Archive for September, 2008

Death by Photographs

At 27 months, hockey consumed my imagination.

At 27 months, hockey consumed my imagination.

I heard recently that your body completely renews itself every seven years.  Cellular bit by cellular bit, all physical matter is rejected and then simultaneously replenished; the body shedding itself clean and then growing itself anew. And, through it all, we persist. Our identities, our memories, our essential selves continue.


I was thinking of this while staring at a photo tacked up on our bedroom wall. In last minute packing haste, Colleen and I grabbed a random assortment of photographs and threw them in our suitcase.  In the pile was a photograph of me as a two-year-old, aspiring hockey player.  I have a 1 liter container of Tenderflake on one foot, acting as a single goalie pad, and an adult-sized hat turned backwards on my head, acting as a helmet.  With my mouth biting hard on the plastic adjusters and my eyes peering out from the semi-circular opening, I grip my wooden mini-stick judiciously and stick handle a yellow tennis ball.  Freeze.  I am not Wayne Gretzky (I don’t yet know who that is) nor am I Doug Gilmour (he’s not even on the scene yet)– I am a Family Flyer and I am about to score the winning goal for my father and all of my uncles.


If this seven year cycle is true (and I do admit to not reading any medical journals of late), I am now three fully decomposed bodies removed from that distant, two-year-old self.  This photograph, then, tacked as it is on floral wall paper in East Asia, is the sole material artifact of my former self.  In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes calls it “the living image of a dead thing.”  Of course, I am not dead, but the proof of my earlier existence, of myself like this at this particular moment comes by way of this photograph, by way of emanations transcribed onto a negative.  Memory cannot claim such veracity; it is too fickle (even now, after a lifetime of viewing this image, I had to retrieve the photograph off the wall and change the above description from a “raised arm” and a “large, red ball”).  To borrow from Barthes again: “from a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here.”  This picture is me (at two years of age), I am told; but physiologically, it is not.  More correctly then, this picture was me (at two years of age); but to conjugate the verb admits to a sort of death.  This was me, but it is no longer.


Which brings me to the broader point: death seems to lurk beneath every photograph.  I can’t look at any photograph without situating it (the event or the people) in relation to my own life and the event and lives depicted.  In that relation, I see time’s slide towards the inevitability of death.  Susan Sontag says it best in On Photography: “precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”


So when I look at this photograph, I see the march of time; I find myself mourning the passing of that body (three times over!).  I am older and stronger, yes, but I’m also closer to my end.  The camera freezes an otherwise transient moment and now, twenty-three years later, I am pricked by nostalgia and am reminded of the inevitable.


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"Breakfast" in Gwangju

I ordered bibimbap (the large, stainless-steel bowl) and everything else simply came with my meal-- fourteen side dishes for an order of rice, sprouts, and a fried egg!

I absolutely love supping at Korea’s communal dinner table. Platters of deliciously inexpensive food attend every sit-down (a quite literal sit-down, I might add, since you rest on cushions and leave your shoes at the door). As sure as water is automatically set before you in North America, so are several staple dishes brought out, free-of-charge, in any combination from the following possibilities: cabbage or radish kimchi, egg omelet, soy sprouts, salad, boiled quail eggs, eggplant, transparent rice noodles, ad infinitum (or thereabouts). Once the table is thus filled with fifteen odd platters, chopsticks are raised, soju is shot and then all is shared equally.

In North America, the individual plate is a sacred space. It’s anathema to even think of reaching across the table to sample the fare of another, much less offer to finish off someone’s remaining bits of food.

In Korea there is no such thing; and for a guy whose metabolism is faster than Usain Bolt, it’s heaven on earth. Eating here is a sort of chopstick free-for-all, where anyone’s plate is open game for pilfering, except that it’s not like pilfering at all– not when all is sampled equally. Don’t believe me? Think I’m exaggerating?

We recently ferried to Deokjeok Island with our Canadian friends Shane and Maxie. Now, Maxie is Korean-Canadian and speaks the language, so she is always engaging in conversation with people wherever she goes. On this particular, brutally hot Saturday afternoon in August, we were eating cold-noodle soup beneath a patio umbrella when a woman walked by and asked Maxie if her naengmyeon was good. Maxie answered in the affirmative and then, to my incredulity, offered her bowl up to the woman so she could “taste for herself”. The woman stepped off the street, tipped the bowl back, and sipped from the rim. Declaring the soup to be quite good, she thanked Maxie and continued on her way.

I’ve also witnessed pinched food passed across restaurant aisles, via chopsticks, to the waiting mouth of a friend, an acquaintance, or a perfect stranger. The openness with which Koreans approach their banqueting table allows for a feast premised far less on filling your gut than on mixing and matching and, hence, enjoying. The end result is, of course, a filled gut, but it’s a far more savoury journey– a journey finally abandoned not when every dish is empty, but when your stomach demands that nothing else be mixed or matched, lest it not be enjoyed. So you stand up, stretch your legs, offer an equivalent $10 bill with two hands, bow and say gamsa hamnida (thank you), and depart under the ruddy glow of soju cheeks.

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