Jan 292011

It’s a huge pleasure to introduce to Numéro Cinq cult members, ur, readers Domenic Stansberry‘s debut graphic novel Kiss Me, Kill Me, starring my favourite noir anti-hero Dante Mancuso, aka the Pelican (because of his nose). Many of you know Domenic, some have even been lucky enough to have him as a teacher. Domenic won an Edgar Award in 2005 for his novel, The Confession, about a Bay area psychologist accused of murdering his wife. Dante Mancuso is the hero of Domenic’s North Beach Mystery series, the latest of which, Naked Moon, came out last year.


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Jan 292011


Domenic Stansberry is an old friend. We’ve been locked up together in the Noble Hall faculty dorm at Vermont College of Fine Arts for ten days every six months since time began (it seems). He’s the brilliant Edgar Award-winning author of dark, dark, yes, noir-dark, novels set in the North Beach section of San Francisco. (Naked Moon is his most recent novel, published last year. Click on the image for more information.) His hero is Dante Mancuso, aka the Pelican (because of his nose). I spent a summer reading through the work a couple of years ago and really admired the North Beach series but also loved The Confession, the story of a San Francisco psychologist accused of murdering his wife (the plot twists and surprises are amazing).

Domenic’s “Noir Manifesto” is an essay about crime fiction, the history and metaphysics thereof, literature, politics and art. It’s a fine example of how, if you write knowingly about your passion, you end up writing about the meaning of art in general. This essay first appeared in The New Review of Literature Vol. 1 No. 1, October, 2003, but has not been widely available since then. Now it has found a home at Numéro Cinq, I hope for good.


Noir Manifesto

by Domenic Stansberry

In 1982, after the publication of The Prone Gunman, Jean-Patrick Manchette, the great French crime writer, abandoned the genre altogether. Over the previous decade, he had written ten novels, all in the noir fashion: finely-honed, spare books of great originality and shocking violence. These books—which had made him famous as the father of the neo-polar, the New French crime novel—took the old plotlines of noir and recast them into hard-nosed political critiques. But after The Prone Gunman—having taken his style to its limit—Manchette gave it all up.

Manchette’s biographer, Jean-Francois Gérault, implies the reason for the novelist’s silence is there was simply nothing else to say. He had exhausted the genre. And though it is tempting to say that this exhaustion was Manchette’s alone—an artist at the end of his tether—the truth is the dilemma was not unique to Manchette. And is not. For writers of crime fiction find themselves in much the same situation today. With the present exhausted, the past littered with cliché.

Manchette was a socialist, disenchanted by the failure of French radicalism. When he turned to the crime novel in the early ’70’s, he recognized in the form—as Hammett had recognized before him—a reaction against modernism, with its dependence upon literary allusion, formal experimentation, and elevated diction. The crime novel, with its roots in the pulps, was a deliciously sub-literary form, born of the masses, and in that lack of pretension Manchette found a raw determinism that disdained the sentimental humanism of the bourgeois novel and exposed the corruptions and falsities of the established order.

At the time Manchette began working in the form, the crime novel in France had gone stale, dominated by stuffy procedurals that focused on the mechanics of crime solving. Manchette reinvigorated the form, partly by infusing his characters with an existential morality reminiscent of Camus, but also by refusing to romanticize or give purpose to the blunt violence that dominated his fiction.

Manchette’s novels have become available in America only recently, and Ben Ehrenreich, writing for the Village Voice, has been among the reviewers who have helped introduce Manchette to the American audience. Ehrenreich makes particular note of the narrative voice which Manchette uses to depict the noir landscape: how that voice grew increasingly sparse over the years, cinematic and unreflective, until by the time of The Prone Gunman, Manchette’s narrator all but refrains from depicting the interior life of his characters, instead focusing almost entirely on objective reality—a style that takes Hemmingway’s dictum of show-don’t-tell to a level of supreme detachment.

The result, in the end, is a chillingly violent, hard-paced narrative—much like that in Paul Cain’s The Fast One. But unlike Paul Cain, whose strength as a writer is that of primitivist, Manchette moves his characters with deliberate and complex allegorical intent.

