Saturday, February 15, 2003
A friend of mine sent me a wonderful little quote on Friday:
“We are never so helplessly unhappy as when we lose love.”
She clearly shares my dim view of the whole Valentine’s Day thing—a holiday designed not only to sell cheap sentiment in card form, but also as a societal backhand to the single.
I spent Valentine’s Day evening in the emergency room of a local hospital. Another friend of mine, also single, had decided (much as I had) to treat herself to a nice dinner at home and a good movie. In the process of removing a stubborn cork from a bottle of Belgian beer…with a fish knife…she received a wound. She dropped by so I could take a look at this wound. A few seconds of viewing the exposed meat of her hand made me realize a trip to the hospital was in order.
At one point, I found myself alone in the waiting room with our coats and her purse heaped beside me. As I stared vacantly around my grimy, puke-pink surroundings—assessing the other walking wounded—I was reminded of the novel I was currently struggling through.
Atonement, by Ian McEwan involves a number of scenes in a wartime hospital in London. The details of the plot aren’t really important here. It is fair to say that this is a brilliantly composed novel. It is an exceptional piece of writing. I finished it this morning like I was struggling through a big bowl of broccoli—it’s good for me, and feels it, but requires choking down. “Atonement” left me with clear message: All life ends in madness and death, and there is no hope of redemption.
I’m usually a big fan of this kind of sentiment. The Corrections, for example, has much the same message, but I thoroughly enjoyed every page of it. The difference being the overwhelming sense of humour and—although somewhat warped—sense of hope. I think Jonathan Franzen may just believe redemption is possible.
On the way back from the hospital, my friend said something to me that is still with me this morning, “Isn’t it good to think that all over this city there are couples sharing happy moments together. It means there’s hope for us to find that somewhere.”
Lost in my own Valentine’s Day sulking I found this thought startling and quickly masked my surprise with sarcasm. Later we would part with sincere thanks from her that truly warmed my heart. Valentine’s Day left me with a simple realization about myself:
I still have hope for all of us.
Wednesday, February 12, 2003
I have Leonard Cohen poetry on my mind a lot these days. Normally, I would consider having Leonard Cohen poetry floating in my head a bad sign—possibly symptomatic of mental illness. On a day like today, when I occasionally felt like screaming, Leonard Cohen on the brain might seem to indicate depression.
The truth is kids, I feel better now than I have in a long time. There are moments of dementia certainly, but these are merely the background noise of my psyche. My interior landscape is a dark little sideshow complete with freaks, shiny prizes, ludicrous games of chance, junk food and the idiot-savant poetry of the barkers—step right up folks! In general though, I’m humming with life these days.
The Leonard Cohen poem that currently rings the changes for me is called “I have not Lingered in European Monasteries”—written in 1965. There is a particular verse rattling through me—I repeat it in the shower like a commercial jingle:
I have not been unhappy for ten thousand years.
During the day I laugh and during the night I sleep.
My favourite cooks prepare my meals,
my body cleans and repairs itself,
and all my work goes well.
I first read this poem in ninth grade. I remember a grimy little brown paperback in my high school library. I remember at the time thinking this poem was virtually unreadable—just incoherent strings of images. There was power in some of those images though: echoing monasteries, snow-capped mountains, knights…tombs. I remember telling my older, wiser sister that I liked it—in a bid to impress—based primarily on the title.
Somehow, this poem has not left me in all this time. I haven’t thought about it in years, yet this week it is never very far from my thoughts. I think maybe it’s the almost desperate duality of its sentiment that has triggered my memory. The narrator tells you he is a happy well-adjusted man who hasn’t “starved for visions” or “become the heron”, but all the great beauty and mystery of life is there as a litany of un-experienced insights.
This verse is the only way I can define the moments I live in now. I am becoming fully functional again. I have begun to shower and shave and go outside again. Everything is running like cool, oiled clockwork. I am becoming efficient and shiny—but I’m still hollowed out. My work does indeed go well, but it’s preparatory.
I want to one day linger in European monasteries.
Monday, February 10, 2003
The bed shakes. The clawing hands fall away as the mist clears from my visions. Forcing one eye open, I can see the toe of his cowboy boot on the edge of the bed frame.
I stagger to the end of the driveway, yawning and bleary. Pulled up, half on the lawn and half in the driveway is a ’68 Mustang Fastback. Steve raps me on the shoulder as he goes past me. The appearance of the ‘Bullitt’ car has left my jaw hanging.
We’re cruising around San Francisco. Steve is giving me a sort of relaxed tour of the chase scenes. It’s late fall and early in the morning—the streets are deserted. A mist still clings to the ground from what would have been a heavier fog earlier that night. The mist brings echoes of the hands and my other nightly pursuers. I shake my head and focus on the scenery—Steve is still quiet.
We’re on Taylor Street heading north. As we cross Vallejo I realize the island I’m looking at in the distance is Alcatraz. Steve stays silent until we’ve turned on to Filbert and are passing the Chinatown campus of San Francisco City College. I start to wonder how it is that I know all these landmarks and locations without asking when Steve speaks:
“If I hadn't made it as an actor, I might have wound up a hood.”
The shadow of Alcatraz is still on our minds. I ask Steve, why acting?
“Acting's a good racket. And lets face it; you can't beat it for the bread. I don't know why it happened--but it's kinda nice. Maybe it's because I'm someone off the streets. Maybe people relate to me. I don't believe in that phony hero stuff.”
I ask him if he feels he didn’t deserve his fame and fortune.
“I worked hard, and if you work hard you get the goodies. When I believe in something, I fight like hell for it. I live for myself and I answer to nobody.”
I fall silent. I watch Steve’s hand lazily spinning the wheel through a turn. I ask him, were you happy with your life?
“Life’s a scam.”
Finally, I know why the ghost of Steve McQueen haunts me. For all his faults, his anger and pettiness, his mean streak, Steve is fully a man. He faced life on his own terms and, however awkwardly, made his life his own. No fate could have made Steve its victim. He has come not as a mentor, but as the stark, spectral antitheses of the arrested adolescent I have become.
I wake and the bed is still shaking—I am vibrating with the feeling of readiness.
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