Tag: friendship

Paris, Garnier, foyer, lights, chandelier, opera, opera house, interior, music, culture, history, Europe, Paris, France, architecture

Essay: On Community, Culture, Vanishing, And The Usefulness Of Shells

The bonds formed and broken over the course of the past twenty-two months has led to reevaluations around relationships, and the kinds we want, and don’t want, in our lives. Complex equations relating to time and energy, volume and content, content and quality are being weighted against sheer exhaustion; many are just so tired and often feeling so much older than our years. If age is most accurately measured in moments than time, as Lord Byron implied, there are a good few of us in the arts who have been rendered ancient between March 2020 and now. That sense of aging has played a significant role in why and how relationships have shifted and changed. Sarah Miller’s “On Not Talking To Someone Anymore” (at her website) and Katharine Smyth’s “Why Making Friends In Midlife Is So Hard(The Atlantic) are documents of people reaching a certain pandemic point and realizing things have irrevocably shifted, for good and bad. The corona era has made those positive/negative lines sharper, and blurrier, at once; has what’s been lost, especially in middle age – outside of the physical – may or may not be worth mourning.

That loss seems more pronounced in some spheres than in others; the high-wire act of balancing solitude and community, isolation and relating, very much powers cultural expression. Vanishing and being vanished on, the sorts of people we spend time with or move away from (literally and figuratively), the nature of our relating, alone and otherwise – these notions hold particular relevance in an age where community matters less and more, at once. Such presence is more fraught (again, literally and figuratively) than at any other point in recent memory. In her piece, Miller points out that the reasons behind silences can, at least sometimes (and if you ask), be reduced to the petty, the mundane, the cutting truth (or untruth) of seeing yourself and your behavioural choices through another’s eyes (whether you have vanished, or been vanished on), and of the painful divides when experiences, time, and nostalgia for the passing of both are mismatched to the onerous realities of the present. Smyth explores the strangeness of connecting in a strange place, inwardly and outwardly, in engaging in a practice one less considered than simply enjoyed, and the various nuances of experiential difference that adhere to the digital pursuance of such. The profound loss to which articles both allude has been magnified by the relentless ephemerality of digital platforms carrying the ironic title of “social”, outlets which encourage anything but phones-away, non-posting, simple, human relating. Social media platforms, as many know, play to pandemic times: avoid safely, connect comfortably. Observing endless streams of photos posted by high school/elementary school friends/exes/co-workers/colleagues/casual contacts, one tends to automatically engage in the algorithmically-calculated behavioural compunction toward comparison-making. It is a human urge which technology has become adept at identifying and exploiting. The urge toward comparison becomes all the more pronounced when some places have live performance, and some places don’t – where some places have full houses (and antecedent requirements for that to happen), and some places outright cancel events. Such contrasts have a sometimes acidic effect for those of us in the arts, who have lost work or are still looking, who are looking to bump up CVs and pay bills. Not being a part of regular crowds these last almost-two-years (and thus not working, for the most part) encourages an insularity whereby anything good that happens to someone else, and thusly advertised, is now suspect. Envy, most especially within the cultural realm, has been writ large; those who have are in such sharp contrast with those who have not. What should be unvarnished joys – a new job, a trip, an excursion, a concert, a conversation – are flashpoints for lack, reminders of non-abundance and ultimate separation.

So much of what gets shared now seems mundane, overwrought, calculated, or a strange combination therein. People have largely burrowed into the, to quote Jim Morrison, “woolly cotton brains” of the familiar, following or leading lessons online whilst baking bread, with dusty blinds, gritty floors, and rattling furnaces intact. Ah yes, we say, seeing such familiar elements of the quotidian to which we’ve been reduced, I recognize that, yes. The yeast/flour scarcity in early 2020 has morphed into current supply-chain issues; baking shortages led to furniture shortages, and now, apparently grocery shortages, the very place the money once spent on cultural excursions, now doth flow. The familiar has become a safe bubble to love and resent, a strange new counterpoint of the era. Rising economic uncertainty, coupled with financial realities, mean community, as a lived reality, grows more distant under the weight of such mundanities, only slightly flecked these days by random twinkling lights of diversion, originating from strings of lights, rows of candles, and more often than not, a panoply glowing screens that keep us apart, talking (typing, tapping) about the same mundane things we all watched or saw or tweeted. Opening up to 50% capacity in Bavaria is a big deal – to hell with the screens, hurrah!

