World Festival Of Men Hitting Ball With Feet

Hey Seymour

I have never taken a photo of anything ever remotely related to a sport. So instead, enjoy a picture of this weird dog.

The gym teacher sat across from me, looking stern and unimpressed. I had been fat the entire semester, which didn’t really jam with the subject he was teaching. And here I was, sitting fatly despite all of his best efforts. He asked me what grade I felt I should get. He pre-emptively gritted his teeth, already hating my reply.

I launched into what I thought was a fairly compelling speech detailing all of the reasons I should get exactly 75%. I showed up every class in gym attire and put in my best, awfulest effort into whatever fresh horrors he had devised for us. Despite obvious discomfort and a truly thrilling lack of ability, I showed up and did all of the things. The lifting, the running, the kicking, the hitting. Terribly and thoroughly greasy, but I did them.

Gym class was going to slash my average, but I felt I had earned a modicum of understanding for giving it all a go. I laid out my feelings for the gym teacher, who sighed and agreed. Gym class being mandatory only until grade nine, he knew this would be the last he’d ever see of me and the last time he’d ever have to hear me talking so fatly, so pathetically, about sports.

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Seeking Lonely Mountain Peaks for Companionship, Fun, Nothing Serious

So Long Huangshan

If this mountain is cool with being alone, why not you?

The bus from the hotel to the Huangshan transport depot was brief. The other teachers from the school had risen early with visions of a hearty hike before them. According to guide books and a thorough wiki-ing, the steep walk could be evaded by cable car, and one could be treated to the splendours of a half-dozen mountain peaks and hours of trudgery without ever having to climb up one long, bleak side of the mountain itself.

A few of the others balked as I purchased the single ticket to the alternate destination. They were a posse of eight, forging up into the wilderness and the unknown of China, while I was one, alone. I would be solo on a mountain for hours, with no real knowledge of my companions or when I might meet up with them. I had a decent, though vague, reconstruction of a Google map imprinted on my brain which I would consult along with my compass. I had a good book, a nice camera, and money to purchase water and goods on the mountain top.

I had no companions and no one to talk to. Cell phone reception would probably be spotty at such altitudes. I would definitely be on my own. I waved my goodbyes, shouldered my backpack, and soldiered on.

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Resurgent Useless Knowledge & The Joy of a Burning Brain

Vishnu and Pals

Hey, I remember you guys!

For many years, my grandfather would constantly tell me, “That’s one thing they can never take away from you. Your education.” I never asked who they were, although the way he said it implied that they were very intent on taking anything and everything else, and that also maybe they were waiting just outside. And if they were the kind of people who wanted to mug me, that maybe they would also take a bat to my head and there goes my education.

But I got his point.

My grandfather was an exceedingly generous man, and as his only grandson he was endlessly proud of everything I did and every dumb thing I ever said. I think, sometimes, that this statement was meant to be reassuring to me through my university years and the ones just beyond. The years where I realized that I had studied a lot of things that weren’t going to be terribly useful to life or gaining a career.  The years where I started to get a little academic’s remorse, as I considered my future and how the words “Starbucks barrista” fit into it.This statement was meant to encourage me to find my education fulfilling, as I would surely be sustaining myself on a pulpy milkshake I could make from old manuscripts and printer ink.

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Transpacific Laments for Starry Skies

Private Beach

Always looking for the right patch of sky.

I was always a terrible sleeper.

Anxious and constantly thinking by nature, my childhood mind was a churning furnace of thought and story and all the many possible futures. I remember lying awake and thinking of any number of things – of possible futures, of stories I wanted to tell, of places I wanted to go. I was socially awkward for many years, so I remember sometimes lying away, my scalp sagging into my tiny pillow, planning out possible conversations I might have with peers the following day. Turning my brain off was never something I could fathom, never mind attempt. A mind, in my experience, was a tire fire, an oil slick, a great uncontained thunderstorm. Turning off my constant thinking would mean, almost certainly, that I had simply expired sometime in the night. Sleep usually overtook me only when I became so exhausted with thinking that a fuse shorted somewhere in my brain and the systems took a break.

