a tale of wood and stone

A Tale of Wood and Stone

We live on a rock bobbing gently in a dark sea, a rock swimming unceasingly around a ball of fire. The stone that our home is made of is enduring and mysterious. As it travels, we travel with it, even when we stand completely still. Some of us love our stone home, and appreciate its gifts by trying to give back as much as we take. Some of us use it simply for its resources and continue to ungraciously take more than it can offer.

ImageThings made of stone represent permanence. Something made of stone can be relied on. The reason I am thinking so much of rocks and stones is that our guide on our Dokdo trip (August 24-27, 2013) with Isabu Academy told us a story of rocks and stones that inspired me and changed my perspective about the Korean island of Dokdo. Our guide, Han Dongwan, is knowledgeable about foreign and international politics. He is also a cyclist and knows much about bicycle routes throughout Korea.

Our tour bus stopped at a site on the island of Ulleongdo near a pagoda and a few freestanding rocks. Throughout the trip we had been learning about igneous rocks, granite in particular—the kind of rock that could be found forming natural archways along the shore. We learned about how volcanic magma flows created the curious cliffs and various erratics surrounding us on our journey. Where we stopped, there were two important natural sculptures: Lion’s Rock and Helmet Summit.

This story begins with the people of Usan-guk, an area comprised of Ulleongdo and Dokdo. Their leader decided to lay siege to an island near Jeju-do. From this island, the king took off with a beautiful princess and returned from his victory, proud to have taken for a queen the most astounding beauty of the East Sea. Due to her dazzling desirability, the queen was able to acquire anything from the lascivious ruler whose passion for the queen, burning brighter with each day, bound him to being unable to refuse her a single gift. As the royal coffers emptied and the king’s army and citizens suffered, the king had no choice but to aggressively invade every kingdom within his reach. Driven to war by the queen’s endless requests and the king’s desire to fulfill them, the army became an aggressive force, though it is said they were not particularly intelligent. The queen died and the king fled to the hills to sing of his sorrow. This is the pretext of the region General Isabu came to annex in the 13th year of Silla King Jijeung, which we date AD 512.

General Isabu’s first conquest against the rowdy, uneducated followers of the lusty king was a failure. It was not until a second attempt that the general would set a precedent for future triumphs of cunning such as General Yi Sun Shin’s famous attack formation and invention of the Turtle Ship and King Sejong’s restructuring of Joseon’s cultural and innovative landscape by fostering technology, invention and the creation of the Hangul writing system.

The general planned his attack intelligently and creatively. He ordered his best carvers to create wooden statues of lions. He assumed the rough, starving warriors would be subject to the hallucination that the lions were real. He then sailed by Usan-guk, where he told the dumbfounded soldiers that he would release his lions if those brutish islanders failed to comply with Shilla’s demands for annexation. Whether the soldiers truly believed the general, or they were simply fed up with the lascivious king and his selfish excesses, the citizens of Usan-guk yielded to the ruse and Usan territory was now under the dominion of Silla.

ImageHelmet Summit represents the king’s pitched headgear, and Lion Rock represents General Isabu’s clever plot. Once the story was finished, there was talk in our tour group that another rock formed the likeness of the dead queen, but this remains unverified by the Koreans we have spoken to about this subject.

Let me tell you a little about our tour group. We came from Jeolla-do, where it is said that you can find some of Korea’s best food, including delicious dolsot bibimbap, which is served in a stone bowl. But the residents of Jeolla-do have not always been so fortunate to have an abundance of delicious food. There was a time in our region that many impoverished Jeolla residents embarked on an exodus to the former Usan territory. They named the small, beautiful island they found in the East Sea, Dokdo. In Jeolla satori, or dialect, stone was pronounced dok instead of dol, hence the name, Dokdo—the stone island. The Japanese, prior to calling the island Takeshima, called it an island of wood, Jukjo, from the word for bamboo.

On Monday, we saw the island with our own eyes. The only wood on the island is the wood that was brought to Dokdo to construct a narrow staircase to the top of the igneous slope. Wood is a natural resource, something to be harvested and used. This is another side to this tale of wood and stone.

For our entire trip I had the chance to see Dokdo as an island of stone—something enduring, reliable, and central to the foundation of Korea. I have seen the island portrayed as something unmovable, grave, and monumental through dozens of creative projects on this tour: stories, carved wooden lions, and a 3D animation of the whole island, to name only a few. I had forgotten that to some it might not be an island of permanence and monument, but a territory rich with resources and benefits such as fishing waters, passageways, national borders and regions for strategic military use.

If Dokdo is an island of wood, it is not representative of history, but convenient for the moment; it is not a site of traditions, stories and beauty, but a possession to be obtained. In my three years of living and teaching in Korea I have heard the voices of students, teachers, families and friends whose adoration was directed to the East Sea, to this pristine, beautiful island. But I have not heard the perspectives of those in nations who have recently decided they want to take control of the island for its resources. I do not know if they talk about it, construct museums dedicated to it or invest as much love and care into study and education about it as the Koreans I have spoken with do. I wonder if the kinds of pictures of Dokdo I see on billboards, in museums and framed in homes in Korea are, in another country, kept in offices, hidden in file folders marked “land acquisition”.

Finally, I wonder: Do you know Dokdo? For you, is it an island of wood, or an island of stone?

Image

“Unabridged” 10/01/2013.

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Another footfall. The pavement here is spongy. Nice on the feet, but still I pant like a maniac. I’ve decided to retrieve my bike from the bus station, which is a half-hour run away. I missed the bus from Jeonju, a small city near the west coast of Hanguk, the country that is temporarily my home. I stayed out late last night and had to cab home, so my bike is at the bus station. I started running, and thought I might run the whole way. I have ten minutes in on this run. Where’s the breaking point?

What’s the breaking point? That’s when my body relaxes. My stride is longer and my breathing is less desperate. That’s when my primate self dies and I am one with my breath. That’s something we have in common. Breath. One of the only things.

The people around me must be confused to see a six-foot-tall foreigner wearing five dollar clothes. In Korea you can get almost anything for five dollars. Graphic print T adorned with yellow skeletons and white text, CREEPY dance!, five dollars. Camo print canvas sweats, five dollars. Black and red runners, five dollars. Black UV guard sleeves, Gangnam style socks and grey zebra-print hankie tied around my neck, collectively five dollars. Ear buds in my ears blaring Amanda Palmer’s Theatre is Evil and drowning out my thoughts and the noises the world makes, five dollars. Amanda Palmer’s Theatre is Evil, free. But you can pay five dollars for that too if you want.

This is the kind of getup I show up in for a going away party for a man named Sky. He and his friends do a writer’s group in Seoul. Seoul is a big city in the northwestern part of Hanguk. The city used to be called Namyang. Hanguk used to be called Korea, hundreds of years ago, in a time when a man named Charles the Great ordered his soldiers to anally skewer and incinerate my Saxon forefathers because they wouldn’t switch allegiance from their barbaric war idol for his equally barbaric war idol. After Korea, this country was called Joseon. Now it is called Hanguk, a country in which there is an apartment party where two writers examine my attire and say odd things about it, including:

Tim: Damn. HE looks like a writer.
Deanne: I think you’re confusing author and character.

Now my chest hurts. The doctors diagnosed me with asthma. The truth is that my lungs just don’t work the way they should. My eccentric grandfather smoked cigarettes in his 1985 Ford Escort station wagon throughout my youth. My car window was often open, as was his. Smoke flew back into my lungs for years. Heartland, a research division funded by Big Oil and Big Tobacco to warn the people of the world that they are being fooled by Big Science, claims second hand smoke isn’t bad for you. Heartland would like to change American public school curricula to reflect their values. Some politicians would like to let them do that.

My chest burns so badly now. My legs ache. I want to stop. Something won’t let me. I’m tired of limitations. Will Smith once said something during his famous alchemist interview that stood out to me. He said that his secret to success was that he gives himself only two options. He will either do what he has set out to do or he will die. There’s no third option.

Tears are streaming down my face. Not sad tears. Determined tears. Tears that scream, DEATH TO LIMITATIONS, MY BURNING CHEST, MY ACHING LEGS. Let them burn. Let them ache. Two options. I run or I die.

My body realizes that I have become psychotic. It gazes in at the movie projector in my brain. It sees me crying at the side of the bed where my cousin lies unconscious after a serious asthma attack. I wasn’t sure if he was going to survive. I didn’t know he was going to grow up to become a successful documentary filmmaker. At that moment all I knew was that I can’t handle the thought of death.

