Of Miley Cyrus, Twerking and the Crisis in Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Few of them left their real names.

 

On the Naming of Children

In which the Elegant Bastard makes the argument than in one very important way, your children are not your children.

I once had a car I named Jake.

Jake was undeniably a presence in the lives of those who knew him. Painted in nine different colours – leftovers found in my buddy’s dad’s auto shop – he was held together by spot welds, wire, duct tape and prayer. He regularly transported whole tribes of us between Montreal and Toronto and while he did so we could see the highway surface passing beneath us, for Jake never really had what could properly be called a floor. He was nonetheless a chick magnet par excellence and when I sold him, I suppose I sold a little part of me. But he finally broke down beyond the powers of mortal intervention and I dumped him in the wrecker’s yard.

And I once had a lobster I named Fred.

This was necessarily a short relationship. Six of us had bought live lobsters and the overall plan was dinner. However, we started racing the ugly but tasty little critters and Fred kept winning. As I was awarded a vodka shot each and every time he won, I cheered him loudly, mightily and with even a bit of a developing slur. When he lost I dumped him in the pot. Fred was a good lobster. I wiped my fingers after with a HandiWipe.

I had every right to give my car and my dinner whatever inoffensive name I wished. But now Kanye West and Kim Kardashian have named their child North, creating the full name “North West”. And I, fervent atheist that I am, would happily bring Hell into existence for the sole purpose of condemning these two egos to its fires. What’s in a name? More than these self-obsessed little minds could ever understand.

“But parents have the right to name a child anything they want.” some might whimper. No they do not. In fact – and here I think most parents would agree with me – parents have no real rights at all. They have only duties, a million of them and more, and all aimed at one goal: the successful emergence of a child that transcends its parents and creates its own life as a happy and autonomous being. Giving the child a name like Jermajesty, Audio Science, Messiah, Moon West, or Hitler does not help that process along.

As hard as it might be for the fame obsessed to grasp, Kahlil Gibran was right when he wrote, “Your children are not your children. /They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself./ They come through you but not from you,/ And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.” A child is not a parent’s possession. If it were, it would die when we die or be disposed of in our wills or auctioned off to the highest bidder. And before anyone offers up the argument, “I made my child”, well, no you did not. A child is not a Lego kit or some piece of engineered infrastructure. We, as parents, set the process in motion, but once it’s started, then depending on our belief system, it’s all in the hands of God or biology.

Parents who recognize the essential but nonetheless limited nature of their role tend to choose baby names with care. At some level – rational, emotional, or instinctual – they understand that the naming of the child is really the first step towards its eventual freedom, the first feather in a pair of wings. The act acknowledges the child as a separate being. It is for that reason that I am uncomfortable with suffixes like “Junior” or “the Second” and  “the Third” being attached. Immediately the child’s own name becomes both a potential trap and an on-going challenge – and in the case of a parent’s fame or infamy, a near-insurmountable hurdle. Still, naming a boy John David Smith III is imposing less of a burden than that inflicted by has-been actor Jason Lee on his son, “Pilot Inspecktor”, or by someone called Bear Grylls, apparently famous, who named the first of his litter “Huckleberry” and the second, “Marmaduke”. Out there somewhere is also a little lass saddled with Reignbeau. She will spend the rest of her life hearing people say, “Could you please spell that again?”

A child can easily set aside add-ons like “Junior” and a number, at least in the wider world. Out there, names like John or David do not carry any specific burden, whatever they might mean within the family. In other words, Mr. And Mrs. Smith, JFK zealots, can safely call their son John and see in him a future president. The world sees only John Smith. Calling him John Fitzgerald Kennedy Smith is perhaps two steps over the line.

The same is true of names that have strong associations with religion. Children named Mary, Mohammed, Abraham, Jesus or Fatima will not automatically be compared to the original. If so, I would be in considerable trouble since my names can be associated with one scary arch-angel, an unfortunate saint, three mediocre emperor-kings and at least two well-known serial killers. But names like Messiah, Emperor, Christ and Resurrection are always going to get in a child’s way.