Childhood insomnia meant I spent a lot of time staring out my childhood window into the night sky. Being unable to sleep anyway, I hated the idea of blinds or curtains, of casting myself in a caul of black, of throwing my eyes into darkness and giving myself nothing to ponder on. I always asked for the blinds to be up, for the curtains to be drawn, for the windows to be slid open to let the night in.

I needed night sounds and night skies. The sound of city buses has always been the perfect white noise to me, a loud parking brake the closest analogue I’ve ever had to soft rain or the aquatic songs of blue whales. A choir of crickets and the soft pat-pat of the few walking the roads late at night, looking up at the same dark skies.

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Flight of the Douchebag

“I heard that Christmas in Germany is lovely,” one of us murmured, his or her mouth pursed, as though brimming full of caviar and Zinfindel and self-satisfaction. “The Germans just know how to truly celebrate. I think we should all holiday in Europe next winter.”

The Peak of Mt. Popa

Let’s weekend in Burma, shall we? I hear the spring there is divine.

What a horrendous, decadent assemblage of words. What a cock-eyed, over-privileged, obscene collection of phonemes, ordered in such a way that their construction seems pornographic and vile. I cringed internally, even as I think I probably said it.

That we could even fathom to use the word “holiday” as a verb seems to galling and horrific that our tongues should probably be taken into custody by government officials. That all of my articulators, my teeth and my cheeks and my vocal chords, should excise themselves from my body and escape to Tijuana. People didn’t say things like that, nor did they squint and primp just so. We barely qualified as humans anymore; no, we were douchebags, anthropomorphic pond scum from another planet far away.

Reorienting myself to view travel so cavalierly has taken time and effort. As a child I watched documentaries about people jet-setting around the world, I sat through countless seasons of the Amazing Race. I envisioned the kind of people who took wing and journeyed through the skies: they always wore scarves. They purchased insanely expensive bottles of cognac, used the contents as mouthwash, and spat the leavings on the people who flew coach. They slept on beds made of chilled Alaskan salmon and cashmere puppies, soft and rhythmic and alive. The people I thought of were not so much people as they were personified luxury, walking and talking chequebooks with no personalities and a constant, burning desire to wear berets and eat large baguettes.

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Ayi Audition: Livecast of the “Michael’s Gross Apartment Maid Invitational”

All right, lady. Do your thing.

All right, lady. Do your thing.

At long last, I had cracked. For months, friends and acquaintances had assured me that life on the other side was something incomprehensibly better. That once you crossed the threshold, going back was no longer an option. That even glancing back at your old life would make you shudder and recoil, terrified that you ever could have lived such an unfulfilled, empty existence. I resisted, mostly out of a strange attachment to the status quo. Change is scary. Change is change.

But finally, I relented. On Sunday, I opened my door and let a pleasant middle-aged Chinese woman in to clean my house. And I don’t think I can ever go back.

12:32 I have been tidying slightly, although I know it is a ridiculous impulse. I am somewhat terrified at what this stranger will think of me, what the state of my apartment will say about my character, my personhood, my lack of culture. I imagine her peeking inside the door, cringing visibly, shaking her head and muttering in Mandarin before trudging back to the elevator in disgust.

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The Home Battery and the Midnight Tobaggan

Frozen I

Canada: land of comfort and love and also occasional ice blizzards.

Christmas vacation loomed, a spectre haunting every conversation, a weight making every exchange fraught with expectation. The population of an international school is inherently migratory, several dozen flocks of geese all congregating together for this one moment in the history of space and time, each collection and each individual always on the verge of taking wing and disappearing into the sky. A holiday meant a great dispersal, a casting of our fragile community to the wind.

People everywhere talked vacation – destinations and ticket prices, buses and trains, planes and sturdy shoes. Many were homeward bound, to America, to the Philippines, to Korea, to England, to Australia. Canadians were thin on the ground, until I happened into conversation with a Newfoundlander.

We regaled each other with mutual Canadian paraphernalia, inasmuch as people who lived in vastly differently places in an enormous country could share a culture. We talked about the cold, about warm mittens and toques, about hot chocolate in a Tim Horton’s mug. We talked about shovelling snow and eating food, about the pristine quiet, about the slang and the voice. Her harsh, nasal, Maritime /a/s and my newscaster southern Ontario prattle betrayed only when I say the words boat and hose.