snail, garden, mollusk, shell

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

But Mein Gott, who would go? Should I? Will I die going to see a concert or an opera? Or wanting to keep writing about such things? Will I get sick going backstage to interview, to chat, to greet, to hug and handshake? Drinks later? Oder? Was ist noch “normal”? Not being around people, or more importantly, being only around the same tightly-controlled group of people, aggravates such anxieties, leading to a reinforcement of experiential bubbles, and that is, obviously, bad for art, but it is what many are being forced to do, if not through their own choice now, than through guidelines that dictate external conditions. Thus do silence and its hurtful counterpart (vanishing) become as normal as overcrowding and cacophony, as alternating rhythms of zen and anxiety; somehow pandemic has underlined such extremes of living, and creating. I have come to understand, at a deep level, that people with families/partners/networks/busy jobs/illness are juggling heavier balls than I, a family-free freelancer. This isn’t to diminish the sharp and painful realities of solo creative life; lack of regular benefits, precipitous drops in income, whole months of work washed away, to say nothing of continuous days and weeks of isolation, makes those uniquely spiky freelancer balls difficult to keep aloft, and more than once I have dropped them all at once along with the concomitant connections meant to make them feeling lighter and less burdensome than they really are. Having needs isn’t the same as being needy, but often the two have blurred. Things which should connect – common interests, creativity, inspiration – somehow, now, do not. Conversation feels effortful, whether giving or receiving, and when it isn’t, one often feels as if there is a sense of impermanence: so if we have a grand old chat we can be silent for two months, right? We’d all cry out our grief, cry out our disappointed, to paraphrase Rumi, but we’re all too busy trying to survive, and besides who would want to put in the effort to listen to such a racket?

Trying to interact with those with whom we share such commonalities can be (often is, lately) like speaking the same language but with different dialects. Somehow Hugh MacLennan’s ‘two solitudes’ concept takes on a broader and yet more precise meaning; there is no real, shared language but for the words that indicate precise, sometimes intricate division, within the era of pandemic. Talking classical with equally-passionate others isn’t the doddle some may assume; it can rapidly devolve into ferocious spit-balling, name-calling, intransigent foot-stomping, bragging, finger-wagging, or some combination therein. It is not news that people who love the arts (and who work in the arts) hold strong opinions, but that’s where vanishing also (alas) can come in; such relating is exhausting, and everyone is, without question, already so tired, and thus such exchanges become another burdensome ball to keep aloft. The desire to engage in these tribalistic exchanges speaks to a need for (perceived) community, one which is greater than ever, one fostered by a love of culture, and more accurately, its live expression. New avenues can and are created within the heated (if hopefully well-ventilated) atmosphere of shared experience – but such communal engagement can paradoxically encourage a laziness of thought, a dampening of curiosity; there’s a fear of going against the herd indeed, but more than that, sometimes there is precisely no thought given to not fitting in with the herd, to not parrot what everyone says, to apply nuance, to apply context, to ask for clarification and to do so privately. There is an urge to simply agree and to “amplify” (that overused word of the times), an urge applauded and underlined by platforms which, as I’ve written, are meant to encourage the notion of “social.” Lately I have decided to keep most experiences (cultural and otherwise) to myself, to not share, to not opine, to not publicly offer applause or evaluation unless I feel it is truly warranted. I’d rather discuss these things privately with my small if trusted circle, not of necessarily “like minds” but of what I would call “like spirits.” There is more community found with such contacts, many of whom hail from entirely different cultures and backgrounds – we might have a shared love of x-y-z art, but that isn’t the reason we’re friends, and it isn’t the reason we might forgive (or question) each other’s occasional vanishings and silences – and frankly, they have the balls to push back at me as needed. We like context; we like nuance. These things take time and attention, and when there’s time to be made, it is wholly taken. Chemistry can be cultivated, but it cannot be created whole.

snail, horns, shell, movement

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without express written permission.