Names can certainly be unusual. Among my happiest friends and acquaintances are people named Kentucky, Paris and Spring. (All of these were middle or third names.) Ideally, however, every child should have the opportunity to find its own path and to create its own successes and failures. We are each supposed to be our own work of art. Burden a child with names like Truth, Bonaparte or Kindness and watch him struggle like a pinned butterfly as everyone he meets wonders how far from the original he has fallen.

Some parents, both celebrities and the not-so-famous, argue that unusual names help their children become independent. If so, it’s the equivalent of tossing a child into a pool in order to teach it to swim (after first tying a weight or two around its neck.) I have trouble with the idea that naming a child “Tu” when its last name is Morrow will somehow promote anything other than a sincere desire to one day hurt the parent! What does a boy named Beretta do when the item he is named for is part of a mass murder. How many times will Vader be asked what it’s like on the Dark Side? How quickly will little Carrion be nicknamed Maggot? And what if Handsome and Pretty are not?

Any parent who names a child Banana, Justice or Kia (in memory of a favorite car) betrays the child in a pathos drenched attempt to validate him or herself. How small must an ego be if it needs to cannibalize the dignity of an infant Other to satisfy its own hunger for attention? The star maker machine needs constant stoking, I agree, but a child is not a fuel rod. Bestowing names like these makes a child a slave, something to be dumped or wiped away when it’s no longer needed.

A woman I met recently has the right idea. She lives in a house she calls Camelot. She talks to her flowers and names them too. Her roses are called Daisy and her daisies Rose. (She loves telling people she has just met that she needs to go out and deadhead the girls.) Everyday she walks her Irish wolfhounds, Elvis and Eiffel. (They have a puppy named England.)

But her children are named George, Mary, Patrick and Dianne.

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

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!

Gun Control and the Legend of Griffin Dodger

In which the Elegant Bastard broadens the Gun Control debate by turning his attention to a little known tale.

Let’s call him Griffy Dodger. And if there is a Griffy Dodger out there somewhere, he has so much more to worry about than my use of his name in this fashion.

Griffy did and did not play well with Others. If Others viewed play as a cooperative endeavor, an exchange process in which everyone in turn could bat or catch or jump or cackle loudly, then Griffy would run away in search of Hide-Behind places. If on the other hand, Others were content to act as pawns or marbles do, then Griffy did very well indeed – superlatively in fact – and a silly but cute little smile would spread across his always well-washed face. The more passive the other players, the happier our young Griffy. (This was a good thing really as Griffy could be a tad rough.)

His toy of choice was a hollow plastic bowling pin he`d rescued from a bankrupt Pins’R Us franchise. He had always been attracted by the grandly hollowy thundery `THWOP` it made, especially when it tumbled all together with the other pins. However, carrying around ten plastic pins while searching for good Thwopping grounds quickly became inconvenient. So he set out to recreate the sound more efficiently.

Nature versus nurture theorists are no doubt now asking themselves why a young person like our little Griffy would fall in love with Thwop. It is hard to really determine the answer to that. True, his father was reknowned within the family home for his enthusiastic Thwopping, so much so that the cat developed a nervous tic and chose to live most days in the basement with some sympathetic mice. His mother Thwopped more casually, borrowing her husband’s pin as she did not have one of her own. I suppose there are those who would point to this evidence as a conclusive indication of the cause of Griffy’s habit, but I should point out that the hospital in which our boy was born is built on land once occupied by a bowling alley.

Griffy had eventually found an answer to the “How to Thwop conveniently and with impunity!” conundrum.  By far the best strategy was Thwopping passers-by vigorously and repeatedly on their heads with his pin. Some heads produced a more hollow Thwop than others, a much desired feature and one that was commonly found in those who were most often passing by his favorite street corner: CNN news anchors, IOC officials and Boards of Education Administrators. Griffy was soon a happy Thwopper.

