that’s so cliché

After a discussion we had this morning, Husband posted the following quote to Tumblr:

My friend Martin Amis wrote a book called the War on Cliché, saying that all of us who write and think and speak try to remind ourselves that there’s nothing worse than borrowed phrases, and that using someone else’s words is part of literary intellectual death. Now, when I went to Czechoslovakia under the old communist regime, I thought to myself, whatever I do, whatever happens to me in Prague, I’m not going to use the name Kafka. I’m just not going to do it. I won’t do it. Everyone else does, I’m not going to. I’ll write the first non-Kafka mentioning piece. I went to this meeting of the then unknown dissident Vaclav Havel and several of his Czech and Slovak friends in an apartment in Prague. We thought that no one knew that he had these visitors coming from America; but someone must have given us away because it wasn’t long before the door fell in and in came police dogs, and guys in leather coats, carrying heavy electric torches and truncheons. They slammed me up against a wall and said ‘you’re under arrest and you’ve got to come with us’. I said, “Well what’s the charge?”, and they said “We don’t have to tell you the charge.” And I thought fuck. Now I do have to mention Kafka.

– Christopher Hitchens (via hitch-22)

To which I reply:

Oh, Martin Amis: there are definitely things worse than borrowed phrases. One can use a cliché well. One can use a cliché to remind the reader of the baggage that cliché carries. The cliché does not exist in a void, but is the product of a long tradition of intertextuality. A smart writer must not avoid cliché, a smart writer must engage cliché in a dialogue.

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I was reading a review this morning in The Atlantic of a book about hot air balloons (Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air by Richard Holmes). The reviewer mentions the author’s brief mention of the Icarus cliché, as if the author could not simply ignore such an obvious allusion, but did not want to engage in it. As a substitute for similar classical weight, the author brought up Perdix the partridge. But not all clichés are interchangeable. When discussing the pioneers of ballooning, comparing them to Perdix is just not the same as comparing them to Icarus.

To rally against clichés itself is now a cliché. Celebrate them. They have a purpose.

so we’ve yet to find a decent world map with south sudan

For my sixth birthday, my grandparents bought me globe. It sat on the desk, tilted at that attractive, precarious angle. I loved that the mountain ranges were palpable beneath my fingertips. Their intention with this gift was to aid my transition into the realm of proper education. I had just begun the first grade.

This was late September 1989.

Within two months, the globe was out of date in the most drastic way possible. (Until global warming inevitably creates Waterworld: The Sequel.) The Berlin Wall fell and half the Soviet Union descended into capital-R Revolution.

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But we never got another globe. That was the one we had in our house for years. Just this little piece of history, rotating slowly, collecting dust.

It is odd to think of now, as our apartment is adorned with three world maps (sure, one is a shower curtain, but still), how big that chunk of the USSR was. It seems like it took up half the globe. That was the legacy I was born into: the legacy of the Cold War. Nothing substantial, but a permanent memory of a giant, abstract chunk of the Earth.

The maps we have up in our place are all out-dated. Husband found it a fun project to analyze the maps to slowly parse out changes. He managed, based on colonial holdings, to date one map to a specific range of three years. 1929 to 1932, I think. That takes an historical precision that’s beyond me. Especially just while standing there staring at it.

I think of those memes currently floating around the internet: the first where people try to fill in the US states on an empty map; the second, the countries of Europe. It’s hard, but maps mean something, don’t they?

Is it easier or harder, in this “day and age” to forget our spatial relationship to the world? One might argue that the speed of modern communication and air travel has rendered distance near-negligible. But tell that to people who reblog pictures of places around the world that they will never get to visit. Because the reality is, no matter the fact that I can eat breakfast in Vancouver and have dinner in New York City, those distances exist in a way that borders abstraction.

We form places in our mind long before we see them, through the influences of pop culture and history. But these images in our mind are like looking at the stars. What we see in that light emanating before our very eyes is actually the past. That star might be dead.

The New York City in the public consciousness is not the New York City that exists now in this very moment. The New York City in the public consciousness is the collective creation of years of history and television and films and music and art. The New York City in the public consciousness is the light from a star.

Perhaps that is the saddest thing about travel, and definitely what makes it most worthwhile: the illusion breaks.

Our knowledge of the world is an old map. We’re caught in a time vortex, always lagging behind. Because borders are changing all the time; it’s a constant evolution.

Any globe will be out of date in a few months, even if the information written on it is not.

"The two elements the traveler first captures in the big city are extra human architecture and furious rhythm. Geometry and anguish."

– Frederico Garcia Lorca

gender and hockey in the gymnasium

As a child, I had a problematic relationship with gender. By problematic, I mean No Relationship At All. Perhaps different familial circumstances would have produced different results, but alas: I was the first child of my generation. With only a younger sister and no males to be placed in opposition to, I was raised by parents who raised a child, not a girl.

My father, born in late 1950s Canada, is the eldest of four boys. His mother a widow, they were raised almost primarily by her and her sisters. I see my father and uncles as healthy, well-adjusted men, who cook, clean, see woman as equals, and also engage in all manner of traditionally masculine pursuits like hunting, fishing, DIY, and NASCAR. I once spent twenty minutes with two of my uncles discussing who has the best meatloaf recipe. My dad used to sew a lot of my Halloween costumes.

