Of Demons and the Death on Camera of Sammy Yatim

All of us battle the demons, whether we are boys with baseball caps and knives or men with uniforms and guns.

We are deep in a Toronto night. The video begins without sirens. I notice their absence.

Men and women dressed in black and armed with guns move back and forth or stand outside an eerie yellow haze that cannot properly be called light. Another figure, an apparent man-child, half in black and half in white, moves back and forth within the stopped streetcar.

Now I hear the sirens. They seem faint and far away, muted voices rushing to the scene, noises in the night.

The video images are vague but I am the parent of young men, and in Sammy’s posture I can see what might be arrogance mixed with fear – that, or the failing struggle of someone much too young to keep the demons in or out alone. But whatever else I see, I see a boy. For all that he may be spewing foul words or waving about a knife, he is a boy. He is one boy. The calling sirens still sound distant.

I was not in that streetcar on that street. I do not know who lost the struggle first. I know that shots rang out – first three and then six more – and Sammy was no longer there. I notice his absence and I peer closer, searching. He is gone. The boy has disappeared. The remaining men and women mill about, as if not certain where they are or what they’ve done or what they are to do.

The noise now finds its power, and it grows. Its howling invades the night, rising and falling and pulsing. It does not feel as if it came closer; only that it grew louder. It seems to be rushing everywhere at once and for a moment, I can almost believe that it is gloating.

Some will be disappointed with the video. They came to it because of media warnings that promised it was graphic. They wanted horror, obtained with a free ticket and savoured in their own homes. Let’s have some blood, some louder screams, and just a little crying please? But there was none of what they wanted.

They do not see the horror that is there for them to see.

When the man with a gun killed one boy with a knife, those nine bullets ripped a hole in the walls of our world. They left a tear large enough that, as  Sammy slipped away from us, the demons could enter, dancing with others of their tribe, screaming out the news of their victory and madly rising higher in our now much darker sky.

 

 

The Elegant Bastard’s Dictionary of Helpful Words and Phrases, Part 3

In which the Elegant Bastard explains the power to be found in the appropriate use of words like “Um” and “Ah” and “Er”.  Neat, Eh?

What began as a simple question – How many English words are there? – ended up taking me the better part of a day to determine and the outcome was at best ambiguous. Answers ranged from about 150,000 to just over one million, depending upon what constitutes a word, whether compound words and multiple meanings count multiple times and whether or not words invented by acknowledged geeks – skeuomorphism? – needed to be considered at all.

I also discovered that an absolute answer, while no doubt fascinating, would be irrelevant to what appears to be the primary function of language today – the confusing of others. The Empire of Babel, Dear Reader, has now spanned the entire globe. And the very least we now have pyschobabble, ecobabble, econobabble, edubabble, sociobabble, obamababble, boehnerbabble and baby babble, the latter being the only variant ever evolves  in to something making sense.

It wasn’t always this way. One can easily imagine a far distant pre-word era when woofs and grunts of various lengths and tonal variations were enough to get around. Given that career choice was limited to being predator or prey, resumes and interviews were pretty much non-existent and therefore the ability to tell articulate lies remained an undiscovered art.

There then followed an age of few words that all had very precise meanings. Life was just as violent as before but social relationships had emerged and caves needed decorating. Even with these advancements,  middle and upper-class cavepersons probably managed to get by with less than a dozen; “eat”, “drink”, “mate”, “fire” and “run like hell” come immediately to mind. At this point in human history, “eat” and “drink” were likely interrogative, “mate” and “fire” imperative and “run like hell” communicated by mime.

The development of urban culture, competing civilizations and effective antacids expanded the number of necessary words exponentially. Now we had thousands of pasta varieties and even more ways of killing people. The emergence of conversation added the need for sophisticated slang vocabularies and some of the more popular body parts acquired hundreds of words dedicated solely to them. The birth of government required elaborate words that meant very little while the development of political correctness spawned words that meant nothing at all. “Run like hell” has remained pretty much what it always was. However, the number of things from which one needs to run like hell has grown to include plague infected squirrels, reality shows, Russian presidents and in much of North America, the mayor.

(“Run like hell” no longer necessarily means the sweat provoking stampede over large tracts of ground while screaming. It can now be achieved by drawing the curtains, turning off the phone and conducting extensive research into European vodka or South American flora.)

However, none of these uses of language answers our species’ primary need: differentiation. How in this enormous and teeming world can we ever make ourselves special?  Some do this by creating esoteric and deliberately abstruse vocabularies that use language to impede or prevent understanding. In this way, a teacher’s complaint that he or she had to spend the weekend making up a test translates into two days spent creating a differentiated and criterion referenced summative assessment tool that serves as a gateway indicator. Special, no?

Interestingly, some of the original woofs and grunts have remained with us and, surprisingly, they can convey meaning just as and sometimes more effectively than their more complex progeny. In today’s edition of “The Elegant Bastard’s Dictionary”, I attempt to provide an exhaustive list of these very short exclamations that function primarily as emoticons or hesitation devices. Again, I ask for no reward other than your promise, Dear Reader, to use them wisely, widely and primarily with other people.

Ah: Expressed in a short, sharp fashion, the word means “Eureka!”  or “I understand!” or “I accuse!” Traditionalists would insist that upon uttering this exclamation, one should leap from one’s bath and run naked through the streets, preferably somewhere in Greece. Less doctrinaire logophiles will permit the substitution of enthusiastic fist pumping or finger pointing.

Ah(2): Expressed in long, drawn out fashion and accompanied by an elegant  finger placed lightly upon the chin, the word essentially means that the utterer has no idea what is going on but would die rather than admit it. The removal of any clothing in this situation would be an attempt to distract the listener’s attention.

Arg: Sometimes pronounced “Erg”, this exclamation expresses anger or pain. At its loudest, it means that special and intense combination of pain and anger experienced by someone applying a hammer vigorously to the thumb, Canadians trying to understand what’s wrong with Justin Bieber  or anyone using Windows 8.

Aw: Used alone, drawn out and moving in pitch from high to low, it is the appropriate response to the cute actions of other people`s pets and children. Used as a short sharp outburst followed by “Damn” or “Crap”, it refers to the actions of one`s own pets and children.

Eh(1): A Canadian expression and likely genetic in origin, it’s use at the end of any sentence expresses the speaker’s confident assumption that the listener will agree with whatever has just been said, as in “Nice day, eh?” Used properly, it also means that the speaker can name four provincial capitals and sing most of the national anthem.

Eh(2): Used on its own, it replaces “Pardon me” for those who are syllabically challenged. The speaker is able to name three provinces and hum the opening line of the anthem.

Eh(3) Its repeated use in a short period of time suggests that the speaker may know his own name but should likely not be asked to hum anything.

Er: This exclamation suggests some degree of moral anxiety or confusion. (For real confusion, see Ah(2)) Uttered as a response to your question as to whether or not an article of clothing makes you look fat, you may safely assume that the article in question does not make you look thin and the persons responding are worried they might hurt you.

Er(2): If pronounced “errrrrr” in the same context, then you are enormous and the persons responding are  worried that you will hurt them.

Ew: Used as a brief and unemotional single syllable, it suggests that your listener is mildly offended or seriously bored by whatever you have just said. It may be followed by a request that you perform some task requiring you to leave the room and/or the country.

Ew(2): Lengthened to a two-syllable sound with the stress upon the first syllable and pronounced “eee – uuu”, it refers to dogs with no shame, living organisms with more than four legs, or anything with polka dots.

Ick, Icky, Yuck, Yucky: These are used to refer to substances (or situations) that are unpleasant, especially to touch or taste. Of more importance is the fact that they are mostly used by those who see themselves as “cute”. As they will also use expressions like “itsy-bitsy” or “teenie-weenie”, they should not be left unsupervised near pre-literate children.

Oh:  Used briefly, it acknowledges an understanding of something previously unknown. As such, it is often followed by “Thanks”, “Really” or “Hell”.

Oh(2): Extended, as in “Ohhhhh”, it suggests a profound and usually unwelcome new understanding. There will rarely be thanks and “Hell” will be replaced by much stronger terms.

O: This reverential form of address should be used when conversing with any divine being that is in the same room as you and powerful enough to cause inconvenience.

Umm: The speaker is making a choice, usually between two very pleasant options. Would you prefer to sample the coconut gelato or the green apple? Would the world be a better place if all of Antony Weiner disappeared forever or just the bits he flaunts?

Uh: Said briefly or drawn out, it means that the speaker is watching whatever you are doing and is hoping that you come with an “off” switch that can be accessed before it’s too late.

As always, Dear Reader, I hope you have found our time together useful. Again I would like to stress that I will accept no material reward for my efforts. However, those who want to express their gratitude in an appropriate fashion may do so by signing my petition demanding that anyone using the word “awesome” be forced to watch televised fishing programs every day for a year.

As always, feel free to “like”, “share”, “tweet”, or comment.

 

In Praise of Sinful Pleasures or Acknowledging Your Inner Slut

In which the Elegant Bastard points out the advantages of having a good long chat with one’s inner slut.  

I can be perfect for only so long.

Eventually the strain will show. My fingers will begin to twitch, my molars will grind, and my eyes will look about, perhaps searching for anything cute to kick. My smile – taut, and holding as if glued in place – will tremble. A sneer will threaten at the corners of my lips. I will resist for as long as I can, but if the grumblies are gathering, the snarlies cannot be far behind. I soon will be combustible.

Somehow I will avoid ignition. Most of us do. We try to push away the feeling that we are forever standing at attention. We concentrate on being green enough, and smart enough, and parental enough and cool enough. We strive to be multicultural, we pop our multi-vitamins and we multitask like mad. And we generally manage to stumble through life on emotional auto-pilot.

But when that control falters, when the warning lights begin to flash, we panic. We pull back from unauthorized acts and suck in unsavoury sounds. We look for the always present judgmental eyes. We are in a no-fart zone and our claim that pressures are building will earn us no sympathy. Woe to those whose social sphincters fail them.

We may try to divert ourselves. Memos get sent, the calendar is updated, the bills get paid, the light bulbs are changed and so on down the take-my-mind-off-my-life list until you snap yourself out of the trance and realize you’ve just dusted the dog. It then chases the cat, the kids take opposing sides and you wonder if you could just vacuum seal the entire group. But you can’t. The noise of your failure is all around you and it goes downhill from there. You are falling groaning into guilt.

