babble, baby. it's all about the babble.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A girl named Sparrow

I sat nervously at the table, nursing a latté and admiring her honey-coloured hair. Her eyes sparkled tentatively, hesitant freckles dotting the bridge of her nose.

It was an hour before I realised, she spoke without pause, seeming not even to draw breath. Those eyes, that nose – they were the only shy things about her.

“Everyone keeps talking about this ‘SkyTrain.’ I was like, ‘I haven’t seen it, and I drive,’ you know, like, ‘where is it? I see the sky, sure, like, but y’know, where’s this train you speak of, dude?’”

It was like those Tibetan throat singers who chant continually, using mystical, alternative breath control to keep a constant, droning tone for 30 minutes.

“I turned off the stove, you know, like totally turned it off, and everything, and went to watch this completely hilarious show on TV, that I like never miss, and by the time the show was like, half-finished, the fire alarm went off, and I was like, ‘what is that?’ You know, totally ‘Am I hearing something?’ because we’ve like never had like a practice drill or anything, so I went downstairs, totally to the street corner and everything and I was utterly freezing for like an hour before the fire department decided it was time they came and like wouldn’t let us back in until around like four a.m. or something like that and they like asked to speak to me, like, oh my god, I was like, ‘Like I’d date a fireman,’ y’know, and my roommate was like, ‘Like a fireman would date you,’ and she’s such a bitch sometimes, and like it was hilarious, you know, cos the cookies kept cooking even though the oven was totally off, you know?”

Constant, droning tone.

Like bagpipes.

“Spooky, don’tcha think?”

It had been so long since I’d been invited to take part in the conversation, I’d forgotten how to speak altogether. My larynx had devolved into a vestigial organ, without use or purpose. Teams of scientists had formed committees, written papers and wasted millions in government grants trying to establish the biological function of what remained of my voice box. The sternocleidomastoid muscles – the ones that wrap forward from the base of the jaw to the front of the sternum – had atrophied so dramatically that moving my head from side to side took both hands and nearly all of my effort.

At one point, what had once been my vocal cords had become little more than nerve ganglia – they inflamed and threatened to burst; a top ear, nose and throat surgeon had to be flown in from Bavaria to perform the tricky operation, cleverly transposed from a text book appendectomy. Through weeks of intense physiotherapy, however, I’d learned to communicate using a complex system of hand gestures, clicking noises and knuckle cracking; while I’d waited several lifetimes for her question, she didn’t have to wait long for a response.

Click crick wave, snappity crack clap.

“That’s so sweet!”

Shake click.

“That reminds me of this vacuum cleaner I had a while back, like, so worthless, you know...”

And that, Sparrow, is how I met your mother.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Foreward: The Lives and Times of Ropey Scowzer

The Lives and Times of Ropey Scowzer

Who is Ropey Scowzer? It’s not a question easily answered. For most, it’s not even easily posed. The sheer magnitude of the subject dwarfs even the most accomplished thinkers of our time. Noam Chomsky, Norman Mailer, even Norm from Cheers – none have been able to encapsulate the cultural enormity of the phenomenon known as Ropey Scowzer.

According to legend, he has been many things to many people: actor, singer, poet, priest; explorer, gypsy, hairstylist; butcher, baker, candlestick maker; warmonger, spokesmodel, clothes horse.

For decades, Rope Ezekiel Scowzer has been something of an urban legend. It was easy to dismiss the rumours. There were so many stories, some told in hushed tones over watery pints, some published in large print with illustrations by Road Dahl. Just how could a single human possibly span the length and breadth of these tales, which increase in size and scope with each retelling, in suggested retail price with each reprinting? Higher education and the edification of pop culture in the western world long ago placed blind faith on the wane; if God can’t get a fair shake without scientific proof, how could Ropey? Surely, then, he was more myth than man. He had to be.

The stories are beyond belief. Depending on whom you ask, he’s been a monster, a minister, a pimp and a patient. He’s been bilked, bitten, admired and admitted. He’s charmed the pants off dozens of women, scared the pants off hundreds of men, and just plain pantsed the rest. For a brief time in the late 1960’s, he was the key advisor to Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau – a failed experiment that culminated in both the country’s only declaration of martial law and the formation of Bachman Turner Overdrive. Contrary to popular belief, however, he has never been a small Scandinavian country on the verge of nuclear power.