One may not, alas, assail the self-important very long and very soon enormous crowds of huers and criers (HACS) were raising an enormous hue and cry, particularly in the sister cities of Hollywood and Washington, where there really isn’t very much else to do. Individually and in chorus, the HACS  pointed out that in addition to their total devotion to Art, Justice, Boss and Chanel, they had long lectured others about the dangers represented by uncontrolled access to plastic bowling pins. “When,” they woefully whined, “oh when will the world just accept our omniscience?”  They would then hiss sneeringly – there is no other way to hiss; go ahead,try it! – that this was all the fault of right wing fundamentalist Ten Pinners who were not only conservative but generally both funny looking and badly dressed.

Ten Pinners took immediate umbrage and responded that if the nation`s founders had not wanted people to bowl, they would have invented neither varnish nor garishly coloured short-sleeve shirts. Pins, they pointed out, were referred to everywhere in much of the nation’s great literature. Told that wrestling magazines and sewing patterns were not really great literature, Pinners became even more incensed and accused HACs of playing with words.  Anti-pinners, they snarled, were  simply unpatriotic left-wing intellectuals terrified of any activity involving balls.

Griffy kept on Thwopping.

By now, so many celebrity HACS had leapt on the anti-plastic-pin bandwagon that there was little for the latecomers to gain. No-one wanted to interview any more of them and what point is a principled stand if no one wants to photograph you taking it? Fortunately, chief editors soon noticed that all of Griffy’s Thwoppings took place in the morning, after the sun had risen. Spin that, they ordered their writers! And they did.

Griffy was therefore a bit startled to read that Thwopping was his protest against the Eurocentric control of the concept of the work-day, or his passionate and painful plea against lunarphobia, or his demand that traditional elites acknowledge diversity and allow common folk to flourish in their darkness of choice. This new anti-sun movement became wildly popular. Thousands were soon refusing to work during the day and were instead scurrying out into the night to rush from bar to club to theatre and back, bravely and unceasingly making their political voices heard! Griffy kept on Thwopping.

In truth, Griffy Thwopped during the morning because he worked afternoons at a fast food chain that insisted its employees champion certain family  values concerning the nature of marriage. They were also required to help stir up a genocidal war between cows and chickens. He was necessarily a busy boy! Left to his own devices, he would Thwop around the clock. And why not. He felt good with his pin in his hand.

The HACS noted they were losing their interview edge and decided to lean heavily on the incumbent president who would once again be running for the “IamSoMuchCoolerThanYou”  party. Eager to appease, he ordered the immediate replacement of all plastic bowling pins with smurf-like substitutes and appointed a Pin-Tzar to oversee the process. (It was a Recess appointment.)

In response, the by now quite nervous  “IamSoMuchHolierThanYou” party made all the predictable accusations. In short order thereafter came the ranters and the conspiracy theorists and the masters of the sarcastic arts. Within days, both  CNN and Fox were able to raise their advertising rates. Nor was there much chance of the uproar settling down in even the distant future. Already the Holier than You side had discovered yet another burning Bush at the side of the road and the Cooler Folk were preparing to rally around a maniacally grinning hero who had been bidin`his time for a few years already.

And what of Griffy?

Eventually the uproar died down. His sources of plastic bowling pins had dried up, but he was able to purchase  a plastic pastry roller from PiesR’Us. He then transferred to the morning shift at work and stole from his father a flashlight so powerful it could turn night into day.

 

 

Of Dolphins and Dancers and Teachers and Tricks

The Elegant Bastard believes that Ken Kesey’s protagonist, Randall Patrick McMurphy, was correct when he told his friends that those who lose their laugh lose their footing. But there are times when laughter must be tempered. This is one of them.