Nostalgia dripped from our conversation like a generous portion of maple syrup. We could understand one another’s wants, one another’s yearnings, without difficulty. We had a mutual reference point, an understanding of the word home that meant roughly the same thing, or as same a thing as you can get nestled far away in China. Christmas conjured up the same kind of visions, the same legends of Santa, the same kinds of cookies and the same kinds of turkey, the bitter winds and the bursting cold, the soft flutter of a million million snowflakes and the feeling of a down jacket over four layers of sweaters, and the sea of stars that littered the night like sand along a beach.

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Winter is Coming: Cold Wimps

Kite Lady 1

Time to bundle up, children.

The first snowfall in Korea was always heralded with whoops and celebration. Many of my friends – Californians, Australians, South Africans – had so little experience with snow or cold that they found the novelty thrilling. White crystalline shards of joy were falling from the sky! They would run out from their buildings in weather-inappropriate clothing, mouths agape, ready for the cinematic experience of winter. A single snowflake would flutter down and land on their noses, and they would shiver, and then Santa would arrive, and also everyone would be wearing fashionable red sweaters and drinking cocoa.

Within a week the reality of the season would set in like so much semi-frozen street slush. Heavy coats and thick boots, a constant ritual of dressing and undressing as one moved between vastly different temperatures like drifting through biomes on a gale of wind. They grew acquainted with scarves and knitted caps, with bitter chapped lips, with the feel of black ice slamming directly into your face as you topple off your feet. Scores of temperate people were doused in chill, and had to try to understand what longjohns were, why they existed, and how quickly they could acquire as many pairs of them as humanly possible.

Confronted as they were with these bouts of cold, their endurance was tested and they had no available coping skills. They veered directly from plaid shirts and summer shorts into heavy wool sweaters and goose down parkas the second the leaves began to change. They shivered in fur-lined caps and warm mittens, and hugged themselves against mild-to-moderate gusts, the kind that might cause a Canadian or a Norweigian to remark that the weather had finally started to turn pleasant.

A good winter coat is a nuclear weapon, and it must be deployed with care and discretion. Firing it too early leaves one unprepared for the war to come, for the battles still to be fought, for the rising stakes and the falling temperatures. Swaddled completely from head to toe as soon as the thermometres dipped below 10, my friends were completely horrified and utterly shattered as we went below freezing. Wind chipped at their delicate, sun-shaped features, brutalized their hair and their knees, wore their skin open through frigid erosion. With only one coat in their arsenal, they employed their heavy weapons too early, and were left unarmed when the real fight began.

I never feel quite so studly or Viking-like as when I can lord my cold-resistance over my daintier coworkers and acquaintances. While I swelter and melt through-out the summer months, a pool of slovenly sweat-stained dress shirts and damp hair, winter is the time I am allowed to shine.

My childhood in Canada often sounds like a harsh, bitter sort of experience, the way people might describe their arduous training regimens for astoundingly difficult barefoot decathlons. Pounds and pounds of protective gear, bottles stuffed with electrolytes to bolster my fragile young self from the bitterness and difficulty I was to endure. Howling winds carving crenels in my flesh while horrendous cold tunnelled down into my lungs and shredded my alveoli with sickly icicle fingers. Snow monkeys attacking all the while, wolves howling from the deep and the dark. Days with thirty-seven hours of darkness, marked only occasionally by the fires of roving snow bandits, who came to steal your stewed venison and the warm blood from the core of your abdomen.

I wasn’t even from a particularly cold part of Canada, but when I describe the kind of gear necessary to function as a child in Canadian winter, people from elsewhere look horrified. “Snow pants? Parkas? And what exactly is a ‘toque’?” They couldn’t fathom the idea of being subjected to such extremes, for the need of such preventative measures, for the casual, laissez-faire acceptance of the risk of frostbite. Things might just go brittle and fall off of you when it gets cold enough? People live in such places? Do they know that Florida or Thailand exists, and are places you could go instead?