Surprisingly, the truth is as compelling as any barstool preacher’s tall tale. But unlike Charles Dickens’ Gatsby or the Boy Wonder in Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Ropey Scowzer actually lives up to his liquor-drenched reputation. Just about all the rumours are true; nearly every bit of hearsay bears very real, very juicy fruit. With the sheer number of stories out there, one can’t help but naysay and scoff. It’s hard to believe, but Ropey Scowzer really has been there, really has done that.

Yes, the blitzkrieg, or lightning warfare, concept was at least partly his brainchild. And yes, a war of words with his boyhood Spanish teacher, Hsiang Youn-Hsiang, really did escalate to a duel with epées atop the Tower of London. It’s true that Ropey, feeling mistreated after his fight with Trudeau, used his vast network of contacts to ensure Canada’s status as the only Olympic host nation to go without gold on home turf: at both Montreal’s 1972 Summer Games and Calgary’s Winter Games 16 years later, judges were bribed, shoes were tampered with and drinks were bought until the Great White North was friendless, poorly equipped and debilitatingly hung over.

Who is Ropey Scowzer? Hell, what is Ropey Scowzer?

When Robert DeNiro starred in the 1983 biopic Scowzer!, most critics blasted it for its lack of realism. Francis Ford Coppola’s sweeping melodrama was filmed mostly in Soho, giving the Saskatchewan prairie an oddly urban feel. The effect was supposed to be ironic – could the now-famous line, “That damned sea of wheat always gives me the shivers,” uttered in a gritty coffee shop in the Village, be anything else? – but the result was considered too surreal for the business-minded 80s.

Like much of Coppola’s early work, it was ahead of its time. Scowzer! didn’t find its audience until the late 90s, when both the BBC and CBC adapted the flick. England’s version captured hearts as a delicate eight-part miniseries starring Derek Jacobi; Canada’s entry won several awards as a National Film Board-sponsored, hand-drawn animated short. A few years later, a small Kansas city theatre started midnight screenings every Tuesday night; social outcasts and film geeks were the first to champion the picture, which they claimed needs at least 40 viewings for even slight comprehension. Movie lovers around the world have since embraced Scowzer! as an invaluable tour de force. The director himself commented in a recent issue of Rolling Stone magazine, calling it “easily my best work – I wish Apocalypse Now had an exclamation point in the title.” Today, four out of five young directors cite DeNiro’s supply of the junta amidst plastic ferns in Tribeca to be the main reason they got into cinema in the first place. *

Despite DeNiro’s own growing legend, however, he just couldn’t pull off enough swagger to sell the miraculous string of events attributed to the real-life Scowzer – the emaciated solo trek through the Andes failed to elicit half the buzz of his earlier weight gain for Raging Bull – and the disastrous closing musical number is the unanimous patsy to blame for Dustin Hoffman’s codeine-lined turn in Ishtar.

Until recently, little was known about Scowzer’s early years, the many gaps in time and logic filled with myth, wishful thinking and unreal conjecture. But now, declassification of all non-essential documents by Canadian and American government agencies – not to mention Jimmy Stewart’s deathbed confession after several cans of Red Bull were added to his IV – has made it possible to finally tell the whole story.

Here, then, are the lives and times of Ropey Scowzer.

* Statistics packaged by weight, not by volume. Some settling may occur.

Monday, May 23, 2005

The leap

For a few seconds I thought I’d finally done it. I was going to land it.

Swooping through the curve on my skateboard, Zen man, wind in my face, trucks rattling and wheels hissing over asphalt. Then - shit - I felt the moment fade. I lost that sweet smooth rasp, the sure steady sound of me and my board knowing where to go. I felt the wheels zig, and that was it. Next thing was my palms slapping the pavement, followed by the rest of me. Fuck.