The Prone Gunman, in translation by poet James Brook, is perhaps the best of Manchette’s novels. And the bleakest. It takes as its main character a professional assassin, Martin Terrier, who is employed by an American-run intelligence agency known only as the company. After ten years with the company Terrier returns to his home town to re-claim his childhood sweetheart, daughter of a provincial factory owner. With the money he has earned as a political assassin, Terrier hopes to take his lover away with him to an idyllic life. His sweetheart, though, is now an alcoholic housewife who mocks Terrier when he tries to seduce her; moreover, the company has no intentions of letting Terrier loose. The result is a violent chase culminating in a shoot out during which Terrier takes a bullet in the head. The bullet leaves him functional but without desire. In the end, like his father before him, he lives a somnambulist life, working as waiter in a café, and at night blathers unintelligibly in his sleep.

While Manchette’s earlier work engages in barbed political satire—aimed at the left as much as the right—The Prone Gunman portays, as Ehrenreich puts it “a conquered world bereft of choice and hope.” After the book was completed, Manchette was unable to finish another novel, and spent the remainder of his career writing screenplays and translating American crime writers.

In the trajectory of Manchette’s career as a noir writer it is possible to read the trajectory of the genre itself. In many ways, it is a genre frozen in time, or even gone backwards. In fact, if you examine the best seller racks on this side of the Atlantic, it is not hard to argue that the mainstream American crime novel is today, at the turn of the new century, in a state similar to that of its French counterpart in the sixties: weighed down by its conventions, by the expectations of the audience, and by the inelasticity of its publishers. Reduced to irrelevance, a distraction for bored readers in airports and beaches. A mere commodity.

But of course, crime fiction—with is roots in pulp fiction–has always been a commodity. What has really happened is that the darker world of noir has been displaced in the marketplace by a different kind of crime novel: the commercial thriller (more likely on its jacket puffery to announce itself a literary thriller, though in truth that genre all but expired with Graham Greene). And these thrillers, no matter the surface similarities to noir fiction, have aesthetic and political intentions quite the opposite of Manchette and those writers he admired.

The noir tradition in which Manchette was writing had its roots in the vernacular, and focused on the crimes of desire by people hemmed in by social conditions. Noir writers like Dave Goodis, Jim Thompson, Dorothy Hughes, Chester Himes and Charles Williams were social determinists whose work demonstrated considerable empathy for the little guy, the down- and-outer, the outsider who has been pushed out, excluded, trapped. Who then takes hopeless action to escape that trap—and ultimately fails.

In contrast, the primary ethos of the new breed of crime melodramas does not share such concerns. These books are instead much more akin to the old western dime novels—which focused on the rescue of Pollyanna tied to the railroad track. Pollyanna in the contemporary thriller may take on many forms. She may be a beautiful woman threatened by a serial killer. A boy threatened by an abusive father. Or even America itself, threatened by nuclear destruction, or terrorism, or an insane president. These novels may lobby on the behalf of some worthy cause—they may fall on this side or that of the political spectrum—but there is one thing that can be counted upon. The world can be divided neatly into good and evil. And good shall ultimately triumph.

Some may wager this affirmation, however simplistic, a good thing—but such moralizing is antithetical to the genre’s darkest and truest spirits. The purpose of most contemporary thrillers—with their middle class values and insistence upon illumination—is to marshal and subjugate the very impulses which gave birth to the noir sensibility. Their purpose is to destroy the underworld. And by this I do not mean the mere criminal underworld, but rather the underworld of the imagination, the secret realm of the psyche, the darkest realms of Hades that inhabit and animate the individual soul.

The originators of the genre had intentions altogether different.

