How to be a Human

“We’ve never been drunk together. Isn’t that weird, that we’ve been friends for this long and we’ve never been drunk together?”

“There was that one time–or, you weren’t drunk that time, were you?”

“No, I wasn’t. You got dangerous, that time. You were up to some–”

“That’s true. It was a close call. Did you know that I saw her on the streetcar last year? She was being verbally assaulted by a homeless man, and it was during the assault that I realised that I knew her.”

“Did you talk?”

“We talked for a couple of stops. I think I showed her my wedding ring.”

“What’s her name again?”

“I don’t know, I couldn’t remember it.”

“Maybe it’s not so strange that we haven’t been drunk together. It doesn’t seem like you use alcohol for that reason.”

“For what reason?”

“To get outside yourself. It seems like you’d rather go in a forest or write or something.”

“That’s true…” Later, A. tells me he will cover for me and let me sleep on his couch. But I am firm and I don’t want to do it. So we go outside to my bicycle and laugh as a man on Augusta St. quacks to his friends like a duck.

On the other side of me, G. is drinking a “Wit”.

“This wheat beer tastes like shit.”

“Wheat beer? Oh, you’re drinking a ‘Wit’.”

“It’s pronounced ‘Weet’.”

“I did not know that.”


From “Mendelson’s Robot Maintenance”:

“In the absence of more acceptable fuel, a medium-sized robot can be fed an equivalent of up to two-thousand kilojoules of leftover human food a day, ground up and mixed with an equal amount of water to form an easily ‘digestible’ slurry. Care must be taken to weigh out the fuel carefully, and not to trust to manufacturer’s serving sizes. Every kilojoule over the two-thousand kilojoule limit will build up in oily deposits around the robot’s motor servos. While a certain amount of this oily discharge is unavoidable, the consequences of inexact measurement can be significant. For example, twenty years of 90 extra kilojoules a day, or roughly one extra slice of bread, can equal over twenty pounds of oily discharge, greatly hampering your robot’s movement and potentially threatening its more vital internal mechanisms.”


Standing between the two of them, I don’t know how to act. To me the two men are opposite poles. Warm and cold. It seems impossible that they can exist on the same spectrum, or that they could both find things in common with me. When the two men are together, one devours the other, and then the devoured devours the other one. And I see by this how they are different, and I see how two strong personalities define themselves in relation to the other.

Who am I in between them?


“It can seem odd to expose your robot to the unnecessary danger of hugs, horseplay, and games. But the archaic ceremony of friendship–between robots, humans, and animals–is a necessary mechanism. Without a certain amount of daily concessions, a robot can start to think itself master over everything, and so become a potentially volatile housemate.

“If a robot is not humbled daily, you will soon find that it is unwilling to join in any sort of activity that asks of it anything more than its newfound sense of self-containment allows. At the lowest end of the spectrum, it becomes taciturn and stubborn. At the highest end, the robot is in danger of exiling itself, or even of becoming a potential usurper. Small children and animals are particularly vulnerable in this arrangement, especially if you are too dominant an owner for the robot to consider your overthrow in its violent revolution.”


So rarely do I think of myself as a person that could be perceived as being “gruff”. In my head, the internal mechanisms that lead to exterior gruffness are instead evidence of a lack of good breeding, or of a clouding-mind fog that forms socially and causes blindness to the true, right actions that I must perform.

Walking out from the gym, on a Thursday, my face is pink and heaving. There is a sharp line beneath my high cheeks–the knife-line of a Vladimir or a Viking. Because my nose is stuffed up, my mouth is open, breathing regular and deep, my teeth showing. I am wearing a leather jacket. I notice, as I walk down the hallway, that the men I pass are deferring to me. In the mirror I am shocked by the violent monster heaving and blowing black clouds of dragon-smoke out of his mouth.

I felt satisfied and confident, but not violent; the image in the mirror is disconcerting. What is this blindness to the effects of my long inhabited body?

“I don’t understand why people say marriage is hard because you have to make compromises. Well, yeah. You have to make compromises in every personal relationship! There isn’t anything about marriage that is particularly prone to compromise.”

So says Lisa, my wife.


“Due to a defect in their primary code, occasionally two robots will fall in love. Do not under any circumstances allow this to happen. The two robots will, over the span of their short courtship, take each other apart piece by piece, sometimes until there is nothing left but the CPU casings and a single servo arm between them.

“This can be particularly devastating if you are the unhappy owner of the more expensive of the two models, as sometimes the robots will reassemble each other, caring little for who originally wore which parts. Many an unscrupulous person has carried off titanium serving arms, or emerald oculars, by coaching his robot to fall in love with unattended robots.

“If a group of six or seven robots fall in love, and your robot is one of them, there is little chance of ever tracking down the new owner of that heirloom vacuum-tube attachment.”