(Dedicated to the public school teachers of Ontario, Canada)

 In which the Elegant Bastard explains to the governments everywhere the essential importance of flowers and fish chunks to all our futures.

Imagine a dolphin, elegant and graceful master of sea and air, leaping forever into a succession of suns, scattering diamonds across the sea’s surface as it rises and returns, rises and returns. Nearby, the crowd is enthralled. Later it will speak of symmetry and strength, power and poise and beauty.

There will never be any mention made of the chunk s of dead fish the dolphins’ choreographer will subtly distribute to each performer after each trick. The chunks seem distasteful. They deny the magic. But for how long would the dolphins climb the air for the benefit of others without those less than elegant chunks? We all know the answer. We understand what we would rather not see. No chunks; no tricks.

Now consider, Dear Reader, the following question. How different are teachers – or any of us – from dolphins? No different at all; this we know. What? You do not like the dolphin metaphor?  Then consider a dancer. A partner approaches, perhaps with flowers. At the sound of the music, the two enact a graceful pattern across the shimmering floor. The crowd marvels at the intricacy, the shared confidence, the natural flow and the subtle shifts. No one notices the sweat or realizes that one of the dancing pair experiences the pain of a blister on one toe.

The teaching arts, done well, are always subtle, always natural. However, they are also transactional and because they are so, fair exchange must be involved. In fact, exchange is part of every transaction in life, so much so that we overlook its fundamental nature. As much as we may wish to believe that others are driven solely by Truth or Beauty or Duty, we know that at a fundamental level it all comes down to fish chunks or flowers. We ignore that at our peril.

Canadians have always seemed more aware of the fish and flower dynamic than most. Thus I was surprised when the Government of Ontario, a province generally as far away from Wisconsin as Neverland is from the Middle East, decided to run a Scott Walker steamroller over its teachers. The vehicle was nicknamed the “Putting Students First Act”. Essentially, this piece of legislation eviscerated the idea of sick leave and retirement gratuities, froze teacher remuneration for two years, and reduced the concept of collective bargaining to a charade for the same period of time. The Premier of Ontario, then one Dalton McGuinty, a liberal, said that this was necessary to preserve the progress made in education over his tenure.

(Here I notice a few readers yawn, mutter “about time!” and turn on their cell phones to see if they can access NetFlix. Please – a moment or so longer!)

I do not doubt that Ontario faces difficult financial times. In my own situation I am also made to exercise financial “restraint” by greater powers.   I do not like it, but if this genuinely and demonstrably serves the Greater Good, I might find it in myself, if asked very nicely, to agree. If a convincing case can be made that some long cherished entitlement must go the way of the dinosaurs or at the very least evolve dramatically, I may summon forth a stiff upper lip and try not to cry too loudly. But please, Mr. McGuinty, Mr. Walker, Ms Merkel and the many other Mr’s and Ms’s, hear this.

I will not do so alone.

Neither I nor Ontario’s teachers nor New York’s bus drivers nor D.C. Walmart workers nor Greek pensioners will walk down this path without protest so that those who govern and those who seek to govern can spin competing narratives. If, in the Ontario example, Premier McGuinty was cruel in introducing the Act, his opponents, social democrat Andrea Horwath and (Tea Party style) conservative Tim Hudak, responded with predictably sycophantic and self-serving drivel.)

Why ?

Let us pause for a moment and consider the nature of the average voter in the average western democracy. Ontario, like any other similar state, is comprised of people who, while they can rise under duress to benevolence and even sacrifice, are essentially self-focused. In fact, Dear Reader, we all on occasion chant some part of the following mantra.

No one works harder than I do. No one is as abused as I am. No one is as underpaid and overlooked as I. Those who have more than me stole it. Those who have less don’t deserve what they have. Everyone else is in it for what they can get. No one has ever been so screwed as I have been. Canonize me now you bastards. (By the way, that’s why I cheat on my taxes, steal grapes at the supermarket, speed and watch porn on my office computer.)

