You Can’t Trust the Yak Meat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any questions?

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

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

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


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

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

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

[iv]  See Juliet’s comment above.

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

The Deadly Art of Napping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nap.

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

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

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

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

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

The battle is joined.

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

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

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

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

And then I snore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Of Miley Cyrus, Twerking and the Crisis in Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Secret World of Spitters, or, “I spit, therefore I am…”

In which the Elegant Bastard offers what he feels can be the only sympathetic explanation for the behavior of those unable to refrain from spitting messily and repeatedly wherever the rest of us want to walk.

Whatever it is the world waits for, I do not think it waits for these. They stand in a rough circle just outside the school fence on ground infested by weeds and punctuated by ant hills. They are seven in number, all male. Two are so skinny as to be threatened by the passing breeze, three are too hefty to be healthy and the last two are short enough that any observant male knows that inwardly they bleed.

They have attempted to play the peacock but do not do it well. Their hair is lacquered into stegosaurus spikes, their jeans are playing dangerously with gravity and their slouch, intended to intimidate, only brings to mind a dying tree I need to hurry home and transplant.

They do little except spit. First one, and then another, and then a third, as if some strange baton is being passed. There is a pause and then it goes around their little circle yet again. I think about the synonyms for “spit”: gob, hoick, hork, hock a loagie. None of these are elegant terms or even pleasant on the ear. Nor does the act itself convey any suggestion of skill or real purpose. Just hork up a ball of mucus-laced saliva and fire away! This is not the stuff of Olympic glory. So why do they persist?

I can recall my mother spitting on an iron to ensure that it was ready. My father would spit upon his handkerchief before wiping the remains of some unfortunate bug from the windshield of his prized Rambler. But  each of them was expert at all tasks and never had to spit a second time.

I begin to wonder why these young men spit so obsessively, so sloppily and so often. And since I have a curious mind, fifteen minutes left of lunch and a memo to avoid reading – all that is necessary for serious scientific research – I decide to observe and listen. The (edited) transcript is as follows:

 “Don’t furk with me! Pffft! She what?” Hork! Pffft!

“Furk you.  Pffft. She did. You furking calling me a furking liar? Hork Pfft!

“Wow, Dude, you’re furking with my head!” Pffft! “Furk me!” Hork! Pffft!

“Hey, Furk head,” Hork Pffft! “Give me a furking fag.” Hork. Pffft!

This dialogue repeats as more or less an endless loop, the “she” referring to either women they don’t know or cars they don’t have. They then move on to new subjects: gays (all furking losers); women (all furking whores) and even the weather, which is predictably furking bad. Accompanying these verbalisms is endless and sincere crotch scratching. Add this to the repeated feigned (I hope!) grabs or knee thrusts at the crotches of others in the circle and one has reason to be thankful that saliva is the only bodily fluid being expelled.

They sense my presence and turn. I see their faces. If sneers were were works of art, these seven are collectively the Louvre. Finding me unimportant, they turn back to each other.  Hork. Pffft!

There is a kind of ritualistic element to it all, a kind of silly dance but without the Cleesian wit and subtle grace. Each will angle his head to spit behind or to the side, never directly at the male he addresses. The phlegm is directed downwards. Hands are in the belt loops or the sagging waistband. On rare occasions, the spitter will face forward but the spittle will land between his own feet. I sense there is an element of aggression here, linked in some way to the head butting contests between great horned beasts, only without the horns.

I am reminded of the opening scene in Romeo and Juliet when the servants of the rival Montague and Capulet families come together, and wonder how it would go in this context:

 “Do you spit at us, sir?” Pffft!

“I do spit, sir!” Pffft!

“And do you spit at me, sir?Pffft

“No, sir, I do not spit at you, sir.” Pffft! “ But I spit, sir!”Pffft

 And so on, ad infinitum …

If there is any resemblance to events in the animal kingdom, it would perhaps be to dogs endlessly marking territory, an action notably lacking in grace or heroic potential and lasting only until the next dog. Even the ants seem unimpressed.

