*a collection of my recent random writings for the art/philosophy website Athena – imagineathena.com.
Many thanks to Athena editor Candice Holdsworth for the opportunity to contribute to her little piece of internet real estate.
Please drop on by and get some of the best writing on the internet, on art, literature, philosophy, science and much more…and me.
Enjoy and feel free to feedback on any of the ideas expressed within these pages. Would love to hear from y’all…
Youth and Young Manhood
I never met Elliot Rodger. I’ve never watched his whiny YouTube videos, never read his oh-woe-is-me manifesto. But I like to think I knew Elliot Rodger, because like billions of other little boys, since the dawn of time, since that very first pubic hair sprouted from the scrotum of the young Cro-Magnon, that very first Vesuvian zit erupted, that very first faulty falsetto of uncertainty croaked from the choir of childhood’s comfortable conformity, I used to be Elliot Rodger, a little man-child besieged by what Fitzgerald liked to call the “chemical madness” of youth: adolescence.
Yet like those billions of boys-to-men throughout history, picking up a gun and killing people I thought didn’t like me, girls who wouldn’t talk to me, grown ups that didn’t understand me, was never the answer to all those thousands of unanswered questions. It never is as simple as that. When the answers do eventually arrive, no matter how difficult they are to hear, they always seem to be the right ones.
Driven by unbridled lust, insurmountable hopelessness and the uncontrollable urge to make myself heard, I also did some horrible, regrettable and embarrassing things on that treacherous rickety bridge between youth and young manhood. Miraculously, though, no matter how close I come to looking over the edge, I got to the other side, more or less in one piece. A little bruised by rejection, eternally scarred by love affairs gone bad, horrible little told-you-so life lessons written up against my name, now always there to remind me not to ever do those things again.
Of all the chemicals, the drugs, the rivers of beer, the weird smelly sweat, in the average young male body, testosterone is the most potent; it makes you do weird and stupid things. It makes you drive fast, wear stupid t-shirts, it makes you stay up late listening to loud music and picking fights with the world.
More significantly, it makes you fall uncontrollably into love (lust, actually, but that’s how love generally starts out) with every woman you see. It breaks your heart every time they walk on by, gone forever, but then you see another, and that lovely cycle of joy, pain and heartache continues to turn, until one day, she stops and looks back at you, and it all seems worth it, after all.
And there, boys and girls, is the first step towards becoming old and wise, and trust me, it’s not too bad, sometimes.
Today, as I reach the age of thirty… (Here now is an uncomfortable pause that seems to get longer every year, much like the shadow of death) …eight…wait, what?
Eight? Eight?? Eight!?? Eight!! Eight. Like the various stages of grief.
What was I saying? Oh yes, at age 38, the mind starts to wander, and you start to lose it regularly. Time ceases to exist on any conventional plane; it becomes droopy like everything else about you: last week was a million years ago. 1994, last week. 2001? But that was just the other day, wasn’t it? What is happening? Where did that time go?
George Bernard Shaw famously said that youth is wasted on the young. It’s a cliché, I realise, but you know why it’s a cliché, because it’s damn well true. Suddenly, realising that time is running out, regret becomes a big part of your aged life, like going to the bathroom three times a night and getting grumpy every time Justin Bieber is on TV. Regret is a killer, regret makes you think your life has been futile; regret is nature’s way of telling you haven’t grown up yet.
I have friends; same age as me, some a bit older. They’re in the autumn years of youth, 2.5 kids, 2.5 cars, great job, generally happy and comfortably confident in their lives. But put on a Morrissey song, or tell them Pulp Fiction was made twenty years ago, or remind them that in 1993, they could go out for night on the town with R20 and still have change for a pack of cigarettes, and they turn in blubbering, nostalgic idiots trying to design a time machine on the back of their mortgage statement. Regret is a horrible gut wrenching feeling, but the memories that come with it are heartbreaking.
I like to think I’ve grown up a bit. I wear those silly striped golf shirts old men like to wear, I try to drive a little more carefully and make an effort to do sensible things at a sensible time of day. But sometimes whenever I hear an old Pearl Jam song, or see an old Batman comic, the memories wash over me and regret sets in. Getting old is really hard, but remembering being young again is sometimes a lot harder. That old drunk Bukowski, who never really grew up himself, got it right when he said: “What a weary time, those (youthful) years. To have the desire, the need to live, but not the ability”.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy. I’m glad I grew up, hit the big 3…eight. (cringe). But sometimes late at night, after checking that the dog and the boy are safely tucked away in their beds, doors are locked, bills are paid, it’s just me and set of headphones full of memories. Not as cool as a time machine, but gets me halfway there.
Ungoogleable Ghosts Part One: Looking For X
I last saw X over ten years ago, when we met to commiserate the death of a mutual friend. Much more than just a mutual friend, Runt was the third angle in our Brotherhood of the Eternal Triangle, the silly name we gave our three-man band/friendship between ages 15 and 19. Runt was the connection between X and me, having been his friend longer, but Runt and I had been closer. X and I did hang out together, but inevitably it was never the same without Runt: for the triangle to work, it had to be complete.
The BET – our makeshift, badly out-of-tune garage band that mostly involved more talking shit, getting into trouble while drinking too much beer than actual music– was modelled on our mutual love for the music of The Police. X was our Sting, brooding and volatile, he even looked a little like him. Runt was the talented but quirky wildcard Andy Summers and I filled the fun-loving fool role held by Stewart Copeland, except I didn’t have a drumkit. It was the best band in the world…in our minds. The fact that X couldn’t sing, Runt would rather play the blues and my hands got tired of clapping after a while, we were determined, like so many wide-eyed kids, on global domination.
And yet, as with all great non-bands, it was not to be. and like, most childhood friendships, we drifted apart at the end of our school days. Runt left for university, X went to live in New York City with his dad, and I remained the fun-loving fool in Snor City. We all went on with our lives, meeting up now and then, but it would never be the same. Priorities changed, sensibilities matured and being cities, even continents apart, we lost our connection over time.
