Monday, June 18, 2012

[1386] divis flats

Photo by Judah Passow
I don't know how many times I walked past the RBG Gallery on my way from point A to point B without ever actually noticing it. It's a tiny joint, tucked away in what's not even substantial enough to be called an alley, behind another shop front that renders the gallery just short of invisible to the passerby. Today, though, I noticed it. Or, more accurately, I noticed a little folding sign on the street out front. Something about Divis Flats, 1982. Free admission. The price was right and I'm more than a little fascinated by Divis Flats.

What I found inside was a gallery of photos untarnished by sentimentality. This was not the kind of place where you looked at the pictures and thought, "Well, gosh, there were some hard times during the Troubles, but boy, did they have their fun." A lot of times we all gloss over the ugly bits of the past, especially for the sake of making a better future. This gallery did no such thing.

A message from a former resident of Divis Flats, Robin Livingstone, hung on several of the walls in the gallery, and I think it was both poignant and poetic. I'm posting it here, and hopefully not stepping on any toes to do so. If you live in Belfast, I would recommend seeing the exhibit for yourself. If not, check out the websites of the photographers, Frankie Quinn and Judah Passow.

Photo by Judah Passow
When my old pal Frankie Quinn showed me Judah Passow’s Divis Flats portfolio for a feature we were preparing for the paper on the exhibition, the pictures gave me a jolt like an adrenalin syringe in the sternum. This wasn’t the usual here-today-gone-tomorrow photographer’s work we were so used to seeing. This wasn’t a guy who had got a taxi from the Europa, shot off a roll in a half-hour and then got back to the hotel in time for dinner. This was the Flats I knew and didn’t love. This was the place I used to live. These were the people I used to know.

Viewing the images, I heard again the shrieks of children playing on the concrete dragon; smelled the piss on the concrete stairs; saw the little black eyes of the rats shining from the blocked-up rubbish chutes; felt the ever-present faint sting in my eyes of the CS gas that stuck to the balcony walls and ceilings.

Divis Flats was a grim place when our flat was new in 1970; it was a grimmer place when we moved out a year later. Behind the egg-box walls and doors we turned the TV up so we couldn’t hear the TV next door, or the toilet flushing. Our TV never covered the sound of the shooting.Divis Flats was not a story of the human spirit triumphing over adversity, no matter what anybody tells you. Divis Flats won. Divis Flats beat us – it beat everybody who ever walked backwards up those pissy steps hauling a sofa. That’s why these pictures punched me in the stomach. They’re pictures of people fighting and people losing; sometimes smiling, sometimes laughing – but losing, and losing badly. And we lost, of course, because the game was rigged.

I’m nine and I’m walking along the balcony near our Pound Walk flat. There’s a big guy with a washing machine perched precariously on the balcony ledge. He’s balancing the washing machine and trying to look down at the same time. I skip up and straddle the ledge with practised ease. There’s a British Army foot patrol 30 feet down and, as usual, they’re looking skywards as they walk. They think the washing machine is somebody moving in and on they come. They’re below us now and the big guy doesn’t have to push the washing machine, he just lets it go. It falls, the flex snaking after it, the plug smashing against the concrete. The soldiers take a step back and watch it. The washing machine disintegrates as it hits the ground. The big fella is still there, his two hands on the ledge, peering down, like Kilroy in the graffiti. The soldiers look up at him and me and they start laughing because they’re glad the washing machine didn’t explode. I suppose they don’t shoot me because I’m wearing shorts. The big guy laughs and I’m laughing too. I’m laughing the way everybody laughed in Divis Flats – like if you didn’t you’d throw yourself off the balcony.

That was my Divis Flats – the Divis Flats Judah Passow’s camera captured.

Quote taken from

Monday, June 11, 2012

[1379] on death and catcopters

The statement I'm about to make is going to sound super depressing, but hang in there a sec. It gets better.

Sometimes when I'm really super happy and everything in my life is going off without a hitch, I think to myself, "Someday something terribly sad is going to happen to you, and you won't feel like this anymore." This isn't a constant thought or anything. I'm not in a perpetual state of dread every time I'm in a period of good fortune. That really wouldn't be good fortune at all.

