Posts Tagged ‘West Vancouver’

My late friend Paul Edwin Zimmer used to insist that poetry was supposed to be heard. He proved it many times, booming out his verse at bardic circles around the Bay Area and science fiction conventions across North America. His position was a welcome reminder, but I had learned its truth while I was in university during a single magical day.

At the time, I was serious about poetry, writing and publishing regularly, and theorizing about metrics in the little time left over from my academic classes. I was skeptical about the poetic establishment (as any young poet should be), and sure I was going to shake it up (and never be one of those academic poets who taught for a living). When my friend Stuart announced a garden party during which his new poem, a Georgian pastoral, would be read, I quickly took on the voice of the Young Man in the poem.

The day of the reading was one of those hard, bright days that the Lower Mainland sometimes gets in summer. The setting was the garden of Stuart’s parents, which softened the harshness of the day with a mixture of strategic shade and explosions of flowers. Among the guests were Stuart’s girlfriend of the moment and her younger sister of sixteen, as well as my high school English teacher, who lived a few houses down.

I was proud to be taking part and doing my bit to take poetry out of the class room. Aided by a few glasses of wine, I read my part in increasingly rolling tones, like an out of control Laurence Olivier without the talent, intoxicated more by my own self-importance than the alcohol. As always happens when I start reciting poetry, I felt myself taken over by the poetry, and I floated through the rest of the party with a lingering sense of excitement.

But that wasn’t all. When Stuart drove his girlfriend and her sister to catch the ferry to Nanaimo, I went with them. Since we had missed one ferry, we stopped at West Vancouver’s miniature Parthenon.

The place was some millionaire’s folly, with a small temple built on a headland and some credible copies of Classical Greek statues. People used to stop at the first rest stop after the ferry to look down on it and take photos of it with their telephoto lenses and to marvel of the incongruity of the place in the middle of the rain forest.

It’s long gone now, divided into subdivisions after the owner’s death. In fact, it was being dismantled when we visited, the statues hauled from their plinths and a couple of the temple’s columns blackened by fire. Yet, in a way, the ruined splendor added to the attraction. We slipped past the No Trespassing signs in the growing dark, and were soon standing on the plinths, reciting bits of Stuart’s poem, our words booming off the cliffs that ringed the temple on most of its landward side.

For a while, I worried that the sound would bring the police down on us, especially since we were waving bottles of beer and hard cider as we declaimed. I was worrying, too, about how I might get the sister’s phone number before she boarded the ferry. But the sound of our voices was so impressive that I soon forgot such considerations.

Suddenly, the ruins and rocky cliffs reminded me of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” I began reciting it by heart, the sound of my voice much improved by the echoes off the cliffs. I remember experimenting with various pitches, completely overwhelmed by the magnificence of the words rolling through the air around me.

It must have been almost as impressive to the others as it was to me, because when I was done, everyone was silent for a moment, and began praising my delivery. Even I recognized that nothing could follow Coleridge’s masterpiece, and that it was clearly time to go.

I don’t remember dropping off the women, or returning to my parent’s house an hour or so later. But I do remember enthusing to Stuart about the importance of hearing poetry, and turning off the light that night, still glowing from the glory of the sound in the temple. That, I decided, was how poetry should be heard, and I fell asleep full of plans to save the place as a park so that others could enjoy what I had. It was only next morning that I realized I had forgot to get the sister’s phone number, and, even then, I was still so light-headed from the experience that I only minded a little.

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Every Christmas, after the turkey and stuffing and yams and mashed potatoes and trifle, the other members of my surviving family settle down for a nap. While they are snoring, I go for a walk or a run. By then, the restlessness that comes when I don’t exercise is stealing over me. Besides, I don’t get to my native West Vancouver very often, so the exercise is a chance to see what has changed in the neighborhood where I grew up.

Superficially, very little has changed over the years. True, the distances seem shorter than I remember, and the streets seem slightly shabbier, no doubt thanks to the small size of contemporary budgets for infrastructure. But the traffic is as light as ever and the trees as many, and overall, the reality syncs with my memory of a quiet suburb of moderate privilege.

The main difference is in the houses. Real estate prices being what they are, the middle class bungalows that I remember from my teen years are being steadily replaced by monster houses built as high and as close to the edges of the lots as the bylaws allow. Also, places that once seemed not worth building on are now subdivisions – never mind that they are so close to creeks that the basements are rumored to have their own pumping system. No doubt owners call these changes maximizing their investment, but to me these monster houses always seem a decline in aesthetics, especially when they pop up in unlikely places.

Every year since I moved away from my parents’ house, I half-hope that I’ll see someone I knew at school. The possibility isn’t completely unlikely; a surprising number of classmates never left the municipality, and others, like me, have family ties that might take them back on Christmas Day.

But I never have seen anyone I know, not once in all these years, although I peer hopefully at everyone I see walking or jogging, and often pass by the track at my old high school, where some of the people with whom I used to run might be expected.
Instead, as I pass by familiar scenes, I remember.