Runt began to take the beer and drugs we all had fun with in our youth, a little more seriously, and soon enough, had dropped out of varsity and almost hit rock bottom. He met a girl and had a daughter, and he seemed to be making a life for himself. I saw him a little more often after that, but still, that connection was never the same, and soon, wrapped up in starting my own life and family, I hardly acknowledged he was still around anymore.
Until I heard he had killed himself, which was a shock in itself, but I found out months after it happened – his parents never liked me much, so didn’t think to let me know. The collapse of our friendship, which towards the end imploded violently and with much resentment, was …and still is my greatest regret.
I still think about him almost every day, especially when I hear a Clapton lick he so easily mastered, or a corny joke he would have loved, or sometimes when I just want someone to talk to – he was the easiest guy in the world to talk to.
At the time of his death, the only thing I could do, and made it my mission to do, was to find X – now established in New York without much connection to South Africa – and let him know about Runt. It was important to me that I share this with the one person who would know and understand how I felt.
This was the early 2000s, the internet was up and running, but there were few resources like the ones we have today, social media like Facebook or Twitter, where you could have simply punched his name in and found him instantly. Even the now-mighty Google was such a digital wasteland of uncorrelated and incomplete information back then; you couldn’t trust what you found there.
The story of how I eventually contacted X after Runt died is an epic in itself, a quest that culminated in me on the phone at 3AM with the New York State phone exchange, drunkenly bawling my story to the unfortunate, but sympathetic operator. He eventually sourced a number for X from some confidential database, and put me straight through to his office, just as X was about to head into a meeting. It was a bizarre, awkward reunion filled with sadness, but the echoes of a long-ago friendship still crackled eerily across the bad connection. Was this really him, or had I connected somehow through a portal to the past?
We promised to meet up when he was next in South Africa and have a long drunken evening of remembering some long forgotten stories. We did meet up less than a year later, I met his wife and we had a great time, even if that lost angle had left a huge hole in the conversation.
And then, like that, he was gone again. Back to America, never to be seen or contacted again. My fault, really. I had his email address, but just never used it. Life went on.
When the Google/Facebook revolution struck and became a larger part our lives. I, like a lot of people end up doing late at night, between bouts of looking at girls in bikinis and searching for the meaning of life in the electro-ether of the internet, began the fine art of Googling all the people I had ever met in my life: long lost acquaintances, past work colleagues, old girlfriends, and yes, eventually, X too.
To my surprise, it seemed, to Google at least, he did not exist. No hits on Google, no Facebook profile, not even a telephone number listing for anywhere in the world.
I know what you thinking, though: of the millions upon millions of people reluctantly catalogued and indexed by the internet, it surely must be difficult to find one specific person. After all, there should be thousands with the same name – I myself have found that there are over a thousand Chris Andersons in the universe. One thing the internet has succeeded quite well at is showing us that we’re no quite as unique as we think.
But that’s the thing with X. His real name – which I won’t divulge here – IS truly unique. His surname is spelt really specifically; there is no way to misspell it purposely or otherwise. His first names are, if I remember correctly, perhaps more quixotically, named after some obscure early 20th century writer whom no one except his father had ever read. There was no other X in this solar system, other than the X I was looking for. And according to the most concisely constructed internet search engine in the world, he didn’t exist.
This, for me, was difficult to fathom. I had effortlessly found my old primary school teacher living in Russia. My old Polish girlfriend, whose surname, if you misplace the second Z would turn into a completely different person altogether, was quickly auto-corrected back into place and easily traceable, (she’s a doctor and married the guy she met after me, they look really happy).
But again and again, my rudimental searching for X came up with nothing. I started to doubt he ever existed in real life.
He became my Ungoogleable, my white whale, my Livingston.
I became obsessed with finding him. I had found him once, without much help from the primitive internet, surely I could do it again with the one tool that finds things, that can find anything and everything from a plumber around the corner, to a Tibetan monk dancing to Don’t Worry Be Happy on a Himalayan mountaintop, somewhere my answer lay in those seemingly organic intricacies of the Google algorithm.
Ungoogleable Ghosts Part Two: Finding EZ Riveo
There were almost no concrete clues to finding my long-lost friend X out there in vastness of the internet, except, as I delved further and adjusted my search criteria ever so subtly, a small snapshot of digital DNA emerged, a foggy wisp, but it was something.
One piece of trace was something called ‘left digestion’. A truly bizarre piece of short fiction that was written by someone called “X” posted on a small independent publisher’s website/blog, but with not a lot more information about the piece nor its author. As I read it, though, I recognised the voice in the piece, with an off-colour humour and familiar quirky language, and a slight worldly cynicism. It sounded a lot like those hilarious but weird jokes and observations X used to make back in our younger days.
Another clue found on Google was a reference to a certain “X” being the treasurer of a New York Birding and Wildlife Society.
One of the more unique things about the X I grew up with, was that he was an avid birder – a bird watcher and documenter. If you have ever known a birder, you will know, birders are possibly the most obsessive of all the amateur naturalists. They literally spend every spare minute of their lives looking for birds, reading about birds, talking about birds, writing things in little notepads about birds. X, despite his young age and youthful penchant for cheap wine, beautiful women and loud song, always had a mature and unhurried affinity for nature, and particularly, birds.
I remember one occasion during our friendship years before, after a particularly brutal night of drinking and attempting to play music, X was woken up by his father and older brother (Runt and I were passed out in sleeping bags in his room) urging him to come along birding that (really) early morning. He didn’t need to be asked twice and was out on the trail within 15 minutes. They returned 6 hours later, with excited stories of indistinguishable gibberish about the birds spotted that day. Runt and I looked at each other, more than a little perplexed by these strange avian enthusiasts.
The Wildlife Society website looked deserted, the last entry from two years ago. Mysteriously, even on the staff profile page, there was little information apart from X’s name. Everyone else had a short introduction and small photo. All it said next to his name was “treasurer”. It turned into another dead end for me.