My shame is hot in the shade. I’m swilling water, willing myself back to control. The fleshy parts of my hands sting. Tiny droplets of blood bead on my knees and hands, probably my chin too from the feel of it. That’s not the part that’s got me rocked. It’s the false triumph felt before the inevitable failure. I knew I was going to land it. Trust your gut, people say, but it’s no more trustworthy than a roll of dice. Sometimes a moment of ‘truth’ is just another lie.

I don’t much care about being banged up. War wounds, man. One more story of the jump that got away.

I need a Slurpee. A walk might calm my nerves.

Sometimes I shake after I fall. Not when I know I suck and I will have to risk falling to get better. When I think I’m hot shit and I’m so going to have a ta-da moment. I try to tell myself that I’m not that good, that I’m not some hot chick in an Etnies ad. I try to take myself down a peg or two, because honestly I’m an egotistical bitch and I’d rather be the one to take me down if it’s got to be done.

Gravel crunching under my shoes. Got to reapply the duct tape on the toe. I don’t buy expensive shoes. I have a habit of dragging my right foot behind me when I want to slow my board down. The thrashing isn’t any easier on $100 shoes than $20 ones. I buy ‘em cheap and wear ‘em until even the magical silver power of duct tape isn’t enough to keep the sole and upper together. Looks like these ones will have to be replaced soon.

There’s a 7-11 only a few blocks from the skate park. Here in the ‘burbs no one walks who can drive. The sidewalk’s mine except for a couple of teenyboppers in push-up bras and tight shorts trying to eat ice cream without smearing their lipstick. The ice cream’s the soft kind that comes on a stick, coated in hard chocolate. The chocolate has cracked and is drifting down their sticks like ice floes. The girls push the fragments back up the melting white bar with their little pink tongues, giggling and swearing in chirpy voices. I watch the men and boys in passing cars crane their necks to watch the Lolitas walking towards me. I am dirty and bloody and grumpy. The girls grow quiet as I approach, then resume their titters after I pass. They think themselves cats, these canaries.

I may be a skater chick, but I’m no one’s bird.

The doors to the 7-11 hiss open for me. Before I’m ten steps inside I’m covered in gooseflesh. I resent it when stores crank up their air conditioning in summer. It always makes it seem even hotter when I step back out into the sun.

The store is busy today. There’s a lineup for the Slurpee machine. A large glop of banana Slurpee is melting into a sticky mess in the middle of the floor. Already people have tracked it up the aisle. It looks like someone pissed on the speckled linoleum.

I pour myself a small Coke Slurpee, thrust exact change at the harried clerk and walk out. The lineup for the cash winds around the counter, and as far as I can tell it’s entirely due to an old lady with orange hair who can’t decide which lottery ticket to waste her twoonie on.

The heat outside packs the predicted wallop. My Slurpee cup and I immediately break into a sweat. I take turns anointing my scrapes with cold condensation. It feels soothing at first, but worse when I take the ice away. I keep doing it, even if the relief is fleeting.

By the time I make it back to the park, my drink is just flat, watery pop but the shakes have stopped and so has most of the stinging in my hands. Others have come to the park to skate. Failing in front of them would be too much right now. I pick a spot in the cool sun-dappled grass beneath a leafy tree, and watch the newcomers. I’ve seen them around but I don’t know them. They’re very good.

Two guys, tall, lean and strong. One blond and shaggy, the other dark with a shaved head. A barefaced girl in loose army surplus and a long, impossibly red ponytail fluttering behind her like a banner. They move like salmon, leaping in their own current.

They are how I imagine my father to have been. I was five when he died in a freak accident downtown. He wasn’t even 25. I am told friends came to his funeral in jeans, carrying longboards. Apparently Dad said that was what he wanted shortly before he died, in one of those hypothetical conversations you have with a pack of friends when you’re sitting stoned in a smoky basement, at the end of your beer.

I can picture it, rows of people fidgeting in their stuffy blacks, and among them the mohawked and the spiked, the bedraggled and the shaved. Boards both badges of membership and monuments to friendship.

Fear weights my limbs, but I push myself up from the grass. My hands tremble and my stomach feels sick, but I’m going to try this again. I push off into the concrete gully, seamlessly entering the skaters’ stream.

