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Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

Place in Time

To feel nostalgia does not necessarily mean you want to turn away from the present or the future; it’s enough to feel that you can’t ever go back to a place where you were happy. Sometimes I think even happiness doesn’t matter, that even places where you were unhappy can call out to you, if enough time has passed. And by “place” I mean, of course, “time”.

I had been thinking about the apartment in Pagkrati, where I spent my first ten years here in Greece, how things seem to be changing so rapidly in Athens, and how my Athens seems suspended in time, now that I’m gone from it. Images come to me almost unbidden, most often moments spent in solitude: my first Christmas Eve, walking along an empty Stadiou Street, and going into one of the cinemas to see a film; walking from my apartment to the Panellinion cafe at the bottom of Mavromichali Street, determined to go in and play chess, but then merely standing outside for half an hour, too shy to go in alone with so many good players inside; deciding to watch the sun come up from Lycabettus one Easter morning.

And then, about two months ago, a message comes from J.:

Just walked past your old house. The ensuing wave of nostalgia has obliged me to take a seat in a nearby hostelry and order a large cloudy one in your honour.

I don’t drink so much ouzo any more; it’s connected in my mind with Athens and sitting around with J. Now it’s Cretan wines I prefer.

I get the sense that J. is getting ready to leave Greece and go back to England after 15 or so years. I’m sure he is already beginning to feel nostalgic for the place he is preparing to leave. And by “place” I mean, of course, “time”.

Over a week ago, I was travelling down a road I’ve come down so many times before, every summer, some Easters, even a Christmas, into the Peloponnese, down through Nemea, and the Argolid, and then Kynouria, the part of Arcadia that touches the sea. I thought about how many times I’d made this trip as a bachelor on the Athens-Leonidio bus, and now I was driving down with my wife in our car, taking our daughter along for her first time.

* * * * *

The wind is up, blowing in from the sea, as it does every day. Little E. sits in my lap, turning over a eucalyptus leaf in her hands, quietly babbling to herself. I give her sprigs of rosemary and lavender to play with too. She brings them to her lips, without putting them into her mouth. She doesn’t seem to have learned to smell deliberately yet. I take her tiny hands and sniff them, and find traces of the three scents on them. The wind ruffles her little curls. And I think to myself, I will forget this moment, all the details that give it vividness: the coolness of the sea breeze, the warmth of E.’s little body, her shoulders, the back of her neck as she looks down at the sprig. She is bombarded by sensations and colours and sounds, and she absorbs them all, so that she can one day learn that this is called a tree, that is an ant, and that other thing a chair, but she will not remember this moment in itself, because it is all just a drop in the torrent of impressions she experiences every minute of the day. But I who have become so jaded, and who in all my forty years have never sat here in this place with a warm little daughter in my arms, what excuse have I got?

I set about trying to preserve the moment. I mention it to N., I write it down, I even grab my video camera and start to record moments that I know I will forget: the leaves of the lemon tree, seen through the balcony railing, as they sway in the wind, a bee among the oleander, dried up bougainvillea petals tumbling down the road. A caique in the afternoon as a fisherman casts his net. Our beach towels hanging to dry on the railings. The chaise longue where sleep is sweetest. The sandals left outside the door. The sound of someone chopping vegetables in the kitchen, or of the little gas cooker being lit and a little spoon tapping the inside of the briki of coffee. A lemon and two oranges in a basket hanging from the latticed roof of the pergola, and the wasp that hovers near them. The spider webs in the rosemary bush.

When I return home, maybe I’ll edit the fragments of video and make a DVD that I can watch on television. Years from now I will watch it, or read these words, and be so removed from the sensations that I tried to capture, that I will be reading them, like you, for the first time, like something I never lived at all, and they will remind me not of this place where I sit now, but of some other place like it, a place like no other place I’ve ever actually been — and by ” place” I mean, of course, “time”.

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Written on some napkins

A few days ago I was looking through a notebook and came upon two square napkins that I’d written on in a cafe back in November.

10/11/08
Sitting in Σιναϊτικό, drinking a beer and eating a plate of mezedes. I had thought to bring a notebook with me or buy a paper to read. I hadn’t planned to come here: I had arranged to do a private lesson from 8.30 to 9.30, but it got moved to tomorrow.  So I sat and drank my beer, alone, with nothing to keep me occupied. I thought about things, and half-listened to the conversations around me.