It is at that points like these that we reach for our “pick me ups”, our sedatives, our “tranks” of choice. It might be “Big Bang Theory” reruns, or another night spent watching Indiana Jones running from a rolling stone, or listening yet again to 2 Live Crew practicing dirty words. It could be gummy worm ice cream, truffled mac and cheese or a triple G and T. But whatever we may turn to, it brings no real pleasure. Good chocolate used in this way is chocolate wasted!  Even as we tell ourselves that we deserve our little treat, something deep within us whispers “No!” And we sigh, for we know the truth. There is no place to go to escape bad guilt.

Bad guilt is life’s nasty little gift. It starts when you first discover there’s a wrong way to tie your shoes or do long division or eat pasta. You learn that there’s a wrong sport to play and a wrong way to play it. Then you discover there’s a wrong subject to study, a wrong career to choose, a wrong party to support, a wrong person to marry. Guilt’s moving finger points and its voice won’t go away: “Not Good Enough!” “Wrong, wrong, wrong!” “Guilty, guilty, guilty!”

 And you groan.

Bad guilt is the kind your mother hoped would make you clean your room, be nice to your sister and become Prime Minister. It makes you pay most of your taxes. It forces you away from the eight-or-less express lane when you have nine items. It denies you carrot cake. It pops up when you think, say or do the wrong thing and again when you don’t think, don’t say and don’t do the right thing.  It stomps around the intimate rooms of your inner brain, mocking the pictures and kicking the furniture. Then it beats you with the whips that it forces you to make.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. The imaginative among us can get off the bad guilt treadmill if we want to very much and we try very hard. You start by getting in touch with your inner slut. Oh, don’t be silly. Of course you have one. You just haven’t let it out to play in a while. Once released, this powerful and essentially naughty persona rushes into the limbic system, grabs bad guilt by the scruff, stuffs it in a environmentally unfriendly bag, seals it with duct tape, tosses it in a closet and slams the door. Then it turns, looks at you, grins an evil grin and blows you sexy little kisses. And you giggle. Welcome to Good Guilt!

I know, Dear Reader, that some of you may be questioning this strategy. You will reasonably point out that “inner” is often kept inside for a reason. Best to keep it locked away in there where it can not cause embarrassment, cause acne or lower property values.. But such reasoning is fallacious. Not everything that lies hidden out of sight is necessarily evil. What about a leprechaun’s pot of gold? What about inner beauty. And  just where do they keep the caramel in Caramilk, eh? Why can’t your inner slut be just as sweet?

Perhaps the reluctance has more to do with the sexual connotations the word “slut” usually carries with it. But I am not counselling rampant sexual excess – unrestrained flash mobs chorusing “Wham, Bam, Thank You Ma’am and Sam”.  I’m not necessarily talking about sex at all, and certainly not of massacres, or gluttony, or anything else rapacious. If I were, I would be saying that it is quite all right to manipulate others, making them instruments to be used for your own enjoyment. It isn’t and I’m not.

What I am talking about is simply indulging our inner sensualist, that happy sluttish imp that savours some modicum of pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Why then use the word “slut” at all? I do so because the word adds a necessary dimension. Our most potent little pleasures must be those we know will elicit judgmental frowns. They must not be “deserved”. They must have about them just the faintest scent of sin.  We must take our delight the same way Alexander took the world: by choice, by force, and because it was there! If bad guilt bends our backs and saps our strength, Good Guilt lifts our heads and helps us build our empires.

The expected tasks and the prescribed chores and the assigned worries will wait. For a while I will be at the spa, eating cookies while I have a pedicure; or in front of the television, watching royal babies enter life; or heading off on an unnecessary jaunt to Montreal, perhaps first class; or eating a second Ritters Sport square; or having a second nap on the good couch; or buying and refusing to share licorice-flavoured toothpaste; or ordering a strangely complex coffee at a cafe farther away than it needs to be. Concerns about money, time, calories and good taste will be tossed away. Do not be misled by my soft tones; this is my rebel roar!

Why indulge in these pleasures? Because I can! Did I earn any of them? Not in the least! Then isn’t there guilt? Of course there is – that wonderful lingering shivering guilt that comes with a smile. “I am so bad,” you whisper to yourself. “Yes you are!” responds your inner slut. You smile and offer the world one proud chocolate dipped finger.

Now those urgent voices chanting “Wrong” and “Guilty”  are reduced to a feeble “tsk, tsk!” or a silly “tut, tut!” with only the shaking of disdainful heads or the elevating of arrogant noses to add a little drama. But these are ineffective and impotent acts. We are now in the land of Good Guilt. Here we rule. Here there are no whips, or, if there are, they are consensual and they come with mounds of fresh whipped cream.

We cannot stay here long; we all know that. Duty calls. But it is a wonderful place to visit, and we return to the real world restored. We take with us a new smile and a new strength. The issues and the causes and the people that depend on us will once again gather around our feet. They will notice, however, a difference in our posture, a spring in our step, a sparkle in our eyes. They will sense that we are free in a way that wasn’t true before. They will not understand it when we smile, giggle, and blow them sexy little kisses.

Those wishing to read more about the saving power of pleasure may do so at http://wp.me/p3cq8l-3S

And, as always, feel free to comment, criticise, “share”, “tweet” and ask for the locations of stores selling licorice flavoured toothpaste.

Of Rolling Stone, Maggots and the National Anthem

In which the Elegant Bastard considers what appears to be the new American national anthem and decides that he would much rather they keep the old one.

“Lean to the left; Lean to the right! Stand up; Sit down! Fight! Fight! Fight!”

Do you remember that chant, America? I do. On autumn Friday afternoons we would buy our way out of afternoon classes and gather on our ramshackle bleachers to cheer on our football heroes. And about every ten minutes or so, the cheerleaders would strut out to the track – hands on hips, pompoms ready – and when their leader gave the signal, the chanting would begin.

“Lean to the left; Lean to the right! Stand up; Sit down! Fight! Fight! Fight!”

It was wonderful in that context. Now, things are different. Something more than a football trophy is at stake.

It’s been an interesting news week. We had flailing arms, frothing mouths, pointing fingers and pounding fists. We had marches and vigils and crowds and parades. We had media everywhere, tossing out misleading headlines, filming crying eyes and screaming  mouths and throwing in enough  inflammatory bits of speculation to keep everything bubbling .  Then, in the evening, near identical sets of polished faces and sculptured hair sat on panels to “tut tut” and “tsk tsk” in predictably confrontational “discussions”. Organized outrage was on another big roll; it was a nation-wide case of choreographed flatulence.

And now, before we even have a chance to clear the air, there’s a whole new drama. Out of the way, Mr. Zimmerman. Mr. Snowden, stop whining. It’s all about Rolling Stone magazine and it’s “fluffed and buffed” cover photograph of alleged Boston Bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

“Lean to the left; Lean to the right! Stand up; Sit down! Fight! Fight! Fight!”

The Right Hand Rant:  How dare this radical smut-filled rag offer such disrespect to the victims of the Boston marathon tragedy? How dare it glorify and glamorize a terrorist and a murderer by placing him in a spot normally occupied by teen idols and rock superstars. This tears at the nation’s moral fibre. Those who read this or profit from it are anti-American and greedy traitors! ( And godless! We mustn’t forget godless!)

The Left Hand Rant: Freedom of the press is one of America’s most precious traditions, a cornerstone of its democracy. Rolling Stone has always been a symbol of cutting edge and responsible journalism. Its fearless devotion to truth was epitomized by its award winning interview of convicted serial killer, Charles Manson. Those who can’t see this are right wing red necks who need to get with the times and go with the flow. (Now play with your guns and get over yourselves.)

What’s wrong with this? All of it really, but the worst threat is also the most subtle.

Those who defend Rolling Stone by pointing out the fundamental role freedom of the press plays in creating and maintaining the essence of America are on solid ground. So are those who argue that displaying the smouldering pretty boy charms of Tsarnaev on the cover of the iconic entertainment magazine elevates a terrorist to the stature of a Bob Dylan sex-god and denigrates the suffering of his victims. But as will inevitably be the case in a society that only listens to itself when the screaming starts, both sides go too far.

“Lean to the left; Lean to the right! Stand up; Sit down! Fight! Fight! Fight!”

Rolling Stone defends its actions by claiming that all they are doing is maintaining their “long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day.” Oh please! This is just silly, and anyone who has followed the magazine even intermittently over its history knows that. The brainchild of a maniacal, manipulative and media-savvy 60’s radical, it brought together what one critic called “stock, shock and schlock” and made it profitable. The Manson interview, seen as edgy in its more innocent historical context, would be dismissed as sensationalism today. The new cover’s caption, claiming that the article will show how Tsarnaev “became a Monster” – Oooooo! – suggests that nothing much has changed. (And by the way, Rolling Stone, what happened to innocent until proven guilty?)

Another obvious argument against Rolling Stone’s attempt at noble self-justification is both the choice of picture and its placement. Past media images of Tsarnaev tended to be far less attractive than this posed photo. The story is one of several in the issue yet it makes the cover.  Why use this picture in that place? There can be only one reason. Sales! And sales, sadly, have to be a concern for a magazine that has reportedly been slipping pretty steadily since its glory days. That picture is where it is for the best and basest of all capitalist reasons. A woman I spoke to today sniffed that what Rolling Stone has done was no different than maggots with dead flesh.  I would disagree. When maggots feed, they do not claim they are dining.

“Lean to the left; Lean to the right! Stand up; Sit down! Fight! Fight! Fight!”

Still, Rolling Stone’s sensationalism is not the real issue. More dangerous is the deliberate encouragement of polarization in American society. And most dangerous of all is the rise of impotence!

In response to the Zimmerman verdict and the Snowden … whatever that was, we had streetscape after streetscape filled with placards and chanting and grotesque faces thrusting themselves at television cameras like lovers to each other’s bodies. And afterwards, nothing. These were gestures, moments of strutting and fretting, tales of sound and fury screamed aloud by idiots. Even as catharsis it was feeble.

And now, in response to the Rolling Stone photo, we will have boycotts. Oooooo! That means that people who never buy the magazine will now loudly proclaim the fact that they are not buying it. Stores that barely sold any – or none – will now point out that they are selling none. An equally impotent act will be accomplished by the other side. Those who normally buy it or have it delivered will simply draw attention to their purchases, perhaps dispensing with a paper bag or by reading it ostentatiously on a bus.