In this moment all I know is that I can’t handle living with limitations on what I can do. All I feel is the burn from the last cigarette I smoked. All I see is my grandfather, smoke pouring out of his white bearded lips, balancing a beer with a Du Maurier in one hand while his elbow steers the wheel and he tries to block out the sound of my grandmother screaming at him to pull over. The demented Santa Claus responds with an ear-shattering HO HO HO!, and becomes a goat. Grandma can’t compete with that. End of discussion.

I see my body collapsing to its knees in the soggy street because my lungs have failed and triggered a severe attack from an unchecked case of COPD, stifling my heartbeat and releasing my consciousness from the burden of possessing a central nervous system. The lights go dim. I cannot express how happy I am to never again have to worry about happiness.

My body is donated to science. The scalpel unzips my chest and a wheeze of foul smelling smoke rises. Doctors swear they see two eyes and a mouth in the likeness of Bastard the Unfriendly Ghost lift with the putrid emanation. The same guy who filmed dead birds on the shoreline filled with bottlecaps and other human garbage finds that there is nothing inside the body of Leif Sturmanis Nordholm but gobs of tar, cigarette butts, kimchi, rice and a key to a heart-shaped locket I once swallowed in a moment of symbolic frenzy but never managed to eject with the rest of my shit.

In accordance to a legally binding final testament, my chest is coated in polymer and my arms are nailed to a crucifix made of AK 47s, which is planted in the ground across the street from the Heartland Institute and set ablaze.

My body, having seen this all playing out on my inner movie screen, realizes that this psycho isn’t kidding. My muscles relax. This is when I become frightened.

My fingers scramble nervously to turn up my mp3 player. I try to drown out my thoughts with Theatre is Evil. But it’s too late. The thoughts come rushing in, as they often do when I am not in pain. That’s what pain is good for. It replaces the part of my brain that thinks about the one thing I don’t want to think about: My story. Everyone has a story. Every story is fucked up.

I don’t write for pity. I write for crazy people. Crazy people are otherwise sane people who have been frightened by fascists into believing the BS statement, all the pieces fit. And if they don’t fit you have to try to make them fit. And if you don’t toil daily to make them fit, or you do and it just isn’t working, it’s your fault. You are rushed to the guillotine in front of the entire world so the fascists can make an example of you, because THAT’S WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU FAIL TO MAKE THE PIECES FIT. That’s fascist humour. This is my humour. I write to make anyone else who is fucked up laugh. Laugh at the opera. Laugh at life. It’s tragically comic. It’s filled with magic and monsters. That’s why I’m a clown. Because everything is tragically hilarious. I learned that from my mom.

My mom was promoted from a sect of diamond land Buddhism to the philosophy of atheism to the enlightened state of self-absorption in which she found a fuckbuddy ten years her junior, a man who spent most of his life training to become a leader of a now-defunct cult in Minnesota. While he went gambling with her credit card, she sat at home emptying cheap bottles of merlot until she could regain the sense that everything was hilarious, which happened in the six minutes that occurred between being hopelessly drunk and passed out cold. Then she’d see the truth, the truth that everything is brutally funny. My stepdad failed to see that. Two abortions of illegitimate children later, one from a boyish photojournalist and the other from one out of six regrettable decisions, things did not seem very funny to my stepdad. Some people just miss the point.

My mom told me once while shaking and sobbing that she had reoccurring dreams in which her mom, dad, family, and everyone she knew was sitting around a table. They were alive, healthy and happy. They were all discussing random things and laughing.

Maybe she was dreaming about love.

I don’t really dream these days. I just have thoughts. I think now about the last time I ran. This was the first time I had run for any serious distance since grade 5 running club. Grade 5 running club was invented by Mr Baron from Liverpool, my homeroom teacher. He used to run beside me. He liked to mumble to himself as he ran. I never understood what he was saying.

I had moved to this rural town called Summerland with my mother and stepdad. According to mythology, Summerland was a place people went after they died. In reality, it was a brief rest stop tossed out on the side of the Okanagan Lake, buried deep in British Columbian Bible belt.

In those days I wore my hair long and had a chain around my neck dangling a pendant my mom gave me from her trip to Hawaii. It was special to me. It was a blue S meant to look like a lightning bolt. My hair and jewelry prompted the kids to use a slanderous word against me that was trending at the time, Queer. They also liked to use the word, Faggot. These words meant nothing to me except for the fact that they flew through the air with granite stones pitched towards my head. It’s hard to explain the feeling of being stoned in the head. It’s a kind of crashing sensation. Like being woken up with cold water. I learned the following things in grade 5:

a) no student, teacher or supervisor was going to help me
b) no child in their right mind would hang out with a kid who gets stoned in the head
c) crying only makes things worse
d) there is always a place to hide

Once my mom got wind of this, she trudged down to meet with Mr Baron from Liverpool. In the PT meeting, the stoic Wordsworth looked up over his small plastic cup of yogurt and calmly explained, “I’m not sure what those kids get up to. He’ll tough it out. Just tell the boy that whatever he’s doing to invite the derision of his classmates, he should stop. I’m afraid that’s all I can say, Mrs. Nordholm?”

“Sturmanis!” screamed my mother as she stormed out. Nordholm was my biological father; I was his bastard.

One thing my mom always said about my biological dad Erik was that he was cold. Don’t be cold like your dad, she always said.

Cold. Two years after I was born he picked up and left to become the Great Canadian Novelist. You’ve probably never heard of him. Not many people have.

Accompanied by his new wife, whom he gave no kids, he put his house on a barge and towed it off to a deserted island in the Georgia Strait. Everything went into his wife’s name and he got off the grid.

This man had icy seawater mingled in with his blood. He loved boats. He had brave notions of opening his own publishing house in a boat. He sunk his life savings, combined with mum’s, into a one-of-a-kind publishing house: a forty foot fishing boat built in ’24 converted into a leaky, moldy houseboat weighted down with an industrial printing press, typesetting machine, bind-faster and wax wands for covers. The floating publishing company was dubbed Orca Sound Press. Their first contract in ’77 was for an ambitious full-colour publication for a fledgling radical environmental protection agency now known as Greenpeace.

Five years and numerous underground poetry anthologies later, the couple discovered that one cannot survive on poetry and love alone, and even those things were finite. In those five years, mum’s first husband was still coming around and Erik was clearly having an affair with a flower child ten years younger than mum, and twenty years younger than him, who took up semi-permanent residence in the publishing boat.

In that leaky, moldy old fishing boat-cum-press, stormy waters brought a new light to Earth. It was December 16, 1982. Erik was fixing a paper jam while mum reclined by the window. I’m not sure what they had planned when the water broke at roughly 4am, but whatever it was, it clearly did not involve a hospital. Mum always told me that Erik had a fear of hospitals. She told me he’d mumble paranoid statements like “they take blood tests there, blood tests!” and conspiratorial sentiments like “why do they need to know about my blood?”

Erik had an impressive knowledge of childbirth it seems. No surgery necessary. A sterilized box cutter severed the umbilical cord as rains ravaged the old boat. The baby didn’t cry, mum told me. It never cried when it was young. It just stared up into mum’s eyes, coldly. It rejected the tit. Erik was prepared with a bottle of soy formula.

“How did you know?” asked mum.
“Just sleep,” Erik quickly replied as he killed the lights and rocked the little one gently.

My eccentric grandfather, a Harvard-educated biochem PhD lauded the fact that the space traveler was born on the same day as his favourite composer. Said composer had been decomposing in Germany now for over two centuries, but you wouldn’t know it to hear Missa Solemnis played as loudly as the stereo would permit to drown out the nightly domestic disturbances in his two-story wooden house built on the edge of the Musquem first nation in Vancouver, BC. Later Little Beethoven would live with the retired couple and learn how to cry. But that wasn’t until after the fateful night the boat sank.

One night two years after the storm dropped off a parcel in a rickety fishing boat, Erik came with mum to her parents’ for what seemed to be a routine dinner. As always, Erik took to repairing a few things on mum’s parents’ shack. Mum and her parents drank too much wine and heatedly debated issues from church to feminism to failed expectations as Erik coolly sat back in his chair and sighed. He finished feeding with the bottle of soy faux-lactate, gently placed the two-year-old in a crib and led mum outside into the driveway.

Erik steeled himself and looked directly into mum’s kiln-glazed eyes. “There’s something I should tell you.”
She kept her eyes fixed on the ground. “You fucking think I don’t know?”
“Well, I haven’t been candid.”
“And I’m not stupid. You think I’m stupid.”
“No, not stupid.”
“Then what?”
“I wasn’t going to tell you that. I was going to say… I’m going with her. That’s all.”

