We live for just these twenty years, do we have to die for the fifty more?

tangential wandering

Monday started as it so often does: blearily, begrudgingly, sitting on the toilet mindless browsing websites. I noticed one American museum had posted about the rendition of The Little Drummer Boy done by David Bowie and Bing Crosby; more than three weeks after Christmas seemed a little late for that. An acquaintance had posted a full quote from Mr. Bowie on her account; I remember seeing something about a new album on another site and scrolled past, figuring that was the connection. By the third post it occurred to me what was going on – Bowie died last night, and now he’s buried in the rocks, and everybody will talk about how badly they were shocked.

Upon this realization I made haste, heading for an actual news site to confirm what I already new with certitude. Several articles relating to the passing of David Bowie were splashed across across the homepage of The Guardian. And so here we are, in a world without David Bowie.

The first thing I felt the need to do was partake in some anticipatory commiseration with my cousin, a late-twenties bohemian and a genuine Bowie lover for many of those years. The subject of the email sent was that “I heard the news today, oh boy,” the line from Young Americans that riffs on the famous Beatles line. Still processing what I had just learned, I typed a laconic message of disbelief and sadness: “What a shitty way to start a shitty day.”

In the hours and days subsequent there was reason to reflect on a couple themes. The first was the spread of this sort of news, the passing of a major celebrity in the 21st century. For me, such news always reveals itself when skimming the content of that scourge of our age, so-called “social” media – addictive as (I’m told) heroine but with none of the benefits.

The cycle for me is familiar. Out of the quotidian uselessness of these sites, which one becomes accustomed to breezing by, comes the realization of death. Then there is the dash to the news sites for facts. Then there is the deluge of remembrances, retellings, and other comments made on news networks and social networks alike. Genuine fans pour their hearts out while casual fans take pause to learn a little bit more about the departed. This exact cycle plays out several times a year; while the words for this piece were still in my head the passing of Alan Rickman became known and the whole apparatus reset itself.

For those who have grown up in a world saturated by digital media, celebrity death presented through the twenty-four-hour news cycle may very well be all they know. This thought takes me back to the summer of 2009 and the passing of Michael Jackson. I mention this only because the last celebrity death I can readily recall learning of before digital news became most prominent.

It was one of those rare moments that indelibly stamps itself on the mind. I will not soon forget the details: I was in a cab on my way back to the hotel from the Museum of American history in Washington, D.C. when the news came in over the wire. It was an unexpected development delivered in the blunt, dispassionate manner that characterizes all radio news. For better or worse, Jackson had been a part of cultural consciousness for some five decades. Whether one loved the man or hated him, or was plainly indifferent mattered little to whether you knew of him. Thus it was unsurprising that his death would be an earthshaking cultural event in itself. But what sticks in my mind even more than the initial revelation was a scene I encountered the next day. In Washington, the immediate neighbour of the Canadian Embassy is a multi-storey museum of news – the aptly-named Newseum. Parallel to the entrance is a row of display stands that daily show the front pages of newspapers from each of the fifty states. On most days this presumably illustrates the diversity of news matters by locality, but on this day only one piece of news mattered. Michael Jackson graced the cover of every single paper displayed (South Carolina being the lone exception, its people preoccupied with the sexual exploits of their then-Governor.)

But I digress. The point is that news of celebrity death circulates and reaches people at a more rapid pace and in a much different way than it did just five or six years ago – when smartphones were still in their infancy and the Internet was only starting to obliterate 20th-century media. I reserve comment on whether this particular change is good or bad, saying only that it is noticeably different.

My second reflection had to do with music and musicians as markers in our personal timelines. We all have certain songs and artists that take us back to a specific moment, day, year, or some sort of time period upon hearing them. For me, David Bowie – two songs in particular – is fittingly intertwined with my final year of undergraduate study. Fittingly, because Bowie is best known for his constantly transitory personas underlined by an enduring raffishness, while this period for me seemed the final act of a transition – from an unassured and circumspect character to the jaunty and outspoken creature now before you.

Prior to November of 2013 I had known of Bowie only as a name within the catalogue of classic rockers, the androgynous figure responsible for tunes like Ziggy Stardust and Under Pressure. Upon seeing the “David Bowie Is” exhibition during its stop in Toronto I realized he was much more than some ‘70s musician – he was an artist in every sense of the word.  From the quote at the entrance (“All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings.”) to the main exhibit, it was evident that the man was a genius. The breadth and the brilliance of his work took me totally by surprise.

