3.18.2015

cult following

This is probably the best new cult I've considered joining in the last 3 months.


CULT FOLLOWING - Trailer | IPF from LaRue Entertainment on Vimeo.

Evil in the Woodlands

I think I wrote a first draft of this in high school...maybe. It was published in the university newspaper in my first or second year. I am VERY political, but I couldn't tell you what about.

----------

If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Does it really matter if it makes a sound? Does anyone care? After all, it's only a tree, a tree that produces oxygen for us to breathe, a tree that gives us shade from the fiery heat of the sun, even cools the air. Are there not other trees to do these things? Wasn't nature just taking its course and removing an old tree? Yes, of course it was, but what if a man had cut the tree down, cut it down to use for lumber after it had supplied its share of oxygen and shade for many years? Isn't he just continuing its use for the better? Not according to some, the kinds of people who would rather lie in the middle of the road, risking life and limb, than let a lumberjack continue a tree's usefulness.

So a tree falls naturally and no one cares. Except for the squirrel who has just lost a sleeping place, and also happened to be sitting under the tree at the time of the accident. He'd care, but only for a second, for the brief moment before life was forced from him as a whoosh of air, and a tangled mass of limbs fell around and on top of him. CRUNCH! Would anyone hear that sound, a sound far smaller than the possible din of the tree?

That's a good point. If a squirrel gets crushed in the forest will it make a sound? Will anyone notice? Will anyone really care? A squirrel's just a squirrel, nothing important like a tree, a tree that has just committed murder by crushing the squirrel. Yes, full-blown, cold-blooded murder of the very creature whose ancestors could have carried the seed to plant the tree. This tree has killed, and yet people flock to save the remaining forest. What's to stop those trees from killing other innocent squirrels? Nothing, that's what. And yet people don't understand; they don't see the maliciousness of trees as they seek to destroy squirrels and other woodland creatures. The good lumberjacks try to put the trees towards a useful purpose before they have a chance to kill, but too often their paths are blocked by dazed tree-huggers.

So, if a tree falls in the forest, and it hits a fanatical, tree-hugging, lunatic will it make a sound? Probably. Will the other wild-eyed and obviously confused environmentalists hear it and realize the trees have turned on them? Probably not. Will they see their misguided ways and change before it's too late, or will they ignore their comrade's end and continue to save this enemy of squirrel and man alike? Who knows? Only time, will tell.

Now about baby seals...

3.16.2015

atlas collection

"Let me have a look at your car." What does this man want to see my car for.
"I don't have a car."
"How about your office, would that be all right?"
My office? I don't have an office. There is a desk in my bedroom.
"I don't have an office"
"Where do you work then?"
"Well there's a desk in my bedroom."
"Okay, we can start with that."
"I'd rather, oh! It's a bit messy with paper and things all over. And the walls, I haven't hung everything yet. You're going up the stairs. I don't really want you to, oh shit."
The man mounts the stairs to the attic bedroom, rounds the corner at the top and stops. Atlases. They are wedged around the room, against the wall behind the furniture and amongst other atlases, the ceiling and the floor. The earth pressed flat and repeated into an over-literal meditation on parallel worlds."Planning a trip?"
James catches up, too out of breath for the number of stairs he just climbed. "No, just atlases."
"But why so many?"
James manoeuvres into the room, past the man, until he stands between him and the books. With the worlds at his back he stands tensed and ready and forgets to breathe until his face glows red. "No reason. There was a sale at the Salvation Army. You don't need a reason to buy atlases."
"And if you had to move, would you get rid of some?"
James looks behind him and considers the atlases, his desk and unmade bed, just a mattress on a boxspring on the floor, and the pieces of paper on everything. He turns to answer, but the man is gone. On the wall near where he was standing James notices a photograph of a cow he took while in France. He couldn't remember hanging it.

3.15.2015

spring coffee

I'm cleaning out the folder I created while taking a creative writing class a few years ago. This story is probably the most bummer one I've found so far.

-----

Cratered by disbelieving feet, the slush lay across and around the ice rink, amazing what a difference a few degrees make. Only the day before, in golden winter light, blades had slashed across the rink’s solid surface, hard and fast in the cold, sounding clean, people’s breath clouding their faces for an instant before disappearing. Today though, all the breath had reappeared as numbing mist, flattening the day's light and sound. Heavier drizzle, not quite rain, falling through the grey air adding static, like somewhere someone had left a very large set of headphones slightly unplugged.

One of the local cool kids, John or DJ SoundSauce depending on context, slunk past the rink. His feet were soaked, his shoes, salt-stained and deformed by the season, were of no use as every step brought a puddle. He pulled himself deeper into his pressed wool pea coat but damp air knows secret passages through a jacket and he shivered as he squelched on. John held fire in his hands, but only enough to singe his lungs without warmth and add fresh smoke to his acrid jacket. All night spent in dank underground windowless clubs, cinder block walls holding out smoking laws, where people danced in the face of sleep as John spun and spun through an unknown dawn’s sad light, his being stank and his skin held the grey translucence of the world around him.


The damp air made hard things unreal. A car burst past without warning. Blasting its horn. Splashing through a puddle its red metal a sudden scarring contrast to the day. Cursing the driver, John stood bedraggled and dripping in front of the coffee shop, 9 am and it was closed. According to a note on the door it had never opened that morning due to a family emergency. Sorry, in the red ink of a Sharpie alongside a bright smiley face. John felt mocked by the grin as he shivered on the sidewalk considering sleep, Adderall and whether delirium tremens was only an alcohol thing or if caffeine was incriminated in some way. Looking down, someone had found coffee that morning. An empty white paper cup tossed away and floating in the dirty morass, a thin brown stain at the bottom holding none of the flavour and aroma John craved.

12.01.2014

balls in tubes

The children were taken into a grey room and told to sit at a round, grey table. The table was low and had small, child-sized chairs around it. From the table's centre rose a clear plastic cylinder, inaccessible and full of colourful balls: reds, greens, oranges, blues and yellows. It was so tall that even if a child had climbed onto the table and stretched out on tippy-toe they wouldn't have reached the top. One by one the children's mothers were taken out of the room by doctors, and without paper or crayons the children were left to their thoughts about plastic balls, life, death and the inevitable collapse of empires.