And that will be that. Gestures. No bang. Barely a whimper. If your lovers loved like that, you would push them out of bed.

None of this is activism. None of it is profound. Yes, the images and sound bites of your marches and your mewlings will be gathered and broadcast, but this will be, like Rolling Stone, commercialism – not potent political philosophy. You will be camera fodder only, something to be used. The media and its pundits will profit enormously and they will do so by encouraging this schism they foment in America.

Perhaps if Americans put aside the “My way and only my way” posturing and choose to come together (over coffee, tea, or beer) and talk (no yelling, drooling, or spitting) things out on common ground (pubs are good; so are churches), things would change. Everyone would give a little and get a little. Daily life would be less stressful.  The evening news might get tad boring but would that be such a bad thing? (We can always get North Korea to do something entertaining.)

And politicians would have to do more than stir up hate to get elected. That last American presidential election was less a smear campaign than it was a sneer campaign, and that’s really dangerous.

Let’s all listen to the old chant one more time:

“Lean to the left; Lean to the right! Stand up; Sit down! Fight! Fight! Fight!”

It makes a grand football cheer, I agree.

But as a national anthem, it sucks.

 

Since it seems to be Rant Day, here’s a link to a short story concerning my encounter with an aggressive vegetarian: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-49

As always, feel free to “share”, comment, “tweet” or buy coffee.

 

 

To My Royal Baby Not Yet Born

In which the Elegant Bastard converses with an unborn child, vows to clean up his room and urges others to do the same.

Well hello!

Aren’t you the Royal little wonder! No, don’t worry. You’re not late. That big old world out there will stop whatever it is doing when you arrive but until then, it will be business as usual. For now, be as comfortable as you can and enjoy these final noise-free hours.

I do not mean to add any pressure to the life you are about to lead, but you have suddenly become rather important to me, all the more so since you are not mine in any conventional sense. What with all the recent media baby hoopla – you’re not the only one making an appearance – I am more than usually aware of your impending arrival. And for the very first time, I am also aware of the fact that when you eventually assume your crown – and we all assume our crowns, little one, even when we don’t want to – I will very likely no longer be here. Your world will lack that certain something special that is me. That fact concentrates things wonderfully.

Like most, I tend to postpone the issue of legacy. What kind of world I will leave behind doesn’t really occupy my mind the way it should. After all, every day is a brand new day and I have places to go and things to consume and people to annoy. I’m here and now; I’m flash, I’m fire; I’m boom, boom, boom. How does merely the potential existence of anything, let alone something that will initially do little more than wail, feed, poop and play with its toes, mean anything at all to that process?

It seems to all be wrapped up in this idea of handing over. I am suddenly aware of the baton in my hand, of the noise of a crowd, of the thudding of feet behind me, of a shortness of breath within. Ahead I see nothing really distinct, just shadows really, but that baton needs to be handed over, and the only thing I do know is if it touches the ground, it will break. Would that be fair? Royal baby isn’t even here and already I have broken the baton.

Yet while I am talking to the idea of you, I am glancing at the news of the day as it streams across my 18 inch screen. A recent verdict in a murder trial is causing two groups of racists to call each other racist. Musicians are telling us where they won’t travel, former secretaries of state are keeping the potential base sweet by playing to one family’s tragedy while ignoring another’s, ex-jurors are trying to sell books, and “protesters” are looting a department store. A far away state is gearing up for its newest temper tantrum. The deaths of twenty two children in a food poisoning incident are being used by politicians as a reason to call protest strikes and by mobs as a reason to burn buses. Everywhere there are people causing crises, people caught in crises and people cashing in on crises. Is this a baton you want? Ah, right, I forget. You can’t hear. It is not for you to answer that question.

It’s strange. Yesterday, the news was much the same, and all I could hear was a friend’s voice telling me it was time for a martini. Today I know that you are coming and all I can hear is my mother’s voice telling me to clean up my room before I leave the house.

Pondering that, I walk over to my living room window and look out at the big world stretching away as far as a cloudless sky permits. Across the street I see a new kindergarten school nearing completion. The third fire alarm of the week sounds in the subsidized housing complex next door. Adolescents are happily flirting with each other while taking a break from their summer jobs in a new Target store.  The haze in the air is almost visible. Two friends are walking up the driveway. One waves. The other is carrying a tray containing six pints of golden raspberries. Only babies are more beautiful. I go to the wine cellar and take out the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.

Do you see, Royal baby, the problems you are causing me? I might – might – if I devote enormous time, energy and thought do something about the local haze and the desperate fires in the building next door. But what about the obscene noise issuing from the news stream, the daily resume of sorrows and deaths and the cause of far too many cowardly afternoon naps? Yet what else can I possibly do? And why? I didn’t ask for a crown, you know. I really didn’t.

No, that won’t work. I didn’t give it away when it came, either. And it certainly needs a good polishing. I can’t promise it will be much brighter when you get here but I’ll see what I can do.

For I don’t suppose it really matters what mother’s Royal baby you are, and whether you arrive in Afghanistan, or China, or America or Toronto or yes, in a much-photographed hospital ward in the center of the world in London. All babies are Royal babies; all are deserving of our loyalty and love.

So here it is, little one. I will do what I can about the near-by fires. I will contribute to the fight against the local haze. I will look daily at the kindergarten and the laughing teens to remember one reason why I make this vow, and I will think of golden raspberries and white wine to remember the other. My mother was right.  I need to clean up my room before I leave the house.

And I further promise that whenever I can, I will remind others that we all had mothers and we all have rooms and so the house needs lots and lots of cleaning. And by doing so, Royal Baby, I will remain true to this pledge I make to you today – that I will be, as long as I am able, your loyal Elegant Bastard.

Toronto, June 17, 11:11 a.m.

Please read and, if you find yourself nodding, then “share”, “tweet” or smile at any pregnant lady you might see.

A reader more observant than I noticed a similar theme in a piece I wrote in a more tragic context. “A Child, Waiting for His Father, was Murdered Today” is my response to the death of young Martin Richard, killed in the Boston bombing. As Jim, a Christ Figure in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn suggests, we must not waste children. I concur. Those wishing to read the earlier piece may do so here: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-3o

 

 

The Taxonomy of Cyclepathic Behaviors, Part Three: Those Crazy Cycle Dudes!

The Elegant Bastard is a proud cyclist. Here he comes to the aid of his community by identifying those of his own tribe whose actions imperil us all. His motives are entirely altruistic and have nothing at all to do with the fact that he’s just come back from a long ride and he’s royally ticked off!

By and large, cyclists are reasonable people. We understand our place in the world and we behave accordingly.  If, for example, we find ourselves beside a passing bus, we do a bit of instant risk analysis. In our favour are things like a rapier-like wit, dynamic genes, devilish good looks, a beautifully modulated voice and a strong pomade. The  only thing the bus has going for it is the fact that it is a bus.

We immediately understand that God, Truth and Beauty are all on our side. However, having promised our mothers not to bully lesser beings, we let the bus go first. As it rumbles past, childishly farting its fumes in our patient faces, we might offer it a subtle farewell salute. (As this involves only one hand and indeed, only one finger, it cannot be regarded as unsafe.) But nothing more extreme.

Sadly, there are a few members of our tribe who have never quite acquired this elegant minimalism. Perhaps they suffered some hereditary malfunction. Perhaps they were unloved. It may even be the result of one taco too many.  I know there must be some cause and that I must therefore strive to be tolerant. It is this humanitarian impulse – and the failure of society to accept “Because I wanted to!” as sufficient justification for homicide[i]  – that motivates me to live and let live.

Nonetheless, I can still warn others.  To this end I append the following list of aberrant behaviors found within the cycling community. For clarity’s sake, I have avoided using medical terms. And while I think I could with accuracy simply refer to them as “Moron A”, “Nitwit B”, “Idiot C” and so on, that option lacks any helpful specificity.

A caution before you begin, Dear Reader. The word “you” will appear frequently. I mean no disrespect to you personally. Since it is possible that the misguided souls I refer to might be among those reading this, I have chosen to address them directly.

The Stop Sign Challenged: Dear Cyclepath. You may have noticed that we have spent considerable time and money erecting Stop signs and traffic lights. Strangely, we do not regard these as optional. Nor have we added clever little graphics to indicate that the order is directed solely at cars, pedestrians and badly behaving dogs.  We really do mean you. What’s that? I see. You’re right. Mr. Obama does not have to stop at traffic lights. And if you are a visiting head of state using a bicycle for reasons of security or austerity, please have a note from your mother indicating that this is the case.

The Sidewalk Obsessed: Most of us are not troubled by compound words. A snowball is an globe fashioned from  … you guessed it … snow! (See how easy this is?) A beachfront view will necessarily include water. Similarly, the word “sidewalk” should not prove difficult. It sits at the side of the road and people walk on it.

But you point out that you are physically able to ride on sidewalks, that they even “look like” roads.  This is faulty reasoning.  “Can” does not necessarily imply “should”. “Look like” does not mean “is the same as”.  Now do you understand why people don’t put broccoli on wedding cakes, why I say you appear to be intelligent and why no one was really pleased with those five dollar bills you made, even if they were prettier than the real ones.

It’s all about definition, and you, therefore, will not ride your bicycle on our sidewalks.

 (And if you really do think “breakfast” is what happens to cheap televisions, then where you ride your bike will be the least of your worries.)

I Am My Own Lane: If you are Santa Claus, the Pope or the protagonist at a large funeral, you may have a traffic lane all to yourself with our blessing. However, if none of these is true, please share.

Signal? What’s a signal? It is customary to advise others of sudden changes in direction before – not after or during – a three lane shift to the left. And while we agree that normal turn signals are boringly conventional and offer you no creative outlet, wild and original gestures made at high speed only suggest that you are either too friendly or badly in need of rehab. Neither is a statement relevant during rush hour.

To Spandex or Not to Spandex: As you decide whether or not to wear this miracle fabric while cycling, we would ask that you keep a few things in mind. Its ability to stretch is finite. It keeps no secrets. It is not supposed to hurt you or terrify onlookers. Here’s a helpful tip. If you resemble Botticelli’s “Venus” or Michelangelo’s “David”, wear away. If the artwork that comes closest to capturing your essence is Holbein’s last portrait of Henry VIII, might we suggest restraint?