What, then, does the winner – if any – win? I look around. There are no women about to be impressed, and if one walks by, the spitting stops. No praise is offered by peers. No one compliments another’s loagie: its size, its colour, the sound it makes when it strikes the ground. There doesn’t even seem to be a verbal trophy given for accuracy, as in “Hey, Dude, Firking Cool! Ya got that ant.” Hork! Pffft!

If there is no contest, perhaps there is an intricate pattern outsiders cannot discern, an ancient shared secret valued only by the group, and requiring the careful saturation of a specific piece of ground in a specific way. Are my casual and profane eyes rudely invading some tribal rite? (That thought disappears when one of the tribe puts his finger alongside one nostril and fires a ball of snot on to the sacred ground. There are no protests.)

Are they simply soggier than others of their species? Do some males just suffer from the accumulation of excess liquid and therefore require more frequent excretory moments than the rest of us?

I understand the need of an athlete to spit after a long contest or an extraordinary feat of endurance. But other than the effort spent in spitting itself, the only athleticism I’ve seen here is the raising of cigarettes to lips, followed by the tins of “Red Bull”, and once again the cigarettes.

I realize, too, that it is not only this group exhibiting this behavior. In configurations of two or more – in parking lots, in subway stations, in shopping malls, on streets, on beaches, in parks and even in shared hallways – they spit, and spit and spit again. What can it mean for surely it means something?

The bell rings. Lunch is drawing to its close and I realize I need to rush to both class and a conclusion. Then suddenly, as I crumple up the unread memo and turn towards the school, a vague epiphany nibbles at the edge of my consciousness. I shake my head. But yet? No! Still …? And I wonder if you, Dear Reader, have also even briefly entertained the same suspicion.

Let us review:

  1. The act of public spitting occurs largely in male-only groups.
  2. The presence of women or authority figures inhibits performance.
  3. The words “expectorate” and “ejaculate” have eerie similarities.
  4. The associated vocabulary, the attendant hand gestures and the crotch fixation have obvious overtones.
  5. Participants face each other in a circle.

I arrive at the school’s front door. Behind me I can hear the group of seven raise its voice in a raucous high-pitched lingering … cheer. I tell myself that I am wrong, that despite the evidence, nothing amusing or ironic is happening beyond the fence. They are simply spitting.

But grinning as I am, I do not turn around.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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 (2): Of Edward Snowden and Iago

 In which the Elegant Bastard is surprised by the sheer number of Iagos running about the stage and hopes that a few will leave.

I lead a happy life.

I would like to claim that this is true because of things I do. In fact – were I to be honest – I would have to admit that things I no longer do get a lot of the credit.

I gave up smoking, thereby gaining both the funds required to pursue other expensive sins and the energy that  pursuing them requires . I gave up driving. Not only did this free me from the clutches of the Great Car Conspiracy – what do you mean you`ve never heard of it? –  it allowed me to fully embrace pedestrian anarchy: I jaywalk, I cross at the red, I stroll on the grass,  I gambol at STOP signs, I smell and on occasion pick the flowers. And do you know something?  No one cares! Giggle.

And last, I gave up being left-wing or right-wing. Strait-jackets, be they tie-dyed or tailored, never really appealed to me. It was as easy abandoning my 20-something Marxism as it was my 30-something Capitalism. Both philosophies had the tight and sweaty feel I associate with cheap polyester. My current mushy middle-ism goes comfortably with the world around me. I don’t have to hurt anything. I don’t have to give up more than is good for me. I get to be nice to most people. And – most importantly – I don’t have to make Edward Snowden into my hero or my villain.

This is fortunate because making him into either would require feats of intellectual engineering (or pure fiction) far beyond my ability. He exudes the kind of pathos we have all seen before. He is nothing more than a modern day Iago.