A young boy across the room sat with his father and two of his father’s friends and talked with them. I was touched by how mature and intelligent he seemed. I thought about the child N. and I might have and I wondered about what it would look like. I imagined that its face and appearance was already determined, all we had to do was have it.

I imagined myself sitting here with my son, having a serious discussion, explaining why I’d waited till I was nearly 40 before I became a father. I’d explain to him the decisions I’d made in life, and where having him had fit in.

I looked out the door a lot, at the orange tree outside the entrance, at the benjamins further down, and listened to the hundreds of birds chirping in the trees in the square across the street, a strange sound at night, and I looked at the way the light from the street lamps fell on the flagstones on the pavement, and I felt happy: I had made all the right decisions in life; this was one of the moments all the other moments had led to.

And I looked at my watch: ten minutes had passed. I was sitting doing nothing, and time was passing slowly, without the help of boredom. All it needed was patience, and the strength that inactivity requires. But then I buckled, took my pen out of my pocket, grabbed a couple of napkins and wrote this down. And the time passed quickly.

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Words, words, words

Ten years ago, I calculated that if I could read a book a week, I would need thirty years to read all the books in my library. And when I thought about how long it actually takes me to read one, I realised how absurd the situation was. I already had more books than I could possibly read in the rest of my life, and I was still buying more.

What did I want them all for?

I brought most of them to Greece with me, thinking that it would be difficult and expensive to get them here. I sold or traded in the ones I didn’t want any more, and bought a lot of others that I thought I’d want or need here. In some cases it was a bit of a gamble; some of the books ended up not interesting me enough.

(I once contacted an acquaintance from a Toronto, a novelist and poet, and he mentioned in his email that he had once been browsing in a used bookstore and had found all the books of his that he’d inscribed to me. I had a bit of explaining to do.)

When I came to Greece I started working full time, and the number of books I read declined. I didn’t have as much time, and when I did, I didn’t have as much energy. Over the past year, I’ve been horrified to find myself drowsing after I start reading. My eyes close and my mind wanders. I’m awake, but my eyes are closed and I’m holding a book in front of my face. I have become something which a few years ago I would have mocked.

I should start getting rid of my books, I tell myself. I look at their spines and I think I hear them laughing at me. “You think you can write one of us?” they say. “You can barely read one of us!”

When we leaving Athens to come to Crete, I got rid of a few hundred of them, to make the move a little bit easier, and because we had agreed that they would stay in one room, here in my office.

(This was taken shortly after I filled the shelves. There are others, too.)

It was difficult, almost painful, getting rid of the ones I gave away to friend, and I know I didn’t give away enough. N. says I should put shelves up on the wall across from these two bookcases, but I don’t know.

And yet, I still want to read. I feel restless if I’m not reading something. I dip into them a lot, and sometimes read several books at the same time. This invariably means I won’t finish any of them. I cannot sleep at night if I don’t open a book and read at least a paragraph. I’ve even come home late at night, so drunk I can’t walk straight, and still tried to read a bit before I turned out the light. It feels like an act of self-assertion: one last attempt, after all the demands that were made on me that day, to claim my time as my own.

So why is it so hard for me to stay interested in a book? What has happened to me that I fail to enjoy all that I know a book offers me, that I fail to enjoy what I so much want to enjoy?

It’s not laziness, because when I look back at the books that I’ve enjoyed most over the past few years, I see that they have all been relatively challenging — not escapist stuff. They are books I found compelling and something of whose composition remained a mystery to me. I read all the Coetzee I could find and grappled with the question of how he achieved his complexity. Sebald was a revelation, and yet an impenetrable mystery. I loved DeLillo’s Underworld, and White Noise and The Faces, although I soon went off him completely. Roth’s American Pastoral was gripping, but when I finished The Human Stain, I’d had enough. Vollmann’s Europe Central. Chatwin. Herzog. All of which had some sort of authority of voice, which I wanted to master.

Part of my problem is impatience. Anna Karenina was one of the best examples of what I want in a book, but at some point I put it down too. I think its length daunts me: in the amount of time it would take me to finish it, I could read two or three of the other books that call out to me, and which in the end I don’t read either. I want that satisfying feeling of finishing a book — a feeling so enjoyable that I always feel I have to start immediately on another. I want to swallow the book, and often don’t have the patience to chew through it page by page.

