In the interest of faster service, please remove your pants before arriving at the cashier.

The state of Indiana has passed what the media is calling a “religious freedom law.” In a truly extraordinary display of cruelty to the English language, the law protects people from having their religious freedom “burdened substantially” by what one assumes are – at least in Indiana – inconsequential matters like the rights and freedoms of others.

One potential outcome of this legislation is causing a furor. It is now possible for devout business owners and employees to refuse to serve gay or lesbian persons and/or same sex couples if doing so would “substantial burden” their religious beliefs.

Predictably, a firestorm of protest has greeted the law’s passing. Companies have threatened to cancel business deals, conventions are threatening to move, and the usual list of Hollywood stars are announcing that they will refuse to shine – at least in Indiana.

I would like to suggest we take a different approach. Rather than opposing this law, let’s do the opposite! To avoid religious hypocrisy, let’s insist that these business persons be forced to refuse to serve any individual whose actions go against their faith. And in order to assist them in achieving this state of purity, I am happy to provide this biblically sourced list of those who must not be served. In addition to gays and lesbians, it includes any of the following:

  1. Those who eat bacon, cheeseburgers, pulled pork sandwiches, shrimp, or meatballs with a sprinkling of parmesan cheese.
  2. Men who are now or who have ever been drunk. Only men who have mothers may be refused service. Any man who can provide documentary proof he never had a mother may still be served (as long as he also never had a cheeseburger of course.) Women who are drunk may still be served, even if they have mothers (but not if they have a cheeseburger.)
  3. Anyone who worships a false god. (Lists of false gods are easily available, but yes, they would likely include the Kardashians, Dr. Oz and One Direction.)
  4. Men who are not circumcised.  OK, the test for this might be a tad embarrassing at the check-out counter  but hey, we’re talking about religion here! Besides, it gives whole new meaning to the term “check out counter.”
  5. All magicians – of both genders – with or without mothers.
  6. Anyone who tries to convert people to another religion. This would include all evangelicals, about 40% of Indiana’s population.
  7. Anyone who refuses to control his or her bull in public. (What they do to their bulls in private is entirely up to them and – one assumes – their bulls.)

There are other groups who may not be served, but this list will likely ensure that those business persons involved will very quickly no longer be business persons. This will ensure that they will never again be “substantially burdened” and will be free to practice their religion as Jesus did his – in poverty.

It will also mean that the rest of us will never have to deal with them – at least in Indiana.

 

Sochi and the “Putin Wants a Penis” Games

After the unexpected PR failure of the first new event, “Puppy Killing”, Putin games organizers nervously roll out the second group of new sports: the Putinathalon!

Welcome to Part Two of The Elegant Bastard’s preview of new sports debuting at Sochi’s Putin Olympiad (also known as the “Putin Wants A Penis” Games).  The first sport, Dog Destroying, failed to garner much public support but organizers have big hopes for the much hyped “Putinathalon” .

Like the decathlon and heptathlon of summer games fame, the Putinathalon is actually a collection of events, the main difference being that any number of separate contests can be added at any point by any on-site Russian president.

The rules for these contests vary but each must involve an identifiable phallic symbol being modelled in public. A phallic symbol is arguably anything that’s penis shaped – in other words, it’s longer than it’s wide – but purists have demanded that only traditionally masculine objects be included. Thus, rolling pins, sharpies and curling irons were not approved for these games. Instead, a competitor must successfully squeeze in his (right) hand any one of the following: an automatic rifle, a fishing rod, a paddle, a large dead fish, skis or a tranquilized tiger. Alternatively he may pose sitting astride what appears to be a very old horse or a photo-shopped bird of prey.

Whatever the phallic object, the subject must grip it tightly long enough for state media to take the appropriate pictures. (Photographers are expected to crouch and angle their cameras upwards, thereby adding height to the subject and length to the object.)

Note: There is no expectation that the competitor will actually use the object. In fact, those standing nearby would prefer that the subject not have the opportunity to let the object go off prematurely.

As we all realize, symbolism is a fragile art and to ensure that the penile does not accidentally become the puerile, certain mandatory exclusions have been imposed. No competitors are permitted from countries or races that allow men to grow taller than is absolutely necessary. In fact, to ensure symbol security, potential competitors must be exactly 5 foot 7 inches and hold a public position equal to but not greater than that of  … well … a Russian president.

All events require competitors to appear bare-chested. Some will also require the wearing of Speedos but a quick glance at similar Putin pictures already posted at Google Images (just enter Putin and “bare”) makes it clear that no one could possibly be offended. (There may, however, be a fair amount of giggling.)

Given the necessary restrictions, no one will be much surprised to learn that current Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is the only competitor and will likely take gold, silver, bronze, tin, lead and silly putty medals in each sport. Please note that the medals for these events will not be circular. A special assortment of ten inch long rods has been commissioned. It is unlikely that Putin will wear them around his neck.

At the conclusion of these new events, Putin is expected to announce that Russia’s current national anthem is to be replaced by that popular ‘70’s songs, “I Wanna Be A Macho Man” by the “Village People”.

You heard it here first! Tell your friends.

Those wishing to hear the original version of the proposed new anthem may find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AO43p2Wqc08

Puppy Killing and other new sports at the Sochi Winter Olympics (1)

In which the Elegant bastard chronicles the smaller stories that are part of these, the Putin Ego Games

The Elegant Bastard’s Winter Olympic Games Report (1): My task is to provide ongoing analysis of the new sports Russia is introducing to these, the Putin games. The first, Dog Killing, will begin – like a few other sports – prior to the official opening. The unusual feature here is that organizers hope to have the entire competition wrapped up early as well.

This new sport includes three events:  Whole Pack Pumping, the Individual’s Elimination Round and, for younger viewers, Puppy Popping. The first will involve teams armed with light machine guns converging on those Olympic sites where groups of stray dogs gather to sun themselves and beg for scraps. Making every effort not to accidentally strike straight tourists, teams will fire carefully aimed bursts whenever they encounter suitable targets. Official scorers will travel with each team. Points will be awarded for greatest number of targets hit within the allocated time. There will be “only wounded” and “still whimpering” deductions.

The “Individual’s  Elimination Round” will focus on single dogs who enter journalists’ unfinished hotel rooms or who take “unsightly” naps at official venues. Competitors will initially be expected to use only pistols but, if necessary and with permission from any official, machine guns may once again be used. Games volunteers will accompany competitors and will have a supply of plastic bags in which successfully achieved targets will be stored. In those few cases where single small dogs have been taken down with machine guns, it is likely that hoses will be necessary to prepare the field for subsequent events and official visits.

The final sport is arguably the most difficult to master. Puppies are small and unpredictable targets, dashing in all directions in search of food and their mothers (all of whom will likely have been involved in the Individual’s Elimination event.) Competitors will be expected to take down one puppy per shot (officially referred to as a “pop”.) Bonus points will be awarded if one “pop” takes out two or more pups.

In keeping with the IOC’s expectations that Olympic sites and materials be recycled wherever possible, all weapons used in the three events will be sent to the Syrian government at the conclusion of the games.

As is expected to be true in all judged events, Russia will likely sweep the medals board.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/sochi-killing-stray-dogs-in-preparation-for-the-winter-olympics-9105046.html

(While the Original Elegant Bastard attends to the games, apprentices will post the regular pieces. Later today, a new way to deal with fitted bed sheets will be posted here.)

You Can’t Trust the Yak Meat

In which The Elegant Bastard considers the potential impact on our best laid plans of men with guns and rotten yak meat.

Somewhere in Nepal: They are in a tiny nameless village, and at six thousand metres, these two young European men are somewhere near the roof of the world. They have trekked here without guides and it has taken them ten days. Their destination is a gap in the mountains, a break in the high rock walls. Once there, they will be able to see the sun rise over some of the taller Himalayan peaks, among them Annapurna, whose name can be translated as “Goddess of the Harvests” or “the mother who feeds.”

That goal is less than hour’s easy walk away. But now one man lies helpless in a dark windowless cabin, his body wracked with fever and periodic spasms. He feels like he has been vomiting forever. They think he is dying. They may be right. And for now we are going to do the only thing we can do. We are going to leave them there…

Somewhere in rural Quebec: It is April, it’s cold and I am pacing back and forth in the lobby of a small inn. I have been here two days. When I have not been evading the trillions of tiny black flies who seem determined to be my friends, I’ve been muttering to myself and writing feverishly in a tattered notebook. Other guests seem to be getting nervous.

It began when my thesis advisor, a patient lady – who seems to have far more gray hair now than when we first met – suggested I give up the idea of writing “something new about phallic symbolism in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” But I had spent nearly a year analysing countless dreary references to ghostly trees, drooping poles, unloaded guns and things that go pop in the night. I was too far beyond the reach of reason to give up now. The truth was out there and I needed to find it.

The only problem was that so far, “it” had proved elusive and I no longer had the time required to develop a whole new project. Either I articulated a thesis – now – or I started looking for what my friends and family were loudly and repeatedly describing as “a real job.”

Caught between their increasing noise and my own growing panic, I had grabbed enough overtime hours at a local warehouse to finance a do-or-die weekend retreat. A friend had recommended this tiny hotel far away from all distractions, mentioning as he did so the superb quality of its roast duck. And so here I was, and while I was clearly the popular choice as new lord of the black flies, I was also still thesis free.

I decide that even this state of isolation is not enough. As if to reinforce this thought, a phone rings, pots clang, a radio blares and a vacuum roars into life. I approach the front desk and the by now apprehensive manager. I tell him I want to go out and get lost. He nods. He seems to want that too.

He points out that other than the road leading to the highway, there are no real paths here. Outside is simply forest. No matter what direction I choose, I would soon be lost. He smiles and nods encouragingly towards the door.

I gather up my papers, my pens, my books, my bag and my boots and head for my waiting wilderness. He calls me back to ask if I want the duck or the pheasant for dinner. It seems I must choose now. When I say I can’t decide, he shakes his head, as if once again made weary by the ways of urban intruders. But no matter. He tells me he will set the proper wheels in motion. He adds that he will ring a large bell in a few hours to help me find my way back. He then wishes me a pleasant afternoon.

Soon I am a good distance off in the forest, tramping purposefully towards nowhere in particular and content enough not to care. The temperature has fallen and my flies seem have abandoned me. I am alone with my thoughts. I walk on, thinking. Time fades and as it does, ideas begin to come together. Months of fragments start to construct a possible whole. I feel myself on the verge of an epiphany. It’s working out as expected. My plans are about to bear fruit. If brains can be pregnant, then mine is about to give birth to septuplets!

I cheer out loud, punch the air and spin around to start the trek back to the inn. Five metres away from me stands a bearded man with a rifle. I had not expected him.

For a split second, I feel fear. Then I remember where I am and why I am here and I feel I want to chuckle. And suddenly the thesis I’d been chasing for a year springs fully formed and beautiful into my mind. I laugh out loud. The man with the gun laughs with me. He’s very large. So is the gun.

