Thicker than Water

When I was jobless and living in Victoria, B.C., I had very little to do each day save for skateboard and make dinner for my girlfriend, who was working at a call centre. It was extremely hard for “out of towners” to find work, and we were just scraping by. One night, we splurged and went out to see the documentary The Corporation, which was playing at a local theatre. After the film, the director was actually there to answer questions, and after he was done talking, the radio station that sponsored the event had some prizes to give away. As luck would have it, my ticket was one of the ones called, and I went to the front of the theatre to choose my prize. There were an assortment of mostly CDs which must have been sent to the radio station as promotional items, and which they were giving away as prizes. In the semi-darkness of the theatre, I picked one that had an interesting looking cover. It turned out to be the Thicker than Water soundtrack to a movie about surfing made by musician and surfer Jack Johnson. My then girlfriend, who has excellent taste in music, was very happy with my random choice, as she had been looking to own that album for some time. It was just a little thing, but because we were so broke, it seemed like a major windfall.

So whenever I hear songs from this album (there’s one or two that make it on the radio, or the Starbucks’ feed from time to time) I associate the music with a sense of the Pacific Ocean, skateboarding, unemployment and the feeling of being very far from wherever it is that one is meant to be. The light, ethereal songs collected on the album carry for me a kind of nostalgic feeling for a time when being utterly lost held a certain liberating appeal.

The reason I’m thinking about all this, is that for the past couple months, I’ve been contemplating which of two projects to pursue for my PhD thesis. I was leaning, recently, towards a revised project that looks at the undead and film, whereas my original proposal that studies the political and community aspects of skateboard culture was seeming less interesting. But then today in a class where we were looking at Ranciere’s rather narrow redefinition of the political, we were asked to come up with some local examples of political action that would fit Ranciere’s template. My suggestion of skateboarding came under some heavy criticism from a fellow student who couldn’t see how the struggle of a skateboard community to gain control over a historic skateboard spot could be considered as in the same league as, say the struggles of the Zapatista movement in Mexico. And there is a difference in scale between the struggles of skateboarding youth to frame a recognized identity and sense of agency, and the fight of a displaced indigenous population, but I also saw in the student’s inability to recognize the skateboard community’s plight as a political one a symptom of just the kind of “lack of visibility” of the “people that have no part” that Ranciere is talking about.

This exchange left me with the conviction that the political dimensions of the struggle of disenfranchised youth to have both their historical narrative and sense of agency recognized within the larger social realm (what Ranciere calls the process of “subjectification”) is a narrative that needs to be written, and so I am now leaning towards my original proposal, with the hopes that the undead will continue to haunt popular culture long enough that I can come back to them at a not-so-distant date.

This change of direction was affirmed on my way home from dinner at a friend’s house tonight (although I should probably sleep on it before making any firm resolutions). I had my new skateboard with me and caught a late bus “down the mountain” as they say around here. The bus was empty save for a few people, including a couple of St. Patrick’s day revelers, scantily clad and clutching text-messaging devices. I made my way to the back corner seat (always my favourite spot). Sitting in the opposite corner was a lanky, older man in jeans and a grey shirt. He had long, oily brown hair and thin features, and was listening to music on some kind of portable MP3 player with a tiny speaker that was clipped to his shirt. It was hard to hear anything but the tinny beat over the dull roar of the bus engine, but when the bus stopped I was surprised to make out the familiar moog effects from Dark Water & Stars…one of the memorable tracks from the Thicker than Water soundtrack. (Could this have been one of Hamilton’s fabled surfers who ride the waves on the breakwater beneath the Burlington Skyway?) When this atmospheric song ended, and My Guru started (the next song on the album), I was having a hard time believing the uncanny manner in which this music, and the sense of unearthly displacement affixed to it in my mind, had tracked me down in the back seat of a Hamilton bus tilting its way down the escarpment, with the lights of the city spilled out below like so many flickering constellations.


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