9.23.2014

Tanya Tagaq and the Polaris Prize

A woman growled at me last night
gnashed and stomped and thrashed
and left my skin buzzing
all my hair alive
my heart in my throat
and when she was done I cried.

I don't know why or what for
but I felt it building while she sang
and secretly craved the release.

If I felt like lying to sound noble, I would say it was the names that did it.
Of the missing and murdered
aboriginal women
that streamed
endlessly
behind her.
But I don't.

There isn't
a reason,
a thing,
my brain can attach to
to analyze.

I just cried
because of art and beauty
and a human embodying herself
and knowing where she's from
knowing knowledge of a different kind
and being fully realized

and,
well,
growl the fuck on.

-----

Depending on how you want to divide a life, most of my childhood was spent in a big brick farmhouse outside Keady, Ontario; a 30 minute drive from Owen Sound. We had a barn and 200 acres and three ponds. The house also had a single story addition off one side. Maybe built as a granny flat or for the itinerant farm labour of an older era, we used it for laundry, an extra washroom and a spare bedroom.

I spent a lot of time in that bedroom, because it's where the computer was and the computer was my therapist. Not that I knew it at the time. At the time I would walk through the enclosed but unheated cement porch that connected the flat to the house, get what warmth I could from the electric baseboard heaters and boot up Minesweeper, a game where you use numbers as clues to flag hidden mines and avoid detonation. I would lose hours trying to beat previous best times at beginner and intermediate, or just try to finish at all on the expert setting.

It wasn't a real challenge though, best times were about lucky first clicks and a well set-up random board. Instead it was just about being soothed by mindless repetition. Click click click. The game was so in the moment and instantaneous that I didn't need to think about anything else. I had a goal and I had to stay focused or I would never find the 10 mines on the beginner setting in under 8 seconds. That my dad and brother moved to BC didn't matter. That the family's plan to follow was cancelled because my parents were divorcing didn't matter. That we were selling the farm and some of us were moving into Owen Sound didn't matter. That we had to give away Tara, the family dog, because city life would be absolute shit for one of the best groundhog hunters in the world didn't matter. No sadness, just focused clicking.

My feet and hands got cold in that room. I used to think I had poor circulation, and maybe I do, but I was also just sitting in a cold room away from my family at the far end of my house, only moving one finger for hours on end.

The computer wasn't just about Minesweeper, though. There were moments in my childhood when I felt our family was at the cutting edge of technology, like when we got a new computer featuring a CD ROM drive. I was 11 or thereabouts and I remember being asked out of science class at school by the librarian once to help fix one of the school's new computers. Just having a CD ROM at home imbued me with preternatural knowledge about futuretech that the adult desperately needed. I was unable to help.

Of course if you have a drive, you need some discs and amongst the two or three we had there was Encarta, Microsoft's attempt to capture the world's knowledge in one digitized encyclopaedia. When you put Encarta in the drive and closed the tray it would buzz to life and its opening screen would appear, a collage of famous images and people laid together, their borders fuzzed and melded. A few moments later an audio montage would begin, tinny and thin from the computer's speakers. I have a dream would melt into Beethoven and some drums before Inuit throat singing bled out from the ether.

I knew what it was and I knew I didn't like it. The singing scared the shit out of me and made the cold porch between me and my home yawn longer, darker and colder. Two women from far away in space and time in a sweaty fire-lit place faced one another and made these noises while an endless night full of endless white and endless dark howled outside their igloo. A child's imagination mashed with snippets of The Twilight Zone, forced to confront humanity in a raw form, humans connecting with humans unmediated. I had removed myself to this bedroom so the messy stuff, the complex interplay between people that can't be planned out ahead of time, but only experienced and responded to in real time, couldn't force itself upon me.

Although, at the time, I didn't think all that. I just thought it was creepy.

-----

I was in Montreal a few years ago, and, dating a gardener at the time, Montreal Botanical Garden was on the itinerary. Maybe it was because of all the plants, maybe it was because I was uncomfortable in the relationship and hadn't recognized it yet, but at some point during the day I smoked too much and became very tired. Lounging on the benches while my girlfriend pilfered tobacco seeds - shhh - eventually got to be too much on a sunny day so I needed to find some shade.

The First Nations Garden is one of many sub areas in the larger complex and it is well shaded with lots of trees and has a cool, literally and figuratively, interpretation centre too. Fortunately for me and my life that was, unbeknownst to me, leading to today when I would write this blog post, there were some Inuit throat singers performing.

It was warm, there were people all around and I had nothing to fear! Also, that I was looking at the source of the singing, the singers themselves, inevitably humanized the moment. Child-me understood Inuit throat singing vaguely, as part of a hodgepodge of aboriginal spiritual beliefs. Whatever the specific practices of the different nations and peoples they were all just communing with dead ancestors and the spirit world because that's what they had always done. As I said before, sweaty faces in a fire-lit lodge, full of who knows what sinister and mysterious meaning. Whether I thought it consciously or not, my imagination led me into mental traps that understood throat singing as part of culture frozen and dead in the past, romantically removing its agency, preventing it from having any valid role to play in the present and future.

That day in Montreal, however, I could see that throat singing, like so many other kinds of performance and art, wasn't just about lost relics or ancient traditions, but about connecting with who was in front of you. Experiencing the now with whoever is there to share it. The women faced each other, holding one another's arms (although that part of the memory is a bit hazy, so apologies if that is an impossibility) and they started to sing. Back and forth, modulating and experimenting with noises and sounds, and improvising. They were coming up with stuff on the spot, playing off what they heard from the person they were facing and eventually, I realized, trying with all their might to get the other person to crack up, break the song and break out laughing. It was a moment of pure joy under the leafy green trees on a hot and sunny early September day.

------

A moment's research on Wikipedia tells me Inuit throat singing is generally a duet, or a performed contest between women. And, Tanya Tagaq, as a solo performer, is singled out as a non-traditional use of the form. And I'm willing to bet, incorporating a 40 person choir, drums and and electrified violin for a performance in a space originally built by the Eaton family as a restaurant in a fancy department store might also be considered "non-traditional", but fuck it all if that isn't the brilliance of life.

Ever-changing and inevitably moving forward, moment to moment, until we're all done. 

--------

And as a final aside, I watched the gala in its entirety today as I was writing this and I enjoyed it. The slightly anarchic vibe is the internet stream gives off seems fun.

