Monday, March 31, 2014

Day 31 - Approaching A Corner

The recurring dream goes something like this. I'm embedded in some darkness, an organic mass. I manage to emerge out of it onto a number line (an elementary school math tool used to teach fractions). I count to infinity and end up on the top of a tower, bright and clear, so high up above the clouds. I immediately find myself in the murk again. I have to count to infinity again. I wake up screaming.
    Screaming, agitated, crying, scared, shook up. I may have had this dream twice, maybe three times. I've considered going to hypnosis to see if I can recall more. I have told it so often to myself and others that I fear a broken telephone has set in, a memory of a memory, infinite regress.
    I must have been five the first time, by seven the last time.
    Number lines. Imagine a ruler of ten segments. Draw an arc from the start of one segment to the start of another. Do that the whole way across. Draw an arc spanning two segments. Draw that the whole way across. You'll have five of those arcs. Draw an arc spanning five segments. You'll only need two arcs. Now imagine if each segment was subdivided into ten. Arcs aplenty. You can go on forever. Counting to infinity, I guess.
    When I was older I was drawn to mythology and later symbolism. I read a bit about motifs found all over the place in human history. Art, stories, architecture, dreams, myths. Lots of overlap. I read enough to know that my dream was text book symbolism at it's basic. Dark, cold, wet, organic to start with, Light, airy, angular & crystalline (the rooftop was diamond shaped). I emerged horizontal, I ended up vertical. Here we go again.
    I've interpreted it to my own satisfaction at times through out my life but have often missed the crux, literally, of the story. How did I, the roving point of view that was me in the dream, for there were no figures, turn the bend from my horizontal number line and start climbing the tower ? That's the missing part. Where the X and Y axes meet.

In 2012 I completed my first graphic novel, Inside Outside Overlap. It used this dream imagery as a spring board. It was clear that this recurring dream was the story I needed to tell. I had poked around with some poetry and graphics before but never a project of this size devoted to this topic. As far as I was concerned, this was the only topic to tackle. This puzzling dream, often thought of, came to be my story. At least my first story.
    In the comic my character uses ritual and meditation to enter an inner world wherein he finds a dormant version of himself covered (made?) with goo. He dives into the cesspool and begins the arduous task of digging through the mire, pulling the sludge off until a clarity is revealed. This leads to a crystallization and voilà, our hero is made peaceful.
    I haven't been able to pull this off. My sludge is chipped off at a rate of a flake a month if not a year. I'm not shoveling the shit out of me fast enough to reach catharsis. My meditation practise is still nil, despite my age-old yearning to integrate one into my life. Too often for a healthy mind to deal with, have I wondered what benefits such a routine may yield. I wonder more than actively explore this domain.
    I have slid into mundanity these last many years. Fourteen, I'd hazard. Before that I would perform ritual, pray to deities one and all, change my mind like I'd change a shirt. I felt initiated into the mysteries with each step. Of course with the years I concretized and calcified, gained weight and developed nagging health issues. My thyroid slowed down. My bowels rebelled. My skin said fuck you to my hands. My middle-agedness jumped out of the bushes and beat the shit out of my skinny rock star delusions about who I thought I was always going to be.
    Here I am today, the last day of my self-imposed daily writing routine and I don't know where to go. I can pack it all in, like Greek school or boxing or yoga, and continue the gnawing interior welt that has dogged me since I awoke into adulthood. I can banish the murk by embracing what I seem to fear most, stepping confidently into the light of a daily balanced routine. I can abandon that clarity and sink again into the morass of my many broken dreams. I can go upsy-daisy and down-under a thousand more times before I die. I don't want to wake up screaming every time I hit the squishy starting point again. I don't want to keep starting over. I don't want to count to infinity again.     I'm going to get to the crux of this thing, turn that damned corner, shoot to the top of that tower and stay there.
    You coming along ?

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Painting Figurines

I would take special trips downtown, getting off at Atwater or Guy stations to visit a hobby shop on Saint Catherines between the two stops. It was there I would select and buy a small lead figurine to paint. The selection was huge. I chose Ral Partha figures because I liked the designs of classic fantasy and they were affordable for a fourteen year old.
    I'd take them home and spend a good couple of hours painting each one. I had a steady hand, fine brushes and Testors enamel paint, that I'd been using for years building plastic scale model kits. The final result was a far cry from what I saw in the hobby magazines and catalogs but it was still pretty good. Hill Giant, Frost Giant, Cyclops, Dark Rider, Skeleton Archer, Jabberwocky, Complete Adventurer. Some I would cement to wooden stands, glueing railroad grass around the base.
    I loved miniatures and would gaze absently at the materials for sale at Hobby World or whatever it was called. I'd fantasize about the many uses of balsa dowelling or copper rods. The plastic sheets mimicking brick or stone walls were especially tantalizing. Would I build a torture chamber ? No, probably not. too many ideas and not too much get-up-and-go. My scratch building was mostly relegated to the realm of the imagination. I'd tinker plenty though, and built a nice collection of miniature weaponry, halberds, scimitars, battle-axes, broadswords. A small plastic tube cemented to a small bit of chain cemented to a bead made a perfect little chain-morningstar. My dad got into the spirit and whittled a sweet sword and scabbard out of popsicle sticks. I still have all this stuff, of course.
    Projects are successful if they are achievable in one sitting. A weapon yes, a dungeon no. Small offerings that add-up, that's my style. Now, none of the figurines or weapons I've mentioned ever made it to the semi-regular Advanced Dungeons & Dragons games I'd play. They were for me and my room. The games were fun and don't need figures to be played. In fact, I like my role playing games with nothing but paper and dice. The head spaces that one enters with a great campaign led by a great Dungeon Master are fleshed out worlds brimming with enthusiasm. I laughed coming home once after a great game and said to my startled mother, 'Ma, I get why kids kill themselves over this game!'
    I'm still hoping to find a fun DM along with a perfect ragtag team of warriors and magicians. D&D is the kind of game you wish your best friends can play with you, but often they can't. It's another bunch of people, I guess that's ok.
    My Testors paints are sitting there dormant, oil up top and pigment down below, a sediment waiting to be stirred to life. My figurines are scattered, some broken or missing, others sold, some in a box somewhere. I should dig them out, the remainders are mostly giants, and dust them off. My altar is a better place for them than the dark of a cardboard box.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Abs 'n Cash

I don't remember how long I was in Cub Scouts. Not long. Same with hockey lessons. Not long at all. A few early freezing mornings, with torture devices strapped to my aching feet, decked out in heavy rigid gear. It was way more fun to collect hockey cards than to skate back and forth, feet splayed apart, never a game in sight. Just practice. And more practice.
    Soccer was at least outside in nice weather for the most part and we played games right away. There wasn't this learning curve and it didn't require accessories that weighed a ton. I could run around all day. Getting a stinging soccer ball to the face made me call it quits. No thanks, the orange wedges were the best part of it anyway. Greek school didn't fare too well either. Whatever Mimi and Anna and the chicken were up to in the grammar book, they weren't getting me to stay after school for more school. Grade two and I was out of there.
    My mom admits she should have been stricter, not letting me bail out of every activity. In hindsight, which is crystal clear, I wish my folks new about track and field or gymnastics or something where I could just cavort around. Alas, no such luck. I probably would have quit those activities anyway. I'm still not too good with activities. I've taken boxing lessons, tai chi, yoga, all for a semesters worth at most and I loved all of it. Then pop!, never again. Non committal, I guess. Or flighty. Couldn't care less…no, not that. I care. I even rationalize how this activity, if seen through, will just pull me up to the next level of awesome. Well, no.
    Probably way too much pressure put on these poor little pastimes. Poor little yoga class just wanted to limber me up a little, but no, I had to go and convince myself that this is activity was exactly what would pull it all together for me, the chips lining up just so, ease of mobility, deepened empathy, my taxes filed on time and a diet devoid of gummy candy and gas station beef jerky. Radiant health and cash money. One thing that I took away from the Church Of The SubGenius, an organization I kept at arms length, was the concept of the ShoDurPerSav, the short duration personal saviour. This is what Bruce Lee is when you get high and watch all his movies in a row. Or when Fly By Night by Rush is the best album in the world…for today. You move on, the Church knows that and so personal saviours come ready for our short attention spans.
    My enthusiasm would overflow for something for a week and then just unceremoniously trail off into limbo. I would talk up a storm about how amazing such-and-such is, how a daily spoonful of clarified butter is the cat's meow. How with just fifteen minutes a day meditation I was starting to see auras. A month later and I'm bumming cigarettes again or have rediscovered Swiss Rolls.
    I'm waiting for the thing that will catch. The thing that isn't sugar or caffeine, that isn't just reading or surfing the net. I'm  adept at those things, a veritable master. I'm waiting for the good thing to come and build its nest in my nervous system. Seems I may wait a long time. I may just have to see good habits as lovers in every port. When the stars align just so we have a magical love affair and when it's over we move on, nary a harsh word spoken.
    That's my special system.

Friday, March 28, 2014

How I Got Here

It's been almost a month since I committed to writing a small text every day and uploading it onto a web log reserved for text. I have been making art all my life having drawings first published in elementary school. By university, though I drew often, I self identified as a writer.
    I participated on my college newspaper as assistant entertainment editor and joined my university literary magazine as graphics editor and junior poetry editor. It was there that I was confronted with the world of poetastering in all it's undergraduate nuance. I was surrounded by very confident young poets who made a point of loudly declaring what was and what was not a poem. I realized that by the standards displayed by my fellows, everything and nothing made the cut. My own poems were essentially glitter rock operas, rejected Transformer era Lou Reed lyrics and psychedelic guitar solos jammed with a thesaurus full of paisley dewdrops. None the less, I was a writer and I enrolled in the study of literature to enhance this love of words.
    That I alone of my fellows preferred a copy of Robert E. Howard to Ezra Pound in my pocket did not escape their notice. I got the gumption one day to show my poems to a young man a year or two my elder who after a quick perusal fed me the line that would haunt me for years to come : stick to drawing. Those three simple words made my writer self screech to a halt. I was hurt, of course, but more than that I took it to heart. I did already receive praise for the shitty juvenilia I was drawing at the time and saw no reason to stop collecting those easy compliments. But I wasn't impressing anyone with my poetry.
    I continued to write semi-secretly, mostly either purple stuff or forays into conceptual text work. Concurrently I was experimenting with concrete poetry and was enjoying that very much. I did not share this work with those in my local literary community, reserving it for strangers via international post. From the offices of the literary magazine at school I swiped a choice issue of a Canadian lit journal devoted to concretism and have developed a collection of these rare books ever since.
    So I drew. I drew posters for poetry readings and illustrations for the literary reviews. I knew writers and involved myself in small press. I started on comics and got published. My drawings and visuals were spread far and wide. My words, though, were written on folded up sheets of ragged paper in my jean jacket pocket, mostly bumper sticker remarks, song lyrics, slogans and band names. Short form writing is good for those in transition. I transitioned for years. I am still transitioning. I did some secret journalism by writing an English column for a Greek community newspaper. I submitted long hand and someone at the paper typed it up and typeset it. Invariably every single column was botched by typos and strange formatting issues. I have nothing to show for those efforts.
    I won a writing grant from Ottawa for a graphic novel. My comic book was mute, silent, wordless. I was now considered, according to the grant issuing body, a professional writer. I didn't use any words. This paradox allowed me to relax a bit. I also told the story of the 'stick to drawing' advice to a senior member of the local literary community. He asked, Where is that guy now ? What has he done ? He reminded me that I was still around, being active in the scene. This steeled me and I gained another bit of confidence. I submitted short prose pieces to small run zines on music and subcultural themes. This exercised the muscles. I gained more confidence when I found myself at a giant strip club at a high school friends stag party. There on stage, in his underwear, ridden like a horse, his own belt in the hands of a bronco busting stripper was my once confident poetic detractor.
    I stuck to drawing. I'll keep at it. I've rediscovered text. I'll stick to that too.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Litter Witching

On the far side of the school yard there was an unused parking lot, away from the main play areas. This lot was just sitting there, ringed by a curb, the lines painted on the pavement fading away. I would walk along this narrow concrete curb, balancing and looking down for things lost or forgotten. Small fragments of broken toys, pen caps, coins, washers. I would scour the area looking hard. These were my first attempts at looking to find things. I found things. I still do.
    Finding things has been a huge part of my identity since those days in grade four, grade five when I would set out on my missions. A happy corollary has been my love for decaying urban areas, crumbling curbs, weeds breaking through asphalt, odd cement structures, metal rings embedded in concrete for absentee poles, painted sigils once communicating something to someone about a job that needed doing. Loading docks, parking lots, any place where small broken items can be laid out bare to the elements, dry, clean, scuffed. I don't go looking for treasure in tall wet grass. I don't want to wipe mud off of something. I want it like I want a pebble or a quarter, ready to go into pocket. A small photograph, the leg of an action figure, a lego block, a widget, a screw, a bead, a tab, a nut, a slug. Small things for small hands to put into small pockets.
    I'd keep these things in empty vitamin bottles, in breath mint tins, in shoe boxes. I'd empty pockets when they got too full. I'd string them together on key chains, on safety pins. I'd wear them hanging off bags or jackets. I'd make necklaces with the parts I'd find. I'd make bracelets, earrings I wouldn't wear. These were magical things. Some rusted bits I'd lacquer with my mothers clear nail polish.
    Into college and university I would have clusters hanging off of me. I had a structure I made on my bedroom wall that things would get tied to, get hung off, get added to. Litter. Pure litter witchery. The spell was in the act of finding, claiming, bestowing with meaning, rearranging, wearing, changing. My friends joked, pointing out an old tire in the fields, 'why don't you make an earring out of it ?' They'd present a washer to me to add to my collection, with a grin. Their washer didn't resonate with me. It was inert. They didn't get it. I had to find it. Or it had to be really special. Occasionally a friend would get it, laugh at me with a knowing wink. My happiest moments were me left alone in a lot, finding items and lining them up on the curb, too numerous to take with me, they would be left there, an evident sign that some witness passed through that place and left a sign. I saw that was all art was, a witnessing, scratching a deep line into a rock as if to say, I was here, I saw this place, I leave a mark for others to know that someone else has been a witness to this. 'This' was life itself. Leaving a mark was akin to collecting a mark left my design or by accident. Taking things found and bringing them to a new place, a new context. Finding things, finding meaning. Making things, making meaning.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Hag

The only time I remember meeting The Hag was when I was around twenty years old. The Hag is another name for what we call sleep paralysis, an event that is often reported as being accompanied by the feeling that something malevolent is sitting on your chest preventing you from moving. A frightening dream is the main meat of this event, a dream not recognized as one because the sufferer thinks they are perfectly awake and for some inexplicable reason not able to move. The body is frozen in place and the eyes are seemingly open, witnessing any number of grotesqueries. Cold sweat is probably also present.
    Now I'm unsure if The Hag is an unfair name. I have spent some small time in my life worshipping The Crone, one of three aspects of The Goddess in the western neopagan tradition of Wicca. The Goddess, we learn quickly, ain't all fun and games, light and love and prancing through the forest. Nor is she all black nail polish and fishnet sleeves. She is all manner of things, big and small and one of her aspects is The Crone. This is an archetype of mature human womanhood, old lady who has seen it all, passed through the myriad stages of life and has accrued wisdom. I guess The Hag would be the shadow side of this aspect, an embittered old being hellbent on poking young-uns with misery sticks.
    My meeting with The Hag is memorable. No old evil creature is remembered as sitting on my chest. What I do remember is waking up in the middle of the night and being frozen in place. Immediately the fear starts coursing through me. My eyes are snapped open and glued to the window of my bedroom. Outside my window, horribly backlit and casting spidery shadows throughout the room, is the tall knotted tree that by day just stands there. Well, this night its branches are creaking down across the window pane with total evil intent. The limbs of this tree want in, they want to breach the bubble of my bedroom and devour me. I am sweating pure fear, unable to do anything but witness the reality that everything I thought I knew is wrong. Monsters are real. Reality as we know it is total BS. Monsters are real and there is one outside my window trying to get in.
    This is where my 'dream' ends. I wake up in the morning and the first thing I notice is that I am facing away from the window. I chuckle a sigh of relief. It couldn't have happened, I rationalize, I was frozen in place staring at the window and here I am waking up in another direction. It was a dream, only a dream. Another detail, there has never been a tree outside my window. In that moment of horror I assumed the tree was always there, suddenly having turned mobile and monstrous. No tree, I wasn't facing the window equals I was dreaming.
    I have had cosmic abstract night terrors rife with symbolism from age 5 to 7, I have had muttering, gibbering fever dream deliriums as a kid and a teenagers. I have had nightmare after nightmare, weirdnesses too many to recount. But this was the only time I remember The Hag. She showed up as a tree turned bad, a force of nature usually associated with green growth and clean air, now knotted with ill intent and out to kill any promise of rest.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Night Bus

Like many good Greek boys in North America I lived with my parents way longer than my barbarian friends. This meant that by the time I got home from a road trip to the west coast as an eighteen year old, the home I got back to was new. My family moved to a deeper suburb, further away from downtown. Now, if I needed to go out or attend class I'd have to give myself an hour and a half for the bus and metro ride. I started crashing over at friends a lot.
    Buses came every half hour. Pacing at bus stops became normal. I always carried a folded piece of paper in my jacket pocket to scribble down cool band names I though of or some lyric I made up. I also would find things on the dusty streets and collect the ground scores in my jacket pockets. Right pocket for wood and metal, left for plastics. On the bus I entertained myself with a pocket book and often, with markers. I'd crouch low and decorate the back of the seat in front of me with vivid symbols. I got to carrying more than one colour and often drew elaborate doodles on the 215. None of this was ever documented of course, documentation was to become de rigueur with street art later on.
    Eyes in triangles, the word EVOLVE underneath, random Discordian in-jokes, prophetic mutterings. My first 'tag' was an eight fold path and the word, again in all caps, REPENT. I mostly stuck to discrete spaces for these communiques. Bathroom stalls, buses and metros, campus. I even scratched some triangles around town and left the occasional sticker. Some surfaces acted as message boards where other freaks would leave their ravings. This was just before the ubiquitous name tag came and covered Montreal. With that particular street style I feel that lone and unique voices were crowded out from public spaces. Signal to noise ratio went in favour of noise. It was the era of the copy cat.
    I was able to cover a bit of ground because of my heavy and constant commute and because of the floors and couches I would crash on instead of making it home after a party. I would find myself in different hoods, ill rested hung over and with a marker in my pocket.
    Quiet suburban streets at four in the morning were perfect for practising walking with eyes closed, for singing and chanting.
    I moved out at twenty seven, having spent too long in the West Island and too long catching night buses and too long waiting and pacing and nodding off on my ride. Finally another late bloomer and curiously not a Greek became my room-mate. We would often head home together back to the burbs, him a driver and me a willing, begging passenger. On these drives we would plan what would become our eventual escape. We made it out, together, to a decent apartment on Ave. du Parc in 1995, just a few doors down where his relations used to live a generation ago. "There? You moved there? We worked so hard to get out of that neighbourhood!"

Monday, March 24, 2014

Altering Iconography

I found a sea shell on Long Beach and my uncle helped me make a small hole in it to pass a string through. It was my first piece of jewellery outside the traditional gold baptismal cross and the ubiquitous blue eye of the sea / evil eye talisman of the Levant. These two symbols, eye and cross, co-exist around many a Hellenic neck, orthodoxy and paganism intertwined.
    I like a cross large, and swinging like medallions should. I've had metal ones, woven leather ones, wooden ones. I'm ok with the cross, not so okay when they have a tortured man affixed to them but I can live with that. I've collected religious iconography since adolescence. I kept an alter of my own design in my bedroom since then. It has moved around, now living semi-neglected over my fully neglected work table. My altars always held Christian, Pagan, Buddhist, Hindu, SF & F icons as well as assorted found items that resonate with me. My painted lead Ral Partha figurines, meant to enhance role playing games, live on my altar today. So does my collection of Magi. The best parts of any nativity scene are the three wise men of the east. Zoroastrian Wizards come to say hey to baby human potential. Magi, magician. My plastic baby Jesus in his manger is surrounded by plastic allies. A witch doctor rattling his shrunken head wand, a great ape standing in for the one true king, Kong. A unicorn has come into the circle. This magic beast has come into it's own in recent years as a true archetype, leading the kids to achieve their dreams no matter what society says about which way they need to swing, medallion or not. There's also a black panther & red fox - guardians for the left and right. Caveman bearing his club stands tall and makes sure no one comes tumbling in neglectful of the ancestors.
    Today, if I was to pray, I'd pray to a triumvirate of powers. The Animals, The Ancestors, The Angels. I think whatever can be cobbled together today of my fractured spirituality can be somehow symbolized by one of these 3 powers. Us humans are part all of that. We would be remiss to neglect one or two or three of these aspects of ourselves and of the living world. Animals & Ancestors are self evident to most people, even the faithless rationalists. Angels, though, tend to be discarded as remnants of some prior world view. I view them as they are, intelligences of planetary, solar or cosmic scale.
    I hung the shell around my neck but the string twisted and the shell edges were sharp and prone to snapping. The shell was retired. I adopted a black string a few short years later, with 3 wooden beads, 1 plastic one and a small metal spring. I wore this day in day out for a decade. I always appreciated the natural side by side with the artificial, a New York Dolls of urban decay decor. It must be somewhere in one of my leather pouches filled with the magic of my youth. The ultimate fate of these collections remains unknown. Part of me wants to trot them out as capital A Art. Not some contrived object but the real deal, the stuff I put together long before I knew someone somewhere could rationalize it as contemporary art. I may bury them in the woods along with other ritual objects no longer in use. Blades, chalices, shadowy books, robes, cords, discs, rings. Buried deep, bundled strong. Sure some stoner may stumble on them, all the better. I'll make sure they've been properly cleansed, rendered inert. If someone needs to use the tools of the ancestors they can do so in good conscience. Only a fool would do so rashly.
    Maybe I'll combine all these details into the body of a statue, left to gather moss on some lawn of future home, greeting all the curious visitors, winking a blind eye to those who see. Come visit, drape a home-made necklace around the satyrs' neck.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Day 23

That awkward stage when you know you wanna be freaky but you still don't know how to be freaky so you end up looking like a kid set to random. Shoulder length hair, lime green tuxedo jacket, tie-dyed jeans you had the nerve to wear twice, an assortment of shirts, home decorated. Baubles around the neck and wrists. Sashes, for gods' sake. These growing pains can eventually lead to some balancing act, less high visibility shrieking and more jeans and t-shirts.
    My first foray into fashion statements was a sweatshirt initially light blue but faded into white that I painted a question mark onto. Large and in the front of course. This was the initial spark that would set me off. It was followed by a tourist t-shirt from Kalamata that I'd scrunch up on the garage floor and spray paint with red and blue. Toxic tie-dye. The real tie dye started shortly thereafter and yielded great results. I still balk at that 'fake' hyper swirled dead-head stuff you can get at head shops. Real, detail oriented organic hippie home-made jobs are the best. They went well with my array of hand crafted macrame bracelets I'd learn to make.
    It may be ironic that my first hippie-ish clothes and accessories came from Greece. The first was a blue and white pullover cotton shirt that a classmate, Roger Palewandrem, laughed at and called a rice sack the first time I wore it at school. I was not to be deterred. The rice sack was worn well and I can only thank the gods that I didn't go into full luxurious ethnic circus pattern stylings as I grew. I almost did. Indian cotton shirts can easily lead to billowy button downs decorated like gauche temples. I also dodged a bullet by not being able to find or afford when I did full-length capes. My courage was also limited. The poncho I did wear once or twice was just too big and I felt odd so my mom stitched up the neck hole and it became a throw. Other Greek details were the leather string one could get at any souvenir shop in Kalamata. I bought the stuff by the metre and also picked up ready made macrame bracelets. I say ironic because Greek hippie kids in Montreal don't come by the dozen. My high school was almost 80 % Greek. The kids at school in the mid 80s were predominantly Lumber-Bums, greasy haired, lumber jacket, Ozzie t-shirt, Kodiak boot wearing rockers. Much to my dismay, the summer between grades 10 and 11, they seemed to all turn into Aldo shopping, Azzaro cologne wearing Madonna fans. Their girlfriend shaped them up, the poor saps.
    My gang were budding punks and new wavers, a metal head or two. I was welcome to try things out. I went to the punk matinees in my love beads and I started slam dancing in my desert boots. Though punk shows came and went, that scene wasn't fully mine. Neither were the Tam-tams, the weekly drum circle that was gaining ground. I bought my incense, studied the sixties which eventually led me to appreciate random un-moored freakiness as opposed to the patchouli historical revisionism of the 80s. I met some other freaks, got introduced to Discordianism, zines, the international global mail-art network and that original question mark sweat shirt came to signify exactly what I was to become.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Fields