Is it the feeling that so few books seem to live up to their promise? I don’t want to impute to books my own shortcomings as a reader. I know not to expect from a book something it can’t give me.

I keep buying books, although I buy almost as few as I manage to read. I have learned to resist the temptation. I don’t buy books if I feel they belong to a type that’s already well enough represented in my library. I bought Josipovici because I knew the two books I ordered were unlike any other I had. Next I will buy Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. I’ve been thinking of making a separate shelf for all the strange authors whose work sets them apart for me somehow: Zweig, Bernhard, Kadare, Gombrowicz, Svevo.

I have been putting off buying the Pessoa as I had put off buying the Josipovici books. It had ceased to be a desire and become a necessity. I bought them to rid myself of the nagging desire to get them.

I don’t know how to answer the questions I’ve raised here. Please comment, and share your thoughts, insights and experiences.

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Working For Happiness

Work has been difficult. In Athens I used to teach one level only, to university students. They were three-hour classes, the same lesson Monday and Tuesday, and another one Wednesday and Thursday. That meant that over a two-day period, I might do the same lesson four to six times, for a total of 12 to 18 hours. It could be boring at times, and voice often grew hoarse, but I had reached the point where I could do it in my sleep, and I liked knowing I could still do it well.

But now, I do four or five one-hour lessons a day, and very few of them are repeated. Out of my 25 hours a week, I do at least 18 different lessons, and they’re mostly with young children. I have so little experience at this that I have to do tons of planning and preparation and marking. For the first time since I came to Greece ten years ago, I hate my job.

Since the summer I’ve got married and our life has improved considerably, and we’re still only getting settled. But in one particular foul mood I told N. that I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up having happier memories of the year I was unemployed. “This is our first year of being married and I don’t have time to enjoy it,” I told her.

And the writing has ground to a halt. I write so little now that clichés like “ground to a halt” creep into my writing. I think about the ultimatum I made and I wonder if I should just take out that old dream and put it out of its misery.

Yesterday I learned that my boss has calculated my monthly salary at four weeks. October was closer to five weeks, though, and I got paid 20 hours less than I was expecting. This actually works in my favour over the whole year, especially at Christmas and Easter, when I only work two weeks a month, but I was quite angry and started thinking about finding work elsewhere. I decided I would do only the bare minimum of work from now on, and even cut corners. If I’m still teaching next year, I’ll take fewer hours, so I can concentrate on private lessons.

I ran a couple of errands in the centre yesterday while I waited for N. to finish work. I like the centre and had really begun to miss it. I had a coffee in the square next to St. Minas church. Then N. and I went shopping and on our way home we bought a couple of lavender plants to put in the garden. Later I went outside to wash the car before it got dark. I stopped for a moment. I looked at the light coming through the leaves of the almond and apricot trees and could smell the spearmint growing to my right. On the ground to my left was a crawling plant that is full of flower buds — buds I was surprised to learn this summer could be picked and pickled as capers. Beyond were some olive orchards and the distant mountains.

And then, without warning, I felt, despite everything, that I was happy. This moment, made up of so many seemingly insignificant things, had been enough to save everything. I thought of telling N. when I went inside and I imagined her laughing with a touch of cynicism and saying, “Well, you’re easy to please!”

And I thought, Am I? I’d love to have enough money so that I’d never have to work another day, but who wouldn’t be happy with that? That would be easy. But the stretch of road that had brought me to stand in the garden at that particular moment had been a difficult one. Happiness, even a moment of it, can be hard work sometimes.

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Allen: behind the mirror

Lately I’ve been thinking about Allen, my friend for 15 years before we lost touch. I’ve been thinking about much he changed over those 15 years, till he became something I could no longer relate to, and I’ve been thinking about how little I ever really knew him.

I met Allen in 1982, when we were both twelve. He was in my class in grade seven, which for me was the happiest year of all my public schooling. We both belonged to a small circle of friends, but I was better friends with a couple of other guys than I was with Allen. I don’t think he had very much patience for me; I probably struck him as a wide-eyed naive kid. He was more sophisticated than me. You could tell as soon as you saw him that he was different.

He was chubby and had longish hair. He wore a green jacket, much like an army jacket, somewhat in the mod style, and it had a greasy stain in one pocket where he’d put his pack of fish and chips. (They were still wrapped in newspaper in those days.) And he always wore t-shirts with the Beatles or the Sex Pistols or Marilyn Monroe or the cast of Leave It To Beaver on it. He was, as I’ve written elsewhere, precocious. He read adult literature and underground comics and wrote poetry and could speak intelligently about such things. That was the year Glenn Gould died. Gould had grown up just around the corner from our school, and when our teacher told us about him, he asked if any of us knew who he was. Only Allen did. He even had some of his records.