In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Edgar Allan Poe created his first tale of ratiocination, as he called it: a story in which the detective made use of analysis to solve crimes. This story engendered a raft of imitators, and a whole new genre sprung forth, of which the contemporary manifestation is the crime procedural, with its emphasis on police and judicial process, and the tracking of clues using inductive logic. If we look back at Poe, however, process and logic—indeed the act of analysis itself—are ultimately viewed as further manifestations of the supernatural. In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” C. Auguste Dupine’s methods of crime solving, though espousing an attachment to the analytical, ultimately rely on intuitive leaps and non-rational association. And in Poe’s subsequent tale of rationation, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, Dupine’s brilliant analytical solution to the murder of a young woman in Paris is in the end overshadowed by a parallel crime, in a parallel reality—not in exotic Paris, but in everyday New York—in which the system of analysis ultimately fails. For Poe, the rational mind not only exists in service of the supernatural, but has its origins there—and his view of the analytic process emphasizes the paradoxical. As an artist, his interest was never in tying up loose ends. Quite the opposite. His interest was in the fissures, in the cracks between the perceived world and the unperceived—and in establishing lines of communication between those dualities.

The paths the crime story takes away from Poe are multitudinous and intertwined. Overseas to Arthur Doyle, and his drug addicted detective. To the American pulps, where its conventions merge with the dime western and find new manifestation in the work of John Carroll Daly, and later Hammett and Spillane. To the French. To Baudelaire, to Maurice Renard, author of The Hands of Orlac. To the German expressionists, Wiene and Lang, whose influences wend their way from German film, to Hollywood, thence back into American roman noir.

With such diverse influences, the crime novel is in some ways the richest of forms. At the same time, paradoxically, it has over the years become the most codified and conventional, with its numerous sub-genres, each with its own sets of rules and traditions, which writers challenge only at the risk of alienating reader and publisher alike. The result is that crime fiction is no longer the revolutionary medium it once was, but rather propaganda for the status quo. It has, in other words, become almost as conventional as the mainstream literary novel, with its insistence upon character development and the profundities of spiritual transformation.

In such circumstances, it is long past time for an explosion—a sundering of the conventions: Even if we must recognize the impossibility of taking off the shackles without putting them on again—and the fact that this year’s cuffs may admittedly not be at first recognized for what they are, new and glittering as the chains may be.

Over the last three decades, crime writers have sought to transform the genre by changing the face of various elements while leaving the underlying structural conventions intact. By changing the ethnicity and race of the main characters. By making the settings at once more exotic and realistically detailed. By emphasizing realism and logical process, in essence making the crime novel respectable: a kind of laboratory for social study. Such changes—whatever the social merits, or quality of the individual writers—are in the end baroque adornments. A dressing up of the corpse for another run around the block.

It is odd indeed that some of the most recent innovative noirs have been for the most part unclaimed by aficionados of the genre, though well regarded elsewhere. I am here thinking of Denis Johnson’s Angels, a hallucinatory road novel that begins in the Oakland Greyhound depot and ends in the prison death house. Or Paul Auster’s City of Glass trilogy, with its blending of post-modern and noir traditions. Or Haruki Murakami’s Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which melds elements of science fiction and hard boiled noir.

It is tempting to argue that there is no choice now for the writer of crime—if he or she be anything other than a hack, an employee of New York accountants—than to turn the genre conventions upon their various heads. To do so in ways both sacrilegious and savage. Take the old icons and beat them into the dirt. Berate them. There may have been a time when Sherlock Holmes was a vital character—but over the years he has become an insufferable bore, with his pipe, his witticisms, his self-righteousness. And the shades of Marlowe and Sam Spade are on the verge of the same nattering senility.

But structural change, formal experimentation, a willingness to spit in the face of publishers, to disregard unintelligent readers, to kill off your lead character in the middle of a series, to bend the lines between fiction and non-fiction, to blur the lines of genre—or even to take the opposite tack, and be a steadfast loyalist, to work within the dying conventions while all around the house burns—all of these in the end are just tactics, addressing the symptoms but not the cause, doomed to fail if they do not recognize the true nature of the failing.

Because that which has been strangling the genre is the mentality that rationalism and logical must prevail. That order must be restored. That good must triumph.

Such are the assertions of small minds, of mercantilism. It is the jingoism of the day world, of the happy ending, of a material world desperately afraid of its nocturnal counterpart.