People love to make Shakespeare’s ultimate villain into something far more impressive than he was. Some claim Iago was Satan himself, a dark and powerful figure stalking and destroying Good wherever he could find it. Others lament his fate, characterizing him as an oppressed and emotionally abused gay man forced into the closet by a repressive society, unable to live openly with the Moor he loved. In fact he was nothing more than a seething mass of resentment, a petulant and whining little bit of nastiness who wanted to be so much more than he knew he was.

This is understandable. Everyone around him had wealth, or a title, or youth, or goodness, or a strangely exotic background that mesmerized all others. As Iago plots the death of one such unwitting tormentor, he says in an unguarded moment that the man he will destroy “hath a daily beauty in his life/ That makes me ugly.” He was right. At another moment, he gloats that his chief victim, Othello, will soon “thank me, love me, and reward me. For making him egregiously an ass.” Here Iago almost croons, salivating over each soul satisfying “me” as it issues forth. His day will come. The world will know how great he really was. For Iago, it was all about … well … Iago.

Edward Snowden seems to embody that same needy narcissism, mixed with a teaspoon or two of paranoia. True, we hear his words largely through The Guardian and its reporter, Glenn Greenwald, both of which ideologically and commercially need Snowden to be viewed heroically. It is in their reports that we discover carefully presented poignant personal sorrows, or forgivable past failures or the virtuous and bravely borne moral certainty that his actions were right. We are almost invited to weep. But it’s hard to do so for the Snowden who peeks through the selected and sanitized prose oozes self-love and self-pity.  He articulates no concern whatsoever about what he might unleash or what harm he might do. He speaks with the certainty of the zealot, the fanatic.

He is almost comic, but Dangerfieldian or Ricklesenian rather than Chaplinesque. He mentions that the CIA is all around him. Whether that’s a reference to the nearby American embassy or the presence of nearly 100 Starbucks outlets in Hong Kong is never made clear. He will, he says, “be made to suffer”. At this point, I think even the casual reader is wondering. If  “the greatest evil” in the world (the American Government) is after him with their “massive surveillance machine”, why haven’t they found him yet? By his own admission, they could have stomped him. Are they perhaps not trying as hard as they are pretending or he feels they should?

In a wonderfully paranoid moment, Snowden suggests that  “they” will send the “Triads” after him. The triads are notorious criminal organizations operating in Hong Kong. Who knew they were at the beck and call of the U.S. government?

In another Iago moment, Snowden mentions that “they” will “demonize” him. (On three separate occasions in the play, Othello, little Iago refers to himself in demonic terms! He’s such a wannabe!) By now the reader has had enough. Demonize? Oh please. Dorkify, perhaps. Bratisize, maybe. Prickify if we are all in a bad mood. But demons come in larger sizes than your own, Mr. Snowden.

Snowden has not come close to matching the accomplishments of  Daniel Ellsberg or Colleen Rowley. Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers alerted Americans to the fact that a succession of presidents had lied. Rowley’s famous memo to FBI Director Mueller makes it clear that the opportunity to prevent or at least contain the tragedy of 9/11 was wasted by either high level incompetence or careerism.

Snowden tells us that the NSA is “watching” both Americans and foreigners. After Oklahoma City, New York, Madrid, London and Boston, just who is not aware of that? He makes it sound as if Uncle Sam’s agents are watching every word we type, hovering over each of our shoulders as we go places we shouldn’t to watch things we mustn’t. They aren’t. As one non-hysterical commentator put it, the NSA looks for patterns, not individual calls. It collects “dots”, motifs that might indicate the presence of a threat. Once a pattern emerges, it must then seek warrants to actually listen in – and those warrants are not easy to obtain.

Who knew this great “secret”? Given the content of the scathing comments about Mr. Snowden being expressed by congressmen, senators, defence analysts, pundits, jurists, journalists and security watch-dogs from both the left and the right, quite a lot of people really. True, The Guardian is “outraged”. Michael Moore is “outraged”. Julian Assange is “outraged”. But when are they not?

