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!

 

 

 

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.

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/

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.

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/

“Confessions of a Flesh Eater” or “My Right to Eat Meat”, Part Two

In which the Elegant Bastard speculates, confesses and neither demands nor offers an apology.

 I suppose the first answer to the “Why eat meat?” question – and one of the simplest – would be to acknowledge my status as a living organism requiring protein. However, I hate – and reject – such reductionism.  Referring to meat as protein is like referring to wine as grape juice gone bad, to a Lamborghinis as metal, plastic and rubber powered by fossil by-products, to Notre Dame as a pile of organized masonry with an attitude problem. Besides, I do not eat meat for protein. Protein I can get from slaughtered beans or some seriously tormented and camouflaged version of tofu.

In fact I will admit that meat is not essential to my survival. I could get by without it if I had to. I could also make do without satellites, leather furniture, and Brooks Brothers. But choices and the ability to make them are an important part of what makes life exciting and us human. If necessary I could survive (I suppose) by breathing whatever air is available in Wawa or even Pittsburgh. I just happen to prefer the air in Paris, especially if it’s infused with the aroma of a little bœuf en croûte.

However, the fact that consuming meat is not essential does not mean the action is itself unnatural. Consider our primitive ancestors. They could have just strolled casually along some primeval pathway, thinking great prehistoric thoughts while nibbling a few berries here, some mushrooms  there (the ones that didn’t kill Uncle Urg) and handfuls of various greens just about anywhere . Not only were these foodstuffs available, they were largely non-violent. Whatever person-eating plants may once have flourished, they had long since vanished into extinction. (I’ve seen the cave paintings.)

Yet for some reason our earliest ancestors felt an overwhelming need to hitch up their saggy furs and confront great beasts that came equipped with tusks, claws, talons, teeth, unpleasant smells and other ways of inflicting pain or early death. They did this solely in order to shove large uncooked bits of these animals into their mouths – without the benefit of gravy or artistically arranged side dishes. To me that goes far beyond simple curiousity or some early manifestation of latent colonialism. Deep down inside First Man, something awakened, saw a squirrel run by, drooled involuntarily and immediately started muttering, “Got to get me some of that!” The chase was on.  One does not chase zucchini.

I suppose it is possible that the attraction of meat is in some way symbolic or even atavistic, but I have trouble accepting that. Do I eat meat in order to return to my pioneer roots and to those lives lived four generations ago? Does something in my sinews want to experience again the aching back of the harvest or the tired legs of the hunt?  I do not think so. If true, would I not feel a similar need to darn a few socks or churn some butter or at least read by candlelight? And would I not be more likely to be cleaning a rifle than polishing my sous vide machine?

My grandmother might remember a day when chickens came from eggs, lived in coops and were ready to eat when they achieved a certain weight and the axe leaned sharpened in the barn. Now chickens come from Loblaws, live in styrofoam and are ready to eat when they grow a barcode and are reduced to half price.

Guests at the table speculated that in the “mouth feel” and texture of well prepared meat we encounter a certain sensuality that no fruit or vegetable could ever provide. Our flesh overcomes the flesh of the Other, encountering a succulent and rich resistance that then yields and parts softly as our teeth insist upon penetration. Rich juices or perhaps even a bit of warm blood moistens our lips and sits glistening on our chins. Hands lift bone-in morsels to waiting mouths. Elaborate meals – even vegan feasts (I’m told) – always have a touch of the erotic to them, but surely such pleasant and private carnal fantasies are easier with rib steak than with radishes.

As for the idea that my love of meat is some repressed and shameful form of speciesism, I reject that. I feel no need to declare my superiority by smirking at a grilled pork chop and thinking “Gotcha Pig.”  I have never stood outside a slaughterhouse loudly singing “Hey, He-ey, Good Bye!” Maybe there are those who pull the wings off chickens for reasons other than paying homage to Buffalo or the Super Bowl, but I am not among them. I refuse to step on earthworms, I release house flies and wasps back into the wild and I will occasionally allow the spider its web. My dog does not stoop and scoop; I do.