An occasional recitation of the above – accompanied by several Coors (not light), a good sized bottle of Seagram or a box of  the best Lindt – can actually restore our battered egos and drive away those nasty niggledoubts that attack us all.  (Repeat after me: Catharsis is King!) But eventually, the vast majority of us recover our equanimity and return to our less selfish states of mind where we are ruled by sweet reason.

The problems emerge because many, many others are permanently caught up in this “Haters” mentality. Their  jaundiced eyes see the external world as filled with those who have so much more than they: a pompous Lord Black “jailed” in a mansion, an arrogant Justin Beiber scampering away from traffic tickets , a randy Prince Harry with a better butt than theirs, a long-haired patched-jean university “student” with his grant in one hand and his dope in the other, the welfare bums with booze bottles and all the others who seem to laugh as “We” (Haters are always “We”) work our fingers to the bone.

Inevitably, the Haters notice the teachers. Now their anger creeps up another notch.

What a sweet deal, eh? A six hour work day. Spares.  A big salary.  A massive pension (that “We”are paying for.) A union that keeps the lazy incompetent bastards from getting fired. Sick days. Summers off. SUMMERS OFF! And now they want more? Screw ‘em!

Enter Mr. McGuinty, Mr. Hudak, and Ms Horwath, bellows in hand. Let’s stoke these fires, boys and girl. There’s votes in them there embers.

I was once a teacher, by all reports a reasonably good one. I remain proud of my former profession. But to the Haters out there – and you, Dear Reader – I admit the following. Villains do walk among the teaching ranks. There are incompetent teachers and they are more dangerous than bad doctors. Doctors kill one at a time; teachers can massacre whole classrooms. Yes, there are lazy teachers in the world, so many that other teachers have nicknames for them, like the “3:00 P.M. Track Team”. Oh yes, teacher unions are often appallingly amateurish, riddled as they are by “I Hate The Man” refugees from badly re-formatted 1960’s socialism. And if you want more to hate in public education, try cowardly Supervisory Officers, petty ego-driven Trustees and self advertising Directors who can’t even copy well.

However, we need to remember this. Every Hater and everyone else can remember the dedicated Teacher. Imagine this heroic figure, preferably clad in a flowing toga and carrying a golden sword. Let us add a blizzard raging all around. We’ll have a few ravenous wolves circling for added effect. Does our heroic teacher falter? Never! The lessons are always compelling, the voice caring, the hand on the shoulder comforting, the marking effective, the grades fair, the smile genuine and the hours of work endless. The impact, finally, is enormous.

Nor are these heroes few in number. In my experience, they actually outnumber the villains, albeit not by the desired margin. Why then did the mass of Ontario citizenry not respond to Mr. McGuinty’s “Putting Students First” and Ms Horwath’s sneers and Mr. Hudak’s histrionics with loud outrage? Why did so many in Wisconsin, apparently a quite mild-mannered place in the best of times, leap on board their governor’s bash-the-unions juggernaut? Simply put, hate and fear are more powerful than fond memory and gratitude. Every politician knows this.

The Ontario government knew if it offered up teachers (“lazy and overpaid”) and their perks and salaries, followed by the doctors (“greedy and REALLY overpaid”) as scapegoats for all that ails Ontario’s economy, the Haters would coalesce. They would enjoy what they see as vengeance obtained on those who dared to be better than they.  Ms Horwath knew that if she claimed that the government was “absolutely” doing this to serve its own selfish and hidden agenda, Haters and conspiracy theorists would believe her and revel in their own now validated cynicism. Mr. Hudak knew that by declaring he would act even more decisively against teachers, he would remind the “Give everyone except me Hell!” Haters that he was of their tribe.

The fact that “Putting Students First” didn’t in any measureable long-term way put students first is irrelevant. Politics is optics and even teacher strategists conceded the optics here were brilliant.

