directly into this mess. He never met a problem he couldn’t cover up with liquid paper.
I think Malor might be overstating the case when he talks about a generation of hard times. On the other hand, if China pulls the economic trigger, he might be understating it.
Anyway, the winds taste the same to me because as the tension builds I’m once again far from the places where the corpses will litter the ground if and when the hammer falls. Two and half decades ago I was in the far north of Canada, confident that we’d be able to sustain ourselves while the rest of the world went to hell. Now I’m in Korea, and if economic armageddon happens, once again I’m not directly in the line of fire. Once again, if it all goes to hell, I’ll feel sorry for all the people (even the stupid ones who went for their two year no-money-down teaser-rate no-declare ARM mortgages for a McMansion they knew they couldn’t afford) who lose it all. The rich will make it through, as they always do, this time with Bushy legislation and offshore accounts rather than hardened bunkers and hidey holes.
Well, I like to say I’ll feel sorry about the end of days. I said to myself when I was 17 that I’d be sorry about all those crispy corpses down in CanadAmerica South. But not entirely sincere the sentiment, I have to admit, then or now. The truth is, of course, in some ways, on some days: I think I’d feel like pumping my fist, taking a deep breath, and shouting ‘That’s what you get for shortsighted greed and systematic stupidity, you bastards!’ Or more succinctly, ’cause my wind is not what it once was, ‘Suck it, dummies!’
I’m a bad man that way. Or part of me is and was, at least.
Bad things are going to happen to the Korean economy, certainly, if and when America’s economy goes tits-up and takes the rest of the world with it. But if I lived in North America, if I was mortgaged to the hilt, if I was living from paycheck to paycheck, I’d be a lot more worried about it than I am here in Korea with my life savings in won and no debt.
Maybe we ought to buy some gold, though.
So I am back where I was when I was young — a cleansing fire might just be what’s needed to clean out the corruption and cauterize the wounds. Part of me almost looks forward to it. I’m not sure if I really believe that, or if it’s just the romantic teen I was surfacing again for a last misanthropic gasp before he goes down into that dark cold water for the last time.
Either way: armageddon schadenfreude. It’s not just a good name for a postmodern superhero.
[Update: more background material and some excellent explanations of the IMPENDING DOOOOOOOM in this MeFi thread.]
…so in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all the rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty, I think of Dean Moriarty.
A Poetry Break brought to you by the fine people in the AudioVisual Division of Wonderchicken Industries™
I was somewhere between point A and point B, as I had been for most of the decade in question. For most of my life, when it came to it. Wait, that’s not the way to start it. Let me try again.
I’ve never been as fascinated by sex as most people seem to be, but there was a lost few days that I remember….
No, that’s not how I want to tell this story either.
One more time.
There was this girl in high school. She was attractive, splendidly put together, but clumsy somehow. Unpopular, invisible. And smart. Too smart, and too interested in making sure that people knew it. Me, I was smart too, but I spent as much time as possible trying to rebrand it, at least to those elements of the cabal that didn’t appreciate that kind of thing. I was as kind to her as I was to most people, because I was a nice guy, especially when I was sober, even as I was limping unsuccessfully after other, unobtainable young women, stealth erection tucked down my leg.
Most of a decade after high school, I had decanted myself back into the Old Home Town after a time drinking and sailing in Mexico, skinny tan squinty pickled and worldy-arrogant, and we met again, and drank together, and she was magnificent. Gorgeous, and grace had replaced teen clumsiness. Apparently, she’d been in teenage love with me. Oh.
We screwed like minks on the floor at the foot of her parents’ bed after the bar closed. Her parents were in a nearby town dealing with the aftermath of her grandmother’s death, which was why she was also back in town. It was one of those things that happen, and it was nice, and fleeting. And hotter than hell, I tell you now.
Months later, and I was making my way back down to the big city. I’d saved a couple of thousand dollars working mill and was ready to buy a ticket out again, to wherever. Wherever had treated me pretty damn well before. She’d left an open invite to come and stay with her, anytime, and I decided to take her up on it.