Right now we are all at karaoke. What would it take for me to go up and sing? A pint of vodka in a clear glass? Vodka, its lack of opacity, is fetishized because as a young man (I am still a young man) I read Tolstoy, and in his novels and short novels, vodka is only drunk by the glassful.

I have had five drinks in all tonight and I can feel parts of my brain turning over from the alcohol. The Inebriated Stranger has my idea, he goes up to the front and he is horrible, an awful singer slurring his words, but he has done it.

Sitting at the table in front of us, Lilah, in her blue dress, with white hair and her sixties glasses, sits and reads the song listings with a light-up magnifying glass. She is patient, nursing a beer, eating french fries layered with curd and brown grease. Later she will get from her table, go up to the stage at the front, and sing.

This Conquered Lake

A perverted intelligence. In the car, the voice picks and extracts (*) and arranges them in a violent and suggestive quilt. “What isn’t true, is true; what isn’t wrong, is wrong; you are wrong, everything you say is wrong.” It’s all delivered in that gruff voice of his, the one that isn’t heard in front of his colleagues but makes its appearance, like a bird darting out of a hole, as soon as we get in the car. The change is instant. He has peeled the mask off–and we, for unknown reasons, have become the centre of some storm brewed elsewhere, one we are only caught in, and it is our loose fibres, snagged in his rhetoric–the tail ends of coats, a lost mitten, a single strand of hair–that reveal his probing agenda, his belief that we are (somehow) living off his buck, (somehow) responsible for his uneasiness when we don’t see him often and it’s often that when we do see him he treats us like children.

The dragon only calms down after he’s eaten his dinner, which he ate running one talon through envelope after envelope, interjecting our conversations only to point out this or that item on a bill, something wrong that someone else has to fix, someone like his secretary, who has made us dinner and is always up to no good.

And then “papa” as he’s called, calms down, sitting in front of the television, and comes to us later, all of us, and begs us to take the dogs for a walk, in that cloying manner of his that is almost childlike–his “do something for me, do something for me please, I am helpless to do this without you,”–a ceremony that us older members have learned to see through and ignore, so he doesn’t ask us, or asks it of us anyway, expecting nothing. The one he still has power over goes, as all of us expected he would.

The older dog’s hair is receding from her back, a bleeding and scabbed tonsure. We all love her but when it was time to go back on her medicine she had improved so much that she had gained weight and, even suspecting this, nothing was done about it, so the medicine no longer worked and the wound was allowed to grow and to fester. She shakes for other reasons–her arthritis–but it is hard not to feel sympathy for her when she steps, slow and unsteady, over the cement porch.


I find it uncomfortable when Lisa leads, and I try to lead, and our arms pull each other, and the dance breaks down into nothing. So we experiment and I ask her if I can lead her, and with my arm and my hand on her spine we go up and down, back and forth, and we have fun. When the one song comes on that everyone dances to we dance to that. We dance to the other songs too: the song we think is “Pokerface”, but it isn’t; the fast country song that I kick my legs forward quickly for, as if I was tap-dancing, making Lisa laugh; the first two slow songs that get us reacquainted with each other’s rhythms, and the rhythms of other couples.

“Let’s find a dark corner… and make out.” Behind her grandma, maybe, or underneath a table full of cousin’s crossed-legs and talking about this or that. Of course I’m joking.

She laughs. “You said that four times today.”

The above moment happens in whispers in Lisa’s ear and is captured in a photograph, from a camera on the other side of the table.

Someone starts a conga line.

“I think this was on Jeremy’s list, from the last wedding.”

She laughs again.

We don’t join, but sitting down we watch the conga from the table. I have only seen it insincerely, in the school gym, kids not really trying, four or five at a time, making fun of everything, dissolving after eight kicks, reabsorbing, shrug-shouldered, into the crowd. Here, as it devours the entire dance floor, I am not sure if it is insincere or sincere. I don’t know what a conga line is. Why I am trying to weigh it in my head I don’t know. It is only something that people do. Someone in the middle of the line doesn’t want to put his hands on the layered rolls of the middle-aged woman in front of him, to him the idea may seem indecent, and so he raises his arms alternately and pretends as if he’s shaking maracas. The line moves on.


After the ceremony Lisa put her sunglasses on, with the black and white checks on the sides, and I put on my green and brown toque, with the triangle flaps on either side.

“You two look too worldly.”

“They made that announcement about smoking for me. I was smoking.”

“I was scratching a tattoo into my arm using a shard of glass.”

The wedding is of Jehovah’s Witnesses.