And yes, I understand that the raising of animals for food requires enormous amounts of land and energy and there are likely more efficient ways of feeding the masses. First, however, I do not “feed”, I dine. Further, if that kind of dedication to efficiency and restraint is to become the rule, then let’s keep in mind that the cotton clothes on our backs, the leather shoes on our feet and the perfect flowers on the dinner table must all go the way of the dinosaur – as must cars, private gardens, most perfumes, single family homes, inexpensive paint, air conditioning and hardwood floors.

Perhaps the “Eat Meat” impulse emerges from my culture or stands as a relic of my Depression era father’s pride. Meat on the table was proof that the man of the house was a person of substance, capable of protecting and providing for his family and his guests. Or maybe it honours my mother’s impressive ability to turn the cheap and the tough into the tender and the tasty. It could also be the on-going accumulation of meal-based rituals: Christmas was turkey, not turnip; Easter was lamb, not lima beans; a university rite de passage was mystery meat, not vague veggies. Yes, birthdays were cake – but only after the hamburgers and the hot dogs!

There is one other reason and I feel it is unanswerable. Simply put, I like meat. Meat tastes good.  It provides me a moment of sensory pleasure, the reward for a day well done or it offers solace for my bruised and bloodied ego when the world has been unkind. And if my love of meat is not even that logical, is nothing more than a careless preference or a semi-conscious habit, so what? I am no monster made only of my appetites, no noisy villain deserving punishment and censure. I am sufficiently green, I am almost always humane (though I do sing in the shower) and I pay my taxes with minimal fuss and only a few curses. I smile at (most) children and will even watch Canadian TV. Most importantly, I allow others their petty foibles without judgment. I am – and this is key – a quiet carnivore. I choose to eat my meat in peace and without guilt. I claim to deserve no more; I will accept no less.

I know that others seek a different path. I say to them, “Munch madly and be happy!” I simply ask that they worship their gods quietly and leave me to mine. If they will not, if it is war they want, then I suppose it is war that we shall have. They will fire frozen peas and brandish carrot sticks. I will respond with chicken balls and sharpened wishbones. They will argue that Einstein’s vegetarianism likely led to the discovery of relativity. I will point out that if Eve had left the damn apple alone and just sent out for a bucket of the Colonel, we’d all still be in paradise.

And we will all end up looking a little silly, no?

Chew on that!

“Confessions of a Flesh Eater” or “My Right to Eat Meat” (Part One)

In which the Elegant Bastard encounters the guest from hell and a question regarding his right to consume whatever fellow creatures fail to escape.

It may be a reflection of my general approach to life, but people have often felt a need to ask me questions. I can recall returning home from a wildly successful track meet in grade three, itemizing my triumphs – I had not run the wrong way even once! – only to have my overly pragmatic mother say, “That’s fine dear, but where are your shoes?” (I told her they were likely with my also absent coat, in retrospect not the best possible answer.) In that same year, the angry parent of the local bully asked me what had compelled me to bite his son’s fingers. (He did not appear to find it necessary to ask why his son’s fingers were often found in places where they could be bitten.)

Some questions were motivated by kindness:  “I see. So someone who loves you actually said you could wear yellow?” (I answered in the affirmative, having not by then fully mastered irony.) Others demonstrated either patience or stoicism: “I am assuming there’s a reason we’re in Moose Jaw?” (There was. Everyone else fell asleep and let me drive. What did they think would happen?) Occasionally, I could feel the presence of a mild antagonism, such as Significant  Other’s recent query concerning exactly what I had hoped to achieve by introducing a third cat in to a residence already equipped with two dogs.

I have myself often taken up the questioning role. “Explain to me again,” I asked my eldest one warm afternoon, “how the simultaneous availability of water and a large red balloon compelled you to search for a window directly above the one vice-principal you already knew was nervous?”  His answer made no real sense but that was not the point. The question, not the answer, matters. It is only via questions that we can understand how it is that we are able to live in a world with smart phones, bubble tea and occasionally soggy vice-principals.

None of this, however, made me any less annoyed when She turned on me her patronizing gaze and oleaginous voice and asked me why I ate meat.

(For purists among you, I will stipulate that however you might wish to define “meat”, I use the term to refer to any formerly living animal that is now 1) dead 2) cooked 3) served and 4) incapable of reversing conditions 1, 2, and 3.) There are further stipulations. Prior to being dead, that which is “meat” does not require me to 1) breed it 2) catch it or 3) contribute in any other way to it’s becoming “meat”. Finally, it should not at any point in the process be an animal capable of turning me into “meat”.

