Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Sliver

[After too many hours in front of a laptop with headphones in....]

I watched a sliver of the sky through the coffee shop window around the corner in the wall and surmised that the sunset had been brilliant. Lingering in the slivered sky was the warm grapefruit hue at the horizon fading into cyan with altitude. I thought about the buses running a few minutes' walk from that window and people huddled at home around dinner tables with roast beef somewhere out there. In the meantime the cold pixels of a scientific manuscript stared at me, the lines advanced one by one with great effort, a record of human thought but not of human warmth or generosity. What was paper worth held up to mashed potatoes and shared laughter?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Meditations on Meditations

Recently I picked up a copy of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. A collection of aphorisms written by the Roman philosopher-emperor, the work itself is good but mostly dry, morsels of Stoicism that are easily held and turned in the mind over the course of a day, like Proverbs for the pagan-set. One thing that attracts attention, though, is the acknowledgments.

As with any thesis, novel, or cereal box (if they came with one), the acknowledgments give insight into the character of the author, a place where the snow-job that follows is set aside and suspended, where the author steps from behind the curtain and talks directly (if cryptically) to the audience.

Here's a taste of the acknowledgments from Meditations (the George Long translation available here):

"From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper.

"From the reputation and remembrance of my father, modesty and a manly character.

"From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.

"From my great-grandfather, not to have frequented public schools, and to have had good teachers at home, and to know that on such things a man should spend liberally."

And it goes on and on. In fact it's the whole of Book One, ending with "To the gods I am indebted for having good grandfathers, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends, nearly everything good."

I was thinking of writing my own acknowledgments (to what work, I don't know). But if I were to begin in the same style, my Book One might go like this:

"From my father I learned an easy way to make friends, how to laugh much and loudly, a sense of wonder for the natural world, and appreciation for the simple things.

"From my mother, attention to detail, a love of words and language, how to be a good host, and the danger of chasing after the opinions of others.

"From my brother, a lesson in gentleness, an appreciation for baseball on the radio, and a fondness for summertime comprising video games and idle pursuits.

"From Brad Newton, the encouragement that comes from a green light to whims, a love of baseball cards, and how to persist from great loss.

"From Colleen Webb, a love for etymology and the ancient world, a dry sense of humor, stern but gentle advice for the future."

My list would go on and on as well. It's a useful exercise to write the acknowledgments to a life's work, even if the rest of the work itself has yet to be written. We are all of us the sum of these experiences and repaying a great debt by the conduct of our lives.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Bus stop

Clasping hands under the slate gray sky,
Drops of rain coming down our faces
In rivulets that open up and get tasted,
We navigate to the bus stop.
The puddles wide and loose up to the edges of our shoes,
Our umbrellas held aloft like Dumbo ears,
We take teaspoon steps and marsupial hops
Past the men in buttoned up jackets
Shouting, Get outta the way!
Zig-zagging along and making all this racket,
In youth that does not last
Long after the sun burns up the past.

Friday, May 15, 2009

after 408 days

every once in a while i relive the horror of an airbag deploying, the silent shattering of glass, the effortless bending of metal, the effusion of bodily fluids and the tearing of flesh, and the stillness of 6 am in a grassy ditch while a soul left for heaven on an exhaled breath, the dew drops still on grass blades, the stars setting in the west a long long way from here, the limitless expanse ahead on which the pneuma will sail, going everywhere and nowhere, anywhere but here, because they will come and find only the body and wonder, like i have, what happened to the man

Friday, April 24, 2009

fiction stem

i was having stupid romantic thoughts of taking her to old jazzy places where we'd order oysters and creme brulee just because of the way they sounded but then get up to dance before they even arrived leaving our glasses full of wine and empty of cares, hers stained with the rouge from her lips and mine smudged on the base with a thumbprint i'd made over and over while we were talking about the rain outside that still fell like a snare drum but not like the cascade we'd been caught in fleeing the theatre without an umbrella nor a taxi in sight, with eyes darting from dark street corner to corner searching from among the one, two, three lit facades in view, polling each other where we should go until we decided on this place that was illuminated at street level by just four neon letters, or actually three since the "a" was burnt out which left just a "j" and two "z"s which we were still laughing about when we walked in the half-submerged door like we owned the place.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bus ride of conscience

Today I was riding the bus in to campus. It was a clear, sunny day, I'd just had coffee at a shop a few steps from my apartment, and I had earbuds jammed into my ears which always gives me that closed-in, cut-off feeling no matter what's playing. Although it was just ten in the morning, the net effect of sun on skin, coffee in tummy, and muffled sounds, along with the rocking of the bus, soon put me to sleep.

I awoke at one of the stops when the bus knelt on its hydraulics to allow an old lady to board. Hanging onto her cane with a wobbly grip, she mounted the step then held a shaky hand full of change above the coin box. As the change clinkered in, I got up from the front seat where I'd been sitting and moved to a row two rows back. She teetered her head toward the driver, spoke a few words, then took my old seat and we were off.

When we got to campus and stopped at one of the stops at the edge of campus, the driver announced, "Next stop, hospital". It was clear this was meant for the old lady. At the next stop, the old lady got up, slowly made her way to the front door of the bus, and with the delicacy a child might apply going up stairs for the first time, laid foot on the sidewalk one foot after the other. I was awake to watch the whole process, and though it all only took a few seconds, I found myself impatient and burying myself deeper into what was playing on my MP3 player.

But in those few seconds, I also realized the hospital was across the street from the stop, and if there was a time when the archetypical good deed of helping an old lady across the street might be called for, this was it. Where did that call come from that sounded like a spike in my brain? And why was I not getting up at that exact moment when I realized this was the right thing to do?

By the time I summoned the will to do the action, the bus was off again. The next stop was the last, my stop, and if I'd been impatient before, I was even more so now. I wondered if everyone around me had had such thoughts, even as they looked obliviously away, out the windows. Before the bus even made the last turn and came to a stop, I was already at the back exit door.

The doors open, and I sprinted down the sidewalk. I thought about all those stupid workouts I'd done, out of vanity, out of self-concern, and the scene from Batman Begins came to mind, where Alfred sardonically tells Bruce Wayne lying under a burning log, "What good are all those push-ups if you can't lift a bloody log?". Bloody logs! Suddenly it became all-important to find this woman on the original side of the street where she was dropped and walk her across this bloody street!

I arrived at the crosswalk and slowing my breath looked across the street. No one at the stop. I looked down the road. No one with a cane. And toward the hospital. No one with a cane there either. I'd waited too long on a good deed, ran to make up for it, and come up short.

Afterward, I wondered, what is the lag between the right thought and the right action? At most times when I am not with people, or cut-off in my earbudded world, I am thinking of my own work, my own deeds, my own self. And then the opportunity arises to do something simple and good for others, and I take too long to pull the good trigger. I'm waiting now, for next time.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Fog

Fog blanketed Vancouver several days last month, throwing everything a fair distance from visual perception behind layers of gray taffeta. People became dark silhouettes, disappeared into the mist, sometimes reappearing right next to you. Their features and faces faded away but their shapes remained, bobbing up and down slightly as they walked but rendering their direction -- coming or going -- impossible to tell. You had to concentrate and put and mental bead on them or else you'd lose track.

Everyone shuffled along like hooded monks to evensong.

After dark a foghorn sounds off-campus at regular intervals, and images of creaky hulls and sailor skeletons come to mind. Not a time for the superstitious. Breathing lungfuls of moist air, you can imagine the same droplets being exhaled from someone else, either still with us or already passed.

Trees stood out from their copses and outgrew their mosses.

Here are some pictures, like scenes from a zombie movie: