Saturday, May 29, 2010

Raccoon's Delight

And now, the second in my triptych of animals in difficult circumstances: "Raccoon's Delight."

Last month, right around Easter, I bought a whole barbecue chicken from a newly-opened local store that was having a spring sale. (It cost $6.99.) They gave me the chicken in one of those foil-lined "thermal" bags, but neglected to put this in a plastic bag. Since the "thermal" bag was not in the least sturdy, the bottom fell out of it as I was nearing home. This happened in the alley adjacent to my apartment. A whole chicken lay in the alley. In a fury, I left the chicken where it lay and returned to the newly-opened chicken shop to demand a properly-bagged replacement; which, to their credit, they gave with me bonus potatoes.

There are two distressed animals in this tale: myself and the imperilled whole chicken. (I'm told that a chicken does not so much mind sacrificing itself to the health of other animals [an appropriate sentiment for Easter], but particularly resents being wasted—or, their preferred term, gaspillé.)

But one animal's misfortune is often another's delight. In this case, the beneficiaries were many. Most obviously, a sixsome of raccoons of varying degrees of corpulence, who feasted lustily on the discarded fowl. Afterwards, an attentive but shy cat in raccoon camouflage who eventually descend her perch on the roof of a garage and partook of some leftovers. A brave mouse arrived last, and ate enough scraps to last her an entire month.

It it courtesy of this Mouse (who wrote me a letter recounting the events) that I was made aware of the narrative. She also conveyed to me the raccoons' and the cat's extreme thanks. To convey my own heartfelt thanks to the Mouse, I have drawn her in to this picture on the extreme right, where she is in the anachronistic act of writing me the letter, which she achieves by means of dipping her pointed snout in a jar of ink. (Click on the picture to get a proper view.)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"Why the Man I Love Can’t Love Me Back"

Late last night, I received the below from a reader who identified herself only as an Englishwoman living in Toronto. She asked me to publish her story and to illustrate it if I wished. She is a very poor writer, but I sympathize with her situation. But I think she is more fortunate than she realizes. For so many of us, the sudden end of a relationship leaves us terribly confused—with so many unanswered, unanswerable questions. Not so for our anonymous Englishwoman. Her pathology is complete and irrefutable. The blame rests entirely on him. It wasn't her fault. —A.N.S.

I am in love with a wonderful man. He’s friendly, unpretentious, kind-hearted, gorgeous and interesting. I want to share my whole world with him, understand all three of his levels. But I’ll never understand him completely, neither will anyone else. He’s a hamburger.

Part of the fast food spectrum, men who are hamburgers have normal or above sodium levels and are relatively socially high-functioning. Although they can integrate into society on many levels, they are mainly characterized by having difficulties in communicating. They can’t fully empathize with or understand others, especially in terms of reading their non-verbal information. They show a limited range of emotions and easily feel out of control if routines are not followed.

Looking back, I should have known that he was a hamburger from the beginning. We met at a local restaurant, where he struck up a conversation with me and my girlfriend. Within 10 minutes, I learned that he was of 100% Angus stock, had been cooked only a few minutes before, lived in a small box, was involved in the food service industry and was devastated when his ex-girlfriend died of a heart attack. All of these were red alerts: hamburgers are often loquacious, artery-clogging and have no qualms about revealing personal information to strangers.

A. N. Swick for

As we began dating, signs that something wasn’t quite right kept cropping up: His text messages were often blank as he had no fingers to type with; when he called, conversations were more like monologues than interactions; if I wanted to discuss his buns, he would just change the subject. He loved the grill, was in his box by 10 p.m. every night and rarely came over to my (much nicer) place.

I stuck around because there was also a lot of good stuff. We took exotic holidays. He showed me his family’s cattle ranch. He was sweet, tangy, honest to a fault and sexy. We got to know each other more, and I was falling in love. I desperately wanted to tell him, but waited for him to make the first move. He never did. The closest he came  was whispering that he didn’t want to share me with fries.

We carried on fairly happily for another year or so. Although he didn’t show affection conventionally, he showed he cared in many other ways, sharing his favourite “marinating” spots around the city with me, helping and encouraging me to run the Heart and Stroke marathon, being there for me when my father had heartburn.