The questioning She had arrived uninvited with an old friend. He explained that she had also arrived uninvited at his home just as he left for my dinner party. I smiled and said she was welcome; he smiled and seemed to breathe a sigh of relief; she smiled and immediately began to demonstrate why all her arrivals were likely uninvited.

It started with the sorrowful and suffering gaze she directed at another guest’s new Gucci shoes. “So beautiful,” she murmured, “but so paradoxical when one thinks of the many poorly shod children in the city.” She apologized immediately, smiling shyly and informing us that she had always been cursed with too deep a sensitivity for those less fortunate than she. A pity, no? Ah well.

Judging Gucci owner’s stare to be indicative of a rapidly impending homicide, I started to open what I knew was the wonderful (and calming) pinot grigio a third guest had generously donated. Our Lady of All Sorrows expressed her sincere wish that so wonderful a wine be organic, for if not it would stimulate one of her incapacitating migraines. Not organic? Ah well.

Then perhaps I had a mineral water, artesian if possible, and bottled in glass, not plastic. She had, you see, the rare ability to smell plastic, a condition that made her life a struggle to be bravely borne. Only plastic? Ah well.

At this point the other guests stampeded to the balcony where they collectively took up smoking.

This allowed me uninterrupted access to her views on a variety of topics. On music. She found the classical genres to be so unfairly Eurocentric. On electric cars. She used only public transit to minimize her carbon footprint. On vacations. She intended to volunteer at Habitat for Humanity and would I like to make a contribution to the cost of her Rwanda trip?

Was she leaving soon?

No.

Ah well.

Through it all she maintained the kind of facial expression that promises she will perform at the very least a virgin birth – or even two – before the end of the evening.

By now desperate to reboot what had been intended as a celebratory evening, I mentioned that the evening’s menu included several guests’ favorites, including prosciutto, scallops and chicken. She then turned to the gentleman she had arrived with, slapped his hand playfully and called him a naughty boy for not mentioning to me that she was vegetarian. Again the suffering smile.  She would just have salad and perhaps a little bread – if I happened to have some that was gluten-free?

It was much later, I think during the chicken course, that she looked around, ensured all eyes were on her, and launched in best torpedo fashion the question she had held in reserve.

“Why do you all feel compelled to eat meat?”

Had she asked why we felt forced to push old folk to the ground or children over a cliff, she would have sounded less judgmental. The unspoken sub-text flashed around the table. “Why, Gluttons, do you tear at innocent flesh, worship your own arrogant species and betray the oneness of Nature?”

“Because I can!” was on the tip of my sinful chicken-loving tongue when I paused. More, I noted that my fellow carnivores had all paused with me. Along with the confit of pork, a question had arrived at the table. It demanded an answer. Why the hell did we eat meat?

I will be back, Dear Reader, when I return from the butcher’s. It isTuesday, the turkey thighs and the beef cheeks are in, and on occasions that momentous, Time waits  for no man.

Bubble Time in the Big City

In which the Elegant Bastard finally understands his previously inexplicable love of bubble wrap.

At 6:15 in the morning, I am rarely at my best. If the sun remains in hiding, I am in the basement gym, swearing at my treadmill. If spring has started its brief Canadian appearance, I am puffing along city streets, swearing at the sun. The other constants include far too much sweat to be in any way photogenic, carelessly chosen track pants, a rude or worn out t-shirt and a pair of old Asics that deserve quick death in a sea of bleach. In short, the visuals are appalling and the sound effects are worse.

In my gym, all this remains unshared. The street, however, is a different jungle. Here there at least the possibility of prying eyes and muttered judgments. Yet those who cohabit with me in this city that I love accept my morning presence the same way I mark theirs – in silence. It is as if we are all ensconced in private bubbles, each of us rolling our own way forward to some determined destination. We do not touch or wave or mutter greetings. Our eyes might meet momentarily and our heads may nod – once – as if to at least admit a species affiliation.

Do not judge us urban folk too quickly. Crowd us into our morning coffee shops, be-suited and be-jewelled and beshowered , and we become almost verbose. “Waz ups” and “Howzits (going or hanging)” abound. The weather and the Maple Leafs will be unanimously praised or condemned. There will be banter with the barista. Then we return to the street and once again assume our bubbles.