The park next door was huge. It had a field that sported an ice rink in the winter, a basketball court, a sandbox skirted by a lovely stone wall, swings, a slide and a chalet that was a modernist dream. Literally next door. We lived on the end of a road, park to the side, train tracks out back. We moved away when our family friends moved to a deeper suburb. We moved with them and never saw them again. Don't do what your friends do.
    The train tracks separated our park from an even larger park, the one with the swimming pools. We would make the trek in the summer, cross the tracks, pick berries along side them and go hang out in the pool. Not running, swimming and splashing. Take a shower before you get in, another after you get out. Chlorine tang. Warm puddles on the sun hot concrete surrounding the pool. Teenagers being jerks with their Speedos and blurry tattoos. I never once dove off the diving board. I'd jump off it but belly flopped too often to get the hang of it. The occasional cannonball but I was a small kid. No great effect. I only dove properly last year. Off a dock into a lake. It took all my nerve.
    Next to the park on the other side of the tracks was a very large swath of park land. Forest. We'd go rarely, weeds and trees and the remains of forts and parties. We thought we found a leg bone once but were unsure. Caribou bones in Ville St-Laurent ? We could easily get lost there in those woods. We were too young to make a habit of going in.
    The park right next door had an adjacent field to it as well. Not as big as the forest. We called it 'the fields'. There, in the fields, we'd go often. It was a semi wild land, undeveloped, trees and reeds. There was a shallow ravine ideal for bike tricks. It would fill with water and freeze over in the winter. I tried crossing once only to break through the ice and go waist deep in cold water. My jeans frozen rigid when I was helped out.
    Scraps of Playboy magazines were found in the fields. The detritus of bigger kids. We would collect these water logged scraps and treasure them into illegibility. Multiple creases hiding any skin. The fields eventually became part of the park, cleaned up, manicured, a simple green land to cross on the way to the bus stop. If we were teens when we lived next to the fields we easily would have went bad. The wilderness, no matter how small, calls you over to the untamed life of bonfires and bicycle jumps, broken bottles and shredded magazines.
    We missed out on the full potential the fields had to offer.

Friday, March 21, 2014

First House

Our first house was a tiny war-time stand alone bungalow. I was four when we moved away from it so my memories of that house are early and substantiated. The piano we found in the house had to stay there as we couldn't get it out for some reason. The neighbours kids, two robust and crude Italian children turned over our toy box and started stepping on our toys. The vague muddy area under the back balcony. The wooden steps leading to the basement where there lived giant rats. I fell down those steps. The floor there was damp. I associate the basement with our wooden blocks but I can't see how we were playing down there. Don't grind your plasticine into the tiny teeth of your multi-fix blocks. You ruin them both that way. Sitting on the floor of the kitchen with a bowl of cut up meat and saying chi-chi, the word for cut-up meat.
    My parents lived with friends. The house was full of people. One winter the snow was so high it almost touched the roof and our family friend Kostaki played with us outside, pushing us around in a wooden barrel.
    Our uncle Iraklis lived with us and plastered his bedroom with our drawings. Up to the ceiling. My brother is a year and four months older so they were mostly his drawings. We drew everywhere. On our parents wedding album, on the backs of coasters, on the bottom of the decorative sea-shell encrusted matchbox and matching cigarette holder.
    We drew monsters. Essentially any kind of creature festooned with claws and horns and fangs. Wide open mouths. Spikes just everywhere. It was here in this house that I remember explaining a drawing for the first time. It must have been my uncle who asked what it was. I clearly remember answering without any hesitation, 'a hippopotamus that lives in quicksand'.
    Our next house was the site of my F-word dance and we only stayed there for a year. Duko the dog put my hand in his slobbery friendly mouth and I cried on the lawn out front. The house after that was our house for the rest of the time we were kids and teenagers. Next to the park with the train tracks off the backyard. Red and white. It wasn't our first first house but it was the only one we ever really knew.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Taking Pictures

We hosted a small art opening in the shop today. Friends and friends of friends came to celebrate. We drank some wine and beer and ate some party mix. At some points I feared that the turn-out would be low. I always want to want what the artist wants. If the artist is cool with a low key event then so am I. If the artist wants a blow-out chances are they bring the blow-out with them.
    I have to get up early tomorrow morning. I'll take a bus and metro across town for a check up. Blood test, regular medical stuff for a man in his mid to late forties. If I don't tackle my issues now then I know my fifties will be hell. If it's difficult to stretch every morning now why would it get easier as I grow older. It won't. It will get harder. I won't get stronger by virtue of maturity. I'll get calcified, creakier and crankier.
    These are issues that I now have to face. I avoided adulthood into my late thirties and then I crammed. Crash course on what's good for me. I know what's good for me. I think everyone knows. Whether they have the sufficient avoidance and justification techniques to defer facing that knowledge is another thing altogether. I am not married to beer. Beer is one of those mundanities that takes over peoples lives and asserts its dominance. Potato chips is another. Both great things but not things I will die for. The people who would die for beer or chips are either ascended masters or dumb as shit. The jury is out. I won't buy their album in any case. Nor will I listen if they offer relationship advice.
    I've stopped making faces when people take my picture. I don't need to hang my tongue out any more and make a rock sign with my hands. My t-shirts are not representative of my core values. My friends don't dress like I do. We don't pose by pretending to not pose.
    I have to get up early in the morning to get tested so I can live longer and better. I am not worried because I know what's good for me. Sometimes I tell myself to fuck off and I drink beer and eat chips. I had some tonight. Not too much but enough to notice. Sometimes another I says whoa jackass, that other guy was pulling a fast one, this shit will kill you. Who am I telling to fuck off anyway ? Which me gets to throttle dead which other me ?
    There must be other ways to celebrate. Good things shouldn't turn into bad things over night. Low key events might be the way to go. Steady now, so we can make this party last. And be in fine form for breakfast tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Leo M. & The Piece Of Chicken

When I stashed the piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken behind the bed of Leo M. I knew it wasn't the best course of action. It was his birthday party, we were in his room enjoying birthday lunch. I had a drumstick which was fine but the second piece I grabbed was one of those plump on one side and gristly bones on the other. I got grossed out and I snuck it away from me behind the furniture, embarrassed for not being able to eat it.
    When was it discovered ? I have no way of knowing. Did it get the chance to go green and fuzzy ? Is that what neglected KFC does ? Maybe it just dries out. Did Leo 'get the beats' because of it ? He probably got them anyway. It may have explained his general behaviour. We were friends and classmates but he was kinda no-good. Friendly one day and just a jerk another day. He could have easily blamed his shitty little friends. The house was full of kids. I think his family had some problems. The rumours surrounding his sister later on were disturbing too. A good student who either committed suicide or got pregnant or turned to prostitution. Or all three. The grape vine was tangled.
    In grade seven we were both running for the bus in the morning on our way to school, getting off the 163 and running to make our connection. The 17 ? I forget. In any case, while we were running across a very busy street to catch the second bus which was about to leave the stop, Leo thought it would be funny if he tripped me. I went down, broke my fall with my hands and fractured my left wrist. Little gravel bits stuck in my palms. I wore a cast for a few weeks. All my friends signed it and drew pictures. My father cut it off me in the garage instead of going to the doctor to have it removed. I remember it smelled bad. I can't remember if I let Leo sign it. That would have been dumb. I know I didn't smash his teeth in with it. I was way too nice. I didn't start becoming an occasional jerk until university I think. Leo started drugs pretty early.
    He lived a few houses down from us for a while. He came over to my house a couple of times. It was just before the chicken episode, that same afternoon, when I noticed in his room a little Matchbox chopper motorcycle painted sloppily black. It was confusing. It made me realize that it had been a while since I saw my little yellow Matchbox chopper. I couldn't really process it. This is years before he tripped me. Did I hide the chicken as an act of revenge for the stolen toy ? Did he trip me years later for my chicken slip ? Man, who knows ?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Calling Names