Those who Smoke while Cycling: “You’re right. It’s my problem. I totally get it.  Just because I don’t smoke and cycle doesn’t mean you can’t. Hey, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Yup. Oh look! You’ve tossed that nasty butt away. There now. Don’t you feel better? Can’t you feel your lungs start to … . Ah. I see. You needed that hand to hold your beer.”

Those who Text while Cycling: As long as what you are texting is titled “Last Will and Testament” and I am your heir, I have no issue with this activity.

Those who Text and Smoke while Cycling: Given your likely life span, who cares?

Bells and Whistles: We all like surprises. Wrap yourself up in a box and we will open you. Wear your Putin mask on Halloween and we will scream. But we would like you to observe closely the next time you see a fire truck or an ambulance. Notice that they do not creep up behind motorists, tap them on the shoulder and whisper “Excuse me.” Take this as a clue. If you are coming up behind us or passing on the left, ring the damn bell. Yes, we know they sound dorky.  No, we are not going to buy you a siren.

Weavers Seen in Heavy Traffic: “Look, he’s on the right … the left … the right … in front … behind … ahead … under … oh.

But I’m Only Going One Way: Roads are wonderful things and even the Romans understood that they work best when everyone is going in the same direction. In our far more complex society, we have determined that some of our streets will be designated “One Way” and we get to choose which way that is. In your own home or some of our more casual pubs, feel free to set off in your own directions. On our streets, however, we like our cyclists to be like our lemmings. Accept your lemminghood and go in peace.

But you say you are no lemming. You are a lone eagle. Well then. You do not need a bicycle. You need a cliff.

Look Ma! No Hands! Oh please. After watching Nik Wallenda walk across the Grand Canyon Gorge on a tightrope, do you really think we are going to be impressed when you cycle past hands free? Set aside youthful arrogance and learn to tell the difference between those things that are virtually indestructible and those that aren’t. In the first group are brick, stone and asphalt. In the second we have skin, teeth and necks.

“Would you mind if … “Version One: Occasionally as I sit innocently outside my favorite coffee shop, cyclists will abandon their bikes unlocked against the fence beside me. As they rush in to the wine store next door, they will call over to me. “Would you mind just watching my bike for a moment?”

I have no real problem with this as long as my duties are clearly understood by all parties. I will watch you leave.  I will watch the bike as it slides to the ground. I will watch as the three gentlemen with the pickup truck load it into the back. I will watch as they drive off together into the sunset. I will watch you jump and yell when you return.

To ensure that there is no confusion, I have had the preceding printed on small attractive cards. Please take one.

Would you mind if …” Version Two:   On occasion, I entertain. This generally involves having people enter my residence. As the living space in question is on the twenty-fourth floor, it should not come as any great surprise that there is no front garden, back garden, side garden or garage. Thus, when you ask if I would mind you bringing your bike in with you, the answer will be the same as if you had asked permission to bring in your car, your pet alligator or your mother the kleptomaniac.

Post Cycling Rituals: Rene Descartes died in the 1600’s, long before the first bicycles made an appearance. Had bikes developed earlier or Descartes been born later, “I think, therefore I am” would quickly have been followed by “I cycle, therefore I shower.”

This brings us to the end of our list. Lists are wonderful things. Anyone seeking an orderly mind and a well regulated existence would do well to peruse those that come along, especially ones that seek to improve the overall quality of life by identifying those things that interfere with that achievement. And what is the worst that could happen?

You might find yourself on it.



[i] This restriction holds in Ontario and most civilized jurisdictions. Still, those of you spending time in Florida are advised to take nothing for granted.

 

Parts  One and Two of this posting can be found at  http://wp.me/p3cq8l-5B and http://wp.me/p3cq8l-5S 

 

 

Sunday Morning Coffee 5: the Elegant Bastard’s Dictionary of Helpful Words and Phrases, Part Two

In which the Elegant Bastard continues his crusade for transparency and honesty in the definition of modern words and phrases. In deference to last week’s outraged comments (see the definition of “outrage” below), this list is alphabetical. Motivated readers are welcome to submit suggested additions. Others are simply asked to enjoy:

Creationism: A philosophy first popular among fundamentalists seeking to deny the idea that they descended from apes, it is now gaining popularity among apes trying desperately to deny that creationists descended from them.

Diet Soft Drinks: These sugar-free beverages were widely assumed to be effective aides in the battle against excess body fat. New reports suggest that they accomplish this by killing those who use them.

Fast Food: The word “fast” is popularly assumed to describe the speed of service. More accurately, it refers to the rate at which the calories contained find their way to whatever body part you wish they would avoid.

Guerrilla, Insurgent, Jihadist, Mujahideen, and Survivalist: To some extent, all these words originally incorporated elements of heroism and self-reliance. None necessarily involves violence. However, if recent self-referential and media use is examined, they now collectively refer to groups of young men with unfortunate personal habits who spend far too much time in each other’s company.  Their primary activity seems to be the growing of badly maintained facial hair. When television cameras approach them, they crowd together, invent short chants and pump their right hands, leading many to speculate that the world would be a quieter and safer place if they discovered other things to do with their right hands.

Another distinguishing characteristic is a tendency to fire guns into the air. It’s difficult to know exactly what this action accomplishes but it is likely best regarded as ejaculation for the sexually challenged.

A third and rather messy habit is their tendency to kill themselves and each other. Many would accept – or even welcome – this with a “Boys will be boys” shrug. Sadly however, they also tend to target those they seem to fear. This includes children, anyone praying, the unarmed, the elderly, women, some statues and those who shave without permission.

The Elegant Bastard’s only suggestion is one made to the media. The terms in question being of honourable origin and notoriously difficult to spell, why not abandon them entirely and use the shorter alternatives available. Might I suggest “thug”, “bully”, “coward” or if more syllables are really necessary, “inadequate”?

Idol: Once an object of worship carved primarily from stone – or, for the broken-hearted, ice cream – the term now can be used to describe teen males who are 1) generally blonde 2) acne free 3) able to at least hold a simple tune and 4) unable to complete puberty. While there is apparently no truth to reports that listening to their music can cause early onset diabetes, it is generally accepted that these young men are not to be trusted with fast cars, hair gel and – in foreign countries – pet monkeys.

Left Turn: In cycling, a signal accomplished by extending the right arm and then bending it at the elbow until it forms a 90 degree angle. However, since any bike signal has the same effect on some drivers as red capes on bulls or blood on sharks, most cyclists simply avoid them and offer up short prayers instead.

Outrage: Driven by the masses of new participants attracted by The Martin-Zimmerman case, the Edward Snowdon silliness and now the Asiana pilots’ names hoax, “Being Outraged”  is now the number one participatory sport in America. It requires no real logic, no noticeable training, no opposing players and best of all, no sense of responsibility. All that is really required is a mouth that opens.

Racist: The definition remains the same; it’s the scale of things that’s changed. For years, the sanctimonious assumed that racism was a phenomenon peculiar to religious conservatives, the southern states and the Republican Party. The fact that long before his trial and even before he was charged, millions took one look at George Zimmerman’s photograph and instantly declared him to be a racist invalidates that assumption. If racism denotes a judgement based on skin colour, the term can now be applied to many liberals, a number of Democrats, most of Hollywood and the entire NAACP. Who would have thought equity was something to be achieved via irony?

Reality Show: By now one of the world’s most popular oxymorons, it refers primarily to outrageously contrived competitions that offend logic, decency and all of the natural sciences. To determine the intended audience for these productions, simply delete the first two syllables of “oxymorons”.

Vodka: A substance Significant Other maintains will shortly play a pivotal role in domestic life if 1) the Duchess doesn’t have that kid, or 2) the Duchess has that kid, or 3) I write one more definition.

Noting that our focus has now twice been the definition of words, some readers have asked me to define the term, “Elegant Bastard”. The process of doing so will begin soon. In the interim, the George Zimmerman trial ended yesterday and the Elegant Bastard is both happy to be proven wrong (so far) and saddened to be proven right. The post in question can be accessed here: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-5K

Those who missed part one of “The Elegant Bastard’s Dictionary of Helpful Words and Phrases” can find it here. http://wp.me/p3cq8l-5q  Newcomers are advised to read it first.

Of Bicycles and the Taxonomy of Cyclepathic Behaviors: Part Two

In which the Elegant Bastard spokes fun at a few myths regarding cyclists, refuses to hug vegetation and declines a starring role in other people’s fantasies.

Those of us who have evolved beyond the need for four wheels and claimed our spokes would all agree on one important fact: a bike alone doth not a cyclist make. The same may be said for spandex clothing, irritating bells, clumsily positioned water bottles and the four letter words needed to deal with badly parked cars. Any of these, properly used, can be a wonderful accessory but none is essential.

The first thing really necessary for successful cycling is dirt. Fortunately, dirt is readily available and can be found underfoot almost everywhere. Urban dirt in its original condition is rarer but can be accessed in tangled ravines, forested hill sides and grassy margins. Here can be found a species of cyclist that plunges and pumps and sweats and terrifies small wildlife. Do not assume, as I once did, that they are lost and simply need clear directions to the nearest road, or that local governments have taken an imaginative approach to the punishing of criminal behavior. They do this because they like it. And why not? Those who would sniff disparagingly at them should keep in mind that there are other folk out there who like large snakes, fried liver and Michele Bachmann. Who’s crazy now, eh?

“Dirt in its original condition is free. It’s only when someone starts calling it real estate that problems begin.” T.E.B

I prefer paved dirt.

Since many of you might live in cities that take their paving seriously, I should mention that here in Toronto, “paved” is a relative term. We are a tough breed. Comfort and safety are both anathema to our wild inborn spirits and we prefer to punctuate our daily lives with as many opportunities for disaster as possible. This explains not only the state of our roads but also the outcomes of our municipal elections. That being said, I still prefer paved dirt if for no other reason than the presence of paving implies the possibility of direction and therefore, destination. And destination is the other essential element in cycling.

Once upon a time, our predecessors lived in a very simple world. All of Life as they knew it occurred at Point A. It was there that they would sit in their caves stoking the fires, wearing bits of vegetation and eating whatever didn’t manage to run away.