But he was odd, as well. He would wobble his one knee back and forth when he stood so that his whole body seemed to jiggle, and when he spoke, his sentences trailed off into a cross between an indolent mirthless laugh and a nervous mumble, even if there wasn’t anything even remotely funny in what he’d said. His vocabulary was advanced and often formal, especially with scatological humour. When asked about the grease stain on his jacket, he’d say it was a urine stain. He found proper words like “urine” and “excrement” much funnier than “piss” and “shit”, when most 12-year-olds didn’t even know what excrement was. It was as if by using these words he was deflating the dignity of the adult world and exposing the pathetic farcical nature that lay beneath the surface of it. I think he found the word “buttocks” the funniest word of all.

His strangeness could have an edge to it. The year before I met him, while he was still in grade six, he had belonged to the recorder club at school. (I still can’t picture Allen playing the recorder.) The club was supposed to perform for parents one night, and Allen didn’t want to. His teachers and his mother forced him to. So he got his revenge. When they were finished performing, he opened up his shirt and displayed a swastika that he had painted on the t-shirt underneath. His mother, understandably mortified, ran up and pulled him off the stage, trying also to pull the t-shirt off him.

Many of his friends were grown-ups. That doesn’t seem so strange now, but it did at the time, although I admired him for it, and liked the adults he knew. Allen was mature enough to hold interesting conversations with them, although I now suspect they were humouring him a little. The two friends that I’d met owned used bookshops, and one of these men, I later learned, was the son of one of Canada’s most famous poets.

The details escape me now, but gradually we became friends. In those years, I was a Beatles fan to the point of obsession, so when I saw the various Beatles t-shirts he wore I must have looked upon him as a kindred spirit. But as I said, that first year, we weren’t that close. I always felt he was mocking me a little. He was simply older than me in intellectual development.

I wanted to be a comic book artist at the time, and that was our first joint interest. He introduced me to good artists. Although I could draw quite well, it had never occurred to me to think of one artist as better than another. Allen collected artists though, not just superheroes. Through him I discovered the work of artists like Neil Adams, Frank Franzetta, Frank Miller, Robert Crumb, and Chester Brown (an Ontario artist whose self-published comics Allen collected). He read Zippy comics, Cerebus, Raw, The Freak Brothers. He had the Maus series in the original installments.

His record collection was interesting, too. If I try to remember randomly some of them, Miles Davis’s Round About Midnight comes to mind, or a couple of Richard and Mimi Farina records, or a red see-through record of Ginsberg reading “Howl” and other poems on the Fantasy label. He had a couple of Lenny Bruce records from the same label.

The first time I went to visit him at his house, I went to look at his comics, which he kept in mylar envelopes in acid-free boxes. (That was the first time I’d heard of acid-free paper, or even that normal paper had acid in it.) We sat around in his large spacious room and listened to music and talked while I also looked at the books on his shelves. His bed was just a mattress on the floor. He burned incense on a brick. He had a good stereo, too, and put on All Things Must Pass, an album I liked and wanted to get, although I never got round to hearing it again for another 23 years.

Some time towards the end of grade seven, I was riding the Queen Street streetcar with Allen and I — arbitrarily, it seems — decided to start collecting books like him. It seems strange to think that it was the object itself that drew me first, and not its content. (The desire to write came soon afterwards.) I announced the sudden decision to him and asked him to give me some recommendations to get me started. This was later in the day, leaning on a fence across the street from my house. I wrote down a list of authors he came up with on the spot: Kerouac, Burroughs, Orwell, Huxley, Joyce, Camus — a seemingly random selection of 20th century literature. And slowly I started spending my allowance on used books. And what’s strange, now that I think back on it, for a long time I would call him and tell him what I’d bought, reporting how my shelves were slowly filling up. It was as if I were an apprentice reporting to his master. Years later, when I was in university and my collection had long since surpassed his, whenever he’d come to my house, he’d casually look over my books, and if he saw something he hadn’t seen before, he’d take it out and leaf through it, often even asking, “When you did you get this?”