Bubble time is precious in the urban landscape. Here amidst chaos and cacophony and using skills learned long ago, we actually achieve a private space. Within it we can doubt and debate and plan. We can sort out a nagging fear and turn it into a kind of hope. We can rehearse, re-write and rehearse again. Noise and smog are merely generic, nothing more than a backdrop. Some sort of seventh sense prevents collisions and the changing of a light or the impending bumper of a car is felt or smelled rather than seen. We are that good. And why would we ever question what is a most successful strategy? Who questions breathing?

Thus, on my first 6:15 a.m. in Comox, British Columbia, a village of 13,000 (that is legally a town) I donned the regular garb, assumed the normal bubble, and hit the streets (of which there seemed to be three.). That I was no longer in my version of Kansas became pretty apparent when I skidded through a patch of deer poop and more or less ran in to the responsible deer. We looked at each other, decided that peace was preferable to war – it had hooves, I had a loud iPhone – and went our separate ways. The next glimpse of truth came when I turned a corner and saw more mountains in one place than were frankly necessary. Still, they were a long way away and did not seem to be moving closer so I once again bowed into my running crouch and pumped my way along. Next came the smell of the sea. This is a peculiar odor, an acquired taste, a scent that says loudly, “I am bigger than you and fish do nasty things in me before they die.” If the sea happens to be the Mediterranean and there in front of you is a seafood restaurant with three Michelin stars, much can be forgiven. Here the sea was the Strait of Georgia and in front of me were three trees, two of them obese.

Still, bubble time is bubble time and grand issues needed solving. I set off down what looked like a lonely and less-travelled road, happily plodding and plotting, lost in my world of sweat and stratagems. So when the first “Good morning” whizzed by me on my left, I damn near did what the deer had done. I had just enough time to re-master the art of inhaling when another “Morning” exploded to my right. A minute later, three were fired down the hill that I was climbing. Soon they were everywhere. Greetings were being hurled like grenades while I dashed back and forth like some cartoon character in an animated minefield. My bubble lasted only moments before giving me its version of “Later, Dude” and disappearing.

I resumed my run, but only out of habit. Having none of the world’s problems or my own to solve anymore, I instead became a passive observer and I soon discerned a pattern. As people approached, their eyes would suddenly lock on me, as if involuntarily, and this seemed to be the trigger. Whether I immediately turned my eyes away, slouched, embraced a tree or attempted to impersonate something rabid did not matter in the least. We have contact! We have ignition. “Good morning!”

It is hard to describe how much I came to hate this and how it began to haunt me. I started to avoid curving roads and large bushes. If caught in an impossible to avoid impending encounter, I would mime elaborate “Forgot the something or other” gestures and reverse my direction. I had not solved a world crisis or created a new asparagus recipe in nearly a week, Still they kept coming; still they would launch their missiles. My anger grew.  Had I owned an air force, I would have called in bombing runs.

My morning run’s reward is the largest decaf Americano I can find. On my third day I had found a small cafe that performed this service admirably and so it was I came to be seated in the sun on a quiet Comox street corner. Suddenly, a large golden retriever appeared and started enthusiastically introducing itself to my crotch. Its owner, fortunately far more restrained, looked me in the eye and said – what else? – “Good morning.” While periodically diverting the dog’s attention with croissant crumbs – tossed farther and farther away – we managed a conversation that led inevitably to me explaining how uncomfortable I found the invasive greetings by one and all to all and sundry. My companion, a transplanted former Calgarian, shrugged, grimaced and said, “You get used to it.”

At that precise moment three elderly walkers strode by, delivering a rapid and perfectly synchronized “beautifuldayisn’tit” before disappearing. I cringed; I saw him shudder; I knew he had lied. We naturally ran together every day after that, each in his own bubble. The dog – sans bubble – ran with us, veering away periodically as it continued its search for the perfect crotch.