Now he gestures. He points to the rifle, to two bloody bags at his feet and then to me. He nods his head, and then shakes it. I realize he does not speak English. As I do not speak gun, we have a problem. He repeats the entire pantomime again and makes some sounds that are not language. I get the feeling I am supposed to make a decision.

While I consider the possible consequences of making the wrong choice, the manager of the inn comes tromping up behind the fellow with the gun. They shake hands and they hug. The manager uses sign language to send the large man a message. The large man laughs, shoulders his rifle, strides over and shakes my hand.

The manager now explains to me that my new friend – who is both deaf and mute – is a skilled hunter. In one bag are ducks. The other contains pheasants. I am supposed to pick the bird I want for dinner and pay him for whichever I choose. The manager had rightly if belatedly assumed that I might not understand the situation and had come to see if I needed help. I nod. The three of us walk back towards the inn. I have my thesis, my duck and a new appreciation of irony and chance.

Somewhere in Nepal: Of the two young men in the mountains, I know one well enough not to be surprised that he is there. After all, he had nothing back in France except a new degree, the offer of a well-paying job, the chance of an apartment in Paris and a wine collection already assembled on his behalf. Who in that situation would not rush to Bhutan? I assume that the young man with him is also there by choice. The only way to be in Bhutan “by accident” is to be born there.

My young friend is actually on a mission of mercy. His goal is to provide people in Bhutan with access to dental care, something that is now in very short supply. But since he happened to be in the neighbourhood, why would he not decide to climb thousands of metres in order to see the sun rise on a mountain?

He and his friend had been given some advice prior to their trek. Take a guide with you. Understand that conditions at this altitude may do harm to both the mind and body. Remember that if anything does happen, there are no clinics, no doctors and no reliable communication. Not even helicopters will be able to provide help. The air is too thin. This is a place far beyond the reach of logic, compassion, forgiveness or regret.

But all this advice is put aside. They are young, smart and in outstanding physical condition, exactly the kind of people who need to make love to mountains. They have done their research, weighed all the possible outcomes and they set out on the climb.

They reach this place after a long day; they are exhausted and hungry. As much as they want to see Annapurna, they also want a hot meal. Unbelievably they discover a small restaurant with some huts attached that can be rented for an evening. They will go on to their mountain in the morning. For now they will stop. My friend will stuff himself with heavily sauced yak meat and the two of them will take a room for the night.

He does not consider the possibility that the yak meat might be rotten.

And when it becomes evident that it is, things move quickly beyond the point where voluntary vomiting might make a difference. He can not uneat the meat. And so for three days he fights the poison, relying on the only tools available – his immune system and his will power. His friend is powerless to provide anything other than fresh water.

On the fourth day – three would have been too derivative, no? – he is able to rise from his bed.  He can feel his strength returning. They are running short of time so they shoulder their packs and move on. Soon they reach their destination and the two of them are able to look out upon Annapurna and be fed by her.

That is where we will leave them. If I can figure out the technology, I will share with you a picture I was sent. I wonder if your reaction will be the same as mine. I can admire the view; it is spectacular. But I cannot understand it. Annapurna is not my mountain. It is theirs. In much the same way, my parents and friends could respect – but not fully understand – my thesis. It was not theirs.

And so, Dear Reader, it makes no sense for me to wish you luck on your Annapurnas or success with your thesis statements. Your dreams will likely take other forms. However, there are two things I can wish for you. If you must encounter rifles, may they be held by friendly folk who only wish to offer you a pheasant. And if you must eat yak meat, may it always be fresh.

And as for you my young friend, who, while still in your mid twenties, has already lightly given away the glitter that mesmerizes others in exchange for a beautiful piece of stone and some faraway smiles, may I say how much I admire what you have already accomplished. You, Anthony, are a most Elegant Bastard!

This piece is dedicated to my young friend, Anthony, who has now completed his trek and returned to work on the “Happy Teeth Project”, an initiative he designed. Information about “Happy Teeth” is available at http://happyteethproject.org/ and if what you find there encourages you to make a donation, you may contact him via that site.

Those wishing to explore other existential musings might enjoy “Dances with Buses”. It can be found here: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-7A

Enough About Politics! Back To The Wine!

The Elegant Bastard acknowledges that many who read these posts are beneath the legal drinking age in their various jurisdictions. However, we force young people to pick their careers before they can have them, learn about cars before they can drive them and draw plans of bridges before they can build them. Why not introduce them to wines before they can drink them? In fact, when better?

I received an amusing letter yesterday. It commented favourably about a recent post concerning Toronto’s mayor but then concluded by saying to me, “Ok, we get it. You don’t like Rob Ford. Now let’s get back to the wine talk.” In other words, enough with the gripes. Get back to the grapes.

I agree! It’s time. For now there are no more mayors. With our corkscrews in one hand and our Riedels in the other, let us all go forth and together be wise. Here is the first of a series of reviews about white wines currently available in Ontario. (They are also likely accessible in other regions.)

Rabl Kittmansberg Gruner Veltliner (Austria) 2011, $14.95: When I first sniff a glass of wine, I do so with all the delicacy and finesse of a dog greeting a new best friend. My nose is not near the glass; it is in the glass. My inhalation is not subtle. It’s deep. I am a man looking for metaphors; let no one interfere.

As per usual, the first sniff of this wine suggests fruit. Is it apple-y? A tad. Pearish? A bit. Then the truth arrives. It’s peachy – the restrained suggestion of an under ripe peach that danced quite closely with an overripe melon while holding a flower in its teeth. (Yes, I know peaches don’t have teeth. If you’re going to be like that, go away.) The aroma is not at all cloying but I still worry. This much fruit on the nose might be a warning that the wine is sweet, and I generally do not like sweet.

Then another scent begins to manifest in the glass and now I get eagerly and noisily nosey. The epiphany strikes on the third inhalation. It is suddenly a bracing spring morning on the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal and I am there, breathing in the familiar odour of old wet stone.

The first tastes confirm my hopes. The fruit is mellow and almost rich but there is no hint of syrup.  The wine is dry but not at all puckery. There is no hint of the unpleasant astringency that turns so many away from white wines. Instead the combination of fruit and minerality gives the wine a balance rarely obtained at this price point. There’s even a hint of pepper contributing a pleasantly subdued “burn”. The taste lingers and seems to cleanse the tongue with each sip.

As many wines must, this one had to do duty a second night. One day later, it was still intriguing, not bad given that so many wines go flat within a couple of hours of being opened. Day one it paired with basil and lemon braised chicken; on day two its tangy undertones went well with a sage and tarragon flavoured smoked turkey and split pea soup.

When friends and I encounter a new wine, we will often assign it a “personality”. We decided that if this wine were a person, it would be a pleasantly witty and slightly acerbic dining companion (or an advisor of some sort) who arrives dressed in a sophisticated version of business casual. The talk would be all about interesting events and unusual people, with perhaps some wry political commentary tossed in to keep the mood light.  Were any business to be done, it would of course be dealt with successfully. (Professionalism always shows!) The two of you would then stroll together through the light rain to the nearest subway station where you would part, already looking forward to the next encounter.

Cheers!

(This wine is currently available in some Toronto LCBO locations. Its product number is 346007. Rabl is the producer. Gruner Veltliner is the grape and this was my first – but hopefully not my last! – encounter with this varietal.)

To the Reader: As Facebook attempts to deal with its unpleasant economic realities, it seems to be changing the way it serves its members. If you enjoy “The Elegant Bastard” and wish to know when new material is published, you should consider going to its Facebook page and “liking” the page ( not just a specific post.) You will then automatically be notified when new posts occur. Here is the link: https://www.facebook.com/theelegantbastard

As always, I love your comments. There are also two earlier wine pieces.  “All’s Fair in Love and Wine” is at  http://wp.me/p3cq8l-3M and “Of Red Wines and Dancing Partners” can be found at  http://wp.me/p3cq8l-23

Sticks Up The Bum, mr. putin!

A word of explanation: the Elegant Bastard acknowledges that this is the second consecutive post involving foreign objects being inserted in various body parts. This should not be regarded as a trend. The “fly up the nose” of the previous post was a committee decision, one made after more than one bottle of a good Ripasso. As for “Sticks up the bum”, that phrase came (as does so much that is wise) directly from the mouths of babes.

Oh mr. putin, mr. putin, mr. putin. What are we to make of you, eh? Here it was, a lovely Friday morning, one so sunny and so mild that here in Toronto we could all sit back with our morning beverage, gaze at the whimsical flurries of snow  and imagine a ford-free future.

And then you had to spoil it all by saying something stupid like, “Gay people will be safe at Olympics if they ‘leave kids alone’.

Now really, mr. putin, what was that all about? Did you grin at the image of outraged crowds rushing to all available microphones, ranting and raving about homophobia, your own abuse of children and your latest insult to the Olympic spirit? Did you smile and envision hordes of commentators spluttering in fury and waving the reports that completely invalidate your scummy accusation? Did you giggle in anticipation of the storm?

Look around, vlad. Listen carefully. It’s only one day later and – guess what – no storm. Where are the offended masses?

They’re walking dogs, vlad, or they’re watching football, or studying, or, in my case, prepping an upcoming post about some recently encountered white wines.  And why not? You’re the boy we’ve called “goof” once too often for there to be any chance we would take you seriously. Oh, there might be some minimal “analysis” or “commentary”. It’s a Saturday, typically a slow news day and something’s got to keep the ratings up. But most of us will, I think, just shrug our shoulders and see it as yet another bad vlad day. That’s how irrelevant you’ve become.

And in any case, mr. putin, we know you were not posing an argument. You were performing. For you as for Iran’s ahmadinejad, North Korea’s un (and recently its rodman), Syria’s assad, Toronto’s ford, and all the other piggy-eyed little chinless wonders who periodically find themselves on the world stage, it’s not about the content, is it? It’s about the noise. You are there to make noise and any noise at all will do. What’s fascinating is the motive, this question of what makes putin “tick”?

Just who are you, mr. putin? At first I saw you as a modern day Iago, that great villain from Shakespeare’s Othello. For readers who have yet to experience the play, here’s a brutally brief synopsis of Act Three, scene one. Othello, a Moor (and therefore non-white) has married Desdemona (quite white), the young daughter of a Venetian nobleman (very, very White!) All the affected and offended parties (largely white) storm into the palace to see who (or how many) will end up headless. Every Grand and not-so-grand Poobah is there. So is Iago (kind of pale grey or off-white). He is Othello’s servant and a truly nasty little man.

In the next few minutes, everyone – except Iago – gets to speak: the ruler of Venice, the Moor, some senators and even a teenage girl! Iago clearly feels this is an insult because as soon as the stage is empty, he struts, frets, threatens, pronounces, fumes, cackles and even adds an occasional mwahahaha to show himself what a big bad boy he is. He basically behaves like a poster boy for erectile dysfunction.