Then came the fateful day when one of their number – perhaps growing tired of the same dreary wall paintings or the overall smell – marched out into the world beyond and discovered Point B. Life as we know it was instantly born. Point A was no longer enough. All around that once small world a new cry went up: “To B!” And since they were not by nature a philosophical bunch, no one thought to pose the alternative, “Or Not To B?” Within days, roads were born, travel insurance was invented and McDonalds came into being.

It is this concept of destination – a preferred Point B – that fuels my need to cycle. Contrary to various urban myths, I do not cycle only to cycle any more than I eat to eat or drink to drink. I cycle to achieve my definition of Point B. Yet there are those who attempt to find in my pedalling some higher and nobler motive.

“Toronto will become a world class city when it abandons an obsession with cars so strong that one begins to think it is sexual in nature.” J.T.

Some suggest that I cycle to escape the modern world, its hectic pace and its rampant consumerism. Instead I choose to seek out verdant spaces, rolling hills and oxygen spawning trees, in the company of which I can rest my tortured soul. Others salute my dedication to the environment and applaud my decision to reduce my carbon footprint. And finally there are the fitness gurus who hold up for emulation my obvious commitment to personal health and well-being.

As much as I admire the Romantic Movement and regard fairy tales as narratives necessary to the survival of western civilization, I’m going to have to reject any role offered in these fictions. I am a city boy, born and bred. Put me anywhere without smog and my lungs threaten strike action. I do not actively dislike trees but I also feel no compulsion to hug them, an attitude that may change if they ever invent one that grows good wine grapes and/or inexpensive caviar. And as for exercise, sorry folks, but I’m chasing rich food and fine wines, not chiseled abs or anything remotely cardio-vascular. When I am on my bike, I am not looking for Arcady, Nirvana or Eden. I am looking for Starbucks, Walgreen’s and a good dry cleaner.

In short, cyclists tend to be real people in search of real goals. Our concern for Nature, health and a happy life is a cause we share with pedestrians and yes, responsible motorists. We are not hippies, weirdos, anarchists or fanatics. It is time that wannabe world-class cities acknowledged that fact and shared their roads accordingly.

“It is wise to approach sweating cyclists cautiously. You might be dealing with a cyclepath.”

However, it is with sadness that I must admit that there are those members of the cycling community who exhibit one or more of the various cyclepathologies that plague our species. In the interests of maintaining the health and well-being of society in general, I will provide a list of the most dangerous conditions in Part Three.

Part One of this series can be found here: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-5B

And those wishing to read the true confessions of an unrepentant City Boy may do so at “Bubble Time in the Big City.” It can be accessed here: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-3X

Finally, if you enjoy Elegant Bastard posts, please consider “sharing”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Taxonomy of Cyclepathic Behaviors: Part One

Before launching into his erudite and long awaited dissertation regarding aberrant bicycling behavior in urban areas, the Elegant Bastard will pause to explain how he came to acquire his own spokes. Careful readers will peruse the endnotes before proceeding.

It began in a happier and simpler time. I was breezing through my 30’s more or less on auto-pilot and I wasn’t really looking for anything involving sweat. As for “exercise”, well, I could operate a cork screw without assistance and by carefully pushing the right buttons in the right sequence, I could make a pizza appear in any room in 30 minutes or less. On days when that seemed insufficient I could drive by a gym and think intense gym thoughts. I had considered doing more but fanaticism has never really appealed to me.

Then came that day when the Province of Ontario and I sat down to do battle.

I had been summoned by letter and had spent a few days preparing that best of all defences, a good offence. I arrived and laid my cards on the table. I wanted an end to place names like Wawa, a ban on neon blue or rose pink hair colour and the immediate deportation of Don Cherry. They wanted my driver’s licence.

To be scrupulously fair, there was cause. I had twice in the previous year suffered two unexpected grand mal epileptic seizures. I maintained that the first was my response to the planned renovation of the Royal Ontario Museum and should properly be regarded as aesthetic criticism rather than a medical emergency. Ontario nodded and said, “I see.”[i] It then went on to point out that in addition to Wawa and Don Cherry, the province was home to large numbers of children, all of whom it valued and wanted to preserve. My continuing possession of a fast moving object weighing over 1200 kilograms was inexplicably seen as counter-productive to this goal. (A clear example of the aforementioned fanaticism but I decided this was not the time to mention that. I politely responded, “I see.”)

As is usual, we ended with a compromise. I handed over my licence and they promised to consider deporting Mr. Cherry to Wawa.

In relatively short order, this chain of events led me to board something called a bus. I immediately discovered a few facts. I did not own this vehicle. Therefore I would need to share it. Next, it insisted on going places I had no need to visit. Further, despite polite requests, significant throat clearing, soulful whimpering and dramatic foot stomping, it would not stop at my front door. Instead, it insisted on taking me to the street corner occupied by the home of the world’s largest dog, an excessively fanged creature as yet unintroduced to the many joys of a vegan diet.

As I tend not to suffer in silence, my transportation troubles soon spawned a number of proposed solutions. Most notable among them was an off-spring’s suggestion that I take up roller-blading. Not only would I be able to get around, I could also lose a little of that … um … well … er … extra weight. I pointed out I could instantly lose 120 pounds by dropping him from The Will. He responded with a thoughtful “I see!”[ii]

That led to Significant Other’s hasty suggestion that I consider a bicycle. It made sense. In a previous millennium, a friend had stored a bike in our garage and I had often looked at it as I drove in and out. In that sense I was already a veteran. Yielding to this logic, I bought one.

The last steps in my transition from motorist to cyclist were reasonably smooth and almost without trauma. The rose garden really did need thinning out and none of my favorites were amongst the casualties. My neighbours grew used to my “I am going to die” screams as they went about teaching me the complex art of steering. As for the raccoon with whom I had a close encounter, I am sure he eventually managed to descend from that very tall pole and I can only hope that in the intervening years he has discovered the calming effect of vodka martinis.

End of Part One.

In part Two, the Elegant Bastard will respond to certain cycling myths.

In the interim, those wishing to read about the Elegant Bastard’s heroic and successful struggle against the biggest of the big banks may do so here: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-58


[i] In Peter Cameron’s wonderful novel, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, the protagonist makes the following observation: “Whenever anyone tells me ‘I see‘ I think they’re really saying Fuck you.” The Elegant Bastard concurs.

[ii] See endnote 1

Sunday Morning Coffee 4: The Elegant Bastard’s Dictionary of Helpful Words and Phrases

In which the Elegant Bastard undertakes the Herculean task of addressing past instances of word abuse, and vows to continue this crusade until death or the availability of really good ice cream.

Words, like people, are dynamic things. They live. And since they live, they appear to be very good at doing something else people do. They change. They do this arbitrarily, more often than is really polite, and generally without my permission. I find this to be unreasonable. I see nothing wrong with expecting words to stay quietly in one place for several consecutive centuries. In fact the world would be a much better place if more people did the same thing.

I suppose I would be less agitated if words went about changing with a little more honestly. Instead, words stroll around as if all were normal, whistling innocently with a “Who? Me?” look plastered across their oh-so- innocent syllables. They even maintain their spelling and pronunciation.  Then, suddenly – WHAM – they shift their meaning. Some see this as subtle. I call it sneaky!

That’s also why I resent it.  I like meaning. Meaning and I are good friends. Meaning is the reason why, when I order tortellini, I don’t get tofu. It’s ensures that people are not able to safely refer to others with terms like “ferret-face” or “toad-breath”.  It’s why STOP signs contribute positively to population growth. It’s all about stability. I like stability.

It’s when words don’t mean what they used to mean that we get wordquakes. I don’t like wordquakes. They make me nervous. When I get nervous, my palms sweat, I start to mutter and my eyes roll unattractively. I conceal myself in small dark places and eat all the chocolate cookie dough ice cream. These actions create tension in those closest to me. They share it with others, it spreads and eventually there is turmoil in Egypt. I think this is unfair. I like Egypt.

It is to prevent situations like this that I urge everyone to try very hard not to mess with the meaning of words. Then, when the man on the street corner tells us that our duck is mooing at the barking cat ‘cause Obama’s wearing boxers and the snow is firing bullets in Barbados, we can assume with some certainty that this is not “Breaking News” from CNN. We can start cautiously backing away from our informant while uttering soothing sounds and perhaps promising to bring candy when we return with the nice people in the white coats.

Sadly, all our vows of proper verbal behavior in the future will do nothing to eradicate the mess we created in the past. Therefore, to assist those few still hoping to make sense of the world they must live in, I humbly offer my services as lexicographer, providing periodic lists of those words and phrases that have escaped and are preparing to betray such innocents as you, Dear Reader. I will accept no payment for these efforts, heroic though they may be. However, should you encounter me on the street and wish to reward my efforts with a smidgen of foie gras, a sip of fine burgundy or a spare Twinkie, who am I to deny altruism its due.

The Elegant Bastard’s Dictionary (Part the First)

Beer: A word once denoting a beverage associated with hot days or hard work, its meaning has been usurped by vacationing college students and obese ballpark residents. Beer is now to them as a ball is to a dog – the reason they will Fetch, Carry, Roll over, Lie down and Play Dead. Sadly, dogs do it with more class and with less noise.

Mayor: Once a title referring to the holder of municipal office, in Canadian cities of more than 3 million the word now means “has been or is about to be arrested.”

Liberalism: In an apparent Hollywood variation, Liberals are those who condemn Paula Deen’s use of the “N” word but remain silent as Alec Baldwin launches an obscenity-laced violence-filled homophobic rant viewed by millions on Twitter. This should be regarded as a very liberal definition of liberalism.

(Yes, I promised a dictionary. No, I did not promise it would be alphabetical.)

Leak: An unfortunate event occurring when levees are badly built, children are tickled and narcissists are left unsupervised near microphones.

Religion: While traditional notions concerning love, charity and hope still dominate, in both the Christian and Islamic worlds there are now large groups believing that religion comes in the box marked “Guns”.

God’s Work: is what happens when they find the box marked “Bullets”.

Underwear: Once a garment worn beneath outerwear for reasons of support, comfort and hygiene, it appears to have become an optional accessory, like cuff links or good manners. On its own it is now deemed suitable attire for talk show guest appearances. Once used, it can apparently be sent through the mail as a souvenir or a greeting card. The Elegant Bastard requests that all friends continue to express their affections through Hallmark rather than via Hanes

Pope: A title not yet bestowed on either Julian Assange or Edward Snowden, but both gentlemen seem to believe that this is a temporary oversight soon to be corrected.