Frankly, I think most people are more bemused at the uproar than anything else. There may be some concern that self-canonized St. Edward’s actions could impact security. Personal liberties are important to us all. Yet most of us remember the tragedy of the twin towers. We saw the bodies plummeting to the ground. We are still in the immediate aftermath of the Boston bombing. The image of one impossibly innocent child has not yet receded. If the NSA and other governments can prevent something similar by collecting essentially anonymous “dots” and then following due process when possible patterns emerge, so be it. Google and Facebook do much the same for lesser motives.

Edward Snowden is neither hero nor villain. He is nothing more than a sad little man in pursuit of a satisfactory self. The more his reasons are considered, the less credible they become. I suppose we could speculate about possible financial gains that would dwarf his previous “good salary” or a publicity tsunami so large it would make a Bieber want to shut the door and hide. But there really is no point. It is still the sadness that prevails. Were I the U.S. government, I would let him go wherever the winds might blow him.

For Mr. Snowden is a hero only to those who need a villain. There are many who vilify America generally or the U.S. government specifically. By creating Mr. Snowden as a “hero”, they simply reinforce the idea of the American Super Villain. Why do they do so? Because the existence of America as villain allows them to proclaim themselves as hero in their own narratives. Mr. Snowden is grist to their mills. It is as such that he will be used.

It is happening already. The Hong Kong Government – which breathes only when China permits – has allowed Mr. Snowden to “escape” and “seek asylum”. Subtext? “Oh you nasty America, you!” Russia’s Mr. Putin will permit Snowden to land in Moscow. Same subtext. (Would now be a good time to mention Tienanmen or Pussy Riot?) And where will Mr. Snowden end up? Ecuador or Venezuela. Oh Lucky Man. Both countries are currently led by populists who attempt to create cult-like status via venomous anti-American rhetoric.

In fact, if I were you, Mr. Snowden, I would be worried about what countries I flew over and on whose planes. You may for the moment be a convenient hero, but the longer you are out there making statements and giving interviews, the less you are controlled. What better way to ensure that you remain a potent symbol of American “evil” than by having your plane plunge into a mountain somewhere and then blame the CIA? And if you do arrive safely in the hiding place of your choice, be careful what you eat and drink.

At the end of the play, Iago is asked why he did what he did. He has helped destroy Othello. The virtuous Desdemona is dead, as is his own once-loving wife. His schemes have failed. He is trapped in his own smallness. He tries a final moment of bluster: “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word.” He impresses no one and he is dragged off stage.

Et tu, Mr. Snowden. Et tu.

 

 

 

What’s A Guy To Do With His Dusty Old Ma?

In which the Elegant Bastard must decide whether to cut the umbellical or stay loyal to the lies.

It started with a few friends telling me it was time I got rid of Ma.

Their blunt words hurt, but at the same time I realized that the old girl was becoming more a nuisance than anything else. She’d developed some pretty annoying habits. In recent years, for example, she’d taken to allowing unidentified sales people into the house, usually around dinnertime.  As for the rest of the day, Ma just generally sat by the television, forcing us to dust around her. Whole days would go by without her making a sound. She was also getting more and more expensive to keep. But to toss her out into the trash? That seemed so heartless.

Finally, Significant Other suggested that if I didn’t want to throw her out, I could just put her back in the box she came in and stuff her in a closet. I thought about that alternative. It had its appeal. It was both decisive and yet not finally so, rather like being able to get on a plane to Chicago and then deciding half way there to have it land in New York. This way, if the break-up proved too difficult, I could always take her out again, clean her buttons and put her back. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. It really was time.  Old Ma’s days were done. One quick call to Bell and the land line would be a thing of the past.

Some of you younger readers just groaned, didn’t you. Admit it; yes you did. When it dawned on you that all of this angst was about a home phone line, your inner reaction had just a touch  – just the merest trace – of  “wtf?”[i] to it, didn’t it. Oh, don’t try and fool me; I know! I read your Facebook pages and I can hear you telling me to just toss the damn thing out and be done with it, right?