That’s where the whole ‘I’ve never been dick-led’ thing that I mentioned comes in. I didn’t love her, sex was a thing that I liked but didn’t crave: I didn’t know what the f–k, but I was 20-something, and I wanted to walk through whatever doors opened up in front of me, on principle if nothing else. And that illicit carpet sex had been… good.
So I rolled into her town on the Greyhound, called her, and she picked me up, and we went to the liquor store, and she bought half a dozen bottles of liquor, and we went to her house, and we f–ked a lot.
We drank — or, mostly, I drank, at the arborite-and-aluminum table in the kitchen of her small, neat apartment — and then we f–ked. Mornings, she went to work, and I stayed, and wrote, and smoked, and waited until the afternoon to drink again. I don’t remember eating during those 4 or 5 days but I suppose we must have.
It wasn’t love driving the lust, which was a new thing, at least for me. It was an echo of love for her, maybe, a salute to an unrequited one a decade old. It was good for both of us, I supposed and I liked to think, in completely different ways.
The night before I left — and this was the memory that started me telling this story, this story I couldn’t figure out how to start, and now, having started, have reservations about telling its denouement — it was Saturday night and Canada-cold, we were drunk as lords, and I was going down on her, and her muscles were a-twitch and her transported. I was proud as hell that I was making her come. I’d never known a women before who had her own apartment and all.
As the orgasm rolled over her, she let a massive fart out on my chin. It was a ripper. I took it with aplomb — I had at least a bottle of scotch in me — and looked up after it had finished, over the smooth terrain of her belly. Staring at the ceiling, as the muscles on the insides of her thighs quivered and quieted against my ears, she said “I didn’t get to see my grandma before she died.”
We drank some more that night after we got dressed. I left the next day, and we parted friends.
I don’t know what this story means, but the memory came to me tonight as I drank my beer, and I thought I’d tell it, because I miss writing shit down sometimes.
This is about something I love. Not as much as beer, perhaps, but more than a hell of a lot of other things.
Maybe 6 months ago I was trolling one of the private darknet sites where I get my bittorrents, looking for something new to download, watch, and delete, as usual. All that fat pipe Korean bandwidth going to waste is a crying shame, and I do my best to keep it humming, and make sure that the carbon doesn’t build up in the virtual valves. The Korean government gets a big wet kiss from me for their policy of relentlessly ramming bandwidth down the throats of their citizens (and the scruffy no-account foreigners who squeak in through the cracks), if not for many of the other decisions they stumble into.
So I was 4 or 5 pages deep in the movie forum, and there it was, with only a couple of peers on the torrent so far. I swear, my heart skipped a beat. I caught a whiff of those dusty sun-pummelled rocks of Southern California, and the rich stink of bubbling road-tar. A few notes of the theme song. An fleeting image of perfectly conical 1963-era brassiere-bound breasts. A shiver of the joyous goofiness of life’s meaningless serendipity. I hadn’t thought about the movie in decades, probably, media-starved and nomadic as I’d been during my wanderyears. It was, without exaggerating, one of the formative films of my young life. It helped make me the man I am today. I fired up the torrent and whispered a breathy ‘woo hoo’, so as not to wake up She Who Must Be Obeyed, and the downstream rate nudged its way up past 400KB/s.
The movie was “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World“.
Let me tell you about how this movie lodged itself so deeply in the crenellations of my brain. I warn you, there may be some adult concepts and situations involved, though. What else do you expect from the wonderchicken?
I started babysitting when I was maybe 10 years old, I guess. I didn’t do it much, and only for some friends of the family who had two kids about 7 or 8 years younger than me. I’ll call them the Potters. Mostly it was a New Years Eve thing, when my parents would go out with Mr and Mrs Potter and get smashed and celebratory at whatever parties were happening in our little town. At that point, they were almost ten years younger than I am now, which makes me feel a little wobbly when I think about it.
Anyway, it was the New Year’s Eves I remember the most. I probably had a good run of 5 years or so before I got old enough that I wanted to start going out myself and getting loose on illicitly-acquired booze on December 31st. But I didn’t mind doing the babysitting one bit during those years. Mr Potter, you see, had something that my father didn’t (or had hidden too damn well for me to find, much as I tried).