Then, more intriguingly, there was “the state of New York and Homeland Security Vs. “X” Vs. Gonzalez”, a Google hit to a public record website referencing some 2006 legal proceeding involving X. Filled with various legalese and case code numbers, I couldn’t make head or tail of it. Homeland security? Sounded serious, but again, other than that, there was no further information about where X was, and what he was doing.
At the very least, my worst fear now was he might be held up in Guantanamo bay or somewhere equally horrendous, accused of some scandalous crime like bird-watching in international waters or the wearing of an offensive birding hat. Another thing I remember about X was that, along with his precocious cynicism, his passionate antiauthoritarian streak had often gotten us into trouble in our youth. Somehow I wasn’t surprised there might be some sort of run-in with the law wherever he may have found himself. Yet, once again, the clue offered little else, and the trail ran cold for a couple of years after that. I’d sort of given up hope on ever finding him again, but every once in a while, I’d punched his name back into the Google machine again.
And, about a year ago, I found the birds.
Mostly from a handful of the thousands of birding blogs available (ye gods, they had finally taken over the internet, these birding freaks), there were some birding photos credited to X. There was no doubt this was him. The pics had been taken all across the world, mostly Asia, places like Thailand and Sri Lanka but again, frustratingly, no other information. Was he on the run? An international fugitive who just couldn’t keep away from the birds.
I had eventually just given up the search completely. All I hoped now was that he was alive, happy and healthy. I made peace with the fact that the last connection with my younger days was finally lost.
Not a lot of people know about the mythological second page of Google search results. It’s where all those nasty Russian porn sites, too-geeky-for-normal-society blogs and dead websites wallow in infamy. But think about it, when we do a casual Google search, how often do we think to click through to the second, third or fourth pages of returned results? We usually find what we need, or if not, we try another search. Very rarely, for me at least, do we search beyond that first page.
In fact, if you look closely at the page design of Google, they do a pretty good job at hiding the click-through link to further pages. The link looks like it was HTMLed in 1992. I’m not even sure the good people at Google realise it’s even still there: “oh, leave that bit of coding for the new design; no one ever clicks on it, anyway.” A bit exaggerated, perhaps, but it says a lot about how Google has been able to streamline and tweak every search to our specific needs: you want ‘recipes for nutmeg soup with lentils’, here, all on one page, are the top 30 matches for your request. There is no need to search further. Want nutmeg soup with eggplant? Here let us suggest it to you.
This streamlining is what has made the almighty Google the behemoth of convenience we know and love today, and how it has become such an integral, important and permanent part of, not only our online lives, but our real-world existence, too. Think about it, it’s scary. It’s also the system that has banished millions of old, SEO-unfriendly and undesirable websites out into undiscovered oblivion.
And that’s the lesson I learnt less than a week ago, once again typing in my old best friend’s name into Google, convinced this was the day I would find him…or perhaps not.
Page 2? Why, I don’t think I have ever gone to page 2…click.
As imaginary cabinet doors creaked, I peered onto page 2 and it frightened me. Strange languages swore at me, bizarre symbols hissed. Badly composed website addresses slid and slobbered across the page, glaring at me, imploring me “click me, click me please, it’s been so long since someone just clicked me”: http://www.h:/grovemusick.dot.?/bleh,www.persianboobs.org.net.com.zed, http://www.ilovenewkidsontheblockforever.ca. http://www.myspace.com http://www.friendster.com http://www.gorein00.com
Indeed, this was where the internet came to die. And there, amongst the ruins, lay a barely breathing, left for dead search result attached to the name “X”. From the outside it looked diseased, a .ru domain name carbuncle festering on its tail. Dare I?
Its short description mentioned something about long-dead actor River Phoenix, some sort of fan website, but more importantly, it mentioned my friend, and this proved too good to ignore. I clicked.
Fifteen minutes later the page finally loaded. I imagined some Eastern European website designer, long retired, being woken up in the middle of the night by an internet nightwatchman: ‘Yuri, Yuri, come quick, your River Phoenix fansite from 1996 just got a hit; we need to prepare the horses.’
It was one of those weird Frankenstein-like websites – those primitive click-baiters that use material from other websites to lure visitors to their substandard and plagiarised and often illicit wares. But, it indeed was a River Phoenix tribute site, filled with badly scanned magazine covers of the dead actor, and other cobbled paraphernalia, including some poems and short prose, all apparently in honour of the young man who had a just a little too much fun that fateful night at the Viper Room in 1993.
One of the pilfered texts began: “oh mother, where can we stop the world and care about what we give…” attributed to my friend. “Soon, Janice, soon,” it continued. I stared at it for a long while, not sure what to make of it. I read through the piece, not sure what it was all about, but the X style was there, this was his work. Right at the bottom of the text, in an almost invisible watermark, read the words: courtesy of Dan Dare Publishers. There was the connection. Dan Dare was where I found the original ‘left digestion’ story. The Dan Dare website itself was now defunct, but I knew this new piece of prose was the next clue to finding X. One step closer.
Copy and paste, three of the greatest words in modern history. I loaded the opening sentence into Google, added the “speech marks” to search for the exact phrase and hit ‘find’…
I met the first result: flashfictionfunk.wordpress.com: “the home of perpetual prose, where a good, short idea is never turned away.” Proprietor: one EZ Riveo.
I knocked on the ‘about EZ Riveo’ tab, and my eyes squinted onto a grainy photograph. A tall, lanky man, wearing a shady longshoreman’s cap walked through some breezy alleyway eatery in an ancient city somewhere, his eyes hidden, but an impish half-smile emerged from under a ski-slope nose. He looked a lot like Sting.
It was him. I stared at the screen and repeated: “no way, no way. No. Frikkin. Way!” It felt like finishing a Rubik’s Cube, I had no idea how I did it. So much relief, but so much confusion. I looked at the photo again, to be certain. I began to second-guess my first intuition. It had to be him, but it seemed so unreal. Below his photo lay the usual array of social media links: Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest (fucking Pinterest? You must be joking?). Time to make sure, once and for all. I clicked the ‘f’ and there he was, uncovered and certified and identified: X.