That’s more or less how I saw putin – Iago without the cool iambics. In short, he seemed to be the classic little man. Throw in a big case of penis-envy and you’ve got someone the NRA would love to get to know.

But that idea didn’t work. Oh it explained the most recent anti-gay slur and his unsubtle bullying of the Ukraine. But these acts were obvious and clumsy, akin to our ford’s attempt to toss a football or run a lap in the council chamber. The original Iago could be subtle when necessary, and putin doesn’t do subtle.

I next imagined him as a little boy wearing his daddy’s shoes and demanding to be allowed to sit with the grown-ups. His manners are so terrible, however, that he is banished to the children’s table in the pantry. Here, instead of throwing potatoes at his sister, he sells arms to Syria.

Whether little man or little boy, the key word here is “little”. It’s clear that putin, like our ford, feels his smallness. In one famous television scene, he and America’s Obama are sitting beside each other on a stage.  putin gets to his feet. Then Obama stands up – and up – and up, up, up. The look of absolute hatred on putin’s face is almost shocking. Rumour has it that putin’s photo shoots are arranged to ensure that no one taller than he is included in the scene. (Apparently this makes it difficult to assemble much of a crowd.)

Yet there was something about the “little” variants that still didn’t quite satisfy me. “Little” came close to expressing his essence but something essential was missing. I discovered the secret in Prague.

The Czechs are famous for puppet theatre. A year or so ago, I had the opportunity to walk through a showroom created by one troupe of performers. Here we could see the puppets at rest. They were all standing and with most, the strings were evident. But a few had the strings folded and placed neatly beside them. How then, I wondered, did they stand erect?

One little girl, clearly bursting with scientific curiousity, decided to find out. To the crowd’s horror, she slipped under the guard rope, ran up to an elaborately dressed puppet king and lifted his gorgeous robe. She then called to her mother, revealing the answer to all (who spoke Czech.) However, translations were made available and the whole room soon dissolved into multilingual laughter. What had the little girl said?

“Mommy. He has a stick up his bum.”

In fact, he didn’t. The puppet was simply mounted on a cleverly designed stand. Still, the little girl’s mistake was understandable. And as I reread the story of Putin’s gratuitous and boorish insult to visiting gay athletes and spectators, I am reminded of the little girl’s comment. It captures the missing piece of the putin puzzle  and is equally true of assad and ahmadinejad and our ford. They are puppets, caricatures of power, each held in place with a stick up its bum until its time for it to dance,  twirl, kick, or fight according to its masters’ dictates.

What part of putin made the comment about gay visitors – the Iago, the little boy, the man on a stick? It doesn’t matter. It’s noise. What can we do about it? I suppose it would be nice to expose those who pull the puppets’ strings or manipulate the stick. That would help. Oh yes, and one more thing.

 We could stop electing them to high office.

To the Reader: As Facebook attempts to deal with its unpleasant economic realities, it seems to be changing the way it serves its members. Whether the issue is capacity or shifting priorities, fewer and fewer people are notified when members post. If you enjoy “The Elegant Bastard” and wish to know when new material is published, you should consider going to its facebook page and “liking” the page ( not just a specific post.) Apparently you will then be notified when new posts occur. Here is the link:  https://www.facebook.com/theelegantbastard

 

 

What It’s Really Like Living In Toronto Under Rob Ford? Imagine A Fly…

In which the Elegant Bastard promises to avoid fat jokes as he explains to those unable to live in Toronto what it’s really like having Rob Ford as mayor.

Over the course of this thing we call life, others occasionally ask us to help them understand the essence of some experience we take for granted but that they are unable to share.   For example, I am a Canadian living in Toronto. Many are not so fortunate. I am therefore often asked to describe my world so that they might at least know what they are missing.

Examples are legion. A group of Detroit school children once insisted that I define and pronounce – repeatedly – that ultimate expression of our nationalism, “eh?”[i] (I understand they attempted a choral rendition when they returned home.) Two tourists from the UK loudly demanded that I show them dangerous bears or badly behaving Biebers and seeing neither, accused me of having deliberately hidden them. (I pointed out that we’d tried that with the Bieber but he kept getting loose and trying to sing.) And one unenthusiastic guest from New York  inquired as to whether we had anything to eat “up here” other than 1) wind 2) snow and 3) poutine (which she regarded as even less edible than the wind and the snow.) [ii] Add to these the usual stream of astonished “My God, just how big are your feet!” comments and it becomes clear that I should now be an expert at helping those who are busily trying to expand their minds and improve their educations.

Still, I do occasionally encounter a question I cannot answer easily. And by far the most challenging of these is also the one most frequently asked. To date, people from Paris, London, Chicago, Bruges, Vienna, Bratislava and something called Oxnard have declared their urgent need to know the answer to the following: What is it like having Rob Ford as mayor?

I can understand this curiousity. After all, the world has very few Rob Fords and they are all, not surprisingly, quite busy. Russia has its Putin[iii] but his hands are full beating up orphans, quelling pussy riots, harassing homosexuals and preparing to embarrass the entire Olympic movement. He can hardly be expected to run from one foreign city to another giving everyone a “Ford for a Day” moment. Dennis Rodman[iv] is America’s much taller version but he too seems to have landed a permanent gig pretending to play basketball for short North Korean dictators who are trapped in perpetual Bad Hair days.

That just leaves Toronto’s One and Only Original Ford.  And not only do we get to have him all to ourselves, we also have a spare in reserve! (Let’s call him Tweedledoug.) I fully understand that some of you may see this as completely unfair.  If so, I can only suggest that you play upon a key Canadian character trait – guilt.  If you first make us feel bad and then ask us very nicely, perhaps we would be persuaded to let you rent one of them for a while. I don’t think we’d charge much – certainly not by the pound[v]. In fact, a two-for-one deal is a strong possibility! And if you were willing to take Conrad Black, the CN Tower and the Maple Leafs as part of some overall package, we might even be willing to dispense with payment altogether.

Should you accidentally keep them all past the return date, don’t worry. Our other national trait will ensure you barely hear our protests for as you all know, Canadians are polite!

However, such complex trade negotiations are best left to others. You want the original question dealt with now and I think I have discovered a way to answer it effectively. You will, Dear Reader, be required to exercise a little imagination but having read your letters, I know that this will pose no problems whatsoever.

So, what is it like having Rob Ford as a mayor?

Imagine a fly. It is a very large fly, perhaps the largest you have ever seen. You are sitting quietly in your kitchen when you first notice it. You groan for you realize you have once again left the patio doors open, thus providing the creature with a window of opportunity.  Having achieved entry, it now flies in awkward and ungainly circles about the room, periodically bumping into walls and crashing into furniture. It lands and appears to stumble before it scurries off, first in one direction and then another, as if searching frantically for something. You notice a tiny puddle where it landed and you hope that it was there before.

The fly now spots a bag of icing sugar and instantly climbs upon it, buzzing excitedly and stamping its many feet in some bizarre version of a happy dance. But sadly (for the fly) the bag is sealed.  Now the buzz becomes louder, almost angry. It’s as if the fly is swearing. Suddenly it returns to the counter and stomps its way towards the window, trampling an innocent ladybug on its way. You notice another tiny puddle.

You are beginning to think it’s time you did something about the number of insects taking up residence in your kitchen. You are idly pondering whether or not to take a course in Effective Door Closing when suddenly the unthinkable happens. The fly flies up your nose.

In that brief moment, the once great world collapses inwardly upon itself and disappears. The planets are gone. The stars have disappeared. Asia and Europe have lost their romance and Africa its mystery. All is gone, all. Only two things remain: you and the fly up your nose.

You briefly wonder why it chose to do this to you. Was it cold? Was it hungry? Did it look up at your nostrils and imagine them to be two subway tunnels? But then you stop seeking understanding. What does “Why” matter when you have a fly up your nose?

Solutions begin to present themselves. Blow your nose. But wait! Blowing out requires first breathing in. What if you simply draw the fly in deeper? And nose blowing requires nose gripping! What if you accidentally crush your unwelcome guest? What’s the only thing worse than a fly up your nose? A dead fly up your nose!

An agony of indecision invades your entire being. Meaning is lost. So what that you have access to concert halls, opera houses and glorious shopping malls? Who cares that thousands of restaurants wait to serve your every need or that there are legions of pubs and bars and coffee houses dedicated to various forms of stress management? Forget the promotion, the deal, the bonus and the perks! What does life mean any more?  There’s a fly up your nose.

And as you writhe in helpless torment, you hear a sound. It’s a sinister new drone and it’s approaching fast. You close your eyes in denial; you grip your chair in fear. Nothing can save you now. A moment later you discover something much worse than even a mutilated fly up your nose. Its brother has arrived. A fraternity of flies is now camping in your nose!.

Nor is your situation helped in any way by the fact that three million other souls are also suffering, each with its own two-fly burden. Knowing the state of my neighbour’s nose brings me no comfort. In moments like this, I am my nose and my nose is me. A fly enters one nostril; love, sympathy, sharing and compassion instantly fly out the other. And even if I were that rare individual who could see past his own nose and gaze in brotherly sorrow upon yours, what practical good is such empathy? Are you expecting a helpful finger? It’s not going to happen.

In fact, a flies-in-the-nose epidemic like Toronto’s instantly proves false the notion that misery loves company. If anything, tensions rise dramatically. Approximately one third of the population either refuses to admit it has flies up its nose or claims to be enjoying the sensation. Another third is obsessed with denying any and all personal responsibility. They proclaim themselves innocent victims, undeserving of their flies. And the last third strides around the city, pointing sanctimonious fingers at others and chanting, “Who let the flies in? You let the flies in!”

Then, slowly at first, but soon with increasing speed, things fall apart.

And the low grey sky teems with grieving crows.
A brooding pathos in my dark soul grows.
Are there some who would stand and strike brave blows?
I won’t.  You see, there are flies up my nose.

And that, Dear Reader, is what it’s like having Rob Ford as mayor.

Any questions?

As always, please feel free to send me your comments. If you enjoy the post, by all means :share: it or :tweet: it. You could also print it, roll it up and use it to ward off furious flies.

Since the links in the footnotes are not hyperlinks, I’ve provided them here. The definition of “eh” can be found at http://wp.me/p3cq8l-6n

The piece concerning new Canadian snack foods can be accessed at the at the following: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-1K


[i]  For the definitive definition of “eh” and other small marvels of meaning, see The Elegant Bastard’s “Dictionary of Helpful Words and Phrases” here: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-6n

[ii]  For the answer to her crudely put question, see The Elegant Bastard’s learned treatise on the subject of potential new Canadian snacks. The piece is called “Do You Want Bieber Chips with That?” and it can be read here: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-1K

[iii]  Yes, I know his name is Putin, not Ford – but as Juliet reminds us, “What’s in a name?”