Poe’s tales of rationation have thus been oddly misconstrued as an embrasure of the analytic method, though the energy of his tales derives not from the airtight logic of their plots—because they are far from airtight—but from the place where the stories fracture, from the giant fission that drives all narrative. In The Fall of the House of Usher, for example, this fracture takes place, both literally and figuratively, at the moment when the House of Usher itself collapses, disappearing into the tarn. In Jim Thompson’s The Getaway, a similar moment occurs when Ma Santis appears from out of nowhere to rescue Doc McCoy and Carol from their pursuers, but instead ends up sending the jealous lovers on a hellish journey, through piles of excrement and watery caves, to the diabolical kingdom of El Rey. And in Dorothy Hughes’ Ride the Pink Horse, it is the moment when Sailor dances wildly in the square of the Fiesta—then turns and shoots the good cop who meant to do him well. It is through such cracks, such fissures in mere logic—when the perceived world and the unperceived overlap—that the reader sees to the other side, and thus falls into conversation with the underworld. With annihilation, with death itself. It is this conversation that is the ultimate goal of noir. Not redemption. Not social understanding. Not moral edification. And if we abandon this conversation—for the sake of mere morality—we who imagine ourselves practitioners will find ourselves rather like Manchette’s Martin Terrier, no longer the dangerous figures we once were, but rather waiters in a café, suffering from a bullet in the brain. Still able to function perhaps: to take orders. But our words will be inchoate, mere froth, and at night, like Terrier, we shall blather in our dreams.

—Domenic Stansberry

Jan 282011

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, by Pieter Bruegel, (ca. 1558)

“Once again the pilot in full flight experienced neither giddiness nor any thrill; only the mystery of metal turned to living flesh.” -Antoine de Saint Exupéry,  from Night Flight

Gravity seems to work differently in flight.  Raise a wing to sixty degrees off the horizon and your legs suddenly weigh two times what they do on earth.  Push the nose down, arcing the plane through a parabola in the sky like a collapsing rainbow, and your arms float inside the cockpit.  It’s the defying of gravity which supports flight, the usurpation of barriers, the bending of rules so seemingly rigid on pavement.  In flight, weight becomes positional, depending on forces of acceleration and torque, on the geometry of air; it’s not a fixed concept like it is on the ground.

Icarus, overcome by the joy of flight, lost his bearings and melted his wings before falling into the sea.

Twenty-five years ago, I heard the news of the Challenger disaster in Mr. Gregory’s Algebra II class.  As the shuttle exploded in peaceful blue skies over Florida’s Atlantic coast, I was studying binary operations. Mr. Gregory quietly announced the news then put on the television and let us watch the coverage.

A little more than two months before, on November 9, 1985, I took my first solo flight in a Cessna-150. After I landed and caught my breath, I felt an instant kinship with other pilots, with those astronauts even, which has never left me. It’s a strange thing, to fly a plane alone.

A deep, pervasive mythology surrounds aviation, a hero-worshiping ethos of austerity, courage and clenched-jaw reticence.  By the time I soloed, such a mythology had already saturated my young boy’s brain.  I took the shuttle tragedy personally. And in an odd way, the loss of the Challenger and her crew cemented that mythology in my mind.  To a sixteen year old boy filled with the desire to fly, there seemed to be a certain nobility about a fiery death.  I don’t feel that way anymore.  I don’t know what I’ll say if one day my son or daughter asks if they can start taking flying lessons.

James Salter, a fighter pilot in the Korean War, describes his first solo flight in his memoir Burning the Days.  Like many fledgling aviators, the day of his first solo began in bleakness. He had just completed a flying lesson and was being shredded by his flight instructor:

“That was terrible.  You rounded out twenty feet in the air.  As far as I can make out, you’re going to kill us both.”  I see him rising up.  He climbs out of the cockpit and stands on the wing.  “You take her up,” he says.

This consent, the words of which I could not even imagine.  Alone in a plane, I do what we had done each time, taxi to the end of that bare spot, turn, and almost mechanically advance the throttle.  I felt at that moment—I will remember always—the thrill of the inachievable.  Reciting to myself, exuberant, immortal, I felt the plane leave the ground and cross hayfields and farms, making a noise like a tremendous, bumbling fly.  I was far out, beyond the reef, nervous but unfrightened, knowing nothing, certain of all, cloth helmet, childish face, sleeve wind-maddened as I held an ecstatic arm out in the slipstream, the exaltation, the godliness, at last!”  (81-82)

The words, “you take her up,” resonate like an incantation for anyone who’s ever flown an airplane alone. They weave an almost mystical web around the memory of that first solo, when the desire for flight, the long-held dream of it, comes face to face with the reality of actually flying the fucking plane alone.  Nothing really prepares you for that moment.  Nothing in life can really top it either.