Mum couldn’t keep her eyes on the ground, but she couldn’t keep from tearing up, either. She ran towards the porch. She looked down, and there was a vase full of flowers. She quickly grabbed it and rushed her betrayer, but Erik just stood there. He saw her bring the vase up before his eyes to smash it against his head. He slowly, sadly closed his eyes in anticipation. He didn’t flinch. He just sighed as the glass crashed against his crown and opened his eyes again, a minute trickle of blood descending from his scalp. He looked into her eyes again and turned. He paced away calmly as his red-faced lover crumbled into a sobbing heap by the side of the road.

The cradle perched beside the window on the second floor was a spaceship. The spaceman inside saw the whole event. He decided then that Earth was too confusing and from that point on he would do the best he could to follow the prime directive. This mandate would be met with varying degrees of success.

Erik had “accidentally” neglected to activate the water pump keeping the Orca Sound Press afloat. When mum returned to the spot where the floating press should have been, she found nothing but water. Erik had run not only from mum, but from the forty thousand dollars it took to finish the floating press’ payments and pay for the removal of the old fishing boat from the habour. The dream sunk. Mum had nothing left to do but fend for herself while her parents took care of the little spaceman.

Spaceman flew his spacecraft between homes, neither more functional than the other, until he made his own disposable family and finally found the man who had a biological claim to be his father.

It was a cold October when the two met again. Finally frosty Erik had emerged from a cave for a few minutes to let a friend know he was dying of terminal illness. The young spaceman had never really thought to search for this stranger, but now the word had gone out. I suppose, thought Spaceman, I should give him a call.

The men arranged to meet at an Earth colony, a family townhouse on campus at the University of Victoria. It was Hallowe’en night and the spaceman had invited his in-law Earthling family to his home. They didn’t look much like typical Earthlings. They were suited up in bright, garish yellows, blues, pinks and reds.

The in-laws Erik met were clowns—a whole family of them! That night, the musical clown family had been minstrelling to raise money for a good cause, orphans or some such thing. They were loud and laughing, happily playing music and providing all kinds of sensory stimulus that frightened Erik as he tremulously passed through the Earth colony doorway.

Erik’s eyes met with the eyes of the boy who neither recognized him nor regarded him with any sort of familial affection.

The young spaceman was friendly enough. Erik didn’t look like a man who hugged. He looked like some painting of William Wordsworth the spaceman had seen in his literature studies: present and absent at the same time. Stylish and with the world, but visibly offended by any contact with it. Not a man, but a statue.

Despite that Erik was ten years Papa Clown’s senior, he appeared to be ten years his junior, at least. It was not that Papa Clown looked so old, it was just that Erik had a timeless look. Not young, but without age.

The two cold men stood facing each other. One was cold because that’s the way he was born. The other was cold because floating out in space is chilly. Around them a carnival of colour, music and laughter lava was engulfing the Halloween house. You could tell the cold man was beginning to burn. Not even the site of baby Luna could touch his heart. He refused to hold her. “I’m alright,” he said, deflecting.

Erik, after a few mild comments to the joyous clowns and answers to mildly probing questions, chiseled through the mortar between the bricks in the wall of silence between him and his estranged son. “Maybe we could take a walk?”

“Of course,” stammered Spaceman. He could have said something else, but nothing else would have been appropriate for the occasion.

Spaceman whispered into his wife’s ear. She glanced quickly at Erik and nodded. She knew this would be coming.

They left the brightly lit, brightly spirited townhouse just as manic magma spewed out in the form of a coordinated dance routine starring Papa Clown and Brother Clown. Mama Clown had donned her concertina and was squeezing out a pyroclastic flow of musical tephra. Sister Clown followed with her fiddle of fiery fury just as the two cold men escaped into the cool night air.

Erik was visibly irritated by the short humans in unsensibly thick Hallowe’en makeup or vision-barring masks, all with truckloads of accumulated colourful plastic wrappers encasing small chunks of cornsyrup composite. Huff, he sputtered. “Sometimes I don’t want to leave the island. Why today of all days?”

Why today? Now it plays in head as I run to the bus station. Play by play. Moment by moment. Theatre is Evil has finished. It’s just Spaceman and him now, and I have a  front-row seat.

Spaceman doesn’t look at Erik. “Thought you’d like to meet my new family.”

Now they come to the edge of the parking lot to a forest trail called Mystic Vale. The trail leads down to a beach called Cadboro Bay. The man called Erik takes a seat on a bundle of sticks called a bench and the young adult who I call Spaceman does likewise on a fungi-covered stump. Spaceman is silent while he thinks about the study conducted the previous year that concluded that human DNA is not significantly different from that of mushrooms.

Erik cuts through Spaceman’s empty gaze. “I looked you up in the phonebook. In 2005, they misspelled your name.”
“Oh.”
“But in all other years they spell it right.”
“Hmm.”

What else would Spaceman say? I feel honoured that you can find my name in a phonebook?

“I knew your professor.”
“Which one?”
“Cullen.”

Cullen. Another Wordsworth. He who taught the little tricks. He who wrote the play about Sam Wong. He who deposited references to Horace and Hermes into his report writing classes. He who guided his students to find and do what they really wanted to do. He who knew the secrets of the universe and told us simply, “what are you going to do, write poetry?” He who appeared in several places on campus within minutes as though there were ten of him on hand. Little tricks Cullen. He who died suddenly from cancer, leaving behind two daughters who he’d raised alone. Erik knew Cullen.

Spaceman still wasn’t comfortable with death. “I liked him,” was all he could say.
Erik breathed deeply. “Fran just went a few years ago, didn’t she?”

Fran. The spaceman was sleeping in a 1992 Ford Escort station wagon, his home at the University of Victoria, when the news of his grandmother’s death rang on a cellphone lying underneath the car’s brake pedal at five AM. He preferred not to think about it.

He had a weird thought, a little like a grotesque dream, when he was young. When the space shuttle came to transport him from his grandparents’ house in Vancouver to his parents’ house in Summerland, he saw his grandmother dead, but most of her body was like a cooked chicken, her bed a metal tray and left out on the counter, white creamy fat encasing her limp, birdbone corpse. It was an image that just wouldn’t fade.

“What do you want to tell me? We need to get back.”
“I knew your teacher.”
Spaceman closed his eyes to keep them from rolling. “Which one?”
“Baron.”

From Liverpool. Erik sure got around for a man on a deserted island.

“I don’t get it. You’ve been stalking me, but it never occurred to you to make contact until now? Why would you bother?”
“You invited me.”

Good point.

“But I am here for a reason.”

I pull the ear buds out and focus on the cold man’s information for the spaceman.

“Cullen and Baron and I knew each other well.”

How had I forgotten about this?

“Baron gave you a book. Cullen tested your understanding. Now I am making it clear.”

Book, what book?
Yes, of course! The Red Book. An old tale set in a modern landscape. An elderly man invites the scorn of his neighbours with his reclusive behaviour and unkempt appearance.

A boy of ten wanders into his shed one day. What does he find there, but a man who is attempting to change lead into gold. The boy learns everything about the process.

A grand explosion ends the life of the elderly man. But the boy is left both with the knowledge of how to transmute the metal, but the understanding that should he attempt it, he might become a fleshy wall painting.

After Faggot!, after granite, after the PT meeting, the spaceman was given more torment by being singled out to sit in the hallway and read of alchemy while the rest of the class was hypnotized into Aslan’s kingdom via the cunning of CS Lewis.

Why, Mr Baron, was I excluded?

The fit old Wordsworth turned to the ten-year old spaceman as they ran on the dusty road in Summerland. His mumbling increased in volume, and finally I could hear his raving, and I realized it was meant for me, even if Spaceman disregarded it.

“Your peers understand the “collective” part of collective responsibility. But no, they haven’t gone much further. Religion has for the most part, been an attempt to civilize people who would otherwise behave as primates.”
“But they aren’t primates.”
“That, my boy, is EXACTLY what they are. You can tell because even religion is not enough. It never has been the primates take it over and use it to enact the selfsame poopthrowing they are most familiar with.”
“Then why bother?”
“Because at least it gives them a chance. If they were atheist, they would have something closer to the truth, but they would need to have the memories of several lifetimes to truly get it. So we wrap symbolic truth into a format that they can accept and we hope for the best.”
“So, I’m not worth civilizing?”
“No, you’re not. You wouldn’t take to it. That’s why I am offering you this. Do yourself a favour and take it.”
“Take what?”
“The symbol itself.”

What is the symbol?