In our subsequent coffee-fueled musings, we would wonder aloud about the essential difference between bubble-folk and armies of “Good Morning”. I thought of the small towns I had known: Comox; Goose bay, Labrador; Trenton, Ontario and a few others. In each, a morning walk would take a traveller easily to the town’s limit. In some such places, the change from the presence to the absence of humankind is gradual; in others, it can be quite abrupt. Nor is the sight of a paved road leading off into what has suddenly become wilderness reassuring. In fact, it simply enhances the sense of isolation. Add to the scene a ragged range of peaks; green, grey and black walls of trees; a tide that withdraws unevenly beyond the horizon and then returns to the highway’s edge; the pervasive odours of rot and manure. The colour of the sky will not matter. Black, blue or grey, it is simply part of something not the least bit interested in our busyness. It moves in response to a design we cannot comprehend, or worse, it denies design entirely. It is either the embodiment or the absolute mockery of arrogance. It takes enormous strength to gaze a long time quietly at that. “Good morning!” in this context is an answer. It says, “I am here and so are We.”

Our great cities also have edges, but since most of us would not reach them in a day’s running, we are largely oblivious. Our lives here are reassuringly surrounded by our corner stores and our cathedrals, our stops and goes and cautions, our neon shouts, our places of endeavour and escape. I could, with effort, stare down even the busiest street to catch a fragmentary glimpse of the profound absence I sense elsewhere. I could even just sit here at my desk, eyes closed and ears stopped, and manage to walk out far. But that would make things more honest that I ever really want them to be. Ironies I create and play with can be wonderful; those I come across by accident tend to be less pleasant.

The “We” of the city reassures but it also crowds. It cries. It pushes, it pricks and it shoves. If we had to engage it at every encounter, we would never get anywhere. Our bubbles rescue us and bring us back to “I” for as long as we can manage and, hopefully, as long as we find necessary.

On my last day in Comox, the two of us ran past the edge of town to a point where the highway curved away and disappeared. As we turned to run back, we saw two more runners approaching. With minimal effort, I called out “Good Morning.” They answered in kind and followed the curve ahead. We chuckled our way back to the cafe.

The next day, in downtown Vancouver, I joined the flow of joggers along the waterfront and instantly got my bubble back.

 

 

 

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Of Cheez Whiz, Wonder Bread and the Cuban Missile Crisis

In which The Elegant Bastard examines all available worlds and makes a choice.

I spent much of my eleventh year either under my desk at school or in my basement at home, waiting to be carbonized.  This was a consequence of living in Goose Bay, Labrador during the international hissy fit known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. “The Goose”, as it was known to those trapped there, was an isolated community and a major military airbase. It was, therefore, a likely target if the U.S and the then Soviet Union each decided to – as my grade 7 social sciences teacher put it – “Nuke each other’s ass.” (He was not a renaissance man.).

So, periodically and without warning, we would have air raid drills. In the midst of a recess game or a mathematics lesson or a family dinner, a choir of sirens would scream a sudden warning that missiles from a far distant world were even now hurtling down at us. Adults would curse, children would cry and cats would run in crazy circles. If at school, I would climb under the same desk as Sarah, whose freckles I had learned to love. If at home, we would follow our parents down to the cellar, making sure to close the basement door behind us. (We did not doubt the saving powers of plywood desk tops and plasterboard doors.) Then, stowed away in our hiding places, we would await the world’s dark whirlwind.

I was home alone with a minor flu one Saturday morning when the warning sounded. My bedroom was originally a dining room and had a connecting door to the kitchen where the entrance to the cellar was located. I shuffled obediently in that direction and then stopped. Sitting on the kitchen counter were the two things I loved almost as much as Sarah’s freckles: a loaf of Wonder Bread (which Howdy Doody promised me would build strong bodies eight ways, and Howdy never lied!) and a jar of Cheez Whiz.

Everything consumed on “The Goose” had to be brought in by air from the rest of the world. This meant that real cheese and real bread, in fact most kinds of real food, were rarely available. Wonder Bread and Cheez Whiz were about as good as it got and here they were looking straight back at me.  Ignoring my impending incineration by malevolent faraway Russkies, I took bread, butter, cheez and The Hardy Boys: Footprints Under the Window  back into my bedroom, shut the door, drew the curtains, turned on the light and settled down into the comfort of my bedcovers and my artificial night. Perhaps I wondered if Russian children had Cheez Whiz. How long the sirens went on that morning I cannot say. I had stopped hearing them.