Salter’s words also remind me of Icarus’ ineffable desire for flight.  My dreams cracked a little as fragments of Challenger rained down into another sea. I still connect those two events in memory, my first solo flight and the Challenger disaster.  For a young boy, the double-barreled blasts of joy and tragedy, of exultation and grief, of confidence and confusion, had a powerful resonance.

Watching plumes of rocket smoke split apart in the Florida sky reminded me not only of the precariousness of flight, but also of the way hope can fall apart.

It seems hardly possible, just the blink of an eye, that a quarter of a century has passed.

—Richard Farrell

Jan 272011

Sarah Seltzer is a New Yorker, a Vermont College of Fine Arts student (and a dg Workshop Survivor) and a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to numerous online news sites including Huffington Post and Daily Beast. She’s also a member of the growing NC community—see her entry, “A Short Craft Lecture,”  in the first ever NC Erasure Contest.


What it’s like living here

By Sarah Seltzer in New York City



You sit in a brick-oven pizza place on that brief spit of Broadway where the subway roars up onto a rickety rail, then back beneath the earth. It’s November, and damp. For three years, you have been living a happy, cramped existence in an apartment around the corner. You and your husband have heard the 1 train roll by at intervals each day like receding and advancing ocean waves.

But, with help from friends, you have spent the day moving books from this apartment in Morningside Heights to an airier one below it in Harlem, and you’re dirty and exhausted, ready for the ordeal to end. You yawn over your food, spinning dreams about your new home and speaking of nothing., Halfway through the meal, you notice, four tables ahead, forgotten family friends who have known you since you were two months old and their daughter a month further into the world. Their presence makes you think of the things that have faded from your life.

This happens often in the city.  Now you smile and stop at their table, and launch into a game whose parameters you know: grad school plans and publications, marriages and quips about law firms. Inevitably, you will report on the encounter to your friends in the bodega where they’ve been huddled, waiting. You will muse about friendship and why it is lost, when it can be salvaged. You’ll recall the vivid aliveness of a relationship that has become a ghost: lying on a carpet listening to the Beatles or before that, playing pirates in that gnarled tree in Central Park, or after that, smoking a joint in a playground near Stuyvesant town.

Small town


Your world feels cramped, the past everywhere, woven into a thick web. You are living in the titular town in a 19th-century British novel. He went to high school with her; his summer job was at her dad’s company; her best friend from Hebrew school was his roommate.

You realize at these moments that you have settled less than two miles from where you grew up, that you haven’t even made it across the bridge to another borough, that you are tightly bound to this span of Upper Manhattan by more than geography–by culture, by comfort, by family, by inertia. You see time change the face of avenues with which you are as intimate as a country girl is with ridges and rivers. You bore people by telling them what used to be here; crack vials in the playgrounds, delis and pizza places as nondescript as they were delicious, blight and character.

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Jan 262011

Missing Dad

by Natalia Sarkissian

I can say I lost my father when I was six.

That was the year my parents separated. Although they weren’t divorced until a year or so later, I never spent long chunks of time with him after. I traveled from New York to Morgantown and later to Texas to visit him at Christmas and for two weeks every summer, but I was a kid. Instead of asking questions about his childhood (he grew up in Tehran, the son of well-to-do Russian émigrés) or his work (he was a professor of genetics), I roller skated in the driveway, swam in the pool at the complex or played Barbies in the bedroom with Rhonda, the girl next door. I didn’t know then that illness would cut his promising career and life short. And he never worried me with the fleeting nature of time.

(My father is the boy in the sailor suit, front and center.)

Maybe, if I’d had an inkling.

Maybe, if I’d been older.

I’d have sat next to his recliner in the den in Morgantown or the family room in Texas on at least one of those bi-annual visits and listened.

Dad died in 1978 when he was 45, from complications of multiple sclerosis.