[iv]  See Juliet’s comment above.

[v]  I’m sorry. I said no fat jokes. But I’m only human. I made a mistake. Nobody’s perfect. I’ve apologized. That’s all I can do.

Of Angel Poop and the Meaning of Life

In which the Elegant Bastard avoids Guilt while finding truth in a handful of lima beans.

Perhaps there are 4 year olds out there who are precocious enough to consider hedonism consciously and fully, but I was not among them. Whatever moral understanding of the world I had at that age was simple and personal. “Good” was a largely domestic phenomena that included my parents, my grandmother, anything made of chocolate, “I Love Lucy”, sweetened condensed milk on toast, the Montreal Canadiens and on three days of most weeks, my sister. “Bad” was more widely dispersed and not so easily defined. It included the bully next door, my uncle’s cigars, the Evil Queen stepmother in Snow White, the Toronto Maple Leafs, my sister on the four remaining days, and something called Communists.

 As for true “Evil”, it consisted of one thing and one thing only. Lima beans.

I was not a picky eater. In fact, much of my parents’ time was spent making sure I did not eat everything too slow to escape my grasp. If it crawled, wriggled, chirped, hissed, sat dead on the ground or even went bump in the night, I tended to wonder what it would be like with a little peanut butter.

But not lima beans.

Nowadays they strike me as merely insipid – bland little legumes the colour of cheap bathroom tiles and with a mouth-feel like chalk mixed with wall paper paste mixed with harvested dandruff.  But to a four year old with a vivid imagination, they looked (and  likely tasted) like the fat little white grubs my father disturbed when he pitch-forked the back garden. I would not eat them easily. So powerful was my aversion to them that it remains the primary reason I have yet to visit Peru.

I was never a child to suffer in silence. The appearance of lima beans at dinner would unleash wails loud enough to awaken the dead and shrill enough to send them rushing back to the quiet of the grave again. Amputations before the age of anaesthetics were accomplished with less noise. So hysterical were my protests that my parents increasingly lowered their expectations. What began as a soggy spoonful became “just a few”, then three and finally just one, given more for symbolism’s sake than nutrition’s. Even then my mother would usually sneak it under my potatoes. I quickly learned to prod it out into the open and my practiced puppy–dog-eyes would then silently accuse her of betrayal. I would push the bean around the plate for a bit – like a cat might a mouse too-long-dead – and then, with a shuddering suffering sigh, I would fork it up and swallow it. This was not surrender or a bargain meant to ensure dessert. It was merely my first attempt at peaceful coexistence and it lasted until the next time the beans appeared.

Attempts were made to increase my consumption. One uncle offered me a penny for every five lima beans I would eat in his presence. But by then I was earning a dime or at least a nickel from the Tooth Fairy at fairly regular intervals and I seemed to have enough teeth remaining to ensure great wealth. When his economic arguments failed, other adults tried the “It’s good for you!” approach. Naive as I might have been at that age, I knew that those four words meant someone was going to force-feed me cod liver oil or stick a needle in some innocent part of my body.  My response was automatic. Whatever I could clench, I clenched. It would be one bean and one bean only.

For people of their generation, my parents had relatively enlightened ideas regarding child-rearing, so the lima bean issue never escalated beyond these and other sneaky variations on the “good for you” strategy. A few whimsical relatives even made a game of seeing who could put forward an argument that might convince me to take more than one of these sodden little objects into my mouth. Didn’t I want to be the next Rocket Richard? How was I ever going to become Prime Minister? What girl would want to marry me? But invariably one cousin or other would point out that while all adults in the room were lima bean eaters, not one had yet won the Stanley Cup or a seat in parliament. And my favorite uncle would then tousle my hair and point out that no girl would want to marry a “scrawny  wee bugger” like me even if I did eat lima beans. In short, a good time was had by all and no one ever tried to guilt me into compliance.

And then my father’s maiden aunt entered the lists and suddenly it was war.

She was well into her eighties at the time, and I sometimes wonder what would have happened to her if she lived now instead of in those years before we invented terms like Alzheimer’s and built the institutions those words spawned. In our world, she was a vaguely terrifying family myth who would periodically emerge from her bedroom and wander about the house, turning the lights and the stove on and off and talking to various pieces of furniture. My sister and I would watch from safe corners and giggle fearfully into our fists. She made our lives exciting and my mother’s life hell. She did both without motive.

That all changed one Sunday dinner. She watched impatiently as my mother served me my lima bean. Suddenly she stood and muttered something about the Lord. She took the pot from my mother’s hand and unceremoniously dumped a great mound of beans on my plate. The long tableful of aunts, uncles and cousins watched as my parents stared open-mouthed and I went into my defensive crouch. The battle began. According to eye witness reports, it went something like this.

Her first salvos had to do with children starving in India while nasty little boys like me wasted good food. I had no idea what “India” was. Perhaps that was where the communists lived. Apparently I told her that if I had to cross the street to get to India, I wouldn’t be allowed to go there on my own so she would have to give them my beans for me. I was then asked if I knew how hard my father worked so that rude little boys could have dinners they didn’t deserve. Again, I don’t think I really understood her. I knew my father did this thing called “work”. He went to “work” each morning and came home from “work” every night. He would spend dinner telling us funny stories about “work”. I am told I just looked at her and smiled and nodded and agreed that Daddy worked. But I did not eat my beans.

Now she brought in the big guns. If I didn’t eat my beans, Jesus and all the angels would be sad and I might never get to Heaven. My cousin tells me that a look of concern finally spread across my face. Perhaps this was because I had seen drawings of Jesus and Heaven in the colouring books at Sunday school. In Heaven, all the little children got to ride around on happy lions and live in a land of milk and honey. No mention was ever made of lima beans. Heaven was also filled with angels. Angels were big happy people with huge white wings like seagulls.  I liked angels and I suppose I wanted them to like me. Apparently I mentioned that fact to my inquisitor.

“Well,” said my great aunt, “if you want to go to Heaven to see the angels, you have to eat your lima beans because lima beans come from there.” She then raised her eyes in Heaven’s direction as if anticipating an immediate downpour of the things. Her momentary distraction gave one of my cousins a chance to lean towards me and whisper in my ear.

“Yeah, lima beans come from Heaven all right. They’re angel poop.”

That was it. Nothing in the world – not dessert, not money, not even promises of hockey glory – would force another lima bean between my lips. I was far too young to understand either metaphors or metaphysics, but I knew enough about life to know that if it something lived, it pooped. Therefore, if angels lived, they pooped too, and according to my older and much idolized cousin, proof of this was now sitting on my dinner plate.

I’ve no idea how the whole event concluded. I’m told that even my tormentor smiled before seeking comfort in her drug of choice, a cup of tea. I certainly did not rush from the table to spend some angsty hours musing on the dynamics of guilt or the role of pleasure in our lives. I likely just ate my dessert – a piece of chocolate cake – and then abandoned the adults (and the lima beans) in order to watch my cousins and their friends practice various dance moves while they listened to “Rock Around The Clock” and “Ain’t That A Shame” on the radio.

It was only years later that I understood the event and its significance. It had been the first time in my life that someone else’s version of Good and Evil had been turned into a club to be used on me. My great aunt had decided to add “Thou Shalt Eat Lima Beans” to the original list of Ten Commandments.  That was her right. Others may, with similar freedom, add, edit or delete at will. By all means deny yourself various actions or partners, live in anticipation of gloom and doom, refuse to wear this, eat that or pay whatever. And as long as what you do or don’t do in no way infringes upon the basic rights of others (and that includes your children)  you can stand on one leg and howl at the moon if you want to – even if it’s under my window! (Hey, I’m a tolerant guy!). Just don’t demand that I howl with you or that I feel guilty if I don’t.

It was also the first time I encountered the idea that pain must come before pleasure. Again, we are all free to establish arbitrary rules for our own guidance. You may have determined that Wednesday is “red socks” day and I can decide that if I don’t do my early morning 5k run, I can’t add maple syrup to my breakfast smoothie.  But you may not mock my sock selection, nor may I sneer at your butter-laden waffles and demand to see a sweat stained t-shirt as proof that you’ve suffered enough to deserve them.

In short, there is no moral link between lima beans and chocolate cake. And if someone tells you that there is, remember this.

It’s all a bunch of angel poop.

So begins an intermittent series of posts concerning Hedonism in this modern age. And I would like to turn to you, Gentle Reader, for help in arriving at a key definition. Tell me what you think Pleasure is and answer the following question: Can Pleasure be pursued? For now, Happy New Year!

(And as always, feel free to tweet, like, share or offer comments.)

The Harvard Conspiracy

In which the Elegant Bastard argues that myths, gods and conspiracies, by and large, are not at their best when seen in their underwear.

The great conspiracies are those that operate openly, accompanied by neither shame nor apology.  They are born in the minds of master manipulators, accomplished story tellers who turn away from secret handshakes, sniff at the very idea of initiation rites and loudly ridicule funny hats that come adorned with strange insignia. No modern Machiavellian worthy of the name would waste time discussing grassy knolls, Elvis sightings and alien landings in Roswell. These are petty intrigues, mere games for children. Genius seeks greater challenges and truer tests. It sets itself nearly impossible goals, such as that achieved by whatever assembly of fine minds fashioned the greatest intrigue of them all: the Harvard Conspiracy.

For generations, a mysterious international network has worked to establish this institution’s unparalleled reputation for excellence. So successful have its previous agents been that subtlety was abandoned generations ago and even the name of the university has been made to serve the myth. Rumour has it that this strategy was devised in some dim and murky past when it first became clear that there remained a few mortals who had not accepted the equivalency of Harvard and Heaven. Despite the fact that each destination had a two-syllable name (nudge, nudge) and the syllables even began with the same letters (wink, wink), quibblers insisted on making much of a minor difference. They pointed out that Hea – Ven named itself in two perfectly equal halves, each composed only of elegantly mellifluous letters; Har – vard’s unequal split had to limp its way around a pair of mundane and unmelodious “r”s. Clearly this would not do!

It is possible that formally changing the spelling of Harvard was considered and rejected as too expensive. Great sums of money had already been spent engraving the name in inconveniently obvious places, and brass and stone do not accept erasures well. And so it was that a few great minds – this was Harvard after all – discovered the far simpler strategy of changing the way the world pronounced the word.  Har – Vard became Hah – Va(h)d, equivalent (given that the second “h” is silent) to “Heaven” in every way but one

It’s harder to get into Harvard

That fact is made clear every year about this time. Forget Christmas Day. A short week later comes the Common Application’s Regular Decision deadline. This is the last opportunity for tens of thousands of adolescents all around the world to let the cool schools know they’re out there, and they throw every last ounce of their beings (and substantial amounts of their parents’ money) into a grand final assault on the gates of the Ivy League.  And no one’s gates are hammered at harder than Harvard’s!