3.08.2014

A car commercial

A man in the backyard of his modernist house, shorts and shirt, relaxed of a sort. Everything is rectangles and moulded concrete, the blue of the pool set off by neatly shorn grass and surrounded by a tall hedge. He appears strong, muscled, thick and broad, surveying his property and wonders, Why do we work so hard? For stuff? He talks of Europeans taking August off, August!, stopping for a leisurely café after work, enjoying life. But not America. America is hustle, and so the man moves bravely, resolutely, with solid strides.

Inside the house, more rectangles, grey, wood, space, opulence made to look like a factory perhaps. America is high-fiving your child who sits on the couch with a tablet with a sibling beside her entranced by paper of all things. America doesn't need cafés or August, just more hard work. The rest of the world is free to judge, because those idiots hate stuff and none of them were the Wright brothers, Bill Gates, Les Paul or Ali.

We're in the kitchen now, rectangles, and there's the wife with a hand off, it's a go-go household after all, and the moon. It's our moon, America's moon.

The man changes into a suit and is at his car, it's a Cadillac, it's electric and it's a just reward for hard work. "Work hard, create your own luck and you gotta believe anything is possible," except taking August off. If you think that's possible you're a fool, and probably foreign. "As for all the stuff, that's the upside of only taking two weeks off in August, n'est pas?" WINK.
The commercial is a wonder, usurping decades of anti-consumerist rhetoric and revelling in it. Stuff for the sake of stuff, owning for the sake of ownership, and being able to one up the Joneses without the slightest hint of self-consciousness. Define yourself through possession and keep striving because enough is just a rest, a chance to gather strength before launching to the next enough. Oh, and it's downright unAmerican to think otherwise.

And the ad is for an electric car of all things!

People like to buy stuff, it's undeniably fun. There are colours and smells and a sense of satisfaction, not to mention the incredibly powerful self-narratives that can grow around the regular use of the most inane household item. Try to write off consumption and you risk looking like a judgemental wiener and wrong, because the last few centuries seem to suggest it has staying power. But consumption can be depressing too, like when you're told about the environmental or social damage our desire to buy the latest cellphone might be causing. Or the unsatisfying and empty existence you find for yourself once you've climbed aboard the status treadmill (apparently it's also called the hedonic treadmill, but calling it that sounds like you were so busy not buying stuff you had to read the dictionary to fill your time).

On all fronts this commercial just says, yeah, I've heard about hedonism, isn't it great? Want to come over later? We're going to make fun of Europeans, murder August and burn it on a pyre of the stuff we don't want anymore.

That's what it says!!!

This is the point in the writing where I've said some things, really just summarized a commercial and added the bare minimum of commentary, and although I want to write more I'm going to walk away ... in just a few paragraphs, right after I make an ass (maybe?) of myself trying to extrapolate. Here goes:

The car commercials I'm used to tend to have a car driving down a pretty road, maybe there's some cool music. If there's an underlying message it's that this truck makes you a man, or fuel efficiency makes you green. Instead this ad feels like it's defending a way of life.

It's saying, remember World War II? Which we won. And the Cold War? Which we also won. Out loud it's saying, the Wright brothers, Bill Gates, Les Paul, Ali and the moon, but we know what it's really saying. The commercial is also saying, we won the wars by living the right way, working hard and buying stuff. That's how we did it then and that's how we're going to keep doing it, because we're the best! The commercial doesn't want you to stress about economic shifts, the environment, monetized politics or collapsing international relations. It wants to distract from an uncertain future by looking back and reminding people that it's all good. What we're doing is fine, don't ask.

I'm not saying all those bad things are as bad as the most ardent evangelists claim; even attempting to argue that would take at least 6 blogs. And as a person who likes the odd piece of stuff, I probably just wear the same cardigan for longer than most, I don't want to come across as judgemental. Heck, I even like the commercial and have watched it a bunch. I'm just saying, that's what it's saying.

I saw the commercial while I was visiting LA, a weird place full of delusion and cars. Everyone is going to be famous and they all just need to drive across town to an audition all the time to make that happen. To do that day after day requires the kind of gung-ho, I'm-the-best attitude this commercial exudes, and it also requires a place that won't be crushingly depressing when the dream doesn't work out on the first couple hundred days. LA might be the ultimate post-modern city, where every day is like the one before and every place is no place, and it's also a pretty great city, in part because of its weather. The light and the ocean/desert air makes everything you do in a day feel indulgent yet productive. My first three days there I napped at least an hour every afternoon and I've never felt so accomplished.

This commercial is like how LA's weather lets you deal with what might actually be a pretty pointless life. It's easy and it feels good and lets you think everything is going to work out fine. You just need to keep doing what you've been doing, working hard and taking two weeks off in August. Remember, you're the best. Sure it might be the start of a century long mega-drought, but you've been living beyond your aquatic means since forever, so who cares. The sun is shining, the surfing looks good and more stuff.

Fuck August.

2.03.2014

I Bought You Russia

We shot this thing in October 2012. Do you remember October 2012? It was a long time ago. But the movie is finally done and now on the internet.

Just in time for Sochi!

12.16.2013

Gayl Pile

Remember event television? Like when Stephen King's The Stand was a mini-series and they promoted the unholy hell out of that sucker?

Well Gayl Pile promises to be better.



Note: I am not prone to hyperbole. Nor do I remember what The Stand was actually like.

11.07.2013

Tony Ho - Wanda

So in the midst of all this Rob Ford stuff Tony Ho released a new video.

That's good news, because everyone needs uplifting comedy at a time like this.

Warning, SWEARS!

5.18.2013

Tony Ho - Time

If you haven't heard of Tony Ho, the haunted house of Toronto comedy, what better place to start than with their new amazing short!?!?

I like to let the work speak for itself, enjoy!


Why I feel bad for Rob Ford

I am not a Rob Ford apologist. Rob Ford is a bad mayor, and based on a bunch of evidence he seems to be a bad person. The man lacks empathy, can't comprehend that other people with distinct perspectives exist, refuses to accept any proof from outside his intuition, and even uses his self-avowed ignorance as a point of honour. There are the proven drunken rages in public, accusations of a bigger drinking problem, possible familial abuse and sexual harassment and now the crack video. Some of Rob Ford's problems are public knowledge, others just strongly suspected, but taken together they build one hell of a pattern. (And just for the record I believe some of the stories more than others, but I do believe the crack video exists and the descriptions now in the public domain to be largely accurate.)