His Facebook profile photo saw him sitting on a couch, having a beer, puckish grin on his face, as if to say:
“what took you so long?”
Post Script: Answers?
That was yesterday. In all, over ten years of searching for my oldest friend came to a head in whatever I was about to write in my message, my first contact, to him on Facebook. Famous first words?
“Got you! You son of a gun. We meet again, you elusive scoundrel. You frikkin’ byzantine Waldo, I got you.”
“Yowzer – there’s a surprise. Nice one! Thought I’d lost contact forever. How’d you find me? How the hell are you?”
I gave him a brief summary of my detective work over the years, and could almost hear him laugh:
“Alrighty then, Rodney Roundabout. I thought you might have found my brother and trolled his friend list.”
Whoever EZ Riveo was, or had become, he was and still is just good old dark and sardonic X to me. Who looked a lot like Sting.
Do you want to know the mysteries behind EZ Riveo? I’m not even sure I want to know. I guess, as I get reacquainted with X through this marvellous, but infuriating social medium called Facebook, all those questions will eventually be answered. The where, when, what, who and whys of the story, they’ll come, but that said, the journey to those answers is conclusion enough for me.
Now, who’s next on my list? There is one other incomplete block of history for me that has also niggled at me for years, and it involves a certain headstrong, ambitious young girl I took to watch Batman Returns one sunny Saturday afternoon in 1992.
She taught me how to smoke cigarettes, told me her most intimate hopes and dreams, and challenged me to run away with her to become secret agents. All I have left of her are her initials: LBS.
The Beautiful Game: her part in my downfall
*According to strict FIFA copyright guidelines, I am neither authorised nor entitled to use the words: soccer, World, Cup, Brazil, 2014 and ‘Sepp Blatter is a knob’ in any sort of sensible sentence, so in order to avoid any pesky legal difficulty for the good people here at Athena, and lots of confusion for you the reader, I will refer throughout this piece to some or other global sporting event being held in this year, somewhere in South America that involves overpaid cry-babies kicking a round object to each other for 90 minutes, in order to win some sort of chalice.
“If a man watches more than three (sport) games in a row, he should be declared legally dead.”
Erma Bombeck, American humourist
I awoke from a sofa stupor this last Sunday afternoon, wondering where my weekend had gone. It turned out I had zonked out for two whole days – precious time I could’ve spent bonding with my son or making love to my wife – vegged out on the couch doing nothing but ogling the idiot box.
But I had an excuse. It was that four-yearly carnival of sport called the…you know? That one with the ball. By the end of this month, I will have watched over 120 hours of games, numerous highlight packages and endless interviews and discussions, all meticulously analysing every aspect of a game that I would usually pay no attention to in my normal life, but which every detail I now must know and consume, and sprout forth endlessly to anyone who brave enough to listen.
I love the Wor…that thing with the chalice. I have never been a great sport watcher, apart from a thrilling five-day cricket test match – yes, they do exist – and a much-hyped 100m something every other Olympics, but when it comes to the Beautiful Game in its glorious global format, I dedicate myself to the grand pursuit that calls out to all vigorous and loud men the world over: staying up late, eating junk food and shouting at the television. Like Huxley’s soma, I slug it all down, blasted into infinite (plus stoppage time) bliss for a one whole month.
The whole torrid love affair between us began in 1994. That event we were talking about earlier, kicked off in June that year, hosted, almost unbelievably in the USA, not one of the sport’s traditional strongholds. Much excitement surrounded the event, presented with a typically American Hollywood shine and dazzle. All set with the customary ‘lights, camera, action’, it was the first real widely viewed global sporting event of the modern era.
Bizarrely, singer Diana Ross was invited to kick the opening ceremonial ball, and failed infamously in front of 30 million people. She could have done a lot worse than Italy’s Roberto Baggio, an actual professional player, who closed out the tournament a month later with one of worst penalties in the history of everything, to not only help his team look foolish in front of chalice-winners Brazil, but prove to the world that men with rattail ponytails just look silly and can’t kick straight.
The two kicks offered a pair of marvellously ludicrous bookends to a grandiose tournament, marked less by the skill on the field than by the pomp and circumstance with which that much loved-hated non-profit organisation known as FIFA could finally present – with the help of technology and salivating sponsors- the Great Game to the world, and more specifically, the unconverted United States.
The first rule of great salesmanship is learning how to sell ice to Eskimos, and FIFA went one better in 1994. They succeeded in convincing the notoriously fickle American bravado they could actually enjoy a game that involved skinny men prancing around the field like disco-loving Mediterranean rent-boys for 90 minutes, with the distinct possibility of nobody actually scoring.
Even President Bill Clinton came out, to offer his blessing and assure his loyal citizens that “(pre-teen First Daughter) Chelsea just loves the game, y’all.”
Hungry for distinctive local heroes, FIFA primped and titivated an unknown TeamUSA into a veritable ten-man boy band (including a highly-stylised brooding grunger in defender Alexei Lalas, one of my personal favourites of that year). The recipe was a success, and the world and America lapped it up, as did I.
Down in Africa, it felt like we were watching the moon landing. Strange beings in faraway lands, doing weird things with balls in the middle of the night.
Thanks to some really late nights, we all got a crash course in global time zones, and were perplexed even further by the fact that America had three of them. One game started in Chicago at 3 o’clock, and two hours later, another game started in Los Angeles, also at 3’o clock. Were they all like Scott Bakula in Quantum Leap, traveling back in time, leaving all us, the geographically ignorant, going ‘oh, boy’.
But the action on and off the field was just too good and too exciting to let go of. Players were hunted down by gangland hitmen:
(famously, Colombian defender Escobar was killed after scoring an own goal that saw the team exit the competition: the urban legend, growing with the years, pointed to nefarious elements in the Colombian drug trade who lost a bundle betting on the match)
Games were halted to allow for McDonald commercials and the heat of the American summer created a claustrophobic, sweaty battle arena every night, where heroes were made and villains made even larger.