Most shows that use an audio guide demand that you punch in numbers and stand listening to some monotony as you observe the works. But not this one – this was a multimedia spectacular. You put on a headset that changed what you heard as you moved around the room. The main exhibit was resplendent with costumes, art, film clips and music videos, handwritten lyrics, and myriad other artefacts. This room was reached by ascending stairs reached after the“early life” portion of the exhibit, the Making of Bowie, so to speak. But the last of these rooms before the stairs was no gallery of old photos and trumpery. This was the Starman Room, an alcove dedicated to his iconic performance of that song on Top of the Pops. Inside it you were treated to that performance on loop as you took in the magnificent costume that went with it. The inescapable catchiness of the melody and jovial theatrics on the screen made an instant fan out of me.

From that point, Starman and Life on Mars? became the soundtrack to the remainder of my time at university. Both were well-suited to late-night solitary strolls to and from the library, the former being a cosmic anthem best enjoyed alone beneath a dark and mysterious sky, and the latter giving me particular delight as it mentioned “Now the workers have struck for fame/’cause Lenin’s on sale again” – what with my being deeply immersed in Marxist ideas at the time. I also used the quote on artist intent as the mainspring for an essay, which became a minute forum for unabashedly agreeing with its accuracy, and was by all accounts well received.

One final note, patently obvious but still useful as a reminder. Prior to the departure of the Starman I had a handful of Bowie songs in my library – ten or fifteen at the most. Upon his death it made perfect sense to add to that collection. If you have ten or fifteen songs from an artist they will tend to be the more popular ones that you will have heard too many times to count, and, in occasional cases, too many times to continue listening. But if you really do enjoy these tracks then you are certain to find deeper cuts on the albums they come from, tracks that you will take even greater joy in, that will speak to you more clearly – that will affect you in ways the newer, more soulless stuff never will.

Doing the Wave

tangential wandering

To be perfectly clear, I am not referring to the wave that sometimes happens at a baseball game or other sporting event. In no way do I intend to encourage that bizarre ritual, which, as far as I can tell, serves but two purposes. The first is to distract and obstruct those of us who wish to actually take in the on-field events – in other words, it undermines the entire reason for the majority’s attendance. The second is to give the drunken frat boys who undertake to commence this disruption a fleeting sense of joy and accomplishment in their otherwise-pointless lives. This particular wave should be abolished.

The wave I refer to is instead a salutary salutation. It is one some may find to be strange, trite, or childish. It is of course the stranger-to-stranger wave, a greeting that takes place almost exclusively between people in transit, but may be found in other circumstances such as parades. It is exchanged especially often between the people within and without the myriad tour buses, boats, and occasional amphibious tour vehicle that traverse cities the world over.

It is likely something people feel either negatively or indifferent about. I recall being on various touring vehicles during my younger, more familial travel years and refusing to take part in any such exchange. “Why,” I wondered, “are these people waving at the bus?” It seemed a rather odd thing for total strangers to do, and I never paid it much thought beyond that single observation.

I was given a moment to ruminate on the matter further during one of my daily commutes in this ersatz city that is officially my hometown. As my subway train pulled out of the station, I noticed five or six people, younger and older members of a family, seated on the opposite platform – and they were all waving unmistakeably at my subway car. For a moment, I found this act as odd as I had previously, and perhaps even more so, for it occurred in the most unremarkable of locations.

Apparently I was in a more reflective mood than I had ever been while on one of those tour buses, for it occurred to me that what they were doing was not at all odd, but was instead a profoundly human act. It occurred to me that this small gesture happens so constantly and in so many global locales that it would be impossible to estimate how many of these waves are exchanged. Given that frequency, I wondered if those participating ever give it much thought (they almost certainly give it less thought than I was.) It would be unsurprising to me if a person, asked to reason why they were waving at some vehicle or returning such a wave, would have some pause and some difficulty answering. For most, it is purely reflexive.

But this salutation between strangers begs the question of why – why offer this benign and fleeting greeting to people you do not and likely will not ever know? My best guess is that it is a subtle, even unconscious acknowledgment of a shared experience and a shared humanity. It may be so many tourists sharing in their exploration of an urban centre, or a mix of residents and tourists sharing the city itself during myriad journeys throughout it, or it may even be as simple as people sharing another day with each other during which the sun has opted to shine upon them.