Ever since I’ve lived with regret. What was it like growing up on well-heeled Jordan Avenue, Tehran, in the middle of an extended family of musicians, engineers and dentists? Did he ever go with my grandmother, Babi, when she taught piano to the Shah of Iran’s sister? Did he ever accompany my grandfather, Dida, on the civil works projects Dida oversaw for the Shah? What games did he play with General Norman Schwarzkopf (a classmate) before the General became a general? Who the first girl he ever loved? When did he know he wanted to be a scientist? Did he ever regret coming to live in America?

I will never know the answers.

(My father is center, back row with Norman behind him and to his right.

(My father is in the back row, center. Schwarzkopf is the blond boy to his right.)

But recently, through Numéro Cinq, I met Lynne Quarmby, a professor of cell biology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. We ‘friended’ each other on Facebook, and began to correspond. One day, on a whim, I asked Lynne if she’d ever heard of my father. I’d been thinking of childhood and essays for Numéro Cinq Magazine.

“His name was Igor V. Sarkissian,” I wrote. “Back in the 60s and 70s he was experimenting on hybrid corn and beans (which is about all I know of his work).”

(My father in his lab in the 1960s.)

Lynne said she’d look and see what she could find out. A few days later she sent me this gift:

Dear Natasha,

So far as I can tell, your father published 91 scientific papers (there may be others that my searching did not uncover). He produced a solid body of work, taking a biochemical approach to an important agricultural and intriguing physiological problem. There was a peak of interest in his work in the 70’s (during which time his work was cited 50 or more times per year in the published work of other researchers). As is typical of virtually all scientific papers, the citations tapered off over the years. However, and this is the remarkable thing, his work is still being cited today. The field of biology, including plant genetics is moving so incredibly quickly that the vast majority of papers drop out of sight within a few years. To be cited more than 30 years after publication is a significant accomplishment and your father achieved that with 5 of his papers. Because he worked in an area somewhat distant from my expertise, it is difficult for me to provide a synopsis of his body of work. In lieu of that, I choose to focus on his mostly highly cited work, a 1966 publication – which by the way, has already received a 2011 citation in a review paper (this means that a current expert in the field has commented on the impact of this particular piece of work by your father).   –Lynne

Lynne then reviews my father’s 1966 paper, about hybrid vigor, translating it into laymen’s terms. I won’t summarize the 1966 article here—a future post—but the crux of the matter is this:

I’d had an idea that my father’s work had been important, but I had no idea as to its scope or that it was still generating interest. My father would be proud to know he made an impact.

When he found out, at age 24, that he had multiple sclerosis, he became single-minded, hoping to have enough time to be able to make some kind of contribution. And the fact that he was able to partially do so lessens the sadness I feel for his short and somewhat unlucky life.

–Natalia Sarkissian

Jan 252011

Journey's end, back-country in British Columbia


It is an undoubted fact that in the heart of every young Canadian there lurks the impulse to pack up and drive across the country at least once. The road itself, the Trans-Canada Highway, and the immense distances beckon you. DG’s nephew, Barrett Olson-Glover, left Oakville, Ontario, just after Christmas and arrived in Vancouver New Year’s Eve. He was supposed to drive with friends, but his friends lacked the true adventurous spirit of the breed, and they abandoned him. Hence he had to take his trip photos while driving one-handed.  There is just something visceral, no matter how gray, cold and alien the outlook, in photographs of the empty land. Lake Superior is mythic, the Prairies are lunar, and the mountains  exude an air of being party girls who know how good they look (and yes their sheer immensity, catching the light, seems also inhuman). The back-country photos of Barrett (top and bottom of the post) in British Columbia were taken by his boarding friend Dan Robertson.



Heading north to go west over the Great Lakes

First glimpse of Lake Superior

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Jan 242011

Lynne Quarmby is one of dg’s old and dear friends. She is a gene biologist who  runs a research lab at Simon Fraser University and lives in West Vancouver; she’s also a painter (see five water colours earlier posted on NC), a musician and a big-time outdoorswoman. DG briefly attended Simon Fraser in the summer of 1969 as a graduate student in philosophy. That summer he won the British Columbia 5,000m track championship, climbed the Lions (the twin snowy peaks you can see in the distance from downtown Vancouver), and went to San Francisco and hung out on Haight and Ashberry (where nothing much happened). Lynne’s “What it’s like living here” essay reminds him of the past (although it was summer and it didn’t rain much, and he lived on campus on top of Burnaby Mountain and didn’t have to commute). Vancouver really is one of the most gorgeous cities in the world, with English Bay out in front and the beaches and the ships and the great bridges and the snowy mountains just behind.