Accepting this has had personal ramifications. I have vanished on many; I have been vanished on. I have become fussier in my interactions, and in the nature of those chosen interactions. This runs parallel with more selective listening and viewing habits; I am no longer a journalist or critic but my critical faculties now come with decidedly sharp edges, ones I wield carefully. In person, I have learned to speak with my eyes – and not. I have learned silence; I have learned to vanish. Interacting from the literal and figurative safety of a monitor has given harsh if vital lessons. Rare is the moment I will drop any mask now, literally, or figuratively. The willingness to be vulnerable is what fuels meaningful connections, of course, but its direct exercise is far more carefully considered. In his book La poétique de l’espace (The Poetics of Space) first published by Presses Universitaires de France in 1957, Gaston Bachelard devotes an entire chapter to shells and their paradoxical nature within the realms of creative human development. He ties artistic life with evolution of living forms, with “these snail-shells from which emerge quadrupeds, birds and human beings. To do away with what lies between is, of course, an ideal of speed… ”. In contemporary terms, that “doing away with” might constitute a great robbery, especially if one considers the heightened speed the digital world of 2022 demands, a pace which conflates perpetuation of connection with meaning, only to encourage its simultaneously illusory nature. Superficial ties are (mostly) easy to break; contacts we haven’t met (or barely met) are easy to vanish on. The people we meet and know are not immune to this virus of speed and ease, either, nor to the subsequent (and often casually done) breaking of those ties, ones which, within the creative realm, can be so inherently valuable. Bachelard continues, and offers a clue as to how to sort the vanishing/vanished-on fraught nature of modern adult relating:

A creature that hides and “withdraws into its shell” is preparing a “way out.” This is true of the entire scale of metaphors, from the resurrection of a man in his grave, to the sudden outburst of one who has long been silent. If we remain at the heart of the image under consideration, we have the impression that, by staying in the motionlessness of its shell, the creature is preparing temporal explosions, not to say whirlwinds, of being. The most dynamic escapes take place in cases of repressed being, and not in the flabby laziness of the lazy creature whose only desire is to go and be lazy elsewhere. If we experience the imaginary paradox of a vigorous mollusk – the engravings in question give us excellent depictions of them – we strain to the most decisive type of aggressiveness, which is postponed aggressiveness, aggressiveness that bides its time. Wolves in shells are crueler than stray ones.

Cruelty, it would seem, has been a hallmark of the pandemic era – cruelty, selfishness, pronounced exclusion and snobbery, behaviours that would seem to confirm beings comfortably, lazily ensconced within respective shells. For live culture and those who live by and for it, there should be another way, but we are all human, none of us (not even artists) above any other with regards to the hurt humans are well capable of inflicting. Let us be wolves, then, in our shells, considering how best to spend and direct our energies; energy goes where attention goes: let us hope we have learned how to direct it wisely. I want to feel such attention can be wielded, if not with great compassion (that seems like a big ask, and not a little precious), then at least with great curiosity, that such an exercise will get us out of our shells now and again, if only to breathe the cold, clean air.

This is Carcosa.

(via)


In writing about Almost Human recently, I’ve found an avidly involved community of supporters online who happily, passionately exchange strong ideas and opinions; I think back, again, to TV-watching habits of the 80s and 90s (and even 2000s), and I wonder at how and why this shared community might influence the way TV culture is experienced. Of course I think it changes the viewing experience, but I am also a strong believer in putting the computer away, however briefly, and focusing.
It was hard to put everything away lastnight for the season finale of True Detective; a large part of me wanted to observe reactions of others in real time, even as I shared my own. But I found myself so entranced by the show’s attention to detail (a hallmark of its greatness, surely) and wanting to roll around in the swampy soup of ideas it presented, I put the tech aside and just watched, listened, felt. Having chosen to severely limit sharing my reactions online (and not read anyone else’s), I found myself with mixed feelings, questioning its strange if compelling mix of predictable suspense tropes, character development, and meta-dramatical elements. The extended scene of Rust (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty (Woody Harrelson) finding their way through the wilds of the Childress property made for terrifying, compelling television; each character became more and more entangled within the maze, mirroring the viewers’ “entanglement” with the immediate situation, and more widely, within the entire series. The deeper they got, the deeper we got; I became entranced, enchanted, utterly entangled, and didn’t want a way out.

