Sunday, October 9, 2011

How Bingo Happens

My grandmother's in a nursing home. Stuff happens there: residents get wheeled to meals, sometimes they play bingo, sometimes they hobble around the halls.

"What happened today?" I ask her. "Nothing," she replies.

And she's right. Each day it's the same meals at the same times. The same faces animated by the same pains. The same activities with the same motive: to occupy time instead of building something within it.

Days change. Seasons change. Time pushes on. Yet everyday - whether Monday, Thursday or Sunday - is experienced by my grandmother as the same day. Something happens ("bingo!"), but doesn't register as a happening.

For us to experience something happening, more needs to happen than just the bare fact of a happening. Or, put differently, what happens and what we experience doesn’t necessarily coincide.

Leaves fall. Matter sits around, and then bumps into other matter. Organisms grow, and die. The world happens, and we primarily see ourselves as witnesses of this happening. There’s something really true about this: this strange mysterious thing we call the world moves on it’s own, which is to say, it doesn’t need us to tell it what to do. And this means that we’re primarily seeing something unfold. Chipmunks forage on their own, and collect seeds that have fallen on their own, which come from trees that have grown on their own…

So, in one sense, when it comes to the world, someone can ask, “what’s happening?” and all we need to do is look and describe what we see.

But my grandmother’s senses work perfectly. She is a witness to all these happenings. She sees the halls, and the residents, as she gets wheeled to dinner. She hears the bingo guy (“34O!”). And this perhaps is the problem: she experiences her reality as something to witness, as something unfolding outside of her, rather than something to participate in. Things are happening in some objective sense, but they aren’t happening to her.

Bingo – or anything else, for that matter - needs to find someway of connecting with her, someway of mattering to her – but the bare fact of bingo happening doesn’t have enough power to affect my grandmother directly: only she can decide whether it matters to her or not. It is only by finding a way to speak to what matters to her (religion, family, Indian food, match-making, bargain hunting…), only by connecting with her identity, that she can actually be “inside” the happening of bingo.

Until then, she’ll hear the bingo sounds. She’ll hear me encouraging her to play. She’ll see people hobble around the tables. Stamp the cards. But none of this will feel like it’s happening to her.

Saturday, October 1, 2011



It’s easy to dismiss architecture, especially when job losses and the talk of pandemics turn us inward toward our immediate needs. It’s easy to conceive of spaces as existing for us to carry out our comings and goings, solely there to fulfill our needs.

This view is epitomized at Bay and Wellington by the Toronto Dominion (TD) Centre, conceived in 1963 by a titan of modernist architecture, Mies van der Rohe. With its simplification of form and the elimination of ornaments, van der Rohe’s giant rectangles of uniform black steel capture the modern world’s obsession with utility. The building announces itself: “I am a thing that people work inside; nothing more, nothing less”.

The TD Center embodies the view that one should not get “caught up” in the aesthetic of a building. A building should forever be in the background of the work we do inside it. But might this view be hiding something? Might structures and spaces have secret powers, secretly encouraging and discouraging us?

Men with full bladders know well the experience of being “demanded upon” by the design of a space. The placement of male urinals in most restrooms requires, nay, forces me to be comfortable with peeing inches away from other half-naked men.

Open concept tables at the Toronto Reference library enforce the “silence is golden” rule by ensuring you disturb other patrons, who glare at you from across the table, if you try to talk.

The way design affects us can be subtler, quietly shaping the possibilities we feel are open to us. Consider the slab of concrete called Dundas Square: it is naked to its surroundings, making visitors vulnerable to traffic noise and the messages of gigantic illuminated billboards inspired by Blade Runner (and Times Square). It is easy to imagine the possibility of a first kiss arising on the grassy lawn, among the oversize chess pieces, in Montreal’s Berri Square (or Place Émilie-Gamelin , its official name). We might call Dundas Square a meeting place but in truth, it almost prevents social engagement as it lacks the intimacy required for getting to know someone. On the concrete, among the car horns, romance isn’t impossible, but it’s not anywhere on the horizon.

the "not yet" in the "yet", or Driving to the Dry Cleaners with my Grandfather on a Wednesday Afternoon

"it's in the past", we say, by which we mean, "it's over and done with".

but if my experience of my grandfather driving me to the dry cleaners three days before he died was wrapped up once i hugged him goodbye, then it seems hard to explain how I can, in the present, open back up that time to see it anew. there was something very significant happening that Wednesday afternoon, even though at the time i was mostly caught up worrying about a conference paper.

time has passed. the details less vivid. yet somehow I see more clearly: for the first and last time in his history, he removed all the images and expectations that typically mediated our interactions: my grandfather and i had coffee while we waited for my suit to be altered and he talked to me like i was another human being. such an unexpected and rare thing event. i recount the story to his children and they think i'm lying.

what i experienced that day was all there was to experience: there was only ever going to be that single time my grandfather inspected my suit carefully, watching as tailor measured me. on the car ride home, he gave me advice about travelling to London. he used particular words in a particular order. i responded in the way that i did, and will never be able to respond otherwise. the weather was sunny, not rainy. these aspects of the past are determinate, and yet, even then, i didn't experience that Wednesday with my grandfather as a closed case. it was unlike, say, the experience of math puzzle: once I figure out that 2 + 2 = 4, and not 5, i don't feel as if there is anything else to figure out. i know what the future is going to be like when it comes to the issue of what happens when 2 and 2 are put together.

on that Wednesday 4 years ago i had to already be experiencing the car ride to Richmond Hill, my grandfather negotiating the price, the three sugars i put in his coffee with the implicit realization that everything i was experiencing was open to being seen from other sides - even if i didn't notice this particular dimension of my experience.

i had to be implicitly alive to the way I was, on that Wednesday, here, with my grandfather, and yet, my "here" wasn't entirely all "here": I was inhabiting the situation only from a partial side. Only from the side of my stalk character grandson, who obliged his very determined grandfather to drive to Richmond Hill just because he happens to know some dry cleaning guy. It took a lot of other experiences - his death, seeing his childhood photographs, going through his old ties, taking up his role of caring for my grandmother - to make me see that Wednesday afternoon for what it really was: his final, yet open-ended, hug whose meaning will last me until i die.