Given all that though, and given that I disagree with many of his policies and despise the hypocrisy and willful ignorance and lies he uses to support them, I still feel bad for Rob Ford. Let me try to explain why.

I feel bad because Rob Ford is not a happy man. And he is not a happy man because he is not doing a thing he wants to be doing. I see Rob Ford as an emotional (as opposed to intellectual) being whose world is more black and white than shades of grey. I'm right, you're wrong and even if there are aspects of your position similar to mine, you're still wrong. When he experiences something his response is immediate and single-minded. He doesn't consider contributing factors or how things will be received, he just responds directly and emotionally. If you don't agree full bore, you are attacking him and you are now an enemy. Rob Ford's response is to roar in anger and pain at perceived transgressions and that means he is not suited to being mayor, a job where basic understanding, negotiation and compromise are necessities.

The mayor's emotional reality only became apparent to me on a rare instance when he was in the public eye and obviously happy. At the opening of the new Underpass Park last summer - built beneath an elevated highway by Waterfront Toronto - children were clambering like ants over a newly built jungle gym, having a time as kids are wont to do, when the structure starts bouncing slightly and the camera person suddenly moves to get a better angle. And there he is. Rob Ford has climbed the jungle gym and is now bouncing it and the children. And the children are chanting - Go mayor! Go mayor! - and the man beams. Rob Ford is having the best time, he is happy and it shows and it's kinda nice.

This isn't the original video I saw, but you'll get a feel for what I'm on about, AND get to witness some fantastic audio recording if you watch the whole thing.

But Rob Ford doesn't get to play in the park with children everyday, and Rob doesn't get to perpetually meet with constituents one-on-one to help solve small problems, something I think the man was probably good at. Instead he is mayor and as such needs to subject himself to the chaos of governing, directing city council and working with everyone to find a way forward for the city, something he has repeatedly proven himself incapable of.

What Rob Ford does like doing, and he seems to be quite good at, is coaching football. Unlike at city hall, on the football field he can be as gruff and boisterous as he likes. He's the boss and the players have to do what he says because that's the way it is. He even knows and feels comfortable with the rules, something I'm sure gives him peace of mind. (I'm intentionally leaving this aside for the moment: "By associating himself with crack dealers, a mayor who cast himself as a surrogate football-coach father to black youth who, he claimed, would otherwise have been involved in drugs and gangs, would turn out to be a direct benefactor of the crippling problem he said he was shielding them from. Toronto has seen some cynicism in its days. This is toxic.")

I bring this up because I'm not the only one who thinks it. The reporters who have seen the crack-video report a man off screen telling the mayor his true calling lies in coaching football, and the mayor agrees. So why isn't he doing it? He's from a wealthy family; why doesn't he just coach football and run his foundation full-time?

The answer might be hinted at in another part of the video where Rob Ford is mumbling again... Everyone expects me to be right-wing, I'm... and he trails off. It would be great to know what or who Rob Ford thinks he is, but what we do know is he feels the weight of expectation on him. I assume the expectation and its attendant pressures are mainly familial, but that's obviously me guessing. I've only heard rumours of motherly and brotherly force brought to bear; you have to do this Rob, because of the family name, because of dad, because of history.

Whether from his direct family or the wider conservative one, Rob Ford feels the pressure, and I would guess he feels trapped. When you feel trapped you want to escape and that brings us back to crack and the rest of it. As variously reported and rumoured he drinks to excess, abuses prescription meds and now apparently barrels around high on crack all while his mayoral work suffers, and as an inevitable result the city suffers. Rob Ford is now so desperate to escape his life, job and the expectations that lurk over him he has to hide out in a crack den bantering with men - we don't know what the mayor considers them, strangers or friends - whose motives are clearly not aligned with his own, and it's sad.

Rob Ford's story is a big one, painted in the largest brush strokes of a Greek play, it's all pathos and tragedy, each turn another level of despair. But even the nuance of the tale is incredible. I mean, it had to be crack, it had to be THE drug of urban decay, the default drug we go to as an explanation - assume someone is on - when their decisions make absolutely no sense. Given all that, and the things the mayor has done and wants to do to the city, the things he has said to and about people, horrible things, it's easy to forget the mayor is still a person, not just a caricatured monster, no matter how much we dislike him. And when a person is caught in a story where the Greek gods are pulling the strings, the mortal had best be careful.

He's an unhappy man doing a job that at this point I can't believe he wants to be doing. More than that though, the stress Rob Ford is under might end up doing him some serious long-term, physical harm.

Rob Ford does not look well. Look at most pictures you can find of him online from the past few months, or even just this picture from a flag raising at city hall on Friday.


It's ridiculous and hilarious. It looks exactly like what we expect a picture of Rob Ford to be. He looks like a buffoon, both literally and figuratively a man apart from the crowd. We get to laugh because he is not like us, he is bad and petty and mean, and we rejoice that we are not those things. But Rob Ford also looks sick, so unhealthy, disheveled and on the verge of something disastrous.

As I've said already, I'm not a Rob Ford apologist. Even if I think he's in a situation not of his own choosing - and infantilize him somewhat by saying his mother and brother make decisions for him - it doesn't mean we should forgive his being such a shitty mayor. He is an adult who has to take responsibility for the awful job he is doing. In a few weeks Rob Ford will be turning 44, and I think it would be great if by that time he had found other work. He distracts from governing, gives up on projects the moment they aren't going his way and affixes a bizarre stigma to Toronto internationally as his pratfalls become the only thing people from away know about our city. Rob Ford is not good at his job but I still feel bad for him because beyond what I consider his professional failings the man is suffering. I just hope those around him recognize the demons and help him before anything worse occurs.

3.15.2013

Digits - Street Violence

Here is a music video I helped with.

2.27.2013

the wolves come marching two by two, hurrah

A little dream I had months ago. I promised to write a poem about it, so here is not that, but there are words so that counts for something.

