Those imagined chthonic forces

February 6, 2010 at 11:21 pm | In just_so, writing | 3 Comments

Night before last I had a most impressive nightmare. What I mean is that it left an impression.

I was driving, one car amidst a glut of traffic, along a night-time street leading into the center of town. I was on my way home. As I got closer to downtown, traffic slowed, and then stopped altogether. Impatient, I passed the cars in front of me by driving over the curb onto the sidewalk, passing on the right (illegal, but in my dreams I do what I want). However, when I got to the front of the queue, I stopped, sensing real fear.

Here’s what I saw: The road ahead lay in empty darkness, even though it was a main thoroughfare. No other cars, no traffic, no people, …no lights. Way off in the distance, there appeared to be some activity – fires? – but it was impossible to see that far ahead, and …well, the general sense of foreboding didn’t …bode well.

I didn’t want to look, but there was nothing else to look at.

Except for two guys on scooters, who emerged from the darkness as they came toward us. Their nimble scooters (which may have been electric bikes) allowed them to avoid all traffic gridlock, not that it would have mattered since they approached us from the vast oncoming emptiness of an inexplicably untrafficked main street. They said they had come to warn us, that we couldn’t continue: it wasn’t safe, they said. There were fires downtown, they said. The town was burning, they said. They gave us direction, for our safety, they said. Go this way, go that way, go back, don’t go forward, be careful, be warned, be gone, they said.

Be where?


I turned my car up a dark, unpromising side street, but I didn’t really have a vehicle anymore – this was a dream, after all, and what was there one moment dissolved in the next. Seeking safety, I entered a textiles shop, but instead of finding a kindly vendor, I saw them, the scooter-guys, surreptitiously setting fire to a set of richly brocaded curtains. I was looking at devils: fire-starters, chthonic forces that had somehow erupted out of nowhere and were now replicating themselves everywhere.

All of a sudden, being alive felt unspeakably lonely – and therefore scary. There was something really big out there, much bigger than my puny life, but it had no room for me or my comforts.

I woke up, convinced we were going to have an earthquake. (Anything to make sense of fear, I guess.)

I have to stop thinking about death, I thought. After a while, I managed to get back to sleep, that familiar, refreshing pretend-death.


For a time, one of my sisters had a mother-in-law who, sadly, actually believed in hell-fires. The anxiety crippled her. Until this particular dream, I didn’t understand how awful that might be, but I think I get it now. For just a few seconds, my dream transported me to an alternate reality where – again, just for an instant – I lost a sense of measure. That’s not the same as a sense of scale – my sense of scale was fine, it just wasn’t friendly. Scale is something you can still play with, but losing measure is what you have to worry about. I was puny beyond measure, the “otherness” was vast beyond comprehension, my sense of comfort was totally and utterly gone. To have a sense of comfort, perhaps you need to have a sense of measure: self-worth, “relationality” to other puny beings (the “l’enfer, c’est les autres” kind), and a good grip on the disparity between your big fat brain (yes!, it’s true, you have a big fat brain, you’re a genius!) and your all-too-faulty flesh-and-blood incarnation. There are no hell-fires, there are no devils on scooters (unless they’re the infamous City of Victoria parking commissionaires), and no one is setting the curtains on fire.

Oh, and we didn’t have an earthquake either…


February 3, 2010 at 12:04 pm | In affordable_housing, architecture, cities, housing, ideas, land_use, politics, social_critique, urbanism, writing | 7 Comments

I read Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart a few weeks ago, and have been meaning to return to it for insight into several aspects of politics as I’ve experienced them here in British Columbia. True, Bishop writes about the US, and BC isn’t the US, and, true, Canada has three big parties, not just two. But in my province it’s really all about just two parties, the BC Liberals and the BC NDP (and our first-past-the-post electoral system ensures that third parties have a nearly impossible row to hoe). Where I live, people do “sort” themselves in ways that are practically as pernicious as US counties sorted into all-blue or all-red group-think ideological camps.

But more on that some other time…


Bunker House, Queens

Bunker House, Queens


First, some observations on sorting and urban form…

Recently, the offspring and I were talking about All in the Family, which I watched often growing up, since it was a favorite show of my father’s. Thanks to YouTube, salient bits of it are instantly available to younger viewers.

Last night I heard laughter coming from my son’s room – he had just finished watching Jeff Rubin talking about how our oil-dependent economy will have to change radically. In the talk, Rubin conjured an image of Archie Bunker and Al Gore together in bed, based on the new paradigm we’re heading into. So of course my son had to research (ahem) All in the Family, and he was watching excerpt after excerpt on YouTube (hence the howls of laughter – I initially worried that he thought Rubin was funny, but no, it was the Bunkers).