Yet, I still felt there was something missing. The relationship was stagnating. He insisted on maintaining his routines and refused to sleep at my place. We were inseparable, but I still felt we were somehow separate, disconnected. I poured my heart out to a friend whose son is a hamburger, and she suggested I research it online. It was an eye opener: He met most of the diagnostic criteria. His behaviour suddenly made sense.

Excited, I brought this information to him, and gently asked if he thought he may be a hamburger. To my relief, he admitted it seemed like he might be, and then asked what the cure was. Unfortunately, there is none, but burger partners can learn to communicate more effectively with each other once there is acknowledgment of the problem and a desire to improve the relationship. He later was formally diagnosed.

Sharing his situation brought us somewhat closer. I understood his need for isolation more—hamburgers can be overwhelmed with stimulus and need time in their box to regroup. I tried to teach him what people would do in situations where he acted inappropriately (no more squirting mustard in lieu of a handshake). This seemed to help him, and his confidence and, I thought, our love grew.

Then, out of the blue, I received a letter in the mail, written in ketchup: “Darling, I don't want to hurt you, really I don't, but I cannot be in a relationship now, with you or anyone. If we stay together longer, you’ll suffer more, so it’s best to end it here. I hope you find a proper boyfriend soon.”

I was destroyed and cried for weeks. I wondered why he was doing this: I was sure he loved me, and despite the fact that he was a hamburger, I was deeply in love with him. What saved me was online support groups. I learned that my experiences were not unusual in the hamburger world, and I was warned off pursuing the relationship long-term by wives of hamburgers, who said it was a heartbreaking struggle to constantly remind the man you love to show some empathy and warmth. I learned that leaving a good relationship cold is typical, especially if the burger feels you've overcooked him.

Despite all his faults, I still love him and miss his company. After our breakup, he completely shut himself off from the world. Maybe one day, we can be close again. I want so badly to reach out and help him flip on the grill, to be there for him when he needs more relish, to take care of him. But first, I know I have to do all that for myself for a change.

Update: an attentive reader has pointed out that someone appears to have plagiarized my reader's letter in a shamefully maudlin and un-self-reflective piece in The Globe and Mail. For shame!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Marshall McLuhan on Wyndham Lewis

A few days ago, while reading a Marshall McLuhan interview in Understanding Me, I came across this:
I am resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change, but I am determined to understand what's happening because I don't choose just to sit and let the juggernaut roll over me. Many people seem to think that if you talk about something recent, you're in favour of it. The exact opposite is true in my case. Anything I talk about is almost certainly to be something I'm resolutely against, and it seems to me the best way of opposing it is to understand it, and then you know where to turn off the button. (101-2)
I found this extremely interesting—it reminded me that I don't know much about McLuhan, one of the more interesting Canadians, though (in my limited experience) a somewhat "careless" and confusing writer. I found the above statement very direct and apt, given my feelings about "social networking," which I will discuss before long.

It also reminded me that I have a strange McLuhan interview in my collection of Wyndham Lewis things. In the November 1967 issue of artscanada—a special issue on Lewis edited by Sheila Watson—there is included a 7" Flexidisc with recordings of Lewis reading his poem One-Way Song and McLuhan talking about Lewis. Since the Lewis recording is available on The Enemy Speaks I thought I would just include the unavailable McLuhan interview.

The interview on Side A isn't particularly interesting, except for the last part, where McLuhan talks about Lewis's frustration at finding his books were never taken as seriously as he hoped they would be. It's also the first taste of Sheila Watson's incredibly weird way of talking (spliced in after the fact, as you can tell from the different background hiss from the McLuhan sections.) Here it is, with the transcript below.

Now, here is Marshall McLuhan recalling his experience in recording Lewis reading.

In St. Louis—Lewis came down to visit and to do some paintings. And I managed to persuade him to read something from One-Way Song for our little home recorder. And it was most interesting to observe Lewis upon hearing his own voice. He just simply roared with laughter! In all the years preceding it had never occurred to him that he had essentially an English voice. Anyone who reads Lewis doesn't tend to get a very strong English effect or English enunciation from his prose. And Lewis himself apparently had nourished the idea that he spoke with a rugged American accent. And so he just went into fits of laughter when he heard this very English voice coming forth. And upon hearing the Harvard recording myself just now I too was surprised at just how English he sounded because after years of talking with Lewis I had forgotten altogether that he had an English voice. He didn't bear down on his English character at all.