----

I'm on a rock in the forest and there are two wolves, one white and one black, running through the trees. There are only the two, but inseparable and simultaneous, they move like a flock of small birds. They flash and are gone, only to flash out again. It makes no sense because the forest is tall and so straight. Lodge-pole pines and poplars on a bed of dead, orange pine needles. No underbrush in an open forest, skinny trunk after skinny trunk into the distance. It's only very far away that enough trees are layered to block my view. I can see everywhere, but the wolves aren't there, then they are, then they're gone again, circling and streaking through their trompe l'oeil forest. I follow the white wolf and the black wolf as best I can but without warning another duo, grey and black, are beside my stone redoubt, gnashing at my legs. I hit them with a heavy thing until it's time to wake.

----

I'm sure there are many more dream dictionaries online, but this one seems to hit it out of the park first try so why bother look elsewhere?

"A white wolf in a dream usually symbolizes an area of your life where you are a loner or on your own. A situation that nobody else understands or that you have to do all by yourself.

A black wolf in a dream usually symbolizes a threat or sense of vulnerability. You may feel like nobody can help you or [you're] unable to get the answers you need."

Fun.

No mention of what a grey wolf means, but probably some sort of Germanic opera reference.

2.03.2013

Tunnel talk

I gave a talk on tunnels at MOUTHY, a storytelling night in Kingston. Here is the text I was working from, although given my propensity to blather don't take this as the gospel that was shared that night.

Apologies for the lack of links to sources, but that seems like too much work. Just assume it's wikipedia and go from there.

-------

Tunnels

Oh hey guys, I speak in public for a living because I’m a tour guide. I’m telling you this not because I want you to expect something great here, but because I’m terrified of giving this talk. I haven’t written and delivered a speech since grade 6 when I told my class about the Bermuda Triangle and when I delivered that beauty I at least had a new tracksuit on, so I was literally draped in confidence.

At my school we gave speeches in grades 4, 5 and 6, and if you were good enough you were chosen to speak to the whole school from the stage in the gym. Nerve-wracking stuff. But because I made it to the gym three straight years (pause for applause) I figured an elementary school speech would be a good format to follow. If anything I say unnerves you, remember I’m 10 years old up here (rub hand through thick lustrous beard)

Soooo... Let’s start with a riddle.

What is a way to enter the world and a way to leave it, a route to wealth and a route to monsters? Something that can restrict your vision and your freedom of movement but can also alter perceptions and realities of space and time and power?

The answer of course is tunnels. TUNNELS (pump fist in air)

Amongst other definitions the Oxford English Dictionary defines a tunnel as “A subterranean passage; a road-way excavated under ground, especially under a hill or mountain, or beneath the bed of a river: now most commonly on a railway; also in earliest use on a canal, in a mine, etc.” Apparently it can also be defined as “A net for catching partridges or water-fowl, having a pipe-like passage with a wide opening, and narrowing towards the end.”

The online OED is a pretty impressive thing and after skipping three other entries I found: “Applied figuratively to a prolonged period of difficulty, suffering, etc. Frequently in phrases [such as] light at the end of the tunnel: a long-awaited sign that a period of hardship and adversity is nearing an end.”

And the figurative is the spot to start, because it has some wiggle room. Tunnels are more than tubes in the ground, even more than a partridge trap. They are spaces that hold their transitory nature within their structure. Longer than they are wide, tunnels drag you on to see what’s ahead, around the corner, in the dark.

Some tunnels, like Toronto’s PATH system, connect and are full of similar commercial sights. They seem to carry you nowhere despite a lot of walking. Others plonk you on the other side of a mountain or across the sea when you emerge. And even entering and leaving a tunnel by the same door, separated only by a few hours can put you in a world previously unimaginable. Think of the people coming out of London’s tube stations during the blitz. Hidden deep underground with only a dull notion of what was happening above them and then emerging to find burnt rubble in place of their city.

It’s the unknown that lies at the other end of a tunnel that makes it exciting. The magic is in the possibility for change and transformation - of a new world, wealth, salvation or just mystery for mystery’s sake.

I like to think my fascination with tunnels began when I was born. As my parents tell the story I was a slow baby from that start. Not that I caused my mum a long labour, but that I caused her to go into labour, then stopped, then started again a couple more times before I was actually born. My dad, having driven like a mad man to reach the hospital, was forced to wait until I decided it was time. Control freak from the earliest days.

Now, with absolutely zero medical training or a clear understanding of what specifically triggers labour, or why some last a long time and others are over with quickly, I’m going to assert that I took so long because I wasn’t too sure about the tunnel I was being asked to enter.

If you can’t see the far end of a tunnel you don’t know where it might take you. You don’t know how long the tunnel is and you have no clue at what point you’ve gone too far. Where’s the middle? Where’s the point of no return? Can you go back if you change your mind?

And even if you can see the other end there is usually a long dark space between here and there that holds its own foreboding. There is undeniable mystery and possibility, but you have overcome fear and choose to push on.

As for me and my birth, I just wasn’t ready to leave the world I was in. All I knew about the outside world I had learned through the disembodied muffles I could hear. Those sounds could have been my parents, or they could be dragons, and I didn’t have a sword, a shield or know what a dragon was. But then, curiosity…

And down the tunnel I went, from darkness into the light.

Tunnels are essential to life itself. It’s a conceit not so crazy when you realize that most of the early tunnels people built were for obtaining and moving water. If you’re going to invest the time and effort to hack a tunnel through a hill or mountain with limited tools and light, at great risk to your well-being, you’re only going to do it for something that you absolutely need.

Some of the oldest examples of water related tunnelling are qanats, dating back 3000 years to Iran.

If anyone here is looking to move some water in an arid environment where a canal based irrigation system would result in too much evaporation loss and a vertical well would need to be prohibitively deep, pay attention.

The smartest thing you can do is probably hire a team of Muqqanis to dig the thing for you, Muqqanis being the hereditary class of qanat diggers in Iran.

If you’re a do it yourself kind of person though, the first part of making a qanat is to dig a series of holes in a straight line. You then dig at the bottoms of the holes, connecting them, to make the tunnel, long and straight with a slight slope so gravity can do all the work. The tunnel generally starts under a hill because water tables tend to rise along with the land above them. Again, this helps with the whole gravity thing. As you probably guessed the water exits where you plan to grow your food, usually a flat area with decent soil.

The set-up is such that you can only take as much water as the spring or aquifer can provide and only as quickly as gravity is willing to carry it.