Erik turned to the spaceman perched on fungus and made direct eye contact. “It is THE SYMBOL. It is from the teachings to the people of the black land. It is telepathic mind space connection held together with stars. Stick to curves, avoid the angles. Construct the ARC. Attraction plus repulsion equals circulation. This is the secret of all social and physical reality. You are now free to go anywhere in the known and unknown universe. You can now meet my kind. But you will need a guide. She will make herself known by the light of the moon…”

Erik went grey for a moment. Had scales for a moment. Flicked a tongue in the twinkle of an eye and sent me back, back to a land halfway across the world called Hanguk.

I put my hand on my bicycle seat. That run really took it out of me. Thinking about my story really took it out of me. I’m glad I’m done. Now I can once again forget about that other world, the world that has no more presence than a strange dream. Completely fictitious. And tragically hilarious.

gods among men

When I was seven years old, me and my friend Tyrone had the oddest belief. We believed that there were ghosts in the trees in the small park across the street from my grandparents old wooden house on the boundary of the Musquem Nation in Vancouver, BC.

We’d go into the tiny forested park, a park due to be bulldozed, the old oak and arbutus replaced with pink stucco seven-rooms with two-car garages intended as single-family homes. People have to live somewhere. Even at seven, I was aware of this fact. I was realistic. A realistic seven year-old who talks to ghosts in the forest.

But when the ghosts were exorcised along with their homes, another exorcism happened within. It wasn’t until a decade and a half later when my neighbour Brent led me to the inner harbour in Victoria that I felt it. Brent would often talk of a time when gods walked with men, in his characteristic hazy beat of speech, this man, a dreadlocked bass player in a cover band out east driving his cherry-red convertible pig-bait.

He led me by bicycle to an old galleon moored for the tallships festival. We parked our bikes out on the dock and gazed at the spectacle before us. I had no idea a galleon would be so large in real life. No idea that it would occupy so much of the tiny harbour, or so much of my dreamspace. I was so mesmerized by the site that I barely noticed Brent was boarding the vessel.

“Leif, c’mon. It’s time.”

I looked up at him. I blinked to make sure that what I was seeing was accurate.

“Cut the rope, Leif. It’s time for our adventure to begin!”

I just looked at the man, a man older and in many ways wiser than me. A man who moved through life in his cherry-red convertible doing the things he loved to do.  A man born on the wind and carried by it regardless of the limitations of our imaginations. Then I looked over at harbour security, a man who did not look fit to run after us for two minutes, a man who was obviously radioing for backup.

“Quickly Leif, we don’t have time! Cut the rope for the love of gods!”

I stood, paralyzed. I was thinking about my family. About my future children with my newlywed. About my home, my education, my student debt, everything I’d been planning for, all for naught if I ceded to the bizarre request of this man so intelligent in the cosmic flow of life he had become insane. Harbour security approached.

“Don’t fail me, no!”

My gaze dropped. I gave one final look to Brent, his eyes shaped in anguish as I turned to harbour security.

“I’m sorry about my friend. He’s a manic-depressive. Just let him play for a couple more minutes, and I’ll get him out of here.”

The officer filled his body with a contemptuous breath. He feigned concern. “Oh, uh. I’m sorry about your friend, but…you realize this is a restricted area.”

“Yes I realize. He just wants to touch the steering wheel. He has an overactive imagination. I’ll get him out of here.”

Brent could hear the transaction, despite how hushed I tried to be. He lifted one leg slowly after the other over the small security fence and walked down the plank, me and harbour security staring in unison, mouths wired shut.

We picked up our bikes and rode home in silence. His disappointment never left our interactions. He spoke more and more about damned Whitey, which my newlywed, a white woman, didn’t much care for and she soon dismissed the man as a calloused reverse-racist.

The Whitey he spoke of was the one who came first. The one who came in a time when gods walked among men and chained our imaginations, allowing only approved visions to flash across our screens. I see Whitey in dreams, even now after my newlywed has gone, my education is worthless, and my home is broken. Even now after I’ve crossed the ocean, the proper way, with a passport, through security.

My imagination is an albatross still hanging in my closet. I know it’s still there because every friend I’ve told this story to tells me the same garbage Whitey painted in blood across our screens.

They don’t see the irony, that I’m not the hero of this story. They point out the reckless, impulsive foolishness of the dreadlocked bassplayer. What a crazy man. You did the right thing. I’m glad you didn’t go with him. You would have gotten in serious trouble. It’s fun to think about, but in reality you would be a thief. There’s no mercy for thieves.

There’s no mercy for vagrancy.

There’s no mercy for criminal acts.

There’s no mercy for gods walking among men.

letter on report filed for DC 10/22/2013

Dear Erik,
Carrying bike, Gunsan ruins

It’s been a few years, so I thought I’d write to you. How’s the Great Canadian Novel coming along? I have been typing your name into booksellers’ commercial pages but nothing comes up. I think you need to stop editing and just ship. Real artists ship. That’s what Steve Jobs said. I mean, if that’s the reason you left, you should probably get something from it. You haven’t gotten much else. Not that I blame you for moving to a remote island in the Gulf. We’re incapable of blaming, aren’t we?

In a dossier I sent out to Dokdo Compound I detail the primate act of blaming. I’ve been working there for three years now. I have become their lead primatologist. At first I didn’t think I was right for the job, but it was explained to me that the worst possible qualification for a position in Primatology at Dokdo Compound is a degree in Primatology from a primate University. In primate Universities, the word they use to describe Primatology is “Humanities”. Isn’t that funny?

EPIK treats me well. In response to your earlier question, the intialization stands for “Ethnography of Primate Interaction and Kinship”. They hire mostly primates and some nonprimate anthropoids. Then they send us on cultural expeditions together so that a few of us can write up reports on the others with regard to how they interact with each other and with Koreans. EPIK wants us to capture the experience of how primates behave in an alien culture, because this will be of great use if the reptilian folk decide to travel with primates.

The rest of the job involves interactions with Koreans. I interact with every age from grade one in the school system all the way up to post-retirement. Some employees are assigned to factory workers, business owners, military and so on. I’m assigned to educators and students.

Anyway, blame. Of course I wouldn’t bore EPIK to death with accounts of primates blaming other primates when bad things happen. There’s a file that goes back centuries. By file I am of course referring to an entire room filled with notes that have yet to be digitized. In some ways the NPAs are advanced, but in others… sigh. That’s my next project. Double sigh.

There are perhaps a hundred thousand documented cases, and a speculated 900,000 undocumented cases, of ritual malleus maleficarum slayings in Europe during the early modern period. That was when the state used writers, artists and church authorities (aka the Medieval version of ‘liberal media’) to justify the drowning, beheading, hanging, quartering and impaling of potentially guiltless individuals.

Behind the scenes, European aristocrats were feeling the pressure of the rising bourgeoisie class. Unfettered state control was flying home to heaven as private citizens shot up in caste from pitiable marketplace hawkers to landowners and decision makers. In the rush to maintain some form of authority, affluence and property ownership, aristocrats blamed Europe’s untouchables, beginning with widows and continuing to gravediggers, apothecaries and people who were just considered weird, of having sex with Satan.

This abhorrent behaviour perpetrated by the secular authorities continued from the Middle Ages until about the time of the French Revolution when, paradoxically, liberal media ended the witchcraze crisis and decided that government and the surreal ravings of palm-greased pulpit pilots make dangerous bedfellows.

I used to think that being a professional reader would be a dream job. I love reading. But I love reading about exciting things. I love stories with mystery and intrigue that begin with a bad situation and get better after the main character has an epiphany. A hundred thousand stories of how people were brutally tortured to death without any retribution, never fully understanding what they did wrong, ugh. It just depresses me. Even if they are primates, I still consider them human. I want to believe that there is a right way to do things. I want to believe that everyone has a happy ending to look forward to if they just try hard and have a good attitude. But a hundred thousand stories corrects me.

NPAs don’t believe in statistics. They record everything. Family details, community contributions, locations of travel–nothing escapes the reptilian eye. NPAs have always been there, behind the scenes, hiring people like me to watch and record reality.