I must stress — and this is no exaggeration — that in those early years, Allen was my mentor, even though he was several months younger than me.

In grade eight (1983-1984), the small group of friends broke up a little in that we were in different classes. Only Allen was in my class, and this is how we became better friends. Grade eight was a very different year, at least for me. It was the beginning of a series of unhappy years at school. Peer pressure is always a problem when you’re a teenager, but I think those years, the Ralph Lauren years, were particularly conformist, not to mention expensive for our parents. (It’s no wonder that the image of Alex P. Keaton or the girls from Heathers come to mind as icons of that time.) For me those years were a tight-rope walk: I didn’t really want to be a part of it, but I didn’t want to draw attention to myself; I wanted to belong and be popular, but I didn’t want to jump through hoops to be so. Allen did even less to belong, and paid for it dearly.

I don’t know why someone who never made any effort to belong should have suffered because his peers were not accepting him. Maybe something else was happening, which I never understood or even caught a glimpse of. At any rate, Allen became stranger and stranger as the year wore on. I don’t want to go into detail, but I’ll say that I was often embarrassed, sometimes even disgusted by his behaviour. One thing I will mention, which is not so strange, is that he refused to cut his hair. In the end I think he waited a year and a half before he got it cut. Although it wasn’t dirty, it just hung down. He could have tied it back or something, as so many men do now, but the way he did nothing with it made it seem like an act of rebellion, a deliberate act of negligence.

At this point, just as we were becoming better friends, I grew alienated from him, which no doubt must have made things worse.

In September 1984 we entered high school, which turned out to be a bigger, more intense version of the junior high school we’d just attended for two years. Whatever problems we’d had there also became bigger and more intense. I kept up my balancing act for the next couple of years, eventually leaving to go to another high school for the last two years when I could take it no more. Allen did not last even the first term of grade nine. He dropped out and refused to go back. His mother, a teacher, with whom he lived, was understanding and willing to wait till he found his way. His father, with whom he spent most weekends, had less patience and insisted he see a psychologist. He also wouldn’t let Allen watch Rumble Fish, one of his favourite films at the time, because he was convinced that it had encouraged him to be rebellious.

When the second term started Allen found his way. He enrolled in an alternative school with students who hadn’t fit into mainstream schools. It was at this time that we really began to be best friends; now that we weren’t in the same school together, no amount of strangeness on his part could embarrass me socially. The school he went to had a lot of interesting, eccentric and charismatic teachers and students, and I wanted very much to join him. My parents, however, wouldn’t let me because they didn’t trust it academically. In a few short years, a lot of the interesting characters who went to the school graduated or just left and it began to fill up with spoiled rich kids, probably because the school had become fashionable.

Allen cut his hair and started to dress differently, in a way more in tune with the times. (The way he dressed when he was twelve would become fashionable over a decade later.) In many ways, the people who had mocked him and found him odd two or three years earlier had caught up to him and could relate to him now. He became popular, started going to parties and clubs.

I had always kept a certain distance from everyone, seeing most of them only during school. But in 1987, the year I visited Greece, the year I found the Rimbaud pictures and my life changed, I withdrew completely from the circle on whose periphery I’d always been, and changed high schools. I never told Allen that he had to choose between me and the others, and never thought of things in those terms, but somehow he started to get tired of them too.

After 1987, something strange began to happen, although it took me some time to realise it.

I began to discover Greek music and literature and wanted to move to Greece. Allen shared these interests with me and also planned to move to Greece. I think he craved a feeling of rootedness, of tradition. Then he started to dress like me. The reason I didn’t notice this at first was because it was so gradual. For example, I remember looking at some photos of James Dean and thinking that I’d like an overcoat like the one he was wearing. We went down to the vintage clothing stores in Kensington Market and I found one that was a bit too big for me. Allen saw one and bought it too, even though he hadn’t been planning to. When we left, we put them on. My mother saw us coming up the street, dressed in these long black coats. “You look like a couple of pallbearers,” she said.

In the summer of 1988, Allen went to Greece too. Then, in September, when he got back, he transferred to the high school I had changed to, and it was only then, when someone pointed it out to me, that I realised he was becoming me. I didn’t dress unusually, but I did dress somewhat unlike people my age. I dressed like an older person then (nowadays I look younger than I really am), in a tweed jacket. And so did Allen. My mother, amused by all this, would often say, “If you shit purple, so will he.”

