CALL ME FRISKO
Philosophy is really homesickness,it is the urge to be at home everywhere.
WE WANT YOU BACK implore the signs over the front fenders of MUNI buses. HAVE YOU COME...YET? demand the bus shelters. Guilt trip, courtesy AT & T, which wants us to reach ever farther out, and touch everyone (fiber optically).
For the emigre in autumn, these pleas reach deep; as a green-card-carrying (though the card is predominantly pink), bona fide "resident alien, I worry about the atomized spirit spinning round in circles of infinite regression, the elusiveness of home, the marketing and manipulation of migration.
Gertrude Stein once belittled her native Oakland, saying "There is no there there." San Francisco Bay Areans today find that among the East Bay (Berkeley- Oakland-Emeryville), the technopolitan villages of Silicon Valley, the lucid but fuzzy, well-heeled dreamers of the north counties (Marin and Sonoma), the scattered but emerging virtual communities, and the City (San Francisco), there are a multipliCity of heres and nows with an especially rich yield--high-grade either ore.
Like most in the Bay Area, I was drawn here from afar. It may be the fog, or living on the edge of a continent--the playing-with-fire mode of existence we take for granted-- or the exquisitely varied cultural soup that draws us from all over, in preference to the thin gruel we've found elsewhere. Northern Californians are justifiably accused of superiority; when we look to L.A., it's easy to feel detached (different faultzones) from the rest of the state, to say nothing of these disUnited States.
Though I look right at home I still feel like an exile
- Elvis Costello
Remaining an alien thousands of miles from "home" has given me a finer appreciation for things Canadian than my first two decades there ever did. Since coming to America (the Ewe Ass of Eh)-the bellum of the beast, as it were--I feel the clarity of detachment in viewing the varied strangenesses of both my distant and adopted homes.
Yet however great my disdain for the state of things here, I am still humbled and saddened by the sense of identity-confusion which is a fundamental part of the Canadian condition. Caught in the shadow of two empires--British and American--Canada is saddled with a world-class inferiority complex.
The city is born, in my opinion,when each of us for himself is insufficientand has need of others.
During the 1988 economic summit conference held in Toronto, the ABC news anchor Peter Jennings (himself a one-time Tronnan) called it "the city that plays anyplace, but is still waiting to play itself." That horror filmmaker David Cronenberg makes his films there, and recently used it as the site for both New York and Interzone in his adaptation of Naked Lunch strikes me as grimly appropriate. Douglas Coupland in Generation X (see PW 28) describes it as "[givingl the efficient, ordered feel of the Yellow Pages sprung to life in three dimensions, peppered with trees and veined with cold water."
Kafka spoke of his Prague as "that mother that has claws and won't let go. Toronto let me go; in maudlin moments, I might even say it drove me away-- and for that, I can neither forgive nor forget.
Toronto is in some ways a laboratory for the future city. It is one of North America's test marketing hubs--where such questionable commodities as cherry-flavored potato chips made their debut. Its indoor shopping mall environments (e.g., Yorkdale and the Eaten Centre) are more grandiose than Frank R. Paul's visions of the 25th century splashed across the covers of 20s pulp magazines.
And though it boasts one of the most varied, cosmopolitan populations in the world-close to half its population was born outside the country-it has also been home to a very stodgy, mannered people. I like to visit them, love some of them to distraction--but still, I cannot live there. Alas.
SUCH, SUCH WERE THE JOYS
It seemed natural that a little boy of eight orten should be a miserable, snotty-nosed creature, his face almost Permanently dirty, his hands chapped, his nails bitten, his handkerchief a sodden horror, his bottom frequentlyblue with bruises.
- George Orwell
An English teacher named Pierce once told me in prep school, "You're a stranger in a strange land." "Have you read the book?" I asked, hopefully.
He had not. I gave him a copy of Heinlein's famous hippie-prophetic novel that Christmas. We were friends, as far and as briefly as that went between pupil and master (yes, they called themselves that) at Upper Canada College. Pierce later banned my review of Flowers For Algenon, citing my fondness for science fiction as the pretext. To emphasize his disdain, he told me to prepare another one, and deducted 10% from my grade because it was instantly late. In revenge, I dwelled on the bloodier passages in Something of Value, Robert Ruark's pungent fifties bestseller about Mau Mau atrocities in Kenya. As I read aloud to the rapt class of castration and other dismemberments--with veiled references to our own enforced impotence--I glimpsed Pierce's face turn green.
(Unfortunately, this was a game I couldn't win. Next year he made me stand unprotected in a freezing November rain, from which I nearly caught my death.)
In a related war of words, my French teacher said to me knowingly, "Oh, so you're one of those." He was referring to the fact that I was actually reading in the school library (as opposed to "studying;"). His disdain deepened when he saw the book I held was The Hugo Winners, a collection of award-winning science fiction. Apparently my interest in "sci-fi" branded me a cultural barbarian. I knew in fact I was ahead of my time, and I could either wait...or, to find my stride, I could go to the source of the attractive signal from the south.