I wouldn't identify myself as having been bullied as a kid, though bullies did tease me. I was at risk of being taunted by some of the tougher kids because I was there. There are no reasons. You don't have to be the quietest, smartest, dumbest, smallest, fattest kid in the yard to be bullied. If you were, you were bullied, guaranteed. But you were also bullied because you were there, close-by, near the tough kid that needs to bully someone.
    You were standing in front of the bully in line. Pure chance. Some one had to be there. You shove me and I'll shove you back, albeit it with tears forming. You threaten me with an afterschool fight, I'll show up but you won't. Call me names, if part of me likes you and the name is clever, I'll remember. Ricky Sparrow was a bigger, tougher kid but not all bad. He was more of an occasional jerk than a bully. He even had some artistic talent. His design for school crest was chosen, miffing the true artists amongst us. He didn't call me fag or gay or sissy like the run-of-the-mill bullies did. One time he whipped out a riff on my name, ballet, and though it stung a bit, I had to admit it was pretty good.
    It's like my peers in CEGEP making Greek jokes. If you mention sheep, goats, crowbars, anything to do with ass you can go fuck yourself. Not because you're offensive but because you can't take it to the next level. Don't parrot clichés, come up with something good. I'm game in the right context. And decide whether that accent you're doing is Mexican or Greek. Stick to repeating Monty Python gags or pretending to be a Rastafarian. The subtleties inherent in a good ethnic slur escape you.
    A foreman at the warehouse I worked summers at had that cleverness. He was a powerfully built squat brick of a man and as much as he was no nonsense about work, his tongue was sharp and fast and he had good humour. It was from him that I heard for the first time fine manipulations of my full Greek name, Vasilios. Here I was twenty years old and I'm hearing original slander. It was a springtime breeze of fresh ideas. On one occasion he cracked out Vaselineos and my gratitude soared. Another time he croaked Vasectomos and I was thrilled. That's how to do it, people, if you're going to make fun of someone, hit them with something no one else has ever thought of. And try to do it with a little bit of love or I may take a swing at you even if you're way bigger than me.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Fulltime Daydream

The sabre toothed tiger would follow me everywhere. We were allies. I never determined the sex or name of the creature. For an imaginary friend it was both rock solid and elusive. It emerged in grade four when I devoted a considerable time every evening and morning for full on daydreaming. This would happen before and after sleep. I would continue the adventures and the adventures became complex as I aged. My sleeping patterns changed at twenty-three and with them my fantasy life.
    Vehicle design, prehistoric allies, damsels in distress, monsters to be fought, devils to be avoided, God to fight alongside of, schoolyards bursting into fantastic drama, walls sliding open in classrooms to reveal rocknroll shows, bodycounts justified with cloning, motorcycle races, undersea laboratories, magic staves, awesome displays of telekinetic prowess, loss of control, sympathy parties, illness leading to super powers, superpowers, earth spanning adventure. A head soaked in fantasy, fuelled by cartoons, movies and comic books. And sugar. And drawing, drawing so much since age three. Monsters and monsters. And monsters.
    My blue pajama bottoms cut into shorts, decayed with time into shreds, worn as a loincloth, better to fight the lava pillows with a letter opener. The loincloth stretched out, worn over one shoulder. Ka-Zar. Later Tarzan. Later still Conan.
Scrawny boy jumping from couch to chair, snapping his head at the slightest sound of enemy approach. Blood curdling screams as monsters were faced and wrestled with. Sweat, twisted ankles, giddy exhaustion. Tangle of blue fabric folded as best it can be, stored with tiny t-shirts, Rocky, King Kong, Star Wars.
    I grew up. The fantasies had more to do with classroom hierarchies and girls, rock bands and age appropriate showing off. The tiger faded. I kept the tiger as a cherished memory. The memory faded. I hung out in the park. I read Hesse. I worked in warehouses. I jerked awake one day in my early thirties and I wept for my long gone friend, frozen again in some glacier of childish things. I penned some sincere cloying poem about my forgotten ally. I felt more shame for leaving that friendship dwindle than I felt for not keeping in touch with my over seas cousins, for not sending countless thank you cards, for not buying a pack of smokes this time instead of just mooching.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Custom Cars & Power Animals

All I did on a good day was dream up cars. Air cars, one person buggies, customized vans, dragsters, hot rods, choppers. I'd drive these around in my head, I'd memorize the makes of the day, banalities like Saabs or Pontiacs. The occasional Triumph or Jaguar would set me tingling. I would draw their logos, collect their brochures. An uncle was a mechanic so there was an inside line to some of this stuff.
    I wanted to customize cars as a job, cut them down, jack them up, mag wheels, pinstripes and flames, chrome engine, crushed velvet interiors, wall to wall carpeting, white wall tires, gull wing doors, teardrop bubble windows, side exhaust pipes, severe blowers ripping through the hood, spoilers, and on it goes.
    I drew the dream car from the musical Grease for a bunch of classmates. Pencil on manila paper, lightning bolts on the side. I got several requests. I wonder if any of these drawings made it past another grade.
    Cars gave way to speeders and airships. Let these things fly around the school yard, impressing my friends. Surely now I could win the affections of the brown haired girl with the Brooke Shields eyebrows. One air car even got carved in wood. An errant seat from a model kit fit perfectly inside. An old plastic spool from a roll of paper was the perfect engine out back. It was never finished, an elegant design but my scratch building chops weren't as good as my imagination. I still have the model. I'm still quite impressed with it. It won't take much to finish it. Maybe I'll wait until I'm sixty or submit it as is to some group show, a suitably obscure text to accompany it. The unassembled components of memory.
    Airships needed to dock somewhere so a mothership was designed. It hovered high up in the sky between my house and the park next door. It had a lush jungle room, a library and several other vehicles that flew out of it, one for every occasion. I'd bring friends up there. My sabre toothed tiger companion lived there. I rescued it from a glacier as a kitten. It always walked by my side, from grade four everyday until I was nearing twenty years old. It's always a good idea to have a powerful ally at your side.
    I'm almost 46 now. The tiger is a shadow of its former self but I have a plastic smilodon on my dresser to remind me of the powerful friends I used to have as a kid. That power animals shadow me if I recognize them.
    I still don't have my drivers licence.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Fever dreams

Emerging out from night terrors, I would shiver and shake, not really fully awake. I'd jabber away deliriously. Fever dreams came and went. The last one in my late teens. One such episode resulted in quite a severe misunderstanding. It came early in my life.
    My folks did their best to comfort me as I writhed and squawked. A bear hug from my dad would usually do the trick. I could release into the hold, allow any tension to melt away, letting my head flop and any fear dissolve. Of course, there were moments when they may not have known what would ease the keyed up boy fresh out of oblique and abstracted nightmares. Our family doctor was Doctor Gordon. He was a kindly old man we loved dearly. He had a home practice and visiting him was never an ordeal of any type. When mom called though, he was away and another doctor took his calls. My mom in her broken English described her son as waking up shaking. Well, Doctor Y (His name sounds like "yeah sure'n") didn't know me but felt it was imperative to bring me right in and I, it turns out, was wrongly diagnosed with some form of epilepsy. I started taking medication. The visit to the hospital included many pointy wires stuck into my scalp as I laid on a table. Hooked up to machines. I took it in stride.
    When Doctor Gordon returned my mother filled him in regarding the news about my condition. He howled that there was nothing wrong with me and that I should stop the medication at once. He was livid, having followed me since birth.
I learned that I would have the occasional night terror, that my shakes were from fear and confusion and I could be calmed with a strong hold. I'd wake up numerous times in my youth, haunted by dreams so bizarre and rife with symbols they remain integral to my identity.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Lying - Day 14

Lying surfaces in many ways. The feeling that you are lying is unmistakable. It is a feeling I could describe as acute and as something of a freefall. The moorings have been pulled. The ground isn't steady. This can go in any direction. Any thought of the future is distant, the present moment is all there is.
    The first time I had this feeling was when I wasn't lying directly. In fact, I rarely lie. I may not offer the truth, I may hoard secrets but when asked directly I am better at oblique evasion than at straight out lying. I don't have the nerve. I'm afraid to lie, afraid to get caught. Life is simpler without having to remember what you said to whom. I forget what truths I have spoken and to whom but the most that that can lead to is a slight embarrassment. My kiss and tell days are long over. You can never trust if the best friend you are telling your secrets too in college will be even someone you still know ten years after. Tell it all to the stranger on the bus. The guys at work.
    My tactic once was to blab indiscriminately to the person who happened to be in front of me, close or not. About any gory personal detail. Not necessarily about other peoples gory details, mind you, but shamelessly about my own. My life is scattered among the many ears I have filled. And I have filled ears, I have talked and talked. With mounting passion, with humour, with snippy cynicism. People still come up to me and say something like, 'you once said something to me that I've never forgotten….'. Well I have. Fifteen minutes after I said it. Happy to be an inspiration nonetheless.
    The feeling of lying I recall as being so distinct was because I wasn't lying directly, in fact I wasn't lying with words. I was prolonging my crying way beyond my need to cry. I did this as a small child to get attention. I didn't get the attention I sought but I got the unmistakable feeling that I was lying. I was faking out my cry. Can't they hear me ? Why aren't they coming ? Maybe just a little more and they'll come. My real heartfelt hurt was extended beyond its lifespan, into the realm of hollow sounds, any meaning in it dwindled away. How much longer should I keep this charade up ? No one is coming.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Free range kids

