I Need a Sign or Some Funny Birds

Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, Tofino, British Columbia, Canada

In my final month in Vancouver, I spent a lot of time bird watching. Perhaps bird watching is an extravagant term for what I was doing. I was looking for was a sign. I was on the edge of some big decisions and sought reassurance that the risk I was taking – leaving a marketing program in Vancouver for the unknown in Melbourne – was justified. Messages in bottles are hard to come by; I looked for funny birds.

Long have I had a tempestuous relationship with birds. It all began when some lunatic put a gigantic parrot on my shoulder in front of The Rainforest Café in Niagara Falls. I was ten years old. My velour boatneck peasant top did nothing to protect me from the talons of the giant bird. Oddly enough, Niagara Falls was completely infested by a particular species of ladybug at that time yet I have no qualms about flying beetles.

At the start of my first summer in Vancouver, I was attacked by a crow at the corner of 8th and Heather. A crow that was sized more like a raven dove for my head and touched down. I felt talons, feathers and fear like never before. As I ran from the swooping crow a dude who was coasting by on his bike asked, “Were you just attacked by a bird?!” “Yes, I was!” I shouted, still running away in terror. “Crazy!” he said before speeding away down the hill. I was as traumatized by his callousness as I was by the bird attack.

I have been shat on by a bird thrice in the last year. It’s supposed to bring luck, say those who have completely normal relationships to birds. I say, Come back to me when you show up to a meeting with visible avifauna feces on your coat.

Anyway, back to looking for a sign. I already knew what I wanted to do; what I needed was reassurance that my preferred course of action wasn’t going to turn my life to ruin. I started to look for arbitrary signs. A funny looking bird meant I was making the right choice. A humourless bird — an ordinary pigeon or worse, a road kill seagull — meant I was making the wrong choice. After a few days of seeing birds that were certifiable unlaughs, I came across this image:

 funny looking bird meme
My spirit animal

I was inspired. I was reassured. I made like Donald Duck and took off my pants. No, that didn’t happen. I’d like to say the funny looking bird inspirited me to the extent that I left Vancouver with complete confidence. In reality, I went along my path of choice with some doubts, sure, but with far better humour. After all, if I can’t laugh about a week spent ogling pigeons and seagulls, what can I laugh about?

Song of the Day: Bounce by Logic

One Week As a Rabbit Sitter

Pet rabbit

I have never been a great babysitter. This is owing to my general inexperience caring for young children and my preferred topics of conversation: NBA trades and Kendrick Lamar’s discography. A great babysitter I am not but a great pet sitter I am. When my friend and coworker Beth told me she was in need of someone to look after her rabbit Mochiko, I enthusiastically volunteered. After all, how hard can it be to look after a rabbit?

Very hard, it proved to be. To start, Mochiko is no ordinary rabbit. She is two feet long when she extends to her full length. She hardly befits the diminutive ‘bunny.’ It was only after extensive research that I concluded she was not, in fact, a full-blown hare. On top of that, Mochi is no ordinary pet. Beth and her partner Drevs found her a few weeks prior, hiding under a car with an injured paw. They tried to find her owner but had no luck. They tried to contact a humane society but no organization was willing to take a rabbit. Their attempt at a good deed turned them into owners of a rogue rabbit.

Mochiko arrived at my place in a cage that could fit a small human. Beth provided me with a litter box, a bag of hay and a list of foods that a rabbit can and cannot eat. I waved goodbye to her foster owners, tossed a few sprigs of basil into the giant cage and thought about easy rabbit sitting was going to be.

Mochi hopped around the apartment with relative ease until dinner. She followed me to the kitchen as I prepared herbs for pasta and moved around my ankles looking for handouts. Keeping her out of the fridge was not without its difficulties but I managed to appease her with some mint. The mealtime complexities increased when I realized Mochi’s interest in food was not limited to what I voluntarily shared. She desperately wanted what was in my bowl. She sniffed around my feet while I ate, and then began to reach for my chair. The problem with a two-foot long rabbit is that there are few places she cannot reach. Chair reaching led to chair jumping. Mochi was on my lap, scrambling for my bowl. I was in shorts, holding my bowl aloft and wondering when her nails had last been cut. It was only after I laid down a buffet of greens that I could finish my meal in peace.

Pet rabbit

After the small chaos of dinner, Mochi and I settled down for the evening. She munched hay in her cage while I wrote. Before long, she was sniffing around my bed. I invited her up with little reservation. She has taken previous interest in a corner of my bed but I trusted that she was a litter box-trained rabbit. At eleven at night, I realized she was not adverse to the possibility of a litter box but she much preferred an immediate release. This is to say, she peed on my bed. The linens came off, the rabbit was banished to her cage. I settled into my stripped bed to the sound of rabbit munching.

