Tuesday, October 5, 2010


In Brussels, there's a beautiful old film museum, with two projection rooms, and three screenings a day. (or at least that's how it was back in the summer of 2001). For two months, I lived in those projection rooms—everyday, I chose from the selection, up to three, no less than one. The most familiar sight in my Brussels routine was the men who worked at the museum. One was dark, straight-toothed, and never returned my smiles. The other was taller, blond and wore loud colorful ties that smiled along with him.
The only other place I visited on a regular basis was the small grocery store across the street from my father's apartment. There was a butcher and a produce guy, but I forget which was which. One of them was tall and sharp, the other short and stout, and they yelled at each other a lot. I remember telling them I was Canadian, I also remember the cheapest thing to eat in Brussels was leeks.
Otherwise, I spent most of my time alone, writing music and experimental prose, and familiarizing myself with my fathers record collection, which consisted of exactly 2 greatest hits cds: Bob Dylan and Jacques Brel.

It was before midnight, I was out for a stroll around the block, to clear my head before going to bed. A bus pulled up alongside me, opened its accordion doors to let me in. I don't know what I was thinking; I must have decided this was a sign. The bus went all the way to the film museum. Did I know this is where it was going? I'm sure I did. My mind was racing, much faster than the bus, I was going to change something important. The bus ride was a long one, despite the empty streets.
I got off near the museum. That neighborhood was dead at night, with large courtyards and steps leading from one garden to another, and government buildings, and cold stone walls--it was September--stone grounds, stone steps, all light gray, or cream and empty. One thick black line, a paved street cutting through the stone, which I crossed, towards the museum. In the museum, the tall blond man was closing up, bright tie dipping in the cash register.

I squeezed into the heavy door. He looked up, annoyed that he'd forgotten to lock it. I'm sure my words stumbled, I was nervous. Did I know he was going to be there? I must have.
What did I ask him? I can't remember, not exactly. It was exactly the kind of moment I've experienced so many times, running to a place before it closes, to see if they've found my favorite hat, or my wallet. And that's what I remember feeling—the apologetic shyness that comes with making a very small request, and the toughened quickness that comes with being told no—trying to act like nothing happened.

I saw him later, while I was wandering. Yes, I'm sure of it; his classic figure moving through the dark street. I have this memory, a small desire to hide, the image of his back, the strangeness of our wishing each other a good night, again, someplace else, a little absently. I remember him telling me how dangerous it was for me to be walking alone, at night. I can't remember if he told me this on the street, or in the museum, but I remember walking that night, until late.

1—a young man is wearing a bright tie
1—a woman who looks like a giant bird physically accosts me after a David Lynch film
1—another movie-goer, whom I only saw twice, is annoyed with me, comes to his door in a bath-robe
1—a beautiful one-eyed homeless man walks up to me in the metro and takes off my glasses
2—Brel and Dylan sing about love that was never there
2—I spend a summer in Brussels, alone
2—strangers are looking for something, they follow me, its dark
3—the bus opens its doors
4—I tell myself that something important is about to change

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


I went to bed last night, to the image of the Homunculus—Dr. Penfield, drawing the image of a body with giant lips and hands on the surface of the brain by shooting tiny electrical impulses, and asking the subjects what they felt. I can't help but imagine him doing this on the sidewalk, at the corner of Penfield Avenue and Mctavish, with people walking by, and dust rising with each car, and the subject sitting in a chair with a sheet over them, and their brain exposed to particles of air.
Last night, I fell asleep to the thought of how small my back is on these diagrams, compared to my lips and hands, and that thought made me sad. It also made me feel disjointed, my whole body mapped out on the surface of my brain—I think I'm three dimensional, but really, depending on how we look at it, I'm thinner than that, my body is drawn flat inside my scull.

I went to sleep with the vow to make my back bigger, even if it takes my whole life—to draw my back to scale, or at least larger than my hands and lips together, I wondered if my life would be long enough, is that enough time for such a huge endeavor?
Why do I find this so unsettling? The image isn't new to me, why does it suddenly make me dizzy? I fell asleep to two versions of me, one of them monstrous, staring at me, inculpating me: “you don't use your back enough, your hands, your lips, your legs look like sticks”. Every mirror distorts, and flattens. I imagined my back the size of a continent, and I knew that today I'd be writing, not traveling.

Friday, September 24, 2010

gray lies

Throughout my life, I've had a strange respect for the ability to lie well, to lie quickly, the ability to dismiss the truth as merely one possible version of events. I think of this ability as access to deeper level of truth, the shapes storytelling give to identity, the way memory rewrites itself every time it gets pulled out. In my mind, the liar understands this, and works with lies to build a richer self, to give memory the space it needs to breath.

I'm thinking of someone I know whom I suspect is a great liarwouldn't the best liars be able to organize their worlds so that their lies are impossible to notice? I may be making a giant leap, but I've always associated this suspected liar's immense forgetfulness with lies. And in this light, lies seem like the saddest thing in the world; a reality that is continually rewritten, that can only be the size of a single moment, a single impulse, and the manipulations that are required, in that moment, to shape things to one's desires.