I remember watching a particular game that year, between eternal rivals Ireland and Italy, played in New York City, the original melting pot of the world, in a stadium filled with drunken blue collar staples and randy gangsters. Even watching it on TV, the whole experience felt as if a single misplaced “hey, whayalookingat?’ or a misguided cup of Guinness would’ve blown the whole city off the face of the planet.
“If TV were only an invention to broadcast soccer, it would be justified.”
Roberto Fontanarrosa Argentinean writer and football philosopher
This was the era of the emergence of the passionate spectator. Blindly nationalistic, being there for the team, complete with battle paint, noise-makers and unwavering dedication, and it was all first seen on a global level in 1994. It was pure craziness, and it continues today, so much so, it literally defines the tournament’s success and popularity.
One of my own experiences of this organic juggernaut of passion for the Beautiful Game happened one cold July weekend, during the second stage of the 1994 competition. My friends and I went on some epic birthday bender, across two cities, ten bars and one bottle of expensive tequila, and found ourselves on the seedier side of one of those cities, 2am in the morning, trying to find an open bar to watch the next game beamed in from outer space.
Nothing was open, apart from a small illegal tavern, in the bowels of a rundown hotel, filled with some of the roughest people we had ever seen, swallowing Black Label quarts whole and taking our coffin measurements with their eyes. Tired prostitutes sat in the corner, under the smallest TV in South Africa, tuned rustily to the start of the game.
We sat down gingerly and started to watch, the barkeep eagerly encouraging our patronage and enthusiastically admiring our mutual love for the sport. I don’t remember who was playing whom, what the score was eventually, but it was a cracker of a game, applauded riotously from within this dinky little tavern at four o’clock in the morning. The mood simmered as the game ended, but the delight of the event made us all friends for that short, special time.
The atmosphere of it all reminds me that, despite the whole masterly manipulated reputation of faceless FIFA and their profitable (for some) global sporting event, the sport’s heart still beats on the street, with the ordinary fans, even with those who have never watched a game in their lives: the long-suffering wives who need to hear what the off-side rule is every five minutes, the kids armed with cheap plastic balls, eager to go out and do it themselves, the aunties making cheesy asides like “O, he has nice cheekbones” and “Now, who is this guy again? Do we like him?” and the uncles who get a little upset because it has absolutely nothing to do with the actual game.
And yes, also the average bug-eyed couch potato in 2014, with chip crumbs down his shirt and a sleeping cat on his head, whose goal-scoring screams wake the baby, and who eventually takes out a separate mortgage out on the living room. He, too, is eager to take another great big swig from the Kool-Aid that is the FIFA World Cup of soccer…in Brazil…in 2014…oops.
“You Have To Read This Article Now!! It is Totes Hilar and had a CAT in it!”
These kids today. You give them billions of years of precisely programmed evolution, thousands of carefully constructed civilization, centuries of phenomenally progressive industrial revolution. You offer them Shakespeare sonnets, Hemingway adventures and Foster Wallace footnotes, bestow the most technologically advanced platforms and unlimited abilities upon them, so that they have the freedom to express themselves wherever and in whatever way they desire, in a glorious collection of beautiful languages, lovingly curated by dedicated men and women in dark book-filled rooms, and what do you get?
What does this ultimate culmination of art, science, philosophy and humanity, finally have to say?
Be quiet now, It is about to speak:
“You totes have to see this cat, it is so hilar.”
Welcome to the buzz-fed generation, where words have become little sliced and diced pieces of California roll, bite-sized slices of fluffy stupidity, that have less meaning than they do flavour. Grammatically offensive three-minute punk rock songs designed to make us jump up and down with a needless sense of urgency and hyperventilate in manufactured self-importance.
I believe in words, in their singular power. Their power to enchant and entrance, absorbing my very being: each letter building small miniature word castles, in turn, creating cities of sentences, paragraphs of planets, universes of thoughts and ideas. They make me think, they make me question. They make me laugh, they make cry.
Like gangly, sad puppies tied to dead trees, abused and deformed words make me cry the most. None more so than the average headline from so-called “pop culture” websites. You may have seen these. Here’s the worst one I could find in a hurry, from the thousands out there, smugly smogging up the atmosphere:
“This GIF of a cat changing the oil on a ’78 Camaro is totes hilar, you have to see it now.”
This one sentence sums up everything that is wrong with the internet, the salacious little pop culture fishermen that write these kinds of things, and indeed, the very sad state of language today.
Cats, cats, cats everywhere!
I won’t even mention the whole cat thing, other than to ask: you do know the cats are all lulling us, with their blasé act of just sitting there and looking bored, into a false sense of security before they finally conquer earth and begin torturing humans with pieces of unobtainable string? You have been warned, stop encouraging them and allowing them to communicate with each other through the internet.
Out damned GIFS, out, I say.
A full scrutiny of GIFs – those vacuous vignettes of internet animation that seem clever but are really just clever ways for internet journalists to get out actually writing something – will demand much more of my space allowed here. But I will let you all in on a secret: GIFs eat up a lot of internet data usage – on average a megabyte per GIF. So, beware, that little continuous loop of Jon Hamm suavely lighting a cigarette will ultimately cost you a lot more than actually Pirate-Baying the whole series of Mad Men.
The sentence, or little psychological ransom note as I like to call it, “…you have to see it now,” is the slimy corner drug dealer in the whole affair. He’s the guy, filled with anxious ticks and shifty looks, urging you on: “go on, mate, it’ll change your life, just one click, you can thank me later.”
“You must do it, or all will be lost.”
It is, at least, a well mannered, grammatically correct sentence – sometimes wearing an exclamation point or two, making him look a little like Huggy Bear in Starsky & Hutch, but for the most part, a fairly dependable axiom, despite a case of the DTs. At least it can spell.
This brings me to the most glaringly infuriating ingredient of typical internet stupidity: the purposely misspelled and abbreviated word.