I awoke at six in the morning to the sound of Mochi’s plyometrics, which only halted when I got out of bed to prepare our breakfast. I planned to get some writing done but I instead spent the morning lifting Mochi from my bed and onto the floor. Now that my linens were clean, I didn’t want to risk another urinating or defecating episode. Mochiko was not Pavlov’s rabbit. I picked her up off the bed ten times in as many minutes but she could not be conditioned to learn that jumping on the bed would be followed by the pick up she detested. Exhausted by my morning of rabbit chasing, I put her in the cage and left for work.

The days that followed proceeded in much the same way. If I ate a banana, Mochi was on my lap and in my face trying to eat it too. If I opened the fridge, she would practically hop into the produce drawer. The last straw was the cord chewing episode. In one morning, Mochi chewed through earbud cords, an iPhone charger and a laptop charger. Luckily, the laptop charger survived, but the episode resulted in a long, silent bus ride to work that afternoon.

After a full week together, Mochiko went back to her foster home. While she was an undeniably beautiful animal, I don’t miss her rabbit runs and the daily stress of wondering if she had shit on the bed. Despite my hopes, we didn’t make great companions and I didn’t make for a great rabbit sitter. Perhaps I can’t be blamed. After Mochi left, my friend Mitch articulately said, “Rabbits are thing destroyers. By thing, I mean anything.” Destructive tendencies are hard to accept in even the furriest house guests. Anyway, I tried my best. I don’t often offer conciliatory mint leaves to guests who urinate on the furniture.

Song of the Day: Rabbit Run by City Calm Down

The Third Date

Grandview Lanes Bowling Alley

Even as I was going into it, I had a feeling our third date was going to be our last. Our interactions became more markedly awkward as time passed. I responded to his boisterous extroversion in near whispers. “The whole bar doesn’t need to hear our conversation,” I said quietly, as he banged on the table to keep time with his story. It’s not that his bold personality silenced me; I wanted him to dial down the volume so other patrons wouldn’t look around to find the shouting man and his embarrassed companion, trying to retreat under the table. I’m comfortable with a spotlight when I command it, not when it is thrust upon me by my date’s gesticulations.

I agreed to the third date as a way of bringing our time together to a conclusion. He suggested bowling. I love The Big Lebowski  but I hate bowling. I tend to make three strikes in a row and gutterball the rest. By the time I’ve had a few beers, I’m practically tossing bowling balls down the lane. I agreed to go bowling, even though I anticipated that it would only exacerbate the awkwardness of our dynamic.

We had a few beers before we went over to the bowling alley. The night was off to a bad start. He was frustrated by the attention I had payed to the Lakers game on TV, I was annoyed by his over-apologizing. On top of that, my hair was mainly dry shampoo and I wore leggings for pants. As we got our bowling shoes, my date addressed the attendant like he was Steve Buscemi addressing his fellow kids . “A size eleven, please, brother. Thanks, duder.” I asked for my shoes and a can of beer without a single diminutive.

Between turns, I drank my beer and observed my date as he made his bowls. I had a lot of time to think about the direction in which the evening was going. I had made two strikes and three spares before my luck ran out. My date thought it best to encourage me. This was embarrassing but endearing while we had the section to ourselves. It became mortifying when couples on a double date arrived beside us to bowl and bear witness to our mounting mutual discomfort. We started our second round. After my first ball landed with a loud thud and rolled into the gutter, I squared up with my second ball and tried to get into the motion of rolling rather than tossing. Then, to the whole bowling alley, he exclaimed, “GO COURTNEY! YOU CAN DO IT!” I was aghast. Rolling motions be damn, I tossed the ball under what felt like the watch of everyone in the alley. The ball went immediately off course and rolled with a clatter into the gutter. I returned to our seats. “I appreciate your enthusiasm,” I said delicately to my date, “but not everyone here need to know how I’m bowling.” He looked crushed. “I was trying to be supportive.” “And I appreciate that, but I would appreciate even more if you supported me a little more quietly.”