I read one story about a woman who assisted the town doctor with remedies. She had a child out of wedlock with a crusader who gave her enough gold to want for nothing. When her child was only five she was accused of the then legitimate charge of Satan fornication by a young aristocrat hoping to make a name for himself. Public opinion changed from hailing her as being a miracle worker, a quasi-saint for her patients and excellent medic, to being a whore and demon-conjurer. She was struck in the rib to produce a third teet as evidence. Her child was chained next to her cell and starved to death while she oscillated from trying to sooth the slowly dying child to hysterically crying for the unempathetic gaoler to take pity. She had confessed many times to many terrible things, and still, her child would not be released. The gaoler, whose emotions had been desensitized, whose humanity had been collapsed, who was nothing more than an unfeeling robot servant of the state, blocked his ears, whipped the defenseless child and continued to torture and defile his prisoner. After the child died, the accused attempted to commit suicide by consuming her own faeces, but the attempt was unsuccessful. It just made her violently ill. Her final words before being made a public example, not of the evils of sin but the power of the state, were croaked out in a hissing whisper to an audience lusting for a repentant statement. She communicated nothing more complex than this: She was the only person on the continent who truly loved God, and His vengeance would terrible, furious, and last for centuries. After that, wise aristocrats started cutting prisoners’ tongues out.

King James, whose inkfingered scribes produced the Bible that would be the pew stock standard for centuries, was reported to be deathly afraid of these alleged Satan sex enthusiasts. “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” indeed! That James VI of Scotland’s (or James I of England’s) favorite author, one William Shakespeare, envisioned himself as a sorcerer in his final play! O Fortuna! History finds primates condemning each other for much more paltry purposes and with much more brutal force than I could possibly find in a small town in Hanguk. It’s all documented in length at Dokdo Compound.

So why write on blame, you ask? In all my research in the archives in the Dokdo Compound I found very little documentation of something that occurs very frequently among primates. Primates will blame each other when something good happens. They even go so far as to blame inanimate objects for good things.

Example. A primate, on the recorded day, receives very little sensory stimuli that might alter its brain chemistry to produce R, Z or Y, which are naturally-occurring adrenal neurotransmitters in charge of motivating a mammal to change its behaviour, which is psychologically rendered as discomfort.

Said primate enters a cafe cloaked in soft, comfortable lighting, wherein a non-intrusive melody lingers in the background. It orders a milk-infused caffeinated beverage in a big brown bowl and a delicate parfait which when served peeks its creamy head above a petite crystal dish with elegant designs on its rim. The primate who serves the dish smiles, which gives off the illusion that it is friendly. No sooner does the primate take a seat than another primate with whom it appears to be affiliated with takes a seat beside it and awaits its order. The first primate is initially startled by the random encounter, but is quickly comforted and soon elated with the interaction it is having with its companion. Once the encounter is finished, it leaves the building after embracing its companion and smiles as it paces down the sidewalk.

The primate returns home and proceeds to blame its resultant happiness in a story published on a primate social network site: It was a great day. I went to this awesome cafe and ran into an old friend. Word, Jordie, I really missed you man. We gotta hang out more.

An analysis of the primate’s brain chemistry tells a different story. As a result of the limited lighting of the cafe, the primate enjoyed a mimicry of natural light, which after one thousand, nine hundred and fifty centuries of primate anthropoid evolution is a welcome break from the last half century’s introduction of overbrilliant electric lighting. The melody is quiet enough to be calming but loud enough to block out many of the ear-slicing automobile noises from outside that primates no longer notice until they’re absent. The rest of the noises were absorbed by the cement walls of the building. The light and sound reduced the rate of the primate’s heart and thus returning its circulatory system to the level it has been operating at for one thousand, nine hundred and fifty centuries. The ancient circulatory rhythm releases a neurotransmitter K, which is best defined as stasis, which, rendered in the primate psyche, is a state in which the natural fear of predators is not at the moment necessary.

The primate alters its own body chemistry by ingesting the narcotic, caffeine. Caffeine is a natural anti-depressant which, when absorbed by the primate digestive system, stimulates the release of both G and L, which are hormones that are normally released through disciplined postures and breathing techniques previously used by individuals, primate and repitilian, to enhance the brain’s ability to concentrate. At the level that primates currently stimulate the release of the hormone through narcotic use, the opposite effect often occurs, and the primate digestive system, mistaking caffeine for nutrition, becomes subject to irregular bowel movements. The parfait also gets absorbed by the primate digestive system as though it contains real sustenance, which it doesn’t. It contains refined sugars, which produce a similar effect as caffeine, namely, elation. If either or both narcotics are no longer used by the primate, their host will suffer terrible physical consequences for a short period of time, including headaches, stomachaches, paranoid delusions, depression, stress-related illness, echolalia and acne.

The visual stimuli of the crystal dish has been employed by one culture or another for most of the one thousand, nine hundred and fifty centuries that this particular primate has been evolved in this particular form. Likewise with the image of the smile. These are processed in the primate’s frontal lobe, where connections are made between visual cues and expected results from those cues, which is a process known as D, or in other words, “rationality”. D is an adaptation of the modern primate’s brain shape that has varying levels of usefulness for the purposes of its survival. The glint of inscribed crystal is reminiscent of the glint of precious metals, which are longlasting and fantastic conductors not only of electricity and heat, but more importantly of S, or as it has been previously called, aqua incendiaris, the “eternal flame”, or most recently, perpetual energy. Primates would have discovered this a long time ago, but they decided instead to use earth destroying methods to mine those precious metals to create anything from currency to glamour items, which they will kill each other to possess. A primate smile is associated in the frontal lobe with the shape that it suggests and connotes according to NPA research, unlike primate data, which often lead to the conclusion that phenotypical adaptation has bequeathed to primates a unique system of behavioural analysis. Whichever version you accept, the result of the frontal lobe’s acceptance of the authenticity of a smile displayed by another creature, primate or otherwise, is the endocrenal release of B, H and high amounts of O. B and H produce the effect of a physical state of relaxation and O sends a signal to primate’s brain to register trustworthiness.

Finally, we have the interaction with the fellow primate, which is an exchange of the pheromones T2 and T9. It began with a shock, which was a momentary obstruction to the effects of the neurotransmitter K. Then the pheromones supplied T2 and T9, which would not have diffused if the guest was unwelcome, in which case the primate’s body would have prduced R,Z and Y, thus negating the effects of the environmental controls. T2 and T9 are perhaps the most important body chemicals of all the ones previously listed, for they govern the primate’s states despite interference from other sensory stimuli. Furthermore, the content of conversation, after T2 and T9 are processed by the primate’s endocrine system (which happens in roughly one fifth of a second) stimulates connections between neurons. If the primate’s companion wished to do so, it could take advantage of the pheromonal exchange to incite completely spurious neural connections, and they often do, either out of morbid curiousity, or simply out of ignorance in a process termed L.

The final result at the end of the interaction is that rather than seeing a series of biochemical reactions, the primate blames its friend for the wonderful experience, and becomes addicted. Or it blames the coffee. Or the parfait. Or the conditions of the cafe. That’s a friend the primate will see again, coffee and ice cream it will again consume, a cafe the primate will again visit. The collision of chemicals was the perfect balance to produce what was termed by the primate as, “a great day.” The possibility of this actually happening in the primate brain is so unlikely that the primate will deliberately identify all future experiences with any of these things with the hormones, pheromones and neurotransmitters that were released, even if they are no longer released. Thus, an addiction to an imaginary or symbolic stimulus is formed, although the primate will psychologically render disappointment in the form of desire. With no real stimulus, the primate becomes frustrated and increases the need for doses of the aforementioned stimuli. Often when the primate is accustomed to a drug or neural pattern, dysfunction can occur. The primatological archives in Dokdo Compound are filled with evidence to support this, and are lacking much evidence to contradict this unique form of delusive dependency.

The combination of the aforementioned biological triggers that are activated through the registration of sensory input have a single effect. They produce one chemical in the primate’s body that it is always searching for, and has always searched for over one thousand, nine hundred and fifty centuries.

X.
X comes when you get addicted to heroine.
X comes when you get addicted to people.
X comes when you feel good about donating to a charity.
X comes when you feel good by crying after heartbreak.
X comes when you can smell the rain before it drops.
Or maybe it doesn’t come for any of these things.
The individual primate defines X.
We want to know how to produce X.

We want to know how to trigger the release of X so that primates will take care of the planet and each other. The problem is that when one primate finds X through philanthropy and ecology, that primate becomes the person who finds X by philanthropy and ecology. The one with the most X from this activity hordes it and no other primate can benefit from it. From a reptilian perspective, this is very unusual behaviour.

But now that my telempathy is being activated, I can hear thoughts clearly in Dokdo Compound. I hear other primatologists comment that our work is useless. We will never find X. Most of the researchers at Dokdo Compound have agreed that apathy is the best route, and we ought to save ourselves. How does one compete with that? They are not wrong. Primates have wreaked havoc on the planet and their people. All in the search for X.