“Totes hilar.” (“fragment” my trusty spell-check warns, “consider revising”, without a hint of irony. If you only knew my pain, humble all-understanding checker of spelling.)
“Totes hilar,” I have to type it again just to make sure it actually exists.
Pardon me, madam, did you just have a stroke? Are you not from around here, or are you just drunk?
“Woo-hoo” screams this supposed phrase, “I’m 2 kool 4 skool, babee. I have suck gr8 time, hangin’ wit mi frens, fuking up da ingleash langwich dat I just don’t hav no tym 2 B …”
A completely sensible word? So the latter, then?
These things of horror, combined, are called clickbaiters, little profane pickpockets of good taste and normalcy. They are specifically designed to waste your time, sell you car insurance and make you completely forget what a book looks like.
They usually involve cats, Kardashians or devious ways of revealing Game Of Thrones spoilers. They’re ‘written’ by armies of out-of-work baristas or impoverished young adult fiction writers, scattered across the globe. These scribblings that fertilise the internet are destroyers of worlds, annihilators of language and party-poopers for the rest of us who love and cherish words, and like to string more than a few sensible ones together into wondrously overlong sentences that never seem to entirely come to a full…
The Twitter Curse
As you might have noticed, I am neither a fan nor a competent practitioner of brevity. I prefer the long way round, the scenic route. Picking a word there, smelling a turn of phrase here, going “oh look, a lesser-spotted simile mating with an alliterated pun.”
Put me in under a tree with a thesaurus and James Joyce for an afternoon and you won’t hear another peep out of me well into the weekend, depending on how much scotch Joyce brings.
My simple philosophy is that we have all these words, why don’t we just damn well use them.
But sometimes even I, intent on being on affable hand-slapping terms with the hip and happening kids of today, must do battle with that grand digital sub-editor that is the internet.
No example of me hesitantly embracing succinctness and the entire laissez-faire devil-may-care anything-goes style of the modern internet age is more apt than my own Twitter profile.
I hashtag and @ with the best of them, misspell and ‘da’ like a third-rate hip hop rapper, I drop my vowels all over the place, I even stopped using full stops, and for the most part I get my message across. I sound like a lisping imbecile, but the world at least gets to hear what I have to say.
Though, I still struggle daily with the guilt of it all, to the point where my botched backstreet surgery of a tweet about some stirring commentary on society – for example: “I went 2 da kemist 2day”- is a constant cause for embarrassment for me. It will keep me up nights, fidgeting with derisive pillows, fighting duvet humiliation:
“2 da? Good gods, man, are you stupid?” mock the pillows.
“2day? Kemist? Someone needs another dictionary for Christmas, it seems,” laughs the duvet with my favourite teddy bear Ulysses.
Their chorus chanting, “You are really quite stupid. You are not really contributing to society; you are actually single-handedly turning the world into one giant Prince song title.”
I eventually sneak out, under cover of darkness, to quickly run a spell-check comb through it all, no one none the better, and I manage to get a full night’s sleep.
Using just 140 characters sometimes is difficult. I feel I should demand access to a cast of thousands, to let the world how I feel, or what I am eating right now or what adventures I went on today.
But like the little bird right there on the box, the best I can do is to just go ‘tweet’.
the good people at The Onion have also noticed this new growing towards the vacuous click-baiting trend of online media, and have reacted accordingly.
Possibly one of the genuinely funny news websites in the world right now – apart from The Onion itself.
Happy Birthday to Me: a Eulogy for Yet Another Year
Someone important, somewhere said, in a book or something, “there comes a point in your life when the singing of Happy Birthday to the candles on your birthday cake suddenly turns into the slow burning of waxy daggers staked right through the center of your old, diseased heart, melting away your very essence, drop by agonizing drop, all the while, every person you’ve ever wronged recalls every lie you’ve ever told and recounts every cent you’ve ever wasted.”
Actually, I’ll admit, I just made that all up. It’s my birthday this week, and I get to make stuff up all week – it’s right there in the birthday handbook – and then put it all into really long sentences that violate all laws of common sense, and make it sound like a Edgar Allan Poe story.
I also get to be embittered, enraged even, against the advancing armies of age. I get free reign to mope around the house, kick the dog, write strongly-worded letters to several pinko newspaper editors who have no idea what they talking about, and complain about the weather (only slightly more than on non-birthday weeks).
I get to sit in a dark corner all week long, miserably strumming my out-of tune three-string guitar, first with an A-minor (the sad chord) followed by the E-minor-phrygian with diminished 5th (the angry chord), and then another A-minor, only slower and more tortured, followed by another feisty phrygian, this time faster and angrier, until my wife yells across the house, telling me my order of the world’s smallest violin has arrived, and I had better start growing up and get a fire started for that well-worn South African institution: the Birthday Braai.
He’s in Parties
As if the slow charring of unnecessarily butchered meat is going to make me feel any better, now I have to entertain large numbers of my closest friends and family with self-inflated tales of my adventures in advertising, half-baked political opinion and half-remembered sport scores, when all I really want to do is have a quiet lie-down and try not to remember the exact number of men who have heart attacks before age 40.
Predictably, we will all sit around discussing how young I look for my age, cracking jokes about how one day I will die, and that today, this gathering of well-intentioned celebration, is just one more confirmation of this fact.
Inevitably, there will be a cake presented amidst much fanfare, topped with those unavoidable blazing death sticks of my ever-dwindling time on earth, specifically designed to teach me how to use my lungs.
I have never really understood this part myself: constantly being reminded to blow the damn things out.
“Go on, blow them out, boy,” we’re told from Year One.
“Why? What for? What if I just let them all burn down to the bottom of the cake, and maybe, I don’t know, BURN THIS WHOLE FRIKKEN POPCICLE STAND TO THE GROUND?!
Why do I not have this option, as opposed to the one that involves me just unloading a bunch of spit and halitosis on this confectionery item that y’all about to eat?
Sadly this kind of freewheeling individuality is discouraged from an early age, often distracted with the presentation of gifts. All just for you. For me? Oh, you shouldn’t have. Five minutes later, you realise, yes, they shouldn’t have.