What political leaders in Ontario did to teachers is precisely what class has done to class and race has done to race and ethnicity has done to ethnicity and sect has done to sect and damn near everyone has done to the Jews: make one group the target for all resentment, fear and self loathing. If you want to see the same drama enact itself with far more bells, whistles and music, watch the Pro and Anti gun people rip each other apart in the US for the foreseeable future.

And when all is said and done, what’s the harm?

The harm is profound. McGuinty and the others did not start this rot, nor will it end in Ontario, but they have caused it to spread. They have done so by splitting society into good and evil groups. Even the name of the act, “Putting Students First Act”, is divisive, implying that all who opposed them were nothing more than so many greedy guts lined up at the public trough! After the teachers and doctors have been scapegoated, who will be next? The civil servants have been butchered, roasted and well picked over already so will it be other union contracts? Corporate pay scales? Expense accounts? Pension indexing? Why not? I can hear the Haters now:

Lazy union labourers! Cheating business people. Seniors who got us in this mess with their cushy pensions. And while we are at it, let’s make all those drug taking students pay “their fair share”.

(To Haters, everyone else’s unfair share is exponentially larger than their own.)

In these times when restraint seems a necessary option, politicians from all sides could sit down with representatives of all interests groups and together produce something like a Restraint Act. Had this happened in Ontario, perhaps everyone there would have made some meaningful but not grossly expensive contribution to balancing the books. The pain and the potential gain would have been shared.

Perhaps we would have seen the rise and spread of Restraint parties, Restraint parades, Restraint awards and Restraint buttons, scarves and beads. We are an enterprising people, are we not, and as I said earlier, we can rise to compassion and sacrifice if the need is there. Teachers and everyone else would have shouldered the burden.

But no. That scenario would provide no useful optics, would offer nothing to entrenched political machines. Instead there was finger pointing and organized teacher bashing.

Again, what’s the harm? Think back to the dolphin and the dancers. Ontario wiped the blood from its corporate hands and turned back to its teachers, expecting the same tricks, the same shared music. Instead they found seething resentment, the elimination of extra-curriculars, an unwillingness by many to do anything that sounded remotely voluntary, and a whole new cynicism. Teachers will continue to teach just as dolphins will continue to swim. But there will be no tricks or worse, much worse, the tricks will be done badly.

Nor will the dancers leave the floor. But their message has been made clear. When you step on our feet or dance on our heads, then you will dance alone.

And you, Dear Reader, now sitting in the audience and more than a little disappointed in the performances you’ve seen lately, look about you. Look at the legion of Haters grumbling in their seats. Do they make you nervous? Do you wonder, “Am I next?”

Ah, Dear Reader. Yes. You are.

Do You Want Bieber Chips With That?

In which the Elegant Bastard rejects the concept of edible nationalism

Canadians are a very resourceful people.

We understand that our signature politeness can get a tad dull, and so we have created hockey loyalties as ferocious in tone and as capable of producing mayhem as any other religion practiced anywhere. We understand, too, that North being North, we will have more snow than making angels and snowpersons requires,  and so we have convinced millions of foreign others that the most wonderful thing to do in winter is come and spend enormous amounts of money to play in our snow. (There’s room for them, of course, because we all go south. Sneaky, eh?) And we are generally aware of the fact that as a people we are shockingly unaware of our own and the world’s history, but we have cleverly laughed so loud and long at Americans looking for icicles in July, French in Toronto or polar bears anywhere that our ignorance has by and large escaped notice.

As well, we rise to challenges. For example, upon discovering that our venerable CN Tower was no longer the world’s Tallest Ugly Thing (TUG), we sat down – likely in focus groups (again, we are polite) – and looked at our alternatives. Having only the world’s third TUG in our midst did not sit well with either the patriotic or the phallically obsessed but what could we do? Watering it to make it grow did not seem an option. Adding to it was just so déjà vu. We could have demolished it and sold it chunk by chunk as souvenirs but really, would you want a piece of it in your living room given where it’s been?