If our brains produced X, we speculate that we would all receive its benefit and seek to derive it from the most noble activities. Not possessing it, however, we cannot with certainty say that would be the result. One wonders if NPAs in the past have tried to hybridize the anthropoid species. I’m not funded for that research.

But Erik… you did your own experiment, didn’t you?
Am I it?
Is the experiment working?
Or is it going terribly wrong?

la mortessa

tumblr_n5yw53FGnk1ranmeco1_1280

Illustration from brightbaekart.tumblr.com, drawn by the talented and powerful Bright Baek.

There was once a woman named Fia who loved reading. She loved reading so much that she read every approved book, even though in the thirteenth century, no book was approved for a woman to read. It didn’t matter to her. The rules were not strictly enforced in the South. In the North they would have burned her as a witch. In the South, folks just told her, “In the North you’d be burned as a witch.” Her response was to shrug her shoulders.

After finishing reading every approved book three times over, she was bored. So she read an unapproved book. She wouldn’t have, but reading was already prohibited to her, so the prohibition didn’t strike her as being very important.

The book she read had three parts. The first part was about a king who learned to turn things into gold, but ended up turning everything into gold and died alone and miserable. The next was about a woman who enslaved herself to a king after learning how to turn hay into gold and died miserably slaving away at the king’s behest. The third part was a instructional manual on how to turn things into gold.

She finished reading the book, and she was bored again. So she tried turning some things into gold. She did it until she had a great, giant pot of gold, so heavy that her mule could barely carry it. While she thought it was interesting that she was able to make gold, she recalled the stories about kings who really liked gold. It seemed that kings were irretrievably drawn to the substance, although it inevitably lead to misery and death. So she halted her travail and set out to bury the treasure below a tree, high up on the hill of Buscliagini, a land now forgotten by the chronicles of history.

She had kept, however, a small portion of the gold and descended into the vale with it. She walked into the osteria to buy a meal. You can well imagine that the innkeep eyed the unaccompanied woman askance. He said nothing, but delivered her meal in hopes that she would eat quickly and leave.

The vale was not lively, owing to the fact that so many were lost to la pestilenza. A group of three burly, well-known heroes entered the osteria and released their hilts, dressing a square table in the centre of the room. They called for three fiascoes and let their weight drop into their wooden chairs ruefully.

The burliest cried out to no one in particular, asking who had brought la pestilenza to the vale. Fia replied, “la mortessa.”

The men, noticing Fia for the first time, approached her and asked where they could find this mortessa, for clearly they could not understand her dialect. Remembering the stories of how gold led to misery and death, she told them the location of her treasure. The heroes vowed to kill this mortessa and return with his head on a lance, thus saving the town from la pestilenza.

The heroes started in to ravage Fia, as was the customary treatment for unaccompanied women at the time. Before they could lift her skirt, the innkeep mentioned that if the men should want to catch la mortessa, they would need to make haste. The heroes agreed and asked the woman to kindly wait for them to return so that they might ravage her after they saved the vale. She gave them her word.

She waited all night, but the men did not return. She waited a few days after that, though the innkeep insisted that she leave. She did not listen to him because she was accustomed to doing prohibited acts, and also because she vowed to always be true to her word. She was fed well, for her small bag of gold was valuable enough to buy many meals.

After one week, she announced to the innkeep that she would be marrying him in order to await the heroes who were scheduled to ravish her. At first, the innkeep refused, but when it became apparent that Fia didn’t intend to budge, he called the vicar in to perform the ceremony.

It is written elsewhere what happened to the heroes. Should you want to find a moral in this story, I am afraid to say I am rather lost on it myself. As soon as I discover it, I will loudly proclaim the answer to this mystery in the local osteria should you be there to hear it.

family stories: my nightmare

I had a nightmare last night.

I dreamt that I woke up like most days and watched the morning news. But instead of news, there was information about health, diet, community-building, plant cultivation and personal wellbeing. I flipped through the channels looking for news about war, sickness, rape and murder. But I couldn’t find anything. I was very distraught.

I walked outside my two-story home in which I live alone in anticipation that I will get a wife and children to fill it. But when I looked outside, I realized that there were no other two-story homes. Instead, there were biomimetic dwellings, half-buried, blending into the landscape as far as the eye could see. My house stuck out like a sore thumb!

The mailman came by and gave me my usual ten monthly bills. I looked around, and everyone else got only one! Where was their cable bill? Their cell phone bill? Their car payment? Their credit card? Their heating? Their air-conditioning? Their insurance? Their retirement savings? Their upkeep fees for gardeners, babysitters and domestic employees?

carI sighed and got into my car. As I rode to work I had a very difficult time because there were no other cars on the road. There were only joggers, pedestrians, cycles and people in wheelchairs. I honked but they would not move away quickly enough. It ended up taking twice the time it usually takes to get to work. I saw my office clearly in the distance, which is very strange because it is usually blanketed in smog.

Once I got to my office, which like our residential area was biomimetic, and hideously non-professional, I drove around for half an hour looking for a parking space. There was nothing but bike racks! Finally I parked in a field and got my suit dirty. I was really upset because this suit was very expensive. I got inside late, which I never do, and went into the boardroom for Monday meeting. What greeted me there horrified me beyond resolve.

The CEO, assistant, and all fifteen board members were not wearing suits. They were all in active wear! Further onto that, none of them had coffee cups. They were sharing tea in small white cups. Usually, we all have a personal portfolio containing a report which we each present based on seniority. We decide which are the best and which will be axed, and this determines our promotion, salary increase and bonus, though the final decision is up to the CEO.

In THIS terrible nightmare, there was only one sketchpad, made from reused material, in the center of the table. Everyone was writing on it and discussing the new direction for the company. They were laughing and evaluating and modifying each other’s ideas. How would we decide who gets promoted? It was lunacy! I had nothing to contribute. I had my own portfolio and report, but no one could take it seriously, because I wasn’t able to explain it. I could only read it, and as soon as the words came out of my mouth, they had no meaning. I felt so embarrassed!

Then, the weirdest thing happened! A door was opened and children came rushing into the board room! All children of all income levels, together! Even those damned hood children were there! They weren’t dressed like hood children, but I recognized them because of their different.. uh… you know… nevermind. They all came in together and started making things. Everyone was talking with the children. The children started learning a simpler version of what our company does with models and toys. Then they went off and did it themselves. Some of them even improved their parents’ ideas! What was this insanity? Why aren’t these children in school?

When we finished, the CEO told us it was time to have a pre-lunch stretch. Then she told me to stop calling her CEO and simply call her “facilitator”. We went into a stretching room, and everyone began to do advanced stretches that I’ve never seen before. Because I was in a suit and they were in active wear, it was impossible for me to participate. Roger, who works in the cubicle next to me told me I should just strip down to my underwear, no one would mind. I looked at him quizzically, having long wondered about his sexual orientation.

He seemed to sense what I was thinking and said, “Fine, suit yourself. Think what you want to think. Fear what you want to fear. But a well-stretched body is healthier and more productive, and if you don’t stretch you will only be hurting yourself.”

Of course I wasn’t about to strip down. I have had my eye on Sally from accounting for a while now, and I wasn’t about to let Roger make a fool of me on the off-chance that he is interested in her too. So I went to the lunch hall early and pulled out my lunch. I was just about done eating my hamburger and fries, which were cold because I couldn’t find a microwave oven.

Suddenly everyone came in and sat around me. They put a giant bowl in the middle of the table and tossed in vegetables, rice, different spices and things I’ve never even seen before. Roger sat next to me and began telling me about what each vegetable, grain and cube was good for, and remarked that it was not only delicious, but also had everything in it that my body needed without anything carcinogenic or harmful. I found this very hard to believe considering there was no meat in it. Everyone ate together from the big bowl. Don’t these people know about germs?

“When everything you do is centered around building a healthy immune system, you don’t need to worry as much about germs.” When the hell did Roger become a nutritionist?

I’d had it with this backwards world with no responsibility, no accountability and no common sense. These people were maniacs. I rushed outside to my car, sped home, nearly knocking over some pedestrians, unlocked my door, ran upstairs and pulled the covers up over my head.

At some point I feel asleep, and awoke again to see the sun beaming through my window. I felt terrible, drained, and imbued with a sense of deep shame and embarrassment from the previous day. I looked outside my window, but something was different.