We would have to cross the park, a schoolyard, a couple of streets to get to the corner store. We would go for candy, comics, mini-sips, just to go and also for the occasionally pack of cigarettes for the adults. I always remembered the confusion I had when trying to memorize the right format of smokes. 20 or 25, kingsize or regular, etc. Sometimes the clerk would wonder why a couple of kids wanted smokes, most often there was no problem. We were there for the candy and the kid junk, it was clear.
    There were two options of shop. One was Perrette, a local dépanneur chain. This is where we would get mini-sips, small see-through plastic bladders of coloured sugar water that we would drink by piercing with the short pointy straw it came with. As was customary upon completing the drink we would blow through the straw and inflate the empty bag. By then pushing the pointy straw right through the other side, the plastic pillow speared, the air would be trapped and we'd have a little balloon to toss around. We wouldn't toss it around. We'd place it on the sidewalk in front of the shop and stomp as hard as we could on it. A satisfyingly loud pop later and we'd continue with our junk.
    One time and one time only we lived our dream of full scale maxi-sips. We each bought a litre bag of sugar water meant for the milk-bag pitcher, thinking this was the champion of sip sacs. How those unfinished bags languished in the fridge, a tiny straw jutting out like a mast on a leaking rubber raft.
    The other shop was Johnny's, a general store full of all kinds of things, kites and other toys, candy, magazines, and of course a thousand products invisible to children. It was unlike Perrette in that it was darker and messier. Johnny's wife was 'mean' whereas the man himself was happy to have us. I believe she accused us once of stealing which brought one of the more pro-active aunts to champion our cause and cuss the lady out. We were sugar addicts and comic book readers but we weren't shoplifters. And the cigarettes, Belmont Milds, Rothmans or Medallion, were not for us.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Bubble Gum

Mini Chiclets were so saturated with flavour that one could be forgiven for swallowing them. The desire to completely absorb them was overwhelming to me. Other gums I could chew until any last vestige of flavour was gone. Not so with the Mini Chiclet. They had to be swallowed. In such small instalments so no damage done, right ? Wads of bubble gum clogging up my guts wasn't an issue. It wasn't going to happen.
    I chewed bubble gum like a man possessed, like a boy addicted to sugar and chewing. Strawberry snowballs, RainBlo, Ton-O-Gum, the dusty pink sticks from packs of hockey cards, Happy Days cards, Star Wars cards, Charlie's Angels cards, Creature Feature cards, Wacky Packages. Every pack of cards opened with surgical precision, the wax paper carefully flattened and put aside, the cards joined with fellow cards, ordered numerically, any sticker double stuck to the head board of the bed. There was one set of stickers, name long forgotten, of monster heads. Small shaped stickers, round ones, ovals, trapezoids, odd little things. One stickers had a monster with a gooey eyeball hanging out of its socket. It was stuck on my brothers head board but it freaked me out. I raised hell. It must be gotten rid of, it was too disturbing. It would give me nightmares. Mom was brought in. Brother John would have none of it, it was his bed, besides, the sticker couldn't be removed without tearing it and I was able to see the logic there. One doesn't remove a sticker if one thinks it will tear. That would be madness. We were collectors after all. Finally a solution was found. John would tape a small curtain made of Kleenex over the sticker. I would be spared the offending sight and he could lift up the little drape and enjoy his gross sticker whenever he wanted to. It was probably in my tenth straight year of drawing almost exclusively oozing eyeballs and intestines as a teenager and young adult that I remembered maybe that little sticker should take the credit.
    My gum habit did not continue into adulthood. I had switched to gummy candies. Now I could chew and swallow as much as I liked.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Potty Mouth

My best friend in grade three used the F word all the time. Nine year olds swearing may seem ridiculous to anyone over the age of ten but when you're there, in the trenches of the schoolyard, it's pretty badass. This swearing business, I'm convinced, is related to the dubious activity of tossing a 7UP can between yourselves, or throwing it against the wall, waiting for that moment of truth when the integrity gives and sticky syrup sprays chaotically everywhere. These cans, it must be noted, were hardy beasts unlike the paper foil used today.
    I couldn't do the F word. It was wrong. For a short time I threw an L in there but fluck doesn't have the same bite and people look at you funnier than if you just swore. A few years before, kindergarten age, I was doing a primal dance of my own design while staring out the back screen door. It was in the house we lived in for only a year. My only other memory of that house was of me gouging the black rubber substance surrounding the back screen door with a small plastic giraffe. This primal dance consisted of me gazing into the yard, my arms held out and up making ninety degree angles, my knees bopping upwards in rhythm almost touching elbows as I chanted fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck musically. I was letting all the bad word mojo out. My mother busted me, of course and I cried with embarrassment. I ran to my room crying sorrys and flung myself on the bed.
    When I was ten the Canadian band Trooper had a hit song "Raise A Little Hell". To continue with the L motif I sang along to it with a robust childish 'Raise A Little Ell' since hell was a bad word too. This is me singing along under my breath at nightie when the radio was on. This is secret self censored singing. Hell had to be reigned in because though ours was not a particularly religious family we did observe the ubiquitous Greek custom of hanging crosses over kids beds and devoting a corner of the kitchen to Byzantine style iconography. I didn't want to evoke or invoke or in any way attract hell so I cut the H.
    It took me a long while to start swearing, maybe grade eight or nine even though all the men in the family cursed magnificently, calling each other malaka (wanker, essentially) and never hiding the word gamoto (fuck it, essentially) from the kids. I now have a problem with swearing, often resorting to an easy F word instead of thinking up something better.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Stage Fright in the Old Country

Try as I may, I just could never pee without sufficient walls around me. On a day hike through the severe Greek scrubland  with so many of my cousins, midsummer sun blaring and sporting my ever present Expos baseball cap, I found out the hard way what happens to boys that can't pee in front of others.
    Visiting relations is grueling work at any age. Marching through the hard hillside of the Peloponnese with a troop of them is harder still. We would leave the comforts of town life with its stacks of stick souvlakis and its close-by beaches to visit some half abandoned compound surrounded by haunted olive groves and ancient aqueducts overgrown with reeds and crabs. One boisterous well fed cousin once stuck his hand in the water of these long stone troughs to pull out a crab to show us. He unceremoniously wrenched it's top shell off to show us the innards. Oh, it was full of eggs. No matter, toss it away. I wretched at his barbarity.
    We took turns stomping on grapes, bunches of little purple ones stuffed into sacks and piled in a large circular bin. The children played unaware of the labour they were saving the adults. Juice trickled out and was caught by another receptacle. Our feet purple and otherworldly.
    We were taken for a walk in the hot beating sun, away from the orchards. Arid stoney soil peppered with hardy shrubs. Not a tree to speak of. It was in such terrain that we were invited to pee if we had to. I had to. Off we went together. For some reason I didn't venture out further than I did, seeking some semblance of privacy in this hostile land. Cousins surrounded me, talking, at ease with their bathroom habits. I tried to pee. I couldn't. And here is my error. I pretended I did, zipping up and joining the group. It was in no time at all that my ruse failed me. I let go in my cut off jean shorts and did my prideful best to hide the obvious slip. I proceeded, cap in hand, to continue our walk as if nothing at all was the matter.
    Of course they knew. But no one said anything, bless them. When I mentioned this tale to my partner a few weeks ago, she said she knows, my father told her.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Rubber Monsters