I am now years and miles away from `The Goose`. It is 9 a.m. and I have the day free. The television is on. Something called a Blitzer with manicured hair and impossible eyes is launching urgent words at me. Somewhere something has been destroyed by someone and this modern day Wolfman is tearing at my morning calm, barking words and images that repeat and repeat while my coffee cools. He is joined by another set of hair and eyes and together they promise to watch the crisis unfold and keep me informed. I sense that there is no knowledge I can gain here and certainly no action I can take, but I watch for fifteen minutes, long enough to realize that for all their bass wufflings I have not been informed, merely annoyed. This shows in my posture and my jaw. Significant Other reads these signs and responds with the usual remedy. I am given a shopping list.

I bundle up and I head out. The snow has started and the traffic responds with horn blasts and shouted comments about various peoples’ mothers.  I leap over a slush bank, skid across an icy sidewalk and push open the door of “The Meat Department”. I am greeted by name and assured that yes, the chicken thighs are in and yes, the veal cheeks I ordered for next weekend’s party are coming Wednesday. The woman to my left enlists me in her struggle to choose between bison or beef. The gentlemen to my right remind me that the Maple Leafs suck and so we sigh. Melted snow puddles itself on the floor.

It’s a small warm store with subdued lighting, nose-seducing smells, wonderful things-in-jars and a chalk board displaying the name of personalities banned forever from the premises. Rafael Nadal has been added to the list. I nod and suggest the entire CNN news team join him. This gets general support. I pick up my thighs and prepare to pay when I notice that they have a Spanish ham I loved in Paris and have periodically dreamed of ever since. The cost suggests it travelled to Toronto in business class.  I stare and tap my lips and rub my chin and fold my arms. I do not speak. There is no need. The 50 gram package is already on the counter, elegantly wrapped and added to my purchases.

The snow has intensified and the wind has picked up. I stop to check the weather on my iPhone. It tells me it is snowing. At the same time, all around me, screaming from their sidewalk boxes, headlines warn me that Pakistani cricket, European soccer and Italian politics are all falling to the ground. The same crowds  in the same cities are yet again punching impotent fists at grey skies and chanting the old slogans. One Greek politician has apparently punched another, three times.  Bond prices, air quality and teenage morality are at new lows. A woman and her Blackberry walk by and I can hear the news. Words fall around me like so many end zone fumbles and I decide I do not need any of them. List in hand, I face the storm and walk for thirty minutes, bowing into the wind.

“Crescendo” is a small store dedicated entirely to oils, spices and vinegars. Its windows are fogged so I am not surprised by the crowd I find within. I enter and transfer about three centimeters of accumulated snow from my head to its floor. Amphorae line the walls. In one I find pumpkin seed oil, in another raspberry balsamic. From a third comes the powerful aroma of white truffles. Still more people arrive and soon small conversations weave themselves into the displays.

It’s always easier when everyone is talking the same language.

I have one more stop, two kilometers away so I push back out and I burrow towards the downtown core. I am no longer really walking; instead I need to raise each foot and lurch forward, a tiresome process and a long one. A fire truck screams by followed by a second and a third and the whole city block seems a nightmare of snow and slush and sound. More sirens and ambulances turn on to Jarvis, disappearing towards some crisis. The sidewalk is deserted.

So I am surprised when I encounter the happy crowd inside the Loblaws store that now occupies the old Maple Leaf Gardens. Two elderly women are selecting chocolates, pointing and nodding at some, shaking their heads at others. A young man selects a white baguette but at a glance from the woman beside him puts it back and selects a whole grain sourdough. A gaggle of snow-bedecked teenage girls strolls by, one of them tossing a blood orange to another. Three opera singers wander through the vegetable aisles singing La Donna e Mobile. I gaze up at a wall of cheese and think instantly of the wall of crutches abandoned by those who were healed at St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal. I gather up my arugula, my Greek yogurt and my two pomegranates and head for the cashiers, pausing just long enough to pick up four cognac truffles.

Then I return to the white world.

And I fume. The streetcar takes an hour to arrive and an hour to travel the distance normally covered in fifteen minutes. It`s jammed with people, backpacks, buggies and cell-phone conversations. Despite the outside temperature, it`s hot.  Still, I am heading home. Then I remember. Onions.  I was supposed to buy onions. I cannot go back out. I will not. I text the problem to S.O., grab the nearest pole and close my eyes, hating everything around me until I hear my stop. A text message arrives. “Need anticipated. Just head home.” I do.