I poise myself to leap.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Dauphin, Manitoba

In 1952, Ropey Scauser spent seventeen hours in a speed-driven coma in Dauphin, Manitoba. When he woke up, he had scraped the following into his upper left thigh:

You may find yourself sitting in a shotgun shack.
And you may find yourself in another part of the world.
And you may tell yourself: "This is not my beautiful house."
And you may tell yourself: "This is not my beautiful wife."
How did I get here?

The question mark never fully healed.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Triple Jump

My instructor’s got dark roots. Black near the scalp, like a clutch of mobster uncles. Blonde curls dance unabashedly – young and bright and playful, for all and sundry to gaze upon. The uncles, jealous and proud, are always hunched over a table in the background. Watching. Waiting. Winking.

His nose is arched, like a Roman stag. His nostrils flare slightly whenever he gets excited about a lesson, which is often. The hairs peek out when this happens, and you can’t help but look. You cringe, even wince, but you can’t help yourself – it’s an injury on the field, a car accident, a couple having sex in public – you have to look.

Last week it was causal relationships in foreign market crashes.

Flare, like a bad temper.

Yesterday he nearly wet himself talking about fraudulent telemarketing schemes.

Flare, like second-hand pants.

This morning he invoked the spectre of our looming, growing student loans, how they parallel the insurmountable debt that’s crippling so many African economies. His hand came down on the podium for emphasis, each smack louder than the last. Without relief, he said, you poor developing nations will remain trapped in an eternal cycle of under-payment, under-training and Third World ignorance.

Flare, like fireworks. Like an S.O.S. Like a freeway entrance.

Eighty-five minutes later, I’m driving a stolen car on the TransCanada Highway, heading east for all I’m worth. My fiance’s in Toronto for a conference, and his parting joke rings like a church bell in my ears: I’ll be back in a few days, honey. And if not, don’t worry: my life insurance pays off triple if I die on a business trip.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Deep and Dark

“Sweet baby Jesus!” I was getting restless. “How far away is this place?”

Bob casually snapped on the left-turn signal and smiled. “Take a pill, Kurry. We’ll get there already.” Another turn, this one onto the highway. “And what’s with the baby Jesus crap? You’re not even close to being religious.” He was right.

We were quiet for what seemed like forever. Too bad we couldn’t say the same thing about Bob’s Mini; even though it was only a two-cylinder, we had to shout over the damned engine. The thing was louder than a badly-tuned hair metal band at a librarian convention.

It wasn’t exactly the most comfortable ride to begin with. Add a year’s supply of pop cans, six pairs of sneakers and last Monday’s half-eaten bucket of chicken, and we’re talking the very picture of first-class travel. Oh, did I mention the gear? We’d jammed all of our equipment into the car with us. We had our weapons of choice, our armour, and a few surprises. We liked to be prepared for just about any situation. After all, we were going off to war.

“D’you think they’ll be tough?” I asked meekly. I wasn’t familiar with the Red Dragons, and quite frankly wasn’t looking forward to the introduction.

“I dunno, I’ve never seen ‘em in action.” Bob’s pause was as pregnant as a shy servant girl with a swollen belly.

“But they killed the Cripps last weekend.”

Bob absentmindedly rubbed his knee as he made a right turn. We’d gone up against the Cryptkeepers a few months back, and it was a hard-fought battle. To this day, I’ve got a long white scar on my neck from a fight with Jake Cripp. A pasty, seven-foot redhead, Jake weighed about thirty pounds. We used to joke about him until he single-handedly went through every one of us. I got a cut neck, and Bob wrecked his knee. Jake was nothing less than a menace.

And the Red Dragons killed him. Bob looked worried, and with good reason.

“Gulp,” I said aloud.

Bob looked at me with a sudden disgust. “You pussyin’ out on me?”

“No, really, I’m thirsty. Pass me the Big Gulp.”

Bob sighed and wriggled his left hand to a massive drink wedged between a duffle bag and the door. The entire driver’s side window was eclipsed by the waxy cup of orange soda. I thought, Little car, Big Gulp.