When I declined his invitation to come over at the end of the night, he offered to walk me to the bus stop. We stood at the corner of Commercial and Broadway, our eyes on the street. I knew I had to end it then and there. I readied myself to tell him I wouldn’t see him again. Suddenly, a convoy of police cars came down Broadway with sirens screaming and stopped in the middle of the intersection. An officer in black ran out of the car and into the SkyTrain station behind us. Another officer followed him. A crowd of people at the bus stop stood at attention and watched as the police cars moved up the street. The first officer approached my companion and me, and asked if we had seen anyone running. I explained that the only running people I had seen were police officers. The officer looked distractedly to the road: “Someone was stabbed across the street from here, and we think the perpetrator went running into the train station.” Those gathered near us agreed that they hadn’t noticed anything unusual. The two officers took off in the opposite direction, leaving everyone to react to the news of the stabbing. “Oh my God,” said the young man in front of me to his female companion. “We have to get out of here. What if he goes on a shanking spree?” I was shocked. I was at a loss for words. It seemed tactless to break it off with my date while someone lay bleeding in a gutter and a madman was primed for a shanking spree. Then I saw my bus arrive. “That’s my bus,” I said. “Gotta go!” I called, as I literally ran away from my date. I would have had to wait ten to fifteen minutes for another bus. Anyway, I thought, I can always end it over text message.

Song of the Day: Like Soda by Violent Soho

Drawing Cats in Grad School Seminars

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In my second term of grad school, I took the maximum number of courses allowed by the department, three instead of the recommended two. Three courses doesn’t sound like a lot, especially compared to the typical undergraduate five course terms. However, after my first three course term, I realized that two courses would have kept me sufficiently occupied. Even one course could have taken ample time had I aspired to be as well read as my peers. Even though I knew before the term started I was taking too many courses, I was hellbent on finishing my coursework by the end of April. I soon realized that taking three courses at once, particularly the three I was taking,  was nothing short of a terrible idea.

On Monday mornings, I had a class on Irish modernism. Because it was my first class of the week, I was always prepared — with the exception of the week when I didn’t make it through At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien because the narration made me angry. My comments in class ranged from the witty to the absurd, but they were made with confidence and page references. Late in the afternoon on Wednesdays, I had a class on media theory. We discussed the mediatic elements of literature and referenced Marshall McLuhan, N. Katherine Hayles and other theorists whose names I wrote down but never looked up. I doggedly read technocultural critical works and post-modernist novels written by MacArthur genius grant winners and European madmen. By the time I arrived in the seminar room, my enthusiasm was waning. I made careful notes on the scholars and authors my peers referenced and felt increasingly uneasy when I realized the insufficiency of my critical knowledge. I’d make a comment out of left field. My professor would gesticulate wildly in response, launch into an anecdote about Rosi Braidotti and change the course of the discussion entirely; he never returned to my ideas.

Following my Wednesday seminar, I had just over seventeen hours to do all the required reading for my class in affect theory. Theorists we discussed ranged from Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud to Sylvan Tomkins and Sianne Ngai. From the first week’s reading by Frederic Jameson alone, I knew I was completely lost. The feeling was exacerbated to the extent that I looked at the reading list on Wednesday nights with a mounting sense of panic. I stayed up as late as possible and woke up at six on Thursday mornings to try to make sense of the textbooks and stacks paper in front of me. I arrived to the 9:15 class late, looking like a dewy corpse — dewy because I had run from the bus stop, corpse-like from the lack of sleep and strange coffee and protein powder mix I’d drink along the way — in the baby pink baseball jacket I had taken to wearing at the time.

I sat in the seminar with feelings that oscillated from despair to hopelessness. My theoretical  knowledge was completely inadequate for the class. To make matters worse, my peers were passionately well read, aggressively articulate and the kind of world class bullshitters you only find at the highest echelons of academia.

Worse than the left field comments I made in my media theory seminar, all of my comments in affect theory would degenerate into anecdotes or references to material I had actually read that was, unfortunately, on another seminar’s syllabus. A low point was when I shared my opinion on which type of vermin Gregor Samsa metamorphosed into in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, drawing on my limited knowledge of entomology. By the end of the year, I only made comments when my professor solicited our affective responses to the work on deck that day — how did reading Friedrich Kittler make you feel?

I tried to make useful notes in class until I realized the exercise was futile. It was around this point that I started to make tangental comments in the margins of my notebook, accompanied at first by few and then by many doodles of cats. In my final year of undergrad, I sat with my friend Patrick in a survey course in which we read through the latter half of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. While I sat at my desk irritably listening to my peers talk about their experiences reading Heidegger and Derrida, Patrick would serenely draw pictures of cats.  Drawing cats, he said, made it so that he was unperturbed by the lecture or discussion. When I found myself greatly perturbed by my seminars, I took Patrick’s cats as inspiration and drew cats of my own.

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A cat as Frank Ocean, referencing his song “Lost” and my feeling of being completely lost in a conversation about the place of the self.