What it’s like living here

from Lynne Quarmby

in West Vancouver, British Columbia



The one thing everyone seems to know about Vancouver is that it rains. It’s true. It is raining now, as I look from my 4th floor apartment in West Vancouver across English Bay to Kitsilano. The glow of streetlights at 11 am this January 7 morning emphasizes the daytime darkness and feeds the sense that the soft rain will continue unrelenting for weeks to come, socked-in, drizzling, misty, foggy, dark and wet. When days are this dark melancholy seeps in – you’ve been forgetting to dose with vitamin D to compensate for the lack of sunlight (and thinking too much about the lack of research funding). But Vancouver is a coy place. It relents, the clouds thin and lift and you thrill to the spectrum of grays – oyster, pearly, mousy, leaden, silver. It’s 3 pm and the continuously changing light makes it difficult to stay focused on the lecture that needs to be written.  I relent and head out for a walk, knowing that I will be up late working.


Balcony in the sun

The Sun

2 PM Saturday, January 8. I sit outside, soaking up sunshine. The surprise arrival of this sunny day demands attention. The sun shines directly onto my building, and because the heat is absorbed by and radiates from the concrete building, my balcony is warm. I’ve eaten lunch outside in my shirtsleeves, absorbing the warmth, absorbed by the view of sky & sea. I watch the freighters at anchor as they swing with the flow of the tide. One steams into port for its turn at the docks. The seagulls cry. A lone kayaker paddles up the coast. I am watching through a curtain of rain. At this moment I am the pot of gold at the end of someone’s rainbow. I look across the bay to the city – whose rainbow?  I close my eyes and focus on the warmth of the winter sun. I breathe deeply and slowly, savoring the air – cleaner than we deserve, refreshed daily by the mountains and the sea breezes. It is all too much, and soon it will be gone again. How long can I sit here absorbing paradise? About 30 minutes. If you were here perhaps we’d sit for a while longer.

The Lions from Sky Train

The Forests and the Mountains and the Sea

It’s Sunday afternoon and I’ve driven the 15 minutes up the mountain directly behind my apartment. The open area around the parking lot is a zoo. Families with sleds, tubes, dogs, and kids running wild  – everyone is manic with the sunshine. We all act as though the sun never shines in the winter, that this is remarkable, spectacular, something to write home about. And it is, even though it isn’t really all that unusual. It is my first ski of the winter and I feel awkward as I set out cross-country into the forest. Within 500 meters I find a deep quiet and feel the peace.  I try to ski high enough for a view across the ocean as we roll away from the sun, but I am too slow.


Cypress Mountain

The Commute

West Vancouver is a small town; a city distinct from Vancouver. Here I walk the seawall to wherever I need to go – yesterday 0.5 Km west to the village of Dundarave where I picked up a roll of quarters for the laundry. Frequently I see seals, but on this walk I saw a sea otter. Later I took my backpack and walked east 1 Km to the village of Ambleside to buy groceries from Mitra’s, a Persian market. There was a heron fishing in the intertidal. There are usually bright scooters, occasionally bald eagles, and always seagulls. Last week I watched a seagull swallow a starfish. Perhaps next weekend I will walk a little further to the sailing club to ask about kayak rentals. During the week I leave this idyllic community and commute to Simon Fraser University where I am a professor of Cell Biology.