My mother, born in early 1960s Britain, with two brothers and a sister. Her parents were a perfect nuclear family, my grandfather working, grandmother at home. My mother felt very heavily the burden of being “raised a girl.” My aunt and one uncle became adults with the most problematic mental states imaginable. (I won’t elaborate.) I know my mother internalized so much because I see it come out sometimes in the strangest of ways. When I once mentioned that if I truly wanted a child, even if I were single, I would have one, her immediate reaction tore into some deep well of repressed conservatism. “A child needs a mother and a father!” she argued. As shocking as it was to hear her make such a statement, I realized then that some injustices are so subtly ingrained that those exploited have to rationalize the sheer unfairness somehow.

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But I was lucky to have escaped much of this in my early years. Sure I played with Barbies. I loved to build characters and ongoing narratives. It was a precursor to writing, really. But I also loved dinosaurs and wrote my first story about one. I hated wearing dresses and wanted my hair cut short because that’s just what felt right.

And I loved hockey. I used to watch it with my dad. I would go to games with my grandma, back when the Canucks were at the Pacific Coliseum. I wanted to play hockey, but it was expensive and back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, no girls’ leagues existed. So I used to play road hockey with the boys.

So I finally arrive at the actual point of this post. I had a gym teacher in elementary school who used to (I’m assuming on days he didn’t feel like actually teaching) split the gym in half with a row of benches. On one side we set up gymnastics mats, on the other hockey nets. The girls did gymnastics, the boys plus me played hockey. Nothing seemed unusual about this. A lot of the boys were the ones I played with in the street. Most of them played in leagues, which I didn’t, so they were better than I was. But in a situation such as this, where the gender divide was rendered literal, even the boys who didn’t play at all were drafted. I ended up being somewhere in the middle skill-wise.

Finally, at one point, prompted by what I can only imagine is boredom or misplaced concern, the gym teacher pulled me aside. Hockey stick still in my hand, I left the game. One of my friends called out: “Don’t take Ashleigh! She’s our best defenceman!” (I am still proud of this.)

The gym teacher, a middle-aged man with a moustache, asked, “Don’t you want to do gymnastics with the other girls?” I didn’t. My parents enrolled me in gymnastics a few years earlier and it ended badly. Hockey was the sport to aspire to. All of our heroes were hockey players. And I had a massive crush on Pavel Bure.

“No!” I replied, indignant, but suddenly embarrassed. It seemed like I had done something wrong.  It had not occurred to me that I was on the wrong side of the divide. The realization was blinding and confusing. At that age, I never thought to question a teacher. Whatever he was saying, it must be true. I went back to playing hockey that day, but it was not the same. I’m pretty sure that was the last day I ever did.

In the years to come, I gained enough perspective to realize how wrong it was of my gym teacher to say that to me, even if he thought he was doing the right thing. In the years to come, so many other little moments like that would build and build, forming a great heap of gendered expectations.

But that was the day I truly realized what it meant to be a girl.

plug away, you shameless plug

I’m not even going to try for the humblebrag. I straight-up won the Sad Magazine Fantasy Fiction Contest. *cheers*

I’ve known about this for a month, where I received the news first thing in the morning whilst unshowered and annoyed in a terrible London hostel. It made my day then and it still makes my day, which, I guess, means it made my month.

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Part of why we flew back into town when we did was so I could do an interview for them, so, in turn, I could look doughy and uncouth.

Anyway, I shall continue to strive for modesty ever after, but tonight I dine on something that takes more than one pan to cook* because tonight we celebrate!

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*We just moved a week ago and haven’t bought new pots and pans yet. It sucks.

which drunken story to tell…?

The good people at The Round Up Writer’s Zine have published a piece of mine of great intellectual snobbery…

… namely the story of time I got really drunk on Sambuca while camping.

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This was for The Moonshine Edition, which was seeking embarrassing drunken stories. With the piece entitled “Always the Sambuca,” I have to admit that I don’t know if this is actually the most embarrassing drunken story of mine, but it’s definitely top three.*

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*The other two would have to be “The Night of the Mustard” and “The Incident With the Kiddie Pool,” if you have to know.

positively – well, almost certainly – 4th street

This past weekend, Husband and I rented an apartment on 4th Street in New Westminster. This three-storey walk-up was built oh-so optimistically one year before the crash (1928). With views of apartment blocks, a cobbled road and a slice of an industry-laded river, it makes us feel like we’re living in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.

We’ve even nicknamed the place “New West Egg.”*

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Not-so-Beautiful-but-certainly-Damned, our first night in New West Egg was capped off by a trip to Walmart in search of fuses. We’re still working on figuring out how to work a radiator.

Yes: the floor runs at an angle along one wall. The windows are cold and single pane. But it has character. It has tall ceilings, hardwood floors, a toilet from “Simpsons Sears,” and kitchen cupboards painted like zebra stripes. Yes, this character most definitely would wear flapper dresses, dangle cigarette holders from her fingertips, and be prone to drunken public meltdowns.

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*A great joke for humourless fans of Gatsby and/or puns.