Gifts are the gods’ way of giving you orgasms with your clothes on. And as any modern woman will tell you, sometimes you get them, sometimes you don’t. “Oh well, better luck next year, darling,” leaves you sitting there with a plastered-on smile and a floppy pair of socks in your hand, wondering what you did wrong. A PlayStation. Now that would get me swinging from the chandeliers.
The only great gifts are the ones people who conveniently forget to come to your parties get you. I know this because I was a serial one of those as a child.
“Mom, Johnny’s party’s tomorrow, can we get him the fully-integrated, electronically powered Grey Skull Castle with matching real laser-firing turrets?”
Tomorrow, inevitably: “time for the party.”
“Oh, sorry, mom, there was an incident. Johnny’s mom caught him going trying on his sister’s panties. Party’s cancelled. Pew! Pew! By the power of Grey Skull…” and so on and so on.
The Winter of my Disapproval
I think the whole difficulty with my birthday is that it happens in July, the dead center of the African winter, when the grass looks like regurgitated sandpaper, the wind has a whooshing chill of disapproval, and every thing just feels like …an incomplete sentence.
The problem with trying to enjoy your birthday during winter, lies in the wearing of its clothes: jerseys, scarves, funny-coloured woollen hats and overpriced jackets, there is no end to the amount of accessorizing that comes with sitting through the winter months – quite literally sitting, unable to move, with half of last year’s Woolies Wacky Winter Wipe-Out Sale breaking your back.
I spend most of my winters putting on clothes, and longing for summers when I can once again wander around the house or the neighbourhood, almost exclusively in boxer shorts and flip-flops.
And why not? Birthdays are but a celebration of the anniversary of your first peek into this crazy world, more often than not, buck-naked and loving it. Why not commemorate that first tangible tinge of terra nova on your tender pelt with a frolic around the garden in your bare essentials. ‘Naked as the day you were born’ is not a much-bandied idiom just because it looks pretty.
My lucky wife’s birthday is in December and she gets to skinny-dip all day, glass of endless wine in one hand and satisfied smile on her face, confident in the knowledge that her special day will always be sunny side up, perhaps cloudy with a chance of sunburnt nipples towards the late afternoon, but by then she’s had enough wine to laugh it all off with unqualified “Greatest Birthday Ever”. I tried a birthday skinny-dip once; the only ones laughing that chilled July morning were my neighbours.
Birthdays, and their ensuing parties, for the most part, dwindle in appeal as you get older. Those candles might get brighter, but the aftermath is very dark.
Once the party is done, when your friends have buggered off to do more fun things without you, there will much cleaning up to do, dishes to clean, and once again, many sincere apologies for the neighbours.
“Yes, that would be my swingball set on your roof, Mr. Mitchell, I’ll come by in the morning to pick it up when I wake up my friend sleeping in your rose garden…oh, you mean right now?”
When the party’s over, that old song sings, there’ll just be you and me. I’ll rinse and you dry. Is it worth it, all that fun, all those games? Could I have not served my head and liver better by just spending the day in some dark hole, away from the jolly jaunt, down the driveway of my life, of creeping age; his friends death, senility and the one with the box of wine called cirrhosis?
As I begin work on my Foxhole For Forty, a mere two years away, I need to rethink my attitude to birthdays. I need to realise age and birthdays are going to be just fine; it will be a little scary but mostly harmless, sad but very entertaining, sort of like seeing adults wearing winter onesies, or listening to Julius Malema – South Africa’s most famous onesie-wearer- it all just needs to keep me smiling and shaking my head in disbelief, all at the same time.
Happy birthday to me, I belong in a zoo.
The Great Intangible:
On Lego, Vonnegut and the lost art of touching things.
The other morning I awoke off a callous couch with a jolt, a half-empty jar of Nutella in one hand and in the other, an almost indecipherable communiqué magic-markered across page 56 of my copy of Slaughterhouse Five:
“We will never ever, EVER! touch art again”, it slurred.
Beguiled but puzzled, I churned another glob of Nutella off a dirty salad ladle into my mouth, and attempted to decode this anomalous phrase. At first I wasn’t too sure Kurt Vonnegut had much to do with it, although for half a moment, I could imagine his spirit exiting the dusty library of the netherworld, and possessing my stupor, taking my sugar-driven hand to heed some enigmatic warning to the world.
Listen: my son and I recently enjoyed that new movie inspired by a famous brand of toys – Lego. People with children will recognise this particular phase of the parent/child dynamic, it comes somewhere in between goo-goo, ga-ga, dinosaurs and “I hate you, give me the car keys.”
My son and I are well into the cult of the block: we’ve got the games, the actual blocks themselves and of course the movie. We’ve had a fair run with the blocks so far; building passable wheeled contraptions and top-heavy aircraft that would make even Howard Hughes balk. We dismembered their famous men, replaced heads with till registers and attached doors to disembodied legs to create beautiful absurdities and other crimes against nature worthy of Dali.
But every cooling off period with Lego begins more often than not, with someone – inevitably me – taking a midnight barefoot trip to the kitchen across the sitting room floor, mined with the most murderous mini-monoliths known to the human race.
Soon enough these Legos are packed away on the highest shelf in the house until the child is a little older and learns to pick up after himself, or at least, until some marketing genius decides to make a movie based around the damn things, and suddenly Legos are cool again, taken down off the highest shelf in the house and once again ending up in the strangest places; like in your shoes, down the couch, down your bum, up your nose: everywhere and anywhere, Legos, by design, fit any space.
But first we have to watch the movie, dad.
Not too sure if I was watching the world’s longest toy commercial, some bizarre existential post-modern art installation or some highly sophisticated political propaganda film.
The plot itself is remarkably cohesive for children’s movie, if a bit erratic, and fairly easy to grasp for 4-year-olds and 40-somethings alike. The film is clever, irreverent and works really well as either some kind of Randian parable or be-yourself-and-be-cool-to-each-other analogy – depending on which side of the schoolyard Rubicon you stand.