Weather Forecasts: In newspapers arranged from front to back according to likely accuracy, these are found just after the horoscopes and just before the ad for Harold the Jewelry Buyer

Pakistan: A chaotic mix of tribes, clans, hates and prejudices that periodically pretends to have an interest in democracy. This is done to ensure that other countries keep sending the money needed to finance the tribes, clans, hates and prejudices.

Afghanistan: An alternative spelling of Pakistan

F#ck: For several hundred years, the word meant to have sexual intercourse. Since people who regularly have sexual intercourse do not spend all their waking moments talking about sexual intercourse, the word occurred less frequently than the act. It now appears that many many millions are having little intercourse of any sort since the word is being used more frequently than the verb “to be”. It can now mean “Oh my goodness” or “Are you teasing me?” or “Please go somewhere else and pass away” or “No I don’t want broccoli” – in other words, almost anything other than “have intercourse”. This state of affairs is unlikely to change as it can only really be resolved by better sex education and/or better sex and very few governments are willing to provide either.

Waiting Room: A space set aside for 1) those wishing to be ignored by medical professionals 2) those too cheap to buy their own magazines and 3) those waiting to be invited to live in countries no one else wants to visit.

Better: For most Torontonians, the word used to describe conditions everywhere else.

So ends Part One. The Elegant Bastard would like to acknowledge the kind assistance of others who are committed to the same great cause. We will return but for now we sheathe our semantic swords. Heroics are a tiring avocation and the really good ice cream has just arrived.

And those wishing to read the inspiring and heroic tale of the Elegant Bastard’s triumph over the biggest of the Big Banks may do so here: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-58

A Letter to whistleblower Edward Snowden

In which the Elegant Bastard objects to Edward Snowden’s use of poetry even more than to his politics.

No, Mr. Snowden, no! This will not do.

I might sit idly by while you do your imitation of Deep Throat and dabble with your nation’s laws and make a play for media stardom and great wealth – others have done far worse – but when you seize upon one of the great heroic poems and try and turn it to an epitaph for your increasingly sad and puerile little tale, Patience sits up straight in her accustomed place on my shoulder, says “Screw this noise” and orders me to rant.

You say, Mr. Snowden, that, “I am unbowed.” Your use of “unbowed” is no accident. It is one of the most moving moments in William Ernest Henley’s, “Invictus”. Henley wrote the poem as a teenager in the 1860’s after losing his leg to tuberculosis of the bone. Imagine the thoughts racing through a sixteen year old boy’s mind as he faces the sure knife and uncertain anesthetics of that era. Imagine his thoughts when a few years later, the other leg contracts the same disease. Fate was not done with him. In his middle years, he would lose his beloved daughter, Margaret Emma – the inspiration for Wendy in Peter Pan – to meningitis. Each time he was able to raise his bloodied head  and move forward.  His words – “I am unbowed” –  become an existential anthem, a barbaric YAWP . Mr. Snowden, in your mouth, they become a whine.

In fact, let’s take a little stroll through that short poem and compare it to the experience you have chosen for yourself.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,

Mr. Snowden, look around. You are not in a “pit” or a perpetual “night”. You are in Moscow’s International Airport where the Putin government, having used you once, apparently has no desire to use you twice. Moscow may not be your destination of choice but I think it transcends the desperate ambiance and inadequate facilities found in a nineteenth century British hospital.

I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

As an atheist and an existentialist, I struggle with notions of God and soul. Still, as a curious man, I am often intrigued by others’ arguments concerning the existence of either. They speak of faith and of the need to be guided by something greater than personal comfort, profit, ease or health. Proof, it seems, is in the suffering. Lot, Job and Abraham demonstrate this in the Bible; Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Oskar Schindler and the Standing Man in Tiananmen square demonstrate heroic suffering in our own era. Each faced death for something greater than Self.

Again, Mr. Snowden, you are sleeping on waiting room chairs and eating whatever the vending machines can offer. That may be tough, but it ain’t no existential threat, now is it. Nor does there seem to be a line-up of those seeking to murder or martyr you. In fact, until your most recent outburst, we all seemed to be in the process of forgetting you, especially since Mr. Obama seems as bored with you as Mr. Putin. (Yes, CNN still loves you – you poor man!) So it`s a little early to claim to be “unconquerable”. (Especially since Daddy is apparently negotiating optimum terms for your surrender as I write this.)

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Mr. Snowden, you have not yet stopped wincing. You are turning wincing into an art form. True, many in the American media are hurling nasty words at you, but that is their habit. Sticks and stones, Mr. Snowden, sticks and stones. And since many of them seem to feel that you have broken their nation’s laws – which you admit – and endangered national security – which you argue is less important than moral issues – what did you think they would do? Send chocolates and flowers to Moscow? But bludgeoned? Oh come! Bieber has been bludgeoned. Baldwin will be. You haven’t even been spanked. As for complaining about the “clutch of circumstance”, no one shoved you in a box, flourished the duct tape and forced you to Moscow.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

Wrath and tears?.Were you a 16 year old young man who had survived an undeserved ordeal, only to find it returning, I would be moved to weep for you. But this is not the case. You are an articulate and educated adult. You claim to be outraged by the systemic abuse of human rights by the government expected to defend those rights. To address this, you deliberately broke laws and endangered what others regarded as necessary measures. You claimed this abuse was secret; others argued that safeguards were in place. In short, you are right smack dab in the middle of what most would call a debate, one that you began. There’s been some wrath but no tears and as for “the Horror of the shade”, well, Death seems as bored by the whole business as Obama so let’s try to be a tad less hysterical.

I have not yet entirely decided whether I personally approve or disapprove of the action you took that precipitated your current condidtion. I am, however, beginning to find you tiresome. More and more, you strike me as a person with an “i” who dearly wants an “I” and more than anything an I. Your bio suggests a life of flitting here and there in search of a convenient cause. And you would not be the first to use such a cause to arrange a painless and temporary crucifixion as the first steps toward a guest shot on “Piers Morgan Live” and a condo on Fifth Avenue.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

It is in this last stanza that I find the greatest lie. In its first two lines, Henley announces his determination to go forward, to accept the uncertainties and pains that life brings to all of us. He notes that the expectations placed upon him are high and that he must acknowledge his own sins and possible punishments. You, Mr. Snowden, for whatever reason, have set yourself above the law and placed your own morality above what we sometimes term “shared values”.  This is your right as a free person in a democracy. What you face now are simply consequences – expected and deserved – unless in your paradigm you feel you have achieved a higher status, one transcending the reach of the nation’s or God’s laws. If so, you have greater issues to deal with that the comfort provided by waiting room seats in Moscow.

And given your current situation, the last two lines are simply ironic. You are now the tool of The Guardian, a source for writers seeking lucrative stories, a plaything to be used as Putin slaps around Obama to score points back home, and yet another stick Ecuador’s Correa will use to beat up the US to deflect his people’s attention from the ongoing crisis that is Ecuador. From this I suppose will come some benefit – a book deal certainly (though the book tour might be necessarily limited in scope.)

But you are not Henley, Mr. Snowden. And “Invictus” was not written for you.

Sunday Morning Coffee 3: Of CNN and Doo, the Truth Revealed

In which the Elegant Bastard shares with his readers the truth they had always suspected was out there.

(Note: The Elegant Bastard accepts as a given the fact that this is Monday but argues that since it is Canada Day it deserves to be regarded as an honorary Sunday.)

It did not begin as an auspicious day. Toronto seemed much the same as it did when I’d put it away the night before. The sun did not rise in a different sky. The city’s potholes had crept further but not noticeably faster. Mayor Ford had neither lost weight nor gained wisdom.   True, the Starbucks across the street had opened five minutes early – a sure sign that the universe was preparing some surprise or other – but I was too busy yawning my way from kettle to computer to television to think much about the significance of this omen.

The only thought that really did force itself to the front of my brain where it stood and swore loudly was the one that threw the same hissy fit every day. Why had I turned on CNN – again? Was there not already an overabundance of big teeth and artistic hair in the word? Did I need a dose of pablum with my decaf?  Had Truth been sent the way of DOMA?

This time, however, I found myself listening to the strident inner yapping. Why had I turned to what claimed to be a news channel? I knew what happened in CNN land. People cried, people sighed, people died, and people lied. They did this individually, in groups, in several countries and for no really good reasons. Why start each day with this televised proof that evolution wasn’t working anymore?

That thought sparked another. I found myself wondering how the world would look and sound if some benevolent form of AI took over. Something along the lines of HAL 9000, the sentient computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey would be great – if we could just get him over his unfortunate habit of killing people (albeit only for the best possible reasons.)

HAL’s name once sparked a controversy. People with nothing better to do had played with the three letters H A L and discovered that if you moved each letter one space over in the alphabet, you obtained IBM. Well OMG said millions! Does this mean HAL the killer computer is really a statement about the corporate ethics of the great and powerful computer giant? LOL but NO said the film’s director, script writer and producer all at once; proof that yes, that’s exactly what happened. (Don’t you love conspiracy theories?)

It was thus inevitable that my by now seriously bored brain would start playing with acronyms. This proved less than entertaining. The UN makes no more sense as the VO, nor does NATO gain more street cred as OBUP.  ATM’s become BUNS, a giggle I suppose to those who are bread or ass obsessed.

Then came the real discovery. I stopped dead. I gasped. I dropped three eggs. If you take the letters C, N, N and move one letter to the right with each, the outcome is D – O – O or doo[i], as in – forgive me Dear Reader but these words are sometimes necessary – shit! CNN is one short step from shit!

Yes, yes, I hear you. The fact that CNN is so close to Doo as to make no difference is not really much of a surprise. We have all watched breathless reporters standing in front of a storm that didn’t happen or asking the relatives of murder victims how they “feel”. We listened to broadcasts that warned us outcomes could change if the winds shifted (they didn’t) or a last county reported (it never did). We have been fed the endless trivia of what one Star or another said, bought, believes, married, slept with or gave a weird name to. We have been given images, sound bites and videos that contain nothing we can really use to accomplish anything more than deep depression.

