Posted by: M.A. | September 6, 2007

All the Way to Africa

A Lot of us live lead lives of fragmentation. We have pieces, hundreds of them maybe, scattered about that don’t actually fit together. I do things that don’t always fit in with who I am. I can’t help it. I’m a product of my time. Because I’m committed (foolishly perhaps) to cramming so much into my life, I can’t possibly make it all fit neatly together — square pegs don’t drive easily into even octagonal holes.
What we all need is a bit of integration — or reintegration if we were ever whole to begin with. Writing, I think, allows me to integrate, to show that this life does make sense.

What happens when we get too parcelled up? We feel out of control, maybe. Or sometimes we just feel hollow — there is no centre for the chaos to swirl around. The best thing I can find for that elusive centre is the substance of family. This is a mundane subject, I suppose, but there it is. The centre must hold as best it can. And so we reintegrate.

On my March twenty-first birthday, I’m feeling only half alive, hollowed-out, and I don’t know why. Spring, angst and anxiety over age — nothing tangible. For nearly six months now I’ve been cramming. I’ve been shovelling everything together into a crazy life of writing, teaching, publishing, giving talks and performances and interview upon interview and loving the camera shoved in my face and now a brief hiatus. And it’s clear that whatever I’ve been doing has had no solid meaning. I’ve been used up. The media has sucked me dry and I’m a mid-forty-year-old aging novelist/surf champ on the downslide. The book world and music world hold promises for me but I’m thinking that further success might drain me further into oblivion.

So there is this. I am driving into Halifax with my six year old daughter, Pamela. I’ve been invited to be part of celebrity photo shoot for the cover of a weekly tabloid called The Coast. On the way to town, Pamela pulls out a deck of cards and asks me to play Go Fish. My first reaction is to do it even though I’m the one driving the vehicle down the twisty coastal road, dodging pothole and frost heave like a slalom skier on a downhill run.

But I’m good at doing two things at once, right? The skill I believe I posses is called cramming. Remember that term from staying up all night — puling an all-nighter — to study for some exam that you had failed to prepare yourself for? Now, cramming for me is the act of trying to do everything at once. I can talk on the phone, spell check a story I am writing and drink a cup of coffee all at the same time, while keeping an eye on the waves to see if it’s worth dropping everything to go surf. That’s cramming. Or if I’m running on a tight schedule on some town-trek day of the week, I can split a half hour into segments of five minutes and cram some important “essential” activity into every slot and still have time to show up to teach my class only one minute late. That’s cramming.

But this is my day of feeling hollow, worn out, fortyish. I don’t have the energy to even cram a card game in while driving. I can’t trust myself on that one today. “Sorry, Pam,” I say.

“Then who am I going to play my game with?” she demands, already beginning to deal out two hands of cards on her lunch box.

“I don’t know.”

“Then I’ll play it with God.”

“Yeah. God is good. Play Go Fish with God.”

So my daughter begins to play Go Fish with God. I’m busy with the potholes.

After a while I ask, “Who’s winning?”

“God.”

“Figures,” I say.

Then, miraculously, Pamela wins a handful of cards. God’s luck doesn’t hold out. Before I hit the first stop light, Pamela has all the cards.

“What happened?”

“God let me win.”

“Nice guy,” I say.

“God had never played Go Fish before.”

At the Soho kitchen, Kyle from The Coast welcomes us and I get my daughter’s name wrong when I introduce her. Wow, am I out of it today or what? Hollow be thy name. I call her Sunyata, my other daughter’s name, and then immediately realize this was an old trick that my father did, absentmindedly calling me by my brother’s name. Maybe parents do this all the time. Kyle, however, is left thinking, this guy has forgotten his own daughter’s name?

When the other “celebrities arrive,” it becomes clear to me that they knew about this whole deal a long time ago. I was only called nine o’clock the night before. I now know that I am the “fill-in celebrity” and wonder how far down the list they went before somebody said, “I know, we’ll get the old surf champ.”

No sweat. I won’t let on. The TV star comedian, Cathy Jones from This Hour Has 22 Minutes, the radio DJ, J.C. Douglas, and I sit down at a table and pretend that we are about to eat a wooden fish and two carved pine pigs. It’s some kind of a set up for The Coast’s special issue on Halifax food but it all feels pretty vacuous, hollow, without contact or content.

I smile for the camera. I’m good at this now. I do whatever the media wants out of me. I’ve been hollowed out by my minor success. I’ve become a wandering wraith of multi-talent for TV or radio or print. People are interested in what I am doing but I think a very small part of the population (I mean minuscule) actually read my books. My content is of much less interest to the world than what I appear to be doing.

Right now, I appear to be trying to eat a pine pig, painted pink. And I don’t know who I am. I’ll have to wait for the tabloid to appear on the street Thursday and see the picture. There I am. I will be this person doing this thing for some reason.
I stare away from the pig towards the DJ, JC who has the wooden fish. My daughter is sitting off to the side, her coat still on, laughing at us. Okay, God, Go Fish.

We change tables for a new shot. Three wine glasses filled with water. Cheers. I sniff, then taste it. “Hmmm, it tastes like 1983,” I say. The two other celebrities laugh. Click. We are sitting around having fun, the photo is supposed to say. All of this means nothing and someone will print thirty thousand copies of it. (I’ve written novels that took eight years to write, that included deep ponderous thoughts — that no publisher would publish, that no one will ever read).

“You’re not smiling,” someone says to me. I thought that I was.

Looking into the lens of the camera, I’m thinking about focus. My daughter is giggling at us again from far out of the frame. I look towards her and then back at the camera.

“That’s much better,” someone says.

Later, at noon, at another restaurant, I am alone with Pamela and I run out of things to talk about. She is eating chicken nuggets shaped like extinct creatures and I am supping a bizarre Cajun soup made of shrimp and black mushrooms. Pamela cannot conceive how I can actually swallow something so weird looking. The baby shrimp look like grub worms.
“Klingon food,” I say. She smiles, understands.

When the waiter comes and brings her a glass of ice water, she sips it with a straw, then makes a face. “Yuck,” she says. “It tastes like 1983.”

Later, when we go for a walk beneath the huge pine trees of Point Pleasant Park, Pamela and I are entertained by a seemingly endless parade of old, pudgy dogs with breathing problems. They all sniff and chase around squirrels and each other and run off further down the trail as if they have some ultimate destination. But I know that at the end of the long wooded pathway is nothing but the open ocean. Rocks and kelp and lapping icy waves and a big patch of water, all the way to Africa.

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