Of course this greeting does not occur only in the city centre. Boaters in cottage country scarcely pass each other without exchanging a half-wave, a sort of relaxed salute; the same thing will sometimes occur on deserted country roads. I do not doubt that, if one is looking for it, this wave will make its appearance in all sorts of other contexts.

That said, in all circumstances it carries the same meaning. It is an affirmation that we are all on this strange ride together, and a reminder to act accordingly.

The Mediocre Gatsby

travel & adventure

We traipsed through the Eternal City of the New World, en route to some gathering point for the scions and the aristocrats and the pretenders wishing to see and be seen with the moneyed crowd. To be sure, there are plenty of each group in New York, being that it is the heart of capitalism (London is, of course, the soul.)

We arrived at the venue that was to be our watering hole for the evening – a packed room full of far more pretenders than plutocrats. It was an uninspired venue atop a hotel that was matching in unoriginality – the Dream Hotel, as it was inaptly named. The rooftop bar/club/abattoir was unimaginative space that attempted to compensate for this deficiency by being oppressively loud. It is the kind of room where conversation goes to die and nobody seems to notice or care. A long-bearded man was surely behind the scenes blowing on some sort of hipster dog whistle. If the fact that people desire to spend their night here is not enough to impugn the intelligence of this entire generation then doing so while purchasing multiple drinks surely is.

Between me and the bar stood a throng  of hapless wannabes that seemed to be waiting for someone or something to happen – women in heels and men in fedoras seemed to just mill about the place. Not dancing, not talking, not doing much more than existing (if you can call it that.) I traversed this mass of humanity and arrived at the bar, choosing not to consult a menu –  which turned out to be a devastating oversight on my part. Instead, I requested their strongest rum drink. The ingénue behind the bar could not hear me, asked for clarification, was given it, and proceeded to make no use of it. I received something in a glass that was neither strong nor rum, and could scarcely be called a drink. To call it insipid would be to pay it a compliment. I was then informed that I had the privilege of paying twenty-five American dollars for the abomination. I vacated the establishment in short order, cursing the bête noire of our friend group that had led us there, and myself for following along.

There is a curious, inscrutable ethos that permeates places like these. Not only do the people here seem to think what they are doing is reasonable, they actually seem to think it somehow validates their absurd bumptiousness. Needless to say that I was much more satisfied when I arrived at the Irish bar and was served beer and whiskey by a Dubliner. Here I found all of the mind-numbing beverages at half the cost and none of the pretentiousness. The persistence of such establishments in the face of the Dream Hotel scene is always reassuring to me.

If that night was somewhat regrettable, the next was rather refreshingly peculiar. The day began with a return to the Irish bar for food and bottomless alcohol – drunken brunch, a spectacle that should be embraced worldwide. During this feast our guide for the evening arrived, the modish sort that was visibly identifiable as either debutante or dilettante. As the night progressed it became clear she was both. Her existence consisted of siphoning thousands of dollars from her father to pay for a broom closet of an apartment while studying fashion – whatever that means – and attending diamond shows and other bourgeois frivolities, all while getting too drunk to stand up properly. New York was unquestionably her bailiwick.

On this night she had an invite to what may very well be the apogee of frivolity, an invite she extended to us and we accepted. One does not turn down free alcohol as a sheer matter of  principle. As she described it, these parties take place periodically at the residence of some effete poser – a Wall Street man, no doubt. Invites are circulated to the deluded masses; models are hired to stand around and look the part; all alcohol is complimentary. Add to this atmosphere the fact nobody knows who the host is or what he looks like and you have all the makings of the Mediocre Gatsby.

We arrived at a house tucked into a cluster of monolithic high-rises and rang the doorbell. We were greeted by a hostess with a clipboard to register ourselves. True to my favoured idiom, I spent the evening as Raoul Duke, though I did not ingest enough intoxicants to be worthy of the alias this night.

It soon apparent just how mediocre this Gatsby fellow was mediocre. His residence was astonishingly more soulless than the venue from the night before.  Banality was its unifying theme, with its white tile floors and whiter walls to match – an insane asylum for the self-professed elite. It had the feeling of a place not quite settled and doomed to remain that way in perpetuity. At least here I was able to get a strong rum drink and, later, a plastic cup full of champagne. In addition to the full-service bar there was a DJ table (unmanned), a couch, and a solitary chair barring the revellers from gaining access to the upstairs in a less-than-formidable manner.