As a Canadian - first generation mother; father an immigrant; more saxon than anglo - I was no happy camper. My early years were spent in the siberian wastelands of Manitoba. If you've never heard of The Pas, don't worry; you won't be required to find it on a map. From those outer limits north of the 53rd, my family moved south to the narrow band straddling the border with the U.S., where 90 percent of all Canadians live.
In 1970, we left Winnipeg for Toronto, the city of my birth.It was there that I enrolled at Upper Canada College. It was supposed to groom the brood of business and the old aristocracy (what the stuffy 19th-century Canadians of British stock called "the Family Compact"). Most of my schooling occurred at private schools like UCC--world-class, presumably, for their emulation of Eton.
One of our rallying cries was "The Blue Machine is Supreme!" As consummate snobs, we thought we were destined to control the financial world centred on Bay Street, the provincial government at Queen's Park, and ultimately, with all due modesty, accession to the halls of power in Ottawa. Beyond that was the terror incognita.
It's easy to see where I developed my revulsion for authority: the macho inferno of boys' school, the petty elitism reflected in our "house" ties, the Scottish brogue of the endless stream of pipe-smoking masters dictating the brutal and capricious terms for our existence. My training included BASIC, which I pursued as an optional subject through ninth grade. As a student programmer, I toured more than one computer-whirring office in the mid-seventies, half-suspecting that this was my future. I narrowly missed (by a year) being forced to march in the "battalion, wearing ridiculous military uniforms, toting replica firearms, doing maneuvers around the school grounds.Another decade would pass before computer science replaced Latin as a core subject.
It would be an oversimplification to say that science fiction led to my leaving Canada. As a genre representing a pulp, sophisticated, fast-forward impulse, it and the ovenvhelming centurion dream of America drowned out our weak northern signal, dimmed the aurora borealis in a torrent of acid rain. SF provided the means (a social network that transcended borders) and certainly the mindset for a restless young cosmopolitan that were infinitely more appealing than the pallid imperial baggage of Britain, whose most dour representatives seemed to end up teaching at Canadian private schools.
I had to escape - as a budding writer,poet, stifled student of the world, eager to shuck the fetters of tradition, to unsquelch my lacquered tongue - I followed the siren call south.
Nowhere is everywhereand first of all in the countrywhere one happens to be.
- Alfred Jarry
I have to admit I've been lucky. To get here -
I didn't have to pay a coyote to sneak me in a dusty suffocating drive out of Tijuana in the trunk of a monoxidized automobile. I didn't cross the Rio Grande, blinking in a late night march through a desert of scorpions and infrared sensors, watching for the strobe-lit rotors of la Migra.
I did not have to "vote with my feet" to avoid having my skull added to a pyramid of eggheads in Indochina. I never had to sail in a listing, overcrowded boat, drinking seawater, braving pirates, turned away from one port to another, as if on a deathship, only to while away the indignity of years languishing in detainment centers, fearing repatriation, waiting to live.
No linguistic barrier came between me and where I now stand, except for increasingly infrequent ribbing about my accent. With the passing of time, I am a less obvious stranger.
Nobody ever dropped any bombs on a country I've lived in,except in weapons "tests." (Although periodically bits of space junk have rained flaming across the skies. And power plants have been known to overreact. . .) Since I can be in only one place at a time, and am not content to remain a virtual traveler, I grapple daily with the problems of displacement...and engagement. I may not be able to vote in America, but I pay taxes. And until my wife fired me, I was counted on all the various forms she faithfully completed, a model minion of bureaucracy. (I shouldn't knock it; those very forms eased me through the pearly gates of immigration.) What more can I do to resist the abhorrent machinery when I have put myself in its maw by choosing to live here?
James Joyce gives good tactical advice for survival in exile:
I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether. it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using from my defense the only arms I allow myself to use -silence, exile, and cunning.
- Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man Silence and cunning are limited if one does not find an effective balance in social action. Self-expression, if successful, or at least away from the margins, means collaboration. It may be with an audience of strangers, or one's peers; at best, it resonates and may disturb the universe.
In this City of exotic smiles, one's first question is often "Where are you from? "The Soviet epithet "rootless cosmopolitan" has always struck close to... well...home, wherever that is. Having lived in California since 1983, I've now been in San Francisco longer than any other place. I feel myself at last a San Franciscan.
But however comfortable and inspiring it may be here, I'm always going to be dreaming about somewhere else; where I've been, where I come from, and ultimately, where I may be headed.
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THE CENTER
Imagine having nothing onyour handsbut your destiny. You sit on the doorstep of yourmother's womb and you kill time - or time kills you.You sit there chanting the doxology ofthings beyond your grasp.Outside.Forever outside.