Think for a moment of your sink like an aquifer, your tap like the rain, and that little hole that allows for overflow water to drain off when you leave the tap on and the plug in and get distracted by what’s on the stove as the qanat. Right? The point I’m trying to make is the overflow only functions when there is an excess of water.

I learned about qanats last week so if my metaphor is not apt and you’re a hydrologist please speak now.

In Iran today there are 22 000 Qanats, 170 000 miles of underground channels, and until recently they provided 75% of the country’s water.
One of the difficulties of digging underground long ago was making sure you consistently dug in the direction you wanted. By having multiple access points qanat tunnels were made from a series of shorter tunnels that were easier to keep in line. When people dug in stone though, or didn’t want a bunch of surface holes showing where your tunnel was, things were different.

Imagine your name is Hezekiah and you’re the king of Jerusalem in the 8th century BCE. Everyone there? You are worried the Assyrians are going to attack and your city’s main water source is outside your walls, what do you do?

For those of you who answered dig a tunnel from two ends simultaneously for the first time in recorded human history, you are correct. Also you’re digging through solid rock instead of dirt, but in this case that turned out to be a positive development. To keep the tunnels on target people on the surface could pound on the rock. The diggers could hear those sounds and follow accordingly.

Okay, this time your name is Eupalinos and you’re a Greek engineer on the island of Samos, just off the modern Turkish coast. Your job, as instructed by the local tyrant, is to get water from a spring into the city walls for an anticipated Persian attack. Same problem, right, EXCEPT there’s a mountain in the way, and you can’t bang on a mountain.

This is one of those “weren’t those ancient Greeks terribly clever at mathematics stories,” and with that in mind, Eupalinos probably only got the job because the aforementioned tyrant had chased away Pythagoras a few years before. Yes that Pythagoras, the one with the triangles.

So, Eupalinos goes to work, does all the calculations and sets his diggers digging from two sides of the mountains. Now he wasn’t a cocky man so even after doing all the calculations, and presumably checking them at least twice, he still hedged his bets. Just before where he figured the tunnels were meant to meet he had the diggers dig up and dig wider.

Up because two parallel lines will never cross and just in case his two tunnels weren’t aligned, on an angle they should meet somewhere. And he dug wider in the vertical plane because, well it makes sense.

If anyone else is thinking of writing a screenplay about an imagined rivalry between Eupalinos and Pythagoras, I’m right there with you. Not enough algebra based ancient Greek rivalries in movies I say. 

So water is a pretty good reason to get your hands dirty. It’s important, and so is food, but if you ever find yourself in a situation without food or water you still have a few options. You can get some gold together and pop on over to your local food and water store to buy some, or you can get some weapons together and pop on over to your local food and water store to take some. Either way you’re going to need some sort of metal and to get that, at some point, you’re going to have to go underground.

There are a couple ways to get rich in a tunnel, one is to follow a tunnel to its end where you find a dragon sitting on a vast treasure – and probably one or two skeletons – and slay it. The other, much more tedious method is to dig the tunnel yourself, following a vein of whatever ore you’re after into the ground, straight to the mother lode.

When people first moved out of the stone age mining and metallurgy were less about science and BIG DUMP TRUCKS and more about mysticism and reverence for those who controlled the underworld. Miners were rightly a little nervous about going underground and taking some of the mountain king’s gold and diamonds.

They didn’t double check their radio and hard hat before going into a tunnel, they prayed and fasted, cleansed the body and spirit through ablutions, fasting and abstinence. The Iranian Muqqanis did some of this, but also got to decide what days they worked. Feeling unlucky today? Best to stay on the surface. Did you just sneeze? That’s an automatic sick day. Fair play I say. You don’t want to wake anyone who is sleeping in the dirt.

Even the smiths who worked the ores on the surface were granted shamanic status in some communities. Their tools held special properties, and their ability to fuse and mold rocks, creating tools and jewellery was right up there with magic.

Because of the dangers involved, supply and demand has always led what got mined. Not much call for iron ore during the Bronze Age for example, but when knights started galloping around wearing 100 pounds of armour iron mines became very popular indeed.

Sometimes though, no matter what people were willing to pay, miners couldn’t help. For instance, the silver crisis of 1465, as with most silver crises, came about because people wanted silver and there wasn’t enough silver. Tunnels had been dug as deep as was possible and although people were willing to go deeper they had hit the water table and didn’t yet have the technology to pump the mine dry.

This dynamic remains at play today. Tunnels of gold mines abandoned 100 years ago are being re-explored because the price of gold has increased alongside our ability to dig deeper and move water.

But before we get into modern mines I want to make it clear we haven’t left pre-industrial tunnelling behind us entirely. The Cerro Rico mines near the city of Potosi in Bolivia are dug into a pile of rock affectionately referred to as “the mountain that eats men.” Started in 1545 the mine fuelled the Spanish Empire’s silver needs until the late 18th century.

To give you an idea about how much silver it produced, people used to say it was enough silver to build a bridge from the mountain to Madrid. And why not? There is also a theory that the mine stamp for Potosi, the letters P-T-S-I superimposed on one another, is how we get the dollar sign today. And if that isn’t impressive enough there’s a saying in Spanish, used by Don Quixote amongst others, valer un potosi, which means worth a potosi. It means worth A LOT OF MONEY.

At its height in the 17th century Potosi was one of the largest cities in South America and reputedly the richest in the world. Its Catholic churches were decorated with riches to rival anything in the rest of Christendom, and according to something I read on the internet church doors in Potosi faced south toward the mountain rather than east towards…Jesus? Apparently that eastern orientation used to be a thing, less so now.

But, as the silver lode dried up Potosi succumbed to its reality as an arid city located at over 4000 metres elevation. Today the mine remains active, but it’s run by mining cooperatives. Miners get paid for a day’s work but are also allowed to carry out whatever they can and the dream of a big ol’ silver nugget remains strong. Because there aren’t safety measure and very little in the way of ventilation, between falls, cave-ins and silicosis from all the dust in the air a 40-year-old miner is an old miner.

And like the miners of centuries past those who work Potosi like to hedge their bets. On the surface they’re devout Catholics, but the light of eternal salvation doesn’t reach underground. Instead they look to El Tio, a diabolic denizen of the underworld, for protection. There is a statue near the mine’s entrance where miners leave gifts, usually the same things they use to ward off the hunger and fear of a 10 hour shift inside the mountain, namely coco leaves and 192 proof booze.