Sometimes the cats I drew stood on their own in margins and blank space. Other times, they spoke: advice on what to read, questions on the lecture and comments on my affective experience of reading the text. Other times, the cats were simply my way of claiming my notes as my own.  With my cat drawings, I injected humour into an otherwise fairly humourless situation.

Grad school had done little for me other than point to my shortcomings. While this can be a valuable, humbling experience, more often than not I found myself in a state of despair because I hadn’t read Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and I didn’t know about script theory. This is to say, I thought less of myself because I was comparing myself to those around me. I don’t know how knowledgable and engaged my peers actually were. They might have had superior knowledge or they might have been skilled at faking it. Either way, I was preoccupied by an absence of knowledge that on my own terms I would not have sought. I completed readings not out of a desire to learn more but out of a fear that I wasn’t measuring up. Since my knowledge acquisition was motivated by panic rather than passion, the readings I did in an attempt to impress my peers didn’t stick with me. I wanted to know about Proust so I could improve in my peers’ esteem. Actually, I wanted to know about Proust so I could justify to myself my presence in grad school. I’m sure my peers couldn’t have given two shits about what I did and did not know. Even if they did meet in the overly expensive grad student pub to discuss the inadequacies of my presentation of Friedrich Kittler, that’s their sad business, not mine.

More than anything else, my cat drawings allowed me to take a step back from my present situation. Whether or not I was familiar with the works of Proust matters to me not a bit in the grand scheme of things. I was in grad school to increase my own knowledge, not to justify my knowledge and interests to those who knew little about me anyway. The readings that actually interested me have stuck with me. The rest are peripheral additions to the sum total of my knowledge and attractive additions to my bookshelf. More important than the theoretical knowledge I’ve gained are the personal realizations I’ve come to: my experience in grad school doesn’t define me as a person, and my understanding of affect theory doesn’t decide my worth. All it took for me to figure that out were thirty-six cat drawings and a 1200 word blog post.

Song of the Day: Losers by The Weeknd

OR Damn Baby by Alpine, because the cats on the cover of their album Yuck

Conversation on a Nighttime Bus

Alexander Street, Vancouver

I was sitting on a crowded bus at quarter to ten at night, my backpack on my lap and my copy of Gravity’s Rainbow open in front of me. I was endeavouring to read but was struggling against the noise of the guy sitting across from me who was freestyle rapping to his friend.  I kept mouthing the words of Gravity’s Rainbow, trying to make sense of the placeless setting they created. believing in the primacy of the ‘conscious’ self and its memories, regarding “Miss?” regarding all the rest as abnormal or trivial, and so he is “Miss?” troubled, deeply…

“Yes?” I replied, looking up at the man beside me. He was scruffily bearded, wearing a light jacket, dirty sneakers and a blue sheet around his waist.

“Do you have to  move your lips when you read?” He laughed. I laughed.

“No,” I said, “but I do it when the bus is loud so I can better concentrate on the words.”

“Is it a complicated book?” he asked.

“Yes, very. It’s about war, and that’s all I can say about the plot right now.”

“I’m not much of a reader. I like cartoons and Sudoku.”

“Those are both good things,” I replied, and I focused on the page. She has a few marks with her, Franz has his toy rockets to the moon.

“Do you know when the liquor store closes?”

I put my finger on the end of the sentence. “No, I can’t say I do.”

“It might close at ten, but I’m hoping it closes at eleven.”

I thought about it. “Yes, I think it closes at eleven.” I looked again at the page. It is really over.

“I was down at Wreck Beach today.” I nodded at my book. “We had a ceremony for a friend who died, one of the regulars down there.” I looked up at him. He looked far away. “We built a campfire. We took the box they gave us with his ashes and had a ceremony.”

“That’s a nice place to have it,” I said quietly.

“When I go, I hope they do the same for me.” He paused. “I scattered my parents’ ashes in the Fraser River.”

“All of my family is in Ontario.”

He turned his head to me. “Are any of them in the ground there?”

“Yes, all of my grandparents.”

We both fell silent. After a minute he said, “I’m going to go to the front of the bus so I can see if the liquor store is open before I get off.”

“I hope it’s open until eleven,” I said with a smile.

“I hope so too,” he replied. “If I don’t see you again, have a good life.”

“Thank you. Same to you.” I watched him walk to the front of the bus, the blue sheet draping towards the floor. I read a few more pages and went a stop further than I usually do before I walked out into the cold November air. I thought of his words, I hope they do the same for me, and I felt cold.

Song of the Day: Strange Hellos by Torres