- Henry Miller, Black Spring
People born after WWII have lived their lives in the shadow of the Bomb. We will all go together when we go, gibed Tom Lehrer in one of his satirical songs of the sixties. Now that the specter of communism has obligingly imploded across the once monolithic Eastern Bloc, history - rather than ending -has spun ever faster in increasingly uncertain directions.
June 1990 was a time of tumult. Boris Yeltsin was the newly elected Chairman of the Russian Federation parliament; as such, his openly sympathetic view towards Baltic independence was just one area where he was at odds with the Soviet center of power.
I was traveling through Eastern Europe as part of the Anti-Economy League mission to undermine blind faith in the false idol of the West and its cathode-radiant future. Walking down the Unter den Linden in East Berlin, I drifted into a "Unitopia" conference at the Alexander von Humboldt University. In one of the classrooms students from the Baltic states showed videos documenting their struggle, provided narration and answered questions in English. They were an affable group of guys in their young twenties, active at the universities in Tallinn and Vilnius.
One powerful image they brought with them was the story of the human chain across all the states from Lithuania through Latvia and Estonia which was organized to protest lingering Soviet domination in 1988. As an artistic and cultural statement on a massive scale, it went far beyond anything I've seen from the jaded emigre artist Christo, with his menacing, homicidal umbrellas, or Man Ray-run-amok visions of wrapping the Reichstag.
As I traveled, news of further atomization abounded: Yugoslav republics Slovenia and Croatia were advancing in their drive for independence. The only drift in the other direction, towards unity, was in reunifying Germany, and on the dim horizon in South Africa, as the Group Areas Act was reformed out of apartheid, laying the groundwork for the eventual dismantling of the "homeland' system of"separate development."
In the meantime, my own native realm - Canada - was itself in the throes of new waves of separatism, as the constitutional fabric of confederation once again appeared fated to bitter dissolution. Once again, I felt the despair of a country that is paralyzed by chronic uncertainty, plagued by doubts and self-flagellation, two solitudes that have multiplied into a terminal alienation.
FROM THE UNDERGROUND
In another country, with another name Maybe things are different. Maybe they're the same.
- Brian Eno
I can always tell the weekend riders: their hesitation at the turnstiles, their uncertainty over ticketing. Or sometimes late at night, on the last lonely trains before the subway system shuts down, they're the ones too nervous to read or catch up on their sleep. They blink in amazement at every little thing. they never know till the last moment onwhich side of the train the doors will open. If there's something to see outside the window, they watch it whiz past in drop-jawed stupefaction, waiting for a moronic boom.
I was a precocious commuter. I started going by subway to school before I was ten. Now I find I've spent the last twentysome years riding the rails; time to take stock. It has not always be in the most pleasant experience, but it opened passages for me that in many ways seem to define my existence.
Heinlein wrote "The Roads Must Roll." Asimov called them The Caves of Steel. Dostoevsky had his Notes From a Hole in the Floor (better known as Notes From Undeground), in which he ventilated the violent interiority of the subterranean dweller lashing out, excoriating the sickness of the status quo.
Fortunately or not, most who ride do not show their loco side when on the train. The train is an engine of genes and experience in a brownian stream of motion.
It is a quality of indoor life; from sitting in one's garret, the outside fades in a haze of distant memories. I close my eyes to follow the slipstream of the everflowing street, from the Polk Street of Frank Norris to Edvard Munch's silhouette edging against the current of Sunday promenaders on Karl Johann-strasse. Joyce strolls along his river Liffey, Doblin's fetid Alexanderplatz assails the nostrils, while Nevsky Prospekt continues to beckon from the work of Pushkin to the futurist Biely. Saint Petersburg lives! Still, memory wanes.
There are many heres now-here, here, and yes even there - however cycli- cal history or our memories of amnesia may be-- in terms of the beat that echoes in my chest, maybe a muffled explosion, enough that I somehow continue to rise and think: maybe I won't pass this way again.
How many thousands of miles have I circled the square on this hamster wheel of life? In the movie 2001, an astronaut bound for Jupiter jogs around an endless track, a centrifuge, on an express-line beyond the infinite
The force that points his feet to the floor has another s;de: a centripetal pull, which governs the fate of nations. As we have seen recently, it doesn't take much, once the process is started, for these curious social constructs to fly apart.
With the vanquishing of the Challenger shuttle, and the Soviet disUnion, manned spaceflight to any of our distant neighbors appears to be increasingly remote in the short term- ask that poor cosmonaut, still stranded in orbit, the country that launched him no longer in existence. Perhaps, as in Alphaville, we'll just have to drive our cars from city to city, pretending they're different star systems for that same (almost quaint) thrill of discovery.
If we are to escape, it may only be from one room to another in the burning house we all live in.
- D.S. Black