Authors: Michael Hingston
© MICHAEL HINGSTON 2013
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Freehand Books gratefully acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts for its publishing program.
Freehand Books, an imprint of Broadview Press Inc., acknowledges the financial support for its publishing program provided by the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund.
515 – 815 1
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing In Publication
The dilettantes / Michael Hingston.
Also issued in electronic format.
PS8615.I55D54 2013 C813’.6 C2013-901667-8
Edited by Barbara Scott
Book design and illustration by Natalie Olsen, Kisscut Design
Author photo by Bridget Gutteridge-Hingston
recycled paper and bound in Canada
“Sometimes I console myself with the thought that the whole effort is a put-on, which looks, feels, and tastes like a newspaper, but is, in reality, a serialized shaggy-dog story.”
LETTER TO THE EDITOR
, MARCH 25, 1970
“Participants from the focus group stated that if they were to describe the personality of
as a person, [it] would be labelled as geeky, self-centred, opinionated, and a ‘hipster on paper.’ These are less positive associations.”
INCREASING READERSHIP OF THE PEAK BUS 442 FINAL PROJECT, SIMON FRASER UNIVERSITY, SPRING 2009
“Aren’t they nice, the young? They’ve stayed up till dawn for two years drinking instant coffee together, and now they’re opinionated—they have opinions.”
The accordion bus wound its way up Burnaby Mountain, approaching the concrete Tetris blocks of Simon Fraser University, and Alex Belmont looked out the window, confused. He didn’t know what kind of trees he was looking at.
This irritated him, though at first he wasn’t sure why exactly it ought to. What was he meant to know about trees? What was anyone? He squinted and looked again, as if it were simply a matter of reading the bark as it blurred by. Alex had taken this road to school for four years and had never once thought about the trees. He could vividly remember three separate conversations about the vanilla ice cream–flavoured drip coffee they sometimes served in West Mall, but not one complete sentence about what were, now that he took a good look around him, almost literally everywhere. He’d been raised middle class, middlebrow, with a suitcase full of white privilege—why didn’t he know this? It seemed unforgivable.
Shade bringers, Newton hecklers, dormant Tolkien warriors. That was all he had. That was
Alex felt a slow, hot grating on his skin. Then a jab of anger, the kind without corners or handles or targets—though the face of his second-grade teacher came to mind, and she would do just fine.
You made us iron leaves
, Alex thought,
and put them in wax paper between
textbook pages. It took
to get them flat. Couldn’t you have been bothered, somewhere in there, to tell us where they came from?
Then again, this being Canada, they were probably maple leaves. Hell, these ones here might even be maple tre—
Alex tried to stop thinking this thought before it made him feel even dumber, but it was too late. He turned the music on his iPod up a few notches. There were no maple trees in Vancouver.
Did science kids know this kind of thing? He didn’t know any, so he couldn’t ask them. Probably. Who else? Professors. British people. Birdwatchers in khaki vests. Even little George Washington knew he was vandalizing a cherry tree, and he was all of ten. (Then again, the
probably gave it away.)
I could assign a feature about it
, Alex thought.
An investigative guide to the things that show up without explaining themselves: trees, flowers, the gravel on all the walking paths
. At least it’d throw a wrench into the perpetual motion machine of Palestine’s latest crisis and
lack of school spirit and whatever else got reliably stuck in readers’ craws. Convey some actual information for a change.
Yeah, everyone would make fun of it out loud. They’d slap the pages with their fat hands at the bus stop and say, “Fuck’s this?” But in private, propped up on their elbows atop narrow residence beds, they’d all be captivated. “No way! Sycamores!”
Alex was pretty sure they weren’t sycamores, either.
Somebody behind him belched. The person in the next seat over clapped the belcher on the back with an audible crinkle of snowboard jacket against snowboard jacket. “Booya!” It was 1:20 in the afternoon, a Tuesday, in early September.
Alex gritted his teeth and stared into the wrinkled blue leather of the seat in front of him. Never one to need a reason to despise his fellow students, lately he’d also been struggling with all kinds of new weight on his shoulders: his graduation (pending), his sex life
(flatlining), and, most recently, this whole
situation. Make no mistake: Alex had been foreseeing this particular day for months. He’d be the first to remind you. But nobody had listened to him back then, and he had a pretty good suspicion nobody was going to listen today, either.
Out of the corner of his eye, Alex could just make out the cell phone of the girl sitting next to him, which clicked and lit up as she pounded out a text. The screen read, “i nevr ment 2 hurt u. jsut thought u shld kno that.” The girl paused, looking intensely across the aisle and out the opposite window, as if weighing a very important decision. For a second, as he covertly investigated the curve of her chest, Alex wondered how much
knew about trees. Then she added “(^_^)” and hit send.
