A Tale of Two Atwoods

Vancouver’s Crackton

I believe that there might be a subtle environmental toxin being released into the Vancouver ecosystem, one that has caused many of this city’s inhabitants to become borderline mentally retarded. It certainly appears to be a prerequisite to owning a BC driver’s licence. Seriously, I have rarely encountered such unpredictably dangerous driving. The turn signal switch on my rental car is all stiff and sticky, likely because it has never been used by local renters!

I’m here for the Annual General Meeting of the Writer’s Union of Canada, which is actually an enjoyable occasion, made moreso for the sylvan perfection of its host, the University of British Columbia. Despite the meeting’s decided demographic homogeneity (all older white people, mostly women), I’ve been meeting some fascinating people. (Fascinating isn’t always a good thing, but it’s never boring.)

I’m staying at the Patricia Inn on Hastings Street. See, Hastings is known as Vancouver’s Crackton, the place where heroin addicts, homeless folks and legions of hookers spend their time. In fact, on at least one occasion, one of the down-and-outters tried to commit suicide-by-Ray by leaping in front of my speeding car in the wee hours. Luckily, old age hasn’t completely slowed by deteriorating reflexes, and I managed to swerve to avoid him.

The homeless on Hastings are straight out of central casting. It’s as if they are all players in a high school play production, so cliched and stereotyped that I have a hard time believing it’s all real. Even the crack whores, who descend on my car every night as I pull into the Inn, make me laugh with their stereotyped nature: track marks on the arms, torn fishnet stockings, and 1970s dialogue –“hey baby, how about a date?”

I love it. The rooms are clean and secure and feature cable TV and free wireless internet, all for the very affordable price of $50 per night, with an additional $2 for all-day parking. I am quite content to stay here, so long as the junkies and crack whores stay outside. Hey, I just came back from 10 days in freakin’ Guyana –any place with reliable internet, potable tap water and a private toilet is LUXURY to me.

A Tale of Two Atwoods

Margaret Atwood gave the Margaret Laurence Memorial Lecture last night. I filmed part of it, but I don’t think it would be interesting enough for me to post here. Her talk focused a lot on her brother Harold, who she claims was her first literary inspiration. She quoted hilarious snippets from Harold’s earliest attempts at science fiction, back when they were both children.

Now… I know Harold Atwood. Harold Atwood was the Chair of the Department of Physiology at the University of Toronto, back when I was an undergraduate and then graduate student there. Harold Atwood is one of this nation’s greatest neuroscientists, with many books of science to his name. Harold Atwood is also the father of my teenage friend Evan, with whom I played many geekish role-playing games and engaged in many heated discussions about science, philosophy,literature and society. I spent much time in the home of Evan and Harold.

I mention all this because I wish to convey my pleasant surprise at learning of this new side of Harold Atwood. Ordinarily I would not talk about a private person in this public forum, but Margaret Atwood herself brought him up as a public topic, so I will continue in turn. My take on Professor Harold was always that he was a brilliant but reclusive and silent man, very fair and kind to his students, but very much of the engineering brand of personality: a doer and a solver, not necessarily a dreamer and an abstract thinker.

What Margaret Atwood revealed about Harold was interesting: that within this solid, calculating and stereotypical man of science there once thrived an explosive literary imagination that probably forms the kernel of his personality to this day.

I guess the lesson is clear: people are complete, three dimensional beings who cannot be summarized by our convenient archetypes and labels.

Moby Khan

In other news, I am for the first time wacthing the 1956 production of Moby Dick, starring Gregory Peck. I’ve never actually read the book (shame on me), but have read the, um, classic comic book. (It’s true). I never till now realized how much Star Trek, and in particular the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan borrowed/stealed from Moby Dick. Just sayin’.