In the Village

I went to Beijing and all I got was this gorgeous chocolate…

I wrote recently about the extremes of wealth and poverty that may, at a certain level of unremitting seriousness, be the essence of professional sport. Sport is not the reason I came to Beijing, but here I am, in one of the Chinese capital’s many little shrines to conspicuous wealth.

SanlitunVillage. I assume there must have been a village here once, but now it’s something rather other: sexy Adidas megastore with giant photos of a steely-eyed David Beckham; Godiva Chocolates, where I lost

The shopping heart of Sanlitun, from the street. The “bar street” is to the right, Soho luxury highrises are behind and to the left of us, and spending is dead ahead.

my mind and my dietary determination just twenty minutes ago; Starbucks, naturally; McDonald’s, ubiquitous and inevitable, but almost shamefaced in the basement among the more glittering expressions of European, American and Chinese wealth; a Megabox cinema (five posters of a kneeling, battered and helmet-less Robert W. Ironman are leering at me as I write, but I ain’t goin’); and, off to the side, “Sanlitun Bar Street” which I walked towards after leaving Godiva’s in a chocoholic swoon – two quick solicitations for “lady bar, mister? lady massage?” got me back into the den of conspicuous consumption and away from the pits of addictive loneliness. Ah, escape.

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A Little Blubber With My Breakfast: MORTAL CITY

You know, you think that everything’s peaceful. Crazybird has caught his bus, Ladybird has madly pedalled her way into the professional distance, and there is bread in the toaster. A small hit of sports news so as not to feel left out of the loop of entirely imaginary conversations. (Will I speak to anyone today who cares that the World Series starts tonight?) A knife from the drawer, a practised flip from Tuner to CD and wherever it was that I paused last night’s silvered, tuneful progression of disks. Some even date from this century.

Where was I? Dar Williams, American folksinger, a 1996 album called Mortal City. I smile during my artful bread-spreading at the whimsical meanderings of “Southern California Wants To Be Western New York”. Smart fun. The title song is last. She recorded it in her bedroom. It has made my throat catch and my chest heave before this, but I’m not ready for that at 8:37 in the morning with honey dripping off my whole wheat. “Mortal City” has breathy, uncertain voicings, rueful humour, soaring loneliness, and good old-fashioned gentleness. Altruism lives. People find each other, at least for one night. There is crisis and self-doubt and tiny victories, and harmonies so longing that they hurt. This is a song that never would have made the radio even in the ‘good old days’, whenever that was, and not only because it’s seven minutes and fourteen seconds long and has only the most sombre and subtle of hooks. It doesn’t make me want to even think about dancing.

Dar Williams has done this to me before. She writes some of the most clever and feeling stuff there is. Good morning.

I Think My Neighbours Have All Moved Away

Or maybe the sub-prime mortgage crisis has struck my street. (I’ve heard that the ridiculous mortgage terms many Americans accepted, but have had to walk away from by the thousands, were called by bankers “neutron mortgages”: when they blew up, the houses were still standing but the people were all gone.) Or maybe they’re dead. I never hear my neighbours, the ones on either side and in the three houses behind ours in this little pod of nearly-identical town homes.

Yes, I don’t know many of my neighbours, though I could navigate in the dark through every second floor plan of these cloned domiciles. (Reminds me: paint the garage door! Distinction!) On one side of us, I know Marie-Hélène is away – doing some mighty service work in Africa this summer – and Jean and Linda to the west spend most of July and August at the cottage. But if it weren’t for the Sodhi family, two doors over, right now we wouldn’t really know any of the folks in our in-fill housing development. Having grown up on a leafy small-town square, this is something I never quite get used to. It may be time for us to try a neighbourhood drop-in again. I do have loner tendencies, but I like to know my neighbours.

It’s a quiet contemporary disease. We build neighbourhoods with no front porches, houses that often look like gigantic additions to the primary home — the one for the CAR. Ever noticed? In most new houses, the garage is the most obvious feature and one of the main selling points. We love our cars, and most of us drive them absolutely everywhere. (Even in the “good old days”, my Dad drove his Mercury every day to his office a block away. Mind you, he did have an artificial leg.) And the other night, another factor in our progressive isolation from each other, even in cities and ‘burbs, became apparent to me.

I was reading. More specifically, I was reading aloud. Really loud. It was Chapter Five of The Hobbit. I’d been promising this classic tale to my son Sam for awhile – his brothers had all had the treatment when they were younger – and we began in August. (Bonus points, an elvish blade and a cosy nap by a peat fire if you knew that Chapter Five is the wonderful “Riddles in the Dark” section, in which Bilbo meets his — and eventually Frodo’s — nemesis, Gollum.

“Curse it! Curse it! Curse it! Curse the Baggins! It’s gone! What has it got in its pocketses?…My birthday present! How did we lose it, my precious?…But we dursn’t go in, precious, no we dursn’t. Goblinses down there. We smells them. Ssss!…Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!”