In fact, we have all long known that CNN is not merely doo; it is the enormous pile of doo generally referred to as “deep doo-doo”. I’d take it even further to the sinister sounding “doo doo doo doo” series of musical notes that always signifies the approach of something evil.

What does shock me – and no doubt you as well, Dear Reader – is the sheer effrontery of CNN/Doo. For all that they strut around with their silly sombre faces, mouthing platitudes about running “ Situation Rooms” and doing “360’s” and being “Live”with all the “News”, they are not only doo, they don’t even bother to conceal the fact that they are doo. I mean, come on, one letter away?

Now we know why we had three days worth of updates on “Alec Baldwin’s Twitter meltdown” or so many wonderings about leaker Edward Snowden’s location that the publishers of Where’s Waldo are thinking of suing. We discover why Winnie Mandela is described as “regal” and “emotional” without anyone pointing out that she’s a convicted fraud artist and suspected child killer. We understand why we get to meet Trayvon Martin’s “real” mother and hear about George Zimmerman’s weight gain and we get to do so “Live”! And we finally learn why we get endless images and videos of everyone crying everywhere.

Because it’s doo!

I am glad to be able to share this with you all, Dear Readers, but as I said, I am sure you were all on the verge of the same discovery on your own. You are therefore correct when you point out that merely informing the world of what it already knows is not an action that in and of itself makes a day auspicious. You are quite right.

Yesterday was an auspicious day for the following reasons.  I found a new bodywash with enough eucalyptus and mint in it to send me storming out of the shower singing and grinning simultaneously[ii]. I got to stroll along Toronto’s streets in non-humid sunshine. My favorite olive store had my favorite isplanaki borek[iii]! I had the opportunity to watch and cheer as twelve of my former students marched in Toronto’s Pride parade – along with the Premier of Ontario. I found three street musicians in a row who could actually play. And I got to share a phenomenal red wine[iv] with some phenomenal minds.

Why is that enough to make a day auspicious?

It all fit nicely into my small world. I could use each event to grow me up and out just a little bit. It was all real.

And none of it was doo.

 

For Toronto based readers, I include some possibly helpful information in the end notes.



[ii]   MensEssentials, 412 Danforth Avenue. At last, a store for men who take their shaving seriously.

[iii]  The Best Olives in the World, 974 Danforth Avenue. Incredible olives in the midst of a group of stores and restaurants that deserve more notice.

[iv]  Secolo by Sebastiani, Vintages 35402 $42.95 An unqualified WOW!

Kicking the Big Bank’s Butt or Vengeance is Mine Sayeth the Bored

In which the Elegant Bastard announces that he has defeated the biggest of the Big Banks and that he will never ever ever set it free!

Like most of us, I have very few legitimate claims to fame, but there are two. First, I am the only person of my acquaintance who has never eaten at McDonalds. I have no particular fear of falling arches; I suffer from no nightmarish vision of what it might be that makes the special sauce “special”. The insistence that the patties are “all beef” has never awakened my suspicions regarding possible alternatives. As for sesame seeds, I have a “live and let live” attitude towards them. It’s just that I have never been 1) hungry and 2) near a McDonalds simultaneously. Such is the role of coincidence in history.

Of greater note is the fact that I have one of the world’s largest financial corporations in my grasp, unable to escape. Nor shall I set it free.

It all began with fresh peas.

Nothing adds to a salad like a handful of tiny glistening raw green peas. Nature decreed that they should come in pods, an irritating obstacle for those of us needing to pea frequently. But Toronto being the city of all things that it is, a few select emporia are able to provide peas already freed at about the same price as gold already refined or diamonds already cut. I grabbed two small plastic containers and strolled to the cash register.

 “$18.98 please.”

Just as there are stores where one does not shriek, moan piteously, faint or in anyway protest prices, so too are there neighbourhoods where the cost of podded peas is designed to keep away the rabble. I was standing in the former and surrounded by the latter. I therefore chose to behave and pay, especially as my late afternoon pea-drool was well advanced.

I took out my wallet and discovered there a new “chip enhanced” credit card, delivered – unsolicited  – by a bank of national repute. The bank had recently discovered that I was “valued”, “meritorious”, “sophisticated” and “deserving”. I had agreed..

(In an effort to avoid causing even more stress in the currently uneasy banking world, I will name neither the institution nor the real name of the card. We will simply call it “Passport.”)

Anyway, I had it, I used it and the peas were mine.

I promptly forgot about the transaction – that is until Significant Other casually tossed a bill-containing envelope over the top of the New York Times as I held it in front of me one quiet Sunday morning. With it came the words, “I assume this must be yours?”

My peas had come home.

Each of us has a list of bills to pay. Passport was on neither, and Sunday being Sunday, the letter slipped between unread sections of the paper and was soon recycled and forgotten.

Passport soon proved itself to be persistent. The next month – and the next – yet another envelope would arrive and each would in its turn go the way of the first. Finally a longer letter arrived. Allow me to summarize it here:

Dear Unworthy Person We Once Loved Well,

We are shocked, indeed appalled, at your cruelty in attempting to deny Passport its modest stipend, hard earned and enormously deserved for our entirely altruistic efforts to inject at least a modicum of ease into your silly little life. Were we not your friend? Did we not select you and gather you to our bosom without question and without needing to be summoned? Know now that we are immensely irked, even hurt, and are forced to raise our level of interest in you higher and to calculate said interest on an hourly basis.

As well, be it known by all that in recognition of your outstanding credit rating, your demonstrated willingness to spread your wealth and your notable resemblance to Kelsey Grammar, we are raising your credit limit by an additional twelve thousand dollars. Go in Peace and Buy!

Passport

(Or words to that effect.)

Muttering various blasphemies I added Passport to the phone-banking list, tapped the required keys as directed by the bank’s sexy-voiced computer – does a male voice answer when a woman dials? – paid the bill and once again forgot the whole affair.

Passport did not.

Once again – and again – the little envelopes arrived, but they seemed to slip through the mail slot almost apologetically. Finally opening one, I discovered I had overpaid the bill by one dollar and thirty seven cents.

This prompted me to scan the pages of tiny print that accompany credit card statements. By the end I knew how to pay a bill in times of plague or postal interruption, how to pay if deceased, how to pay by phone or computer or carrier pigeon, how to pay interest only and how to pay until Doomsday should I ever decide to go for immortality. Yet nowhere was there mention of how to get them to pay me!

Monthly the ritual repeated itself. A year went by and I noticed I had begun to look forward to Passport’s regular evidence that it remembered me, that I had not been a one charge affair. On occasion they would celebrate our lengthening relationship by increasing yet again my never-since-used credit limit. Thinking that it was time to let them down gently, I phoned – and encountered yet another silkily sultry computer-generated femme fatale who offered me her buttons to push. However, Significant Other pointed out that I already had more than enough women in my life so I hung up.

It took a friend with no romantic inclinations to point out that Passport was bound by law to send these statements while an outstanding amount outstood, and that given the cost of envelopes, postage, data-retrieval, paper, printing and more, it was likely costing it about two dollars a month to keep inviting itself into my life. This meant it had now spent close to forty dollars telling me that it owed me $1.37. I smiled. “Seduce your way out of this!” I muttered, and an evil darkness settled itself (attractively) into the lines of my face.

It has since been another year. Passport continues in its servitude, and although I could with infinite ease release it from its bondage, I choose to toy. Should they ever just decide to send a cheque, I will immediately make another modest over-payment. (I’ve decided I will send them $6.66.)

Why?

To tighten the rule and the grip of irony? To allow the darker regions of my soul some time to play? To give my monthly one-fingered salute to a giant and corpulent corporate entity? To exercise my will for the hell of it? All of the above?

I’ve no idea. But let us ask ourselves the value of finding a cheap yet elegant way of turning clumsy and insidious marketing strategies upside down? What is the worth of demonstrating the power of The One (us!) to make the giant (them) dance the silly dance or walk the silly walk? Passport knows the answer well.

It’s priceless!

Those with a few more minutes to spare and who are curious as to why the Kardashian brand continues to spill over the supermarket counter may find the answer here: http://wp.me/p3cq8l-27 A warning to the squeamish: Here there be zombies!

 

 

 

Gay Boy Scouts and Baptists, or, A Visit to Arkansistan! (Part Two)

In which the Elegant Bastard argues that no one may suffer the Children to suffer.

In part 1, the abuse of children in the name of religion was discussed and our focus was almost entirely the terrible situation in Pakistan. The situation in Arkansistan (Yes, Dear Reader, I mean Arkansas) is not yet quite as horrible. In fact, at first glance it all still seems to be quintessentially American. Schools are everywhere, labour laws seem to be in place and large sections of the population are decidedly well-fed! Add to those facts the charm of the Ozarks, the thriving theatre scene in Little Rock, and the sporting prowess of the Razorbacks and everything seems – if not quite hunky dory – at least dory.

Unless you happen to be a gay boy scout.

The recent decision by the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) to admit “openly gay” scouts drew generally wide spread support. True, some wondered just what “openly gay” might mean and there remained that organization’s refusal to tolerate gay adults in leadership roles – unless (one assumes) they are “closedly” gay? (Ain’t semantics wonderful?) But setting these issues aside, it seemed a great day for tolerance and freedom.

That’s when the local Taliban, and its sponsoring large group, the Southern Baptist Convention, decided to get involved. “Not in our tents!” they thundered, or words to that effect. And that seemed to be the crux of their objections. Admit gay scouts and there would immediately be so many after-lights-out orgies that new merit badges would be required and a whole new set of camp fire songs would need to be written. Oh there was some huffing and puffing about traditional values and character building and whatnot, but the main concern was articulated by the leader of a group called On My Honor who said, “We wouldn’t put boys and girls sleeping together. Why? Because they’re attracted to each other.” ‘Nuff said.

Tim Reed, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Gravel Ridge in Jacksonville, Arkansastan, refuses to allow these shenanigans to occur and he plans to have his church dissolve its chartered scout troop. Other Baptist leaders are promising the same. If this happens, as many as 100,000 Baptist scouts could be affected.

Ah, but these Baptist leaders have plans! Youth groups for Christian boys will help them to become “well-informed, responsible follower of Christ” and to have a “Christ-like concern” for all people. (Do they understand the irony of “all” here? Likely not.) They will learn how to carry “the message of Christ” around the world, how to work with others in “sharing Christ and how to keep themselves clean and healthy in mind and body.”

