the diary thing 
closed-up porthole - liberty shipWOKE UP WITH A START, and knew I wouldn't get back to sleep for hours. A real nightmare -- all the more disturbing for it's lack of particularly disturbing imagery. No demons or violence or ominous, looming threat of doom; just a story approximating reality by being built of recognizable chunks of my own world.

K. had broken up with me and was getting married. I was, for some reason, invited to the wedding. The first thing I remember is sitting at a table with some friends, eating some soupy mixture of apples and potatoes with a spoon. I was depressed, complaining about the break-up, and my friends were barely sympathetic -- I got the impression they'd heard it all before, too many times. The consensus was that the guy K. was marrying wasn't very nice, but that they wanted me to get on with my life. 

The tone of the conversation -- if the blur of words and images in a dream can be called conversation -- was exasperation. I tried to explain the circumstances by which I'd been invited to the wedding, something to do with keeping up appearances of amicable parting, and trying not to appear too heartbroken, but no one was listening. I sullenly played with the bland chunks in my bowl with my spoon.

The dream was set, as most of my dreams are usually set, in a composite world, in this case combining the second-floor hallway of Our Lady of Victory, my grade school, and an old underground mall, like the one under the Royal York hotel. I remember peering through a classroom window and seeing K., surrounded by boxes and wrapping paper, making a list of wedding gifts with an officious, gray-haired woman I assumed to be her new mother-in-law. She looked sad. I ranged up and down the hallway, running into friends who would edge away from me when I tried to tell them that I though K. had made a mistake. 

The dream ended -- or rather I exited it with a jolt -- when I visited my shirtmaker -- yes, I have a shirtmaker, though I've been too broke to visit him recently -- in a shabby underground storefront, only the shirtmaker was played, in the dream, by Tito, the Venezuelan barber who works the chair next to Aristotelis, my regular barber. He was holding out his hands, palms facing me, and shaking his head while I tried to tell him about K. It was obvious he had taken her side, and wasn't interested in hearing me out. 

I was awake a second later, my heart racing. I fought to control my panic, and saw K. asleep on the bed, under a tangle of covers. I lay down again and took one of her hands, kissing her forearm by the elbow. I lay there for a few minutes and realized that I wasn't going to get back to sleep.

AN ENORMOUS WASP'S NEST has been taking shape outside my window. From where I'm sitting, at my desk in an alcove on the third floor, under a gable on the front of the house, I only have to swivel my head to see the pillowy gray ridges of the bottom of the nest, which has gotten bigger day by day. Thankfully a pair of window screens separates me from the humming mass, and I can sit in my chair and admire the workmanship, while Tado, the kitten, sits on the windowsill, her head rolling around as she tries to follow the exits and entrances of the busy occupants.

I know that wasps build their nests from wood fibre they scrape from fence posts and garages. That would explain the colour and texture, a pulpy gray and whiteiped mound, like dirty cream poured in an untidy spiral. The entrances are rather discreet -- scalloped gaps in the blunt cone that juts out from the eaves, pointing away from my window and out to the street. The shape, and trajectory, of the hive is inherently threatening -- you can imagine enraged swarms pouring out from the hive, roughly aimed by the hive itself.

I can't help but admire this bit of instinctual engineering, and the brutal group-mind that built it. I'm trying to think of what kind of structures mankind built in the long age before politics and military necessity and religion and fashion and style began to influence, then ultimately control the way we built our structures. It's funny, but the only things that come to mind are teepes and wigwams and yurts and thatched huts -- simple and remarkably elegant little domiciles whose shape vaguely echoes that of the wasp's nest outside my window.

  "Dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time, / Why should I strive to set the crooked straight?"
- William Morris
The Earthly Paradise

A dream, a hive, a boat, movies.

funnels - liberty shipA COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO, we were in a cab driving along the lakeshore expressway when I looked out the window to the water and became quite excited, pointing to a big, gray boat tied up by the lakefront park nested at the edge of the water, crowded in by the condo towers and the overhead freeway.

"Look, honey -- it's a Liberty Ship!"

K. was, it has to be said, much less excited than I was. I recognized it right away -- the flying bridge in the centre and the two crane-masts on either side, the high bow and the stripped-down, utilitarian shape. It was hard to mistake for a lakeboat or a military vessel. 

Every year, the organizers at Harbourfront, the city's lakeside park, try to organize a visit from some significant boat. Last year, it was one of our navy's out-of-date submarines. At other times, it might be a tall ship, or a sleek, bristling representative of the U.S. Navy. After reading a couple of books about WW2 convoys, I'd become pretty familiar with the shape of a Liberty Ship, one of the hundreds of merchant vessels built in record time during the war to make up for losses in Allied shipping. Part of my excitement was being able to recognize one of these boats so immediately. I didn't imagine it was an excitement K. would be able to share.