Yup, that was me, in my pantingly frantic, psychopathologically obsessed, creature-of-blackness-and-dread voice as Gollum, screeching out his loss and his terror and his rage. With my Sam. In our street-facing parental bedroom. With the window wide open. Oops. What did that sound like on the sidewalk? Some people down the street don’t own three cars; they actually walk a fair bit, and Presland Road is a bike route, too. And our neighbours? Gosh, what must they hear, with a seven-year-old who argues madly and tantrums daily, a music-blasting Dad and a Mum who starts conversations from the opposite end of the house? Sheesh. Our windows are mainly open for about six months a year…

And then it occurred to me that, while I sometimes hear the noise of the late-night pedestrians shouting and skateboarding and laughing down the street, I never hear my neighbours from inside their houses. Ah. It’s the air conditioning. Maybe we don’t get a chance to drive them nuts with our banging and hollering because they’re so tightly sealed inside their artificial climate pods. That’s a small relief, I guess. We have AC, too, by the way, though we use it little and only to keep the temperature below 27 degrees (Celsius, needless to say) or so. It’s about energy costs, you know, and about the impossibly large resource footprint our energy-dependent and pampered society leaves behind it from all our comforts. We’re globe-huggers at my house, I admit.

Still, big questions of climate change and economic disparity weren’t really on my mind that day as I thought about my invisible neighbours and their blissful unawareness of the howlings of Gollum. I’m sure they can do without my manic impersonations of wizards, dwarves and the Great Goblin, but I’m here to suggest that maybe all of us don’t do so well when our neighbours are strangers. Many people are finding that the price of their pleasures, their plasma TVs and their secure and spacious homes, is loneliness.  While our houses and cars got bigger, our social network of acquaintances, friends and readily available family got smaller. We’ve forgotten how to do community. Some of us are even mildly phobic about those casual interactions — in markets, public squares and street corners — that sweetened life for our grandparents. In my little hometown, they still happen, but less and less.

Curse us. How did we lose it, my precious? In a subsequent post, I’ll throw out a few ideas about how we can rediscover our precious sense of neighbourhood. It won’t be terribly original. It doesn’t have to be. Let’s start here: do you have someone close by to borrow a cup of sugar from? Does your snow shovel work on any sidewalk but your own? Rilke comes to mind. The German poet once wrote this:

Whoever you are: some evening take a step outside of your house which you know so well; enormous space is near…

Perhaps instead of the desperate shrieks of my good friend Gollum, I could soothingly chant this mantra from the sidewalks of my street. Well, I could if anybody had their windows open, or a lawn chair out front.

Chesterton (again, on monogamy)

“[Syme had a] sense of a new comradeship and comfort. Through all this ordeal, his root horror had been isolation, and there are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally. It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one. That is why, in spite of a hundred disadvantages, the world will always return to monogamy.”

G.K. Chesterton, from the novel The Man Who Was Thursday.
A somewhat backhanded tribute to marriage, but a sincere and unromanticized one.

ODY: 31/365

As I said a couple of days ago, I do have to get out more. Out of myself, especially, out of my head. I want, too much, to keep my progress secret, to develop In House, to fulfil that mythology of the Self-Made Man that is so central to our cult of individualism, whether rugged or otherwise. (It’s a damaging myth, especially for the males at whom it is mainly aimed.) When I was in grade 7, my grasp of physics was even less certain than it is now, but here’s the thing. I believed that if I could only get strong enough, I’d be able to grasp the seat of my desk with one hand and the side bar with the other and lift both desk and me off the ground. I really did. At some level, I think I still do. 

When I tried out for the varsity basketball team as a walk-on in my second university year, I was in tremendous physical condition: stairs, weights, long runs, line sprints. I’d had a gym mainly to myself, and my shooting and handling had taken a huge jump. I was only 5’11”, but strong and quick. However, I had never spoken to the coach, had failed to find the best games where the stars and the other wannabes were. When tryouts were on, I suddenly turned into Mr. Team, distributing the ball and not showing off until too late the individual skills I’d worked so hard to hone. In short, I made every mistake in the book, which mostly came down to this: I was trying to lift myself by my own bootstraps. I was too much on my own.


So tonight, the Old Dog will be doing something he is not wired to do (the New Routine). As the next step in my year-long quest for mid-life guitar glory (the New Trick), I am going to join a bunch of other beginners at the Ottawa Folklore Centre. Guitar 101. (And with all these days on the Dégas, an el cheapo instrument that my son pulled from the garbage and glued, I’d better be better than anyone else! Absurd Expectations R Us.) But here’s the real point. I’m going to try the easy way. I’m going to learn from experience. Success leaves clues and I think I’ll try to read ‘em. It’s not worth less if I get some help along the way. Try easier for a change…


Sheesh. You’d think a teacher and coach would know these things for himself. What I have taught, in the main, has been stuff that I do (or did) pretty well. But when I’d encourage kids to work together in mutually challenging, mutually reinforcing groups, or to find someone better than them and follow in their slipstream, I was preaching to the preacher. I still am. Still trying to shed the label I’ve worn so long, even as a team sport athlete: Does Not Play Well With Others.