 I can certainly see tens of thousands of 12 and 13 year old boys lining up to be a part of that, can’t you? There will even be merit badges for memorizing Bible verses and performing mission work – and no, I am not making this up! (See Reading 5)

I sense your reservations, Dear Reader. While all this foofaraw is a little mind-numbing, how does it justify my use of the name “Arkansastan”? Am I not making too much of what is nothing more than a minor local argy-bargy? How is this in any way related to the incredible cruelties perpetrated against children in Pakistan?

With some issues, the question of degree does not enter in to the discussion. The official rhetoric of the Southern Baptist Convention stresses the idea of a cohesive and supportive faith-based community, one that is sixteen million strong. The pressure to comply that it can exert is enormous, even among confident adults. Here we are dealing with adolescents. And as any parent or teacher will tell you, teens – including gay teens – fear exclusion and isolation even more than the Tea Party fears taxes.

Think about it, Baptist “leaders”. Why do you think gay men and women successfully concealed their sexuality for so long? This is not about bringing homosexuals into the tents, guys. They are already there. This is about your own fear, your own stupidity and your own cruelty. How are you any different from the thugs who shot Malala Yousafzai or the crowd who burned a girls’ school in Lahore?

It is about you in one other important way. Just as self-proclaimed “leaders” in Pakistan will loudly proclaim their Islamic credentials in order to improve their own financial and political stature, Baptist leaders are using the BSA controversy and their own declared traditional values to heighten their own political profiles and expand their own youth organizations. And if a few children get hurt by all this table thumping and foot-stomping, well, they are disposable.

No one is actually being sold or used as cannon fodder, you say? True, but “export” does not mean “sell”; it means “send out”, and that is exactly what is going to be done.

It is the word “ disposable” and its synonyms that brings me to my final argument. More than cruelty and selfishness, this attack on children by Baptist leaders is religious hypocrisy. Christ made himself very clear on the matter of including children. He said “Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not.” Note, folks, he does not say “suffer some of the children”. He wants them all. (Suffer, by the way, means “allow”, not “experience pain”.)

And if his words themselves are not enough, what about those found in the hymn every Christian child hears. “Jesus Loves me! This I know, / For the Bible tells me so. / Little ones to him belong.”

Are they now to be told there’s a new fourth line: “Unless they’re gay.”?

I have read much commentary from sanctimonious Western critics who sniff contemptuously when extremist voices in Islam refer to their co-religionists as blasphemers, heretics and “not-really-Muslim”. Is the Southern Baptist Conference going to create its own hateful chorus and target its own children? Does it really have so many it can afford to lose?

No child is disposable. No state that permits the widespread denial of basic human rights to its children is a state. No religion that sanctions the exclusion of children from the faith into which they were born is a religion.

That is my own version of intolerance.

Readings:

  1. Haqqani, Husain.  Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military. Washington, D.C., Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 2005
  2. Schmidt, John R. The Unraveling: Pakistan in the Age of Jihad. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
  3. Tomsen, Peter.  The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failure of the Great Powers. New York, Public Affairs, 2011
  4. http://articles.latimes.com/2005/oct/09/news/adfg-abuse9
  5. http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/05/31/southern-baptists-to-urge-churches-and-members-to-cut-boy-scout-ties/?hpt=hp_inthenews
  6. http://www.cirp.pk/
  7. http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/23/us/boy-scouts-sexual-orientation/index.html?iref=allsearch
  8. http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-South-Central/2012/1101/Mob-burns-girls-school-in-Pakistani-city-over-alleged-blasphemy
  9. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2303815/MPs-anger-180m-British-aid-boost-Pakistan-70-politicians-pay-NO-tax.html
  10. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Tax-Evasion-in-Arkansas/214235725283438
  11. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/28/world/europe/putin-to-sign-ban-on-us-adoptions-of-russian-children.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
  12. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/saudi/analyses/madrassas.html
  13. http://www.stabilisationunit.gov.uk/stabilisation-and-conflict-resources/thematic/doc_details/206-madrassa-education-in-pakistan-and-bangladesh.html
  14. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1996/02/child-labor-in-pakistan/304660/
  15. http://www.upi.com/Top_News/Special/2012/11/21/Indias-madrassa-schools-refuse-to-teach-math-science/UPI-97291353500451/

Boy Scouts and Baptists, or, A Visit to Arkansistan! (Part One)

In which the Elegant Bastard becomes fascinated by the similar ways once very different societies go about dealing with leftover children. We will begin with musings on  matters geophysical

I must, Dear Reader, ask a question of those living safely upon the normally stable bedrock of the Great Canadian Shield and its lesser American extensions? Did you recently feel the earth move under your feet? You did? And would you like to know why that happened? You would? Well then, allow me to be the first to reveal this to you. (No kudos are necessary but please feel free to support me in the five star Hong Kong hotel of your choice. I will provide my own pole dancer.)

Apparently, what you felt was not simply some great geosexual coupling of tectonic plates. Rumours suggest it was something far more profound. That shudder we felt could have been the seismic consequence of an entire American state picking itself up, dusting itself off and moving itself half way across the world. Naturally the redrawn maps and the new McDonalds menus would not yet be available,  so final proof is sketchy, but who cares about that, right? Allow me to introduce you now to that brand new state of being:  Arkansistan!

Discussions of flora and fauna will necessarily be left to those more able than I to deal with such trivia. I would instead draw your attention to a startling social similarity now existing between Arkansistan and its close ideological brother, Pakistan. Both apparently have an enormous abundance of male children, so many as to not know what to do with them all. Both are busily designing ways to deal with any extras.

Pakistan, having had a considerable head start, is far more advanced than its new neighbour. Still, the process it uses has been documented and is reasonably portable. What is true of cheap fabric turns out also to be true of male children.  There is generally a profit to be made if any surplus can be exported. It’s easier with t-shirts, but imagination makes anything possible.

It helps if large groups in society get enthusiastically involved and Pakistan was fortunate enough to have three, all very motivated.  Its upper classes decided that the paying of income taxes was inconvenient, a bit dull and just not their cup of tea. Its military, long the victim of a massive inferiority complex vis a vis India’s nuclear weapons program, decided it also needed a big one and undertook what was essentially the most expensive penis transplant in history. The ISI, Pakistan’s version of the CIA, wanted badly to play games with its neighbours and decided it could best do this by creating chaos in places like Afghanistan and Kashmir – one more example of big toys for little boys.

A financial consequence of these developments was the disappearance of anything even remotely akin to a comprehensive and well-funded public school system and the simultaneous appearance on the streets of hundreds of thousands of poor, illiterate and under-nourished male children wandering  around looking for food, employment and shelter. Inconvenient and – given their bedraggled state –  decidedly unphotogenic, these children posed a problem. And despite the heroic humanitarian efforts of the owners of Pakistan’s sweatshops, only a paltry few million could be rented from their parents and efficiently utilized in the weaving of cotton fabrics or the manufacture of  soccer balls.

The answer to this best-practice conundrum also required the involvement of powerful groups. For Pakistan, these saviors included fairly extreme religious groups. Together, they (and others) created thousands of radical madrassas (schools). These became nurturing agents for tens of thousands of Pakistani boys. Sadly, the word “school” does not always mean what it should.

Life for children in some of these schools is simple:  a daily dose of religious and sectarian hatred, unceasing indoctrination, the banning of any “Western influence”, pseudo-military training, minimal and/or poor food, the occasional beating (or worse) and lots of outdoor marching and/or chanting whenever a jihadist leader or a tribal commander or a powerful politician needs a mob or a martyr or a mob of martyrs. These madrassas have helped spawn a number of interesting and exciting off-shoots, among them Al Qaeda and the Taliban, nasty  ironies not lost on the Saudi and American governments, both of which were very instrumental in getting this unholy mess started.

Are there madrassas and NGO run schools in Pakistan that try to educate boys and girls and that try to go beyond religious instruction? In fact there are many. But the dark dormitories referred to here are not some desperate but praiseworthy effort to save young people from grinding and dehumanizing poverty. The raggle taggle child armies they send forth are used to serve the political, personal and cannon-fodder needs of those who finance or run them. They have very little to do with anything most Muslims would regard as legitimately Islamic. Nor are they fundamentally focused upon saving or healing or growing the minds, bodies and souls of children.

Instead, they have everything to do with establishing and maintaining the power and honour of innumerable self-proclaimed leaders.  They are the real-world occurrence of Jonathan Swift’s satire, A Modest Proposal, in which the writer argues that the starving children of famine-stricken Ireland be fattened and butchered to feed the English elites. The only difference is these lost children of Pakistan do not even experience the pleasure of being fattened first!

(This innovative use of disposable children is not limited to Pakistan. Nations are also guilty but we will discuss those another time. For now, it’s on to Arkansistan and its strange encounter with the Boy Scouts of America.)

A partial list of readings is provided here and at the end of Part 2

Readings:

  1. Haqqani, Husain.  Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military. Washington, D.C., Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 2005
  2. Schmidt, John R. The Unraveling: Pakistan in the Age of Jihad. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
  3. Tomsen, Peter.  The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failure of the Great Powers. New York, Public Affairs, 2011
  4. http://articles.latimes.com/2005/oct/09/news/adfg-abuse9
  5. http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/05/31/southern-baptists-to-urge-churches-and-members-to-cut-boy-scout-ties/?hpt=hp_inthenews
  6. http://www.cirp.pk/
  7. http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/23/us/boy-scouts-sexual-orientation/index.html?iref=allsearch
  8. http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-South-Central/2012/1101/Mob-burns-girls-school-in-Pakistani-city-over-alleged-blasphemy
  9. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2303815/MPs-anger-180m-British-aid-boost-Pakistan-70-politicians-pay-NO-tax.html
  10. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Tax-Evasion-in-Arkansas/214235725283438
  11. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/28/world/europe/putin-to-sign-ban-on-us-adoptions-of-russian-children.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
  12. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/saudi/analyses/madrassas.html
  13. http://www.stabilisationunit.gov.uk/stabilisation-and-conflict-resources/thematic/doc_details/206-madrassa-education-in-pakistan-and-bangladesh.html
  14. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1996/02/child-labor-in-pakistan/304660/
  15. http://www.upi.com/Top_News/Special/2012/11/21/Indias-madrassa-schools-refuse-to-teach-math-science/UPI-97291353500451/