My experiences working with young Canadians applying to this pantheon of great schools has taught me that here in Toronto at least, one of these vine crusted places is not like the others. I have consoled those who whimpered because they “only” got into Princeton. I have assured others that Cornell really is a university and look, it even has a Starbucks. I suggested Dartmouth to one young woman, only to be told that she didn’t want to live in Nova Scotia. And I’ve watched Wharton and Yale rise and fall as trendiness waved its fickle wand first at one and then at the other. But in all my years of working with its potential acolytes, I have never seen Harvard’s status waver. It simply is. It stands unmoving and unmoved.

What legions of silent and invisible hands are needed to maintain this miracle? No other modern deity seems able to maintain so permanent a hold on students’ souls – not boy bands, not athletes, not billionaires, not twerkers. Not even the great religions can count on no-questions-asked devotion any more. In fact, most modern young people seem to approach God as they might some shady street vendor peddling bling. They bargain before they buy. Imagine the bartering session:

“So, God, if you could, you know, like lose the omniscience bit. Guy, it’s getting kinda lame and no one likes a know-it-all, ya know? So lighten up a bit and maybe we’ll go along with the fire and brimstone stuff, ok? But only if we really piss you off! Incest at least. Oh, and while we’re talking sex, can we, like, revisit that whole Gay thing? Whadd’ya say? Coffee? Hey,  Dude! , Ya got skype?

They would never talk to Harvard that way.

This persistent reverence intrigued me and I decided to see if I could finally identify its source.. I had various “ins” available to me. Many of my former students had studied there – without apparent ill-effect. They could be canvassed. Cambridge has some acceptable restaurants. I could check out the menus for hidden symbols. “The Crimson” newspaper has its very good days so I would enjoy reading between its lines for clues. (There is reportedly a football team but I quickly dismissed this as a deliberate distraction.)

I knew the job of dragging the conspiracy out into the light of Truth would not be easy. After all, this was a university that had the balls to hire a president named Faust. I would need to employ stealth. Still, it quickly became evident that Harvard itself seemed to have very little to do with its own “mythification”.  The admissions department did not demand that candidates send photos of themselves genuflecting. No one was required to recite incomprehensible chants in ancient languages. And if an applicant really did need to sign over its future first born, the required paperwork was not available to prying eyes. In fact, the more I searched, the more it became clear that while Harvard was aware of the greatness it had achieved, it seemed to take itself pretty casually. Whoever or whatever lay behind the Harvard Conspiracy, it didn’t appear to be Harvard. Who then were its masterminds? Its architects?

This prompted me to take a closer look at those who wished to go there. My chance came one afternoon when I sat down with a group preparing Harvard applications. As we talked about supplementary questions and reference letters, I noticed that the banter and humour of the previous week’s prep session for other Ivy League schools had disappeared. Once witty and probing essays had been replaced by dry little pieces in which puns had been replaced by pleas. And a little reverential glow now seemed to emanate from each hunched body and every weary face. All that was needed was someone singing “Nearer My God to Thee.”

It was then that I dismissed the idea of some vast cabalistic network serving the telepathic commands of a  Crimson King concealed in the basement of Widener Library. That a conspiracy did exist was absolutely true. That it worked to ignore any failure, flaw or fart that dared deface the Harvard aura was also true. And yes, its members were legion. The only thing false was the idea that this was all organized by Harvard – or even that it was organized at all.

For every single student in that room was a self-contained conspiracy of one.

I think even Harvard itself would argue that a little therapeutic blasphemy was both necessary and long overdue, but how to provide it without being extraordinarily cruel? So I asked them if they would like to hear some lesser known facts about Harvard. They hugged themselves and shivered and then whispered that they would. That’s when I told them that the Unabomber had gone to Harvard.

They knew that and were ready. All this fact did was prompt a long and reverent discussion about the glories of Harvard Engineering, followed by speculation that Harvard Law graduates likely helped track him down. I tried again.

I asked them if they were ready for “Primal Scream”. Asked what this was, I explained that prior to final exams, hundreds of Harvard students would strip naked and run around Harvard Yard. This occasioned a moment’s silence. They all glanced surreptitiously at each other – and then immediately pretended that they had not been imagining precisely what they had all been imagining. The outcome was unanimous (if hesitant) support for the notion that a liberal education demanded the casting off of old ideas. Underwear was an old idea. Next?

I tossed out other feeble bits and pieces but all were similarly ineffective. Did they know the unwritten rule about Harvard’s entry gates? Yes. Did they know about “The Statue of the Three Lies”. Yes, yes, yes and yawn. Had they been told to be careful when rubbing the statue’s foot for luck since Harvard undergraduates were notorious for peeing on it after late-night drinking parties? That prompted a whisper session with much snickering and giggling. Apparently one of the boys had visited his cousin at Harvard the year before and they had all gone drinking and … well … you know.

I tried one last time. Did they know that George Bush had also gone to Harvard? Yes, but they blamed him on Yale since he’d gone there first. I gave up.

What came next happened entirely by chance – or perhaps a disgruntled Heaven finally decided to hit back at Harvard over the whole syllable scandal. One of the students mentioned that the latest Bieber song was the “dumbest song ever.”  Another responded that that honour had to go to “Call Me Maybe”. A third nominated “Gangnam Style”. They all then looked at me, apparently assuming that if a “world’s worst song” existed, I knew it, could sing it and probably had written it.

As it happened, one popped immediately into mind. From childhood I have hated the American folk song, “Polly Wolly Doodle”. It’s a repetitive bit of nonsense involving a chicken that sneezes his head off and a narrator who spends far too much time “behind the barn upon [his] knees”. Add to the mix a grasshopper with both teeth and a poor approach to dental hygiene, and you begin to understand why some religious groups want to ban music.

I sang a line of the chorus. The Harvard posse decided I was making it all up. I assured them I was not and the matter was immediately referred to Google. And lo, the answer became immediately clear. Silence reigned. Jaws dropped. Not only was “Polly Wolly Doodle” very real and very, very bad, it was first published at Harvard! More, it was part of the official Harvard Student Songbook in 1880!

It no longer mattered that Harvard was the alma mater of eight presidents, sixty living billionaires, and dozens of Nobel laureates. It had also given the world “Polly Wolly Doodle” and the mental image of hundreds of streaking Harvard students bellowing “Oh I went down South for to see my Sal, Singin’ Polly Wolly Doodle all the day” was enough to demythify Harvard instantly and irrevocably.

This knowledge did not in any way dampen student ardour. They all went right back to the Harvard admission essays with the same determination as before. But in some subtle way, the discovery that there was just a little silliness in Harvard’s closet lightened the tone. Jokes were now acceptable. Someone spoke highly of Yale. McGill was mentioned! And the essays came back to life and breathed a little (polite) fire.

My father once told me as I nervously prepared for a public speaking contest to imagine the judging panel sitting in its underwear. I did. I grinned, I relaxed and I won. I think that’s what happened that afternoon. Prior to that moment, every student in the room had created an image of  Harvard as some larger-than-life “Being” with flowing grey locks, a stern expression, and shoulders stooped beneath the weight of its accumulated wisdom. Its crimson robes were likely lined with ermine and stitched with gold. And then – in a split second – Polly Wolly Doodle leapt out of Harvard’s closet.  Suddenly and briefly, they all saw Harvard in its underwear.

And that is more honesty than any conspiracy – even those we fondly create ourselves – can withstand.

This post is dedicated to those young people who will devote much of their Christmas Break to the task of completing their Common Applications. In all sincerity, I have enormous respect for each and every one of you. Good luck!

The Deadly Art of Napping

In which the Elegant Bastard argues in favor of limited warfare and offers instruction in the use of appropriate weapons.

I am never at my best when I am under attack.

To a certain extent, these repeated assaults are my own fault, the outcome of my unfortunate tendency to stray without purpose or protection into the larger world. One moment I am safely involved in determining whether this will be a whole wheat or a multi-grain morning. I decide, I toast, and I butter. I then settle into the sunlight and my favorite chair. I am ready to chew peacefully. I turn on the radio…

And suddenly, I am being told that assorted biker-persons have taken to assaulting large sports utility vehicles, that Suzanne Sommers wants the world to know that she and her husband have sex twice a day, that a television network somewhere is promising to provide its viewers with hungrier zombies.

When I find myself wondering if zombies eat toast, I know I have been wounded.

I recover and a little while later, I try again. Friends have arrived. The beans have been properly ground and their rich scent fills the room. We talk about Alice Monroe, the weather in Barcelona and the price of organic asparagus. Someone turns on the television…

And Boehner’s blaming Obama and Obama’s blaming Boehner. The Sochi Olympic flame has gone out four times in two days. Hannah Montana has been murdered; the self-proclaimed killer: Miley Cyrus. Malala wants to be Prime Minister of Pakistan; Beyonce has a new perfume,

I begin to slip over the edge. I lose my grip on the narrative, it fractures into fragments and brand new headlines start to scream: Suzanne Sommers Denies She Had Sex with Olympic Torch; Miley Cyrus Blames Sochi for Boehner: Malala Launches Four New Fragrances; Beyonce Wins in Pakistan; Obama Charged in Hannah Zombie Assault.

I could, were I more careful, avoid this chaotic state of mind. I could simply discipline myself to spend as much time as possible focused on the immediate here and now. I could rush to the rescue of colleagues in need of caffeine, or spend a fruitful hour selecting tomatoes, or unleash a wave of scrubbing bubbles upon the kitchen counter for no reason other than, like Everest, it’s there. And surely somewhere there are essays to mark? But just as I push myself to my feet and stride off to find writers in need of correction, a newspaper is pushed through the mail slot and there, staring up at me from the floor, is the most recent news about the Dennis Rodman – Kim Jong Un bromance … and something in my brain goes TILT.

Now everything I see and smell and hear offends me: my breakfast cereal snaps feebly and it crackles not at all; the pigeons gathering nearby are clearly engaged in a conspiracy; there are far too many people wearing pink who shouldn’t; I discover I live in a city where no matter which way I bike, the wind is in my face; my baguette turns stale in protest; suicidal moths find a window I left open; I swear at the annoying rain but it falls anyway.

Do I flee, gibbering and groaning? Do I stumble off in search of drink or drugs or dark, dark closets? I do not. No, not I, for I am made of stronger stuff. I do what I have learned to do before when all that’s sane seems ready to betray me. I declare war on the world.

What’s that, Dear Reader? You did not know we were allowed to declare war on an individual and ad hoc basis? But of course we are. I see it as a basic human right, and as something we have always done very well. So by all means, wage away. You simply need to find the most effective means of doing so.

I nap.

And before you scoff, let me assure you that the very best authorities endorse my chosen means of engagement. Consider the purpose of a just war (and all my wars are just!)  It seeks to deny an actual or potential enemy the ability to inflict harm. To accomplish this I must understand the nature and motive of the enemy and strike it at its weakest point. I must also attempt to protect myself from unnecessary risk or catastrophic costs. This requires the efficient movement of all available forces as well as the careful observation of rituals and traditions to keep morale at the highest possible levels until victory is finally achieved. It is to these ends that I have developed the Deadly Art of Napping.