That house used to belong to a fellow athlete who, the last I heard, had been living where he grew up to take care of his mother. She’s supposed to be dead now, but I wonder if he is still living there. I heard Eighties rock from the sidewalk and wonder if he is spending Christmas alone, but somehow I don’t have the courage or the inclination to knock.

I look up at the house where a girl I once knew grew up. We never dated – we just exchanged sympathies on the miserable states of our separate (mostly theoretical) love lives – but I wouldn’t mind seeing her again. Too bad her family moved away years ago.
I pass the house where four of us used to gather for blackjack and board games when I was in grade eleven. I wonder if my former friend still has family there, but I see a basketball hoop and a hockey net, signs of teenagers, and judge it unlikely.

Cutting through a park, I glance on the bridge on the house where a boy I thought obnoxious once lived. Then I remember that at the reunion three years ago the boy had grown into an equally obnoxious man, and increase my pace, as if thinking about him might make him reappear.
Now heading home, I consider passing by the house where a girl lived who was once the object of my unrequited crush. But I tell myself that would be indulgent, to say nothing of several blocks out of my way, so I continue on my planned path.

Nearing my old elementary school, I look up at the house where yet another crush lived. After the last reunion, we emailed each other a few times, but we haven’t had any contact in months, and aren’t likely to in the future.

A few houses further on, another crush used to live. At the reunion, she had seemed prematurely aged and bitter, and somehow I hadn’t had the heart to talk to her. I wonder what her story is, and part of me is glad to realize that I’ll probably never know.

By now, the sunset is near, and what little heat remains is being leeched with the light from the air. I ask myself what I am doing, growing melancholy over people who probably haven’t thought of me in years. I am no better, I tell myself, than the ex-friend who phoned us on Christmas Eve, full of news of other ex-friends in whom I have only a passing interest.

If anything, I am worse, because I have no reason to suddenly feel lonesome. I hurry through the school grounds and back to my parents’ house, my exercise in sustained nostalgia over for another year, and no more successful than it has been in the past.

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When I was four, going to the kindergarten two blocks from home seemed an enormous expansion of my horizons. Even then, I had a vision of my horizons becoming vaster as I grew up – a vision that I still have, although now I wonder if a time will come when they contract as I grow old and infirm. But the largest single expansion of my horizons was when I moved away from the neighborhood in which I grew up and finally discovered the rest of greater Vancouver.

I grew up in West Vancouver, a suburban community on the other side of the inlet from Vancouver. Physically, my parents’ house is less than half an hour from the intersection of Georgia and Granville, one of the main intersections in downtown Vancouver, but, psychologically, it might as well have been several days away.

Perhaps the intervening water had something to do with this attitude, or perhaps my family was unusual. But, as a child, I had no other point of comparison. All I knew was that West Vancouver was mostly self-contained. My family might venture occasionally into next door North Vancouver, but a trip to Vancouver was a major event because of its rarity. As for remoter cities, like Richmond and Surrey, they were visited only when passing through on the way to the border or the interior. When a girl moved from Surrey the summer before I entered Grade 8, she might as well have come from one of the moons of Pluto, her origin seemed so remote to me.

Having a bicycle and a sense of adventure, by Grade 5, I had started to expand my horizons on my own (although, hobbit-like, I always took care to be home for dinner). I started by exploring West Vancouver, but in a couple of years, I was riding with my friends over to Stanley Park, or even downtown. A few times, I even rode out to the University of British Columbia and back.

But somehow, my horizons never expanded further. Eric Hamber Secondary at 41st and Oak, where I trained once a week with the Vancouver Olympic Club, seemed impossibly far. And when, in high school, my soccer team went out to Vancouver Technical School near Broadway and Renfrew, I was frankly lost; it looked like a tough part of town where I would be instantly mugged for the middle class kid that I was if I strayed too far from the rest of the team.

True liberation from my psychological restrictions didn’t happen until I started commuting to Simon Fraser University when I was eighteen. Catching the Hastings Express downtown and transferring at the Kootenay Loop for the final trip up Burnaby Mountain to the university, I was fascinated by the street scenes and people I saw. Once or twice, when a ride let me off at Main and Hastings, I was apprehensive, but mostly my chief fear came from my uncertainty about just how to get to the familiar downtown area around The Bay (these were less brutal times, and the population of the downtown east side was smaller and considerably less desperate than now).

Leaving my parents’ home accelerated my growing sense of geography, and, by the time I was 21, I was familiar with much of greater Vancouver, and had lived in several parts of it. Gradually, I realized that I grew up isolated by privilege (or semi-privilege, my family being middle class in a primarily upper middle class municipality), with assumptions about personal safety and other people that weren’t nearly as universal as I thought.

This challenge to my assumptions often dimly disturbed me, but I never really doubted that it had to be faced if I were to become an adult. I still believe that, which is why I was surprised when I went to a high school reunion three years ago, how many of those with whom I went to school had never moved out of West Vancouver. I had had a contented enough childhood there, but I wasn’t a child, and I had long ago moved on, as they apparently never had.

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