(via)


This is Carcosa,” intoned an eerie, disembodied voice. 
Less a physical place and more a mental dwelling, we – us  TD fans – fell into Carcosa, this wild, surreal enclosure that knows our deepest fears and vulnerabilities, a place that speaks in riddles but voices truth – not the beautiful poetic kind, mind you, but the ugly sort that, like the Fontenot video, we don’t want to watch but can’t turn away from. 

This is what the best storytelling does: it drops you into an atmosphere of intense fear and suspense, slowly, skillfully guiding you through the deepest recesses of your life and imagination, to a place of wordless wonder and messy obsession. It’s a swampy dialectic energy – of light and dark, of isolation and community, of black stars and Yellow Kings, of innocence and experience, of water and land, of strangers and family, of the flat and the shapely – that powered the drama of True Detective and ultimately shaped its characters. Such energy also gave rise to the program’s fandom, for it was an energy we felt, and wanted to talk about, and share, and mull over. In compulsion to theory, we found community in exchange; in suspense for resolution, we found salvation in the process.
(via)
Nothing feels resolved in the True Detective world. To paraphrase Rust, there’s more of them out there. There’s more darkness, more evil, more loss; this isn’t over. Everything is a spiral. The stories continue. The finale’s crazy-bogeyman-of-the-Bayou cliches (the hoarder house; the incest; the slovenly appearance) were clever storytelling tropes meant to further the meta-dramatical aspect of the program: are you not entertained? Do you want more? Once upon a time… if you go into the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise…
We want the spirals; we need them, to cycle through them, to feel their sharp edges and dizzying curves. We need that, just as much as we need (and ultimately want) to go in the woods. We want the darkness. We want Carcosa. That’s unsettling – but so is imagination, and the compunction to create. I’m reminded here of something Nick Cave said in his “Secret Life Of The Love Song” lecture series years ago (emphasis mine):

Those songs that speak of love without having within in their lines an ache or a sigh are not love songs at all, but rather hate songs disguised as love songs, and are not to be trusted. These songs deny us our humanness and our God-given right to be sad and the air-waves are littered with them. The love song must resonate with the susurration of sorrow, the tintinnabulation of grief. The writer who refuses to explore the darker regions of the heart will never be able to write convincingly about the wonder, the magic and the joy of love for just as goodness cannot be trusted unless it has breathed the same air as evil – the enduring metaphor of Christ crucified between two criminals comes to mind here – so within the fabric of the love song, within its melody, its lyric, one must sense an acknowledgement of its capacity for suffering.

Take off your mask,” Childress hissed at Rust as blood dripped from the detective’s gaping wound.

This demand exists in tandem with the program’s final scene of Rust and Marty together, escaping the hospital and contemplating the stars. Rust is rendered vulnerable at last, confessing that during his time in the woods, “I could feel my definitions fading... all I had to do was let go, man… I could still feel her love there… nothing but that love.” 

(via)
Take off your mask: this is what the best art demands of us. Let go of your safety. Let go of your identity. Embrace your need for the story. Embrace your darkness, and gather around the light. We need to share tales. What offers comfort, if not permanent escape, is friendship – the light and warmth of connection with another equally scared, equally vulnerable human being. So long as we can see the stars, we will keep telling stories – to ourselves, for ourselves, with our friends near and far.

Yesterme. Yesteryou. Yesterday.