But those of you in your 20’s and 30’s have no idea how momentous this decision really was. You never had a Ma Bell. Those of us who did lived in a different world where she held a near sacred place. She would emerge from the wall in a place she decided was convenient. Her wires lay wherever necessary, ambushing the vacuum cleaner and tripping the unwary. The phone itself – nearly always black – sat heavily on a table or bolted itself to a wall where it stared back like a complicated, overgrown and immoveable plastic spider.

It did not ring in a modulated tone. You could not mute it or set it to vibrate or make it sing to you. It would not tell you who was calling or take a message on your behalf. The phone summoned and it did so with a “Dude, get your ASS in here NOW!” kind of tone. And you went. You hauled yourself up from wherever you were and whatever you were doing – and you went. After all, it was the phone.

And it wasn’t even necessarily just your phone! If you are old enough or if you lived in a relatively small rural community even as late as the 1970’s, you might have had a party line. In that case, you shared your line with other homes and could listen in to other people’s conversations. Imagine the impact of that on three hour hormonally driven conversations between love-sick adolescents.

Yet even in big cities, that stereotypical scene in which one teen sprawled on one bed repeatedly says to another teen sprawled on another bed, “No, you hang up first.” just didn’t happen. The general rule was one phone per house. And since it was almost always in the kitchen, privacy was impossible. Some teens, of course, developed codes. If one wanted to say to another, “I want to kiss you all over”, the proper phrase was, “Did we have French homework?” Any parent hearing this exchange would know instantly what was really going on, but the code allowed for everyone to pretend that the conversation was academic.

This was the world of Ma Bell, and those who were raised there do not easily move away.

Again I can hear my younger readers. They are snickering. I hear words like “luddite” and “dinosaur” and cruelest of all, “middle age” – which, when they say it, sounds like a kingdom ruled by smurf named Mordred. Here I must protest. I have too moved with the times. I text. I tweet. I LOL and I ROTFL and I would love to TTYL[ii]. I may not be 420 friendly[iii] but I know what it means (and I know where you live!)

More, I never leave the house without my brand new companion, a lovely sleek young thing with which I have an intimate and long standing relationship. She sings, she tells me where I am, she handles my banking and Oh, she vibrates. And even on a crowded bus, we can play our little games. This being so, why did I hesitate at all about giving up so anachronistic a thing as a landline?

It has a lot to do with staying loyal to the lies we learn.

“Lies” here does not mean deliberate deceptions but necessary ones. Think of a bridge you walk across often. You do not proceed cautiously, testing each step, anticipating a collapse, planning an escape route? You stride forward, thinking of more important things: your work, the children’s futures, the newest flavour from Ben and Jerry’s. You know the bridge won’t fail. That is a necessary lie.

So it was with Ma Bell. That umbellical wire leading to the jack and from there to mysterious spaces behind the wall connected us to an unbreakable and always-faithful network we could trust. It made the world smaller and placed it in our hands. And no matter where we were, at home, in a mall, at a crowded airport or on a rain-drenched street, there was always a booth available, always a refuge where, like E.T., we could phone home.

The cell phone, for all that it nestles comfortably in my pocket, will never be the same for me. I am the wrong generation. I use it well, but it still has the capacity to amaze. I marvel at it and because I do, there is a distance between us. I can think about and fear its loss. I can resent its omnipresence. And nearby 12-year-olds are far more efficient in its use than I will ever be. To them it is the certain link to a world stretching farther than wires. They can go anywhere, anytime. That is their necessary lie and it is not the same as mine.

So Ma will remain in her accustomed spot on the occasional table. I suppose I could go cordless; I could buy a lighter, slimmer model; I could reactivate some services I long ago transferred to my cell. I could, but that really isn’t the point. She’s there as much to be seen as used. She links me to a paradigm more that to some place.

Besides, every Sunday just before noon, she rings, and I dutifully come from wherever I might be to take the call.

It will be my mother.