He was very fond of opera. And he would occasionally produce a trill or two in that direction. But I wasn't—after all I wasn't in his presence all day and night, as it were. But I can certainly recall his breaking out into song occasionally. But often to illustrate a point. He would use some operatic aria just to "theme in" some discussion.

I think Lewis thought of his work as having immediate relevance to decision-making at the highest levels of human affairs, and naturally felt somewhat frustrated that his kinds of perceptions could not be made available in decision-making at very high levels.

The interview on Part B I find more interesting. It contains a very direct statement of Lewis's influence on McLuhan—one that is not, I don't think, available anywhere else. Here it is:

We asked Marshall McLuhan what influence Wyndham Lewis had on him.

Good Heavens—that's where I got it! [Laughter] It was Lewis who put me on to all this study of the environment as an educational—as a teaching machine. To use our more recent terminology, Lewis was the person who showed me that the manmade environment was a teaching machine—a programmed teaching machine. Earlier, you see, the Symbolists had discovered that the work of art is a programmed teaching machine. It's a mechanism for shaping sensibility. Well, Lewis simply extended this private art activity into the corporate activity of the whole society in making environments that basically were artifacts or works of art and that acted as teaching machines upon the whole population.

Why was this book of poems called One-Way Song?

In many of his writings he asserts the primacy of the visual. In his perception and his general feeling of preference of the visual over the other senses his feeling was that the passion for musical form in the later nineteenth century and in his own time betrayed this—betrayed our traditional visual values. Now, the clue then to One-Way Song may be in the fact that the visual sense is the only sense we have that is continuous and connected. All the other senses are discontinuous—whether touch, every moment of which is different form every other moment, or hearing, which is discontinuous—the interval is necessary for the very act of hearing. In sight alone, or in the visual alone, is there [sic?] a continuum—a connected universe that we associate with rationality and detachment. But One-Way Song seems to draw attention to these qualities of rationality and detachment and continuity and connectedness in thought and perception.

Now, back to Wyndham Lewis in 1940.

Friday, May 7, 2010

L'homme à tête de chou: an original translation

What follows is an original translation of Serge Gainsbourg's song "L'homme à tête de chou," from the album of the same name. (Whose cover, somewhat unsurprisingly, has a picture of a statue of a man with a cabbage head.)

The highlight, of course, is the second line: "Half vegetable, half guy." I also like "white foam wrack." The complex silly wordplay on "chou" (cabbage) can't be captured, nor can the rhymes, but of course you can hear that in the song. I have retained much of the slang in its literal form. Rather than translate "feuille de chou" as "tabloid" or "rag," I have just left it as "cabbage leaf." This I do to inspire you and myself to develop weird personal slang. (The Toronto Sun has just become for me a "cabbage leaf.") This in its turn inspired by Wyndham Lewis's advice in "The Code of a Herdsman." (Though I am not ready just yet to say "I like a fellow with as much sperm as that.")

I am going to do more or these sorts of things, and post more songs and pictures, and less of the long Jean Brodie style posts, which I will nonetheless conclude at some point.

Serge Gainsbourg (Adam Swick tans.)
The Man with the Cabbage Head
I’m the man with the cabbage head:
Half vegetable, half guy.
For the lovely eyes of Marilou
I went off and pawned
My Remington and my ride—
I was in the depths of the hold,* on the edge
Of my nerves, I didn’t have a kopeck left.
From the day I mixed myself up with 
Her I lost almost everything—
My job at the cabbage leaf,*
Where scandals equal beefsteaks*—
I was finished, fucked, check-
Mate in the eyes of Marilou,
Who treated me like a white-beak*
And drove me half mad.
Oh no you have no idea, guy—
She needed discothèques
And dinners at the Kangaroo
Club, so I signed the cheques
Without the funds, it was nuts, nuts—
At the end I waited and waited
Like a brainless melon—a watermelon—
But how—No, I’m not just going
Spell it out for you like that, cut and dry.
What? Me? Love her still? Nails!*
Who and where am I? Cabbaged* here or
In the white foam wrack
On the beach in Malibu.

* "in the depths of the hold": (nautical image; cf. "white foam wrack"): at the end of my rope
* "cabbage leaf": pejorative slang for newspaper
* "scandals equal beefsteaks": i.e., they put food on the table
* "white-beak": "greenhorn"
* "Nails!": No way!
* "Cabbaged": stuck