I used to collect rubber insects and monsters from the 25 cent gum ball machines. I kept them in a shoebox and I called them Hermans as in 'these are my Hermans'. It would make sense that I got the name from Jim Unger. Herman, as a name, would crack us up. So did Horace and Morris. We found these names hysterical for some reason. Fred too but to a lesser extent. Fred came more into prominence as a fascinating name in my early teens. I gave it to our second canary after our first, Tweety, went to the big birdcage over the kitchen sink in the sky. Fred the canary was ok. He probably felt that we liked his predecessor more. We were a bit older too by then and not as attentive to the poor little guy. Both birds never left their cage, which is a regret of mine. Let the songbirds out of the cage would be my MO if I dared live with birds today.
    Now the rubber monsters and bugs were fanciful creatures that I would piecemeal harvest from the machines at Les Galeries Saint-Laurent, a small shopping centre in Ville St-Laurent, our neck of the woods. My brother and I would do the rounds while our folks shopped at Dominion for the groceries. We would check out the pet store, the toy store and the head shop. The head shop in this smallish suburban mall (we didn't know this American word yet) was festooned with black light posters we would flip through, psychedelic velvety masterpieces. We gawked at Zappa sitting on the can, zodiac figures dancing their cosmic dance, rock goddesses wearing nothing but day-glo skin and tangles of red hair. The middle of the shop had glass shelving containing what I much later discovered were water pipes. As kids we would marvel at these bongs of skulls, globes and tubing. What were they? Just recently I recalled a vague impression that we thought they were candy dishes. If it wasn't our idea, I applaud the teenage head working the shop for his ingenuity in describing them thusly to a couple of kids.
    The bank of machines was right outside the grocery store. We would feast on gum balls and hard little pucks that looked as if they were composed of tiny bits of recycled gum. They were sour and multicoloured and I miss them sorely. I miss Jelly Tots more but candy and it's allure will have to wait for another time. We would get the occasional superball or tiny joke book from the surprise machine but mostly I went for the bugs and creatures. Tentacled beasties, finger puppets, gooey spiders, worms, a total alien menagerie that lived in a shoebox.
    It is a testament to my childish naiveté that I lent my entire box of Hermans to a kid I hardly knew a few scant days before summer break. I never saw them again.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Basement Potatoes

Aside from the master jukebox, there were many other things in the basement of New Victory Hot Dog. Freezers, of course, and canisters of syrupy soda waiting to be pumped through the fountain. The stairs leading down were wooden and old. I felt insecure upon them, as they led to a cold, unfinished basement, half obscured and most possibly the home of nameless things.
    One of our small tasks when we would visit was to chop french fries. We would toss whole unreeled potatoes into a small rough metal pot with a rotating floor and bumpy walls. A hose led some water into it, and as the potatoes tumbled about, their impact with the rough interior would scrap the peels off. We would open a door in the side of the pot and these freshly peeled wet potatoes would fall into a bucket of water, where they would await the guillotine. Each spud would be placed on bladed criss-cross mesh and a long metal arm would be pulled, pushing the potato through the mesh blade. Fingers of fries would splay apart and drop into another bucket underneath. It was a wet affair.
     We would haul these buckets with some difficulty up the rickety stairs and place them right behind the counter where they would be led to the corner for frying. Our task complete, we would sit on the spinning stools and either have some Dad's Oatmeal Cookies or a May West and flip through the songs offered on the small jukeboxes placed at intervals along the counter.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Nouvelle Victoire

Quebecois career waitresses in their sixties will always have a spot in my heart. When we - by we I generally mean my older brother and I - visited my dad's restaurant, the waitresses there doted on us. At New Victory Hot Dog they would speak French to our little Greek English ears and we would nod and smile. Paul-Emile, the weathered fifty something delivery man from the pharmacy next door loved us too and with smiling eyes and a creased toothlessness spoke such a deep Quebecois that it would take me years after warehouse work to manage to hear what was being said in accents like his. As a kid, we would pantomime and smile. I tried to visit him a few years ago by dropping by the restaurant, long out of my father's hands, now that I could finally speak with him, but he was gone to the place dead people go. I missed him by a year.
    One waitress, I never knew her name, subscribed to Lundi magazine, a French language celebrity gossip rag full of stars local and international. Without any prompt from us she started saving the pin-ups from the magazine. Every month or so a new stack was given to us. Andy Gibb, Erik Estrada, Mork From Ork, Cheryl Tiegs, some folks we didn't know at all, some local singers. We took these mini posters home and some were hung in our room and some just kept in their stack. They might be somewhere still, in some tattered folder along with choice pages from TV Guide or a page of Star Wars toys from a department store catalog.
    Those pin-ups weren't the only pop culture nuggets we got from the restaurant. My father managed a deal with the juke box man. We would get any 45s that had to be swapped out. So every so often, from the master machine in the basement, 7 inch records would come to us. This bounty along with hamburgers and hot dogs made us thankful little guys, we had it made.
     I love going into diners and greasy spoons. I want to go often enough so the waitress knows my order but I can't eat like that too often nowadays.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Dignity of Small Children

I was a sensitive kid. I cried almost every day. As a teen it continued sporadically until I was fifteen. Fifteen was when I cut the habit. Crying in geography class in grade ten, tears of injustice, because you felt the teacher was unfair to a friend was the warning bell. At twelve it occurred to me that maybe this was all too much and I asked my mom, "Mom, am I over-sensitive ?" I have no idea where I got that line. It may have been from reading the Ann Landers letters along with the comic strips in the newspaper. In any case, a sensitive kid will perceive affronts to his dignity everywhere. The red face streaming with tears and snot, contorted into masks of high drama notwithstanding.
    Two such affronts come to mind. One involves fashion and the other, obliquely, food.
    Receiving gifts as a child can be a complicated affair, especially when it comes to clothing. I didn't especially like getting gifts of clothes in the first place. Clothing is mandatory, I should get clothes anyway. Don't waste a gift opportunity on it, unless it's related to something I love. That was my thinking. An aunt, a kind lady, gave me a shirt that was a total affront to my dignity. It was a white sweatshirt of sorts, made out of a horrible scratchy synthetic. Of course I tried it on, 'try it on, at least,' was Moms mantra. She knew this wouldn't end well. It was rigid, it was uncomfortable. Comfort wouldn't have saved it anyway. The print on the front was of a skunk holding his nose with the tag line 'I'm a little stinker'. Tears, shrieks, gulping sobs, the whole bit. I was emphatically not a little stinker. Who does this to a kid ? I'm a little caveman, ok. I'm a little allosaurus, fine. I'm a little flying saucer, you get the idea.
    The second affront to my dignity was a new lunchbox my mom picked out and, shudder to think, thought I would like. Raggedy Ann and Andy. I had no relation to those dolls before this event came crashing into my life. Internet says this came out in 1973. If so I must have been about 5, maybe 6 if mom picked out last years model on sale. I don't care if it can fetch 65 bucks on Ebay now. Of course it would be the height of cool if I cracked it out at some potluck full of banana bread. But at 5 I could not bring this to school. I howled with despair, unable to articulate how this was so wrong. At 5 I had already seen King Kong. I was having night terrors for gods sake. Step it up, rag dolls were not it. I don't recall how this was resolved. Taped paper on the sides ? A brown paper bag ? I made it to school with some lunch that day, my pride tested but still mostly intact.
    I still cry every so often, to keep my heart well oiled. Affronts to my dignity are now mostly self-directed too.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Get Off The Ground

The house next to the park, white brick with red trim, where I spent my childhood had train tracks right beyond the backyard. Our yard, our fence, overgrown weeds and brambles and lastly gravel leading to tracks. A commuter train would whiz past every so often. We would wave occasionally to no avail. The train would pass night and day and became part of the ambient noise, soon completely blended in with the rest of the scenery.
    The back yard was big enough to run around in. My father planted a fruit tree centrally and adorned the land around it with flowers, bricks at an angle making a zigzag little wall of protection, red brick, white brick and so on. Vegetables grew to the side. The house next to ours hadn't yet erected a fence dividing the two yards so if we needed to go fetch a ball or frisbee we would though I am still struck by how respectful we were of the land next to ours. A mirror image of our yard hardly ever treaded by us or the folks who lived there.
    As our yard and garden were kept nicely with plants the no-mans-land on the other side of the fence before the tracks was overgrown and sinister. Rarely did a ball go over to that side of things and if one did then an adult was dispatched to retrieve it for us. They were not about to let the kids start exploring the thorny terrain that led to the train tracks. An added buffer zone was the cuttings and garden debris my family would routinely toss over the fence.
    Our play time was bound to be punctuated by passing trains. We couldn't let them go by as if nothing was happening. These events had to be worked in. It was somehow decided that when a train passes by the ground becomes electrified. There was some discussion as to when exactly this happened, how far away or close by the train had to be, etc. Whatever the final details were, the result was that with the rumbling of the coming train all the kids playing would scream  "get off the ground ! get off the ground !" We would madly scramble towards the stairs, laughing and jostling each other, running up to the balcony, hanging off it, hanging off the spiral stairs leading upwards, climbing over each other and at worst balancing on the small cement slab at the bottom of the stairs. Any poor soul still on the lawn at that point would be shocked to death. We never pushed anyone to their death. We would remain 'off the ground', hanging from the stairs, oblivious to the conductivity of metal, until the train passed. With the train gone we would resume our normal play until the next distant rumble brought with it the returning threat of electric shock.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Rock School