I suddenly got embarrassed by him at school again, and kept my distance from him for a while. I remember the day this girl I knew was commenting on all of this as we were walking down the hall. “I’ve created a monster,” I said as we turned the corner. Just then Allen was standing in front of me. I don’t know if he understood what I had been talking about.

He must have realised the transfer had not been a good idea, and soon he changed schools again. After that things were all right again. He slowly started at least to dress less like me.

Allen had been with me during those feverishly formative years between 1987 and 1990, during the Rimbaud fascination, the discovery of Greece and Greek culture, and he shared in all my enthusiasms. He took them on too. I had become the writer, not he. I was now introducing books to him. Slowly, our roles had reversed. I had become the mentor.

I wonder if my passions were too much for him. Something happened to him during those years. He lost something, his brilliance and his originality. A flame went out.

I graduated from high school with mediocre marks, but spent a year upgrading them, and just managed to get into university. Allen, who had always and effortlessly done well in school, also got admitted to university. We both started at the same time.

Whereas I flourished and enjoyed myself, Allen drifted with no sense of purpose and dropped out in the first term, early enough to get a partial refund from his tuition fees. He decided to try again the following year, 1991-1992, but the same thing happened, only more quickly. And that was the beginning of the end for him.

University had a powerful effect on me. It matured me intellectually. Allen and I were still best friends, listening to music together or watching films, but I couldn’t share what I was experiencing in university. He lost interest in books and could barely read any more. He’d start books and abandon them. He wasn’t interested in getting a good job; he worked in a teleresearch firm, and would save up enough money to float through periods of chosen unemployment. If I remember correctly, somewhere around 1992 or 1993 he went to Greece again. Although he never said so, I think he may have been disappointed somehow. His passion may have cooled, but he had nothing to replace it with, nothing to move on to. He still listened to Greek music, read Greek poetry, but somewhat half-heartedly.

He became lazy, without any direction or ambition or motivation. He’d sprawl out on the couch and watch TV all day. He got fatter. And he developed the annoying habit of yawning loudly at least once or twice a minute.

His mother sold their house around this time, and he had to move out. He rented a room from one of the adult friends he’d had back when he was twelve. Eventually, his mother agreed to let him move back in with her in her new house.

At some point in 1996 I found I couldn’t relate to him any more. I saw less and less of him. He depressed me and the yawning got on my nerves. In January 1997, on the night before I left to come to Greece, I called him to say goodbye. It had been weeks, perhaps even months, since we had last spoken.

I wrote to him when I got here, but he would barely respond. His letters were short notes written in block letters. When they stopped coming, I wrote to him and said that if he didn’t write to me as well, I doubted our friendship would be able to survive. (This was still two or three years before I went online, and I don’t think Allen has ever done so.) I decided that as his friend for all these years, I would be honest with him and tell him it was time he’d got his act together. His reply was brief:

DEAR TOM

I’M SORRY BUT I AM UNABLE TO RESPOND TO YOUR LETTER AT THIS TIME.

And that was it. He did actually try to write once more, a few months later, saying that he would now “BE ABLE” to write more often, though he didn’t explain why he was able to now, or what had prevented him before. The rest of the short letter was nothing more than brief notes about impersonal news and inconsequential information. The only thing I remember is his mentioning that John Fowles had recently visited Canada and was depressed by its lack of wildflowers.

I never heard from him again. I probably only wrote back once myself. In December 2000, when I returned to Canada for the first time since I’d left, I didn’t even call him. I didn’t have his mother’s new number. I ran into his younger brother one day and he told me nothing had changed: Allen just lay around on the couch “collecting static”. He gave me their number, and said, “You’ll probably have to leave a message first. He’s developed a habit of not answering. He just looks at the call display and waits to hear the message.” Hearing that put me off the idea completely. I visited again in 2003 and 2004, and still couldn’t call. By that time, too much time had passed.

Although Allen and I spent a lot of time together, we weren’t really close. We were the kind of friends who could sit around for long periods of time in silence, each doing his own thing, and I really enjoyed that. We were comfortable with that. But we never really confided in each other. As a result, I often wonder now, was something bothering him all those years? Something that had caused problems for him when he had dropped out and wouldn’t get his hair cut? I can only guess now. After all these years, Allen is a mystery to me.

* * * * *

Last year, I began exchanging emails with Paul, another friend from those early years in the eighties. We were reminiscing and I mentioned Allen. Paul started to tell me his view of Allen from the years 1987-1988, and how he had decided to keep his distance from Allen too.