It has a catchy song; Batman shows up in the middle of the movie for no reason at all and it has a grand poignant finale with a wholesome message, before everyone breaks into another chorus of that diabolically catchy song. It stands up remarkably well compared to, say, the average Lady Gaga song or episode of Glee or whatever other current pop culture touchstone is injecting our kids full of self-esteem these days.
Above all, it is a great family event, enjoyed by all and bringing families closer together. It lit up my boy’s eyes with wonder and fascination, inspiring him to search for a greater knowledge of how the basic principles of symmetrical construction work in real life.
“Sure, son” I smile proudly as I head to the highest shelf in the house, “I think you’re now old enough to handle these again.”
“No, dad, I want to play the game.”
The family electronic tablet – it’s an iPad-adjacent really, kind of like Nickelback is Led Zeppelin-adjacent – is everyone’s favourite thing at the moment, not only because it makes us all look like we’re on Star Trek, but because it can do so much stuff on it.
Mom pins things of interest in a giant digital scrapbook, dad looks at the latest trends in bikini fashion and the boy likes to play games on it. Apparently you can use it for actual useful things, too, but we’re still stuck on knitted Rasta-coloured tea cosies, Kate Upton and Need For Speed.
“I want to build blocks on the ‘pooter,” he tells me. And I let him, for no other reason than I’m too speechless with confusion to argue otherwise. And there he sits, like some deft urchin at the controls of the Death Star, playing a game that involves connecting blocks of varying sizes and colours together to make some kind of stylistically pleasing structure. All by moving fingers across a screen.
The only difference between this and the actual blocks I still rattle in the box with absentminded incredulity is that at the completion of the computerised construction, it squeaks or honks or unveils some sort of universal truth, along with various remarkable rewards.
Retiring to my solace later that evening, with a spoonful of the brown stuff, I still reel with the astonishment of it all: of how far we’ve come in the world, in our evolution, where we can do everything we’ve ever wanted with a computer, but also: of how far away we’ve drifted from the conventional idea of reality.
We don’t touch things anymore. Things like music, film, books, art and almost everything in our every day have become the great intangibles. We listen to music, yet we never feel it. We see moving images on screen, yet we never enjoy the process we used to get to that point. We read, yet we never count the pages nor remember the words.
Music used to be an event, an unwrapping of a vinyl record, the opening of a CD case; the placing of it on and in a player; the unfolding of the words and images of its cover – an art in itself – the reading of it like some undiscovered scroll of knowledge, filled with poetry and identity. Those days are gone. Now all you have to do is punch it into YouTube or iTunes and you have it instantly. No unearthing, no excitement of holding something that is yours and yours alone. Now you share it with millions, it drops out of a chute like a convenient capsule of immediate gratification.
Film was an occasion, too – in the real sense of the word. You had to go out if you wanted to see the latest blockbuster, you had to dress up and drink shitty fake-Coke and buy overpriced chocolate for a girl who might end up letting you put your arm around her, but probably didn’t.
Now, again, all you have to do is point and click and you have it. There is no romance left in a Netflick nor does popcorn taste quite the same if you have to clean it out your own couch.
Books, the final bastion of great tangible art – clucked labouriously and industrially by writers of yore onto magnificent lever-driven typewriters or smudged in ink, sweat and tears onto every conceivable surface, and delivered to your fingers in great wedges of enlightenment and dog-eared, spine-cracked knowledge – they, too, now have slimmed down to a single slab that you page by swipe to the sound of a manufactured soundbyte of “a turning page”.
Don’t ask me how Kurt Vonnegut ended up in all of this. I think while rolling all of this around my head, I had to pick up something real just to make myself sure that I was still here and I didn’t turn into an app or something.
And inevitably, in my house anyway, a book is always close by, and you don’t get more real than Slaughterhouse Five – one of my favourite books, not because it has aliens and time travel (those great intangible traditions of modern storytelling) – but because – like its hero Billy Pilgrim – a man tossing and turning in between the bed sheets of time and place – experiencing the book, you slowly begin to realise that you’re hurtling so fast through these rapidly changing times, you try so desperately to attach yourself to something real and tangible, just so that world won’t let go of you.
Reading through random lines of the book, I realised what Uncle Kurt was trying to explain to us all (and he does it not so much in his narrative, than with his wordplay): we lose a little of what we are, the faster we evolve. Our senses start to fade the faster we travel, and these senses are, no matter how the world changes, still the only connection we have with the world we live in.
They say the mind is the grand central station of the senses, and for the most part it really is that final destination where all our other senses revert back to and bounce back from again.
But touch is the soul of sense, of being. Corporeal interaction is what amplifies the sight, sound, smell of who we are and what we do. It’s no wonder the blind read with their fingers, the deaf feel vibration; touch enhances everything.
Building blocks with your hands is a lot different than sliding a finger over a virtual element, sliding it into place to a rhythm of an electronic click.
Listening to music without touching its closest point of creation – the groove of a record, the flap of a liner note – is not the same as simply plugging into instant access.
A movie isn’t a movie until you take your seat, and even more vital, a book is not a book and words are not words if you can’t feel yourself turning the page.
Living in a world without touch is like watching alien beings in a glass zoo.
Billy Pilgrim taught me that.
Eventually, my son tired from sliding the blocks across a screen and wondered to himself if the box on the highest shelf in the house might promise more satisfaction…and it did.
The jagged monstrosities of real Lego could never compare to the perfect, pre-destined, game-theorised world behind the glass screen, but he felt with his fingers, and jimmy-rigged any challenge that got in his way with his hands. He improvised and experimented, improved and experienced, because he could touch.
Some great jazz musician once said that improvisation was the greatest freedom anyone could experience in anything from changing your underwear to composing a symphony. And it all starts with a touch.
*All writings are original work by CD Anderson – copyright, all rights reserved, blahblahblah. (2014)
*Originally published on the Athena website, reposted here with kind permission.
*For questions, queries and sandwich recipes, please contact the writer.