Instead, we added the “Edge Walk” and set about convincing thousands to spend hundreds for the right to dangle hands-free 356 metres in the air while wearing a red suit bright enough that should they fall, we will all be able to track their progress to its crimson conclusion.

Proving yet again, Dear Reader, that if you sell it, they will come! (And if fear or nausea prompts participants to lose anything more than composure, it will all be blamed on seagulls or, if the winds are strong enough to reach North York, pigeons, neither of which can be sued.)

Yet inevitably there are those who will seek to profit from the talents of others, who will use and abuse the most precious elements of a nation’s character to serve only Mammon. We had all thought that such jingoistically justified greed was the private preserve of political parties, NHL teams and the International Olympic Committee, but we were apparently deceived. Charging ahead to the front of the wave-the-flag-for-money line is Frito-Lay and their shrill new shill, Martin Short. Apparently they have determined that all Canada’s previous accomplishments need to be capped by one more – our own chip flavour – which, they burble enthusiastically, we get to choose!

What astounds me is how little they know about Canadian diversity. Let us assume that Lay announces the new Canadian chip flavour will be poutine, or maple syrup or tortiere. (They would be wise to have Short make the announcement as he is the smaller target.) Immediately Anglo voices would sputter that once again we were all being forced to kowtow to Quebec and won’t people just please please remember the Plains of Abraham? Quebec would respond with Gallic sneers, condemning such blatant stereotyping and demanding that the matter be referred immediately to the United Nations – which they’d belong to if only the rest of the country would just see things rationally. All other varieties of the Canadian hyphe-nation would reject the choice as evidence of rampant neo-colonialism and would insist that everyone else submit immediately to equity retraining.

Do we really want this chaos to occur primarily for the benefit of Frito Lay, a corporate entity whose only claim to fame is its success in encouraging millions of people to be much larger than they really need to be?

Still, assuming the new flavour is chosen carefully, some good might possibly come of all this. It would depend on what secondary benefit could be derived from the end product and how widely distributed it would be. It is therefore in a truly utilitarian spirit that I make the following suggestions. I encourage other Canadian readers to add to the list.

(The rest of you can go get your own freaking flavour and by the way, we are not all polite!)

Pine flavoured chips would likely be an instant hit, especially if ground pine needles were incorporated into the mix prior to frying. Imagine the benefits for millions. Are you stuck in a hot car crammed with Happy Meal addicts or a small elevator stuffed with the unhappy and un-deoderized? Rip open the chips and you are instantly in the middle of the Great Canadian Pine Forest! Bliss!

Tar Sand Chips would also do well, particularly in Alberta. And since they already breathe tar sand affected air and drink tar sand affected water, eating the stuff is really just the next logical step.

Whiskey and tobacco flavoured options would allow those who desire such things to indulge their habits safely and without endangering the rest of us. True, those who chose this snack would not smell very nice but they don’t anyway so there remains a net gain.

Hockey flavoured is another deserving candidate. The recipe would again be a bit demanding – equal amounts of sweat, broken tooth enamel, leftover Don Cherry wardrobe errors and ground up money – but this would go well with socially sanctioned beer guzzling, the primary reason people watch the game.

We shouldn’t overlook Canada’s beleaguered animal symbols, some of which could use a little positive media spin. Moose and Canada Goose chips spring to mind. Beaver flavoured would be a runaway best seller, especially if wood fibres were blended with the other ingredients. The final product would at least be good for the Canadian colon, itself an endangered species.

And then there’s the obvious – Bieber chips. These would be the easiest sell imaginable. They’d be beige, noisy and utterly tasteless.

Hopefully my modest efforts here will spur others of my tribe to answer the call. And perhaps if Frito and Marty discover their error they might turn their corporate and comic talents to providing Canadians with the chance for real change. For example, they could offer us the choice of a new snow colour, its current whiteness being basically boring, far too bright and absolutely impossible to keep clean.