It was somewhere between coffee and cleaning up from a dinner party on Saturday night that I learned the verdict in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman trial. I stood gawping and silent, coffee and kahlua still dancing on the palate, staring at the multiple Twitter streams telling me: Not Guilty.

There followed a restless, late night, one spent exchanging ideas across social media networks, listening to old soul songs, reading various articles, thinking about America and its founding ideals, about youth,  about justice, about relationships near and far, about differing perceptions across different lives, in different places and in different circumstances. About the notion of “different-ness” itself.

The incident sent me back in a time machine somehow, to recall a childhood friend I hadn’t thought about in many, many years. Tanya and her family moved to my old neighborhood in suburban Toronto when I was in seventh grade. It was a strange time, of shifting hormones, changing tastes, swirling, sometimes intensely passionate feelings; my once-strong friendships were disintegrating, changing faster than my hairstyles.

My twelve-year-old self was experimenting with new tastes in music, in clothing, in food, in books, in ways of seeing and experiencing the world; Tanya seemed to show up at the exactly right time, helping me navigate through the terrible trauma of first periods, the weirdness of my single mother dating, the importance of forging notes for gym class (we were possibly the only non-sporty types in the whole school and hated the athletic mean girls), and the joys of hitting up the local record shop to scope out the latest dance records. I was introduced to Janet Jackson’s music through Tanya, and we’d spend hours dancing in my basement to “Nasty” and “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” as well as hits by both Michael Jackson and Duran Duran. It was refreshing to find a (female) friend who never put the two in competing camps, as so many around me already had. (Either you liked MJ or you liked DD; there was no in-between, which, to me, seemed absurd.) I introduced Tanya to the wonders of the Eurythmics. We’d go to the cinema Friday nights and laugh loud and hard, at whatever absurdity we’d paid our $7 for; sometimes people would try to shush us and throw dirty looks. Our response was to throw popcorn and quickly duck down, giggling.


Janet Jackson – Nasty by trashfan

We didn’t know about history, or what we did know, we barely cared about or paid much attention to. We were young girls being… well, young girls, whispering, giggling, sharing, crying, being loud and obnoxious one minute, weepy and dramatic the next. When I visited Tanya’s house, I just saw people getting along with life, their jobs, their kids, their responsibilities. Tanya’s parents seemed tired, and her father was older than I expected, but they were friendly and very welcoming, delighted their rambunctious daughter had found an ally in a quiet, bookish, then-shy piano-playing local girl, and perhaps pleased at my mother’s church-going habits. Her mother’s smile as my eyes bugged out trying jerk chicken for the first time, her younger brother excitedly dancing with us in the basement and acting out the scenes from the “Thriller” music video … it was the mid-80s, and suburban Canada felt about as far away from the racial boiling-pot of America as you could possibly get.

Very often Tanya and I would relate the way many young women do, talking about the strange weirdness of our changing bodies and the absolute, utter mystery of male bodies. Tanya used to do a hilariously vulgar sort of pelvic thrust walk, making a funny wakka-wakka-sound in her throat – I can’t remember why, or the circumstances for such a creation -but I do remember howling with laughter. Tanya was, to me, a very cool girl, with her perfectly filed, long fingernails, Chuck Taylor sneakers, light-heartedness with the whole mysterious s-e-x thing, and, of course, a very chic-casual purple cheerleader-style jacket. For all that, I never thought she was any different than me; it never occurred that she was a black girl from California with a very different set of life experiences to my own -hailing from a large family with many siblings, her parents having recently moved to Canada and settled in what was then a very Wonder Bread neighborhood. She was sometimes laughed at in the schoolyard, with more than a few sporty, slim girls rolled their eyes at her in gym class (when we went), what with her hole-speckled socks, baggy shirts, and dimpled knees. Again, I never noticed those things, and she was just my cool, funny friend. I remember how I felt when we were together, whether in-person or on the phone.