. Alex slumped back queasily into his seat.
This is how the world ends
, he thought,
not with a bang but an emoticon
The bus chugged past the football field and tennis courts, and pulled up to the stop’s metal flag. All three sets of doors opened with a mechanical shrug and sigh. Alex got off with fifty or so others and then broke away, cutting up through the enclosed parking lot—knowledge of this shortcut was one of the few indisputable perks of working at the student newspaper. He walked up the ramp and past the back doors of the
offices, which were decorated with layers of chalk hieroglyphics from editors of years gone by. To any casual passerby it probably just looked like graffiti. Or maybe some hopelessly muddled art project, the kind some of Alex’s friends in the
program dabbled in. Just for fun, he got himself even further riled up by trying to imagine the plaque that might accompany such a bogus installation: lots of lofty talk about “disrupting” ideas that weren’t in opposition to begin with. Then he did himself one better, and imagined the grade.
It was masochism, of course. Alex was part of this generation, and knew it, and hated himself and his peers all the more for it. This
self-reflexive self-loathing was just another part of their shared identity: to be disgusted by it was only to be more quintessentially
it. The whole thing was exhausting to think about, so nobody did.
Theirs was the generation of secondhand irony. They’d inherited it, like an old cardigan, and usually couldn’t define or even recognize it in any meaningful way. But they deployed it whenever possible, blithely assuming that things had always been that way. Like that old folk tale—passed down from time immemorial, probably—about the two little fish, swimming along in the ocean, carefree. An elderly fish passes by and says, “Water’s nice today, isn’t it?” The little fish nod, wait until he’s gone, then turn to each other. “What the hell is water?”
Irony let you skip the part where you decided what you believed in. Irony allowed you to look at a painting, or a moustache, or a bombed-out basement, and not give yourself an ulcer trying to scrape together some kind of meaning. Irony was your best defence, and a good offence, too. You threw it up like armour. It wasn’t a matter of fitting in; it was a matter of getting through the day.
Inside the high-ceilinged and spiral-staircased Maggie Benston Centre, with a few minutes to kill before the editors’ meeting, Alex wandered down past the bookstore. He overheard a cashier idly flirting as her credit card machine hummed in the background. “So,” she ventured, “microeconomics, huh?”
“Yeah,” the guy replied. “But this is just for breadth credits. What I’m
into is macroeconomics.”
Alex shuddered. They were both dying for this exchange to be over, he figured. That way they could run into each other two weeks from now at Pub Night, both heroically drunk, reminisce about this two-minute conversation for forty-five, and speculate with a slur and a giggle about the kind of first impression they’d made on each other. Then he’d ironically ask her to dance, she’d ironically buy them more
drinks, and they’d both have sloppy, acrobatic sex on the lawn outside her townhouse.
This was not an atypical train of thought. Alex assumed everybody was spontaneously fucking everybody else, around corners and under desks, always just out of sight, and that their inane banter was really the secret password that gained them access to the world’s all-time greatest clique. As codes go, it was actually kind of ingenious. But Alex just bristled at it, unwilling—unable?—to play along. It wasn’t fair. He was Enigma, he was the Rosetta Stone, and nobody gave a shit.
These two, the cashier and the doofus with the drawstring backpack, weren’t particularly good looking. But that didn’t matter. Alex played through the seduction scene a few more times, swapping out polite rums and Cokes, swapping in cauldrons of Jägermeister, and shuffling the order in which the cashier stripped coquettishly on the lawn. Zooming in on the secret places: where orange strap meets orange cup, her gently freckled thighs.
Alex ducked into the Mini-Mart 101 next door. Less a store than a room with ambition, the Mini-Mart consisted of one squat aisle with a strategic island of aspirin and corn nuts in the middle to make it look like two. You could just barely shimmy past someone if you held your breath in tandem and neither of you was wider than a sheet of paper. But that didn’t stop the clientele from barging around with backpacks and poster tubes in tow, turning abruptly and for no reason as if they were alone in an empty warehouse, snagging sleeves on corners and sending displays whizzing like cardboard discuses an inch above your head. Recently felled bottles of root beer fizzed out on the floor next to upended Pop Rocks, creating huge foaming clouds of stoner science.