My enemy (and yours, Dear Reader) is the mindless and ceaseless barrage of useless “infotainment” launched at us by the barking hordes some call the media.  As massive as this foe might seem, it is vulnerable at one key point: the moment it enters our homes, our private worlds. It is here that our horizontal hostility may – and must – manifest itself!

Let’s review some basic rules. Combat Napping cannot be done on a bed, in pajamas or in the dark. It must not be subtle or easily confused with sleep. Sleep is submission; only naps have teeth. My enemy must know it has been bitten.  I nap fully dressed on the living room couch.

I commence hostilities in the late afternoon or very early evening, precisely when assembled media forces begin to launch their heaviest weapons, their nightly news programs. Like any good soldier, I have gathered reliable intelligence (I love Google) and I know exactly when the first incoming salvos may be expected. In preparation, I turn on the television, set it to mute and scroll through the sub-titling options available before finally selecting something that looks like it could be the national language of Mars. I spend a few delightful moments watching Woolf Blitzer jabber soundlessly, nonsensically and – dare I say it – desperately while I grin (evilly). Ah, but then I remember that this is war and I take up my position.

I open the curtains and the window. I sit down, lay back and position my head upon two plumped pillows, for while I acknowledge that war is hell, I am not prepared to have it be uncomfortable. My feet point east and the back of my head points west, thereby ensuring that the setting sun does not enter the fray as a CNN or BBC agent provocateur. I pick up the novel of my choice – an oh-so subtle insult, no? – open it and rest it on my chest. I check for rations and notice that allied forces have thoughtfully contributed some wine, a few olives, a bit of cheese and a sleepy kitten.  I move my reading glasses down my nose, I breathe deeply and I close my eyes.

The battle is joined.

I know it is intense. I know that just over my right shoulder, the legions of prattle and tattle are demanding my attention. They urge me to regard with shock and awe the news of the great world’s turning. They may offer me panoramic views of floods and fires and fist pumping mobs or close-ups of the tearful, the terrified and the outraged. Whatever!  I am unmoved. I enter my mind, scroll down through the list of prepared dreams, select one and press Play.

They turn to new tactics: not tragedy, but scandal. If killings do not engage me, then what about inappropriate donations, unfortunate copulations, unhealthy inhalations, or even just weird things done with tongues. But in my napping state – somewhere  just below consciousness –  offerings like these cannot arouse me. Yes, I could surface. Of course I could stretch and twist and at least see. But doing so would disturb the kitten on my chest, and that would be cruel. I am never cruel.

We enter the final stage of the conflict. Here come the “Cute”: the chubby baby pandas, and the clumsy puppies, and the strangely dressed cats, and the funny videos of people falling in or out of places and the interview with yet another celebrity who wants to work for third world peace, albeit only on a New York stage. I am invited to please, please, please laugh and cry and be moved.

But I am unmoved. I sense their weakness; their force is dulled and their edge is blunted. Here, safe on home ground, I launch my most powerful weapon. I like to think that at the moment of detonation, three anchor persons, each equipped with at least two of the Big Teeth-Big Hair-Big Smile trinity are gazing out on what they believe is an attentive and adoring world. I imagine them asking each other questions and then telling each other how wonderful the questions were. I almost hear them telling me to wait while they switch to their correspondent who is “LIVE” in Washington and ready to tell me what the president is doing in Wyoming.

And then I snore.

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu refers to the use of weapons in Chapter Twelve, “The Attack by Fire”. A snore is admittedly not combustible, but well timed and well-delivered, one snore can achieve an ironic force  measureable only in megatons.  (And for the record, those who have heard me snore are quite unanimous in preferring immolation to being forced to attend a repeat performance.)

Having snored, I wake, and look around. My war is done. I have demonstrated the truth of one of Tzu’s most critical pieces of advice. “Good warriors take their stand on ground where they cannot lose.” Damn right, Sun, ol’ Buddy! It’s my room, my remote, my couch, my nap, my snore. I win.

I restore my television to its normal settings. The network puppets and my imaginary trinity are all gone, replaced by men with bad hair and plaid jackets telling me what to do when I’m hurt in a car or have stolen jewellery to sell. I go to the window and gaze out over my city. Things seem calm. Order – or its semblance – appears to have been restored. The pigeons even seem to be apologizing.

We cannot write the whole script. But we can always write a little, and improvise an occasional ad lib when the dialogue gets dull. As for those times when the chattering classes seem on the verge of pushing us over the edge, well, that’s when we soldier up and bring out the heavy artillery. We turn our backs and execute an elegant nap, snoring away our foes and reducing them instantly to nothing more than ludicrous mime and impotent fury.

It is Thanksgiving Day in Canada. We shall have turkey and football, both excellent precursors to naps. I have already claimed the couch. And tomorrow we shall have our Prime Minister’s Speech from the Throne. Given his recent history, I am anticipating the sale of at least one – and perhaps two – provinces. Subsequent couch access will apparently be determined by lottery. I have my ticket..

 As is the norm, our outrage has a short shadow, even when it should remain alive. Today for some reason I remembered a young man killed recently by police. I wrote about it at the time. The piece is here: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-6s

 

 

 

 

Dances with Buses

In which the Elegant Bastard encounters a bus, signs his newest work of art and brings order to the relevant portions of the universe.

I had ordered a chicken. Those who arrange such things had promised it would be ready upon my arrival. It was therefore clear that I needs must shake off lethargy, seize the day – or at least what remained of the morning – and head out into the world now busily unfolding itself outside my window.

I considered what I thought were all relevant factors: the weather, the most pleasant route, the availability of good coffee along said route, the wisdom of wearing shorts in late September, the likelihood of encounters with maniacal dogs.  I glanced at the television and noted that while Syria was still being Syria and Nairobi had definitely become Nairobi, there was nothing really new I needed to worry about. I gathered up my shopping list, secured my wallet and my phone in the appropriate pockets, made sure I had my lottery numbers, donned my helmet and set off on my bike. Ahead of me stretched a row of green traffic lights. Things were underway and all was good.

I had not considered buses.

I never really do. They chuff and belch and fart their way along in the appropriate lane and generally ignore my presence. They are ungainly creatures, not much given to elegance, and when I come across one that is resting, it strikes me as something akin to a giant prehistoric cow, chewing its cud complacently and waiting to be driven somewhere. Coming up behind one in traffic can be vaguely annoying, rather like being in the supermarket express line behind a shopper with three too many items and a heavy change purse. I sigh and lean on the handlebars and wait for normal traffic to resume. Ah well. Tant pis. Let’s think of pleasant things. What wine with the chicken tonight? Or what was the name of that pastry shop in Paris, the one with the lemon macaroons?

So when the Don Mills 25 decided it wanted to dance with me, I was unprepared. The world shrank. Paris was gone and so were all the world’s macaroons. It all came down to me, one street corner and a twelve ton beast that apparently wanted to reach out and touch someone! It came up suddenly on my left, sped past and turned right. A leisurely discussion of alternatives did not seem to be an option, especially since the bus’s back door had grabbed my handlebar in passing and was now using it to propel me towards a rapidly approaching concrete post. I wrenched my handlebar further right, braked hard and leaned toward a gap between parked cars. Somehow my bike popped free of the bus’s embrace and came to a stop. I was on the ground, the bus was moving on, a woman was asking if I was all right and somewhere a dog was barking.

When a cyclist falls on asphalt, does he make a noise? Yes, Dear Reader, he does, and fortunately others decided to join in. In due course, we became a loud assembly, a group composed of me, my battered bike, a now parked bus with its hazard blinkers flashing, a bemused driver, a cynical transit supervisor, two sympathetic police officers and assorted members of a chorus who watched and muttered and nodded. Interviews were conducted, forms were filled out and statements were signed, proof yet again that, as a species, we are much better at and more comfortable with “afters” than we ever are with “befores”. Finally a general feeling that enough had been done took hold and the street corner began to clear. I was wondering how to get my bike to a repair shop when an older gentleman came up to me, grasped my shoulder and told me I was lucky that the bus had not had my name on it.

It was at that point that the absurdity of it all became more profound than Paris and more delicious than lemon macaroons. I began to laugh. How could I not? I had set out on a quiet quest for chicken and I’d been hit by a bus. Yet here I was, interrupted and delayed but quite unharmed. True, something had rumbled across my path and delivered me a glancing blow before moving on, apparently untroubled and uncaring. But how could it be seen as God or Fate. If Gods there must be, then I want them coming after me with fanfares and shields and spears. At the very least I want them equipped with thunderbolts. No God worthy of the rank delivers a message via bus! Fate might well choose to write our epitaphs with Time’s moving finger, but with a moving bus?

I even thought for a moment of the world’s terrorists, those random young men rushing about looking for the penises they never had and brandishing their Uzis, bazookas, missiles and other borrowed phallic symbols. How long would they love their various silly causes if they were sent out into the world to wreak holy havoc with a bus? Try shoving that down the front of your pants.

No, I was as I had been before:  entirely free and just a little more aware of that condition. Nothing malignant had taken aim at me. No force was either with me or against me. No fickle sickle had left its mark.  Of the two primary participants in our little street corner two-step, only I had entered with design, purpose and destination. I would leave with all of them intact. In fact, the bus had merely lurched; only I had danced.

And then a new and wonderful thought occurred to me. I wandered over to my still blinking partner and examined its side closely. There it was, a long straight scar where my bike’s handle bar had scratched the paint. As da Vinci had his Mona and Warhol his Marilyn, I had signed my bus!

An hour later and I had walked my wounded warrior to the repair shop. For the brief time that it took them to restore it to its previous perfection – and give it a clean and a polish – I sipped an Americano, finalized my wine list and used my phone’s internet browser to discover the location of a store selling lemon macaroons. On the way to the bike shop, I bought my lottery ticket and, moved by my love of all things ironic, some bus tokens.

As I sat myself back on my bike and adjusted my helmet, I suddenly remembered the Lone Ranger, an iconic figure from the myths of my childhood and I smiled at the memory. I wondered for a moment how I might look in boots and spurs. Then I shook my head and moved back out into my lane. I had places to go. And out there waiting was a chicken with my name on it.

Those attracted to this kind of existentialism might enjoy the argument that we all acknowledge our inner sluts. Read about it here: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-6l

Of Miley Cyrus, Twerking and the Crisis in Syria

In which the Elegant Bastard suggests to Miley Cyrus that it really is time that she and her crotch had a very long talk about their respective careers.

This past weekend, I met Miley Cyrus for the first time. The occasion could not really be called a success. She had promised to entertain me and instead spent most of her time twitching and jerking and insisting that I share her obsession with her crotch.   The fact that I spent most of the encounter thinking about the violence in Syria is an indication of just how bad Cyrus was.