 


[i]  “What the fudge” but given the giggles when my students explained it to me, I am assuming it has other possible meanings.

[ii] Laugh Out Loud, Roll on the Floor Laughing, Talk To You Later.

[iii] To have a passion for weeds that are not dandelions.

Sunday Morning Coffee: This Week’s Ups and Downs (I)

A bit of silliness in which the Elegant Bastard attempts to predict whether the week ahead is likely to be worth the effort.

A note: If, Dear Reader, you have chosen not to live in Toronto the Good, then you might not be aware of the way the concept of “Mayor” is being redefined here. My references to the current holder of that office may thus seem strange. If this is the case, then be aware that you apparently have lucky stars and should even now be thanking them. – E.B.

I do not know why my Sunday morning coffee has acquired an importance that elevates it far beyond the many others I drink each week. I do not rank my showers or my transit rides or my lunches or any of the other physical and intellectual functions occurring regularly in any seven day cycle. A sneeze on Tuesday has no more meaning than black forest ham on Thursday.  Yet there is something about that second cup of the first day of the new week that carries with it a feeling of vague anxiety mixed with new hope and a dash of nagging fear. (The first cup – powder in hot water – brings only the caffeine jolt required to make me capable of actually brewing the second.)

Preparation for the Sunday second cup (actually, I use what I think is the world’s largest mug, given to me 27 years old) has taken on the status of ritual: the beans, roasted the day before, are ground by hand; the filters are imported from Italy, the carafe from Germany; the water started life in what I am told is an Icelandic glacier. Boiling water first pre-soaks the filter then baptizes the added grounds so that they “blossom”. A long slow pouring process follows and alchemy turns out not to be so difficult after all.

If that were all there was to it, then slipping into Brave New Week would be easy-peasy. However, there is another essential element: the Sunday morning news. Like most of us on a Saturday night, I carefully tuck the world away after making it promise to behave itself a little better when it gets up in the morning. If the Sunday news – on balance – shows evidence that a Putin-free period of peace and prosperity might be in the offing, then hope will take me striding into Monday with a smile upon my face. If instead it looks and sounds like the world will be  throwing the same tantrums as the three under-6’s who live next door, then my interest in finding out where Mayor Rob Ford gets his non-prescription drugs goes up – way up!

Does that sound logical? No? Well, to each his private madness, no? And since you are here, Dear Reader, why not join me. Is your coffee ready? Do you have your copy of the New York Times? Is your computer set to CNN, the BBC and the CBC? Is your television tuned to the most banal local news channel you can find? Then let’s see what’s in store? Shall it be an UP week or a DOWN week?

Hmmm. Something called an Austin Mahon is coming to Toronto. It looks like a Bieber. Something called a  Cody Simpson is coming to Toronto. It also looks like a Bieber. I look out my window. I am in Toronto. We are not off to a good start. And whatever happened to biodiversity? DOWN

Thousands of people are out in the pouring rain taking part in a run to raise money for research into prostate cancer and none of the runners looks like a Bieber. In your face, Big C! This is an UP.

I read that someone once wanted to start a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Buildings. The romance of the notion cheers me instantly. I wonder how many others I could talk into joining something like this. Perhaps we could retroactively save the Royal Ontario Museum (currently being eaten by what looks like a gigantic alien sent from outer space.) A definite UP.

North Korea announces that it is ready for talks with the U.S. Apparently the Valium is working, But Kim Yong-un remains on the Rob Ford diet. The  UP is balanced by the DOWN so it all remains ambiguous. But then, what did you expect from North Korea.

(I am too taking this seriously!)

Turkey’s leader announces that the demonstrators his police are now waterbombing in Istanbul are “international thugs and terrorists”. We all know this cannot be so because all the international thugs and terrorists are busy tormenting that nice Mr. Assad in Syria. This, of course, makes us think of that nice Mr. Mubarak in Egypt and that nice Mr. Gaddafi in Libya and that nice Mr. Duffy in a province to be determined. Forget “No Fly” zones; can we please have a “No Lie” zone? All in all, it’s a BIG DOWN.