Out in plain site, tucked into the accordion sidepocket and jammed down alongside the seat cushion of his chestnut-brown naugahyde recliner. In a messy pile mixed in with the TV guides and local newspapers on the floor. The thing was, it was almost all textporn, and I discovered it by accident, out of boredom. I don’t even know if the genre even exists anymore — cowboy novels with long, long stretches of pure high-octane sex. I still remember the night when I first found it. I was sitting in the recliner with a bowl of salt and vinegar chips on the folding TV-dinner table beside me, and I pulled out one of the broken-backed paperbacks that was jammed between the cushion and the armrest. Like all of the others I read over the ensuing years in that house, the cover featured a long-haired, spectacularly-bosomed woman, mostly clothed but inevitably dishevelled in a long dress, with a gunslinger, whitehat or black, posed like an action figure, guns metaphorically out. This paperback was totally flat, open about midway through, and when I scanned a few paragraphs, something went ‘boing’ in my head, if not right away in my pants.
Keep in mind this was the mid1970′s, and I was only about 10 or 11. The only naked women I’d seen had been in the couple of low-rent skin mags that other boys had somehow purloined and brought into school, or that I’d literally stumbled upon in the woods. There wasn’t an internet, and we had no movie theatre, and only two channels on the TV, video rentals didn’t exist. Porn was an as-yet unexplored frontier. A different world than we live in today, where 9-year-olds are sending each other goatse links.
I wonder now if my eagerness around that time to go and babysit for the Potters seemed a little odd, somehow. I wonder too if my love for words grew at least in part out of these intense early textfests. I know where my love of the road came from.
I was a big reader already at that age, but the rare sex scenes in my vast mom-sponsored collection of science fiction were like whale-oil candles to this nuclear blast of meat. It went on for page after page of sucking and nibbling and grunting and heaving and cowpokery. I was boggled.
How on earth does this tawdry little tale connect with “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”, you ask? Well, that was the movie that, for some reason, our nearest CTV affiliate station played in its long form as the late show every single New Year’s Eve in those days. Like begging my folks to let me stay up for the Sean Connery Bond movies, or the Sunday afternoon double-shot of Disney and Bugs Bunny, it had assumed a kind of ritualistic significance for me.
I loved the movie regardless — it was shown at other times during the year, and I’d seen it half a dozen times by that point anyway — but it played so regularly as the background soundtrack to the pure unalloyed joy of smacking my weiner around like a pinata at a fat kid’s birthday that they eventually merged into twin double-happiness somehow, back in the root of my pubescent lizard brain.
For the first couple of years I sat in the Potters’ living room, though, it was just about the unlimited cola and snacks. I had a quick scan of whatever cowboy porno was laying around the living room occasionally, and there had been some interesting stirrings in the groinal region, sure, but around the time I turned 12, it all started to change.
I recall the moment at which curiosity and a feeling of general naughtiness blossomed into a full-blown vocation. Long after the kids had been put to bed, of course, mind you. Most of the time they’d already been put to bed before I even showed up, and the house was mine from the get-go.
Over the previous year or so, things had been getting cramped in my jeans when I was doing my late-night study of Mr Potter’s novels, and I’d taken to letting myself out for some air, if you take my meaning. And, you know, I’d discovered in the fullness of time that giving myself a bit of an aimless rub once in a while was a pretty pleasant thing, too.
But one night, on New Year’s Eve, it was, the damn thing just went off. Like a geyser.
Nobody could have been more shocked and surprised than I was, once my eyes rolled back down out of my head. I guess I must have known this sort of thing happened — I’d been reading those damn cowboy books during my babysitting sessions for a year or two by that point — but that was different than having it actually happen to me. And of course, “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” was playing on the TV in the corner, beside the dried-out Christmas tree.
The rest of that night I’ll slide a diffusion lens of modesty over, but suffice it to say that I could barely walk on January 1st. I’d discovered something that would occupy a lot of my free time over the next few years.
Until I saw that torrent file for The Movie, I’d almost forgotten about the supporting role it played in my sexual awakening, not as fodder, but as refractory-time wallpaper.