It was with more than a bit of surprise that I thought of Tanya when Rachel Jeantel was interviewed recently. Her awkwardness, her self-consciousness, her mannerliness, her sparkling, shy youth… Tanya’s face came flashing into my mind, particularly the moments when my friend used to interact with my mother or my mum’s church-going friends. There was, in retrospect, a weird over-compensating going on that I, in my fuzzy-cotton-shielded-from-everything upbringing, hadn’t noticed as a youngster. As Laura Beck wrote on Jezebel, “I don’t know how you watch this and see anything but an unfiltered, genuine teenager. One who suffered  the tragic loss of a friend she spent hours and hours on the phone with each day.” Maybe that’s what set me off to write this blog post, madly typing out rough thoughts in the middle of another restless night recently. There is a truly real, touching core of deeply-felt friendship so extant in Jeantel’s reminiscences, it’s almost painful to watch. You feel like you’re intruding on the lives of two teenagers who are super-tight with each other -literally to the point of death.

I’m not sure why, or how, but Tanya and I stopped talking -a petulant tween fight, as I recall -and soon after she moved away. I ran into her a little while after that at the local mall, when she was visiting; Tanya had moved back to California, her parents had separated, she was living with her mother and siblings. She was, somehow, such a grown-up at sixteen. I often wonder where she is now. Tanya would be about the same age as me, and looking at the date of Trayvon Martin’s birth – 1995 -I wonder if she chose to have children. What would she tell them? What might be be telling them now? Can she – can we -possibly return to that beautiful place in childhood, of laughter and love and shared secrets and innocence? Perhaps Christy Moore says it best:

I want to meet you where you are
I don’t need you to surrender
There is no feeling so alone
As when the one you’re hurting is your own. 


(Bottom photo: detail of Kenny Scharf mural, 2011; both top & bottom photos from my Flickr photostream)

Remember Laughter?

This blog was started as a means of celebrating a sense of “play,” both in work and in life. Lately that element has gone sorely missing in my life.

Amidst stresses personal and professional, playfulness is often the first thing to be jettisoned; it’s as if the dour responsibilities of adulthood stand diametrically opposed to smiling whimsy of play. Why is this? Why do we dump fun things when the going gets tough? Maybe we have to give ourselves permission to have fun, without any guilt “oh-I-should-really-be-doing…” Maybe we have to give up our inherent need to please everyone around us. Maybe we have to throw open the door to a tiny bit of fun chaos every now and again.

An old friend visited recently, which afforded the opportunity of pulling out some old toys we used to share, enjoy, and occasionally war over as kids. In that magical moment, all the trappings of our dour adult lives got put aside: the complicated jobs, the painful relationships, the pressing money issues, the maybe-maybe-not plans for tomorrow, the droning ugly siren’s call of Monday morning. Silliness and imagination took precedence; neural pathways of joy were blasted open in a joyous expression of carefree loveliness. Nothing else mattered but living in the moment of our shared creativity. It wasn’t a drunken series of incidents, either; amidst bites of tomatoey veal and sips of red wine, there erupted much laughter, as we posed superheroes and bits of every day ephemera in a sort of cacophony of cartoon surrealism. Our old worried selves became carefree kids once more.

I’m thinking about those moments of play a lot right now as I face a particularly stressful series of situations yawning, with ugly, hooked fangs, before me this coming week. Something about the joy of that experience feels light, instructive -redemptive, even -and beautifully pristine, as if I can always return to the warm, nurturing arms of play. Those arms are never really as far away as I’d imagine. I don’t have to wait for the proverbial “tinkle trunk” to access that joyousness: it’s already there. Just takes a bit of reminding, a bit of time away from the computer, thinking everything has to be done right away, this very instant. Allowing myself permission to laugh freely at silly things is good. Giving myself permission to smile is grand. Discovering I had the keys to the kingdom all along is a shock. There’s a sort of divinity at work I’d never imagined.

A few superheroes still sit on the kitchen table. Far from being false idols, they’re talismans, reminders, fortifiers. Cheerleaders for play. Adulthood doesn’t have to be all misery; sometimes it’s good to allow play in to brighten up the room, the week, the grey pallor of grown-up-hood. I’m glad I did. We plan, God laughs. Maybe it’s time I started laughing more.

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