There was also a back patio suffering from a lack of furniture that we were summarily removed from because one of the neighbours had called the police on this raucous party. I use the word ironically. This was a staid affair, especially for one  completely free of charge and accented with attractive mercenaries. There was no swinging from the (conspicuously nonexistent) chandeliers to be seen. Rather, guests stood around making what was surely vacuous small talk with tiny clusters of others they had either met before or simply arrived with. A certain air of circumspection and reticence struck suddenly seemed to be wafting through the room. It then occurred to me that this was a high-school party where nobody had yet lost all inhibitions, but for vapid adults. ‘Twas a far cry from the raffish refinement and no-holds-barred lunacy of a Gatsby party. Dubbing this host the Mediocre Gatsby is in reality overselling him.

By now our debutante had reached the point of drunkenness that undermined physical stability, and so we made our departure. As we left I observed the police car across the street and the two cops within that seemed as languid as all of the automata on the inside. A true shame, for a full-blown NYPD raid surely would have inspirited that gathering.

Dystopic Decent II

revolution

I read the news today, oh boy, though I didn’t need to. The blessing and the curse of modern technology is that you can follow along as breaking news unfolds in all of its uncertainty – although there was little of that last night. The who, the what, and the where seemed obvious from the get-go. The only question was, “How many this time?” This line of thought truly marks the sad state of affairs we find ourselves in.

This event was not shocking. As we often hear, the question that surrounds the next attack has been reduced “When?” Events like last night are more numbing than shocking; we have become desensitized to the point that the most prevalent feeling is one of familiarity. We have seen this play before.

The First Act is comprised of atrocity and emotional outpouring – from far-off ineffectual hashtags to visceral reactions on the affected streets. Resiliency is strong and immediate, and this is perhaps the only positive to be taken from these most inhuman situations. As the primordial battle between good and evil rages, we may despair at the prevalence of the latter but we can never doubt the supremacy of the former. This trait is essential to our very survival in this senselessly violent epoch.

The Second Act is sickeningly predictable. The blood in the streets will barely have dried before we are inundated with the need for more surveillance, more police powers, and more military might. We have heard this call before; we will hear it in the coming days and weeks; and we will surely hear it again in the future. In the wake of a tragedy the majority seldom seems to consider that this is the always the prescription. Yet this medicine serves only to inflame the illness and exacerbate the problem.

The most tragic reality of these events is that there are people, governments, and industries who benefit from them. There are those who will seize the opportunities that fear and grief present, exploiting them for myriad nefarious purposes. Power is to be consolidated, problems to be diffused.

It is time for we the people to write a Third Act.

Morning Musings: or, eternal sunshine of the liquored mind

tangential wandering

On occasion I will return from an evening of revelry with a certain determination – awake, alert, unwilling to rest just yet. My mind may be clouded with drink, but scarcely does it evince such clairvoyance. Countless thoughts and ideas and tangents course through it – and some are even useful. Such potential demands that I take advantage at the time these ideas are plyed from the subconcious and present themselves. And after all, going to sleep at three in the morning is for bums and bankers. Sleep can wait until daytime. There is work to be done, and my notebooks would be sparse territories if it were otherwise.

This particular night had already elicited the story of the lawyer and the parrot, a minimally coherent admonition of Uber, and an even more half-hearted comment on self-censorship. As so often happens, elucidation ended when a particularly idyllic sunrise gets noticed.

This morning was clear and cloudless. The sky in front of me held hues of peach that gave way to incremental blue shades that pressed up against the cerulean. This scene struck me as redolent of so many drunken mornings before it, and the same feeling that always washes over me did so again. It is a realization that few people simply sit and watch the sunrise, and even fewer do so at the acceptable of level of intoxication the event demands. Who else gets to see the sunrise as I get to? This feeling of singularity always entertains me in this state.

The birds above bid one another ‘good day’ as the sound of a lone automobile rips through this conversation, no doubt carrying its driver somewhere less peaceful. The treeline is interrupted by highrises and by cranes generating more highrises, by the clock tower of the scion school. A big ole jet airliner soars above it all and adds its own voice to the chorus of yet another summer morning in the city.