Everything was back to normal! The houses were right again, cars were on the street, there were fewer cyclists and pedestrians, I couldn’t see my workplace because of the smog, and I smelled the nice, tasty, wafting aroma of fries and burgers from the local fast food chain. It was all just a terrible nightmare.

car

On my way out the door after watching violent crime, war and sickness on the morning news, I took a deep breath, coughed a l

On my ride to school, my neighbours were shocked to see me smiling in my car, nodding my head to the music on my radio. They must have thought I was crazy, and they’d be right. People who dance to music in their cars should probably be on medication.ittle, and smiled. I saw the postman delivering ten bills to each house, and watched him with an unusual amount of vigor. I watched the hood children being carted away to their underfunded inner city public school while my neighbours’ children were chauffeured to their private school. The world hadn’t gone crazy. Everything was fine.

Maybe I was a little crazy. Or maybe I’d just realized that I should be thankful for what I have. What a horrible nightmare! What poverty! What a terrible world that would be, don’t you agree?

travel: Loboc River, Philippines

 

As dusk hits, we are bussed to a small shack by a river. We drop off our things, don lifejackets, and get a quick lesson in kayaking. The woman asks if anyone has done this before. I reply yes, remembering the days when my family’s friend Wendell would take us out on Lake Okanagan for tours around Rattlesnake Island. The tour manager then proposes that I don’t need a guide, and I can go solo in a sea kayak. I am skirted up and we take off against the current under a darkening, star-filled sky.

The sea-kayak by comparison is much faster than the guide boats, but I am still responsible for powering myself, turning, obeying instructions quickly and keeping to whichever side of the river the guides request. My personal task is to dodge oncoming motorboat traffic and do my best not to collide with the river kayaks. I’m starting to wish I were relaxing in front of a strong-armed guide. I now see their trick. Get the guy who claims to have experience and you don’t need to send out a
guide. Hoisted upon my own ego yet again.

Nohyun and I question a guide and he is filled with information. He talks about the two combining phosphorescent chemicals in fireflies. He tells us they are poisonous to eat. I never planned on eating them, although I do come from the land of bon-dae-gee. We learn that they have an average lifespan of two weeks, and that they mate at night, using their lights to communicate with each other. He talks of the mangrove tree where they live, a tree that sends out a scent signaling to fireflies that there is abundant food beneath the tree in the claylike mud. Periodically as we paddle, some fireflies come out to meet us. Strings of brightly coloured plastic netting float by, but I might be the only one here with the night vision to see them.

I’ve been showing off. I’ve been going much faster than I ought to. I’ve been doing as I was instructed and pushing rather than pulling the water with the oars. My arms are spared, but my back is beginning to ache something fierce. We are two kilometers away from the shack, two kilometers that I am not ready to paddle. I need a rest, but I don’t want to voice my pain. The guide next to me whispers: Now we’ll really see something. We’re going to the firefly city.

We edge around the elbow, and there it is. After ten or so Mangrove trees we had seen swarming with fireflies, here is the city: a tree fully lit, looking like festive holiday decorations. The tree is shorter than most, but it is swarming with tiny lights. We sit quietly, spellbound.

Our guide whispers to me a few things about the fireflies passing by my cheek. He tells me they are males, for the females stay within the mangrove trees. Eggs are deposited in the mud beneath the trees, sometimes underwater. Another guide remarks that obnoxious motorboats disturb their habitats. We watch a motorboat putt through, its engine loud and sputtering. He laments that some tours run a motorboat straight onto the mud and up to the trees, destroying countless firefly spawn. Maybe they don’t know about that, I tell him. Maybe they don’t want to listen, replies the guide.

The guide informs us dinner is almost ready and asks us if we want to leave now. Don’t give them the option, I whisper. Nohyun laughs, understanding that this group is too polite to make a decision. Back in the shack we eat coconut rice bound in reeds alongside chicken and squares of pork. For dessert we have a stupid man game where we eat ridiculously spicy peppers no bigger than a pushpin.

A handicraft catches my eye. Most of the things here are woven reed, but this item is a colourful little change purse stitched with brightly coloured stars. It is made of plastic, probably from those colourful plastic strands of river refuse I saw in the night water. The tour manager explains to me that it has been woven by the local women. The woman who made it comes over to our table, combat-prepared and ready to bargain. I just pay her the price she has asked and her look softens into a smile.

travel: Balicasa and Virgin, Philippines

I have to hand it to Jina: she really knows how to plan a vacation. She’s a veteran traveler. She knows the ins and outs. She knows how to arrange a vacation with as much fun and Korean food as possible. She’s a responsible and caring  single mother in a network of awesome traveling friends with unlimited budgets. Still, she really knows how to save her won, and somehow I am a participant in this latest travel scheme.

Strange occurrences begin with a five am rise on Bohol Island. We’re thrown into the day with no breakfast or coffee. The bus takes us to a shack out in the rural Philippines wilderness, where we are far away from dirty blocks of crumbling cement buildings and clamourous street traffic. Here we are surrounded by banana trees and twenty year-old Filipinos who look no older than thirteen. We see smiling, skinny children running in the streets and laughing. Our driver must be my age, but he has the recklessness of a teenager, honking at every car and motorbike to pass them.

We pull in to a tiny residence and I hear my Korean family pondering why we are not at the beach. We make our way through the property, and discover that the sea is behind it. How did we miss that detail on the ride here?

We walk out into the water on a sand bar, probably a half kilometer of shallow water. We meet our guide, a Korean named Myung Su who has soaked in the Filipino lifestyle. His torso is tattooed. Like the locals he has a soft, round belly with perfectly tanned skin and tight upper body strength. He speaks little English, and less tagalog. I keep my eyes down and only answer crucial questions: Where are you from? How long have you been in Korea? How much Korean do you speak? Jokum. We’re about fifty meters out into the water when we board a small boat that ferries us to a larger boat. You might call this boat a catamaran, but it has a full hull and wooden balancing beams. We speed out to our destination: a coral reef.

As we approach the reef, a serious conversation is taking place. There are four wet suits and scuba tanks. Four travelers can go down, and the rest will snorkel. Who wants to go?

My hand shoots up immediately only to be met with the disapproving gaze of Nuna, who has already told the captain of my medical condition. I wasn’t thinking of the consequences when I casually brought up to Nuna months ago that I can’t scuba dive because of my asthma. She has remembered this. She cares about me much more than I deserve. She discusses it with the captain and mutually they agree that without a doctor’s note, I am unable to scuba dive, as I have been told by numerous doctors.

But the chance is right in front of me! It’s now or never! I squirm with disdain over the conspiracy between the captain and Nuna. I plead at first, mentioning that I am much better now. I haven’t had an attack in three years. Neither Nuna nor the captain know that three years ago, I was addicted to salbutamol and daily doses of discus, a wonderdrug cooked up by GlaxoSmithKlein. The drugs were my saving grace, but still I fell into heaves, unable to breathe during stressful situations or after overexertion. But something, or I should say someone, saved me.

She was a woman of great power who taught me the lessons of breathing steadily and deeply. Even now my companions marvel at the depth of breaths I can take. Since I have put her lessons into practice, I have been feeding from the sun and pulling in oxygen with prana. Who says I can’t scubadive? I can do it! Give me a chance!

After my desperate pleadings, the captain agrees that if I pass the tests, that is, if I can snorkel well, then maybe he will let me scubadive. He will keep close watch on me as I snorkel, and if he so much as sniffs a liability lawsuit, the game’s over, and we’ll pull anchor and head to the island. It’s showtime.

I drop into the water, overly aware of my every action. I need to swim calmly, and enjoy it. I need to be aware of obstacles, and above all, I MUST NOT PANIC. Every action must be done gracefully and deliberately. I dip into the water with my snorkel over my face and do my best to look calm, until I see something. It’s the first two scubadivers. As a snorkeler, I’m able to see the coral reef and the schools of colourful fish from a distance. But the first divers are actually interacting with the reef, swimming about, descending, ascending, and swimming among the fish. Here I am snorkeling, and all I can do is watch others at play. I feel the asthma breath sneaking up on me. I’m stressing. When asthma hits, the breath sounds like a million voices of the damned souls of hell crying out for mercy. I start to panic, and the feeling of panic only worsens the obstruction in my lungs. I need to resurface. I need to come up for air, real air. I do it as calmly as I can. I emerge on the other side of the boat so the captain can’t see me. I will not miss this chance. I’m going to go. My mind is made up.

I come up onto the craft as Koon Hyeung in yelling my name. Ley-puh! Let’s go! Scuba dibing ka ja!. He’s on my side. Nuna casts disapproving glances. She’s protective. She knows what I’m thinking. She can tell I know there’s a chance I won’t make it. She can tell with a moment’s look in my eye that I overexerted myself and I am beginning to have an attack. I smile and convince everyone but Nuna that I am ready to go. She’s the only one who knows the truth; she knows I am lying. She knows that I might not make it. She’s weeping inside, but on the outside she knows that nothing will stop me, even if she’s the only one who can protect me now. But she also knows that she’s opposed by the captain, who has seen no sign of my illness, and Koon Hyeung, who is set on diving with his younger brother. There is nothing she can do without seeming hysterical. With a firm lip she lets it go and hopes for the best.