The Bunkers

The Bunkers

Mostly, aside from marveling at how Archie could spew his sometimes vicious opinions without the PC police censoring him, my son was struck by how impossible it was for Archie to avoid the objects of his prejudice. Everywhere Archie Bunker turned, he ran into “coloreds,” “communists,” “Polacks,” “homos,” and so on through the entire unsorted bin of …well, of what?

Of a mixed urban neighborhood – versus neighborhoods sorted almost exclusively through (upward) economic choice or (downward) economic non-choice.

Without New York City and its population-packed boroughs (in the Bunkers’s case, the Astoria neighborhood of Queens), Archie could have become isolated (sorted), and found affirmation in a like-minded tract development. But in that more urban environment, which isn’t upscale enough to maintain homogeneity and therefore has to accept newcomers constantly, he has to accept neighbors whose views he dislikes. Because Archie himself isn’t rich enough to move, he has to mingle. Because real estate and rents are so dear in densely built-up areas that have easy access to the downtown core, no one has the luxury of living on his own hectare, at a distance. In fact, Archie has to put up in his own four walls with the “Meathead” (Michael, his Polish-American, social-work studying, non-laboring son-in-law with hippie roots). Rents are too expensive for the Bunker daughter Gloria, newly married to Michael, to move out. So the lucky couple gets to live with her parents.

Which brings us to how the tendency to sort, as described by Bill Bishop, even finds expression at the domestic level, in house architecture.

Since the seventies when All in the Family was produced, it has become unexceptional for each kid to have his or her own bedroom. It’s expected that parents have an “en-suite” – a full bathroom of their own, off the “master” bedroom (oh, those feudal aspirations!, sovereigns all, we parents are loosey-goosey in our permissiveness, but masters of our own domains, with hot and cold pulsating showers to warm our cold clean hearts, and Jacuzzi tubs for all that stress, of course!).

It’s not unusual for the kids to have either their own (shared) bathroom, or possibly even have en-suites of their own. We’ve become a bit antiseptic in how we provision for privacy within our own homes, and we sort in our own four walls.

Since the days of All in the Family, it’s normal for a family member to go off to his or her own domain (senior masters and junior masters-in-training) for entertainment. A TV in a kid’s room isn’t unusual, I hear…

Within Archie Bunker’s economic class and in his Queens neighborhood, that sort of domestic sorting was impossible: the houses weren’t built for it. And the social sorting proved equally impossible for the same reasons. If you were lucky, you might climb into Queens (economically), but it was harder to climb “above” Queens and still stay within spitting distance of the city. Unless you struck it insanely and unusally filthy rich (as The Jeffersons did, the Bunkers’s African-American neighbors who moved to Manhattan), you had to forsake the urban if you wanted to climb out of the Queenses of most older American cities. Hie thee to an ex-urb and sort yourself! Stay in Queens and be ready to rub up against people.

It’s kind of strange to think that television had to beam Archie Bunker’s discomforting vitriol into the already-sorting 1970s living rooms of low-density suburbs, where people were replicating in their domestic living arrangements the social sorting they preferred in their neighborhoods.

Even Archie noted that it’s natural for people to be “among their own kind” (which for him meant blue-collar bigots). He was just lucky enough not to be able to afford it.

A fluke: Sammy Davis Jr. finds himself trapped for a while in Archies lair

(A fluke encounter: Sammy Davis Jr. finds himself trapped for a while in Archie's lair, er, chair)

A mystery dream…

February 1, 2010 at 3:09 pm | In just_so, writing | Comments Off on A mystery dream…

On Sunday morning I awoke to the sound of caterwauling. It seemed to come from the sidewalk directly outside my bedroom window. When I first awakened, I didn’t actually understand what the noise was – at first I thought it was a baby crying.

The voiceless voice in my head – you know, the one that typically keeps up a running commentary (unless you’re an enlightened monk or something) – “spoke” to me at the same moment as I awoke.

It said, “What’s that noise?”

Fair question. “I don’t know,” I answered (silently, of course).

We (my voiceless voice and I) listened, and then, in my head, I voicelessly replied, “It’s a cat. Caterwauling.”

A third voice came along, complementing the duo my own internal voice and I were dancing. He – I’m quite sure my voiceless …er, partner, in conversation seemed male – said:

“Be sure to wait for the second part.”

“What?” What was that supposed to mean? Oh, right: …nothing. This is all in my imagination, another one of those damn internal dialogues, except now it’s starting to turn into a party, …or at least a menage a trois.

I started to roll over, burying my head in the pillows, hoping the cat would soon stop.

It did.

Oh good, I thought, hopeful that I’d get back to sleep quickly. My own internal voice couldn’t help chiming in: “Wonder what that crazy shit about the second part was supposed to be about?”

“I guess that was just a bizarre figment of your imagination,” I silently told myself.

The cat was quiet, everything outside was quiet, I was ready to go back to sleep.

And then a dog began barking furiously. From the sound of it, a big dog, Baskerville-sized.

Except this one barked, unlike the fictional one.

And that was the second part.

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