 

 

 

 

The Devious Daylight Murder of “O Canada”!

In which the Elegant Bastard points out to singers and song stylists everywhere that while the national anthem is our national anthem and even my national anthem, it is not your ticket to stardom!

Somewhere around the 6th grade, I stopped singing the Canadian national anthem. I had not abandoned patriotism, nor had I intellectually evolved to rejecting the concept of nations entirely. (That happened at 18 during my annoying years.) About all I had turned my back on by age 12 were broccoli, short pants and fried liver.

I stopped singing “O Canada” simply because all the other boys in my class stopped. The classic symbols of manhood were only vaguely understood by then – and in that culinarily challenged time, none of us knew what quiche was so we could hardly refuse to eat it as part of some gender based protest. But we all seemed to know that singing a national anything was not part of “male cool” and that was enough. If proof that men didn’t sing was necessary, all a boy had to do was watch a televised hockey or football game. True, the anthem might provoke a tough jaw-clench, but in no male faces was there any indication that they even knew the words. (In fact, during many subsequent visits to various sports parks where large portions of the male audience seemed to sprawl in their seats, their great beer bloated bellies raised to the glory of God, I wondered whether they knew any words at all.)

My 12 year old self had not rejected singing entirely. My friends and I had learned that singing Presley and the early Beatles allowed us to practice our (at that point purely hypothetical) pelvic-thrusting. (One had to start somewhere!)

And I’ll admit than on September 28, 1972, when Paul Henderson fired “the goal heard round the world”, myself and a crowded dorm room full of buddies tried (unsuccessfully) to belt out our nation’s song, but that was more booze and brotherhood in action than any pure love of country.

Yet in the years since then, I’d like to think that my male ego has grounded itself primarily north of the belt buckle, despite the efforts of Abercrombie, Fitch, Diesel and Levis to keep it south. I’d like to think that given the right chance, I’d be ready to “stand on guard” loudly, proudly and as close to on-key as anyone. And in fact I was more than ready to. I wanted to. And so, on February 12, 2010, I tuned in to the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Winter Olympic games and cleared my throat. Who cares how the athletes might have been feeling. I was pumped. I’d even googled the words – just to be sure.

And then Nikki Yanofsky destroyed the dream.

Perhaps she has a great voice. Perhaps some publicity agent told her to do what she did. Maybe she mistakenly thought – or had been informed – that everyone was really there to see her, and all those flags were flapping around just to keep people warm. Whatever the cause, there – in front of tens of thousands of Canadians crammed into the stadium – she rendered the national anthem unsingable. It was impossible to even hum along.

From the opening dirge-like bars to her closing it’s-really-a-pop-song-and-it’s-time-to-BELT-IT-OUT style, it wandered in pace and pitch with a few vocal pyrotechnics thrown in – usually just when I thought it was safe to join in. And as she sang, it became increasingly clear that this was not about Canada. It was not about the Olympics. This was all about Ms Nikki, and anyone with the nerve to try and share the moment was going to be made to look – and sound – like an idiot when the anthem went off in yet another unexpected direction.

I’m not suggesting she was unique in this. I’ve Grey Cupped and Stanley Cupped and Super Bowled. Hell, I’ve even Brier-ed; I‘ve heard O Canada and Oh Say Can You See in rock versions, country and western versions and even one operatic version.  To me, those were merely sports moments and my inner patriot snoozed on. But this moment was, to me at least – and I think to many others – a moment of the Nation, and something in my quintessentially Canadian psyche wanted to cast off reserve, modesty and even politeness and just bawl out boring old “Oh Canada” to myself and to the world. I didn’t care about the billions spent. This was our time. We had long been misunderstood. Now was finally rooftop time and our collective barbaric YAWP was ready!

Then the lady sang.

And the anthem died in my throat.