The old building where the dancing is is in the shape of a boat. The windows form into a diagonal prow and during the meal fireworks are set off across the bay, lord knows by who. We turn around and point it out to the head table, I with chicken in my mouth, still chewing, but they look confused and act as if we’re trying to play some kind of indecipherable trick on them until the MC makes an announcement which vindicates us:

“Everyone, if you like you can turn to the windows–there are fireworks going off across the lake.” Some people turn and look, others get out of their seats and press their noses into the cold black windowpanes.


Without my jacket on, just my ornate shirt and tie, I reach into Lisa’s purse and take out my hat. I pull it on and go outside, through the door they’ve opened up into November so that the dancing doesn’t make the place too hot.

Outside it is immediately sane. The music is concentrated into the yellow windows and the wood and cement rigging. A path goes down to the lake. It is empty, and a distance away from the hall, below a concrete cliff, and I wonder if someone is hiding down there ready to come at me with a knife. I go anyway. I think about who this person will be. Will he be happy, in this remote place, to catch someone from Toronto? I only have $25 in my wallet, I could give that up without much remorse. And if they take my bank card I could give them my old pin and it will come to me so readily it will seem convincing.

I step out onto the steel platform the boats slide down over. My shoes are for dancing and they don’t have much traction. I think about the story from the summer. “A promising young boy disappeared at a concert at the docks and the next day was found a ways away floating dead in the water. It was the boy’s first trip alone to Toronto.” Could I be that story? Only my tragedy would occur during my first visit to “Central Ontario’s most enchanting harbour.”


This conquered lake. The sweep of men around its crescent. A dead tree, its white branches. Four black ducks escaping across the water. The lights blinking across the bay.

We are dragons and warriors.

The Elaborate


“You wondered whether I could ever get tired of Hart House. I never could.”

“I just said that. You’re here a lot.”

“I never could.”

Sitting in the sun, the bench in front of medieval bay windows, light tracing delicate stone crosses and joints, the elaborate. One leg each is resting on the wall.

The fellow has his plans, though we are talking about the plans of another. Un-enthusiasm grows in him, and something dies, as it always does when he becomes bored.



“Sure, but

“Anyway. It’s not that big a deal.”

“You don’t think it’s good for them?”

“Nothing is a big deal.”


“Who can say what the world will be like in one, or two years? Who knows where any of us will be?”

“The apocalypse? Listen, I think that’s just–”

“I think about it a lot.”

“I know, I used to too, I was certain that it was coming, I understand, but you know what–”

“You can’t understand. You’re married. Now you can’t go anywhere. You’ve got roots.”

“That’s true, but remember when my beard and hair were long, and I lived in the forest?” Somehow this symbol is so easy. It’s fine work when an experience that was painful can be related in three or four short, pithy sentences.

“The deer came to me every morning–” I say.

“The deer came to you?” Incredulous. They are simple stories, but to him they reek of mysticism. This city dweller sitting next to me doesn’t understand the country.

“They were always in pretty much the same place at the same time every day. Animals have routines. There was a chipmunk who was always on a certain side of this one tree at a certain time of the day, and I talked to him–”

“You talked to him?”

I can tell this is killing him, time to put the knife in.

“Sure, I talked to him, and you know, in all honesty, he was my best friend. I talked to him. We talked.”

He’s laughing now.

“I mean, we didn’t have conversations.”

“That’s too perfect. A chipmunk was your best friend.”

“And I thought about the apocalypse, and I was certain that we would never last another two, another three years, and that when the crash came, we all knew it would, that would be the end of everything, and we’d have to fight to live…”

“I predicted the crash. I have it saved in one of my e-mails.”

“Who didn’t?”

“No, Anxrx, the approximate time, the circumstances…”

“Sure, but–”

“Anyway, let’s not talk about it here. I don’t want to poison this place talking about the apocalypse.”



These days I am fighting the dangerous implications of becoming too theoretical, or of living too much inside of my own mind. But on high days, when it isn’t an effort to speak, I can grasp the two worlds, one in each hand, and, holding the two ends tightly, cup them together like the reflecting poles of magnets.

On the days when I can hold the two forms in opposition, and one doesn’t destroy the other, the abstract thoughts that I am holding in the one hand (the theories) illuminate the images in the other hand (the action). The former, I think, could be useful for rewriting, so long as I don’t get the two ideas confused (writing with rewriting).


Four Types of Borgesian Infinity

-The Suggestion (Don Barthelme’s Paraguay)

-The Implication (The Garden of Forking Paths)

-The Labyrinth (The Writing of the God, The Immortals)

-The Aleph (The Aleph)


Without any grounding in practical life, the spectre finds a home in high philosophy, or gets lost in labyrinths of twisting and senseless thought. For these spectres, it is a great effort to contemplate “a hand” (their own) and reconcile that with its true form (flesh and blood) rather than the endless chain of signifiers between themselves and every object they come across.