Perhaps lies are like any other tool, marked by the impulses that drive them. But I'd like to believe that lies have mechanisms that are proper to them, to how we negotiate them, whether we use them habitually or not, whether we use them as a tool to manipulate others or not.
I was listening to WNYC's RadioLab, the episode on deception. In it, a study is highlighted, in which liars are found to have more white matter in their brains, a lot more.

Ok, so the part about the white matter doesn't mean a whole lot to me. I just imagine a bit of white in there, layered between the gray. White... the secret folds of alternate truths.

I think some more about lies, I'm confronted with an aspect of lying I'd forgotten about; the liars I knew as a child. They seemed so callous, so stubborn to carve a place for themselves that they didn't let anyone else in. They persisted in their lying; I'm sure they never grew out of it—they just got better at it. They had secret worlds, worlds of white within the thick and grey world we shared. I have to admit, this frightened me. I never thought that their physiology might be offering them an approach to reality that wasn't within my grasp.

The links between white, gray and lies, they don't necessarily mean that lies burry themselves in the brain's snowdrifts. White matter is related to the ability to make connections. White connects gray, to more gray... from what I understand. Gray skies, more gray skies, more gray. Between my adult fascination with the ability to lie, and my childhood disdain for it, and my solitary anecdotal account, in which I find manipulation and forgetfulness, I'm appreciating this comparison with gray skies, silver clouds, looking for shapes in clouds, and the gusts of wind that pull them apart.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Neuron forests

I'm tempted to believe that Freud was right; in the thickness of night, the unconscious tries to articulate desire, to negotiate wish fulfillment.
Late last night, while awake, walking around a familiar corner, my eye snagged on a book cover: Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology. A sigh pushed through me, like a sleepwalking ghost rushing through my wind-pipes, struggling for freedom. The same kind of sigh that might push through when a beautiful stranger walks by, the sound of their steps echoing inside.
I caught myself sighing, out-loud, looked back at the book cover, and the part of me that was sleeping told the part of me that was awake what I wanted: to travel through a forest of neurons. Is this how Einstein felt when he dreamed of traveling on a ray of light?
The text-book cover shows a photo, beautiful density of pink trunks, and branches, soft.

Do you know those photos of Einstein wearing flip-flops at the beach? He makes funny faces at the camera. I've always wanted to be there, to feel that sand. I spent my teenage years walking on the beach, by my house. I remember wondering when I'd meet that strange collection of people, who make funny faces at the camera and travel on rays of light. I imagined what it would be like to discover their backyard forests, junkyard rust, silent wishing-ghosts, haunted forests.
Sometimes I get frustrated with how much of my understanding of reality is tangled up in my imagination. But today, I feel comforted that all of my imagination is tangled up in attempts at understanding reality.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

great tragedies

Great tragedies are multi-tiered. It's difficult to understand why their events can't be derailed—but what makes the greatness of a tragedy is, in part, the impossibility of derailment. Those intimately involved do everything in their power to untangle themselves; everything they do just tightens the knots.
Can life really be like this? When I encounter these stories, I marvel at how the writer has managed to create such a tight web—it seems impossible that real life would act so seamlessly. The real-life person would have to be a genius, carefully plotting their own demise.
And yet, when I look at my life, the lives around me, I see all kinds of entanglements—a turn of bad luck rarely rotates immediately into place. Usually, it sets a number of other things into motion, it pulls on those parts of a person's character that are the strongest, and weaves them into the momentum, pulls them tight—like trip wires.
Oh, the word “tragedy” is so dramatic!—and forget the word “luck”. But you know what I'm talking about, right? There's a momentum, a structure in experience, that makes tragedy such an appealing form, such a fantastic mirror.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Dead neurons

I'm trying to remember my first impression, back in high-school, when I met my first neuron, drew its shape, gave its parts names. They came across as prickly cells, electric cells. Other cells, soft and rounded like pillows, could adapt, divide, propagate. Other cells were bunny-cells, traveling about, cozying up to different parts of the body. But neurons were glass cells—they were sharp, and they broke, fried, exploded. They did not divide to make new cells. They just lay there after they died, like broken bottles on the side of electric highways, as you slowly lost your ability to think clearly.
So, ever since high-school, something about neurons scares me. Lately I think of them differently, I'm actually surprised by this memory of exploding glass. But I'm reminded of this fear that invades various parts of my life, various versions of mortality... in which there is no precise end where everything stops--no, rather a lingering end, where the highway is littered with broken glass and you smell something like alcohol, or spilled milk, or the ocean, but you can't quite place the smell, what it is, what it means.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Smart neurons

As neurons are connected to the processes of thought, well—I think of them as smarter than other cells. Ridiculous, I know. What does “smarter” mean? I have no idea, but whatever it is that differentiates neurons from other cells, that will inform my definition of “smarter”.
Okay, so I'm looking on the internet to find out what is unique to these cells. I'm told that the main differences are that when neurons die, they are not replaced. They make new connections throughout life, but they don't reproduce. Their membranes are specialized to communicate with other cells both electrically and chemically.
Hm... So, in conclusion, smart people fall in love fast, and hard, and often—they are well connected, they are always making new connections. They communicate electrically (static electricity) and chemically (they smell good). They don't have kids, ever. And when they die, no one is able to replace them. Or maybe no one really wants to replace them.