It was hard for them to fathom the joy of a good toboggan, shredding down a wooded hill, the uncontrolled careen and the constant risk of flying into a tree or a patch of brambles. Hours spent constructing a snow fort and chiseling away at its perfect white carapace—the euphoria of sitting inside matched only by the bliss of kicking the structure down with a heavy, rubber-soled boot. Snow angels and dropping an ice puck in the drooping, dangling hood of a childhood friend. Stripping sopping gloves off of your tingling frozen-wet hands and wrapping them around a mug of hot chocolate.

Not that winter is easy or always pleasant. Living in a place with snow or a cold climate means expensive, heavy winter apparatuses to keep the body from freezing. It means getting up to shovel four or five times a day, and cursing the name of the plow driver who piles the inky slush from the road into the end of your drive. It means constantly risking wet socks and trying desperately to step on the parts of the sidewalk that bring the safe, comforting sound of rock salt crunching below your feet. It’s a harsh season, and from a distance, or from the breech of your first real winter, it can be difficult to see through the cold.

But really what winter has always reminded me of is the warmth. The kindled fire in the hearth or the pair of worn slippers waiting just inside the door. Hot cocoa spiked with Irish Crème, or a stout winter beer shared with a friend in a cozy pub. Writing your name across frosted glass, watching the dew form at the tip of your finger, the crystal cracks etching out through the ice. Long journeys in the cold to make it to a warm home, a warm friend, a warm smile. Celebrations that turn the dark and the cold into the light. Most can’t handle winter because they don’t know that the summer and the spring are just a drive away to your mom’s living room, to your best friend’s couch, to two pints or three with a hot bowl of soup, steaming and sweltering in your ungloved palms.

The Shoebox and the Palace

All clean on the western front.

It’s very cozy.

I remember the day when my main co-teacher showed me my Korean apartment. I was carrying two suitcases and was swaddled in a sopping-wet sweater vest, slick with Korean humidity and my own terror-sweat. I looked around my one room, my first apartment to myself, and was stunned by a sense of grandeur. There were walls and a ceiling, a bed and a couch, pots and pans and an entire bathroom, and they were just for me. They were mine. All twenty cubic metres of them.

My meagre collection of belongings easily slid under beds and into cupboards, my suitcases wedged below the couch and beside the wardrobe. I had no decorations to speak of, other than pictures I sellotaped to walls and whatever sea-creature decals I allowed to remain spread across the apartment in monument to its previous occupant.

I was a grown-up, and this was minimalist living, I thought. The lack of space necessitated the style, but it suited me fine. Extra room just meant more things to clean, more things to polish, more things to worry about damaging or coating in ice cream when I grew careless and sloppy. A one-room was the apartment for me, as it necessarily created a simplistic lifestyle, near monasticism in its quiet, lazy effortlessness. I felt moved in within an evening, and as much as the place could become recognizably mine, as much as a single room with a kitchenette and a single bed can become personalized, it was shaped in my image.

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My Birthday at the End of the World

A birthday at the end of the world

25 in 25.

Seas flow and converge into the ocean beyond a distant, rocky point. Kanyakumari consists of pastel houses, slowly decaying hotels, an enormous statue of a poet-saint who stares out across the waters. Pilgrims flock the beach, dipping hands and feet out into the water, and praying to the virgin goddess who rests here. Her home lies on the very southernmost tip of India.

When night falls, enormous vampire bats swoop and screech overhead. Ghostly music shimmies out from the coast and the temple, which stays alight. The power dips on and off, and the town is cast into darkness and into light in an irregular, unpredictable rhythm. Walking the streets becomes a journey through the black, with just starlight and reflections on windshields to guide the way.

All along the south-western coast lies a decaying amusement park. Like the houses the colours are bright and childish, neon blues and pinks and greens, slightly murkier and mossier now from age and neglect. An ancient aquarium lures a handful of bored children, and dozens of carnival rides slowly rust in the sun and the salt spray. A ferris wheel still runs, still lights up sometimes in the night, a great circle of flickering orange and yellow. The tilt-a-whirl died a quiet death eons ago.

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