I don’t think my slightly irrational love for the movie is entirely about the sexual imprinting, necessarily. The movie itself is not especially sexualized for me. And these days, I don’t much care for cowboy novels or brown vinyl recliners, nor do salt and vinegar potato chips give me spontaneous erections. There’s much to love about the movie, I think, and it’s become like an old friend long-lost and remade for me in the six months since I’ve downloaded it. Somehow it takes me back to a time when new worlds were opening wide, full of possibilities. Sex and the road, out there in front of me.
I remember how that seeing that arid Californian desert, so alien to me and so clean, how seeing those cars race through it set up resonances in my brain that I couldn’t explain. That I still can’t, for that matter. How the movie made me laugh. How it mixed with the heady fumes of newly-discovered sex, and filled me with an awareness that life was both utterly random and completely hilarious.
On some of those Friday nights at home since I’ve rediscovered the movie, when I’ve had my fill of beer and my reflexes have degraded too far to be much damn good in Rocket Arena 3, and I’ve sung along with a few Tom Waits songs, and am weary and hungry, I find myself firing up the movie and watching a few scenes. Imagining myself rakish and dissolute in a heavy steel-framed convertible with a woman in a satin gown, racing across the California desert towards the Big W. And I feel both rooted in a past that I frequently have difficulty remembering, and a little bit free.
But these days, at least, I keep my hands above the waistline.
Goodbye, Hunter, you old bastard.
You meant a lot, to a lot of us.
Here’s a story.
I’m smoking a cigarette, sweating, panting a bit, buzzed. I’m looking out to the north towards Horseshoe Bay, sorta leaning against my seat, straddling the bike, after climbing hard a-pedal most of the way up the hill from Spanish Banks to UBC. Out on the edge of the cliff, at the end of a little trail half a dozen metres from the road, in the bushes, private-like. The same place I usually stop for a smoke after doing the Big Circle. I’m… what? 21? Strong, young, full of juice and big ideas. Spotty, callow and dancing perilously close to full-blown alcoholism, too, but the world is my oyster, by god. You can f–k right off. I love you.
I’m wearing my Walkman, of course, because that thing has changed my life. I’m listening to Elvis Costello’s King Of America, and he’s singing
I wish that I could push a button
And talk in the past and not the present tense
And watch this lovin’ feeling disappear
Like it was common sense
I was a fine idea at the time
Now I’m a brilliant mistake
and it’s the album that I love, right now. Women.
The sky is smeared with grey goth-lipstick clouds, as usual, but the blue is showing through, and I feel magnificent, looking at the mountains and the wrinkly sea, smoking my Player’s Light. Fully oxygenated blood, full balls and, if not full volume, and least plans for full and frantic Friday night.
A raven — big, black, alive — lands with a thump and clink on my handlebars.
No sh-t. A f–king raven. It’s like a foot and a half high, and it’s right there, wabiggety baw!
I’m in that place, though. In that moment. I’m in the place that drugs only rarely managed to take me over the ensuing years, much as I tried.
So I calmly look the raven in the eye as it jinks around on the handlebars until it’s facing me. It looks me in the eye. No, it f–king does, I’m serious. Not straight on, but with its head tilted a bit to my right, so it can really lay the eye on me. I don’t know what to do, exactly, so I do nothing.
It checks me out, takes a minute or two, looks me up and down, jerkily, from crotch to crown, then flies off. I think to myself ‘well, that was pretty cool’, drop my earphones down around the back of my neck, pull out another cigarette, and think about the trickster god of the Kwakiutl and Haida and all the rest, their totem poles stolen and replanted just a few hundred metres away at the museum.
There’s a rustle, another thump, a sudden grip and weight on my right shoulder.
The raven is back. It’s perched on my shoulder. It’s perched. On my. Shoulder. I turn my head slowly, and peer as best I can through the corners of my scratched, smudged lenses into the little black eyes. It sits on my shoulder, gripping tightly, and looks back at me.
I don’t know what to do, exactly, so I do nothing.
And I turn away and look at the mountains again, and love the place I’m in, the body I’m in, the life I’m living. The raven stays with me for a few more minutes, enjoying the view, and then it leaves. Its wing flicks me in the right ear as it launches itself out into the void, over the edge of the cliff.
This really happened, in 1985 or so. I woke up this morning remembering it. It makes me proud, although I’m not exactly sure why.