A get-together at my house with A.S. and his girlfriend. Allen was so drunk, walking around my street in the middle of the night spinning his underwear over his head – that terrible naked appearance only a man can have – shirt on, socks on and nothing else.

Another time, it was New Year’s Eve. After this incident I wasn’t hanging around him much anymore. It felt like a dividing line for some reason. That could be because I am looking back at it. I have not thought about these things in years.

Anyway, it was a New Years party at Matt’s house and I invited Allen to it. I had just begun to hang out with a new group of people in the dramatic arts program, and was getting involved in that program more and more. Allen had this huge glass jug of either homemade wine or the very cheap stuff. The glass jug was huge. Like a jug from a hillbilly band…

Anyway, Allen was being his usual anti-social self and was drinking and spewing off things that I’m sure he thought were cryptic and Morrisonesque. They weren’t. I remember trying to get him involved in conversations – trying to get him talking to girls etc. At a certain point he became so loaded that he started pouring this cheap red wine over all of the girls’ heads. Not the boys. I found that strange at the time, but now I tend to think that he wasn’t so loaded that he couldn’t figure out that he would have gotten his ass kicked if he had. There were all different types of people at this party – dramies [i.e. people from the drama department], jocks, M.J. and all of her friends, older, big jocks.

He was stumbling around leaning on girls and trying to pour wine over their heads. They were all dressed up as well, seeing that it was New Years. He was wrecking their clothes. I look back on this and see that some of these kids had summer jobs and weekend jobs and bought their clothes – you know, worked for them. I think Matt kicked him out… but I can’t be sure of that. I am pretty sure that I got him home or he stayed at my place.

That was it, really. But I was trying to make a good impression and he fucked it up. People would ask me about it for months after. What’s wrong with your loser friend etc. I always felt a little sorry for Allen, but that was it for me. Allen had a way of really annoying the hell out of me. You know, pushing things too far. And after that – I may have hung around with him, but I was pretty much through.

Then the next year – we totally lost touch.

Did Allen experience any trauma in his childhood? I don’t want to speculate – maybe not. But if this whole double way of behaving and his ultimate 15-year couch-nap tells me that there is more going on than just a lazy poet.

I do think he had an aura of something different around him – but I really just think he was sick. And he never wrote anything from what I remember and he never really did anything. Never had girlfriends, etc. Just very sad. Very little living experience.

When I expressed amazement at how differently he acted around Paul, Paul wrote back:

It makes more sense in light of what has come to pass – that the real Allen was the drunk, incoherent, attention-seeking guy and maybe the fake Allen was the one you knew. Who the hell knows. See that was the last Allen I knew and then I hear what ends up happening to him and I am not at all surprised.

* * * * *

I met Allen twenty-five years ago. I last saw him ten or eleven years ago. In my mind, though, he lives in a place frozen in time, a place of arrested development. I want to break the silence, find his mother’s latest address and send a letter, or call, but it would be awkward. If I was in Toronto I’d be scared to see him. How has the past decade been to him? How obese will he be? How much will he have aged? If Allen had become nothing more than a reflection of those around him, what would I behold now? Would I recognise him at all?

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Hearing what we want to hear

In the beginning of The Conversation, a couple are walking around in a large square, and their conversation is being recorded by a surveillance team. The central character, played by Gene Hackman, hears the man say, “He’d kill us if he got the chance.” He, like the viewers, is sure that the emphasis was on the word “kill” (which was probably how you read it), but at the end of the film, through a bit of cheating in the sound editing, we realise that what the man had really said was, “He’d kill us if he got the chance.”

The first time you see the film you aren’t sure if your memory isn’t playing tricks on you. Were you wrong in assuming that he said, “He’d kill us if he got the chance”, or did they re-record the words? (If you watch it on video or DVD, you go back and check, but the film was made in early seventies, before people could do such things.) You wonder if the context actually affects how you hear it. If so, who’s to say that the second time you’re hearing it correctly? The first time I saw it, it seemed like a subversive joke.

Not long after I met C. and fell in love with her, she decided for a number of reasons that we shouldn’t see each other any more. She could see where things were heading, even if I had not openly expressed my feelings for her yet, and the feelings were reciprocated to some extent. But things were complicated, for a number of reasons, some of which wouldn’t be apparent till years later. So she decided the best thing would be for us not to see each other, not even as friends. I was a very determined young man, and very much in love, and I was shattered by her decision. It made no sense. It was illogical. It simply could not be. Later that day, she agreed to see me again, to hear me out.