As the “West” prepares to do undeniably nasty things to Assad’s regime, people might be wondering, “Why watch the Video Music Awards on MTV at all?” The answer goes beyond, “Because I can.” and has absolutely nothing in common with ancient Romans queuing up at the arena to watch the Christians lose to the Lions  while their society crumbled around them. I just happen to believe that there’s a time for concerts just as there is a time for concerns, a time – we are promised – for every purpose under heaven.  At the moment I tuned in, I was filled up to the brim with tragic words and images concerning the brutality being practiced by all sides in that sad little part of the world. But I am human. I am multi-faceted and adept at multi-tasking. I set aside – please note: I did not run away from – my sad thoughts and prepared to let the music play.

I like music in almost any of its incarnations. As long as the performance engages my mind completely, I am its believer. I do not want to be diverted; I want to own and be owned. Novels do that to me too, and poems, and interesting essays on mathematics, and wildly wonderful paintings, and deep conversations with the guy living on the street corner, and dark chocolate dipped in orange infused olive oil – (and you, Dear Reader) – and yes, the sad and chaotic truth of the bigger world presented to me on the evening news. That is what I want all the things in my life to do  – not overwhelm me and push me into the role of passive slack-jawed observer but absorb me in to a tiny creative whispering conspiracy. That is the potential promise of all relationships. It is simply most obvious in the case of the performing arts. Cyrus broke that promise and left me with only Syria.

This was not because she attempted what some would call controversy.  I have encountered controversial performances before and still emerged whole at the end. I can even claim to have enjoyed the mind-building pain of the meeting.  Rihanna’s performance of “Love the Way You Lie” at the 2010 Grammys[i] was both controversial and not all that well done. Her music and lyrics, however, captured me as she and Eminem explored the almost destructive power of an erotic attachment that goes far deeper than just the body’s momentary need. The way she strides towards her violently confused lover, content to risk self-immolation in the fires of his “lost mind” made me think back to my own dangerous liaisons. The ambiguous “Lie” of the title kept me wondering whether she needed just the contact of another body lying beside her or the comfort of a well-told lie about love. Eminem grabbed his crotch a few times (when doesn’t he?) but the whole set was not about the crotch in and of itself. They kept the promise Cyrus did not. For the minutes the two of them performed, I left behind the horror being experienced by the miners trapped underground in Chile.

Adam Lambert kept it too when he rolled out his song “For Your Entertainment”[ii] at The American Music Awards in November 2009. It was in this performance that he (enthusiastically!) kissed a male musician while suggestively clad dancers writhed and leapt around the stage in a choreography suggesting BDSM sexual practices.[iii] The “gay kiss” unleashed a controversy that nearly destroyed his career. It was only his extraordinary voice and the fact that so many were intrigued by the lyrics as well as the music and the dancing that saved him.  And why would we not respond. His character makes it clear that he is there to serve us. The dark and normally secret fantasies being played out in front of us are our own. He, too, made suggestive crotch grabs; he, too, was more than his crotch.  It was a raucous and creative moment and it rescued me from my obsession with the massacre at Fort Hood.

Lady Gaga brilliantly kept the faith with her presentation of “Born This Way,” at the 2011 Grammy Awards.  [iv] The song had become an unofficial anthem for many young people in the LGBT community. The minimalist costuming, the opening metaphor of the egg, the startling choreography and the moment when the star turns from the her piano and flings a defiant “I was born to survive” cry at the audience – which responds enthusiastically! – left viewers no room to wonder about the insanity of Libya. She was more than suggestive. She was honestly sexual. And she transcended her crotch. That last moment – Gaga and her dancers dressed in flesh coloured scanty garb while standing, arms raised – achieves a dignity that helps hammer home her message.

I think that, like most, I do not try to run from or ignore our world of pain. It is one of the places I live and I must try to understand it. I have a duty to know. I have promised to know. Thus, when I read or watch the news from Syria, I should not also think of shoes on sale.  Similarly, if I turn to comfort a child, I should not wonder if my bus is coming. Raspberries I buy as fodder to chew on while I organize a to-do list are simply little nobbly things that taste red and demand nothing of me. But if I have trekked across the city for those special raspberries that will crown an evening’s  experience for myself and friends, then to speak of the weather while eating them is a broken promise. It is at the very least raspberry betrayal.  

Miley Cyrus deserves no special raspberries. She betrayed us. Instead of a moment of art and engagement, we got, “I have a crotch”. Well, darlin’ so do we all and proving so to millions at one go doesn’t make yours any more a crotch or even a special crotch. It’s just there.  “See my vagina” is not a theme, a message or a symbol. It’s a symptom. Your voice was weak, the lyrics vapid and the Beetlejuice clone seemed – appropriately enough – something transported from an afterlife somewhere. What you did with your tongue would move anteaters to envy. You were nothing more than that and your crotch. If anything, your crotch transcended you – sad, really, since it can’t do interviews.

And while you were working at twerking, I was drifting back to Syrian suffering, a place I had not been prepared to go at that moment. I could not even manage to return to your antics with practiced outrage because unlike some, I do not think that watching five minutes of your silly pseudo-sex is going to poison any twelve year old mind that wasn’t already more than half way there. You broke the promise, Miley.

The title of your song is “We can’t stop!” Really, Miley? You know, I think you and others like you probably can, and if it motivates you at all, most of us would really like it if you tried. Think about it. Take a little time. Then sit down, talk to your crotch and let us know what it says.

 As always, your comments, tweets, shares, likes and suggestions as to where to find good raspberries are always welcome.

And anyone wishing to continue studying the topic of celebrities who go one twerk over the line might enjoy this special Bieber moment: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-3l


In Which the Elegant Bastard Hits 50, commits his first murder and Calls for Help in Defining the Essence of Bitchiness

“A murderin’ we will go, a murderin’ we will go, Heigh-ho the Derry-o, a murderin’ we will go!”

(Please read on. Things will hopefully become clear.)

As per the usual Sunday a.m. habit, I checked the blog this morning, decided to do some cleaning up and discovered that yesterday’s rant about Canadian politician, Justin Trudeau, and Canada’s Prime Minister, referred to here as “The Harpy”, was Elegant Bastard post number 50! In all, about 70,000 words are now “out there” where they are hopefully prompting smiles or discussions and I’ll admit I am sitting here grinning into my coffee. I hadn’t thought I could do that. I think the major reason (other than ego ) that I managed to do so was the on-going flood of comments, “likes”, “shares”, “tweets”, encouraging noises  –  and topic suggestions – from so many of you.

And now there are changes coming. “The Hedonist’s Diaries” and “Letters to a Young Teacher” will become more important. I want to try some major style departures in “Rants”. Wine tasting notes will reappear. Public education is about to become a focus. And the first 50 posts will be edited and reorganized around a few key themes (and some one-off responses to long-past events will be taken down.) A previously unmentioned goal is to make “The Elegant Bastard” one of several tools friends and I can use to create a new scholarship designed to assist a largely ignored group of young people. More about that later and NO, you will never be asked for money. (But you will occasionally be asked for input.)

Yesterday I received three more letters asking why the blog is called “The Elegant Bastard”. That brings the total up close to 500 queries so it’s time to answer. Two years ago when the idea was born, some friends helped look for the appropriate name and some brave French wines sacrificed themselves to the group effort. “The Curmudgeonly Chronicles” was rejected, as was “The Grinning Reaper”. “Elegant Bastard” finally emerged as a near perfect choice. Its nature prompted a fascinating question, one that has taken a while to answer. Why not “The Elegant Bitch”, “The Elegant Bugger”, The Elegant Liar” or “The Elegant Whore”? In an upcoming post, I will explain why “Bastard” mixes with “Elegant” in what I consider to be a profound way while the others create impossible pairings. The name that gave us the most trouble was “The Elegant Bitch”. “What”, one person at the table asked, “is the essence of bitchiness?” Good question. And so, Dear Reader, I am asking you to feel free to send me your definition, either here via “comments” or at Facebook or Twitter. And yes, I’m am serious. Just remember we are encouraging philosophy, not porn!

Again my thanks to everyone who has encouraged, cheered, commented and helped launch this little project. You even helped me see the humour in the badly spelled “death threats” that have arrived so please, please keep the encouragement coming.

And one other thing has happened because you have made me think it possible. For years and years, I have wanted to write a murder mystery. And for years and years I have made excuses for not doing so: too busy, no time, not an appropriate hobby for a “teacher” and so on. In fact, it all came down to a fear of failure and your responses have helped me get past that. The plot summary is done, the characters are sitting here looking at me, the first murder has been committed – I had to kill the victim three times to get it right – and it’s time to launch the boat. Murder, mayhem and mirth are my goals and the target is September 1, 2014. When I ask for editors, please volunteer.

Cheers, thanks and if you missed the Trudeau post – it went up late yesterday – it’s at http://wp.me/p3cq8l-7k

On Justin Trudeau and the Demon Weed (Oh My!)

In which the Elegant Bastard examines the drug of choice for each of several Canadian political leaders.

I like to think that I have a real appreciation of both satire and irony. I love a good joke. I adore puns and I chuckle quietly for the rest of the day after hearing a good one. But never, ever, ever until now – for all my love of humour – have I been able to begin my day rolling on the floor laughing thanks to the morning news.

It all started with the seismic bulletin that Justin Trudeau, leader of Canada’s Liberal Party and son of a former Prime Minister, had smoked – the horror – marijuana – Out, damned spot! Out I say – five or six times – Oh keep him away from the children! – in his lifetime – Bless me Father… – including once in his own home – Barricade it! – when a friend – Satan? Where are you Satan? – passed him a – Get thee behind me – joint.

No less a moral leader than Canada’s Minister of Justice, Conservative Peter MacKay (who has always reminded me of Elmer Fudd) denounced Mr. Trudeau’s admission as evidence of a “profound lack of judgment”.  And since Mr. MacKay is the politician who famously spent $20,000 of taxpayer funds on 1) a trip to the Grey Cup, 2) a trip to a seafood show and 3) a trip back home from his remote vacation spot via a military helicopter, we have to admit that he is an acknowledged expert on profound errors – and, of course, on a different kind of “tripping” than the one apparently experienced by Mr. Trudeau!.

Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper – who always manages to look as if he is trying to disappear up one or more of his own orifices – clearly has no patience with even a hint “reefer madness”[i]. He displayed his normal distaste for anything he can’t find looking back at him in his morning mirror by sneering that Mr. Trudeau’s words “speak for themselves”. (That’s what other people’s words do, Mr. Harper, and you should try it someday!)