I pull on the tight wetsuit, managing as much Korean as I can with the captain. We are laughing together and he has no idea that I was only seconds away from an attack just minutes ago. I’m suited up. It’s time to go. Now or never. I slowly walk down the ladder with the suit sticking to my skin after rigorous instruction from my guide about hand signals. I’m wearing a mask of calm, doing everything I can not to betray my nervousness about what lies ahead. I picture the other two divers, who were able to see everything and interact with it. Coral. Clownfish. Schools swimming around their heads. I want it. I want it now.

I dip in and my guide grabs my suit. He looks me in the eyes as I dip in and struggle for my first few breaths. Something goes wrong.

As the bubbles ascend, I can’t take new breath in. This must be why someone with a breathing condition can’t do this. My guide keeps asking me in hand signals if I am okay. He’s ill-at-ease, wondering why I keep popping my head above the water’s surface. I’m stalling, and not giving him the response he’s looking for. Every time I go under, my own exhalation blocks me from taking a new breath. I get nervous. I keep coming up above surface. My guide is now frantically flashing the okay hand signal, unsure why I can’t submerge. I can’t understand why I just can’t breathe. Everything is fading. That’s it, I’m done.

Fish can’t fly. I can’t scuba dive. To hell with it.

I’m going to do this. I’m going to dive. I’m looking into my guide’s face, and he’s expecting a response. I meet his okay sign with an okay sign of my own. If I don’t make it, I don’t make it. If I slip and let go of the spark of life, it was a good ride. I’m not living without this experience. I break the surface. I expect to hear a crash, but there isn’t one. Just perfect, sterling silence. For a moment I float there, unable to breathe. But then new breath enters my lungs. My breathing teacher’s there, giving me instruction about ballooning my diaphragm, taking deep, calm, steady breaths. She takes me back three years to a cold November day on a beach in the Interior of BC, Canada. She is telling me how to overcome my condition. She puts her hand under my belly.

Can you feel that? That’s where your breath should go. There is a central sun in the middle of the universe and a core in the middle of the earth. Bring the pranic energy from the central sun into the core, through your body, down your spine all the way to the root. Keep the energy in the core for as long as you can, and then release. Keep doing this and keep focused. Remember. Om.

I descend unafraid. I am free.

And what a feeling of freedom! Imagine floating weightlessly among columns of coral like canyon walls. The difference with these canyons is that they are covered with soft sealife of every colour and are civilized with many schools of fish so vibrant they look electric. I’m getting hand signals now to release the pressure. We are going further down. To release the pressure, I hold my nose and blow in. Even dropping the tiniest bit increases the pressure on your head. We’re not meant to be here. It’s as improbable for a human to go underwater as it is for a fish to be above water. Yet here I am.

The reef walls drop into infinity. From my vantage point I feel that there’s no limit, that it could drop straight down into the hole in the universe beyond which there are only thoughts and imagination. I switch off the nagging voice of science that tells me that isn’t true, and that there is a sea floor. The only truth now is my perception. Now I’m having fun as my guide gives me the okay to descend further. The walls silently rise beside me, and I am doing the moonwalk in this alien world, a dream in Dr. Seuss colour, stranger than anything he could picture or even dream up. It must have been a half hour that I was down there, but it was in my mind days of exploration amidst the stars and galaxies in this improbable world.

Koon Hyeung is there as well, playing. We are two alien beings, both explorers and children, interacting among these fields of wonder. I start to shiver in the cold, the first time I have been cold in the Philippines. Bit by bit, my guide helps me inflate and ascend. My ears crack. I resurface and take off my gear as I step onto the boat. A new kind of breathing has taken up residence in my body. It is the breathing of relaxation, flooding in with the wonder of doing something unknown and dangerous. I can’t keep the high down. I sit and let the fires of this colourful passion sweep over me. The Koreans are concerned as they see blood streaming down my face. The pressure has popped out my nasal walls, but I again turn off my scientific understanding and realize that this was a ritual drawn with blood, a small sacrifice for a cathartic adventure. Salamat, breathing teacher, for giving me the gift of the impossible. Namaste.

We boat out to Balicasa Island, where a feast of meat on skewers under grass-roofed huts awaits us. The meat sits alongside my new daily staple of mangoes and San Miguel. After we eat, I sit down on the beach and realize I am surrounded by small bits of the coral reef. I see small holes perforating some of them, and these look so much like beads that I start to think that I can make a beautiful necklace for someone special with them. I spend the next half hour collecting these natural beads, and our party is off to another island for a snack of fried bananas and sea urchin. There, the locals try desperately to sell me pearl necklaces. No, thank you.

What I have is more valuable.

travel: Bohol, Philippines

We arrive at the warm shores of Bohol somewhat paralyzed from the fast ferry trip. There’s static at the pier when we realize that we can’t get to the Wonder Lagoon without a twenty thousand won taxi trip (about 700 Filipino pesos).

The Wonder Lagoon is Korean-owned. There’s ample Korean dining on the menu and little Filipino food. There is one of those pools you read about in the magazines featuring a swim-up bar adorned with dancing fluorescent lights under palm trees and Romanesque arches. Everything’s subtitled in Hangeul. I may as well still be in Korea. Even the TV blurts out Korean news. Right now, relates Nohyun, Rain is dating the most beautiful pop star in Korea, and sneaking out on his military duties. South Korea is aflame with judgment and scandal. Meanwhile few care about Park Su Min, who cut off his own ear to get out of the service. He isn’t Rain. Rain’s an international superstar who everyone in the world worships after he starred in a box office action hit. Ye gods. Buy the ticket, right?

My Korean family despises the adobo at dinner. I’m the only one who eats it. I chewed the flesh and whispered over the table to Nohyun, the only one in our group willing to understand why kimchi jiggae and kpop news is not what I envisioned for this trip. Dude, we gotta get out of here… let’s just sneak away. Of course Koon Hyeung was also channeling that vibe. We escaped stealthily and caught a bus to Alona Beach.

We’re dropped off in the midst of a typhoon of activity. All the foreigners are here. Levels: beautiful, wonderful levels! From Filipinos with rasta dreads encircling their sun-beaten chests selling blown glass trinkets, to overweight Americans hauling along dark skinned women who look to be ten years old (I’m sure they aren’t). It’s all there on the beach. At first I imagined just a regular beach: a place to take the kids for a nice swim, not unlike the infinite stretches of deserted sand you find even on the Canadian West Coast in the summer. I pictured some pristine white sandy beach with the occasional stray driftwood. The closer we got, in view of the the fire flaring up over tiny rotisserie chickens under huts, skeletal middle-aged men hocking snorkeling adventures, young men wearing off-white wife beaters with blue toques and gold-plated status dropping like albatrosses around their necks, the closer I came to the truth: we are not in Korea anymore.

All those levels! I want all of them! But no. Reality speaking. I may not go and sit in the sand for hours and listen to Marley and Bradley while this glass blower paws at his taut animal hide to attract the consumers. I may not learn more tagalog with the cute chubby woman selling sweet chili crab for her Korean boss while sipping San Miguel. I’m with Koon Hyeung and Nohyun, and I must be here, on this level, just this time. We’re here for a couple of days. Maybe I’ll get the chance later.

But I should give these guys more credit. We drink San Miguel and laugh loudly into the night. Something magical happens: I completely stop speaking in English. It’s only Korean from there on in. My companions don’t even notice. Might be the drink. Might be the company. Might be the fact that I’m getting out of myself, and I’m finally getting it.

There’s a lull in the conversation. The lull comes when I look over to my left. There’s this woman standing there as a poi dancer behind her lights up their halos with liquid light. I pay no attention to the poi. It’s the woman who’s coveting my regard. My eyes do not make out her shape well. All I can see is that she is quite rudely staring in our direction.

I’ve had too much soju. Too much mekju. Too much imagination. I assure myself that it’s just a local staring at the white foreign guy laughing and talking loudly in bad Korean. Now she’s gone. I trace with my eyes the ways she could have fled. She left instantly, as though she vapourized.

Tell me, is it possible to imagine something as real as this, while still somewhat lucid, and find a realistic explanation? Or do things like this really happen to us all the time? Do we explain our delusions away with justifications in our zealous pursuit not to know uncomfortable things?

Are the spirits among us?