After a few minutes of strategic tiptoeing, Alex arrived at the coolers in the back and picked out a four-dollar imported soda whose name and ingredients he could not read. He liked the mild thrill that
came with buying drinks like this; it was his way of simulating the way adults gambled. It felt somehow subversive, too, like he was still a kid pissing away his parents’ spare coins.
This particular soda was pale blue, with a mascot of a goldfish wearing a ten-gallon hat. It had spurs on its fins.
“Oh! Hello, hi!” said the manager, an effusive, middle-aged Korean woman, as he approached the front counter.
“Hello,” Alex said, pinning himself against the wall to let two girls with asymmetrical bangs glide past. As they did, one got a high heel stuck between the floor’s wooden planks and bowled headfirst into the pretzels. The other one shrieked, dropping everything she was holding, and immediately sent a text. “How are you?”
“Good! Thank you. Cigarettes today? Calling card?”
“No. Just the soda, thanks.”
“Yes,” Alex said. “Thanks, really.” The girls, hunched over the floor, took a minute to sort out whose purse was whose.
The manager kept pressing. “New kind of cigarettes,” she said, pointing to a nondescript steel cabinet. “Just came in. I have to keep them in here. Locked. You know. Government rules. ‘Rich smoky flavour.’ Hard to read because of picture of sad children on top. Also because of cabinet.”
“You mean the surgeon general’s warning,” Alex said.
“Oh, a tough cookie. Looking for a deal, hm? I see how it goes.” She pointed at the display of calling cards fanned out under the plastic countertop. They glittered with pictures of the world at night, spiderwebs of conversation tying the planet in an ever more tangled knot. “Take two of these instead. No hard feelings, mister.”
Alex sighed. “I don’t know anyone who lives in another country.”
The girls pointed and frowned at a mystery third purse, which didn’t belong to either of them and seemed to have materialized out
of nowhere. In the back of the store, a flat of Charleston Chews crashed to the floor.
“Eight cents for minute to Senegal,” the manager went on. “Turkey, Croatia. Bosnia or Trinidad,
. Today only. Big special. But no Tobago. Not included. Herzegovina, forget it.”
“Are you serious? I’ve lived in Vancouver my whole life. I never even had a pen pal. My Asian friends all live
. That’s how I know them. Who would I want—”
“Did you say Senegal?” The first girl, now sitting calmly on the floor, looked up from counting and sorting their intermingled lip glosses. “Eight cents? Simon C’s has them for, like, six. Can you give me a discount?”
The manager thought for a second. “Deal.”
“Great. I’ll take two.”
With an unexpected burst of boldness, Alex turned to her, but found himself still struggling to make eye contact. “Uh, can I ask you something? Who do you know in Senegal?”
The girl shrugged. “My sister. She moved a few years back.”
“Are you from Africa?”
“Ha! God, no. I’m from Coquitlam.”
As the girl’s attention shifted back to the contents of her purse, Alex glanced as far up her pale leg as the stretched fabric of her skirt would allow. He guessed red. Some kind of lace. Probably a thong, too. Alex was part of what he considered to be the truly greatest generation, where girls wore that kind of stuff all the time, and not even to hide the lines, or whatever the original reason was supposed to be. The manager had a clear view, and could have settled the question either way, but she was busy with a calculator, figuring out how much she stood to lose on her deal.
he thought with a jealous twinge, back outside the store.
Was everyone so damn
these days? I mean, really.
A sister in Africa?
Alex cracked the seal on his goldfish soda and recoiled from the smell. Apricots and black licorice.
What are the fucking odds of that?
The thing nobody told you was that university looked and felt an awful lot like high school, only with the poles reversed. Here the trick was caring too much, or pretending to, or trying to convince yourself that you did. It was a bumper-sticker arms race; it was a prisoner’s dilemma, if the prisoner also subscribed to
. So when in doubt, be offended. When in doubt, sign that petition. Go on: talk shit about that
. It’s for her own good, and it would’ve come out anyway, even if she wasn’t standing behind you in that sushi lineup.
The publicity team at
had, of course, done its best to mute these similarities. Post-secondary life was meant to be a bold, clean break from high school, not a poorly disguised continuation of it. So when they toured auditoriums every year to pitch
to starry-eyed students and their parents, what the team described was a glorious, relentlessly upward trajectory. They wore suits and carried brochures full of pictures in which undergrads carried no fewer than three books each (official
policy) and were always shown laughing ecstatically, giddy at how smart and clever they all were and how teachers were so sober and fair here and how much fun learning was when you weren’t ever called a fag. Many of the senior people had put in time on the junk-bond and time-share circuits. They were used to delivering slideshows to packed rooms of the gullible, fingers crossed behind their backs the whole time.