It’s as if to enter the mine’s tunnels and survive necessitates the men becoming different beasts, something that isn’t the humans they are on the surface. They worship a new god and alter their brain chemistry to survive the netherworld.

If anyone is interested, the mine has also become a backpacker destination. You can pay a few dollars and a former miner will take you, first to the market to buy gifts for the miners - cigarettes, coco leaves, dynamite, booze – then into the belly of the mountain. But you’d better go soon, because apparently the mountain is so full of tunnels some people are predicting it will collapse in on itself in the next 50 years.

Today’s industrial corporate mines are generally much different. As they would probably say on a Discovery Channel show: Modern mines push the limits of human ingenuity and engineering. (music music flash flash). Modern mines have LIGHTS! And VENTILATION! And SAFE ROOMS stocked with water, food and air supply for easy listening (wait for laughter to die down).

The deepest mine in the world today is TauTona Mine in South Africa, probing 3.9 kilometres below the surface in search of gold. The largest is Kiirunavaara in Sweden with 450 km of underground roads.

Not tunnel related, but mind blowing just the same, is the Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah. It’s an open pit mine, but the pit is over 1200 metres deep and really wide. Amazing what us humans can do when we put our mind and heavy machinery to it.

To recap tunnels get us water, and in turn help us grow food. Tunnels also provide the resources we need for the society and culture we live with today. Without those rare earth minerals we all know so much about our phones wouldn’t exist, and without stuff like potash to go into fertilizer food production would be significantly different. But we don’t just extract nature through tunnels we also move it and ourselves around. Without tunnels much of modern urban life would be impossible.

Let’s get wet! Again.

As of this moment the 6 longest tunnels in the world are all transporting water. The longest is the Thirlmere Aqueduct in England that carries water into the city of Manchester from 154km away. These aren’t sexy tunnels (although these days with the internet, who knows). They’re working tunnels that carry water along a route known by those who care to know, and unless one springs a leak they’ll never make the news.

There was a time when people were in awe of the tunnels their society had built, amazed at their own ingenuity. And why not? City on fire: there is water to put it out. Need to boil carrots: water comes out your wall and into the pot. Don’t like cholera: this sewer is going to carry away your shit.

You could actually take a raft tour through the newly completed sewers in Haussmann era Paris. These tunnels contained not just poo, but also the promise of a limitless future where no matter what was thrown at us human ingenuity could overcome.

And of course our attempts to control the world through tunnels continues.

Underground pedestrian tunnels in numerous Canadian cities allow us to get around town, from condo tower to office tower to grocery store, while flipping the bird at winter. That is if you can find a window that winter is looking in.

Subways, just trains in a tunnel pal. But by putting them there you keep them off the street and increase the third dimensional space a city has to play with. Not just down, but up as well, because a city with a subway system can be a denser place with taller towers and more people.

And if we really want to go over the top, and we do – and assuming we all agree that the fourth dimension is time – tunnels allow us to warp the fourth dimension.

The ancient Greeks knew the fastest way between two points was in a straight line and so did the people who built the Chunnel or the Gotthard Base Tunnel. The Chunnel is the tunnel that runs beneath the English Channel, and probably one of the better-named tunnels on the planet. While the Gotthard Base Tunnel, due to open in 2016 when it will become the longest rail tunnel in the world at 57km, will join the Gotthard Road Tunnel as two great ways to get from Italy to Switzerland without having to climb over a mountain.

Suggesting that tunnels bend time, and no I won’t be discussing the particle accelerator tunnel at CERN or wormholes tonight, is premised on the notion that time is relative. Sure we try to measure time in an absolute sense but we experience it relative to other factors: if you’re bored time moves more slowly kind of idea. But also, by choosing one mode of transport or one route over another you lock up time to get from point A to point B, or free it up to do other things.

If you’re walking a set amount of time you will cover a certain of distance, a horse gets you further, a train further still, a bullet train? Look out! But no matter how fast your train is moving, if you drive it into a mountain or an ocean time stops. Less dramatically, even if you just have to put your car on a ferry, or take a winding switchback filled road over a mountain, you’re using time to get to a place that if you’d used a tunnel the time might be used to read a book, make a hat or stare at a wall.

I’m not saying we should necessarily make our lives more efficient with tunnels, forgoing every opportunity to drive through the mountains, just that once a tunnel is there our experience of moving from one side of the mountain to the other changes.

If a tunnel can overcome a mountain, so to speak, it must be a powerful thing. Or, since I’m not quite ready to ascribe sentience to tunnels, there is a power within a tunnel that the person who knows how to use it can access. In the case of the Chunnel or the Gotthard tunnels that power goes to the holidaymaker or shipping company that cuts hours off their travel time.

But everyone knows about those tunnels and to take advantage of them just requires you own a car or can buy a ticket. When a tunnel is secret though, or system of tunnels is extremely complex and difficult for an outsider to understand, there are different power dynamics at play.

Just think for a moment about the term secret passageway and everything the term brings to mind. You’re welcome…

The two ancient water tunnels I mentioned earlier were built to keep all the inhabitants of their cities alive. If they lose their secret nature they lose the ability to sustain life.

There are underground cities in the Cappadocia region of central Turkey that were started 2800 years ago. Again, their strength lay in the fact they were underground and concealed. But because the cities were a series of interconnected tunnels, even if invaders learned of their presence the tunnel system’s complexity provided another layer of power to the inhabitants.

How many stories have been told and movies made about prisoners of war, having had their weapons and most of their belongings taken away. Left only with their ingenuity and pithy attitude the prisoners find strength and purpose through the tunnel they are slowly scraping out of the earth. Again though, secrecy is key, because the guards know a tunnel’s power and are watching for any sign. So the tunnel’s negative space must be spread across vegetable gardens and volleyball courts, hiding dirt in attics and under stairs.

The Cu Chi tunnels, part of a much larger pan-Vietnamese tunnel network, allowed the North Vietnamese forces to operate immediately adjacent to the south’s capital of Saigon during the Vietnam War. They weren’t just secret routes, but also supply depots, sleeping quarters, hospitals and kitchens. Because the tunnels were hidden, and the spaces inside them tight and confusing, America’s obvious advantages in firepower could never be brought to bear. Even their efforts with Agent Orange, designed to remove the North’s ability to hide in the jungle did nothing to reveal the systems hidden underground.