Although it takes twice as long as driving, I commute by public transit. I take a bus over the Lion’s Gate Bridge, through Stanley Park into the city (by which we mean downtown Vancouver) where I disembark to a chorus of “thank you” “thanks” “have a good day” – riders here acknowledge the driver as they exit the bus. Buses that pass you by because they are out of service or full announce “Sorry” on their destination screens.   From downtown I take the sky train out of the city. Twenty-five years after Expo ’86, riding the sky train still feels futuristic.  It is a clear day and Mt Baker, a large (inactive?) volcano about 100 Km southeast in Washington State, hangs in the sky like a rock & ice metaphor for our big brother to the south – always there even when we don’t see it. Out the north window, although small & distant the snow capped coastal range captures my attention. The people-watching is fabulous, but the listening isn’t. It helps to have a great set of headphones – every commute is a movie and I get to choose the sound track.

Bookclub Dessert

Lemon meringue pie
Bus with standing room only
Serve “transit rider parfait”

Lion's Gate Bridge and Stanley Park from the seawall in front of my apartment

The University on Top of Burnaby Mountain

Tuesday January 11. This morning I delivered a 2-hour lecture to ~70 Molecular Biology & Biochemistry majors on how cilia – those tiny rod-like structures that protrude from the surface of almost every cell in your body – function as cellular antennae. In particular, I was reviewing for the students some recently published data that (almost) reveals how urine flow through the collecting ducts of the kidney causes cilia to bend and send signals to keep the cells small. When this flow-induced signalling pathway is defective, as it is in patients with Polycystic Kidney Disease, the control of cell size and division is disrupted and ducts bellow into cysts. We work through the evidence to decide whether there is causality behind an intriguing correlation.

After lecture I stop by my lab. We are feeling a little lowly these days because last week we learned that my application for the renewal of the federal grant that funds our research was not successful. The application scored in the “excellent” category but research dollars are short.  The reviewers raved about the proposal, but they want more preliminary data to demonstrate that our ideas are on the right track. I’ve had to give notice to three people. Today I have only 30 minutes to spend in the lab because I am on the examining committee for a thesis defense this afternoon. When I get to the lab I find everyone waiting expectantly. There is excitement because Laura has obtained a new result.

Laura loading gel

Laura is a self-confident third year graduate student who isn’t yet sure whether a life in science is worth the sacrifices. She prepares a slide for me and we go to the microscope. She doesn’t tell me which sample is the control but the result is so clear that it is obvious. All through the thesis defense I jot notes. This new data is a big boost for the renewal application and I am trying to decide how it affects where to put our efforts over the next six weeks. It is important to only do experiments that can give us informative results before the application is due; it is also important to do the key experiments. Which key experiments are most likely to work and to work quickly?

Wednesday, January 12. SFU gets a snow day while the rest of the city goes to work. More commonly we go to work like everyone else and then get stranded on the mountain when the roads close. I make sure I have snow boots with me so I can walk the 45 min down the trail into the rainy lowlands and catch a bus home.

The Future

Friday, January 14 the rain is back in spades. In the evening I decide to go for a swim – in the summer that would mean the ocean, but tonight I pull up the hood on my raincoat and head across the road to the Aquatic Centre.  It feels good to be in the bright light, listening to families splashing in the play area next to where I swim lengths. As I leave the Aquatic Centre, Brenda is arriving. A fellow resident of Surfside Towers, Brenda is in her 50’s, or maybe 40’s – it’s difficult to tell. She is about 5’2” and has puffy features with small squinty eyes. Brenda speaks in a mumbling nasal voice, but her manner is caring and gentle. I learn that she swims every Friday night. She tells me about the sauna and the steam room – I’d missed those. After running home through the rain, I arrive at our building at the same time as Steve who is returning from an event at the Legion. He is a tall man in his 70’s with a dignified carriage and a gracious manner. Tonight he is in uniform with medals on his chest. At first Steve doesn’t recognize me (we’d met at the Christmas party). Then he sees that I’ve been swimming. He tells me that Brenda swims every Friday night. On our way up in the elevator he pushes “G.” It is nice, he explains, for people coming home in the evening to have the elevator waiting.

Shades of gray from my balcony

Tomorrow I will take the ferry to visit friends on Bowen Island. I’ll break my mostly vegetarian routine to share a meal of wild venison.  We’ll talk of recent shows we’ve seen in the city – whenever Bela Fleck or Chick Corea comes to town we’ll all be there. We may try out the new Sauna they’ve built of driftwood.

—Lynne Quarmby