George and Jimmy were a few years older than us, already in their early teens when my brother and I were nine and eight. Because they were older they took it upon themselves to elaborate exactly which Deep Purple album was the best one. We would pore over the covers of In Rock, Fireball, Machine Head and Burn. I remember a kind and sympathetic Jimmy pointing to a long haired young man wearing oval glasses on the back cover of one of the albums and saying, gently so I'd never forget, "That's Ian Paice, he's the greatest drummer in the world".
    I don't know what our folks were doing, probably smoking cigarettes in the kitchen, the men talking loudly and drinking wine, the ladies loudly making fun of the men and preparing food. Whatever it was they were doing, somehow they didn't seem to notice that Highway Star was on much louder than they could talk. On so loud in fact that the good china was rattling in the china cabinet a few feet away from the stereo. We were scandalized. Our little ears were blown away. Happy to have such skilled tutors in the way of hard rock. The softer rock we were already little fans of. We knew the fifties stuff and the sixties and the pop music of our day. AM radio was on every night as we went to bed, my brother John acting as DJ, deciding the station, deciding the volume and deciding I suppose when it would get turned off. I fell asleep way before I ever noticed either way. Of course I would whine if it was too loud. And I whined like hell when the inevitable happened and John wanted to finally switch to CKGMs sister station on the FM dial, CHOM 98. CHOM was all about the hard rock and I wasn't ready, despite my training at the hands of George and Jimmy. FM rock radio at nighttime in the late seventies was not the milquetoast affair it is today. Those disc jockeys would put on entire sides of Yes while they presumably smoked another joint or worked on some macrame.
    My whining was futile as John made the switch. He had been ready for the next level awhile now. I was afraid of the unknown, happy with England Dan & John Ford Coley. I never told my brother but it took me maybe ten minutes to be totally on board with the switch to FM though I probably complained for half an hour.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Up North

Occasionally in the spring and summer months my family would go 'Up North'. Up North was up north a bit, maybe an hour and some from the city. It was a cabin my uncle and aunt bought and the extended family would make weekends of it. Imagine a bunch of Greeks and their kids in a ramshackle chipboard cabin in the wilds of Quebec in the mid 1970s. Cupboards filled with vintage tupperware containers or 'tuppers', a toilet that needed a bucket of lake water next to it and children to fetch it, mosquitoes and black flies, slugs in the lake, a rowboat that weighed a ton, treacherous front steps and other rustic details. The countryside will always be 'up north' in my head.
    Riding in the car on the way to the cabin I was astonished once to see dozens, if not hundreds, of dried flattened frogs papering the gravel road. They must have been involved in some annual mad dash to or from the lake and met a horrible death under the wheels of country traffic. Left to bake there, poor amphibious flapjacks. We were a few corners away from the cabin.
    We'd dash out of the car through long grass and run towards the lake, playing on it's border. Swimming wasn't encouraged due to the slugs so we'd have to drive to a sandy beach a few minutes away. The ladies packed bread and tomatoes. A vacation within the vacation. But that wasn't everyday. Our lake was primarily for rowing in, filling toilet buckets and for fishing.
    It was the men who would fish of course, keeping these small little guys and tossing back the catfish. I would insist on watching them gut the fish. I didn't eat fish already due, I suppose, to my mothers habit of filling the house with their thick fried aroma coupled with their dead eyes on the head left on the body on the plate. Me running around shrieking when fish was served makes for fond memories. So I didn't eat fish. It was one of the very few foods that I so steadfastly refused that my parents lost that battle, and early. Chicken liver I would tearfully choke down a bite of. Fish, no. Sorry.
    Of course I was still fascinated enough to want to watch the frightfully sharp blades enter fish bellies and spill fish guts. I liked animals and this was confusing stuff but I still watched. The little fish swimming around the bucket were all doomed. I'm sure there were times I protested and cried and made a scene. The ladies said I shouldn't watch but I couldn't help it. I'm sure I must have puked later on or developed a convenient fever. If the adults were going to kill and eat fish, this seven year old will make sure to wake up in the middle of the night with delirium and put on a little show for everybody. Gut fish ? Ok, here's some pure kid half asleep freak out.
    By far the best part of Up North was the man who did the rounds with a hatchback full of large cardboard flats full of giant chocolate glazed doughnuts. No one got hurt with the doughnuts.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Neighbours Bookcase

Our neighbours growing up had a big bookcase in their hallway. Encyclopaedias mostly it seemed to me but that's what was on the lower levels. I couldn't reach much higher and who puts encyclopaedia sets anywhere but the bottom shelf ? That stuff is heavy and you might as well sit on the floor to get them out and leaf through them.
    The back doors between our houses were unlocked during the day. We shared a back balcony and yard and it seemed we were always over there or they over at our place. The moms had coffee together, Maxwell House, and the dads worked together in a shared business downtown. I liked hanging out with the ladies as a kid. They take an interest in you or simply pull you close and continue talking. The men always like to say that you'll learn something if you listen to them argue about politics or whatever they are talking about, usually anything that is alien or boring to a child. The men are wrong. A kid will not learn anything listening to them get heated up. A kid will learn to just hang out with the ladies and be a part of it all, no strings attached. They'll even offer you something to eat or drink.
    It was something to have another set of adults to consult about homework. Our neighbours were more educated than my folks. They had a bookcase. We had books here and there and of course puzzle and gossip magazines but nothing much else before I was a teenager and started bringing them home on my own. Beat up second hand copies of Call It Sleep or precious poetry chapbooks long forgotten by everyone else.
    Even as a kid I would order books from Scholastic or check them out from our school library. Ramona The Brave.
    I loved sitting on the carpet in front of the neighbours bookcase and just stare at the spines. I wish I could remember what other books they had beside the encyclopaedia sets. I wish I could see it now.
    I don't get tired of staring at bookcases.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Peanut Butter & Honey Sandwiches

    I was twelve when I peaked with my peanut butter and honey sandwich habit. The family was bringing home Kraft smooth peanut butter, Billy Bee liquid honey and Weston sliced white bread. Weston sliced white bread is called toast whether or not it's toasted. It's called toast to distinguish it from bread which comes in rustic loaves from the bakery. Toast comes spongy, sliced and in see-through plastic bags.
    Two pieces of untoasted toast, one liberally coated with Kraft smooth and then liberally topped with golden honey spouted through a yellow nozzle from a clear plastic bee-hive shaped bottle. If my current collectors eye was as keen when I was twelve as it is today I may have started keeping those yellow nozzle caps, conical trophies to my sweet tooth and 'husky' sized blue jeans. Thankfully I have no way of knowing how many bee-hives I went through. Some things are better left to death bed visions than conscious knowledge.
    The second piece of untoasted toast completed the sugar stack. Kraft smooth peanut butter, I was to later find out, included icing sugar in its ingredient list. Back then it seemed I was eating good stuff. The sandwich was now ready to flip, allowing the top toast to act as bottom, catching the honey in its spongy pores and with any luck becoming a crystalline playground. Why not just squirt the honey directly on the second piece of toast and let gravity do the work right from the start ? Good question. I believe that the honey squirted upon the creamy swirls of PB was simply more pleasing than it cascading onto plain white toast.
    In any case, the sandwich complete, I was now ready to cram it into my face in any number of ways. Occasionally I would break it apart in my hands and see what rugged landscapes would emerge from the fault line. Other times I would take teeth to it first, enjoying what little resistance they met. Sometimes I made a second sandwich.
    My aunt Christina, the 'cool' aunt who was probably only ten or so years older than me, would watch me making and eating these sandwiches with such relish that she requested I make one for her. "Just like you make it for yourself," she'd say. She admitted not liking the sandwiches but thought there must be something she's missing as I engaged with them as if they were the best things ever. I'd be confused as I made her a sandwich she wouldn't really enjoy. What a waste, I thought.