That Mr. Harper would respond with scorn is no particular surprise. He is adept at contempt, his most recent targets being the global environment, all those opposed to him selling the country to China and that inconvenient Canadian thing called a parliament.  He, too, is no stranger to questionable judgment, having raised con artists Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin to Canada’s senate before icing that particular cake with the appointment of Patrick Brazeau, a recent addition who has since been charged with sexual assault. And given that his philosophical  “bros” include Conservative Toronto city counsellor, Doug Ford (linked in the media to drug dealing) and the Conservative mayor of Toronto , Rob Ford, reportedly a “crack head”, Mr. Harper might want to stay as far away as possible from discussions of “judgment”.

Really, the poor man! Imagine the stresses of leadership. In fact, anyone who looks like Mr. Harper does in this picture (http://www.pixdesk.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/Stephen-Harper-Cowboy-Outfit-Stampede.jpg) might want to consider trying a little judicious cannabis use. (Take two tokes and call us in the morning.) He might even want to consider making the whole Tory party 420 friendly; Ottawa would at least be a happier place to work.

The Conservative fear of Mr. Trudeau and their subsequent efforts to belittle him have come dangerously close to making them a national joke. They started by flaunting a picture of him sporting a scruffy hippy-ish moustache, and then learned it was a “Movember” effort. Next came the PR disaster rising out of their attempt to portray him as preying on charities for gain, only to have the nation discover that the complainants originated with Conservative party hacks. I am now waiting for them to re-spin Trudeau’s boxing match with Brazeau under the headline “Trudeau Seen Assaulting Aboriginal Leader”.   They will see the marijuana news, whatever its source, the same way dogs see bones or other dogs and will react with about as much finesse. And by doing so, they will once again demonstrate how far away from the Canadian main stream they have drifted.

I grew up in the same era as many of Harper’s cabinet, caucus and cronies. As I see him sniff disdainfully at Mr. Trudeau’s actions, my mind wanders back to my university days. Essentially we had those who did a lot of weed, those who did some, those who did a little, and those who drove to Quebec every Friday morning to get the “BIG” bottles of beer.  Among our favorite pastimes was heading to the pub where we would order rounds of draft and – as a macho rite of passage – steal the emptied glasses. (The pub knew, pretended it didn’t, and factored the cost into the drink prices.) And before Tory apologists start going on about weed being illegal and booze being nothing more than good ol’ boy Friday Night stress relief, the drinking age was then twenty-one. Sadly, we were all criminals.

As time went on, our preferences changed and mild political stereotypes emerged. The NDP crowd – loud and hairy – stayed with beer out of what they called “solidarity” – with whom or what was never clear. The Liberals abandoned  the ubiquitous Mateus Rose and Blue Nun and gravitated towards slightly better wines; they were urban cool, you see, and Beaujolais went well with polo shirts and boot cut jeans. The Tories headed for the scotch bar as soon as they could afford both it and the dark blue three-piece.

Weed, grass, Mary Jane, Ganja, dope, happy herb – whatever it was called – receded gradually into our pasts, emerging from time to time when the children were away and the time seemed right for a discrete after dinner giggle! (That’s right, Dear Reader – exactly what Mr. Trudeau and his party did in the privacy of his home and not, as Toronto’s current mayor prefers, on camera and in the middle of Main Street.)

Interestingly, as I look back on what Mr. Harper would regard as these misspent moments of my youth, I realize that I “toked” with or observed the toking antics of a boisterous crowd that now includes three CEO’s, several respected artists, an ambassador, two philanthropists, dozens of successful legal and medical professionals and – my favorite –one current member of Canada’s Conservative “inner” circle. Many apparently still indulge, and with about the same frequency as Mr. Trudeau.

In short, however we may all feel about decriminalization and/or legalization or marijuana, we are unlikely to get our political shorts in a knot because Mr. Trudeau has occasionally and privately “passed the dutchie”, even if he did do so from the left hand side. We are much more likely to come down hard on those who speed, evade child support, drive while over the limit,  scam their insurance companies, or pour themselves a third martini on an empty stomach,  real social crimes that can have consequences for others  and which occur – according to some – more often than pot smoking.

As a teacher, I strongly oppose the use of marijuana by all who are under the (admittedly arbitrary) age of eighteen. I also oppose with equal fervor their use of cigarettes, alcohol without a parent present, Red Bull, French fries, tanning salons and diet pills. Since several of these items are legal, it should be obvious that my feelings have to do with healthy minds and bodies, not some fuzzy laws the courts keep telling us are not valid. I support decriminalization and have not made up my mind regarding legalization but I do lean towards it.

Therefore, when it comes to political decision making, Mr. Harper, you need to understand that when I enter the voting booth the next time, I will not be wondering if Mr. Trudeau is “one toke over the line” with Sweet Mary. I will be  thinking of the damage you have done to our international reputation, your use of public funds to purchase thinly veiled political ads extolling the virtues of notoriously unsuccessful job training initiatives, your mockery (and disembowelling) of environmental protections, your contemptuous attitude towards parliament, your little-boys-wanting-big-toys love of obscenely priced fighter jets, your adoption of a Tea Party “Say anything!” approach to campaigning and most of all, your unrestrained addiction to the Tar Sands. I am sometimes surprised you aren’t found crawling towards them with a straw.

If I do vote for Mr. Trudeau – and I may – it will be because I find his candor, his energy, his cooperative work ethic and his thinking out loud to be a refreshing change from your anally retentive and secretive micro-managing. Grey flannel was never a personality style, Mr. Harper, until you made it so. And it will be because if anything really important is going to pot, it is this country under your rule.

Power is a far more dangerous drug that marijuana ever was, Mr. Harper, and I am tired of your addiction.



[i]  “Reefer Madness” and “Assassin of Youth” are two mid-1930’s propaganda films that “document” the dangers of marijuana. They are masterpieces of accidental humour and are easily available.

On an Anonymous Letter Written to the Family of an Autistic Child

It is difficult to accept the fact that someone really wrote this and sent it to another family, but whether that turns out to be true or not, the arguments here remain valid.

I think like most people, I was stunned when news of the cruel letter sent to Karla Begley, mother of an autistic child, broke on CBC this morning. My immediate reaction was predictable. Who in their right mind could write such a letter? What kind of heart or soul calls a challenged young person an “idiot”? How inhuman must someone be to claim that an autistic child is useful only as an organ donor and is really better off dead?  However, as the public reaction to the letter began to build and I read a number of the comments being made, a different set of questions began to emerge and a different anger began to express itself.

I’ll admit that as I read and reread the letter, I wondered about its authenticity. Its voice is inconsistent – uneducated and rough mixed with some not bad syntax and diction. There are elements that anyone trying to fake an anonymous threatening letter would include: the CAPS, words like hate and GOD, some clichés. There are other signs as well that suggest someone is playing a game and trying to appear unbalanced.

But assuming it is real,  why was this “story” even reported. One neighbour has sent a disgusting anonymous letter to another. By all means, notify the local police, just in case the letter is a precursor to an assault, but why the CBC? How is public safety, public awareness or the cause of autistic children and their families advanced in any way by a story had no other purpose other than to provoke our tears, our outrage or both? In what way did I have either a need or a right to know about this? 

Had the network held back the incident and used it to launch a few timely features on the challenges faced by autistic children, their families and those around them, some good might have come out of this. Now, however, there can only be fear, pain and loss. Nor will this be limited to the family the letter attacks.  Imagine what will happen if and when the author is identified. Imagine the vitriol that will flow towards her family. Will the children mentioned in the letter be able to return to their school? Will the “hard working pissed off mother” lose her job as the glare of publicity follows her to work? Does she have a partner who will decide – or be forced to decide – to re-evaluate their relationship? All for a letter? Why did this need to play out on national TV?

It strikes me as something that the pseudo-news organs adore. This is meat and potatoes for outlets like “The Toronto Sun” , “CP24” and, all too often, Toronto’s once venerable “Star”. But the CBC is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. We hold it to a higher standard and this story fails to meet the mark.

Another question the story raises for me has to do with its announcement that the neighbourhood is “uniting” around the targeted family. This reminds me of the Sammy Yatim story, the apparently needless killing of a young man by the Toronto police a few weeks ago. Then, as now, the “public” responded with outrage, shared grief, sympathy and “support”. Was all of this compassion and support available before each crisis? Did anyone intervene when Sammy began to fail at school, or become involved with drugs, or abandon his family home? Did the “united” neighbours in this new story offer to support a family dealing with the enormous task of raising a child with severe autism, a sharing that might have created a neighbourly bond that would have prevented the letter in the first place? Or is all of this nothing more than the usual after-the-fact and in-the-spotlight compassion, which is better than nothing, true, but not by much. Again the issue is whether or not anything of real or lasting benefit is going to be achieved.

The most disturbing question, however, has to do with the public comments being made after the news broke.  In writing and on video, people are referring to the writer as a “total sociopath”, as “inhuman”, as a “monster”, as “garbage”, as “despicable”. They claim that they “pity” the writer’s children, or that her kids should be “removed from the home” or that she should be “given a good beating”. One goes so far as to claim that the writer should be euthanized and her children “chemically castrated”.

As many of those making these comments describe themselves as “tolerant” and “compassionate” people, I have a few questions for them. Do they have experience dealing with an autistic child who keens (or wails)? It is the loneliest sound imaginable, the howl of a solitary child who does not understand the world. Even loving parents and dedicated teachers  are often moved to tears, frustration and even helpless rage as they confront their own inability to reach into the child’s world and offer comfort.

Now – all you compassionate and tolerant commentators – lets read that letter again and imagine an untrained and perhaps not very well educated person. Give them a couple of young kids and perhaps not the greatest parenting or communication skills in the world. Add to that perhaps a partner not able to offer a lot of emotional support. Let’s give her a job paying not much more than minimum wage.  And oh yes, let’s think of all those times someone else’s children or dog or music or party bothered us. Did we stride confidently up to a closed front door and announce that we wanted to discuss a few issues? Did we? And have you never said or written something you regretted? Have you ever responded to humiliation by imagining victorious conversations where your words slew all the dragons, words you could never say in public? Has your control never, never snapped? Are we perfect? We are, after all, casting some pretty big stones here.

Ah, but you are making assumptions, you tell me. Yes I am. I do not know yet what is true in this case and neither – let me add – do you! Consider your own assumptions. She’s maniacal. A potential killer. Worthless.  Inhumane. A threat to her own children. Now, reread the letter a few more times and tell me honestly whether my assumptions have more in common with reality than yours, or, if not, do they at least show a little more of that compassion you claim to possess?

Various news organizations are turning a sorry and sordid neighbourhood conflict into a potentially tragic circus. We have, I suppose, come to expect that. And after all, they wouldn’t present these “stories” if we did not watch them. And I remain appalled by the original letter, saddened by the ignorance it exhibits, and concerned for both the families this strikes at most intimately.

But the vituperative comments being made by so many who have no knowledge are just as offensive as the content of that letter. And their writers have one other thing in common with what so many of them term the “anonymous coward” who wrote it.

Few of them left their real names.