Outside my building is chaos. Traffic is at a standstill; snow plows belch smoke but are helpless due to an accident; buses slide to a stop, transfer hordes and then cannot start again; people are everywhere. Shouts. Horns. Another siren somewhere. A CP24 television camera crew barges toward the crash scene. I push my way past and a few minutes later I am home.

No comment is made as I babble my frustrations and lurch about the apartment, closing curtains,  and turning on lights and even shutting off today`s version of Obama in mid-speech.  Nor is anything said as I spread what I`ve purchased across the kitchen table, mumbling on about the world being way way too much with us. I am not told to calm down or grow up or snap out of anything.

Instead there are nods and I am given two bags,

In the first is an onion.

In the second I find a loaf of Wonder Bread, a jar of Cheez Whiz and a hardcover copy of The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet`s Nest.

 

 

 

 

 

All’s Fair in Love and Wine

In which the Elegant Bastard learns to say “Yessss” Again

Yes, I eavesdrop.

It’s not an admirable habit, I know. In effect, I am stealing other people’s words.  In my defence, I don’t do it everywhere and I don’t do it all the time. I mean, think about it. How much of what you hear daily on the street is really worth the effort?

But I always do it in wine stores when something unusual is happening.

“Unusual” includes any moment when an anonymous unshaven baseball-capped guy wearing a “Militant Meat Eater” t-shirt asks the sales clerk for a case – yes, a case – of something called Ringbolt. The two of them immediately set off, the attendant ambling and t-shirt guy moving as if he were approaching Nirvana. I follow discretely.

A few seconds later I am watching 12 fairly non-descript bottles of the cutely spelled ring . bolt (in elegant lower case letters) being reverently loaded into a cart. T-shirt guy seems almost furtive, as if expecting interference, and hating to see him disappointed, I interrupt with a casual, “So? Is it that good?”

He looks at me as if I’ve questioned the greatness of God.

“Yes!” he moans, and the “yes” extends in sibilant excess, like something whispered in the aftermath of orgasm.

After he leaves, I buy two. I haven’t said “yes” like that in far too long.

When I get them home and observe more closely, I discover I’ve purchased a 2009 Australian cabernet sauvignon so I smile. The red cabernet sauvignon grape is generally my favorite. What they do with it in California is enough for me to forgive the U.S. for both Walmart and American Idol (though not for Donald Trump or Paris Hilton).

This wine, however, comes from Margaret River, a wine region in Western Australia and a little research reveals that many critics consider it to be Western Australia’s premiere region, famous (fortunately) for its elegant cabsavs, a bit of good news that makes up for the corny “Hold Them Fast Work Them Hard” motto circling the bottle’s neck.  The 2009 vintage is apparently highly regarded, as is the great glistening hunk of leg of lamb I scored at “The Meat Department”, my little heaven on Toronto’s Danforth.  The dinner menu is instantly decided.

About an hour before the meal, I open the wine and sniff. “First sniff” is both a favorite and a nervous ritual moment for me. Taking in a pleasant aroma from an under $20.00 bottle is a chancy bet at best and I’ve had a few “first sniffs” that made smelling anything afterwards difficult. But I remain heroic and so goes forth my nose.

The aroma is very pleasant: soft, supple and not at all astringent. I get hints of blackcurrant, butterscotch and smoke. A few minutes later, I sniff again and now there are whiffs of red cherry and vanilla cream. My nose declares itself to be in love and it leads me back for periodic fixes while the lamb roasts.

When we finally taste the wine, it does not disappoint. It doesn’t have the overwhelming “mouthfeel” that big California cabsavs sometimes do, but it’s definitely robust and really quite elegant. The tannins are soft.  There’s a rich red fruit tang on the tongue along with a hint of strawberry and even a taste of what I can only call red licorice. Later in the meal, hints of chocolate and of almond join the mix. The menu includes a goat cheese and avocado appetizer; the wine responds to that in friendly fashion.  What it then goes on to do with the lamb is best described in words that children should not read.

In short, it’s an easy wine to drink and an even easier wine to talk about. Again, I’ve had bigger and better cabs but few were priced at $19.95.

Will I buy more?

Yesssssss

(In Ontario, Ringbolt is easily available: VINTAGES 606624)

 

 

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.)