I decided to pay the boat a visit the next day, assuming that the gangplank with the banner -- "Liberty Ship John W. Brown" -- meant that visitors were welcome. K., alas, would be at work.

The John W. Brown was, it turned out, one of two surviving Liberty Ships, the rest having been sunk during the war, scrapped, used for target practice, or long since worked to death in some far-flung merchant marine. Built -- and still based -- in Baltimore, it was loaned to the City of New York for use as a high school training ship for future sailors, and managed to escape the fate of the 2700 other Liberty Ships built between 1942 and '45. Armed with cannon and anti-aircraft guns, it was meant for use as a troop ship, and was restored by a crew of volunteers, some of whom sailed on Liberty Ships during the war.

These were disposable boats, built for bulk and not speed, based on basic designs and assembled like huge model kits, each part stamped out in huge numbers. It sat at the dock, high in the water without a cargo, tall sheer walls of gray-painted steel lacking portholes or any such concession to human comfort. I paid my admission -- a "suggested donation" of six dollars -- and began my tour near the rear guns. 

Sitting on a plastic deck chair by the guns was one of the volunteer crew, a paunchy vet in a legion hat who was answering the eager questions of one of the visitors, a wiry middle-aged man in a souvenir t-shirt emblazoned with some antique warship. I've begun to call these types -- eager collectors of war memorabilia, usually non-combatants, avid readers of Len Deighton novels, vicious eBay bidders -- "war groupies". They're generally harmless and, pushed, will admit that they'd hardly be eager to fight in a modern war themselves, but are so steeped in the mythology of the "Good War" that they seem innoculated to any ironic appreciation of the war. They certainly don't seem to see anything sinister in their furtive, but no less passionate, fascination with the Nazi war machine and its paraphernalia, lamely offering up unconvincing rationalizations about "awesome technology" and "understanding the whole picture". There were a few of these types on the boat.

The vet crewman, while keeping one eye on the kids clambering all over the guns, popping off shots at enemy planes with explosive cheek-bursts, talked in a low voice about the ship we were standing on.

"There are some structural problems...it's an old boat...probably won't be doing these tours much longer..." The war groupie next to him hung on ever word, asking about other "heritage vessels" docked in Baltimore harbour.

I made my way past the hatches, through the bridge and down into the hold, where a museum and gift shop had been set up. Standing on the mid-deck, near where a few ranks of aluminum-framed bunk beds, four high and several deep, had been hung from the beams overhead, I looked through a plexiglass window in the floor into the hold below. The room I was in, used for troops and cargo, was only the top half of the cargo hold. Sitting on the bottom of the hull, at least twenty feet under us, were a few old jeeps, clearly junkers, meant to represent the huge stores of supplies ships like these were built to carry. The guns and crew quarters above were only the smallest fraction of the John W. Brown's whole; the vast spaces inside were the real purpose of the ship, a huge container sitting high on the water. I can only imagine the target a ship like this might have made for a U-boat captain.

The engine room was as vast, a tall, Piranesi-like space, linked with rickety catwalks and corrugated iron walkways that made their way around boilers and dynamos and fuel tanks and enormous, machined metal gears and pistons. The smell of oil and heat was venerable -- over fifty years of combustion and friction-heated metal, greasy steam and clanging, rumbling engine. It was, after the empty hold and the long-silent guns, the part of the ship that seemed most alive, inevitably I suppose.

I'VE SPENT MOST OF THIS WEEK in screening rooms; tiny, private theatres where, free of trailers and commercials, critics and industry types are shown clean new prints of movies destined to open in weeks, even days. These screenings begin at ten in the morning, before even the earliest matinee, and a few days spent at them makes subverts your whole movie-going mindset.

Critics -- thankfully, I think -- aren't very sociable. Every other writer in the room is potential competition, a rival who can best them in less than 200 words by picking a hit, or turning a particularly cogent phrase. Or at least that's the way it seems. Really, we're all just employees of the movie industry, paid by proxy, doing a job that the movie companies wish they could do, and more efficiently, I'm sure.

I've been reviewing a couple of movies a week for K.'s paper, and began watching films for the upcoming film festival coverage this week. I sit in a room with people I know by sight, whom I don't speak with, watching something I'll have to analyze in 250 words or less. The blood, sweat and tears, the effort and heartbreak, the ambition and even passion that might have gone into these films -- believe it or not, some films are still made for reasons other than money, a fact that never ceases to astonish me -- is mostly an abstraction to me now. The thrill of watching a story unfold, aware as I am of the logistics and the technology that goes into making something like a rainstorm or a gun battle happen on film, remains with me still, but it's a fleeting sensation, something that's usually gone by the time I leave the theatre. In any case, when I'm in front of my computer, I can often discover that my reactions were less than benign, and I'll hand in a harsh review to K. of a film that, the night before, I'd called "Alright, I guess" when she came home and asked me about my day.

and writing 
Rick McGinnis
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