“This thing is bigger than your gas tank,” I said, sipping sickly sweetness. “How can you drink this stuff?”

“Shut up, asshole. At least I have a car.”

That stung and he knew it. I’d spent all summer — and all my money — wooing Marie Zapetti. I’d wanted a car, sure, but I’d wanted Marie more. I’d tried everything: flowers, chocolates, I even bought a few poems from this poncey creative writing student from down the street. And still, I was as unsuccessful as seven unsuccessful things at a failure festival. Not that I was bitter or anything.

“Fuck you, too, virgin-breath.”

More silence. We’d come off the highway; the road was flanked by golf courses and farms. Considering our destination, not to mention the gritty tension that now inhabited the Mini, it was surprising how beautiful and calming the scenery was. The last hints of fog lay stubbornly on the grass, making blurry the odd flag, the occasional cow.

“Hey, maybe we should go play some golf or something instead,” I mugged, hoping to lighten the mood.

“Fuck off already!” Bob turned dark as he turned to me. In seven years of friendship, it was the first time I’d ever seen him angry. I liked it about as much as extra math homework on prom night. “I’m tired of your fuckin' bullshit, Kurry! We are going to the Red Dragons’ home turf, and we are going to beat the shit out of them. End of fucking story! You got that?”

The look on his face reminded me: Bob had a cousin in the Red Dragons. This was a more difficult day for him than for anyone else in our gang. Bob, he was going to war against a family member.

Uncomfortable with his deep, hypnotic glare, I tore myself Bob’s eyes and mumbled something, probably an apology. Silence, accompanied by that crappy two-cylinder, reigned supreme. Bob turned his attention to the front window, too, but the fog had closed in around the vehicle. We were blind, and it scared me more than the finalists at a That’s Really Fucking Scary competition.

“Holy shit!” was all I could croak out before the crash.

The impact had us moving and stopped at the same time. Limbs and hair swung forward with inertia, knuckles and nails slamming the dash and glove compartment. Slo-mo tin cans arced through the air, a graceful liquid ballet over break-dancing drumsticks and staccato cassette tapes. Metal and plastic splintered and crinkled like aluminum foil around potatoes for a summer barbeque. Potatoes named Bob and Kurry.

We both managed a nervous laugh as we climbed out of the Mini. It must have been a combination of seat belts, Bob’s slowing down to yell at me, and all that crap wedged into the car with us, but we didn’t seem to be injured at all.

The car, however, was another matter. Both side windows were cracked, spider tracks snaking in all directions. The passenger door was badly mangled. And the whole front end of the damned thing was crumpled up like so much honeymoon lingerie. It was some time before we turned out attention to what we’d hit. The front fender was wrapped around an undamaged pole. We looked up slowly, until we could read the sign at the top: Steveston Arena.

“We’re here,” Bob chuckled, immediately seeing the humour it would take me years to comprehend. “We fucking-well crashed right at our destination.”

He laughed excitedly as he took his goalie gear out of the wreckage; his trapper was ripped a little bit, but he didn’t even flinch at the sight. He was a man possessed, like a man who is possessed by something and shows it. I began scooping up hockey balls, pads and uniforms until I couldn’t carry any more. I stumbled behind Bob, waiting for the other shoe to drop. It did, several times, in fact, and I had to go back and pick it up each time.

“Why don’t you buy a fucking equipment bag?” asked Bob cheerfully, as he strolled with purpose towards the lacrosse box behind the arena. “You’re always dropping shit. I’m surprised you don’t lose anything.”

Lose is one thing we didn’t do that day. Bob stood on his head. The Red Dragons outplayed, outhustled and outshot us all game, but he just wouldn’t let them score. We won the game 1-0, on my first and only goal of that season. It wasn’t a pretty play, but every year it loses a little lunchbucket, and gains a little finesse.

"By the time you retire, Kurry," Bob says, "you'll be Wayne fuckin' Gretzky in that story."

Is that so wrong?

It cost us $97.63 to tow the Mini from the lot, and Bob ended up spending almost two grand on a VW Bug.

But that car’s another story altogether.