Oct 7 09

(Struggling with an idea of fiction that is doomed.) What idea has died in me? Have ideas died in me? Why do I lack the motivation of idea? Do I lack the motivation of idea, or am I only stalling for time?

Oct 8 09

What is it in my isolation that causes me to think those characteristics of strangers that would otherwise be regarded as harmless quirks as grounds for making that person, or persons, my enemy?

(This doesn’t apply to anyone I already know, who, at some point after my knowing them, shed the hateful portion of these qualities in lieu of their charm*–unless I was in a carefree mood when I met them, or something about them caused me to feel carefree, in which case its doubtful I ever harboured any hateful thoughts towards them at all.)


The persistent moodiness of my emotions, my flip-flopping, from one polar opposite to the other, reminds me of Fernando Pessoa, a Portuguese poet whose great prose work, The Book of Disquiet, was assembled from scattered fragments (made with some intention of eventual publication) discovered after his death. Pessoa is something of a prison-poet, and by that I mean that he spent his days as a bookkeeper, in various degrees of contentment, and (from the evidence in The Book of Disquiet, only partially accurate) dedicated his life to reconciling this simple life with the vast avenues of thought and emotion he inhabited as a poet (and to appeasing the depression which definitely haunted him).

My moodiness takes me to Pessoa and from him to the young clerk at Type, an independent bookstore in Toronto, where in April I had brought The Book of Disquiet, picked almost at random from a display, to the counter to be rung up:

“That’s my favourite book. It’s not for reading all at once. You have to keep it by your bed for flipping through,” she said, which meant something to me then, when I knew almost nothing about Pessoa, but means more to me now. It is the most intimate and magnificent thing a stranger has ever said to me.


*There is at least one radical exception to this: an enemy who I was friends with, but whose personal qualities, as I perceived them, were dual: both hateful and charming. Relatively, this moment in the friendship was brief, and since then I have buried all that I thought hateful in her.


Oct 9 09

Yesterday, in my pocket notebook, I briefly talked about how I have become an enemy to strangers–that same day I realised that my tendency to say “I’m sorry” in place of “Thank you” is a symptom of this phenomenon. In all situations, I am, or I perceive myself to be, a junior partner. Not a junior partner exactly, perhaps that isn’t the right word; it’s more that it seems I think all situations are so potentially delicate that to say anything other than “I’m sorry” would be to escalate the situation to unimaginable violence…

Or maybe I’m only afraid of disturbing the pristine raucousness of my mind, because to pierce into it with unprepared-for words, thoughts, and feelings would be to upset the delicate balance of nothingness and routine I have been cultivating in my loneliness. To upset that balance would be to demonstrate the impossibility of rigorous control over one’s self in human society, and maybe it’s this concept that I find troubling.

I’ve always lived alone, in that sense: in a bubble of plastic thought echoed in my fascination with drawing the costume of astronauts, with the visor down, and of people wearing eyeglasses without anything showing in their perfectly white lenses. My life is, in large part, a fantasy; sometimes a grey and lifeless one, sometimes not.


Oct 13 09

After a while (of inaction) I get tired of all formats. In my little notebook, the format is the yellow pages, the maroon cover; in my word processor it is the green text and the black background; on my blog it’s the endless white and the particular way the text is arranged… But all these formats struck me once, and have served me well in the past, so I shouldn’t let my emotions colour and destroy what are, at their bottoms, useful tools… It isn’t all in flash that I should operate, running from one vehicle to another… The problem is that I look at the formats and see memories of “old-writing”, which depresses me because it is dead and it hasn’t gotten me anywhere, even if it was good.

Oct 14 09

I have always been contained. This means that I do not reveal all that I think or am. Today I realised the full extent of the rupture between my opinion of my self and the appearance of my self. My opinion has always been greater, not because of cockiness, but because it refers to a secret self I for the most part keep hidden, or have difficulty expressing, except in rare and brief moments of transcendence (among good friends, in sports, or on the stage) where my appearance of self reveals the secret self my mind is always referring to.


Oct 15 09

“I had a funny thought–” The answer to a hand raised by one of the students in my literary theory class. The hand belongs to a person who seems, on the whole, perfectly agreeable. He is telling a joke in regards to the interpretation of a poem. Today, sitting in this bleak classroom and wondering who I should befriend, I imagine him a candidate, though eventually I decide against him.

Why? It’s nothing personal; in fact, I have a few friends like him. He reminds me of them, and of something that is the “anti-” of me. My reasons for denying his candidacy (and perhaps even my “denial” of his candidacy itself) reveal more about my own opinion of myself, especially in this class, of all classes, where I am the most socially absent.

Here is my denial, as scrawled in the margins of my theory notebook: “Could lumber over to this cheerful fellow, set two black paws in the ground before his chair, dwarf him with my poisonous shadow, and devour him. Make him my friend. / I better not.”