And in the end all they could do was send Willem Dafoe in with a knife between his teeth and a pistol in his hand and hope for the best.

The tunnels under Paris – catacombs, quarries, utility, transit and the rest of them - have provided a hiding place for all sorts of miscreants, rebels and resisters over the centuries. More recently they’ve also been the staging ground and infiltration route for UX, short for Urban eXperiment, a group of artists who use the their in-depth knowledge of the tunnels to access spaces for film festivals and art shows, or just to build a workshop with electricity, internet access, arm chairs and the like, then over the course of a year restore a 19th century clock that hasn’t chimed since the 1960s.

And think of what tunnels you hear about in the news today. Drug tunnels connecting Mexico or Canada to the US, providing a route, usually basement to basement, that allows drug movement out of sight. And whenever one is discovered there’s always comment about how a bunch of drug dealers were able to build such a well-engineered structure, complete with lights and a trolley system. People forget how long we’ve been building tunnels without engineering degrees.

And probably my favourite tunnels in operation today are those that provide most of the cross border trade into and out of the Gaza Strip. Because of Israeli blockades the tunnels often provide the only route to get needed building supplies into the territory. The tunnels also provide a route to get cars through. Formerly taken apart, carried through in pieces and reassembled on the other side, a quick search on Youtube now show cars being driven through larger tunnels before being hoisted back to the surface whole.

People go through the tunnels for medical treatment or just to get out of Gaza to party for a bit. Those with a lot of money can take one of the VIP tunnels, air-conditioned, well lit and with cell phone reception. There is even one story of a lion being brought in for the Gaza zoo. Unfortunately it wasn’t sedated properly, woke up half way through and mauled one of the workers.

Israel has recognized the danger these tunnels represent and have destroyed hundreds of homes near the border and then built a reverse steel wall down into the dirt. The Palestinian tunnellers simply went deeper.

Operators invest a fortune to build the tunnels, and charge dearly for everything that is brought through. The Hamas government generates a lot of its revenue by taxing the tunnel trade, but also bans the importation of weapons and ammunition. Of course, most people assume Hamas has its own tunnels for weapons.

To give you an idea of how important this underground economy is, when it looked like Israel might loosen border controls a number of tunnel operators were rumoured to have paid young militants to fire rockets across the border because it wouldn’t be good for business to have the restrictions relaxed.

Given their normal location beneath tonnes of dirt it’s unsurprising that tunnels have enormous destructive power as well. What better way to bring down a castle wall than dig a tunnel beneath and when the time is right burn the wooden supports to bring it all down.

And when fires or explosions happen in tunnels inadvertently the results are of course disastrous. Even if an explosion doesn’t result in collapse the percussive forces are all concentrated and directed along the tunnels crushing people as they go. This scenario played out in the Courrieres Mine in France, leaving 1099 dead in 1906, and Benxihu Colliery in China in 1942, leaving 1549 dead

When I was a child, who knows how old, I watched a movie where two groups of kids were having a snowball fight around a fort someone had built. I don’t remember what led to the fight, only that it felt very violent and intense. Then the fighting stopped. An escape tunnel had been included in the fort’s construction and it had collapsed, killing a dog. I still remember the image of the leash coming out from under a pile of snow very clearly, the dangers of tunnel collapses implanted in my head forever.

That hasn’t stopped me from going into them though.

Just after Queen’s University bought the old women’s prison I was able to get over the wall one night and eventually found myself in the disused steam tunnel, walking farther and farther, accompanied but the tings, clicks and drips you might expect. It’s amazing what absolute darkness feels like when you turn off your headlamp. Just for a second. Then a funny thing started happening, I was feeling warmer, probably because the tunnel was heading due south, straight for the very much still in use Kingston Pen. I turned around.

If you don’t know where a tunnel leads, and aren’t sheltering from the elements or hiding from pursuers the only reason to go into a tunnel is curiosity. Even if you’re not expecting treasure, the tunnel itself is reason enough. But once you’re in you’re confined and directed

One holiday my girlfriend at the time and myself were walking around a closed golf course when we found a drainage tunnel that was coming out from under the Don Valley Parkway, following an old creek’s route no doubt. We were just killing time and a dark hole in the side of the highway seemed as helpful in that cause as anything.

It was probably about 130 centimetres in diameter, so you could move through it bent over but because of the tunnels curvature and the water running down the middle your legs were spread and your feet ended up at an angle. Less walking and more like a shuffling waddle.

On and on it went, and in the darkness we quickly lost a sense of distance and time. The light behind us disappeared and on and on we went. We would stop sometimes slowly move toward one another confirm we weren’t just two voices in the dark and we would wonder, should we go back? How far can this go? But the tunnel always pulled us on, because we couldn’t know what we’d find until we got there.

Eventually there was light, so faint that it might just have been a trick of the eye and brain, something to be blinked away. But it seemed real, and what choice did we have, so we waddled on.

After spying the light my guess is we walked at least 50 metres before we got to its source, and it’s source was the sun. Up a 10 metre shaft, with a rusty ladder bolted to its side, the outside was looking down at us through two one inch squares on a manhole cover. And so, up the ladder, shoulder to the cover and after some loud metal on metal scraping we were back in the world, in someone’s backyard.

Knowing there is so much more that could be said about tunnels, I’m going to close back on the figurative tunnel. Walking in the steel pipe under the DVP I learned that the light at the end of a tunnel need not be extremely bright to be visible. And when you see it, just knowing it’s there can help pull you on.

As I’ve been saying tunnels provide all sorts of possibilities for individuals and humanity more broadly. But sometimes, when you’re in one, whether tangible or metaphorical, a tunnel restricts your choices to three. You can go back, you can go forward, or you can collapse where you are and wait for the monsters to slink out of the inky blackness to devour you. If you ever find yourself there remember, going back doesn’t mean you’ll exit where you think you will and waiting for a monster to eat you is boring and their tentacles are gross. But going forward, there might be something fun there and the light, no matter how faint, is bound to appear sooner than you think.

Oh, and if the light at the end of the tunnel turns out to be a tunnel of light, make the choice on entering THAT tunnel on a case by case basis.