The airliner piques my interest just then. Two hundred people plus – on vacation or business, on to the next thing – entrusting their most recent existence to a confluence of metal, fossil fuels, and human desire to push its physical limits. As each one passes I wonder about the itinerants on board. What life stories do they carry with them as they go, stoicly, unapologetically, onwards? Where have they been? Where are they going? Does that really matter to me, or even to them?

Mother Nature marches onward, blind to these and other quotidian concerns – with any luck she is mocking them. For our world is designed in such a way that for too many poor bastards a magnificent sunrise merely signals the recommencement of vacuous toil. The beauty of it is revealed only to the dispossessed, the degenrates, and the driven capitalist. These are scarcely possessors the most admiring eyes or appreciative souls.

Sunrise always strikes me as poignant reminder that the world is what we make of it in the midst of inexorable forces far beyond our control or, in many other cases, our understanding. And in the end, as John and Paul put it, the love you make is equal to the love you take.

The sun will rise the same above a world ravaged by famine and fear as it will above a world availed of peace and plenty. The universe and all its forces care little what damage we wreak on ourselves. So it falls to us to act accordingly. We can do better, should do better, must do better than we have to this point if we are intent on seeing many more sunrises.

Unimpeachable Itinerancy

travel & adventure

Even though the journey that starts in the airport is so familiar it feels routine, I’ve managed to lose little fascination in it. Its basic concept is consistently striking in its simplicity, and never fails to inspire awe – step through this building to step onto a tin can that will drop you off anywhere in the world no later than tomorrow.

Paradoxically, this putative launchpad, this ultimate gateway to freedom is one of the most controlled spaces on the planet. Here there exists a set of words, actions, and mannerisms that are strictly verboten. Defy those restrictions at your peril – step out of line and you will be dragged into the back room, ejected, arrested, banned, or any combination of those inevitabilities.

It is these characteristics, antithetical and yet existing in such close proximity, and without a hint of friction, that make the airport a most unique, perplexing, and wonderful space.

It is also in this space that one might come across the most infuriatingly laughable elucidation of what it is to travel. Invariably another traveller will be passing through this sacred space on their way to “do” a place – whether that term is intended to be sexual or not is an ambiguous matter, and I have no interest in settling it. There might be the bourgeois couple going to “do” Southern Europe. Just as likely, there will be the recently graduated ingénue, feeling smug and sophisticated as she sets off to “do” Southeast Asia.

Travel is not about scrawling checkmarks in some contrived boxes or collecting photos of the most venerated sites – exhausted as they are by the unending gazes cast upon them by the stupidest sets of eyes. This is not to deny that travel takes such activities as a single element among many. One does not go to London and purposefully avoid the British Museum and the myriad pints of ale. But to define travel as a mere checklist is to denigrate it to the point that it becomes unrecognizable.

To travel is not simply to do, but to live, and to live on a scale far grander than the nationalistic hermit or the parochial sightseer does. It is to inform and be informed by complete strangers; to seek out previously unknown ideas and perspectives and occurrences – or to simply have those find you. It is to seek the very essence of our common humanity, taking for granted that such a thing exists.

And of course there is a certain joy to be found in the actual act of travelling. Fascination in airports, train stations, bus terminals, and the itinerants found therein. Fascination found by opening one’s eyes and ears at every point of the journey.

This undeniably includes the customs hall, the bottleneck that squeezes the quotidian tourist and bizarre thrillseeker alike. In the customs hall at Frankfurt I once found two of the most exceedingly bored men I have ever encountered staffing a passport control booth. The shaved head to my left failed to register my existence; the one to my right, hair and all, seemed to follow suit. But after a few idle seconds he summoned every ounce of energy he contained and waved me over to his desk.

Perplexed and overtired, I watched this indifferent guardian of the nation go through my passport as if it were some kind of mildly amusing flipbook. In this moment I dared not question what in the hell he was looking for, or why in the hell he wasn’t actually looking at the pages. Luckily comic relief was not five feet from where I stood – for the bald one had found an ounce of energy himself.

As he checked the papers of an elderly couple, the wife ventured to ask him a question. This was her fatal mistake. The shaved head immediately cut her off: “In Germany, vee say ‘Good Morning’ before asking zee question.” But apparently vee do not say “Good Morning” when velcoming zee people into zee country.

Here was the most flawless, uncompromisingly stereotypical German I ever had the good fortune to witness in action. I stifled my laughter, cherished the moment, and continued my adventure.