I poured my heart out to her, more than I’d ever done before. I was still an effusive teenager, and a lot of what I had to tell her wasn’t really relevant. I simply needed to open up and reveal myself and tell her I loved her.

When I had told her, she sat stunned. “But you don’t know me,” she said, and I asked her how that could be. She shrugged, and I could see that I had won. She took me into her arms and told me she could see more of me.

I clung to those words for months, even though I saw her very rarely for almost a year afterwards, while she finished her Master’s. I gave her the time and space she needed, or thought she needed, and I waited, remembering her words as if they had been a promise.

But then doubt began to set in, and one day it occurred to me that she might not actually have meant that she could see me more often, but that now that I had opened up and revealed so much of myself to her, I was more clearly visible to her. I can see more of you. It seemed like such a strange thing to say to somebody, and I began to think she can’t have meant either possibility. Surely a person would have phrased both sentiments differently. There might even have been a third meaning, which I could not determine. Had I ever understood her at all?

The more I thought about them, the more her words changed. I tried to remember the tone of her voice, the expression on her face. I searched for clues, but each time I revisited the scene, it would be a little different. And now, when I recall it, so many years later, the only things that present themselves when I try to remember are the couch she sat on across from my chair, the coffee table between us, the darkness outside the window, the framed print of Monet’s waterlilies on the wall. She and I are not there at all — just two manikins that would probably resemble us if I could see their faces, if their faces didn’t melt away every time I tried to look at them.

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Kinds of Forgetting (recalling memory)

I often wonder how a memory dies, how we forget something, more often than I wonder how we remember. What’s more, I’ve been considering lately if these two things are more closely related than they seem at first, that they’re not so mutually exclusive as we think they are.

There is one kind of forgetting that seems to be nothing more than misplaced information. We see a face and can’t remember the name, or pick up a telephone and can’t remember the number we want to call. This is simply a failure to remember. We know we have the information, it is somewhere in our mind, but we don’t know where in our mind. In a similar manner we lose things, or can’t find them. We know the object is still somewhere in our house, that it hasn’t disappeared or ceased to exist, even though we look everywhere for it.

There is another kind of forgetting: when we abandon a memory, do not keep it alive in our mind. This is temporary, because one day, perhaps even decades later, you remember it again, usually involuntarily. Once, for example, V. jokingly used a Greek expression that is often used with children, an expression I had not heard for many, many years, and as soon as I heard it, I realised that in the decades that had passed since I had last heard it, I had not even once thought about it. And yet, there it was, suddenly presenting itself, suddenly appearing, summoned before I myself knew it had been summoned.

(I find the experience of saying I have not thought of this at all in x years very strange, although I can’t quite explain why.)

I have a memory of walking down the hall of the apartment where we lived until I was two years old. I see the living room as I enter it. A small white television set is on the floor, a black and white football game on the screen. I think I remember my father lying on the floor with his head resting on the green couch. I remember another time, in the same apartment, being taken from my crib and being carried — probably by my mother, but perhaps by another woman — and being taken out into the hall, where a group of people are leaving. The light hurts my eyes. One woman has a sort of beehive hairdo and is wearing horn-rimmed glasses. I am the centre of attention, although I am grumpy and don’t want to be. I don’t know how much of this is accurate. I may be embellishing.

It once occurred to me that I was keeping these memories alive simply by thinking about them again, by bringing them to life again and again, by running these short films over and over again, and that I was actually remembering the last time I remembered them, the last time I’d brought up the images. Remembering may be like a relay, the passing of a baton: the initial memory may have died a long time ago. I cannot remember the event itself, as I did the first time I remembered it. I only remember the last few recreations of the memory, the last recall, and I don’t know how much the memory is embellished or how much it loses and becomes poorer as time goes by and I keep recalling.

There is yet a third kind of forgetting, similar to the second, where we stop thinking about something, where we forget that we ever knew something, but unlike the second kind, we never have any occasion to remember it again. The possibility of remembering remains forever unfulfilled.

This is the darkest oblivion, and I find it oddly frightening, I suppose because my mind cannot fathom it. How can I imagine something I have forgotten without also at least imagining that I have remembered it?

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