Toronto’s police chief performed what can only be regarded as silent contortions as he attempted to avoid incriminating Toronto’s largest still standing structure, its mayor. Never doubt the power of unspoken words. Hilarious.  UP! High UP. (But not as high as Mr. Ford.)

(Of course it was a cheap shot. It’s Sunday. Ok, I promise. No more Ford stuff.)

Last week’s media star, Mr. Edward Snowden, is apparently losing some of his glitter. The predictable voices – Michael Moore, The Guardian, Julien Assange, professional “activists” – continue to deify him, but others have been probing a little more deeply. A more balanced and less hysterical picture is emerging. It is entirely possible that what some need to see as heroic and others are desperate to call a traitor is just another sad little man. No surprise. Whistle blowers who say “Look at that!” are necessary; those who say “Look at ME!” are not. We see you, Mr. Snowden. We see you. Sanity is prevailing – barely. This is an UP.

Warner Brothers is making previews available to churches all over the US as it tries to market  “Man of Steel”. Its claim? Superman is really a Christ figure. The evidence?  “Startling” similarities between the life of Jesus and the life of Superman. One of the more powerful “proofs” is the fact that at one point, Superman comes down to earth – arms outstretched – before taking off again. Crucifixion and Resurrection, right.

Setting aside the fact that birds, squirrels airplanes and most drunks come to earth with appendages outstretched – and then take off again, the “shock” that a western film or literary hero might have similarities to Christ is not newsworthy. A brief list of Christ figures would include Jim Casey (Grapes of Wrath), R. P. McMurphy (Cuckoo’s Nest), Harry Potter, Jim (Huckleberry Finn) , Simon (Lord of the Flies), Jim Conklin (Red Badge of Courage) and Billy Budd.

What is new is the studio’s use of America’s churches as marketing tools. Clearly the hope is that crowds will stream directly from church to Cineplex. Does this mean the churches will start previewing sermons in the movie houses in order to send those crowds stampeding back? Churches? Movie Theatres? Can either of those two institutions handle this much honesty?

For the crassest use of a religious space since the money lenders in the temple, Warner Brothers gets a DOWN.

The clincher has to be a New York Times article in which Facebook is blamed for its members’ posting indiscreet pictures of themselves. Apparently the lure of “Like” is so strong that morality and propriety and shame all get tossed out the window. “Facebook made me do it.” is becoming the great new excuse, even more than the international thugs and terrorists. The crazy thing about this is it sounds absolutely convincing. Absurdity saves the day. After this great UP, there can be no doubt.

It’s going to be a great week!  See you next Sunday.

I Need You or The Fairies

The Elegant Bastard provides an edited transcript of an interesting conversation that happened earlier this evening. This is dedicated, with respect, to Ryan.

The time and place is here and now, and you, of course, are you.

News voices tell you that the enemy is closer than we thought, not just “out there” but near. They offer experts, images and tearful fearful voices. Faces full of gravitas intone and dial their eyes to “tough but strong”. Someone now arrives to speak in hard but patriotic tones. We need to make decisions, they all say, and we need to do it now. The doorbell rings and the New York Times arrives.

You lean forward, remembering that yesterday those self-same faces and those voices warned us yet again about impending Armageddon. It all flows in from far away, too far away.

A child’s urgent voice intrudes insisting that you walk down to a nearby garden. Elves have been seen in the vicinity and whispers say that golden and green jello can be found behind the shadowy hedges. You are asked if it would be all right to take the good spoons out of doors. But even if it isn’t, could we please go there now?

You lean towards this child who yesterday believed in Scooby underneath the bed. The day before it might have been Sponge Bob. A book of fairy tales sits on the kitchen table. This is too close, too close, too close.

I am as rational as you and as romantic too. My worlds need my answer.

Help me.

Share yours.

(Yes, I have decided, but we can need each other`s answers even when we disagree.)