It's more of a perspective thing. I'm reminding myself of life's ebbs and flows. If I remind myself when I'm dancing on the ceiling that sometimes I'm going to want to hit myself over the head with a mallet, it's a lot easier when I want to hit myself over the head with a mallet to realize that someday I will again be dancing on the ceiling. Further, when I hit those lows, I tend to be able to snap myself out of them fairly quickly. If I'm going to be happy someday, why not now, right?

Now, let me make the disclaimer that this clearly is not a strategy that's going to work for someone with some form of clinical depression or disorder or imbalance. That's all much more complicated. My anxiety levels may be off the charts, but when it comes to being sad, I usually have some control over it. This is not the case for everyone. What I'm talking about is being sad for a reason, not 'cause some chemical in your body is forcing you to be. Besides, I'm not really giving advice here. This is about me. #selfcentered

This brings me to death...and also to the catcopter.

A story was going around last week about an artist who turned his dead cat into a helicopter. I thought it was awesome. I've often joked about what I'll do with my beloved Gaucho when he kicks the bucket. One such idea involves getting him taxidermied into his trademark little sleeping ball and keeping him on the back of the couch as if nothing had happened at all. Guests would go to give him a pat and suddenly realize he had long since gone the way of the buffalo. Laughter would ensue.

As catcopter proved, though, not everyone finds such a glib approach to death--particularly animal death--entertaining. Some found it just plain sick, twisted, disgusting, cruel, disrespectful. While at first I was completely flabbergasted as to how anyone could look at what I saw as a fantastic tribute to a loved-but-lost feline friend as anything other than just that, it dawned on me that my whole approach to death might be a bit unorthodox. The feelings of disgust others were experiencing were completely normal. It's my own unwillingness to take death seriously that's weird.

One of the oft-used arguments against coptercat went something like, "Would you do this if a member of your family died?" Or even, "Would you want this done to you if you were to die?" And I could honestly say to the first, "Yes, if they'd let me," and to the second, "Yes, if I could convince them to." I have said on many occasions that I want something funny written on my epitaph. I don't want to be a beloved wife or daughter or mother or author or whatever. That makes people sad. There's enough sadness in the graveyard. I want people--mourning the losses of their own beloved wives, daughters, mothers, and so on--to stroll along the rows of graves, skimming others' sad tales of woe, and then do a double-take at mine. Taking it in more closely, I want them to laugh. I want them to laugh until the tears streaming down their faces are happy ones. I want them to laugh until they realize that lives end but life goes on, and it's okay to be bummed, but it's cool to be happy, too. There's no rule that death has to be a horrible, heart wrenching affair.

You're going to be happy again someday, so why not now, right?

When my dad died, people were a little freaked out by my positivity. I think everyone assumed I was in denial or was just covering up my emotions. And maybe the latter was true a little bit, but really, I was fine. Of course I was sad. My dad was a BAMF. Think I don't get a little angry every time I see an awesome father's day card or a thing my dad would love and realize, to quote Marv from Home Alone, Santy don't visit the funeral homes? It's a real buzzkill. I shed my tear, and I move on. 'Cause for me, I'd just rather be happy. And if I'm going to be later, I might as well speed up the process. If I'm in the mood to be sad, I'll pop in Swing Kids and eat a tub of cookie dough while sobbing, "SWING HEIL, PETER!!" to no one in particular. When it comes to real life, I just feel like dwelling is a waste of time.

So if I die young, don't do any of that burying me in satin and laying me down on a bed of roses nonsense. At least have the decency to use me for the carpool lane or something.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

[1375] new website, new contest

Today as I was writing a blog post about death and catcopters (forthcoming), I got the sudden urge to actually create my website. I had the domain name and everything. There was no good reason why I hadn't done it yet.

So I did. 

And in doing so, I came up with an idea for a little contest. Or sweepstakes. I don't know what you call it when you don't necessarily compete, but you win a prize. A drawing?

Whatever. I came up with one of those. If you go to my website, you'll see that you can win a $10 Amazon gift card for liking my FB page and telling me about your favorite book. As much as I like getting random "likes," I much prefer actually becoming acquainted with people and making connections. That's why this isn't just a massive "like" drive. I want to actually know something about you.

If you already like me, never fear. You just need to share about your favorite book and you'll be in the running. 

Check out my website for all the details, and please let me know what you think! It's pretty bare at the moment, but I hope to add more soon. Feel free to give me some suggestions.